Thomas Dolby Blinding Us With Substance

“It’s always been about the songs,” says famed keyboardist and songwriter Thomas Dolby. The storied synthesist whose ’80s hits like “She Blinded Me with Science” and “Hyperactive!” defined the pop sound of a generation, has gone relatively unplugged, eschewing racks of musical gear for a compact recording rig in his back yard.
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“It’s always been about the songs,” says famed keyboardist and songwriter Thomas Dolby. The storied synthesist whose ’80s hits like “She Blinded Me with Science” and “Hyperactive!” defined the pop sound of a generation, has gone relatively unplugged, eschewing racks of musical gear for a compact recording rig in his back yard. “When I started out, synthesizers were the future. They had sounds that few people had heard or even imagined. Now, because of the accessibility of technology to the mass market, that sense of pioneering is null. So it’s no longer somewhere I want to go. I don’t want to be part of the throng. I always want to use an idiom that’s fresh to me.”

“Fresh” means releasing his first collection of new music in nearly two decades, with a series of three digital EPs that collectively form his upcoming full-length album A Map of the Floating City. Two of them—Amerikana and Oceanea—are available now, and they find Dolby at the peak of his sonic and storytelling powers. From the alt-country swagger of “Road to Reno” and “The Toadlickers” to the nuevo bossa nova of “Simone” and the fiddle- and Celtic guitar-laden “17 Hills,” each track is a triumph of texture over technology, with Dolby spinning timeless tales of humor and heartbreak.

On the eve of his new EP’s release, Dolby invited me aboard his British lifeboat studio, the Nutmeg of Consolation, to talk sound and songwriting shop.

For an artist known for pioneering synth sounds, your new tracks sound anything but tech-heavy. Some listeners might find this surprising.

Well, I need to be working in a context that’s challenging, stimulating, and fresh to me. I think that what’s different after a break of 20 years or so is that because of the availability of all this new technology, there’s thousands of guys around the world who have access to the same stuff. So it’s less interesting to me now. It’s sort of like the difference between Doctor Livingston exploring Africa, and going on a safari today where there are Land Rovers left, right, and center. [Laughs.]

The sounds you created years ago, for your own music and for bands like Foreigner, had never been heard before. There were no presets. . . .

That’s right—they weren’t available, and your ear wasn’t accustomed to them, so that meant they jumped out. You can go back and listen to them now and think, “For 1981, that was pretty cool!” But in this day and age, we’ve become accustomed to hearing “cutting edge” sounds on records and remixes on a daily basis. And, because now it’s okay to make a record with just a groove and one lick—which is perfectly fine and valid—we’ve become somewhat numbed to the impact of an original and different sound. So, I don’t want to push in that direction.

What I don’t hear a lot of is classic songwriting, with lyrics and melody, with chord sequences and arrangements. Some artists are alluding to that, like Amy Winehouse doing a retro thing. So there’s a certain yearning to get back to that simple authenticity that things appeared to have in the past, but there are very few people that actually write songs like that anymore. So that appeals to me, because I can do that, I think. My motto for this album has been, “Only do what only you can do.”

Why release three EPs on their own, with a different concept for each, before the full album comes out?

Well, it didn’t start out that way. The album is called A Map of the Floating City, and it’s been called that for about 15 years! I haven’t been working on it that long, but I knew 15 years ago that my next album would be called that. The way I work is, I start with the mental image of an empty spotlight on a stage. And it’s like, a guy walks into the spotlight and starts playing a song. What does it sound like? I work backwards from that moment, when the audience hears it. I put myself in their seat and ask, “What would that guy have to sing to blow me away?”

How did you go from having a title to knowing how you would flesh out the album?

I had a few songs, or lyrical ideas that I would hum to myself in the shower, or walking on the beach, or driving in my car. But I didn’t flesh them out, really, until I was in a position to make a record. So when my tech business involvement in Silicon Valley got to the point that I could step back from it and make some music, I knew I had to get in front of an audience and play to get my chops back. So I focused on the old material and did the Sole Inhabitant solo tour and a live album and DVD as well. [Dolby pioneeredinteractive web audio and cell phone ring tone technology with his companies Beatnik and Headspace. —Ed.]

When I started working on the actual songs for the new album, there were genres that I wanted to play with. I’m most excitable when working in territory I’m not familiar with. So for example, “Simone” has a sort of bossa nova, Joao Gilberto groove to it. Now, I’ve never played anything in that style—the closest would be “I Scare Myself ” from The Flat Earth. I never went through a period in my career where I was playing standards and such, so I had absolutely zero familiarity with that. But I heard it in my mind—I heard the melody, and I could sense the chord voicings that needed to go behind it, but I had no idea how to find them. In fact, every time I sat at the piano and tried to work it out, I’d end up in a different key and I’d forget what key I started in. Eventually, I booked a recording date in London with some great Central and South American musicians, led by Colombian bassist Chucho Merchan. Knowing it was two weeks away and that I was under the gun to learn the song, I ended up running a click—the first and only time I’ve ever done that—and I sang a sort of “ooh, ah” melody along with it, a capella. Then I played that track back and I worked out the voicings.

It’s almost like a Steely Dan tune in the sense that, just behind the groove, there’s a lot of harmonic shifting.

Yeah, there’s a lot of shifting going on. There are three verses, each in a different key. It’s like, “I don’t know how we got here, but here we are!”

Did you do a lot of the production work on these songs here in your studio?

It was always my intention to do the bulk of the work right here on the Nutmeg. But it’s a bit cramped for a full band, so I went to a couple of small studios in London to record the ground tracks. Then I came back here with the Pro Tools sessions, and I’d use big building blocks, rather than program a note at a time. I’d take a whole verse that I liked, and would cut and paste that whole verse with four instruments, and move bits around and restructure songs. For all these tracks, the quickest part was actually recording them. I spent 20 times that amount of time here, messing around with them.

Your studio on the Nutmeg is unique because it runs on wind and solar power. Has that always been a priority to you?

You want your footprint to be as small as possible. I like the fact that, for example, if you’re on a laptop and you have a power outage, you can keep working on battery power. I very much liked the idea of doing this on renewable energy. My initial idea was to have a boat that sailed around the world using renewable energy, and I’d make an album on the boat. Occasionally, I could sail up the Hudson, or the Thames, or the Seine, and do a concert from the deck. Well, that would have taken a sponsor, and no sponsor was forthcoming. So I settled on this idea, hence the name, the Nutmeg of Consolation, which is actually the title of a Patrick O’Brian novel about the British Navy in the 19th century, and a skipper whose ship is wrecked in the Pacific, but he makes it home in a little Dutch barque called the Nutmeg.

Maritime themes have played a recurring role in your lyrics. What does the sea do for you creatively?

The sea is a force that’s greater than us. That’s what makes it spiritual. It’s never still, and constantly in flux. We don’t own it—we’ve never tamed it the way we have the land. So being close the sea—or on it, even in it—is like a spiritual communion for me, as it is for sailors, surfers, and fishermen.

From my wheelhouse I watch the subtle changes in the sea. I study the North Sea container ships, through antique binoculars or sometimes my periscope, and I follow online almanacs to track their arrivals and departures from a nearby port. During the course of this album I’ve also witnessed the construction of a 56-turbine wind farm off this coast, and all the weird vessels that come and go to service them. When I wrote “Windpower” in 1980, it felt like science fiction. I had no idea it would become reality in my lifetime.

From The Golden Age of Wireless cover art to your retro aviator look on the Sole Inhabitant tour, your visuals have always suggested this wandering master of technology—sort of Nikola Tesla meets Doctor Who. How much of the real you is in that character?

I’m not sure anyone ever masters technology. Even Tesla, a brilliant scientist who was way ahead of his time and who revolutionized domestic and industrial electricity, never settled into the mundane. He had no time for consumer products. He left that to the businessmen, while he explored ideas like a global wireless energy network, anti-gravity, even radio messages from Venus. He poo-pooed Einstein, and let others like Marconi steal his ideas. He cut up his schematics and sent fragments to multiple governments, so no single one could use his inventions to make weapons. He was obsessed with the number three. Was he a nut case? Probably. More power to him, and to Doctor Who and mad scientists like them! If any of that has rubbed off on me, it’s because I’m as much a victim of technology as a master. I’m its plaything—the sorcerer’s apprentice.

How do you see that aesthetic in juxtaposition to your current creative imperative not to be “the synth guy”?

“Hi, I’m Thomas, and I’m a recovering synth guy!” [Laughs.] Seriously, there are several stereotypes in rock ’n’ roll: the guitar hero, the coiffed pop star, the bearded protest singer, and so on. I sort of defined a new stereotype, because I was the bespectacled nerd who got funky after hours when the lab was closed. Of course my “axe” was a synth. In the ’80s, that became an easy way to pigeonhole me. In a way, “She Blinded Me with Science”— the song and the video—was a spoof of that image. But it was a very catchy sound and look, so it distracted people from the fact that actually, my music was never all that synth-heavy. Not compared to the people I tend to get lumped in with, like Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, the Human League, and so on. Not even compared to New Order or the Pet Shop Boys. The rest of my music was something you could sit down at the piano and play like a singer-songwriter, with progressions and melody and harmony. I’m not putting down electronic music—far from it—but it wasn’t a category I felt I really belonged in, and of course I have only myself to blame for that! It would’ve taken a lot of media effort and record company clout to supplant that image with something closer to my heart that was equally strong. But the label at the time (Capitol/EMI) was uncooperative. They’d say, “We all really love ‘Screen Kiss.’ Everybody in the building is humming it. So where’s the next single?” What they meant was, where’s “Science Part 2?”

Are there any artists right now who you think are elevating the sound of synths above the stereotypical?

Will Gregory of Goldfrapp comes to mind. I admit I don’t listen to much music. I tend to find groove-based, post-modern music very stifling and constrained. Again, it’s all about the songs. The backing can be a Balkan folk ensemble, a Brazilian percussion section, two acoustic guitars, or an indie rock group—I like it all and hate it all unless there’s a soul to it that speaks to me. At rare moments, something has leapt out at me sonically—William Orbit or Björk, for example— but it’s never been because of the sounds in isolation. It’s always because of the context. I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a snob. The reality is, because I’m just not a huge music fan, I make my own records to fill the hole.

Judging by the loyalty and diversity of your fans, your songs clearly fill a similar void for a great many others.

I don’t consider myself a commercial or mainstream artist, but I know now—thanks in part to the Internet being a true feedback loop between artist and fan—that the emotion I feel when I pick a particular chord change or sound or lyric actually does convey to a group of real people out there, that it makes them feel the way I feel. Knowing that, I don’t really perceive the difference between 10,000 versus 10,000,000 listeners. Life’s too short to be losing sleep over the numeral zero!

WINDPOWER

Thomas Dolby’s backyard studio, the Nutmeg of Consolation, is both retro and revolutionary. It started life as a ship’s lifeboat on the British merchant vessel Queen Ann stationed in the South Seas. Now, it’s dry-docked behind Dolby’s seaside home on Britain’s north coast. “I wasn’t able to have the proverbial garden shed with a studio in it, like at my house in California,” Dolby tells me, “so I came up with the idea of having a boat here. Our property used to house just such a lifeboat when this was a fishing village. I spent months looking for an appropriate boat, and eventually found this one on eBay.”

On board, Dolby’s studio is decidedly stripped down, especially considering his gear-heavy past. “I don’t take a lot of care with the synth sounds,” he explains. “It’s really the first thing that works, basically. I just have no patience for it. I don’t want to spend my time messing with all that stuff, just in order to keep up with the Joneses.”

Housed in the Nutmeg’s wheelhouse, the studio is based on Avid Pro Tools LE, running on a Mac G5 tower. An original Digidesign Mbox serves as Dolby’s front end interface. “I’m using Pro Tools 8, which I like a lot,” Dolby continues. “I do a lot of my MIDI sequencing in [Apple] Logic Studio, which is very powerful and affordable. But Pro Tools really evolved out of imitating an analog multitrack studio, so it’s comfortable and makes sense for me.”

Other gear in Dolby’s digital den includes a Nord Lead 3, Casio, Access Virus TI Polar synth, CME UF series keyboard controllers, a pair of Millennia Origin channel strips, and an AKG C414 microphone. “The CME is really my main keyboard for piano and stuff when I’m playing live,” he says. “If I need to lay down a piano part here, it tends to be what I use because it’s got the nicest keyboard on it.”

Noticeably and commendably absent from the Nutmeg is any type of carbon-emitting energy. “If you look up the ship’s mast, you’ll see a wind turbine which generates 450 watts,” he tells me. “On the roof of the vessel are two solar panels, which provide about 200 watts of additional power—although it’s not very sunny in Britain! Between the two of them, I can get enough power on a windy and/or sunny day that I can continue working for several hours at night. On a very windy and sunny day, I can work ten to 12 hours a night on batteries, which charge up from the turbine and solar panels.”