I was barely walking upright when Thomas Dolby arrived on the scene with a bang in 1982 with his debut album The Golden Age of Wireless. So how is it that, despite him being absent from the musical roll-call for nearly 20 years, I am on close terms with all of his records? Relevance and Quality - they are the two answers I was looking for (Geekiness also gets a nod and a point). You see, Dolby’s music has remained influential and important because it still remains fresh and forward-thinking: lovingly crafted subversive pop music spun with intelligent musical threads and spindles. He’s an innovator and an original: one of the genuine survivors from the 80s to retain his musical and cultural integrity.
But there’s been a distinct lack of Dolby appearing over the horizon during the 19 years since 1992’s Astronauts and Heretics. A couple of brief tours, a live album: you’d be forgiven for thinking that he’d been hiding away somewhere biding his time after a flurry of albums and guest appearances in the 1980s. Not a bit of it. Forming his company Headspace (later Beatnik), Dolby helped to pioneer the development of mobile phone synthesiser technology that led to the explosion of musical ringtones (admit it, we’ve all had one. I remember a quite remarkable and terrible bossanova version of The Libertines ‘Up The Bracket’: Such memories!). But a return was always buried away somewhere on the cards and at the back end of 2010, Dolby returned with the download-only EP release Amerikana, followed by the wider-scale release of the Oceanea EP. Both of these feature tracks from the long-awaited and highly-anticipated new record A Map of the Floating City, due out later this year. To coincide with the EP release and to find out a little more about the record, I was fortunate enough to speak with the legendary Mr Dolby over the phone for Drowned in Sound, to learn a little more about how he sees his music in 2011 and to discover some highly revealing insights about the modern-day music industry.
Hi Thomas! It’s fantastic to see you coming back: it’s been a long time!
TD: It has indeed!
I remember seeing you play in Manchester back in 2007 and being delighted to think that you were back playing. But it’s been a while until now, until the album is finally coming out. Why the delay?
TD: Well, as you’ll know I’ve been the musical director of the TED Conference which has grown very fast. So that’s kept me quite busy! And I’ve been spacing that out with work on my own record.
Yes, I’ve heard the EPs so far (Amerikana and Oceanea). Can you tell me a little more about A Map of the Floating City?
TD: Yes. Well, the title I’ve had in my mind for 15 years; something like that. And it’s got various meanings for me. In my lifeboat studio, I’m quite close to a large container port. So I see these massive vessels going in and out all day. And in various states of the light, sometimes look like little floating cities. And when there’s lots of them, it’s like an archipelago of these cities. So there’s that aspect of it. And I found out that in seventeenth century Japan, in Tokyo harbour, the merchants used to bring their rafts, bring their barges into the harbour trade. And eventually there was gridlock, so they stopped bothering going anywhere...it just became this floating city: outside the jurisdiction of the city itself. So during the day you could buy silks and spices and things there. And by night it was this…this den of sin. Sounds like a nice place to be!
I was just thinking that myself!
TD: Yes! So there’s that aspect to it. And I suppose the third one is really, just an alternate reality…a higher plane of the floating city: something you aspire to.
Within the EP, there are a lot of references to travel and landscapes. And that’s something I’ve heard a lot of reference to in your earlier albums. Is travel something that very much inspires you?
TD: Yes. I’m very affected by the landscapes and the environment I’m in. I was always very keen on geography and I just find it rather fascinating. I wouldn’t say I’m a nature lover per se, just the affect that man has and the effect on the environment and the way we interact with it. It’s endlessly fascinating to me.
With the songs on the new album, are these songs that have been developed over the past 20 years? Or are they all relatively new songs?
TD: The three songs on the Oceanea EP are all brand new; they’ve all been written of the last couple of years since I’ve been working here on the lifeboat [Dolby currently records on a customised lifeboat called ‘The Nutmeg of Consolation’, powered entirely by solar and wind power]. So Oceanea is very much a product of being here in this environment. And the Amerikana one: those songs were developed over the last few years that I lived in the States. And I grew a fondness for American roots culture, people tend to knock it a lot over here but actually there’s a lot of indigenous culture there, a lot of tradition in folk and country music; a storytelling tradition. And a lot of it is stories told by travellers around the campfire. So I’m a traveller like everyone else so I just passed through the states like many people and made my contribution to the folklore.
What I’m quite interested to know is, when you put your last album Astronauts and Heretics out in 1992, did you make an intentional decision to stay away from music for so long or was it a series of events that led to that happening?
TD: I didn’t think I was quitting altogether. I thought that I was going to back off for a couple of years; sort of take a sabbatical. And then I’d always been involved with technology because of the instruments and the machines that I’d used in my music and I’d always talked quite closely with the people who made them. And at the start of the 90s, I saw the internet for the first time and I saw the entire potential. It was certainly very exciting to me; the idea that myself and my audience were all connected by this one network: the files I was making, I could just hit a button and distribute them to millions of people. And that seemed like it would do away for some of the evils of the industry. But the industry was not ready for it really: they had a good thing going there for a few decades and they didn’t want to give it up in a hurry. And also, both with technology and public acceptance, you reach a tipping point. I mean, there’d been MP3 files on the internet for quite a few years beforehand, but suddenly everybody was downloading left, right and centre. So I went to Silicon Valley thinking I’d like to be involved in the beginning of internet music; to be there at the start of it. So I went and consulted a lot with computer companies and eventually formed my own software company. But the thing about being an entrepreneur, It’s best to be either vastly successful or a terrible failure within a couple of years! Otherwise if you’re in this middle ground, you just get wafted along and you can’t get out of it. So it took a longer time than it should have done to become successful and eventually, it became successful in another era again which was the mobile phone era. So it was only really at that point that there was a suitable juncture to back off and get back to my music. I guess it’s a long way of answering your question but…I never intended to take 20 years off!
Almost like the best journeys being the ones where you get somewhat lost along the way?!
TD: Yes! And I’m glad that I did it: it’s given me a fresh outlook on it really. I think that my contemporaries from the 80s, they’ve stayed out there treading the boards and trying to ride some sort of comeback train, getting burned out along the way. And I don’t feel like that: I feel very fresh.
I’d like to come back to that in a bit but I’m interested to follow up on what you’ve said about the whole music industry and the internet: the death of the physical single and all the emphasis being placed on downloads. Do you think the industry has managed to grasp the beast by the horns so to speak? Or do you think there’s still a lot to learn about what the internet can be used for?
TD: Not at all. What’s left of the record labels are still fairly clueless. They’re learning a little bit but….. The thing is; it was an inexact art when I started out. Because the labels knew nothing about who was buying records. So they’d put out your album and say “Oh, Thomas…we sold half-a-million this time, we want three-quarters-of-a-million next time”. But they didn’t know who these people are that were going to come out of the woodwork and buy the record. Their concept of marketing was “We’ve got a big budget here; we’re going to get on the back cover of NME”. And maybe 0.1% of people seeing that are going to be influenced by it. And nowadays, you can be incredibly targeted in the way that you do your marketing. So I can say for example, with people who like me on Facebook, the next most popular artist in those profiles is David Bowie. So if I wanted, I could target those people specifically; those ones in a certain age group who aren’t currently following me. And I can just market to them….almost a low-hanging fruit. So I can say the statistics prove to me that this is a demographic of people that are likely to enjoy my stuff. And I can just focus my marketing budget there, I’m not going to buy the back cover of a magazine or put it on a billboard. And then you can actually measure the performance: you can make guesses like that and almost in real time, see graphs of how it is working and in what territories it is working - you can actually start to understand fan behaviour. And this is such a luxury to the music industry that they just glaze over. They go “Yeah! It’s amazing, isn’t it!” but they absolutely don’t get it. So in a way, the more legacy that you have from the conventional music business, the more blinkered you are about the new music industry.
And am I right in thinking that the new EP is being put out by your own record label: by yourself?
TD: Yep, pretty much!
Do you intentionally keep a distance from the mainstream music industry, only knocking on the doors when you have to?
TD: Well, I don’t really know what they could do to help me actually. I haven’t yet met anyone yet who has really impressed me and that I’ve seen has a skill and ability to do a better job of marketing me than me! Certainly not to the level of giving up control and ownership and a large percentage of the profits. And I don’t want to ever be in debt again. It took probably 15 years after I signed my first record deal to actually get a positive royalty statement.
TD: Yes, because they spend so much of your own money that all the money that comes in goes towards wiping out the debts: it’s like a mortgage.
Even with the Grammy nominations and all the hits?
TD: Yes. Because this is the way the industry works. They spend money to make money. And it’s in their interests to keep you in hock to them. The very top percentile of multi-million selling artists: that’s probably not true for. But the majority of signed artists, they’re probably in the same boat that I was in. And we’re the lucky ones that have got a record deal! So it’s a horrible industry. And a lot of the reasons it’s horrible are the reasons I’ve mentioned: it’s a very inexact art. It’s basically fairy dust; the reason why people fall in love with one song and not another. People might claim to understand that but there are very few people who actually do. I certainly don’t. So if you’re shooting blanks, if you’re trying to spend money to promote and market something without really knowing what you’re doing then you’re going to be running up huge debts and the only way you’re going to pay them back is through record sales. And I’m delighted to see that go away. I mean, it’s yet to entirely go away but we’re starting to see a new breed of intermediary come through who really does understand these tools. And I think eventually there will emerge a new entity: a label, a managing company or something who’ll be better at doing that marketing than me. And at that point, I’ll be happy to hand over the reins. In the meantime…there seems no sense in it.
But in many senses it must be quite empowering to do all that all by yourself: using social networking and the internet to promote your records and releases?
TD: Yeah, it is empowering. I mean, I had a fairly good ride from the conventional music industry, relatively speaking. I have a bit of a name, a bit of a brand left over from the first time around. But I think it’s great for young musicians starting out. Because when you’re 17-18 and you write your first song and you think “Wow! This is brilliant! Wait until the world hears it and I’ll be a superstar!” In my day, the grim reality was that first of all, you needed to get your cassette heard by an A&R man and that was only the start! So before the world would ever get to decide, you had to get through this whole obstacle course. And now it’s true that the whole world might fall in love with you overnight. Look at someone like Jessie J: one minute she’s there in her pyjamas singing into her laptop, the next minute she’s a global megastar.
Coming back to the record for a moment. One thing I thought about the EP was that, almost as technology has developed and progressed, your music almost seems to have gone more organic. I mean, you talk about your original influences, people like Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison…more folk influences. Is that something you’ve been very conscious of doing or is it something that has just happened?
TD: It’s just something that’s happened really. My focus is on the songs themselves, the narrative of the songs and less about the backing track: less thinking about it being intricate and interesting in itself. Which certainly, I used to do. Also, I like working in an area that’s not too overpopulated. When I started out, using synths and stuff, there were a few of us pioneers doing that: it was all quite fresh. And now that the technology is so easy to get hold of, there’s tens of thousands of people all with the same tools going in. And that’s not exciting to me anymore. I could spend all day working on an arrangement and someone else somebody in the world could come up with the exact combination of sounds. There are relatively people just focused on the songs so that’s what I’m more concerned with at the moment.”
And in terms of your musical career; you obviously started as a session musician, then released your own albums and then you moved on to producing. Have you ever by tempted by that again? Would there be anyone you’d be interested in producing now?
TD: I’d certainly like to do some more production again. I can’t think of anyone offhand that I’d like to work with. But I think that when I was starting out, I wished I’d had someone to mentor me who was as wise and experienced as I am now! So maybe there’s some upcoming band or artist who has got everything they need sonically and performance-wise, but just need somebody with a bit of savvy about making certain choices: arrangement or someone who wants to start experimenting with real instruments but doesn’t know how to interact with real musicians. So I’d see myself more in that Quincy Jones role: he had a few decades of experience with arranging brass and strings, grooves and things. And Michael Jackson would come in with a riff or a vocal lick. And Quincy, with his wisdom, would find a way to put a frame around the picture. That’s sort-of what I did with Prefab Sprout when I started working with them: I had a few years jump on them in terms of experience. So it was helpful to them to have someone to bounce ideas off.
With your music, I’ve always felt that you sit in a bracket that is completely at odds with a lot of the bombastic, over-the-top synthpop by numbers that came out of the mid 80s. Did you resent that when they were selling millions of copies with a cheapening of the template that people like you and Kraftwerk had pioneered?
TD: Well, in the case of Kraftwerk I think that’s certainly true. But I don’t really feel that electronics were really something I pioneered. I think I used them in a novel way: maybe one of the first times that somebody who was essentially a singer-songwriter used them. But my instrument was the synth; whereas people who came before me, they were on guitar…piano…whatever. My axe was the synth but I was basically a songwriter. So that’s the way I perceived it. Did I resent it? No, not really. I think that a lot of pop music has to be fairly superficial in order to reach the mass market. It’s like fast food: you might walk right on past the burger joint yourself but you can understand why that’s the food that millions of people flock to. And it’s the same with pop music really. That’s not to put anybody down though: there were some brilliant people who were massive sellers that I think were genius. So no; I didn’t resent it. There’s a lot of luck involved and every time I think “Aw, I was unlucky that that song wasn’t a hit”, I reflect on the fact that I was very lucky that this other one was.
Where you ever pushed by the industry to go that way and follow that path?
TD: There was an assumption that after I had a Top 5 hit in the US that I would distil the formula into a string of quirky synthpop hits and videos. And I think that everyone made that assumption except me! Because that’s the way the industry works: you work so hard to hit pay dirt and break something through, once you see the light you’ve got to milk it! But I wasn’t willing to play that game because to me, that opened the door to all sorts of things: collaborations and things like that. So I think that was very frustrating, I think to people because they would have liked to replicate the success that ‘Science’ had in the States back here: find a pigeonhole to put me in. But I refused to be tied down…I’m a bit stubborn like that!
That fits really, because I’ve always thought there is a lot of integrity within your music. To me, that’s why it has lasted the years and that it still sounds fresh now. Do you think that because you didn’t sell out, that is one of the main reasons why people are still listening that music now and that there’s still a market for your new record?
TD: It’s interesting. I think there is a strong desire for authenticity within younger listeners. And I think that with the fact that electronics are so widely used within pop music now, I think sensible listeners - they take a studious approach to it and say “Oh, I want to trace it back to the source: figure out where this came from”. So it’s very nice to be considered and get some kudos as a pioneer in those areas. And maybe that’s why people are still listening to the stuff. But I think I’ve always done fairly timeless music. And listening to some stuff from the 80s, there are probably a couple of things that haven’t weathered so well. But I think a lot of my songs and the way that I delivered them, they transcended the styles of the 80s. Maybe that’s why they are still listened to today.