Dolby’s Steampunk Time Capsule Is On Its Way San Diego

Thursday, April 5, 2012 10:33

An Interview with Thomas Dolby

by: Casey Pukl

Where does one even begin when introducing Mr. Thomas Dolby? We all remember him from his catchy 80’s electronic hits, “She Blinded Me With Science” and “Hyperactive!”, but Dolby is far more than an MTV sensation. He’s also the musical director for the prestigious TED conference, a producer, and an incredibly intelligent entrepreneur who has spent the better part of two decades in Silicone Valley.  Dolby founded the company  Beatnik that invented the technology that first allowed mobile phones to play polyphonic ringtones. In fact, at one point, two thirds of all the world’s phones contained his chip!

After a twenty year recording hiatus, Thomas Dolby is back, and his latest effort is a massive work encompassing not only an album of new originals, but it is accompanied by a video game and a tour complete with a steampunk time capsule in which fans can record messages to the future. Did we really expect any less? Read on to find out what inspired his latest project, A Map of the Floating City, what he thinks about the evolution of the music business since he first started, and just what he’s planning to leave in his time capsule!

CP: What inspired your latest project, “A Map of the Floating City”?

TD: Well, it’s been quite a long time since I’ve made an album, and I had some ideas brimming over. I moved back to the UK after 23 years of living in California. It was a really good time, but it was nice to get back to my homeland. I live in a tiny village with twenty houses and no shops, and I’m facing the North Sea towards Holland. It’s a very tranquil and inspiring place to be. I do my work in a converted lifeboat in the garden, and it’s thrilling to be able to have the material to put a new album together.

CP: When you first started writing the music for the record, did you have the concept for the video game portion as well?

TD: No. As the songs came together, they were just naturally falling into three categories. I had the title of the album in mind for many years, and I came up with the idea for these three metaphysical continents. “Urbanoia” was a really complex look at living in the city, while “Amerikana” was a real look back at my time in the states, and then there was “Oceana”, which was about coming back home to England.

I thought at one point that I would release them as three EPs. In the end, I decided that rather than just do three EPs, I would do this video game and release the album. I really did it because I wanted to sort of reach out to a new audience who has maybe never been aware of me or were just too young to remember me from the first time around. I think the game really succeeded in doing that because a lot of people aren’t out buying albums anymore. They’re playing games and spending time on social networks and stuff like that. A lot of the new players in the game had never heard of my music before. Because they had to solve problems collaboratively in the game, they basically had to talk to hardcore Dolby nuts to figure out the answers to some of the questions about my music. It expanded my audience in a very gratifying way.


CP: Sure— the business has changed so much that you have to be creative when you’re promoting your music, and I think this was a very cool way to do so.

TD: Yeah, thank you. 

CP: Because so much of your music has many electronic elements to it, what is your writing process like? Do you start with those sounds often?

TD: It’s really the story first and foremost— characters, context. I tend to use whatever musical idioms are appropriate to help tell a story. For example, on the song, “Hills” from the album, in some ways, it’s a very traditional Americana story. There’s a jailbreak, a robbery, you know a slaughter, it’s like a lament really. There are lots of verses going back to the refrain; it’s a very detailed refrain. I used pedal steel, acoustic guitar, piano, string quartet and all these acoustic instruments. You know, I made those choices because they helped to tell the story. Mark Knopfler played guitar, and I picked that because I thought it would help drive the song, and he did.

CP: Who are you listening to lately?

TD: Miike Snow I like. Imogen Heap I like a lot.

CP: She’s actually on “Toad Lickers” on this album, right? 

TD: Yeah, she plays a little jawharp. We met at the TED conference a few times where I was the musical director, and she played there.

CP: Do you think that the technological changes in the music business have helped or hindered your latest efforts?

TD: Definitely helped. It’s really nice to be on your own. You don’t have to depend on anyone else to get an album made. Technology now allows you to do it yourself on a laptop. Plus now, you don’t need any funding from investors, aka, record labels. They were basically the only investors foolish enough to back musicians (laughs).

But yeah, being no longer dependant on them is really great. It’s not only great for the recording, but it’s also great for the promotion and marketing of the music. You can be so much more effective these days with the money that you spend or the money you don’t! In the old days, you’d buy a big ad in Billboard or a thirty second radio or TV commercial without ever really knowing if people are actually responding to it. You don’t know what tiny percentage of people that are exposed to it are actually going to go out and buy the record. You just sort of threw money at something and hoped that it would break. These days, there are fantastic tools for promotion and excellent tools for really monitoring if your marketing dollars are effective. I think that’s a huge step forward from the old days when it was all basically sort of dealt with by the record companies, and they were really the only ones to release music.

CP: Any ideas on what’s next for you?

TD: I don’t know. As you know, I’ve not only worked on my own records, but I’ve also worked on other records as a producer, keyboard player, things like that. It’s very tempting to go off and do a lot of collaborations, but there’s also a good case for striking while the iron is hot. Now that I’ve made some in-roads and the world is aware of the fact that I’ve got a new album out, I should stick to my guns and release another album. It’d be a bit of a shock for people if after a twenty year gap, I came out with two albums in a couple of years. But who knows!

CP: I have to ask this. Have you left a message in your own time capsule yet? 

TD: I haven’t yet! I’ve been dealing with the logistics of it. I’ll have to have a good think about what I’m actually going to say! We’ve recorded hundreds of messages though. Some of them are really fascinating— others not so much, but it’s been a fantastic attention getter on the road. It’s been a lot of fun doing it. We’re looking forward to seeing you in San Diego!

Special thanks to Mr. Dolby for his time! Be sure to come out and leave a message to the future in his time capsule— this one is definitely one not to be missed.

Thomas Dolby on Spotify

WHAT: Thomas Dolby: The Time Capsule Tour
WHEN: Monday, April 16, 7:30 pm
TICKETS: $10-$39 Buy Tickets
MORE INFO: Artist Profile