His debut album contained "She Blinded Me With Science," which as Dolby explains, he wrote so he could direct a video about a home for deranged scientists. He's one of those genius-types that talent-spotters like Mutt Lange hone in on, and he's always popping up in unusual collaborations. Here's a brief list of accomplishments:
- Playing the synth intro to Foreigner's "Waiting For A Girl Like You" (thanks to Lange)
- Kick-starting the early rap group Whodini with the song "Magic's Wand"
- Keyboards and production work on Def Leppard's Pyromania album
- Music Director at the TED Conference
- Production/Songwriting with Eddie Van Halen, Joni Mitchell and David Bowie
We were surprised to learn that Dolby sees his strengths as songwriting and storytelling, and that technology is just a way to get there. And as for his big hit? For many listeners, that was the way in to the world of Thomas Dolby, which is filled with deep, engaging songs for those who have acquired the taste.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): You recently said, "What I do best is write songs, tell stories." I think most people think of you as being into technology, but you see yourself as a songwriter first. Is that right?
Thomas Dolby: It certainly is, yeah. I think that the more extroverted side of my songwriting was what made the biggest splash on the commercial mainstream in the '80s. But anybody that's listening to the albums or came to see me live realized that there was a much more personal and sort of intimate atmospheric side to my music. And during the 20 years that I was away, it was really that music people were talking about. There was this up-swelling of discussion on the Internet about my music and how I set up the chords and the interpretation of the lyrics, and a whole bunch of tribute covers and things like that. And the songs they were talking about were not "She Blinded Me With Science" or "Hyperactive!," they were songs like "Screen Kiss" and "Budapest Blimp" and "I Love You Goodbye."
Songfacts: So would you then say that the technology is really a means to an end, that it's just what helps you get to what is at the kernel of what you want to do, which is create songs and song ideas?
Thomas: Yeah, I've never been one to run with the herd. And when I started out writing songs, synthesizers were still quite a rarified luxury. They were quite hard to get hands on and quite hard to operate. And when you did, there was still quite a lot of resistance in the mainstream to music made electronically. And so that was a natural place for me to be, because I wanted to be challenged and stimulated like that.
But over the years, the whole realm of our choices become more democratized, shall we say, to the extent that on your iPhone today for a few bucks you can probably have more powerful synthesizers and samplers than I had in my entire studio back in the early '80s. And that's fantastic. It means everybody gets to have a shot at it. However, it would not be the natural place for me to be, making songs using electronics and secretive and so on.
But the big difference between my songs and many of the other sort of electronic records of the day was that you could actually sit down at a piano and do a decent version of one of my songs, because they had fundamental songwriting ingredients to them. They had verses and choruses and intros and lyrics that told a story and a personality behind the words. So yes, that is what I think I'm best at, and I think that is the rarified form in this day and age, because there is a lot of music out there that is really based on a groove, based on the sound textures, and that's fine. But it's not the place for me to be.
Songfacts: I was reading that "Hyperactive!" was originally written for Michael Jackson. Was that because "hyperactive" described his personality?
We became friendly and we talked a lot about grooves and about new techniques, and we both started by hip-hop and things like that. So he told me that, yeah, he was putting new material together, if I had anything to suggest to put his way, then to make him a demo. So, in fact, on the plane back from L.A. to London I put on my headphones and I came up with this groove and bass line for "Hyperactive!" and a melody, and I did send it to him. And he said in the end it wasn't appropriate for the new album that he was doing. So that didn't work out. But by that time, I was in love with the song, so I did it myself.
Songfacts: What were your thoughts when you found out Jackson died?
Thomas: I think it's obviously a terrible loss musically, because I'm sure he had good music in him. But I think he was haunted from not long after I met him, he was overwhelmed, really, by the attention that he got, and yet he was addicted to it as well.
Songfacts: It seems like you have been able to avoid celebrity-hood, but what was it like getting all the media attention when "She Blinded Me With Science" was a hit?
Thomas: Well, it has fun aspects to it when you're 20-something years old. It grew pretty old to me quite quickly. So after a few years in the limelight, I certainly had enough. And I much prefer the feeling now of being able to walk around anonymously. It certainly made me very uncomfortable that I would get recognized and get approached and so on. But, in fact, I got off quite lightly, because the kind of people that would approach me, they'd come up and ask some question about how to hook up their media interface or something like that. Whereas my wife, Kathleen (Beller), who was a big TV star (she played Kirby Colby on Dynasty), she would get a whole different kind of fan approaching her altogether. They usually were a lot more obnoxious. So I got off quite lightly.
Songfacts: I want to talk about your new album, A Map of the Floating City, which is something that you're in the process of completing.
Thomas: Well, I'm very close to the end. The album will be out in the late summer. A Map of the Floating City has three continents, three distinct sections to the album. And each one has a different musical flavor.
Three and a half years ago, after living in California for 20-something years, I moved back to the UK, mainly because of the schools. And I found moving back and moving out to the country, where I live on the east coast of England facing the North Sea in a tiny village - I found that move very calming to me creatively. And especially after a few years away, it really made me focus on the inner voice of my music, without any distractions of trying to make music that will get played on the radio or will make a marketing guy happy or anything like that. So all of that was out of the window, really, and I was just making music from the heart.
So I wrote a set of songs called "Amerikana" with a "k," which was pretty much a love letter back to America. I really enjoyed the time that I spent living there. And during the time I was there I got very fond of American roots music. And so if you listen to the songs in that section, you'll hear elements of folk and country and even bluegrass music in there. But sung definitely in an English accent and with an English twist, sort of an ex-patriot British twist to it.
"Oceanea" is about returning to my sort of spiritual home and the countryside that I live in, which is where my family were from originally. And just a very deep, warm feeling of homecoming to move back there and set up shop in my lifeboat studio and start writing and recording.
Songfacts: It sounds like where you are geographically plays a big role in how you write songs.
Thomas: Absolutely. I'm very attuned to my surroundings and very influenced. I often feel, when I sit down to write a song, like I'm making the soundtrack for my day. And I love to go walking and I love to sail around; I always get to the water wherever I am, and I love to see places from the water. Even if it's a city, I'll find a way to get on the river. And so yeah, my songs definitely reflect the places I'm in.
Songfacts: I always like to talk to artists about their biggest songs and how they feel about them now. "She Blinded Me With Science" is probably the song you're best known for. Do you still enjoy playing it live, and do you have pleasant memories of the creating, the writing and recording of it?
Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. The song came about in an odd way, because my first album, The Golden Age of Wireless, had come out in the UK and the U.S. And critically it had done fairly well, but it hadn't exactly exploded onto the charts. This was just when music videos were starting to come to the fore, and I was very keen to try out my talent as a music video director. I was always a big fan of silent movies: Chaplin and Keaton and Lloyd and so on. And I saw music videos as really a silent movie with a soundtrack.
When I play it now, I still get a big kick out of it. I mean, I'm perfectly proud of the song, and it's got a great groove and loaded with hooks. And when I play, it's iconic, I think, for many people. Especially people who were around the first time. It makes people very happy. And I do think that it's probably about the most frivolous song that I've ever written. But I have no regrets over that because I think that it provided a sort of starting point for people to get into the more serious, more personal aspects my music.
Songfacts: Kind of a gateway, right? It introduces people to you and then when they get that, they can discover some of the other things that you do that are a little bit deeper.
Thomas: I mean, most of what I do is deeper, and frankly I don't think it's commercial mainstream material. I think it's very much an acquired taste. I don't cut any corners, I don't write simple pop relationship songs. They are pretty deep and a lot of my heroes when I was growing up were marginal cult artists that weren't easily pigeonholed, and certainly weren't adorning the charts week in week out. And I might easily have been a cult artist just like them were it not for the fact that I managed to have some mainstream success, and that opened up a whole new fan base to me and provided a way to get them into the more intense side of my music.
Songfacts: I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't realize that you wrote that synth intro to Foreigner's "Waiting For A Girl Like You," which I think really makes the song. How did that all come about? That seems like sort of an odd kind of a place for you to end up, Foreigner appealing to a much different audience.
Thomas: Well, it happened before anybody had really heard of me. I was 19, in Paris working as a busker in the Metro. I had recorded some songs on a cassette and sent them to a music publisher in London called Zomba. And one of the artists in Zomba was Mutt Lange, the producer. He really liked the keyboard playing on my demos, and he was getting ready to finish up Foreigner 4 in a studio in New York. So he sent for me, and I flew out from New York. It was great to work with a top band and a top producer - I was very inexperienced in the studio. And I associated Foreigner with solid hard rock and AOR radio and things like that, but they said that they had a couple of really great ballads and that they wanted to take a different approach to them.
So working with Mutt, I worked out that synth intro to "Waiting For A Girl Like You," which was, I think quite, daring for its time.
Songfacts: Sure, on mainstream music, and especially a group that's a guitar kind of a group.
Thomas: Absolutely. And so I think to be listening to commercial radio in 1981 or whenever it was and to hear 15 seconds of ambient music coming out on the front of the song was very unusual. A journalist said, "This is a radical approach for Foreigner, who's responsible for it?" They would see my name on the credits and go, "Well, who is this guy?" So I think that it actually contributed in large part to there being a receptive atmosphere for when I came out with my solo stuff.
Songfacts: And then you worked with Mutt on Def Leppard's Pyromania album. What was that like?
Thomas: Oh, it was terrific. I was working only with Mutt. I barely saw the band. I think I saw Joe Elliott very briefly. But I was primarily working with Mutt and Mike Shipley, the engineer. And it was a very manicured sound for a rock record. A lot of what Mutt wanted me to do was sort of double the guitars and make them creamier and thicker.
By that time my name was known as a solo artist and I felt it might be a bit confusing to people to see my name on a rock record like that. And so it was actually Mutt that picked up a new moniker for me, which was Booker T. Boffin. My 15-year-old son has a quadruple platinum album on the wall above him credited for keyboards on Pyromania for Booker T. Boffin.
Songfacts: What a cool thing. Some of the different people you've worked with are some of the most unexpected. You worked with Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir as well.
Thomas: Yeah, Jerry and Bob both played on one song. Mark Knopfler played on a song on this album and Eddie Van Halen played on two songs with me.
Songfacts: Hold on. Eddie Van Halen played on which songs?
Thomas: "Close But No Cigar" and "Eastern Bloc." (on his 1992 album Astronauts & Heretics)
Songfacts: How was it working with Eddie?
Thomas: It was great working with Eddie. It was hilarious, really. It was like every day was an episode out of Spinal Tap. It was pretty hilarious. But I have to say the rest of his band don't really like him doing outside projects, so there was a little bit of friction there. But his wife and my wife knew each other from before, they're both actors. So we'd been friendly. And I think Eddie's sort of – in a lot of ways, he's so incredibly talented, but I think that he's somewhat restricted playing in the band that he plays in. And so I think it was nice for him to stretch out a bit.
Songfacts: You alo worked with Whodini, which was one of the unsung pioneering rap acts. What was your exposure and knowledge of hip-hop when you got involved in working with Whodini?
And I came up with a groove, and again, this was the Zomba connection. They just started out the Jive label, which in those days was a rap and hip-hop label, it was just wonderful. They introduced me to these New York rappers, and we put the song together ("Magic's Wand").
Songfacts: So are there any dream collaborations that you have yet to fulfill?
Thomas: Yeah, there's a few people – I've met most of my heroes at this point and haven't worked with all of them. But a lot of them I have. And it's a dangerous thing to do, because sometimes a little bit of magic is gone out of your life forever when they turn out to be pure flesh and blood, you know.
I've been very fortunate. I grew up worshiping David Bowie, the Brit of my generation. And I was very fortunate to play with him at Live Aid at Wembley. That was one dream that really didn't disappoint. And he was a fantastic character in real life.
There were some others that weren't quite so successful. I had a bit of a rough time working with Joni Mitchell, not as good a match. I think the album, Dog Eat Dog, stands the test of time and sounds pretty good, but we didn't get on all that well.
So yeah, there's a couple of other people that I'd like to work with. Kate Bush is someone I'd like to work with. Björk I would like to work with. Brian Eno is probably my greatest all time hero. And I know Brian, but we've yet to have an opportunity to do anything together. So yeah, there's a few places to go.
Songfacts: I would love to hear what you would do with Brian Eno, because when I think of you and I think of Brian, I think of people that think outside the box. That would be exciting.
Thomas: It would indeed. Ironically, we're both from the same small town in Suffolk, which is pretty strange. I live there now, he's moved away and he now lives in the town that I grew up in Oxfordshire.
Songfacts: No kidding.
Thomas: Yeah, there's quite a few interesting parallels there.
Songfacts: You're in L.A. now, right? What has brought you out here?
Thomas: Yeah, so if you've heard of the TED Conference, I'm at the TED Conference this week and I've been its musical director the last ten years. It starts today. So what I do there is I bring in the talent. We have a few musical acts mixed among the other speakers. And I also organize a house band, which plays a musical intro into each of the sessions.
Songfacts: Who's in the band?
Thomas: Actually, the band varies from one year to another. This year they are all under 17, and they're from a program called City Music, which is an inner city after hours jazz and rock jamming program. So this is the cream of the crop, some of the best young musicians in the country have flown into Long Beach to be the house band this year.
Songfacts: So what else are you working on? Do you plan to do some touring behind the new album?
Thomas: Yes. I've got a couple more months to finish the album, and then I hope to tour. The album will come out the end of the summer and I hope to tour at the same time. And then the other thing is I've been building this sort of transmedia game, which will run for three months up to the release of the album. And that's something you can do on the Web for free, like on thomasdolby.com. It hasn't started yet. It will start in a few weeks' time. And basically, this is an exploration of a fictional landscape built around a mythology that's in the characters and the places within my songs going back to the beginning.
Songfacts: That sounds like a big project.
Thomas: It's a huge project, yes. It's kind of a collaborative fiction. I mean, there is a graphic element. You are working a way around a fictional map, which is, in fact, a Google map, but it's not any land masses that you would recognize. This is pure fiction. As you move around this map sort of unraveling secrets and interacting with other players, the tribe that you're in has to collaboratively solve a puzzle. And the winning tribe will get a very special prize in the summer: I'll do a secret gig for them at which I will perform A Map of the Floating City in full.
Songfacts: You're using technology to sort of broaden what music can do. And in this era, where a lot of musicians are running scared because they can't sell CDs any longer, it doesn't seem like there's any fear in you. You're just trudging forward with new ideas.
Thomas: Yeah, that's always where I'm most excited to be, really. I need to constantly find ways to challenge and stimulate myself, and the more uncertain and uncharted the territory is, the more creative I become.
Songfacts: It sounds like your song said, you're still a hyperactive guy.
Thomas: Certainly on the creative front. I mean, socially I'm a bit of a hermit these days, so I think you could call me bi-polar.
We spoke with Thomas Dolby on March 16, 2011.
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