Interview: Thomas Dolby - Musician gives an insight into the sound of science

He’s come a long way from the spiky-haired boffin of his early pop career, but for his first album since 1992, Thomas Dolby is still an evangelist for technology

THOMAS Dolby’s iPhone is on the blink. He barely has time to utter pleasantries before his handset gives up the ghost. Fortunately, he is able to fall back on his pal’s trusty landline and our interview can proceed. Technology, eh?

Dolby knows all about that sort of stuff. As a teenager, he was nicknamed Dolby – after the audio specialists – because of his fascination with synthesizers and tape loops. In the early 1980s, during the first flush of his solo career, he cultivated the image of a wild-haired science boffin. Actual wild-haired science boffin Magnus Pyke made a cameo appearance on one of his biggest hits, She Blinded Me With Science.

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This much is general pop knowledge. What is lesser known is that a disillusioned Dolby retired from music in the early 1990s and headed for Silicon Valley and The Future. There he set up his own company, developed early music apps for the web and engineered the micro-synthesizer technology for polyphonic ringtones, which was licensed to Nokia and other companies and eventually made its way, Dolby reckons, into two-thirds of the world’s mobile phones. That’s quite some cultural reach. So presumably this has made his fortune? “I’ve decided not to talk about that,” he demurs politely.

What the Hyperactive! hitmaker, erstwhile sessioneer, producer and soundtrack composer is happy to talk about is his return to recording and touring after a 20-year hiatus that, he maintains “was only supposed to be two or three. It had always been my intention to come back to music. I’m not really a businessman. I think my desire to be an entrepreneur is limited to the early stages when you don’t know what you’re doing. Once the business became established it was no longer of interest to me.”

Dolby’s new album A Map Of The Floating City is his first since 1992 and only his fifth in 30 years. “I make Peter Gabriel look like Speedy Gonzales,” he says. “But I don’t have a biological need to put an album out every year the way some people do. You often hear it said that on an artist’s first album they’ve got 20 years of life experience to draw from, and for the second album they’ve got six months of airports and hotel lounges. But I feel like I’ve had another 20 years of life experience to draw from.”

Dolby has filtered this experience into the album’s three distinct “continents” – Urbanoia, where he touches on the quirky synth pop of old, Amerikana, with its country/blues/roots inflections and the soothing ambience of Oceanea, inspired by his current home environment on the Suffolk coast.

This area was his mother’s traditional stomping ground. She died before he had a chance to relocate from California with his wife – the actress Kathleen Beller, best known for her role as Kirby Anders Colby in Dynasty – and their three children, but he felt a close encounter while making the album, thanks unwittingly to guest vocalist Eddi Reader, who appears on the song Oceanea.

“The minute she opened her mouth in the studio it was just heartbreaking,” he says, “because it was like the voice of my mother looking on approvingly.”

Dolby sounds wholly content with his new life away from the nerve centre. He records on a converted lifeboat, named the Nutmeg of Consolation after a Patrick O’Brian novel, where he is at the mercy of the elements, as his studio runs on solar and windpower. Sounds like a cue for a song…

“It’s rather great actually because it makes me very aware of the weather,” he says. “I’m a keen sailor so if the wind gets up, I’ll go sailing and while I’m sailing my studio is also powering up, so by the time I get home there’s enough energy for me to do some work.”

That Dolby’s musical comeback is more wind-powered than high-powered is a sign of how much the music industry has changed in his absence. Far from being surprised by this, Dolby has been monitoring the power shift over the years and is only too pleased to take his place in the new democracy.

“What became apparent to me right about the time when I quit initially was that all of the intermediary stuff needed to be rethought,” he says. “The music industry was selling a bad product. Somebody would hear something on the radio which often was not even announced by the DJ but even if it was they were expected next time they were in WHSmith to remember the artist, and be willing to spend £15/£20 on a CD just to get the one song they’d heard and then spend 20 minutes getting it out of its cellophane.

“The music industry didn’t really know or care who was buying this music, they just knew they wanted the graph to be up and to the right so it was a very primitive industry, in many ways.

“Then along came this technology which could sideswipe all of that. I was making my music on a computer and my fans mostly had the same computer and now we were connected via the internet. It’s crazy to go through all the interim stuff, fleets of trucks and pressing plants and so on when people can be much more direct.

“Any talented youngster believes that the world is going to hear their music and fall in love with it and they’re going to be a superstar. That’s what you believe in your naïvety. But when I started out that really was naïve because first of all I had to get a cassette to an A&R man and hope they called me back and hope I got signed and hope that the radio promotion guys liked it.

“All of this stuff had to fall into place before the public would ever get to hear me and so every time you sat down to write a song you had that in mind. But now if Jessie J writes a song she might think, ‘I’ll do a rough of this and put it up on YouTube,’ and by morning, she’ll have 10,000 responses. The music industry is there to serve her. The boot is on the other foot and I think it’s a big change. I just wish it had changed more quickly.”

With all this in mind, it is perhaps surprising that Dolby has chosen to return with something as old school as an album release. But he acknowledges that artist’s desire to articulate something more substantial and thinks that the album does have a future, pointing to Björk’s Biophilia project, with its accompanying interactive apps, as one possible direction for the form.

Dolby himself has hit on a nifty transmedia marketing device for A Map of the Floating City, trailing the album with an online interactive game in which players enter a post-apocalyptic Urbanoia where they can trade objects named in his songs, solve lyrical riddles and sniff out other content. His phone might be playing up but Thomas Dolby is still blinding us with science.

• Thomas Dolby plays the ABC, Glasgow, tonight. A Map Of The Floating City is out now on Lost Toy People.