Synth scientist reinvents himself
By Brandon Weigel
Friday, March 23, 2012
When you hear the name Thomas Dolby, chances are you think of the song "She Blinded Me With Science" - the quirky synthesizer tones, the lyrics mixing education with infatuation. The quirky electro-pop hit peaked at No. 5 on the Hot 100 Billboard chart in 1983 and was one of several songs that made '80s pop music synonymous with the synthesizer.
In recent years, that same sound has become the hip plaything of many an indie group. The music of Gary Numan, New Order, German pioneers Kraftwerk and other similarly synthy acts, even Dolby himself, has been thrust back into the cultural conversation by bands with an ear for the past and an eye toward the future. You can't swing a Moog in Brooklyn without hitting a musician lugging around a vintage keyboard or drum machine.
But at a time when his music is as influential as ever, Dolby, 53, is going a different direction. In October he released "A Map of the Floating City," his first album in nearly two decades. Over the course of its 11 songs, there are but a few traces of the style he helped pioneer.
Dolby likens the level of obsessive detail some musicians put into synthesizers to the way some gamers immerse themselves in the fantasy world of "World of War Craft," conceding: "There's no way I can compete with the kind of level of detail they're going to get to. And I don't have the patience, and I'm happy to sort of give up my seat at the table to people who are willing to do that."
Also, with so many people making music - professionals and bedroom tinkerers alike - on such easy-to-use technologies as iPad apps or the audio software GarageBand, it's more likely than ever that similar sounds are being created unintentionally.
"I think that's great that people get to express themselves," Dolby says. "The danger, obviously, is if I use those instruments, statistically there's going to be somebody somewhere in the world that is going to come up with that same exact combination of preset sounds, and so that's not something that's terribly interesting to me."
More than anything else, "A Map of the Floating City" reflects more traditional songwriting and storytelling. And it's something of a reinvention, too.
"It's more about the personality behind the music, and that's something that's exclusive to me and is not going to be replicated by anyone else anywhere in the world," Dolby says. "And it's kind of a rarefied thing these days, you know? There's just fewer people writing real songs with actual structure. More people are sort of doing grooves and loops-based music and so on."
"A Map of the Floating City" focuses on three imaginary continents - Amerikana, Urbanoia and Oceanea - all inspired by places Dolby has lived. He has given each continent its own environment of atmospherics pieced together from a wide assortment of genres. Amerikana, for example, features Dolby dabbling in honky tonk, folk and other types of American roots music.
Although "She Blinded Me With Science" cemented the image of Dolby in our collective consciousness as a synth wielding, quasi-mad scientist, some of the deeper cuts in his catalogue reveal a willingness to mix electronic music with jazz, world music and other eclectic styles. In some ways, "A Map of the Floating City" goes a step further, with synth tones and processed beats showing up only in the dreary urban worlds of "Evil Twin Brother" and "Spice Train."
"I find that quite inspiring - stimulating really - to pick a genre that I'm a newbie at, really, and explore it via a song," he says.
As for his absence from the recording studio, Dolby hasn't spent the past two decades resting on his laurels, but occupying a CEO's chair in Silicon Valley. In the mid-1990s, he founded the company Beatnik, which developed the coding that lets cellphones play polyphonic ring tones. At its peak, that coding was used in two-thirds of all cellphones, Dolby says.
In the early 2000s, he became the musical director of the TED conference, bringing in such acts as Paul Simon and Sheryl Crow to perform at the increasingly well-known meeting of innovative minds.
It wasn't until recently, when Dolby returned to the English coastline - the sea-swept life is represented on the album's Oceanea section - that he was able to start thinking about writing songs again. His house rests awfully close to the sea, and, in the middle of his garden, he has placed a lifeboat for the inevitable rise of the waters.
But for now, it is still a place of relaxation and not of survival, and Dolby recalls how the place helped inspire him to write again:
"I think getting back to England and sort of clearing my mind - and I just think staring out over the North Sea from my lifeboat, the ideas started to really flow again."