“The America’s Cup’s about to kick off, I’m up on the veranda looking out across the bay, across the city and hoping I see some speeding sails,” says Thomas Dolby by phone from San Francisco.
It’s hardly a surprise to find him on the water again given the transatlantic scope of 2011’s A Map of the Floating City, a three-part sonic voyage that takes listeners to the imaginary realms of Urbanoia, Amerikana, and Oceanea. The album, Dolby’s first in two decades, is an emotional travelogue for the five-time Grammy nominee, and an exotic journey spanning the roots, reggae, electro, funk, and London pop landscapes.
Those who know Dolby as the MTV generation Oxford-educated mad professor only know half the story, though. After topping ‘80s charts with iconic singles “She Blinded Me With Science” and “Hyperactive!,” Dolby quit the pop business to focus on the software sector, where his company Beatnik Inc. created the polyphonic ringtone synthesizer now embedded in two-thirds of the world’s phones.
Now 54, Dolby remains at the intersection of music and technology, whether it’s his tenure as longtime music director of global think-tank conference TED, his renewable energy-powered recording studio (built aboard a 1930s lifeboat), his interactive video game “The Floating City,” or the steam-punkish Time Capsule trailer accompanying him to his stellar show at Tipitina’s in March of this year.
Dolby returns to New Orleans October 26, three-piece band in tow, to perform at the Voodoo Music Experience. During his recent chat with OffBeat, he was curious as ever about the unknown, asking what to expect at Voodoo (“Are they packed down in front and sort of moshing or lounging on the grass, having a picnic?”) and looking forward to the date, his first festival in the Crescent City: “It’s gonna be a lot of fun.”
It’s been a year now since the album has been out, and you’ve toured the world with it. What’s been the reaction?
It’s pretty much the way it’s always been for me where sort of the extroverted, quirky, catchy songs are the ones that first grab people, but people cut to the ones they take most seriously and end up loving the most. So things like “Spice Train” or “Toad Lickers” have gotten on people’s playlists and hopefully that’s a springboard for them to explore the album a bit further and find things like “17 Hills” or “Oceanea,” which are a little bit more personal, a bit more abstract.
Tell us about the origins of the album, and your creative process, including the interactive transmedia game you designed to accompany it.
The genesis of this Floating City album was moving back to the U.K. from the States and back to East Anglia where my family’s from and I spent a lot of time as a kid. I set up shop in my lifeboat, and when I’m in there staring out over the North Sea there’s amazing stuff going on. They’re building a wind farm offshore, I’ve been watching the vessels going in and out that are servicing the wind farm. And then, in addition, I’m very close to one of the largest container ports in Europe, so I see these massive container ships going out there. I think you have those on the Mississippi as well.
So if you can imagine spending the day watching the comings and goings, I find that now where you can just sort of point to the vessel and find out all about its destination and stuff, so I sat there in my studio powered by the wind and solar panels and got interested in the ship traffic and just the general sea life. My imagination just started to run wild and I came up with this post-apocalyptic sort of dystopian reality where it’s too hot to live on land and we had to take to the water using the hulls of abandoned ships. That’s sort of the idea with the backdrop for the songs on the album. But then, so I’m making an album and I haven’t made one for 20 years and during that time people have stopped buying albums [laughing] — but what they are doing is spending a lot of time playing video games and on social networks and so on. I mean, I love learning a new skill and I’d never made a game before so I decided that’s what I was going to do.
The album has such a great guest list. How did you arrive at your collaborators?
The collaborators for the most part were the people that I worked with briefly over the last few years at TED. For example, Nellie McKay or Natalie MacMaster had been guests at TED and we made the mental note we’d like to work together a bit more in the future. Eddi Reader is an old friend and he sang on a previous album of mine, and Mark Knopfler was sort of a long shot, really…. When I was arranging the song [“17 Hills”], somebody thought that it was a composition that reminded them a little bit of Mark Knopfler because he’s a Brit who can tell an American tale, and so I sent him a demo of the song and he liked it and he just took a couple of hours out, in the studio.
The name of the record, Map of the Floating City, and the motifs running throughout it are very evocative of New Orleans. Any correlation there?
I wasn’t around for the storm but my friends moved there right about the same time that I moved to Northern California in the ‘90s and I’ve visited over the years ever since. I’ve had some amazing experiences there, both musical and otherwise, and it’s always been a really inspiring place for me, [but] I sort of get it a little bit wrong — I allow myself to be influenced by a place or a culture without really doing my homework.
I remember, for example, I put out the song “I Love You Goodbye” in 1991 and I guess it was a bit of a radio hit on an alternative station in New Orleans. And I remember arranging to do an interview on a morning show and I was in California, so it was like 4 or 5 in the morning. I set my alarm to wake me up and slept clean through it, and so the phone eventually goes [off] by the bed and I pick it up and go “Hullo” and [hear] “You’re live on” whatever it was. So there I was live on this morning talk show and the guy was, “Yeah, we love that, the bayou rain song, people are always calling in for the bayou rain song.” “Well, that would be ‘I Love You Goodbye.’” “Yeah, we love that one…. Have you ever actually been to New Orleans?” “Yeah, yeah, I come all the time.” He says, “Well, you oughta know, then, that we don’t have county sheriffs down here, we have parishes.” “Oh.” “But we love the bayou rain [song]. …Are you aware which state the Everglades is in?” [laughing] So he called me out. But yeah, I really have a soft spot for the place.
Do you anticipate how people will absorb an album, especially one as cohesive and conceptual as this, and especially in the single-driven age of iTunes?
I’m perfectly fine with people taking my songs individually but I like to think that by the time you’ve got two or three of them in your iPod that you might start wondering, “What’s the album that this came from?” … I do feel as an artist, given that I haven’t made an album for nearly 20 years, that I wanted to show people a snapshot of where I’m at. Each one of my songs is often stylistically very different and I don’t want to put one out and have people say, “Ah, this is his new direction.” I want people to recognize that there’s a spectrum of styles in what I do and that I love to tell stories and paint pictures.
Could you have imagined when you were starting out with synthesizers, with Beatnik, in the Silicon Valley, that we’d be where we are now in terms of technology?
I don’t think I would say that, “Well, I predicted all of this was gonna happen.” I’m generally quite good on what will happen, I’m very bad on when it will happen. It often surprises me that I thought something just too early or too late and suddenly a couple of years after I thought the time had come and gone, it actually sort of comes to be, you know? And I can’t for the life of me figure out why it was then and not a few years earlier.
Given your work with so many media over the decades, do you have a favorite format? What do you think of the vinyl renaissance?
I love vinyl but I’m too lazy to be a vinyl enthusiast myself. The other day I was at a friend’s house and he collects radiograms, those big pieces of furniture from the ‘50s and ‘60s that had four legs and sort of looked like a cocktail cabinet or something. You’d open them up and there would be a big radio and record player with a repeat arm on it. The thing I’d forgotten about, though, is, [when] you think of vinyl, you think of the sort of scratchiness of it, but I’d forgotten about the “plunk” when you actually put the needle down on the record initially. It’s very, very satisfying, that plunk and this anticipation that you get, so it’s easy to wax romantic about vinyl. But I think music has sort of become like a utility these days, like turning on the faucet and people really being able to stream it wherever they are. Ultimately I think that’s a good thing, because I think that a lot of the evils of the music business came out of the fact, punching out pieces of plastic, shipping them in fleets of trucks, to shopping malls — it’s a hard thing to do and only a few companies really have the wherewithal to do that. And so that, coupled with the fact that you can only get so many minutes on a side, pretty much dictated the shape of the music business, and it was time for it to end. I think now that all of that’s gone away it opens up lots of new possibilities, and I think that’s a good thing.
Is there any piece of technology that you wish you had thought up, or did but it wasn’t recognized at the time?
Again this comes down to timing. When I started Beatnik, we were making interactive music apps for non-musicians, sort of touchy-feely things that would give you the sensation of creating music, without needing to spend years practicing scales. We were doing it on the web, and computers were not very fast and the bandwidth was slow and there was no business model for it at all, really. People wouldn’t pay for stuff that was on the web and so we were just way too early. We were doing that in the middle of the ‘90s, and when I look at the interactive music apps in the app store today, it’s very, very similar to the stuff that we were doing back then. It was just being in the right place at the wrong time.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been making this film, which I’m very new to — I mean, I’ve sort of done that stuff over the years, doing music videos, but it’s amazing how technology has changed for filmmaking, like they’ve had sort of a revolution like we had in music 20 years ago where the stuff that used to cost thousands of dollars has now become accessible to everybody. So that’s been my cue to teach myself a new skill, really.