Sunday, September 25, 2011

Thomas Dolby releasing first album in 20 years, giving special performance Oct. 7 in Chicago


It only makes sense that the man who wrote the song "She Blinded Me With Science" went on to form the tech company Beatnik Inc., which created the ringtone synthesizer embedded in more than three billion mobile phones shipped by Nokia, Motorola, Ericsson and others.

Now retired from Beatnik, Thomas Dolby,, on Oct. 25 will release his first new studio album in 20 years, "A Map Of The Floating City," featuring such guest stars as Mark Knopfler, Regina Spektor, Natalie MacMaster, Bruce Woolley and Imogen Heap. He worked on the album in a studio he built aboard a 1930s lifeboat in the garden of his beach house in England.

In addition, Dolby in June debuted "The Floating City" transmedia game, a living world that changes and reacts to player contributions.

Dolby will give a special solo performance and lecture Oct. 7 at Martyr's, 3855 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.

The show starts at 6:15 p.m., and tickets are $17, available at

I had the chance to talk to Dolby about a variety of  topics, including his view of the changing music industry.

Q - I saw a YouTube video of you and Imogen Heap talking about the song, "The Toad Lickers." It looks like you had a fun time making this album.

Yeah, it's been really good fun. I've been away from music for a while. I'm finding that I'm having a lot of fun doing it, and it's really nice to be back and I'm not feeling at all jaded.

Q - I know one of your goals was to make this album sound really organic. You didn't want it to sound like there were a lot of synthesizers on it. 

It was actually more that I didn't want it to be about the sounds. I wanted it to be about the songs.

So whatever musical style I used for each song and whatever production style went along with it is to reinforce the message of each song, really.

Q - How long did you work on the album?

I suppose all told, about three years. But that included building my studio and my life back.

Q - How was that experience? Why did you want to build a studio in such a unique setting?

Well, we're really on the edge of the world, on the east coast of England here. England is actually tipping.

It may take a millennium, or it may happen next year, with global warming and everything. We're basically doomed.

So I couldn't build the proverbial shed in my garden like most guys do. And I came up with the idea of me having a lifeboat, which would be able to rescue me and my family when the flood waters come.

Q - How is the studio working out? I understand it is powered by renewable energy.

It's powered by a wind turbine on the mast, and solar panels on the roof. And I took out the diesel engine and put in a bank of batteries, so if I charge them all day, I can usually work late into the night.

Q - So the studio is working out for you? It's as you envisioned?

Yeah, it's been great. And I can't get more than a couple of other musicians in here. With a lot of this album, I just corresponded with musicians across the world.

Regina Spektor did her own stuff in New York, and Natalie MacMaster did her stuff in Cape Breton, I think.

Mark Knopfler invited me down to his studio in London to do his guitars.

Q - Did you hand pick these musicians? What made you want to get these specific musicians on the album?

Well, a couple of people I've worked with at the TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) conference. Natalie and Regina both appeared at TED.

Eddi Reader, who sings on the song "Oceanea," is an old friend. And I produced stuff for her, so we're longtime collaborators. 

Mark, I've always admired his guitar playing. He took a shining to the demo of "17 Hills." He thought his guitar could be a counterpoint to my storytelling.

Q - And of course this album is your first one in 20 years. What made you want to leave Beatnik?

Beatnik matured and got to a point where it was really about engineering and sales. It was no longer very stimulating.

I came to understand about myself that I am most interested in companies when they are really at the start up stage, and when nobody really knows what they're doing (laughs).

Q - Is that the stage where you think you can really lend a hand and really help out and get things going?

It's more that all things are possible. Nobody's really expecting you to turn over a profit every quarter, and so on.

I had the most fun at Beatnik really in the early days. And it probably would have gone up in smoke like a lot of other dot-coms if it were not for the fact that we kind of backed into the situation with Nokia, where we were making the sounds software for all of their phones.

Now they're the world's top mobile phone company. So the business finally got very focused, but it lost its appeal for me.

Q - What ringtone do you have on your phone?

Actually, I'm speaking on a iPhone, which is one of the few phones that doesn't have Beatnik in it. I think I use the sort of submarine ping.

Q - It seems like all your life you've kind of taken a do-it-yourself approach. I understand that you used to go bin diving to find parts to make your own synthesizers.

When I was a teenager, yeah, I used to do that. Synthesizers were very hard to come by and expensive and heavy and didn't stay in tune.

This was in London during the era of punk, so it was quite rare that anybody had a synthesizer. So yeah, I would go bin diving behind London universities.

Q - Was it because you had an idea what a synthesizer should sound like and you wanted to make your own?

Well, actually I didn't have an idea of what a synthesizer should sound like. That's a criteria for me. A lot of the session work I did, working with Foreigner, working with Def Leppard, these are not keyboard oriented bands, so it was not at all clear what was going to work and what wasn't.

So that's an exciting challenge to me.

Q - Tell me about the concept for the game. How did that idea come about?

There are three parts to the album: Oceanea, Amerikana and Urbanola.

I did the first as an EP just for my fan club only. And the second I released commercially. 

It struck me that people aren't buying records really much these days, but they are spending a lot of time playing games and on social networks. I wanted to get a younger audience, really. 

There are the guys who have stuck around through the decades and still listen to my stuff, and that's great, but most people under 40 have never heard of me.

So I needed a method that was more appropriate for reaching a younger audience, really. So I thought, "Well, I'll make a game."

I was determined that the players themselves would sort of dictate the outcome of the story. So it's really about collaborative fiction writing.

It turned out to be a lot of fun. And there were lots of interesting twists and turns that we never anticipated. So I was very pleased with the way the game worked out.

The winners, as you may know, get to have a private concert of the whole album.

Q - How have people been reacting to it?

They've been fanatical about it, actually. Interestingly, maybe half the people playing the game were committed Thomas Dolby fans, but the other half were gamers, alternative reality game fans, but they knew nothing about my music.

There's a lot of the music in the game, because you get to download songs as you can complete them. So hopefully I've introduced a lot of new fans to my music.

Q - Do you think new technology is making the music business better or worse?

Well, I think for the old school music business, it's definitely made things worse. But they've just got to recognize that they are obsolete, like steel mills or ship building yards They've had the golden era, and it's time to move on.

I think that the point that is missed very often in the industry press is that when they talk about falling CD sales, yeah the sales are falling, but the cost has plummeted, beginning with the cost of making an album.

You can do it on a laptop in your back room. It costs me a bit more because I built my lifeboat studio. 

The whole economy of making music has really changed. And then there's distribution.

To create a demand to sell a product, you need the audience to fall in love with the music. In the old days, it used to cost a fortune to get them to hear the music, because you paid for radio promotions, you paid for videos and put them on MTV.

Today, potentially, you can reach tens of millions of people at a very low cost. And you can have a buy button right there, so for those of them that do fall in love with it, they can pay for the song on your website. You have a point of sale right where they fall in love with your music.

It's potentially a much, much better system. And I think it can be more profitable than ever because the cost can be lower.

Q - Do you plan on releasing albums on a more regular basis? Do you know what you will do next?

No, I'm going to wait another 20 years (laughs). I really enjoy playing live, and I want to get back to tour regularly.

This mini-tour that I'm doing in the states is really just sowing the seeds for that, and then I'll be back in the spring with a band, and playing some dates around North America.