Thomas Dolby might best be introduced by TED, where the musician is acknowledged for “blinding us with science,” before mention is made of his propensity to have “always blurred the lines between composition and invention.” Since first assuming his place as one of the pioneering stars of MTV in the early ’80s, Dolby, born Thomas Robertson, has led — and this is to put it lightly — an unconventional life. Playing an integral role in the development of synthesizer-based pop music throughout the decade, Dolby found fame through singles such as “Hyperactive!” and “She Blinded Me with Science,” two tracks which Dolby is eager to dismiss as being his “best.” Just how hot was Dolby in the ’80s, you ask? Well, he acted as the keyboard player for Def Leppard during the band’s Pyromania sessions — suffice it to say, the sky seemed the limit.
Fast forward to 1993 where Dolby established Headspace, a tech company which has since changed its name to Beatnik that specializes in mobile phone audio. As Dolby would explain, the company’s technology has shipped on over 3.5 billion mobile phones since 1999. Despite such success still fully gaining momentum, Dolby stepped down from his role as CEO in the company in 2002, moving on to a variety of other small(er) projects including RetroFolio, a ringtone content provider. But when all was said and done Dolby still figured himself “a musician through and through” and slowly creeped back into the area he remains most passionate about: music. Through the process of returning to his first love Dolby assumed the position of musical director for the TED conference in 2001, a position he still holds. In this interview Dolby explains his role in TEDx, a project which will feature the likes of William Orbit, David Toop, Louis Lortie, and Imogen Heap when it takes place November 6 in Aldeburgh, his new release, A Map of the Floating City, and what still drives his creativity after some three decades of performing.
TED’s blog lists you as their “musical director” — what does that position entail and what is your role in TEDx?
Thomas Dolby: I help choose the “talent” — i.e., the musicians we have come and play a set between speakers at TED. We pick musicians that will blend well with the TED community, as all performers there mingle with the audience over the course of the four days. We pick music that will work well as a kind of palate cleanser. There’s such a barrage of great ideas coming at you, you need a second to let it all sink in. So we put a lovely Scottish folk singer on stage, or a brilliant Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso, and the audience just goes “aaahh!” I also usually have a house band that plays a little mood-setting overture at the start of each session. A few of these you can see on TED, or on my YouTube channel.
What was the crux of your decision to refocus yourself on music this past decade and what has kept you inspired after three decades of performing?
I’d been away from music for too long. Because of my relative success in Silicon Valley I was focused on my company Beatnik, on lecturing and talking about technology, and I had no time to think about music. But I was a bit like a fish out of water, because at the end of the day I am a musician through and through. So when I found a suitable moment to step back from Beatnik, I moved back to the UK and concentrated on writing and recording new songs. I think my time away means I can approach it in a very fresh and un-jaded way. Plus, I feel no need now to wow people with electronics and grooves. There’s so much of that going on now, whereas when I started I felt like a pioneer. Instead I focus on what’s unique in my songwriting and storytelling ability, which these days is a much more rarified possession.
Do you find yourself inspired by other musicians, or do influences bleed into your music from other aspects of life?
Yes, I have a few heroes that constantly inspire me, mostly with their music and sometimes with their personalities, the way they conduct themselves. I look at Peter Gabriel, how he has elevated his music in spite of not rushing it, and how well he uses the talent he has to get to the core of something that matters to people. Or Brian Eno, who is the Leonardo Da Vinci of modern music — Leonardo invented the helicopter and painted the Mona Lisa, while Eno invented ambient music but still helped a series of rock acts reach the very zenith of their careers. Or Björk, who sounds to me like a creature from another planet bravely trying to come to terms with our alien atmosphere here on Earth.
If, miraculously, you had the ability as a teenager to look into the future and hear A Map of the Floating City, what do you think your reaction would have been?
I was always in awe of artists who made no compromises, cut no corners in making beautiful records that stood alone. That’s what I’ve tried to become in this the second chapter of my musical career. In many cases my heroes were consigned to being consigned to being viewed as cultish, marginal, uncommercial. But now that the music industry has collapsed, the world is an open book and we can dream again. I think I would have recognized in AMotFC the values I held dear as a teenager. But I probably would have thought “who’s that old fat bald guy making those beautiful sounds?”
Regina Spektor is noted as a contributor to “Evil Twin Brother” on the album, playing the role of an “East European waitress” in the song — while immensely gifted as a singer and classically trained pianist, her music has never led me to instinctively view her as a technological innovator. The same goes for Mark Knopfler. How do you approach these sort of collaborations and do you expect a certain willingness to experiment on the part of your collaborators?
I don’t think technology has anything to do with it. Certain musicians just have a natural affinity and we know we speak the same language, regardless of current trends or fashionability. Regina is a blistering talent and simply a sweet human being, while Mark Knopfler is one of the greatest guitarists that ever lived, and certainly the most appropriate to help me tell the story of “17 Hills.” I am glad they saw it the same way!
Do you think you’ll return to the format of the music video in the future, or pair music with video as you move forward?
Well put it this way. The most viewed clip on my YouTube channel, by a factor of about 10:1, is the clip of my cat peeing on the toilet. This makes life very simple. I can use that as the video for each of my new songs, and even put him on the record covers to sell more copies, and pay him in Friskies.
As technology continues to evolve exponentially, how has your ability to create been affected or enriched by new tech developments (in recent years), and what innovations do you see taking place in the near future?
It starts with the software on my laptop which is many times more powerful than the professional recording studio where I paid hundreds of pounds an hour to make my first album. Then there’s the distribution, the ability to upload a clip and have it heard by millions of fans almost instantaneously — read the reviews in the morning and then re-write the second verse and put a new version up alongside the first, if the mood takes me, or not.
A few years back a fellow blogger commented on the future of mobile digital music and how it was quite possible for phones to become the single most important peripheral in terms of music consumption. This would seem to go hand in hand with some of the ideas behind Beatnik. Now looking in from outside on the everyday activities of the company — and that entire sector of the industry to some degree — what do you see as the future of portable music?
I’ve always felt that the phone was a remote control for your life. You should be able to hear a song wherever, whoever you are, like a giant jukebox. Or, if you’re too lazy, listen to someone else’s playlist: a tastemaker you trust, or just let an algorithm pick for you. Music is becoming a commodity, and utility like water — you don’t stop to worry about the cost of filling a glass of water from your tap when you’re thirsty, and at the end of the month you’re happy to pay the utility bill as it’s part of your life. Where the song resides should cease to be important. You’ll just punch a few keys and within seconds you’re hearing it.
Beatnik, actually, had no idea behind it. I wanted to affect music at a core level, and for many years (in the early to mid ’90s) we did that by making some highly innovative musical experiences that had no business model behind them at all. We were able to sustain a company like that for as long as the “irrational exuberance” of the dot-com boom lasted. When the bubble burst, we were left with one single line of business that had teeth: mobile phones. So we gambled everything on that one idea, like betting all your chips on red 37, and seeing it the ball drop in the hole. Since 1999 over 3.5 billion mobile phones have shipped with our technology in, making Beatnik arguably the most popular synthesizer of all time! For a synthesist like me, that feels pretty good.
What is there left that you hope to accomplish with your career? Call it a musical bucket list of sorts…
Oh, there’s plenty. For a start I’m not happy that I’m best known for songs that I don’t rate as my best. It pains me that “Science” and “Hyperactive!” were huge hits, but “Screen Kiss” and “I Love You Goodbye” were overlooked. That was a bi-product of the way the industry worked back then. The industry has evaporated now, and it’s a whole new ballgame, so we can dream again. I dream that a song like “Oceanea” will one day be as popular as my hits of the ’80s.
Do you ever find yourself looking back, or are you constantly attempting to look forward?
I look back, but I never pine for the olden days. I feel my best work is still ahead of me, and I have the ability to equal or even surpass some of the musical heroes I was in love with as a youngster. And I feel that the possibility of making great music is a huge gift to humanity, and for those of us lucky enough to have it within our grasp, we have little choice but to pursue that dream to the ends of the earth.