In the studio, you immerse yourself in perfecting the sound, but only a small number of people are going to hear it exactly the way you intended.
Technology and self-analysis can be tricky to corral into words and music that will appeal to the masses, but Thomas Dolby has made a science of it for decades. And that’s not too surprising, coming from the vocalist and keyboard/synth master who brought us pioneering electronic-pop hits like She Blinded Me With Science, Hyperactive!, One of Our Submarines, and I Scare Myself during the ’80s heyday of MTV.
Dolby also dove headfirst into fueling the technology boom in Silicon Valley by figuring out how to share sound on the internet. And now he has chronicled his creative thought processes for a new memoir, The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology, available in various formats via Flatiron Books.
What was it that drove Dolby to challenge himself to be the consummate tech “tinkerer,” as he describes himself towards the end of the book? “I think I was my own boss, really,” Dolby told Digital Trends. “But I can’t take credit as an inventor of a lot of those things. I was just one of the fools that rushed in. The main thing is, I’m a bit of a showoff, so I love being the first person who is able to demonstrate the possibilities of some new technique, or a new gizmo. I would go in and please myself by tinkering around with these things, but I always had a sense of, ‘Once I have this thing figured out, I’m going to show it to the world, and they’re going to think I’m very clever.’”
While taking a break from recording the audiobook version of The Speed of Sound, Dolby Skyped with Digital Trends on what happened to be his birthday. He discussed breaking the music-genre barrier, the true arrival of the golden age of wireless, and the ultimate legacy of Science.
Digital Trends: As someone who’s worked with all kinds of technology over the years, what do you think people will learn the most from reading this book?
Thomas Dolby: Well, I think to a techno geek, it will be quite interesting, because it begins in the rarefied air of the electronic music movement in the U.K., where it hadn’t really originated. There were people outside of the U.K. experimenting with it earlier than we were.
The idea of forming bands that only used electronic equipment to make music like that was quite a novel thing in the late ’70s, especially given that we still had the dregs of corporate AOR [album-oriented rock] dominating the airwaves — and we had punk rock dominating the tabloid headlines. Nobody was interested in the electronic music movement at the time. On top of which, the equipment was hard to get hold of, and it was very unreliable — and heavy.
You wrote about having to rummage through a dumpster to find a certain synth module.
(laughs) Yeah, a [Powertran] Transcendent 2000 — that was a real piece of luck. I think I would have eventually managed to get my hands on a synth anyway. I had a Wurlitzer electric piano and a Selena string synthesizer, which only has one sort of string sound. Neither had the ability for you to twiddle knobs and create or forge your own sounds from scratch.
You were literally at the forefront of the electronic age. There’s one passage where a friend of yours said something like, “You shouldn’t be listening to rubbish like Pink Floyd,” and then recommended some punk bands you should listen to instead.
That was Shane MacGowan who said that, by the way. [MacGowan is the singer/songwriter of Celtic trad-punkers The Pogues.]
Well, he should know!
Shane was telling me at the time how he was going to form a punk-folk band, and I thought that was kind of ridiculous. But that sort of exemplifies how it wasn’t cool to have an eclectic range of tastes in those days. You picked a tribe, and you belonged to it.
Do you feel punk and prog can co-exist in the same person’s listening universe?
Young people these days have playlists where it’s OK to have an eclectic mix of different styles, and they’re a lot more tolerant about it, for a large part. In those days, you were either on the Pink Floyd/Yes/Genesis axis, or the Allman Brothers/Little Feat/Steely Dan axis, or maybe — if you were truly revolutionary — you would slag all those guys off, and only listen to the Sex Pistols and The Clash.
These days, I can put on a Pink Floyd track followed immediately by an OMD track, and not feel that’s a strange thing to do at all.
I think that’s certainly right. The flipside is, because of the abundance of music that’s available free or cheap in this day and age, people probably have less time and inclination to delve.
In the 1970s, if you were a Pink Floyd follower, you’d be very excited about their upcoming release. And on the day of release, you’d go to the Virgin record store and put on headphones, listen to it, and then splash out your wallet and spend your money on it and take it home. Then you’d probably listen to it back to back for the first few days while poring over the record sleeve and looking at the credits, the sleeve notes, and the photos. That amount of immersion in a single act is probably unusual these days.
Now we’re in the smorgasboard/sample-everything era. As an artist who grew up in an album-oriented time, how do you feeling about the modern streaming universe and the way people now access their music?
I think it’s great you can get access to things, but like anything else, you take away the rarity, and you lose some of the “precious” quality of it as well. If diamonds were as available as rhinestones, nobody would want diamonds.
It’s all about value. The other side of the streaming coin is lower-quality digital files. How do you feel about people listening to the well-constructed and finely recorded tracks that you create in that way?
I’m not really nuts about the sound quality. I think the sound quality of an MP3 is the equivalent of you writing something with a fountain pen in ink, and then you smear the tops of the t’s and l’s and h’s. That’s what it reminds me of — it has this “smeared” sound, which I find quite irritating.
But a lot of music is listened to on headphones now, and that has some advantages. In the old days, people would have a stereo where one of the speakers’ tweeters would be blown, and the other one was buried behind a bookshelf, or something. Often, it would be quite depressing when I’d go to somebody’s house and they had my music playing in the background. It really wasn’t the way I intended it, or mixed it. Plus, they’re talking over the top of it! (laughs)
The reality is, in the studio, you immerse yourself in perfecting the sound, but only a small number of people are going to hear it exactly the way you intended.
But I do like the way people are listening to music in new ways. I can’t help feeling a bit nostalgic for the way things were when I was starting out. It was really hard work! (laughs) But it was really rewarding.
I don’t preach about this stuff. When I observe the way my kids consume music, I’m often tempted to make remarks, but you have to keep your mouth shut as a parent. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of, “Oh, things aren’t what they used to be.”
“The early 2000s were the golden age of wireless … people suddenly became very mobile via their handheld devices simultaneously, even in third-world countries.”
It seems almost too obvious to borrow the name of your first album [released in 1982] for this question, but are we now truly in The Golden Age of Wireless?
Obviously, at the time, I was talking about a different kind of wireless altogether from the current meaning of it. But I actually think the early 2000s, if anything, were the golden age of wireless, because many people who didn’t have computers or didn’t have their own phone lines were suddenly becoming very mobile via their handheld devices. That was a revolution that happened all over the world almost simultaneously, even in third-world countries and among poor people. It was a huge change.
Would you consider yourself a pioneer in that regard? You were on the cutting edge of a lot of these changes.
Umm … I’m one of a group of pioneers. There’s a big difference between being a pioneer and being an inventor. I’d say I’m more of a pioneer, really, because it wasn’t my technology — I was just one of the early adopters.
At various points in my career, I would jump on a technology that was intriguing to me, or that had promise, or I felt I could express myself with. I rather loved floundering around in an area where I felt very uncomfortable, where rules had not yet been defined. That’s when I’m my most creative, really.
Songs like Europa and the Pirate Twins and Cloudburst at Shingle Street [both from The Golden Age of Wireless] contain electronic sounds many of us had never heard much of before. It was a whole new universe for us to get into as listeners. What was it that made your music stand out from the other electronic music of that time?
I think something that set me apart was that I could have been a conventional songwriter, with piano and voice. I’m nothing special as a pianist or as a vocalist, so I needed a wider palette to express myself with. I’m not a song-and-dance man, like Elton John.
But I did have the background, and I did have that compositional and arranging skill. Whereas a lot of people who play with machines got into it without much of a musical background, and were able to get the machine to express something to get themselves across in that way. In my case, I could have written conventional music on musical instruments, but instead I chose to work with these devices. The difference, really, was my songs were really songs. You’re hearing unusual sounds and arrangements, but the underlying compositional backdrop was quite a conventional one.
What does She Blinded Me With Science mean to you today? I think people are going to keep discovering that track into perpetuity.
Well, that would be very nice! I wouldn’t object to that. What does it mean to me today? It’s the most flippant song I’ve ever written, I think. It really came about because of the video. I’d written the storyboard for the video before I had written the song. In fact, I’d taken the storyboard into the record company to try to get them to fund the video. And they said, “Well, where’s the song?” And I said, “I’ll bring it in Monday morning.”
So it was an excuse for the video, and it was the first video I had written and directed myself. I had a very strong aspiration to emulate the silent-film movie era and the antics of underdog heroes like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd — to be the geeky, weedy guy who ends up getting the girl. At the time, the pinup boys for that generation were Sting, Adam Ant, and [Duran Duran’s] Simon LeBon, and I never felt I was going to compete in the Handsome Boy Stakes.
I really drew on my professorial background. I come from a long line of university professors, and that seemed to be a look and a sound that clicked. It happened at a time when MTV was extremely influential. It made such an impact when you had a hit on MTV. Cool people were watching MTV instead of going to gigs and buying records.
There have been moments I’ve regretted that the song I’m best known for is my least serious, least sensible, least atmospheric, least personal song. But I really can’t object and I can’t complain, because of the doors it’s opened for me. The massive commercial success of Science was what enabled me to collaborate with all of those great people, and it means I still have the keys to the city, even today. There are still stations and clubs playing that song, so I’m very grateful for that.