Thomas Dolby Interview

Interview by Harry Kaplan
Thomas Dolby is one of the pioneers of using synthesizers in rock and roll music. As Thomas explains, there was a real backlash from the so called big hair rockers against musicians, such as Thomas, who felt that a rock band was electric guitars, electric bass, drums, and maybe a keyboard or organ. Luckily, Thomas followed his muse and synthesizers are now commonplace in rock and pop music. For me and teenagers who came of age in the 1980s, Thomas Dolby was, and still is a big deal. Dolby is now a professor at Johns Hopkins University and is about to embark on a US tour in August.
TD = Thomas Dolby                  TL = TwangriLa
TL: How are you?
TD: I’m pretty good, thanks Harry. Good to meet you.
TL: Good to meet you as well. I just want to thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview. I appreciate that.
TD: No worries.
TL: First, I want to congratulate you on your new role at Johns Hopkins University, setting up the music program at Peabody Institute. That’s very impressive.
TD: Yeah, it’s been a fun ride so far. I’m really looking forward to starting the new course in the fall.
TL: And explain the course?
TD: Yeah, Peabody as you probably know is a Conservatory. In fact it’s the oldest in the USA. It’s been under the Hopkins’ umbrella for the last 40 years or so. And increasingly Peabody is looking to provide alternative disciplines and alternative career paths for its students. And so they asked me to devise a course that would be very contemporary and would combine conventional skills and music composition with some of the current tools of the trade. And I decided that the right thing to do was to focus on new media uses of music as applied to other forms of entertainment, starting with film and TV, but getting into computer games and virtual reality and installations and so on.
TL: That’s really amazing. So how did the relationship with Hopkins come about?
TD: Well, I started off teaching an elective at their film school in Station North, which I’ve been doing for the last three years. And the Peabody opportunity, that was always supposed to be a three year position. But I really have enjoyed my time in Baltimore and have got settled there with my wife, and I wanted to stick around. So when the Peabody conversation came up I jumped at it, and it’s a great opportunity to pull together some elements of my past experience. I did my first virtual reality sound installation in 1993 at the Guggenheim in New York, and I’ve done a number of computer games over the years for different platforms, as well as a fair number of film and TV projects. So it was a really neat opportunity to be spearheading a new program for them, and actually it’s the first course—degree course of its type in a major American university.
TL: Wow, so that’s wonderful. And you know what, I’m a Baltimore native. I live here myself. And so I’m really glad to hear you say that you want to keep living here because I think this is a hidden gem, and the more people that know it, the more people that’ll come, the better it’ll get. So thank you for that.
TD: Yeah, well, I mean it’s my pleasure really. I really like the city and—although it’s a city that has some serious problems,  it’s also got wonderful aspects to it and incredible neighborhoods and very friendly people. And I love the fact that almost everybody you meet is doing something to make the place better. Everybody seems to get involved. And I really think that Baltimore has got a good future, but it’s a case of sort of glass half empty, glass half full. I’m definitely in the half full camp.
TL: Me too. Well, thank you for that. Everyone else here thanks you as well.
So if you had to rank being a musician and a performer versus a professor, how would you rank those different occupations?
TD: Well, it depends. I mean, I love composing and I love performing and I love the studio. But I am at a time in my life where very often in the past—I’ve started chapters in my career by sort of moving into a new area, which was unfamiliar to me and involved some innovation and learning new techniques and using my imagination to sort of stretch some new frontier. But I just felt that I’d reached a point in my life where I wanted to spend some time sort of sharing that knowledge and experience with a future generation. And so it made a lot of sense for me to be teaching at this point in time, and I’m not done with creating my own original work. But I’m perfectly happy at this point in time to concentrate on cultivating new talent and hopefully some of my experience will rub off on them.
TL: Sure, and that leads in perfectly to the next question which is, you released A Map Of The Floating City in 2011, which was your fifth studio album. Which was fantastic, by the way. So do you have any plans in the near future for a new album?
TD: Well it takes me a while—I’m not a prolific writer by any means. And so it takes me a while to accumulate songs for an album. The concept of an album is a unit in time, so music is a little bit shaky at this point. I sort of—and I feel that I did some original music on my own it would very likely be a song, collaboration, a sort of—more of a one-off type project. And that would fit well with my teaching anyway. If I need to set my sights on an album at this point would mean—would be at the expense of the teaching project. So do I have plans? No, not specifically. But I’m always on the lookout for interesting sort of prospects and collaborative executions.
TL: So you got a big tour coming up. So that’s got to be pretty exciting.
TD: Yeah, I mean, it’s not a huge tour. I mean, it’s a couple of gigs on the West Coast and a handful on the East Coast. It fits in nicely before my term starts up again at Peabody. And I’m going out solo this time. Sometimes we have a touring band, but on this occasion it’s just me and a couple of keyboards. And in a way it sort of blends my current teaching mode with the live performance because sometimes in the past I’ve sort of deconstructed my songs for the audience and explained what was going on, almost like a lecture and then performed the songs. And it’s going to be more along those lines, just picking some favorite songs, which would be sort of randomized and the audience will get a chance to make the selection of their favorite songs. I talk about what went into the composition for the songs and explain how some of the parts and the sounds work together, and then I’ll perform them. The tour will be at small intimate venues, a lot have been quite classy venues, like the Center Stage where you can get a nice martini and a glass of wine and have a comfortable seat with great sight lines and great sound.
TL: Yes, and I wanted to get into that because I read that you—like you just mentioned, you’re going to allow audience members to basically make requests. So I want to get into two things about that. First of all, when I told people I was going to interview you, I didn’t—I never realized, you’ve got a lot of loyal fans out there that have been fans of yours for 35 years. And that’s one heck of a tribute. I mean, I think that’s awesome.
TD: I’m very grateful for that. I have a core fan base who are very loyal and who know—they sort of value the quality over quantity. So many artists in this day and age, if you don’t put out music within two years, the people are describing it as a comeback.
TL: You’re right. That’s true.
TD: And that’s actually 15, 20 years between that project. (laughter) So I’m very grateful for the patience and the resilience of my hardcore fans, that they’re willing to still come and see me after a long period away.
TL: So you take requests, are you ever astounded by some of the requests that seem really obscure or maybe it was a song you didn’t particularly care for and then somebody requests it, does that ever happen?
TD: Yeah, I mean, it does happen sometimes that people—when you give them—if you’re democratic about them and you give them a choice, then sometimes they use that choice in rather a perverse way. I mean, David Bowie on one of his last tours, he allowed the audience on his website to make requests and the most requested song was The Laughing Gnome.
TL: But I think most people do it in good spirit, right?
TD: Yeah, I mean, people do it in good spirit. I haven’t yet really decided what the logistics are going to be for allowing the audience to affect the set list, but I’m going to figure that out nearer the time.
TL: Well, luckily now with technology it’s pretty easy. You got a lot of different choices.
TD: Yeah, there’s lots of ways to do it, yeah.
TL: So I’ve been listening to your material in preparation to the interview and I realized something, your music seems to be almost aligned as much with jazz as rock and roll. Then I read your bio and I see you were influenced by the great jazz musicians like Brubeck, Peterson and Monk. Now I listen and everything makes perfect sense. Your music is really as much jazz oriented as it is rock and roll.
TD: I think it depends on your definition of jazz. I mean, I use scales and chords that definitely show the influence of the jazz composers that you’ve mentioned. I’m not a great instrumentalist. I’m certainly no virtuoso keyboard player. I’m one of those songwriters who, I play my instrument to accompany my voice. And so I come up with interesting parts, and I think very often you listen to that kind of songwriter, take David Byrne, for example, if you analyzed his guitar parts, they’re really unusual and interesting. But certainly David’s never going to go out and work as a session guitar player. And so that’s my approach to my keyboard playing. I never had the discipline and the patience to practice and develop my technique to the point where I could hold my own in a jazz band. But other than that, I like jazz from a compositional standpoint. I’m not very into the sort of more self-indulgent, a million notes, ten minute approach in any style of music. It’s always about the composition and about the lyrics, about the concept and the atmosphere of the song.
TL: Sure. Yeah, that’s really what I was referring to more than anything, was just the way you put open space in there and the songs have sort of a feel of improvisation. Where things can go in a different direction possibly.
When you started using synthesizers, that was considered heresy at the time. But you were able to prove that it’s possible to be experimental and still be melodious and harmonic. Just because music pushes the envelope, it can still sound beautiful. And I think you exemplified that.
TD: Yeah, well, thank you. I mean, when synthesizers came to the fore, they were a novelty. And there were some very experimental musicians who created brand new music using electronics that had never been heard before. And they tended to sort of celebrate the quirks of the machines that separated the machines from what at the time were called “real instruments.” And certainly when I first started working as a solo musician, there were a lot of artists out there who sort of celebrated the inherent coldness and robotic quality of synthesizers, like Kraftwerk and Gary Neumann and so on. But I always saw them more as a conduit to allow me to experiment with different tonalities and different atmospheres.
And I was very conscious when I first started coming to the USA, that in the early ‘80s there was a sort of backlash from mainstream rock and roll against electronics. Rock and roll was the domain of electric guitars and drum kits and big hair and so on. And electronics were considered sort of quite wimpy at the time. And it was a good few years before they became mainstream enough to really be held in the same regard by mainstream rock audience. But at the same time I sort of—I always felt that having a range of electronic fans in my palette would enable me to create essentially a sort of symphonic fan track, using different technologies in order to accompany my songs. And the songs always came first. So I would very often paint a sort of landscape, an evocative backdrop to my vocals and lyrics using the sounds that I created.
TL: That’s interesting. So unfortunately my feeling about the synthesizer and technology in music now is that it’s actually gone too far. It used to be a way to enhance the music, like you had mentioned. But I feel like now in a lot of cases it’s used to mask and cover up weaknesses. I think that’s unfortunate.
TD: Yeah, I mean, sometimes I would agree with you. I think maybe that’s an age thing. (laughter)
TL: It is (laughter).
TD: I’m always reluctant at my age to discount what the appeal is of something that a teenager or a 20 something is into. Because I think that attitudes and tastes do change and the whole—the role of music has always been to repel the middle aged and the older people and give younger people something of their own to get their teeth into. But I’d hate to make a value judgment about the state of electronic music, but I think that in any genre, with any technology, there’s a sort of golden age of experimentation where it’s just trying to cross the chasm into the mainstream. And there’s no rule book written yet. And that’s generally where I like to be. It wasn’t always in the electronic music. It was in music video. It was in internet software. It was in mobile devices. It was in filmmaking and now perhaps in teaching. And that’s where I feel alive, when I’m working in that sort of gray area where things are not yet defined. I think electronic music is sort of on the back of the wave at this point. So it’s understandable that you could feel disappointed with the ways that it’s used.
TL: So you’ve been at this music game now for over 40 years. So I guess it’s time to start thinking about legacy. So if you had to think about your legacy, what would you want it to be?
TD: Well, I mean, I’m very happy really with the contribution that I’ve made. I mean, when I was most heavily influenced and most passionate about music was when I was a teenager, no question. No question but that’s when I entered it as a profession, it became—there’s an aspect of that that faded because it became a job and a career for me. And the kind of artist that really inspired me when I was a teenager, they had no idea what chart position they attained or how many records they sold. In fact if you told me that my heroes had suddenly gone mainstream, I would have been slightly disappointed because they were very personal to me. Didn’t really want everybody on the street to know about them. It would have sort of diluted them for me.
So I never really set out to have commercial success myself, and I was somewhat taken aback when that happened. But I always admired most the sort of maverick artists who couldn’t be pigeonholed and who were maybe a little bit hard for the music industry to market for that reason. And in a way I think that’s what I’ve become and that’s the way I’ll be remembered.
TL: I think that’s great. So you mentioned people like that, and who else comes to mind is someone like Beck.
TD: I think that’s certainly true. I mean, Beck, to be fair, Beck can headline a massive festival and he’s sort of universally known and has made a huge impact commercially. But yeah, I mean, I would agree that he’s in that camp, yeah.
TL: When you said someone that can’t be pigeonholed, he could put out a country album and then put out something that’s completely electronic and record execs are probably just scratching their heads.
TD: That’s exactly true. I mean, he went through a period where he sounded like he’d been listening to early Neil Young. And I think that’s great. I think Bjork is another one. I think she’s sort of endlessly adventurous and lover or hate her, you’ve got to take your hat off to the fact that she’s never stood still.
TL: You’re right, and it’s obviously—I think the thing that drives me the most is passion, and you definitely have it. And the people—Bjork has it, Beck has it, that’s something that you can never—you have to have it. You can’t get it. It’s got to be inside you. 
So how can people find out what you’re up to?
TD: Well, Thomasdolby.com always has the most recent stuff on it. Yeah, I think the fact that weeks can go and there isn’t really any new news, probably means that it’s not like the first bookmark in people’s browser. But that’s the way to find out, and certainly the upcoming tour that you mentioned, there are tickets on sale. I will be at Center Stage on August the 8th and I hope that Baltimore, now that it’s my home town, will turn out to see me there.
TL: I will make sure that there’s a great crowd. I probably won’t have to work too hard because there’s a lot of fans around here.
TD: Good.
TL: So Thomas, thank you for taking time to speak with me. I wish you continued success in whatever you pursue.
TD: All right, thanks a lot Harry. Nice talking to you.
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