Thomas Dolby: "I've always steered clear of sort of in-the-moment relationship songs"

Categories: Interviews

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Bruce + Jana

After more than two decades of living in the United States, synthpop pioneer Thomas Dolby (due at the Bluebird Theater this Thursday, November 14) returned to the coast in Suffolk, England, where he grew up and later built a studio called Nutmeg of Consolation in a 1930s lifeboat, and that's where he recorded his latest effort, Map Of The Floating City . When Dolby found out a that the lighthouse which flashed its light on his bedroom wall as a child was due to be closed, he started making a film about it called The Invisible Lighthouse, which he's showing on his current tour.

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Along with screening the film, he offers live narration with a musical score linking songs from various stages of his career. We spoke with Dolby about the film, his latest album, Map Of The Floating City , and his thoughts on the recent passing of Ray Dolby, the father of modern noise reduction.

Westword: With the Invisible Lighthouse, it seems like the inspiration for it came about when you moved back to Suffolk, finding out that the lighthouse was closing and also rediscovering your childhood memories there, right?

Thomas Dolby: Yeah. When I started the film I really didn't know what it was going to be about. I heard the lighthouse was going to close and I just started filming within a ten-mile radius of my house. At first, I was just doing it on my iPhone and talking into the phone like vlog, and then I looked at it and thought that maybe there's a story in here somewhere.

I sort of imagined that I'd hire a professional camera person to come and shoot it properly, but I spent an afternoon with a professional camera person, and I looked at it and thought, actually, I don't like it is much as the iPhone footage because it has this sort of confessional quality to it because I'm walking around the countryside and sort of remembering things from my childhood, and I'm realizing that I remembered them all wrong.

I bought a kit, and these days you can get amazing equipment that's capable of doing very high quality stuff for $200. Being a bit of a geek, I got into GoPro accessories and spy cameras and a quadcopter camera that you fly from your smartphone and things like that. It's coming together. I taught myself to edit on my laptop, and I would just sort of speak narration into the laptop, and it was quite minimal. It was sort of like a tone poem And that's how it came together.

You talked about doing sort of covert missions where there are unexploded warheads and that kind of thing. Was that ever scary at all?

I mean, I went through the proper channels to get out to the island to do some special filming. You could go out with a guide, but you had to stay on the special tracks on the path and so on. But I wanted to be able to wander around on my own, and I wanted to try to get out there and spend the night on the island the last night of the lighthouse.

I got so little cooperation from the authorities, it almost amounted to sort of sabotage. So I just thought, well, I'll take the law into my own hands and do a clandestine commando raid on the island with cameras rolling, and maybe that will make an interesting climax to my film.

From what I understand, part of this tour is letting people know that are these lighthouses around the States, and the U.K. that are abandoned, right?

Yeah. Well, generally speaking they're trying to close lighthouses down because ships have got satellite navigation these days and radar and things. Weekend yachtsmen have got better stuff on their phones than they can get from lighthouses. Lighthouses, in the big picture, are like a transitional technology between terrestrial navigation and the smart phone.

But it's very sad because they've given us so much -- in the case of this country, they've been around, some of them nearly as long as the USA has been around. And I just feel they should be preserved, and in an age where you're worried about sort of fiscal shutdowns and things you don't understand, why people might devote a lot of time to that, but we're really going to miss them when they're gone.

A lot of people have a soft spot for a lighthouse in their past, or a building, or a park, or a mountain, or a creek, or whatever it may be. A lot of people's childhood memories are really wrapped up in these favorite places. So I think when people come to see my show, it touches a nerve because I think we've all got something like that in our past. Also, as you get older, you begin to question how much things sort of candy coated our memories.

You were living in the States for about twenty years or so?

Yeah, I think 23 years.

So when you moved back to England, did some of those childhood memories come back to you once you got back to the place where you grew up?

Yeah, absolutely. A lot of it is because I've brought my family back to Suffolk to experience some of what I had as a kid, and of course, a lot had changed. You tend to get sad and nostalgic about that, but you have to let it go, really. For example, the lighthouse is closing down, but during the last few years that we've been back in England, we've seen the largest wind farm in Europe has been constructed just on the horizon from the beach where we live.

And this is kind of wonderful because I wrote a song called "Windpower" in 1980, and I've always been a champion of alternative energy. I've been watching from my studio with a telescope; there's these extraordinary vessels that take giant turbines out and gradually building about a 150 of them out on the skyline.

And your studio that you built in the lifeboat is both wind and solar powered, right?

I bought it on eBay, and put in my garden, and it had a diesel engine in it, but I replaced that with a bank of batteries, and there's a turbine on the mast and solar panels on the roof. The studio is powered completely by alternative energy. So, during the day, as long as there's a lot of wind and sun, I can work all night.

You've also talked about how film is at a point now where you can make a film for a few hundred bucks, and you kind of compared it to how the music industry started its own DIY thing.

When I started out in the music business, it was just starting to change to a point of where instead of needing a recording studio and therefore a budget and a record contract to get a record made and out, you could start to things in your back room, you know? I sort of built my own drum machine and used to record my own demos, and had a couple of those, actually, released without needing a big studio. Every year, it seemed like there was a new kit coming out on the market that made that easy. Eventually, in the '90s, the internet arrived as a way to distribute music without needing record pressing plants and trucks and so on.

But I think it's been really liberating for a lot of young musicians starting out that instead of having to fight the industry they can just get on and make their music and get it out and hope that the audience finds it way to hearing your music. I think a lot of people think that the moment that happens, they're going to turn into superstars, and they may be wrong, but at least they've only got themselves to blame and not some record company's secretary failed to pass a cassette onto an A&R man. So I've been in favor of changes in technology in the music industry, and I think it's really starting to happen in the film and video world now as well and I love being part of that wave.

You've obviously embraced technological advances with instruments, synthesizers and software and that sort of thing over the years. Is it nice now to just have to carry around maybe one keyboard and a laptop rather than having to lug around quite a few synthesizers?

Oh yeah. It's a huge burden off my back that I don't have to lug them around. I mean, people get nostalgic about them, but I actually welcome the fact that I can just do it all on my laptop now. It's partly the weight and the expense and so on. But it's partly also the fact that were so many wires and knobs and things and cables that could wrong.

If you were working on a piece and go get some sleep or get a bit to eat, it was like a stack of cards: You just worried that it was all going to fall to pieces. So you were reluctant to leave it alone. Before you were to focus on one piece at a time, but now, I can have half a dozen pieces going simultaneously, and just save and record, and you come back sounding the same way as how you left them.

Your last record, Map of the Floating City, was sort of inspired as well by your moving back to England, right?

Yeah. I'm very influenced by the environment of where I am. If you think about it, a lot of my songs are about geography, about the planet, about weather conditions, environmental conditions, space, the earth, etcetera. And I've always steered clear of sort of in-the-moment relationship songs. So yeah, moving back to England was a very emotional thing for me. As I sat there on my lifeboat writing the songs, I was obviously very caught up in what was going on around me.

Can you talk about the three sections that make up the record?

It was always my intention to make it a complete album, but the songs seemed to fall into three categories: Oceania, Americana, Urbanoia. Americana was sort of a fond look back at the time I was living in America and the fact that the genre that we call Americana sort of comes down through a folk music tradition and obviously branched into country and bluegrass and all that. On a certain level, it's indigenous American music, but you can also view it as stories told around a campfire by travelers passing through from one person to another.

And so from that point of view although I'm not American. I have sort of as much right as anyone else to sit at the campfire and tell my own story and sing my own song. Things like "17 Hills," on the surface, sounds like it's got a lot in common with sort of folk lament -- lots of verses coming back to the same refrain about 17 Hills, and there's a jailbreak, and there's a murder and so on. So it's very much sort of joining that fabric of traditional American music, but it's clearly sung by an outsider -- it's sung by an English guy who has his own point of view on things.

It made a lot of sense for me to get Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits to play on that because he, like me, is a visitor to these shores and has written his own songs like "Sailing to Philadelphia" that very much fit in with American music, but he's really an outsider.

Ray Dolby passed away in September. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on him. And it was your classmates that nicknamed you "Dolby," right?

I respected the guy a great deal. We had our differences. I mean, he didn't like when I first emerged on the scene. He thought that I was using his name to gain an advantage. Of course, that wasn't the case. Dolby was my nickname when I was at school, and it just stuck. I had no intention of trying to cash in on his brand. But he was a remarkable man, and his achievement was that he created this brand that held its value over five decades or something. It was really incredible.

Early on, Dolby's sound only really applied to cassette tapes, and of course, when they went away, the challenge would have been to sort of evolve the brand into a different area, and I think he did that successfully with cinema sound and home theater systems and things like that. So I think his marketing achievements were almost as great as his technical achievements.




Location Info

Venue

Map

Bluebird Theater

3317 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, CO

Category: Music

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6 comments
phxmark86
phxmark86

Its should be It's. And "Hmm, I never knew the coast was missing in the first place?" isn't a question, IT"S a statement that you are claiming as fact, not a question, smart guy. I guees your spell check doesn't clue you in on that. I'm not the one being the grammer cop and giving people shit about their mistakes(other than those that do it themeselves) while making glaring mistakes themeselves. And don't bother pointing out all my typo's and spelling errors., I doesn't give na good fack to spell check this shit. I'm not looking to awe you with my made spelling skills and nitpick others for minor mistakes(like all that you made) I suspect you are more the nebbish grammar cop than the scumbag tough guy who threatens to urinate on people after knocking out their teeth. Glass houses grammar cop, gflass houses.

phxmark86
phxmark86

And for those that are following(the 3 of you) here is what that ghetto pos said because I tore into his asshole pal for makinmg a woman cry and enjoying it. It is a cut and paste, his ghetto ass response to words he didn't like. " Anonymity is your friend here, dude, b/c your words would equal missing teeth if these words were spoken in person. Greg and I would put you upside down in a trash can and piss on you if you had the balls to actually claim these words. Coward."

Own it punk. This is who are, or more likely who you would aspire to be. either way, you are human trash. A filthy sub human animal. Or just a wanna be sub human animal talkiing like a fuckin inmate from behind a monitor.

phxmark86
phxmark86

Thats grammatical errors. You are the asshole that corrects people and makes errors while doing it. Can't wait to meet you and see if you behave like the sub human garbage you claim to be. Knocking teeth out of people and urinating on them because you don't like what they said. You aqre trash, or wanna be trash. I can and will say whatever the fuck I please whenever the fuck I please. Chat board tough guys like you are of no concern. Lets do it live. (insert race here) trash piece oif shit. Sub human animal. You brag about behaving like a dog, pissing on people. Really? Lets meet in person and the only canine behavior you will exhibit is slinking away with your tail between your legs. Even if you werre able(which I don't believe you will be) beating someone and urinating on them is how you would respond to words you don't like? Its trash like  you that makes an otherwise enjoyable nieghberhood a filthy disgusting ghetto. You loud mouthed ghetto punk. I am greatly looking forward to either prioving you are just a chat board tough with aspirations of behaving like a sub human, or an actual piece of worthless ghetto trash. Which one is it? Gonna piss on someone because you don't like what they've written and then play grammer police. Either way, you are trash and you will either prove yourself to be nothing but empty threats or pay an enormous price. you are a fucking joke. not even a funny one, just plain obnoxious. like the jokes asshole face tells for beer in shithole bars. fuck you in the mouth tough guy.

yodownmuthalicka
yodownmuthalicka

Its hard to actually finish an article with 2 glaring grammar errors in the first paragraph! 

"synthpop pioneer Thomas Dolby (due at the Bluebird Theater this Thursday, November 14) returned the coast in Suffolk, England"...  Hmm, I never knew the coast was missing in the first place?

"When Dolby found out a that a lighthouse that flashed its light on his bedroom wall as a child was being closed"...  did you have marbles taped to your fingers when you typed this mess?

phxmark86
phxmark86

@yodownmuthalickathe poor guy that got stabbed last week right on the corner. Horrible. WTF is going on with violent crime in Cap Hill? 

Is this the same guy that said he would knock out my teeth, put me in a garbage can and urinate on me? You asshole, you are what the fuck is going on with violent crime in cap hill. Sub human animals like you that think they have the right to assault people because the don't like what they've heard or seen. Or sub human animals like you that would attempt to intimidate people on chat boards with threats of violence because you don't like what they said. The fact that trash like yourself is walking around free in cap hill is the problem. You fucking sub human hypocrite. You fucking cancer on society. I look forward to "claiming my words" and seeing that you are put where you belong or exposed as as the loud mouthed all talk lowlife that you are. Thinking you can silence people you don't agree with by threatening to beat them and piss on them while expressing concern for the "violent crime problem". Either way, you are a piece of shIt, it just needs to be determined which kind. I'm betting its the spineless kind that thinks he can shut down thoughts he  doesn't' like with baseless, vile threats. Were you drunk when you made those threats scumbag?Someone like you that makes threats like that should not be allowed to drink and needs to be watched closely. You are either full of shit, or YOU  AND TRASH LIKE YOU are the problem. .So whats it going to be hard ass? More threats or back peddling about what a civilized guy you really are? Or just ignoring the question? Either way, you are scarring no one. You just motivated me to talk even more shit to you and accept your challenge. Fucking animal and/or lying sack of shit.

"

phxmark86
phxmark86

@yodownmuthalicka Hey tough guy. Im coming to denver and i want to own my words about your scumbag friend. I want to say them to your face and see you back upo your threats. Im niot who you think I am. i will talk all I wanyt about your weasal faced no talent buddy, but I have no intention of hurting him. Lets see if you can back up your threats of violence, chat board tough guy. I will gladly say to you what I posted. I seriously doubt you will be able to put me in a garbage can and piss on me. I'm not going to talk about what a badass I am, but you better know how to fight if you plan on getting physical with me. I will have the police charge with assuult while you lay in the hospital if youy have any thought of backing up your words, you fucking loud mouthed punk. Ill be there in  afew weeks tough guy. My question to you is; where can I find you? I look forward to telling all I've said to your face and seeing if you back up your words.

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