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A Quietus Interview

The Science Of Sound: Thomas Dolby Versus The Quietus
The Quietus , June 5th, 2009 13:03

Our friend Mark Emsley of IReallyLoveMusic gets to grips with one of his musical idols - Thomas Dolby. Pull up a chair, it's going to be in-depth . . .

The Writer vs Dolby Part 1: 1984

Sometime in the spring of 1984 during a school lunch hour, I picked up a 12" single by Dolby's Cube called ‘Get on out of my mix’.

The reason for this random purchase has long since disappeared from my grey cells, but it could have been due to the promise of a free flexi-disc that included two extra tracks (live versions of 'Urban Tribe' and 'Airwaves') as back then any extra music for free was a serious bonus point situation.

So, when the 12” was unleashed without the flexidisc I set into motion what was to become a long term relationship with Britain’s most unusual and unexpected pop star.

You see I wrote a letter to EMI.

An old fashioned letter that involved crappy 16 year-old whining about being ripped off. Amazingly my letter got through to a sympathetic soul as a few weeks later I was honored to receive a response.

Hand-written of course.

The man behind the letter promised that he would try and track down a spare copy of the flexi, but then went on to to tell me how he wished he always caught a catch whenever he happened to be fishing in the river that was nearby my parents' Yorkshire Dales pub.

Filing the letter on top of my pristine copies of the NME I thought nothing more of it, as surely a man working for EMI would not have the time to track down a skinny disc for some spotty kid stuck in the outback of the Yorkshire Dales?

Amazingly, again, my plea did not go forgotten as a few weeks later an EMI stamped parcel arrived.

This time the note was a lot more succinct, but alongside the note was the full length album The Golden Age of Wireless by Thomas Dolby, one 12” by Vicious Pink, and a Vicious Pink record deck slip mat.

The result of this act of unexpected generosity was that I ended playing Golden Age . . . more than any album released that year, and made me a fan of his music from there on in.

The Writer vs Dolby Part 2: 17 May 2006

I am in Chicago on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure being paid for by my employers. My head is spinning at the sheer vastness of the town and its architectural beauty and I have a few nights to kill in the Windy City.

Who would be providing the soundtrack to this ultimate jolly? Upon my arrival at the centrally-based Hard Rock Hotel - this being the largest hotel I have ever seen - I check in and check out various listings mags and come across this:

17th May: Thomas Dolby – Sole Inhabitant Tour (Martyrs)

So while I’m in the cradle of acid house, Hefty Records, Lou Rawls and others, there I am with a chance to see some long-forgotten UK 80s pop star on the comeback trail.

The concert turned out to be a joyous occasion in which rather than dropping a load of backing tracks onto a laptop and performing a set of cheesy karaoke-styled revisions, Thomas Dolby had dusted down his old synths, hacked into a few new toys, cyber-ed up some old war-era gadgets and generally put on the show of the year. He beefed up the sonics of the originals that proved he was taking an interest in the more modern sounds of electronic music, but had managed to keep the otherworldly atmospherics of the source material and, despite the glut of grey haired mortgage payers, generally got the party bouncing to his anti-pop hits.

The Writer vs Dolby Part 3: 2009

At last it seems that the people behind Thomas Dolby’s four major label releases (all of which were released on various sub-labels of EMI) have decided to give his catalogue another time to shine.

First up is the release of a straightforward compilation of the man's singles set down in strict chronological order - The Singular - accompanied by a DVD containing all the videos. Then for the fans there will be the long awaited remastered editions of The Golden Age of Wireless, and The Flat Earth, each with some extras if rumours are to be believed.

With the release of The Singular how has it been revisiting your catalogue for the purpose of this exercise? Like revisiting an old friend, or exhuming some long forgotten ghosts?

Thomas Dolby: "It’s actually been fun pulling the singles together as sequence. It’s like fast-forwarding through your career. I think I grew up pretty fast over the course of one decade, before disappearing into a cone of silence for the second."

And why now?

TD: "Before I release a new album (my first in over 18 years) I’d like listeners to listen afresh to my old stuff and see how it stacks up after all this time. The 80s were such a whirlwind of contrasting styles that you sometimes couldn’t see the wood for the trees."

Given that each album swerved off into a new musical direction, which era of the catalogue do you find has stood the test of time the best, and why?

TD: "People like musicians to keep a sense of continuity, with each album being a progression from the last. But I always envied novelists, who are allowed to set each book in a different location or period of history, with a fresh cast of characters. I like each of my albums for different reasons. The stylisms of Golden Age Of Wireless and Aliens Ate My Buick were very strong but have probably aged, whereas The Flat Earth and Astronauts And Heretics were primarily very personal, atmospheric works, and so the songs tend to transcend fashion.

You had a reputation (often backed up by the videos that accompanied the singles which are for all to see in the DVD that comes with the compilation) for being quirky, and a techno-boffin. Yet away from the singles, the albums were a lot more melancholy and introspective. Did this double edge sword ever cause trouble, and did it become hard trying to appease the needs of the pop market, and yet maintaining your own sanity?

TD: "No question that I made it hard for the marketing and promotion guys. I was hard to pigeonhole because of that dichotomy between the quirky extroverted synth-boffin, and the more introspective, moody me. If it was just about being a megastar I should have stuck to the former. But there’s a more important message to my music, and people that went deeper into into it picked up on it. During all the years I was away from music, the Internet came along and guess which songs people analyse and pore over? It’s stuff like 'Screen Kiss' and 'Budapest By Blimp', the oddest and most intimate stuff."

Where did the love for technology and old world come from? You clearly love the modern technological aspects of the world, yet your music and visual imagery often harks back to days gone by.

TD:"It’s a strange and rather unique viewpoint, and something that I would suggest is a core part of the Thomas Dolby concept. It is. I’ve always loved things that used to be very modern. I was a big fan of Jules Verne and H G Wells. It rarely mattered whether their predictions about the future turned out to be correct. What was great was the way they imagined worlds beyond the one they knew about. Technological solutions were needed to make those images come to life, and the technology of the imagination is often so much richer than the practical, commercial solutions that end up being rolled out."

Will the re-release have the live versions that were on the legendary flexidisc?

TD: "Wow, I’d forgotten all about that! I don’t even know what live tracks those would have been, but I have dug up a few live cuts that I like."

In an age when record labels love to compress the hell out of audio dynamics, how did you go about the process. I’m especially interested in regards to The Flat Earth an album that needs space and subtlety in the mastering so as to not lose any of the carefully crafted atmosphere – were you aware of the danger of revising the overall sonics of such a personal album?

TD: "It was a case of ‘Just say no.’ People get scared that their music will sound wimpy if it’s too quiet compared to everything else out there, so they use adaptive limiting to make it more in your face. But fans use the normalize button when they compile playlists, and radio producers level out the volume when they play songs on the air. So all it really gets you is less dynamics. I didn’t even consider it. I did have to ask the mastering engineer to make a couple of songs less bright— notably 'Screen Kiss', which really doesn’t need to take your head off."

How much did your involvement with Trevor Horn and the production of 'Duck Rock' influence the sound of The Flat Earth (eg, The Soweto-styled guitars)?

TD: "The chords to The Flat Earth are directly lifted from a keyboard part I put down on Soweto, but that Trevor wiped. I remember when he asked me down to Sarm East to put the first overdubs on the tracks he and Malcolm McClaren brought back. It was the first time I’d heard South African music well recorded, and it was magical."

What was the reaction to The Flat Earth given that it virtually eradicated any evidence of the synth pop style that you had become so well known for? Was there any resistance or would you say your fans have always been ready for your changes in direction?

TD: "Frankly, I’ve always pissed a few people off and it doesn’t bother me at all! I can’t imagine the day something I do will be universally welcomed and heralded as a masterpiece. The way I see it, if you’re not upsetting a few people, you’re probably not taking enough risks. That said, I’m very pleased that my hardcore fans know to expect the unexpected. My music covers a lot of different feels and styles, so you have to be quite broadminded to like it all. But I do whatever the song requires. On GAOW my songs and lyrics were about technology, the weirdness of being human in the middle of huge political and changes that technology was bringing about. As a species we went from analog to digital in half a generation. So much of our existence now is fizzing all round us in the ether. That’s what Airwaves was about; the saturation of all available airborne frequencies, despite the rotten state of the terrestrial analog legacy, the radar towers and underground copper cables and electrical substations."

Have there been any discussions as to the rest of the catalogue? After all, Aliens Ate My Buick and Astronauts . . . are not that easy to find these days.

TD: "I’d like to re-release those as well, but perhaps not until after my brand new album has come and gone."

What about the 12” versions of the singles? Could I put in a request for the possible re-release of the 12 by 12 CD as I would suggest that you were one of the earliest proponents of the 12” remix. Clearly you enjoyed the freedom such a format gave you. For example, your first Dolby’s Cube release, ‘Get out of my Mix’ was fascinating in how it merged 2 of your tracks, drew out the bass funk element and therefore predated the mashup/bootleg world by decades. What on earth possessed you to make the track, and just how did you get such a thing past EMI?

TD: "I don’t generally like 12” mixes done by other people. Francis Kervorkian’s mix of Dissidents was a notable exception, and that will be on the TFE re-release. For my own 12"s I tended to just make the songs longer by mixing a few bits instrumentally, and editing them all together. It lets you hear the parts in a bit more detail I suppose, but I didn’t want to waste space on the CDs, when instead I could include demos, love tracks, and a couple of unreleased outtakes. The Dolby’s Cube tracks will both be included as well. When I did GOOMM I was just giving my new Fairlight a workout!"

You worked a lot with George Clinton – how did such a bizarre team up ever materialize?

TD: "We met backstage at Saturday Night Live and had a mutual high regard for each other. He was about to do a James Brown benefit concert with P-Funk in a huge arena in Washington DC, and he had the brainwave of asking me to come up onstage and sing ‘Sex Machine'. There was no rehearsal or sound check, and backstage was a gathering of the P-Funk hordes, most of whom wanted to get close to George and hit him up for back wages he still owed them. I was in a corner trying to teach Bootsy Collins’ brother Catfish [Phelps] how to play the Sex Machine rhythm guitar part, which he had played on the original but completely forgotten. The funk dirge in E started up at like 130 decibels and I stood petrified at the side of the stage. Then I saw James Brown himself take a seat in the front row. I scarcely heard the MC mention my name, and I was up there giving it my best impression of an Oxford theology professor strutting his stuff. I ran over to the electric piano to play the solo, and it wasn’t plugged in. So I kicked the crap out of it, then sang the last verse and got the heck out of there, fearing a lynching. Later George found me back at the hotel bar and told me I had brought the house down."

Producer/Session involvement or Pop star – which provides the most rewards?

TD: "It’s very different. One’s a grown-up, the other’s a schoolboy! But I’m not a natural exhibitionist, it’s just a streak that floats to the surface every now and then, so being a 24/7 popstar was never my style. In many ways the producer hat fits me better, I pull the strings and work the controls while some kid with great hair is out there in front of the flashbulbs. Trouble is, when you’re a producer or session player, you’ve got a client to keep happy. I’m too selfish and single-minded for that. So in the balance, being an obscure cult artist leading a hermit-like existence in a secret lifeboat location, and only communicating with the outside world via FTP seems a logical way to live."

Your involvement in providing the backing for Bowie at Live Aid was a definite highlight of that day for me. What are your memories of that day? Did you feel part of the 80s club following that, or was it all a little surreal?

TD: "Matthew Seligman played bass on the Jagger/Bowie version of‘Dancing In The Streets’ and mentioned to Bowie that he was friendly with me. He had been booked for Live Aid but his regular touring guys were all busy. So he called me and asked whether I could put together a band with Matthew, Kevin Armstrong and others. I recruited Neil Conti the Prefab Sprout drummer, and we put the word about for backing singers, a sax player, and a percussionist.

"Bowie was very busy filming Labyrinth at Elstree Studios and we had to grab a few hours here and there to rehearse. But he kept changing his mind about what to play, he started out wanting to promote his current single ‘Loving The Alien’ but soon realized Live Aid was much bigger than that. He settled on the four final songs the evening before the show, and we had never played them back to back.

"It was a warm day and I remember walking along the Thames at Hammersmith that morning and hearing the commentary already coming out of each upper storey window. I met Bowie at Battersea Heliport and he was in a foul mood because he detests flying. He jammed himself into his seat with a Homburg pulled down over his eyes, chainsmoking. He looked just like the bratty popstar in ‘The Thin White Duke’ documentary [Cracked Actor]. But that was completely out of character — in reality he’s a total gent, funny, easy-going. We banked over Wembley just as Freddie Mercury was wailing in close-up on the JumboTron.

"Bowie perked up once we landed and a flood of a hundred photographers engulfed us. Three minutes later we were onstage and I was muddling through the piano intro to 'TVC15'. I was convinced I’d fluff all my parts, especially in '"Heroes"' which has a curious structure. But I just looked out over the crowd and channelled the 15-year-old Dolby, then one of the adoring Bowie fans out there in the crowd singing along. Surreal? No. More transcendental. I’m not quite sure what the 80s club is — assume that’s a somewhat sneering label — but I have no regrets about being there on that day, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world."

Keyboards by “Booker T Boffin” on Def Leppard’s Pyromania: was that you then, and if so what other pseudonyms have you used over the years?

TD: "Yes, Pyromania and also parts of Hysteria. I didn’t really want to get tarred with the heavy metal brush, and the feeling was quite mutual—hence the pseudonym. It came about because Mutt Lange’s a great guy that’s not afraid to try odd things out."

Re the recent live show : Were you ever approached to join the very successful 80s themed ‘Here and Now’ tours?

TD: "Yes, often. They don’t appeal to me, because they seem to be a graveyard for formerly great artists who have lost their way. You wouldn’t catch Kraftwerk of Depeche Mode on one of those tours, because their bodies of work (and the sheer quality) transcend the decades."

The last single that's featured on the compilation 'Love You Goodbye' turned out to be very prescient lyrically. Did you know at the time of its release that it was going to be your last single release on a major record label or had you already decided to retreat into the world of technology?

TD: "Actually, chronologically that was a cheat because ‘Silk Pyjamas’ came out afterwards, but as you pointed out, 'ILYGB' made for a more poignant closer. The song at the time had nothing whatever to do with saying goodbye to my fans! I didn’t plan to spend 12-years away, more like a year or two, but one thing led to another and I got wrapped up in Silicon Valley."

When did you start to realize that there were still people fascinated by Thomas Dolby via the emerging internet, and at what point did you begin to regain control over things via your website/blog/forum etc.

TD: "I always thought of myself as a fringe artist, and an acquired taste; only marginally commercial. When I listen to most of the other stuff out there, it’s clear I don’t fit in. Yet all the artists I admired as a kid were the same way, unmarketable and impossible to pigeonhole… Van Morrison, Frank Zappa, the Band, Joni Mitchell, Eno, Dan Hicks, Captain Beefheart, Robert Wyatt etc. As the Internet emerged it provided a way for rabid fans of those artists to converge and dissect their favourite music. I was pleased I was getting mentioned in those terms, and in a way the fact I disappeared made me a bit like one of those guys that died and just got bigger, like Nick Drake. As for the web site, I don’t think I do control it! I’m happy that my own domain is a hub of Dolby discussion, and that people are not scared to air their views. But they are mostly very respectful and mild-mannered."

**How did the whole remix for '… Submarines' come about? The 12 minute remix by minimal techno guru Ricardo Villalobos is a piece of modern electronic beauty. And there were others that had your seal of approval such as 'Afuken'.

TD: "It’s a natural fit. It made sense that younger guys like Richard Villabolos acknowledged that I’d been an influence on them, and BT whom I toured with. I never met him or even talked to him. ‘Submarines’ was really the perfect song to do it on though, because the stems are very good even in isolation."

What style and direction is your new album taking?

TD: "My new album covers quite a lot of different styles. It’s loosely divided into three parts, codenamed Americana, Urbania and Oceanea. When I left the UK in 1986 I sent a kind of postcard home in the form of Aliens Ate My Buick. Now I’ve returned it’s fitting I should send one back to the States. So that’s Americana. But it has little to do with cheerleaders and lemonade, it’s more like a low budget road movie. Urbania is quite dark, sophisticated, somewhat funky. Oceanea is ethereal— inspired by where I am living and recording, and how it feels to return home to my roots after all this time. Together they compile the album, and I think it will be quite a travelogue."