Thomas Dolby returns to music after 20-year detour


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Thomas Dolby has just returned from something of a vacation from music -- one that has lasted nearly 20 years. The British rocker, one of the early stars born of MTV’s music video revolution, says the respite has been just the ticket he needed to gets his songwriting juices flowing again.

“You know what they say about how your first album you’re drawing on 20 years of life experience, and the second you’re drawing on six months?” he said from San Francisco during a stop on a brief tour that brings him to, of all places, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Friday, Oct. 14, where he’ll celebrate his 53rd birthday with an appearance that’s part musical performance, part interactive multimedia lecture. The five-time Grammy nominee will extend his stay in L.A. for a question-answer-performance session, followed by an audience meet-and-greet, at the Grammy Museum downtown on Monday night.


“For me, I’ve had 20 years of life experience to draw from for this album,” he said, referring to “A Map of the Floating City,” which arrives on Oct. 25, with a characteristically diverse batch of songs spanning the insistent dance-floor techno-pop of “Spice Train (Radio Edit)” to the American roots-influenced “Road to Reno” (featuring guitarist Mark Knopfler), from the sultry bossa nova pulse of “Simone” to the moody and spare, cabaret-ready ballad “Love Is a Loaded Pistol.”

“I feel a bit like Austin Powers, waking up from a cryogenic sleep,” he said with a chuckle. “But I feel very fresh in an odd way, I feel better-equipped to deal with [the music business] now that I’m not subject to the whims of a major record label.

“One thing I like about today is that when I write a song, I’m writing it for me and my audience. I’m not thinking about ‘Can I get a cassette to the A&R man?’ or ‘Will the promotion department make me their priority this week?’ All those hurdles from the old days are gone,” he said, “and that’s a very liberating thing.”

Dolby has been at the center of new forms of media since he first broke onto the pop scene with his 1983 hit “She Blinded Me With Science.”

He was still making records and touring at the dawn of the Internet revolution in the early 1990s, when he packed in the music and decided to focus on his fascination with new technologies. That resulted in his Silicon Valley-based start-up company Beatnik, which created a ring-tone synthesizer that has since been adopted by major cellphone companies and installed in some 3 billion phones worldwide. (“We didn’t make the ringtones themselves,” he added hastily. “That’s something you can blame on somebody else.”)

“When I went to Silicon Valley, it was never supposed to be a 20-year cycle,” he said, laughing. “More like two years at the outside. But I brought my family up and we trod a hard path for a while. Then the company spiked and became very successful.”


After Beatnik became an industry-leading force, Dolby retired.

“I love exploring new things,” he said. “Once something becomes mature, it loses interest for me.”

So he began delving into developing computer software exploiting the new age of interactivity, video games and social networking, creating the web-based “Floating City” game that is closely linked with his new album and tour.

Instead of simply releasing a new album, he integrated new songs into the game, alongside material from what he refers to as “Phase One” of his musical career.

On the tour, he said, the audience is split nearly evenly between longtime fans of his music and new followers who’ve come to his camp through the video game, which was created with the assistance of ardent gamers around the world he met through social networking. (The current tour consists of a small handful of stops, but Dolby said he’d be back in 2012 with a full band for a more extensive tour of theaters and festivals.)

“People aren’t buying albums these days; they’re buying games and going on social networks. So I thought, ‘Why do I have to restrict this to an album?’ As always has been the case with me, I’m at my most creative when I don’t know what I’m doing…. I get a charge out of floundering around trying to figure out how to make something work for me.”

Nevertheless, he says, old-school music fans should be able to connect with the CD on its own merits.

“You can enjoy the album without having to buy into the game,” he said. “The album itself has a wide spectrum of idioms on it. That’s something I’ve always liked to do. I’ve always drawn from different sources. I’ve always been envious of novelists who get to set each work in a different time in history, a different geographical location and use different characters. In each new work they can start out thinking ‘I wonder where this is going to be set?’ People like to pigeonhole musicians, but that’s always been uncomfortable for me. I like a sense of adventure in my music.”


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-- Randy Lewis