An Interview with Thomas Dolby - From Airwaves to Tubular Stage

Kevin Keating
Thomas Dolby (Photo: Felipe Goncalves)
Thomas Dolby (Photo: Felipe Goncalves)

Eighties pop fans can rejoice with the upcoming Totally Tubular Festival hitting the Fox Theater on June 30th. The line-up consists of eight of the best 80's pop stars of the time including: Tommy Tutone, Bow Wow Wow, The Tubes, The Plimsouls' Eddie Munoz, Men Without Hats, Modern English, Thompson Twins' Tom Bailey, and anchoring the show, the legendary synth-pop pioneer himself, Thomas Dolby. The show starts at 5:30pm, so be sure to get to the Fox earlier than a typical night! 

Tickets are still available at the time of this posting - click here for ticket info.

For those of you not already familiar with Thomas Dolby, he was a maverick synth-pop musician with breakout hits such as "She Blinded Me with Science" and "Hyperactive!" but also worked with a who's who across the industry before shifting focus to a music technology start-up entrepreneur by forming the company Beatnik in the '90's. He's since pivoted his career again, and is now a professor at Johns Hopkins University's Peabody Institute and leads the Music for New Media program. I had the chance to work for Thomas early in my career at Beatnik and he graciously accepted my request for an interview to talk about the upcoming tour and much more! You can find our full interview below and I hope to see you at the show on the 30th!

SFBayAreaConcerts: Hello Thomas! Thanks for making the time to speak with us today. We're looking forward to the Totally Tubular Festival at the Fox Theater in Oakland on Sunday, June 30th! Let me start off with asking you how this all came together?

Thomas Dolby: Hello there. Yes, I was approached around about Christmas. At that point, the concept was going to be the Human League, Tom Bailey and myself. And it sort of mushroomed, and then the Human League dropped out. The organizers felt that I'd be a suitable person to close the show. I never split up, I'm not like a legacy, you know, the one survivor of the original lineup, and never been out of rehab. And I don't tour very much, so the sense was they could sort of present me as the gem of the show. And, I mean, I couldn't say no to an offer like that. They kept adding dates and it's ended up being quite an extensive tour, like the busiest tour I've done for years. 

SFBAC: And as the line-up grew from that original plan of the Human League, Tom Bailey and yourself, did you have any influence with the organizers on the other acts who eventually joined the tour?

Thomas Dolby: Zero. I mean, with some I've crossed paths with before, I sort of lose count, really. You do festivals and people are around and you talk to them or you don't. Tom Bailey is an old friend, modern English I've known on and off through the years. 

SFBAC: What can fans expect and do you anticipate the possibility of any guest performances with anyone sharing the bill?

Thomas Dolby: Yeah, we're trying to generate some crossover moments. It's a long day though. So it's a little bit hard to ask somebody to stick around for three hours to come on and guest on a different song. I'm playing solo, I'm doing a sort of 35-40 minute set. So it'll be mostly songs that people know, not deep cuts from the album, per se. And yeah, a lot of video projection -- I work pretty hard on videos that actually mean something. And I try and do as much as I can without too much sequence stuff. I don't have tapes or anything like that. But some songs I'll loop and layer them and build them up and then sing on top of them. And what I do is up on the screen for the audience to see, so they can follow along a little bit. 

SFBAC: Are you working on any new arrangements or new versions of any of your classic hits?

Thomas Dolby: You know, they're all new new renditions. They'll be recognizable. It's nice to freshen things up a little bit. My criteria really is what's exciting to play. I've got a lot of different controllers, buttons, sliders, keyboards and things. And if it works ergonomically, if I can sort of groove while I'm doing it, then that's good. If something is too complicated to play or too didactic to listen to, then I sort of chop it out.

SFBAC: We're about a week or so away from the tour kicking off. I'm assuming rehearsals have started? How much time goes into putting something like this together?

Thomas Dolby: Oh, yeah. I'm off to L.A. in midweek. So yeah, I've been I've been working on this for a while, in a lot of cases making some new videos and new arrangements and mixes of the songs. And then as well as the Totally Tubular Tour, Tom Bailey and I are doing a couple of shows with just the two of us where I'll get a little bit more time and I can I can delve into some deeper cuts. 

SFBAC: With a catalog as extensive as yours, how do you determine the setlist for the tour?

Thomas Dolby: Well, they gave me a time budget early on. And, I wanted to do the best known songs. This is not exclusively my crowd. There'll be some of those guys there, but there'll also be people who generally remember the 80s. And so they probably may not own one of my records. They may be aware of what got played on the radio and nothing much more. 

SFBAC: So I have to ask, is this tour a precursor to new music? Are you working on anything new we might expect to hear soon?

Thomas Dolby: Not really. I've got nothing in the pipeline currently. You know, I've been teaching full time and writing a novel. And so I've had my hands full. At some point in the future. I've never been one to adhere too closely to any schedules or anything like that. And these days, if you don't put something out every two years they say you've sort of disappeared and are trying to make a comeback. So it's like decades of a gap go by between my records and that's OK. It's like it's a case of quality over quantity. 

SFBAC: It's been several years since you've toured, and certainly a while since you've been on a tour of this scale across the U.S. Do you enjoy it?

Thomas Dolby: I don't do it all that much. Well, I mean, it's a lot easier these days than it used to be with communication, the Internet, luxury tour buses, et cetera. Flying is harder. I don't fly. I don't really fly. I have a tour bus that's parked out the back. And at some point during the night, it'll get rolling and you wake up the next day outside the next venue. Then you have a few hours to chill and then you have to pack a day's worth of energy into a few hours in the evening. So your metabolism sort of shifts. 

The flip side is it's kind of a cushy, insulated lifestyle. You don't have to worry about opening water bills and taking your laundry down to the dry cleaner. There's a lot of things about real life that you can have your head in the sand and just live in this bubble. So I think it's actually easier for people to just continue that ad infinitum sometimes, than it is for them to come down to earth with a bump. 

But no, I mean, I like it. I think the moment of getting face to face with your audience is a really special one, you know? I'm not a particularly... I'm a fairly insular, sort of quiet person, but I have this, streak in me that likes to get out there and dance around in the spotlight. It's a thin streak of exhibitionism, but it's quite special. And I think meeting people, signing stuff is always rewarding. 

SFBAC: As a professor now, teaching is a bit of a performance, isn't it?

Thomas Dolby: Yeah, I mean, it's... every lesson is like a performance. I like it to be perfect. I don't like to do things unless I really know what I'm doing. And it's intimidating being a university professor because I left school at 16. These kids are already way more educated than I ever was. The flip side is I've got something to offer them that the other teachers don't. 

SFBAC: I know you won't have much time to spend outside of your show at the Fox in Oakland on the 30th, but are you looking forward to being back in the Bay Area? Anything in particular you miss from your time living here?

Thomas Dolby: Yeah, I loved living in the Bay Area. I think at this point in my life, my kids who all grew up in California are now all based in the UK. We only get to see them when we go back. So we still have a house there. And usually this time of year, I'm over there, but I'm not this year because of the tour. 

There's a lot that I miss. There's a TV commercial that's supposed to be a bunch of guys out mountain biking, and it's probably supposed to look like they're in Colorado or something. But it's actually just off the 280 looking up at the hills over to Half Moon Bay with that cloud that comes over in the summer, and that my kids used to call Mama's Cloud. When I see that, I get a little pang of, you know, missing Half Moon Bay where I used to live and the coastline and so on. 

I drove up from Santa Cruz a couple of months ago and was amazed by the way that the storms and the fires had really ravaged the coast. It looked quite different. But yeah, there's a lot that I miss. The culture in San Francisco and so on. But, I think that I lived in the Bay Area in one of its golden eras. I think a lot of people complain now about the city and about the state of things. And, I think it was a very sort of peaky time at the end of the of the 90s and the turn of the century with all the dot com stuff that was going on and so on.

SFBAC: That actually segues into one of my next questions related to your old start-up Beatnik that was based out here in San Mateo. You've always been on the forefront of audio technology and was wondering if you could share your thoughts on spatial audio and where you see audio and music going in the future with respect to advances in AI.

Thomas Dolby: Well, spatial audio first. Occasionally you'll see an installation in an art gallery or something, where they've done stuff with spatial audio. And you're at liberty to wander around and experience the dimensionality of audio coming from multiple sources. But as far as recorded audio, I've never bought into it. You know, there's no system. Every few years somebody will say, 'oh, but you've got to listen to this new spatial audio system.' And I go, 'okay.' And I give it a listen. It's like, nah, not really. 

I kind of think that the essence of music... I think Paul McCartney listens to stuff on one speaker and often goes in the other room to listen to it because the essence of the song is either there or it isn't, and you can kid yourself into thinking where you can excite your ears by placing stuff around you. But the essence of the song has to be there. I've always felt that two speakers, sat between two speakers, I can create a very three dimensional perspective to sound. When there are multi speaker systems, the problem is there's usually only one sweet spot, and you can never guarantee that the audience is going to hear it the way you intended it. So there's that. I've just never really bought into it. 

Probably the most convinced I ever was, was when I had an HRTF test. Everybody's skulls are actually built differently. And you have a prescription, basically, for your hearing the same way as you do for your eyes. And if you have that prescription, and you have that algorithm plugged into spatial audio, then it starts to work in ways that it doesn't when somebody just puts some headphones on your head and says, 'it's amazing, you can hear these scissors going all the way around your head.' That's never really done it for me. 

I think that possibly in the future, there will be smart earpieces that we'll all have. That do a lot of different things. They'll speak your directions, they'll translate for you, they'll tell you your health status, they'll tell you where to find the nearest restaurant, and they will isolate sound for you in a noisy restaurant. So you can hear the conversation across the table. 

And, they'll be cool to have, like designer earpieces. We have designer specs now, may in fact, go to spec savers or some chain and sit down and get scanned, and get a sound prescription and then come up with your Bose or whatever it is, earpieces. And it'll be a cool thing to have. I can see that happening in the next five or 10 years. 

As far as the future of audio, one of the things that I think we were experimenting with and exploring at Beatnik was the fact that, up till the 90s, consumers had sound delivered to them in a linear form, it had been recorded and mixed in a studio, and designed to play back on a pair of speakers, in a rigid way. But what started happening, and I think especially this came in with video games and VR, and then the internet, was that the individual components of music and sound, which we juggle in the studio, were being delivered to the end user, still juggled, and then sort of decoded based on what the user was doing. 

The whole concept with Beatnik was, well, that's an exciting thing from a sound and composing standpoint, because we can actually tailor the sound based on what the user is experiencing, rather than saying, this is it, it's rigid, it's linear, this is the way, it's this or nothing. And that was especially appropriate for the internet, where you didn't have fast download speeds, you remember, in the early 90s. 

Streaming audio is very poor quality and video and stuff. And everybody was struggling with bandwidth and modems and things like that. So I came up with the idea that actually delivering, the components of music first, and then, a description of them via HTML or whatever, was sort of like the web itself. You don't send somebody a big PDF of a file, you send them hypertext with different graphics, and a description of the language, and that's more efficient to send over the internet. 

So that was the basic concept behind Beatnik. And millions of people were interested in it, millions of people downloaded the plugin, and we had great parties and trade show events and things like that. And made $0 billion, as you recall, until Nokia came along. And by accident, the synthesizer engine that we created was exactly what Nokia needed to do polyphonic ringtones in their phones. 

Beatnik had another half decade of life sort of based on that windfall. And eventually, that went away as well. And ironically, it was replaced by low quality, linear audio, because people were playing snippets of mp3 files on their little tiny speakers, instead of using our custom made synthesizer in real time. 

That was the, sort of, appropriate end to that arc of my life story. 

SFBAC: I remember it all too well Thomas. What about the impact of AI on music?

Thomas Dolby: Yeah. This is especially relevant, because, I've got students... I mean, they can already, AI can write their essay in five minutes. And they can take or leave that. And there's very few ways for us to detect it, really. And it's not wrong, you know? Sometimes it's not quite right. 

But if they actually want to learn anything, while they're at college, they need to make a different choice. It's not like we can ban them from using it, it's going to be there when they get out in the workforce. And it's going to be an option for them to use those kind of tools. So it's more about, well, how do you make those choices? And where do you draw the line between what you do yourself, what you have automated?

I think with music, we're right on the verge of them being able to submit musical assignments that AI has created, we're pretty much there. Probably in the fall, when we go back... It's moving so fast, I'm going to start to get assignments submitted that were composed by AI. So at that point, the interesting thing becomes, well, how do you instill in your students, the sense that if you ever want to be an individual, if you ever want to rise above the mediocrity of all of that content out there, you're going to have to figure out a way to use your imagination and your creativity and work with limited resources rather than, infinite resources, and come up with something that really expresses who you are, and really stands out from the crowd.

People get depressed about AI. For me, when I started out with music, I listened to a lot of pop music. And I thought a lot of this is really mediocre. My challenge is to do something that stands head and shoulders above that. And I think it's carrying on doing that. If I do music again, I'm going to try and make music that no AI could possibly have created, and the engineers will say, 'oh, it's only a matter of time in the next rev, we'll have assimilated that too, and we'll be able to make a quirky sounding new Dolby record that's better than anything you could do.' Well, artists fighting that kind of negativity is what being an artist is about, right? So I try and get my students excited about that. 

I do think that on the positive side, there are a lot of left brain tasks that you have to do as a musician, that I'd love to offload to AI. For example, my students use computers to create orchestral film scores. There are some gorgeous sounding libraries where they've carefully recorded the Berlin Symphony, playing every note in the scale and every articulation and so on. They're capable of putting together incredible sounding faux orchestral scores. Some of the stuff that you hear on prestige TV is exactly that. It's not only cheaper than doing it with a real orchestra, it's actually become in vogue that sound, and that's what directors want to hear. 

They don't really want the sound of a real orchestra. But to make it sound that good involves doing the same 100, 500,000 little tasks, where you have to tweak it and make it sound more human. And you have to have very good ears to know what a human sounds like in order to get a machine to simulate that very well. 

Over time, I think AI could learn those hundred or thousand things that I do, and do them for me. That's like having a great assistant, a talented assistant that knows your work so well that you can go make a few phone calls while they do those annoying little tasks for you and you come back and it sounds like music, which is sort of what Hans Zimmer does, you know?

I would welcome AI that gives me that kind of power, and the tools that I have. So I think of a lot of possibilities like that, they're not about replacing humans, they're about enhancing human endeavour.

SFBAC: It's hard to fathom how AI will impact our lives in the future. Getting back to what else has been keeping you busy... You're a musician, technology entrepreneur, college professor, and now an author of a new fictional novel? Tell me about Prevailing Wind (Amazon), due out on June 25th -- coincidentally, the first day of your tour!

Thomas Dolby: It's historical fiction. Since I was a kid, I've had a love of classic sailboats. And I'm particularly into the era, just after the turn of the century, where the yachts were enormous. They were owned by robber barons and factory owners, railroad tycoons, a lot of them at the New York Yacht Club or the Royal Yacht Squadron in the UK. And you had the America's Cup when they come together and contest this. But these yachts, which were seven stories tall, took 30-35 men to sail them. 

These wouldn't be just other New York Yacht Club members with their soft hands. They went to Deer Isle, Maine, and they recruited hardened lobster men, who already had leathery hands, and who were cheap, especially when the fishing was bad. And they worked together great as a team. 

But best of all, at night, they would lay in their hammocks and read their Bibles, instead of going out drinking. So it's really ideal to design a ship, a yacht that needed 35 or 40 men to man it, and then go to Deer Isle, Maine to get them. So I thought this was a splendid opportunity to examine the huge chasm between wealth and poverty in those days. 

The New York Yacht Club collectively had more wealth and power than the US government and Treasury,  in 1910, pre-war, and they weren't paying any income tax. Yet a lot of their factory workers, their railroad workers, would just work in really poor conditions. There were some terrible catastrophes, like the Triangle Shirt Fire, and owners pushing back on workers like the Ludlow Massacre, and so on. 

And the suffragettes were coming to the fore. And it was this turbulent political time. There was this real struggle going on between the workers, the millions of immigrants in the US, going into the workforce, trying to get organized and unionized, and the rich, powerful guys pushing back, with all of their influence. 

The fact that their pastime, their favorite pastime was racing these enormous, gorgeous yachts, and manning them with poor people from lobster fishing ports. I just thought this is just a splendid setting really for a story. You don't have to be into sailing... The sailing in it is very painstakingly researched. It's very authentic. But it's a universal story as well. And my protagonist is a kid from Maine, whose way out of poverty is to get hired on one of these yachts. 

But he sees the sort of seamy underbelly of the New York Yacht Club. 

SFBAC: Sounds fun and I'm looking forward to reading it! One of my biggest regrets when I worked for you at Beatnik was not asking you about all of the artists that you've worked with over your career. When I read your memoir, The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology: A Memoir (Amazon), I was surprised to read about your time with Michael Jackson! And separately, I'd always wanted to ask you about the performance with Pink Floyd's Roger Waters on his The Wall: Live In Berlin concert.

Thomas Dolby: Yeah, Michael, I hung out with a couple of times, but never actually worked with him. He was very keen for me to write demos to send him. And of course, that's like a potential windfall of a lifetime. So I would go away and stay up for nights on end making demos for him and then not hear anything. But I had some interesting experiences with him, none of which were particularly creepy or sinister or anything like that. I think he was a naive music lover, dance lover, and took his art very seriously. I took with a grain of salt, all the sort of negative stuff about him. He's certainly, an odd guy, very isolated, a product of, what we in society projected onto him. 

Roger was an interesting cat. The biggest control freak I'd ever met, to the point where I couldn't do just any Glaswegian accent, when I was hanging from the wall, 60 feet up and screaming at the top of my voice, it had to be a particular neighborhood of Glasgow. And, I'm thinking, Roger, haven't you got a lot of other stuff to worry about with this whole Wall thing without worrying about the nuances of my fake Glaswegian accent? But no, he had to control every, every aspect of that, and was constantly dissatisfied with it. And I thought, okay, this is a guy whose biggest nightmare would be the idea that suddenly all the power goes down, and he's left there standing on the stage, just with a microphone... and sure enough, three songs in to The Wall, in front of 350,000 people, and on live satellite TV, power goes down, and he's left standing there with a mic. A song and a half later, it all came back on, and we had to pick up at the same point in the clock, because it was all... And so the end, as he took his final bow, he said, 'by the way, don't go anywhere, we're gonna have to re-record the second and third songs so that we can slot them into the DVD.' 

So the audience stuck around and they redid those songs, which they're quite happy about. But no, I mean, he's an interesting cat. 

I just found out I'm related to Syd Barrett, by the way. 

SFBAC: What? Are you kidding?

Thomas Dolby: Yeah, I'm like, I'm a third cousin of Syd Barrett. My brother, who's a much bigger Floyd fan than I am was absolutely delighted with that. But yeah.

SFBAC: That's amazing. It's such a shame about Syd's trajectory with The Floyd and how it all transpired.

Thomas Dolby: It is a tragic story. Yeah. If we share any genes, hopefully it's the musical ones and not the others.

SFBAC: Well, that's an amazing way to close off the interview Thomas. Thanks so much for making the time and best of luck on the tour! We'll see you at the Fox Theater in Oakland on June 30th!

Thomas Dolby: Take care. Thanks very much.

#buttons=(Ok, Go it!) #days=(20)

Our website uses cookies to enhance your experience. Check Now
Ok, Go it!