The complete conversation with Thomas Dolby about his first new album in nearly two decades, his green studio, his new video game and the future of music promotion and distribution ...
Q: Tell us about the environmental circumstances that lead to this new album. I've read about your innovative personal studio.
Thomas Dolby: I live out in the country. I live on the east coast, facing Holland and Germany, a very wild part of the island. I live in a village with 20 houses and no pub. My garden floods from time to time, so I have a vintage lifeboat where I have my studio in the garden. It's powered by solar panels and turbine on the roof. ... I've got a 360-degree view, with sea and marshes behind, migrating birds and these amazing, massive container ships that head off for the continent. People come and visit me, and they say, "Oh, I don't know how I'd get any work done just staring out at this view." And I say, "Well, that's me working." The knob-twiddling is the relatively easy part of it. It's the initial inspiration which takes the work. ... I don't know if you've ever seen container ships up close, but they look like the Manhattan skyline when the light is a certain way, so it's like a sort of archipelago of floating cities out there. Hence, the name for the album.
Q: Even your current press sheet still heralds you as "a 1980s star." Is that frustrating? Do you embrace that or are you trying to move past that?
TD: Yes, it's a little odd late at night when they have those Time-Life music compilation ads that come on -- you know, the names go by and actually every other one has a video. It's humiliating enough just to be listed on those, let alone if you're one of the names that didn't actually get a video. The way to rub that out is to have more hits, and that's what I intend to do.
Q: When you see those ads, do you think, "Hey, I know that guy. Wonder what he's got off to?"
TD: "Hey, I know the drummer from Styx!" [Laughs] No, not really. Unlike many of them I never broke up. I never had to go into rehab. I have a fairly legitimate reason for having disappeared for a couple of decades and that was that I switched careers altogether. I'm happy that I did that, and I'm very happy to be back. Because I haven't been pounding away at it all these years, coming back to it gives me a sort of fresh perspective, which is really nice. I know some of my contemporaries from that period have been out there sort of doing the rounds, doing the Rewind tours and the Vegas stints and things like that. I wouldn't touch that with a 10-foot pole. A lot of my favorite artists, you'd sort of have to stop and think what decade they really belong to because they've managed to transcend that. The way you do that is by continuing to do great work and not dwelling on the past, and so that's what I'm doing.
Q: You were an electronic musician early on, and you sang about science. So you seem to be pigeonholed as this futuristic music-maker. But I wouldn't call the "Floating City" a futuristic album at all, save maybe some of the lyrics.
TD: That's a reflection on the fact that when I started out you couldn't help but be called a pioneer because electronic music was quite rarified. Synthesizers were big and expensive and unreliable, and there was punk rock and there was more conventional rock, which ruled radio in the U.S., and so it was really quite contrarian to use synths -- and only a handful of us were stupid enough to try it, so that's why you think of me as a pioneer, really. Today there's a hundred thousand guys with better gear on their laptop than I had back then, but a lot of them are doing groove-based stuff, not songs. The difference with mine was they were always songs that I could've sat down and played you at the piano, and they had the songwriter's voice to them like my heroes -- like Van Morrison or Joni Mitchell or Dan Hicks or Fank Zappa. I was an individual; it just happened that my palette was electronic. But, I mean, nowadays there's no sense in just joining the clamor to do yet another groove-based tune at 120 beats-per-minute. What it comes down to is that not many people write great songs that have a story and a narrative and a sense of personality behind the vocal, so I'd rather be focused on that really -- on doing what I do uniquely.
Q: You've been a tech baron for two decades. So have these songs been percolating all that time?
TD: A couple of them have. The album title I've had for 10 or 12 years. I always wanted that to be my next album. I didn't intend it to take 10 or 12 years, but that was always the album title. Others just came about organically from moving back to the U.K. after 20-something years in the States, and getting settled into my home there and watching my family get settled in. You know, I grew up around there, but my kids had limited experience of England, so it was quite a big change for them. A lot of the songs just came and evolved kind of naturally from where I am. You listen to the song "Oceanea," and that's pretty much an anthem for me sitting there in the wheelhouse of my lifeboat staring out to sea.
Q: So what drew you back to record them and make a project of it?
TD: I just fancied it, really. I got kind of burned out on the business, and I realized something about myself, which is that my desire to be a businessman, to be an entrepreneur is pretty much limited to the early conception of that idea. If you should be so lucky that the idea reaches fruition and turns into a real business, then the nuts and bolts of running a proper business totally leave me cold. I have zero interest in them. With my company Beatnik in Silicon Valley, it took a lot longer than I'd originally anticipated for it to go either north or south -- we sort of trod water for quite a few years before we eventually became successful in the mobile phone industry -- but the whole dot-com era we were really just treading water, and as soon as we actually achieved some success then the engineers and the accountants became more important than the founder. So it was time for me to move on, and the natural place for me to go was back to my first love, which is music
Q: What lead you to chuck MTV and go for this business?
TD: I went to Silicon Valley in the early '90s. You know, the music industry was already starting to show its cracks and starting to come unraveled, in my opinion, whereas Silicon Valley is where the action was. There was suddenly this opportunity to persuade tech companies that music should be an important part of their forward thinking. Some of them were very skeptical. Some of them said, "We don't want sound on our computers 'cause it annoys the guy in the next cubicle while he's trying to crunch numbers in a spreadsheet, you know?" But some of them -- you know, Apple, music is absolutely central to Apple's business plan, and they're currently the most admired company in the world. So there was a great opportunity for me to go there and make a difference, and I thought of it as a two- or three-year sabbatical, but one thing lead to another and it turned into like 15 years. It was an interesting experience. Like riding a bike, you can hop right back on.
Q: A lot's changed about that bike since last time you rode it. What do you think of where the industry has gone?
TD: It's good news and bad news. The good news is I actually like where the industry has gone. That's a sort of an unusual point of view. Certainly if you talk to someone in a record company or a manager or whatever, they're wringing their hands. But from a musician's point of view or a fan's point of view, I think it's fantastic. I think it's way better than it was when I started, 'cause when you're 17 and you think you've got talent you believe that the world's going to hear your music an fall in love with you and you'll be a superstar overnight. That wasn't exactly true; as it turned out, the industry had to fall in love with you first -- marketing, A&R, radio promotion, etc., otherwise the public didn't get to listen and judge for itself. But today you can make a YouTube video in your pajamas on your laptop and you could actually be an overnight sensation. I mean, look at Jessie J. That's very empowering to those talented 17-year-olds, and I think that's got to be good for music.
Q: What specifically about the brave new world has you the most excited?
TD: For a start, that you can record anywhere. I could sit up all night and do a song here in my hotel room on my laptop, and it would have no technical disadvantage over something I did in an expensive studio. That changes the economics, because you used to require this upfront investment to get you in the game, and the only people stupid enough to do that was a record company. Who else would loan a musician money? But half a dozen of them owned the pressing plants and the fleets of trucks, so they pretty much had it sewn up, so there was only one way to go. Today, there's thousands of options. You can record it yourself and you can distribute it yourself, and though everybody moans about the dip in record sales what doesn't get mentioned so much is the enormous reduction in music cost -- the cost of making and promoting an album. For example, back in the day when I'd ask my record company what they were doing to promote my album they'd say, "Oh, Thomas, you're gonna love this. We got you the back page of Billboard." Or, "We got you a quarter page ad in Rolling Stone," or a 30-second TV ad or whatever. They had no idea who was watching this, who was responding to it. They couldn't measure the effectiveness of it. They would just sort of throw money at something in order to create a big noise. The goal was just to show off the fact that there was a budget behind an artist. Today, if I want to promote something, I can sit there with my monitor screen and I can target a Google ad or a Facebook ad to only highly qualified people. I can say, for example, OK, if you look at people's profiles that mention me, they also like Peter Gabriel. Well, cool, he's got 10 times as many followers as I do, so I'll just target Peter Gabriel fans that are not already Thomas Dolby fans, and I'll only pay if they click. I'll pay 8 cents. So then I get the bill for it, and for $800 I got thousands of very highly qualified fans, and I know the money was well spent. ... I'm not the guy to do this, but I think the sort of manager/promotion person of the future is going to sit there surrounded by monitors -- like a day trader -- going, "Wow, it's spiking in Chicago. Well, this is great 'cause Thomas is playing at Martyrs' next month. Let's spend a bit more money in Chicago. That, to me, is immensely gratifying because there's logic behind it, and that way you don't spend ahead of the revenue curve. You look where you're catching hold, where you're getting traction and you ... gauge the results in real time.
Q: You mentioned Martyrs'. Last time through Chicago, you performed there -- and then released it as an album and DVD. Why'd that show make the cut?
TD: It just happened to be one where we had good recording technology. ... I had a good recording of there, and if you remember I had various cameras on stage -- I had one on my head and I had others around the stage. We recorded all of those channels to hard drive, so we had multiple camera angles and a good recording. So that turned out to be the one to do.
Q: Tell us what you're doing when you come back -- it's a show? it's a concept lecture?
TD: This is not a concert tour, per se. This is actually a series of lectures about my game, "The Floating City." The album has three sections, and they're named after three continents: Amerikana, Urbanoia and Oceanea. Each one of them has quite a distinctive flavor. I released "Amerikana" to fans only as an EP, and I released "Oceanea" as a commercial EP. My plan was to do a third EP, but people started saying to me, "Well, I hope I get the album for free after buying three EPs." I realized it would be a little tough for people who couldn't wait.
Q: Why add the component of a video game?
TD: People aren't buying CDs these days. They're spending a lot of time playing video games and on social networks and so on. So I thought, "Well, that's really the hot medium right now, so maybe I could do something in that area that ticks all the boxes. I'm not really a gamer myself. I think the last game I played from start to finish was Myst in the late '90s. Myst, I really liked. It wasn't ... a shoot 'em up; it was very solitary. You were wandering alone around this gorgeous empty space. But today's metaphor is all about socialization, so I thought: What if you had an exploration game along those lines but built around text, around communication and collaboration, little notes and friends and liking and disliking -- all of the stuff that we've gotten used to on social networks> So I came up with this idea for the "Floating City" game. It really combines all the fictional characters and places and objects from my catalog going back to the beginning through to the new album. The first thing I did was I listed all of them, and put them in a giant database. I worked with an experienced alternate-reality game designer, Andrea Phillips, and we came up with a sort of trading cards metaphor for the gameplay. There's a backstory to it, which is basically that there's been this terrible planetary climate catastrophe, and we've all been ... stranded on the northernmost coasts of these three continents, with an ocean in between, and it's getting hotter. So the only way for them to survive is to push out into the ocean using the abandoned hulls of vessels and container ships and rafting up one to another until eventually the three continents converge in the middle in what turns out used to be the North Pole. It becomes this sort of strange barter society. The economist Steven Levitt saw it and said it's like a cross between Freakonomics and Burning Man. They trade the items in their cargo and complete sets, which earn them free downloads of mp3s, and they do this in nine tribes. It's not about individual points, but the tribes are competing. Or if they want to form alliances and collaborations, they can do that. The winning tribe gets a free private concert by me and my band, in which we'll perform the album "The Floating City" in its entirety.
Q: Were songs then written especially for the game?
TD: One of the songs I wrote fairly recently as a sort of anthem for the game, and that's called "Spice Train." It makes references to things that happen in the game. Oddly enough, because the game is composed of items from my songs -- it's kind of weird if you go back and listen to an old song, 'cause your ears keep pricking up. You hear these objects that you need in your cargo.
Q: Is this steampunk?
TD: It's a little bit beyond steampunk because it doesn't have that sort of Victorian thing. I kind of imagine it set in a sort of dystopian 1940s, so it's maybe more dieselpunk."
Q: You roped in some fine guest musicians on the record, like Mark Knopfler.
TD: I didn't know Mark prior to this. When I wrote the song "17 Hills," someone pointed out to me that it was a very American sort of narrative, like a folk narrative feel to it, but that my voice was clearly very English, and did that remind me of [Knopfler's] "Sailing to Philadelphia." I thought about it, and I thought actually that's quite impressive that Mark Knopfler is able to tell American stories but is clearly an outsider. I thought American stories, folk stories, have traditionally been passed from one traveler to another as they sat around the campfire. During my time in the U.S., I was just one more traveler, so I have sort of as much right to an American folk tale as anyone else.
Q: Regina Spektor turns in a flamboyant performance, too.
TD: You may know, I'm the musical director of TED. Regina played there a couple of years ago, and we stayed in touch. I mentioned to her I had this song, "Evil Twin Brother," which mentions an East European or Russian waitress in a diner on 14th Street at 3 o'clock in the morning, whom I end up following to a sort of eurotrash nightclub and dancing my ass off. That's basically what the song's about. I kind of wanted someone to be the voice of Yalena, who's the Russian waitress, and Regina was kind enough to oblige. Her Russian's quite good though she left when she was quite young.