In October, Thomas Dolby put out A Map Of The Floating City, his first studio album in 20 years. But the ’80s music icon, who gave the world (and MTV) one of its quirkier hits in “She Blinded Me With Science,” an infectious slice of ’80s synth pop, had hardly been sitting around playing Ms. Pac-Man.
Instead, he put his considerable intellect to task, investigating new technologies, and helping to birth the modern ring tone. We spoke to Dolby about creating The Floating City, a concept album starring guests like Mark Knopfler and Regina Spektor, his signature song, and the fate of the music video.
Can you tell us about the concept behind A Map Of The Floating City?
Four years ago, I moved my family back to England from California. A lot of that was because of schools, and because I thought it was time to get back to my roots. So now I’m living on the east coast of England with my wife and three kids. It’s a beautiful part of the world, but it’s basically doomed to be swallowed up by the North Sea sooner or later, hopefully not in my lifetime. I recorded the album on a solar-powered lifeboat from the 1930s.
“17 Hills” is bit of a road movie epic and features Mark Knopfler. So, I recognize that I’m an outsider, hence the “k” in “Amerikana.” “Urbanoia” is really about cities, I have a complicated relationship with cities really. I get a buzz from being in a city, I especially like them in the early hours of the morning when there’s no one around. But after a couple days, I long for the tranquility of the countryside because where I live now is really the edge of the world.
There’s a song called “Evil Twin Brother” which is sort of about what happens when it’s too hot to sleep, and you’re jet-lagged, and your mind starts to play tricks with you. It’s sort of a fantasy about taking a wander, and finding an all-night diner, and chatting to an Eastern European waitress. It’s played on the album by Regina Spektor. Ending up in a club that’s pumping out Euro-trash trance music, getting dragged out on the dance floor, and the rest is sort of a blur. And “Oceanea”, the final section, is really about my homecoming to what I consider my spiritual home here in England, watching my kids take all that in. My mother’s family was from around here, and she never got to meet my kids, but I kind of imagine her spirit looking on approvingly as we bring up our kids back here in our home country. That’s what “Oceanea” is about. So, on the song ”Oceanea” when Eddi Reader comes in and sings with us, the first time she opens her mouth, it amazed me because it was like the voice of my mom.
How long did you spend writing these songs?
The whole lot of them took me about three years. But, that included sort of building the lifeboat. Some of the ideas I had accrued over the years when I wasn’t doing much music. There’s a song called “Love Is A Loaded Pistol,” which I had a piano refrain for years, but never had a lyric. One night, I sort of fell asleep on the lifeboat and had a strange dream that Billie Holiday came to visit me. It’s one of those lucid moments where you think, “Wow, this is pretty cool. What sort of wisdom is she going to bring me from the past?” It also occurred to me that she must have gone missing sometime in 1947, and traveled through time. But, she sat next to me on the piano stool and said, “I’ve got a song for you, baby”. I said, “Great, what is it?” She said, “This time, it’s love.” And I go, “It’s a little bit corny, isn’t it? Billie, Billie, come back… ” But, I ended up writing a lyric to go with the piano refrain that I had, and it turned into a song.
Are there any songs on there that you think are immediately catchy as “She Blinded Me With Science?”
“Spice Train” has a lot in common with “She Blinded Me With Science.” It’s got quite a funky beat, a slight oriental, exotic flavor to some of the streamlined songs. It’s getting some radio play now in the states. A few of them are playing “Spice Train,” but there are other songs on the album, like “Road to Reno,” which are maybe more powerful for the radio programmers. If we had let them get away with that in 1982, they may have released a different song off my first album, and I might have sort of vaguely scratched the surface of the charts, but I wouldn’t have had a top five hit. Once you push past that resistance that radio has, a song like “Blinded Me With Science,” people start requesting it because it sticks out on the radio. I hope it gets to that point with “Spice Train” but I’m concerned that these days, the radio is too sort of homogenized.
20 years is a long time to be away. Did you miss being in the music world?
Not really, no. Not if I aimed carefully. In the early ’90s when I stepped away from it, my plan was to take a couple years sabbatical. Mainly because it was a bad time for the music industry. It was sort of depressed, the writing was on the wall, digital downloads were starting to be a concern. The record companies were trying to put the brakes on it, and dig their heels in with litigation. Conversely, companies were forging ahead and trying to accelerate it. I wanted to go where the action was. I was lucky enough to get a grant to explore new ways to use music on computers in interactive environments, and so on. That seemed like a nice thing to charge up my creative juices.
One thing led to another and I ended up forming a start-up company there. For several years, we made some really fascinating, stuff that made absolutely no money at all. At the end of the decade, we backed into a situation where we had made this tiny synthesizer, BeatNik, which was designed to load very quickly over the web, which happened to be exactly what Nokia needed to do polyphonic ringtones. Our whole business became mobile phones, and it became very successful. And in fact, since then, most of the other manufactures also licensed BeatNik, and it shipped to about three million phones. I got sucked into this, and it was never really my intention to be away from music for so long.
Do you think the ’80s were a good decade for music? That’s when a lot of great artist from the ’60s and ’70s started putting out bad albums. But there was a lot of great music from the bands who got their start in the ’80s.
I’ve heard somebody else say that, that people that had done good records in previous occasions started putting out bad records in the ’80s. I don’t know, I think there was a wide variety of different approaches. There was a very colorful brocade of different musical styles. It went through a lot of different translations quite quickly. It started out being very guitar-driven, guitar and drums. The influence of electronics kind of waxed its way through the course of a year. When I started, electronics were sneered at somewhat as being sort of cold and clinical. I felt like I was fighting that sometimes. I made sure that my arrangements were very lush and orchestral. I think there were a lot more unusual and adventurous records released in that decade and probably the ’90s. Certainly, there wasn’t a sort of light on the decade the way there was in the ’70s. Not that there weren’t some brilliant records, but it was a bit of an epidemic.
Do you hear a pretty large ’80s influence in today’s music?
It’s hard to say really. I think it comes and goes. Certainly teenagers and people in their 20s are the most rapid and active music-buying audience, consuming audience. They were too young to remember the ’80s the first time around. There seems to be this quest to get back to the source among young people. They seem to have a desire for authenticity and people taking an ecological approach to it. Until recently, that activity…you talk about the Delta Blues, Eric Clapton, and Led Zeppelin. The ’80s weren’t viewed as something that had its own musical heritage, but I think that’s starting to change. I gave a Lifetime Achievement Award to Gary Numan recently at MOJO, which is one of the most classic rock supporting papers in the UK. It was kind of significant that ’80s electronic music was starting to show up on their radar as something deserving a lifetime achievement.
Are you liking where things are going in the music industry?
I’m loving where things are going, actually. The headlines are going to tell you that record sales are down, but what they don’t say is that the costs have actually been slashed. A. You can make an album in your backroom on your laptop. B. You can distribute it all around the world, almost for free, before you decide to pull the trigger on spending money on a promotion. C. When you do, instead of doing it at a random, buying the back page of Billboard, or a series of 30 seconds in commercial TV ads, where you really have no idea who is going to come out of the woodwork, or whether next time they’re in Tower Records, they’re going to remember to go to the “D” isle.
These days you can be laser accurate with your marketing efforts, so that the people you’re reaching out to are highly qualified. I can see on Facebook that there are 27,000 Peter Gabriel fans that have named me in their profile as another artist they like, but are not currently visiting my Facebook page. I can type it directly with an ad that I only pay for if they click. For a few hundred dollars, I’m getting some highly, highly qualified visitors. I feel a lot better about spending that kind of money than blowing your entire marketing budget on the back page of a magazine, where maybe only 1% of the people are interested. The broad picture is the music industry has the chance to be more profitable than ever, given the lower cost of goods sold. Obviously, it’s not healthy to be working for a record label because there’s less and less reason for them to be there, in the middle. Having said that, I’m more business savvy than most musicians. I think logically because of the time I’ve spent running a company. So, I’m rather excited about being able to do most of it myself. Most musicians wouldn’t want to do that, don’t have the skills, or whatever. So, there still is need for intermediary, but I think the middle man of the future is going to look more like a day trader. Analyzing stats in real time, different geographical areas, different consumer graphics, and only spending money when there is a direct return on investment. The need for a new generation of people like that, I don’t know whether they’re managers or marketing, gurus or what, but there’s going to be a new industry going forth. It’s going to look very different than professional record companies.
Does it bother you what MTV has become?
I care that they don’t have videos. Yeah, I think that’s a big shame. It was great for me because I wasn’t getting a lot of radio time with my first album. It became successful for two reasons. One, because urban dance clubs started to see DJs sort of spinning in European records into their mixes. “Science” started getting played in the clubs as well. That was one piece, and the other piece was that MTV picked up on the video and played it to death, right about the time when MTV was at its most influential. Hip people were staying home on a Saturday night to stay in and watch videos instead of going to clubs and gigs. Radio had to take notice of what MTV was playing, so that’s how I finally pushed past the hump of radio. Hopefully, that will happen again.