Thomas Dolby Interview

Photo Credit: York Tillyer

If someone were to describe Thomas Dolby in one word, one might think of creator. Creator of music, genius collaborations, synthesizers, ring tones, a refurbished life boat, and a game to name a few. We were lucky enough to score a phone interview with 2012’s Moog Innovation Award recipient, Thomas Dolby. Fans and soon to be fans read on to find out more about one of Moogfest’s legendary performers. You can catch his show at Moogfest on Saturday October 27th at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.

I understand that you have a very loyal group of fans. How do you keep these fans engaged while bringing in new listeners?

That’s a really good question because I was away for nearly twenty years doing other things. It’s quite amusing when I read online about someone making a big comeback after two years… try twenty. So I’m grateful that anyone is still around that, you know, remembers my music from the first time around and is neither dead nor in jail. The challenge, of course, is appealing to a younger audience. There’s so many choices now for them, and why would they be interested in somebody that their older brothers and sisters and maybe their parents listened to, so that’s really the challenge. I’m delighted to say that my gigs have quite a cross section of ages and a wide spectrum of different types of people there.

Radiohead’s music spans several generations of listeners, and you recently entered a remix contest for the song “Nude”. What was that experience like?

Actually, it was quite, I mean, initially, I was just curious because I read that they were doing the contest. I found out that on Itunes, you can download individual stems from the record, the guitar part, the bass, the keyboards and so on. I was just interested in listening to their tracks stripped down. I like their music very much, so I downloaded the separate stems and, before I knew it, I was doing my own remix. I entered it along with several thousand others, and I think it got in the top 20 at one point.

Have you thought of hosting your own contest where your fans can remix your music?

I have. I listened to a bunch of the other Radiohead remixes, and I am not sure how flattered the band would really have been to listen to them because… you know, the good and the bad news is there are very cheap and affordable apps these days that make it easy for anybody to get their hands on and start making their own music. The bad news is or the consequence is that there is a lot of crap out there. So I have thought about it, and there are certainly some on the new album that would lend themselves very well. I mean. I’d love to do an Evil Twin Brother remix contest.

Most people tend to be either business minded or creative minded, but you’ve been able to do both. How have you been able to weave between these two successfully?

I’m not sure that it is always successful actually. It drives me kind of crazy (laughter), but I think it’s important in this day and age that you’re able to do both because it’s so hard to set yourself apart when there is ten thousand other guys all competing for the same mindspace. A lot of young people ask if I’ve got any advice for them, and I say that you may be primarily a musician, but you have to be a business person these days as well, so it might be worth, in your schooling, to go to a business course.

Do you feel like anything your parents or someone in your youth did for you that allowed you to dabble in so many things and create music and innovate like you have?

It’s hard to say really. I think it’s in the genes partly, and I think also I started out in an era where if you weren’t one of the lucky ones that got to sign a recording contract and got to record in a studio then if you had some kind of talent, you were guaranteed some sort of an audience. In those days, relatively few artists got to put out records. Things have changed now, and there is much more of a level playing field, and I think that’s great because I don’t see why artists should have to be fighting the industry in order to get themselves heard, but I think it makes it much harder to differentiate yourself and stand out from the crowd.

Your storytelling, your songwriting, your lyrics are strong throughout your musical repertoire. These elements seems to be missing a lot today in pop music. Can you give us some insight into the process of putting together a unique piece of music?

I’m not sure if there is a single process really. I am writing songs all the time in my head. I don’t usually sit at the piano and do them or with a yellow pad. That’s the typical vision of a songwriter. I write songs while I am staring over the ocean or in the shower or driving my car or walking on the beach, and I’m forming these songs in my mind all the time. Very often, by the time I ever sit down to actually record them or arrange them, they’re fully formed in my imagination, so decisions are really simple: something either fits or it doesn’t like a sound or part or a choice of a guest musician. There’s room for experimentation, but each song has a really individual flavor to it, so there’s no real single process. I like varying my process and breaking my own formulas.

You have turned a lifeboat into a recording studio. When creating this space did you do so in a way to inspire your creativity?

It’s full of things that I love, and I’ve collected bits and pieces over the years that are sort of decorating the life boat, so I’m surrounded by all my toys, and, on top of that, I have a fabulous view over to where they are building one of the largest wind farms in Europe. I’d watch all the coming and goings of all the different, strange vessels that are used to build a wind farm out in the middle of the sea, and that’s kind of a lifelong dream because, if you remember, I wrote the song Wind Power in 1981, I think, so I am sort of delighted that that era has really come to be. Also, I’m close to one of the largest container ports in Europe, and I see these massive container ships going in and out which, in different shades of the light, look like floating cities unto themselves, and that was really how the concept of the floating city came about.

You have mentioned before in other interviews that, while you appreciate the city, you are more comfortable in nature. When you are creating music, are there any instruments that you tend to go to create a city vs. a more natural landscape?

I tend to go to more of an electronic arrangement and a bit more of a groove when I’m doing the city and organic instruments for the countryside, but there’s no set rule to it. For example, there’s a song on the album, Toadlickers, that has an electronic sequence behind it, but it’s also got a fiddle, dobro and accordion on it, a cowgirl backing vocalist and so on, so I also like to mix my sound up.

What can listeners expect from your 2012 Moogfest performance?

I’m still open-minded about that. When I was invited to do Moogfest, I was sort of thinking well, I better favor my more electronic stuff which was generally the earlier stuff, but a couple of people have told me that you can maybe refute this or back it up. The spectrum of music at Moogfest is very wide now, so there’s no particular need for me to cradle my electronic stuff. They said just do your thing, and people will go along with it and know there is an electronic underpinning to what we do.

Are there any artists you are looking forward to seeing yourself at Moogfest?

I’m interested to see Primus. I like what they do. That’s the only one I have taken note of. Obviously, I don’t have complete freedom. I have my own schedule there. Hopefully, I will be able to wander around stages and see a couple of new acts and get introduced to some new music.

You’re known to collaborate with a wide variety of artist. Who have been some of your favorites?

It’s always great to meet your heroes. Over the years, I have met most of mine. I really enjoyed working with David Byrne at the TED conference when my house band arranged a portion of Nothing But Flowers, and he came out and sang it. That was great. I loved working with Bowie at Live Aid, him being a teen idol of mine, and playing songs like Heroes and Rebel Rebel was really a dream come true. I get very stimulated by working with a variety of different artists and seeing how they work and it forces me again to break my own formulae and dig deep to come up with a different side to my music.

Are you currently working with anyone or is there anyone that you hope to work with in the future?

We’re still in the Map Of The Floating City era, so I’m still out there working on that, promoting that and playing songs from that album. I would imagine that, early next year, I will start working on a new project. I’ve actually been making a short film. There’s been sort of a revolution going on in digital filmmaking which is very comparable to what happened in the music world about 20 years ago where production techniques and equipment, that previously you would have to be part of a huge organization to have access to, suddenly has gotten very affordable, so lots of talented people get to make their own films. So, I am sure there will be a lot of mediocre junk out there, but there will also be some undiscovered talent who will come to the floor that may have never gotten a chance 20 years ago.

Can you tell us anymore about this film that you’re talking about?

I’m shooting it around where I live in East Anglia in England. I live in a very unusual area which is not the England of picture postcards. It’s not the Cotswolds with the rolling green hills or Buckingham Palace. It’s a very exposed piece of coastline which has been vulnerable to invasions going back to the Normans and the Vikings through Napoleon and Hitler, it’s got a lot of history, my coast. I find it a very inspiring place to be, so it’s pretty much about my life there, but it’s Impressionistic. I think it may end up as some kind of hybrid performance, projecting the film and playing the soundtrack live.

We have some fun questions that we kick around with our readers just to get their feedback, and it would be great to see on which side you come down.

Which are creepier, snakes or spiders?

I think spiders. I am kind of fond of snakes actually.

Do you have a favorite drink?

Earl Grey Tea.

-Denette Jackson


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