Ground control to Major Thomas: You're poetry in motion.
Synthesizer innovator Thomas Dolby on a modest comeback trail
By Mike Connor
The name Thomas Robertson, or even his stage name, Thomas Dolby, may not ring a bell, but we can almost guarantee you're familiar with his work.
In the late '70s, Robertson took the name Dolby to reflect his love to tinker with sounds. He expanded the scope of synthesized music by helping to make it more accessible than, say, what Kraftwerk was doing with "We Are the Robots." Maybe you've heard Dolby's song "She Blinded Me With Science," that funky synth-pop hit from the early '80s. Or maybe you've heard his technology: as founder and CEO of the digital audio company Beatnik, Dolby developed and licensed polyphonic ringtone software to Nokia and other cell phone manufacturers. Maybe you've even heard "She Blinded Me With Science" as a polyphonic ringtone on someone's cell phone. Dolby has--in fact, "Quite often," he says, but seems unimpressed by both his achievements and the irony of their convergence.
Uninterested in a nostalgia trip down synth-pop lane, Dolby is focused on making a musical comeback. Just last year, the 48-year-old British musician toured the States, played for 25,000 people at Hyde Park in London with Depeche Mode and recorded a live show at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. He's got a blog and a video podcast, both of which demystify the former one-hit-wonder and his music in an intimate, engaging way.
"I felt that in a way people had me pegged as an '80s MTV artist, and that's only the tip of the iceberg, really," says Dolby.
Yet icy he's not--in his video podcast (available on iTunes), he's affable and intimate with his fans, seeming completely at ease blogging and vlogging. "I like the intimacy of the way the Internet is now with blogging and with the forum," says Dolby, "and I think it's a good opportunity to sort of break down that fourth wall and let people into the process a little bit. ... This is an idea that I have to credit to Todd Rundgren and Prince, even, who were really the pioneers of sort of taking this more intimate approach with their fans where they could involve their fans in the process."
Still, despite fan involvement and a live horn section in the latest tour, his performances are pretty much a one-man show. In his live DVD, The Sole Inhabitant, Dolby appears in a vintage trench coat and aviator goggles, his head shorn bald and mounted with a small camera, which was actually designed for military use for synchronized building entries, and proceeds to play an entire show by himself.
Like a folk singer, Dolby introduces each of his songs by telling the stories behind them. Then, with the dexterity and precision of a machine, he builds his songs from scratch using looping software to layer rhythms and melodies and riffs and samples, his head-cam filming the whole thing. Dolby's voice is ambitious but thin like Roger Waters', while his lyrics revisit themes of exploration and loneliness; hope and tragedy; and of course, science and women.
Dolby performs mostly fresh arrangements of old material, deliberately reasserting himself as an originator of electronic music. Dolby was recently invited to tour with the trance and electronica artist BT, which he likens to J.J. Cale being invited to tour with Eric Clapton.
"People love to find their way back to the original source," says Dolby. "Similarly, there's been so much electronica over the years and electronic sounds integrated into mainstream pop music that people know that I'm often quoted as one of the originators in that area, so it's nice for them to go back to the source."
But even as he seeks a bit of recognition as an originator, it's also clear Dolby wants to reprise his role as an innovator.
"I'm actually sort of embarking on a new chapter," says Dolby, "and the goal of, you know, revisiting the old material was to sort of draw a line in the sand and say, right, that was then, now I'm going to play you some new stuff."
Thomas Dolby performs Saturday, March 10, at 7 and 9pm at the Kuumbwa, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $24 adv/$26 at the door. (831.427.2227)
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