Astronaut or Heretic?
Thomas Dolby is back after a four year break, without the mad professor image but with an excellent new album in Astronauts & Heretics, his most personal recording to date. Paul Tingen spoke to him about the long road from solo synthesist to globe-trotting collaborator.
"In a lot of ways I'm a pervert, stylistically. From a fashion point of view I'm seldom in the right place at the right time. Some of what I do is hopelessly old-fashioned and in other aspects I'm way ahead of the times. To me that's important. My motto is: 'I'm not going to be dictated to by trends.' There has to be some colour in the arts scene, as the general tendency is to make everything go in the same direction. So if there's a message to what I do it's that I stand up for my individuality. And that's about it."
The speaker is Thomas Dolby, professional musical chameleon, innovator, explorer and former whizz-kid turned eminence grise of the hi-tech keyboard world. Ever since the punk-inspired quirkiness of his first album The Golden Age of Wireless (1982) he has defied pigeon holing, radically changing musical colour with every album and thus exemplifying the mad-professor image he portrayed in some of his early music videos: eccentric, funny, and erratic. Dolby likes to revel in the image of his alter-ego, stating in a 1988 press release: "If there's a musical road I'm travelling down, I'm stopping in a lot of pubs along the way. When I come out, I don't always remember what direction I was going in."
Fans and critics alike, following his zig-zag musical excursions throughout the last decade, have been wrong-footed time and time again, even though the quality of Dolby's work has never been in dispute; every album contained a few genuine classics. His second album The Flat Earth (1986) was a much more atmospheric and melodic affair than its predecessor, the classic tracks being the yearning gospel/african title song, the sultry 'Screen Kiss', and the haunting 'Mulu, The Rain Forest'. Like Wireless it was a hi-tech record, dominated by the sound of sequencers and synthesizers, and largely put together by a small core of musicians. It was also, again like Wireless, very British. The follow-up, Aliens Ate My Buick (1988) could hardly have been more different. Firstly it was an exploration of American music: funk, bop, swing, and more funk; secondly the hi-tech sound had made way for an organic live feel. The whole album was played by a band who'd rehearsed the material during months of gigging. The band, The Lost Toy People, had been assembled by Dolby through an ad in a local LA newspaper requesting backing musicians. The emphasis of Aliens Ate My Buick was on one element: groove.
Everybody's thinking/thinking pretty hard
everybody's thinking/'bout singing from the heart
If you want my opinion/it doesn't mean a thing
if you haven't got that/ability to swing.'
(The Ability To Swing)
And swing the Lost Toy People did, on classic tracks like 'Pulp Culture' and 'The Key To Her Ferrari'. Still, Aliens had its duff moments too. 'Airhead' and 'Plot Sauce' could only barely stand up to scrutiny.
Now a fourth Dolby album, on new label Virgin, is imminent. It's called Astronauts & Heretics, and you may have already heard the first single, the Eddie Van Halen-driven 'Close But No Cigar'. And, since you ask, no it's not typical of the music on the album. In fact, there are no typical Astronaut & Heretics songs, as it features a conglomeration of styles more diverse and erratic than Dolby has ever previously achieved on one album. The classic stand-out tracks are this time his hybrids of hi-tech rock and American folk in 'I Love You Goodbye' and 'Silk Pyjamas', which feature New Orleans cajun band Beausoleil. The poignant and magnificent 'Cruel' sees Dolby duetting with Eddi Reader in a wistful, atmospheric echo of Gabriel's 'Don't Give Up'. And there's the lyrical ballad 'The Beauty Of A Dream' with guest performances by The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. The rest of the album is a mixed bag about which opinions vary wildly. Goth rock in 'Neon Sisters' (featuring Budgie from Siouxsie & The Banshees), typical Dolby wit and sarcasm in 'That's Why People Fall In Love' and 'Close But No Cigar', screaming guitars in 'Eastern Block' (again courtesy of Eddie Van Halen) and the nicely grooving but rather stretched 'I Live In A Suitcase'.
Whatever people's personal judgements about these tracks, it's clear that Dolby has been in a lot of pubs for this album, probably literally so as he travelled across the United States recording his collaborators on their home ground. Sipping his drink in a London coffee shop on a crisp and sunny winter morning, Dolby explains why he's chosen such a radically different approach to recording this album.
"Aliens Ate My Buick was a very live sounding record, because it consisted pretty much of the live repertoire of the band I'd formed. Tracks like 'Pulp Culture' and 'Budapest By Blimp' came from grooves that we improvised as a band — both tracks actually emerged from the auditions I did with them. Astronauts & Heretics is very different. It's a lot more personal. For the first time in my career there are songs that I could play you on the piano and you would have a very good sense of the whole song. With my older songs, take the sounds and the grooves away and it would all become very abstract. I mean, I couldn't give you an idea of what 'Pulp Culture' is all about on a solo acoustic piano because everything else is so integral. But a track like 'The Beauty Of A Dream' could be played piano/vocal only. In that sense it's much more personal.
"It's also a much more vulnerable album, in terms of the lyrics and where I'm singing from, as opposed to the sense of fun on Aliens Ate My Buick. That was more a matter of an affectation, different ideas and personalities coming through and enjoying themselves."
Dolby adds that one of the reasons for the different feeling of the new album had to do with his becoming a father during the recording of the album (with wife Kathleen Beller, an actress of Dynasty fame with whom Dolby lives in Hollywood). Dolby Sr: "That was a major influence, even though it wasn't an entirely conscious one. This was the sort of album I needed to make at this point. I suppose I was also at a point in my life where I realised that it's OK to be who I am, that I don't really need to stand up on stage and be a stage personality. I sort of thought: 'well, it's alright just to be me and put that onto a record', instead of contriving a part of my personality and put that into the spotlight." So no more mad professors.
Another influence came from his longstanding collaboration with Prefab Sprout, whose albums Jordan: The Comeback, From Langley Park To Memphis and Steve McQueen Dolby (co) produced. "There's no affectation in what Paddy McAloon does. He writes very much from the heart and I've always been in awe of that. I've always found it easier to be a smartass. I've tried to avoid that this time." It all sounds a bit like growing up. Dolby is 33, and the young father confesses that making records this way is "rather scary. When you lay yourself on the line like this it makes you more vulnerable. But I've tried to open up a bit more and be courageous."
He adds that there was also a purely musical reason to shift his emphasis from electronic wizardry to concentrate on crafting songs: "Synthesis and sampling have moved on a lot since the early days. When sampling started it was very much the domain of people like Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. Now it's accessible to everybody and that's good news. But with the number of patches and sounds being available I do feel that I can't be an explorer anymore in that area.
"There is of course a certain art to matching up a certain groove with a certain patch number and module, but to me going into sound exploration today is like going to the Antarctic and finding teams of huskies there all bumping into each other. It's just not the same. I feel that crafting songs is something I missed out on when I started, because there were obvious areas of exploration for me within synthesis. I feel I've covered that area, and to be an explorer now is to look at songs again, to look at playing and look at the kinds of interactions that happen between players."
And thus Thomas Dolby embarked on a one man odyssey, taking on the roles of engineer, producer, mixer, singer, keyboard player, programmer, writer and arranger on Astronauts & Heretics, and travelling across the US and to the UK to work with people who could provide musical inspiration and interactions. Since the album was much more of a DIY affair than any of his previous recordings, it's no wonder that it turned out to be more personal.
Practical considerations were largely responsible for this DIY approach, as Dolby had fallen out with EMI Records, his record company for eight years, and had to finance the recording himself. "To cut a long story short, I'd been signed to EMI UK since 1984, and around 1986 I started making noises that I didn't feel they were the right company for me. They thought about it for one and a half years and decided that they didn't want to let me go, but offered to transfer me to a new, more left-field kind of label they were starting up in New York, Manhattan Records. That label appeared to be better suited to me, but after six months the two key people there, who had come from Blue Note, left again. Manhattan reverted to being a pop label, and I was back where I started.
"There's no modern synth that I know inside out. The user interface doesn't encourage you to just go: 'well, I wonder what this knob does?'"
"When Aliens Ate My Buick failed to go mainstream in the US they had no ideas up their sleeve on how to market it, but they still didn't want to let me go. I think they kept me because I was a relatively cheap act to keep going and I made their roster look good. I gave their label some prestige. But halfway through the recording of Astronauts & Heretics, when they heard that what I was doing was definitely not mainstream, they finally decided to let me go. The timing was unfortunate because I now had to pay for the recording of the album myself, which was a great strain on my resources. Nevertheless I decided to go ahead and finish it alone, before trying to find another label."
Last winter, a few months after finishing his album. Dolby signed a deal with Virgin UK. It's ironic that in March Richard Branson sold his company to Thorn/EMI, the very company Dolby had spend six years trying to run away from.
The combination of having to work cheaply and of recording material live on different locations around the world prompted Dolby to develop unusual ways of recording. He drew heavily on cheap digital recording media, especially DAT and Mac-based hard disk recording with Digidesign's Sound Tools and Pro Tools, and Opcode's Studio Vision, which combines MIDI sequencing with hard disk digital audio recording using the Digidesign hardware.
"I started the album at home, doing lots of sequencing on the Mac [a IIcx with a 640MB hard disk] and recording demos using the Akai 1214 12-track mainly for vocals. After that I went out doing live recordings with different musicians in the US and the UK. I didn't intend to go as far with that as, say, Paul Simon or Malcolm McLaren. Instead I worked with a few musicians at a time, like Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead in San Francisco, or Beausoleil and accordionist Wayne Toups, who has a band called Zydacajun, in New Orleans. We recorded in a little studio in the back of a music shop in the middle of a swamp," he says, clearly enjoying emphasising the cheap 'n' cheerfulness of his recording adventures. Dolby's low budget approach appears to have affected his lyrics too. Whereas Aliens sports Buicks and Ferraris, on Astronauts he's driving around in a "stolen, dirty Datsun", before being arrested by a sheriff... ("He said politely as he cuffed me: I never busted an English boy" — 'I Love You Goodbye').
Rather than haul multitrack tapes, or a Mac, around with him, the English boy developed an original technique which was simple, effective, and cheap, even though it sounds a little laborious: "I don't know whether it would be of use to anybody else, because it was very much inspired by having to work on a low budget. Also, because I was flying a lot from one location to another, I didn't fancy walking around with multitrack tapes under my arm and having to put them through radars and detectors at custom and safety check points. What I decided to do instead was to condense multitracks, or any other recording medium, onto DAT, by recording SMPTE on the left channel of the DAT recorder and then all the audio on the right channel. I'd start with track number one from the multitrack, all the way through to its end. Then the same thing again with track 2, pairing it again with SMPTE. So you end up with a DAT version of a song that's 24 times five minutes long. When I get to the other end I take a DAT machine and a fresh 24-track tape and using the DAT as the master and the 24-track as the slave, I lay the tracks one by one down onto the 24-track again, thus reconstituting the original multitrack recording.
"This system only makes sense when you're working digital, so there's no generation loss when you copy. In addition it was ideal to be using the system in conjunction with hard disk editing on the Mac. I could load the DAT digitally onto the hard disk, track by track. When I came back from New Orleans, for example, I had half a dozen takes from those cajun guys. On coming home I could edit their performances individually, track by track, with Pro Tools and Sound Tools, and then sequence them using Studio Vision, whilst creating a song structure."
Dolby explains that the brilliant opening track 'I Love You Goodbye' started out as nothing more than a bass and drum groove, programmed by him. In the recording shed in New Orleans Beausoleil, Wayne Toups and other players jammed together to this groove, giving Dolby plenty of musical material to play with. "There was an A section and a B section and we'd simply groove on A until I'd make a big sign and then we'd all go to the B section. I ended up with several takes of nine minute long jams.
When I got back to LA I put the relevant parts of these performances onto the hard disk and selected the sections that I liked. After that I'd treat them as part of a whole sequence. So instead of the raw sequencing elements being samples or single notes, my ingredients would now be whole audio takes which I could slide around in relation to each other. So if I suddenly decided to double the length of the verse or have multiple choruses at the end then I would just do a cut and paste, and I would be cutting and pasting not only my MIDI information but also the live performances."
Obviously this enabled Dolby to perform edits within the blink of an eye, possibly saving hours and hours of work. And it allowed him, whilst preserving the original feel of the performances of his guest artists, to bend them to the needs of a song which he wrote and structured after the sessions. This, of course, is progress for Dolby, and he sees hard disk recording as a great tool. "I think that analogue tape is still more flattering for the sound, but I prefer to end up on hard disk because I like to keep jumbling things about to the very end. This album did not involve a band who go into a rehearsal room and have a set structure to a song that they generally stay fairly close to. I tend to keep messing about with the final structure of the song right up till the final mix. So any form of recording which starts at A and finishes at B isn't really suitable for me. It's much better to have a medium where you can access the information at any point."
The English sessions for the album involved The Banshees' Budgie and John Klein, who respectively played drums and guitar on 'Neon Sisters', and Eddi Reader, now pursuing a solo career after fronting Fairground Attraction. She lent her vocal talents to 'Cruel', a startling tale — both as a song and sound-wise — of remorse on which Reader sings so gently that her voice is not recognisable. During recording Dolby had only one instruction: "'Softer!' We were actually never in the same room at the same time. I was only in the UK for a few days and we couldn't get our schedules together, so I left the tapes here and she recorded the vocals with a good friend of mine, Matthew Seligman, who also plays bass on several of the songs. They phoned me in LA during the sessions and played me some stuff over the telephone and my only brief each time was: 'softer!'. Then they sent the tapes over and I sifted through the takes at home."
The vocals of both Reader and Dolby on this track are very gentle and intimate, as are the melody and lyrics. But that's juxtaposed with a jungle of striking samples in the background. Dolby explains the reasoning behind the different elements and why he brought them together: "My vocal is very quiet and intimate because I sang it in the early hours of the morning, sitting in front of my computer screen, quickly recording it onto hard disk so I wouldn't forget it. It was never intended to be a final vocal. About three months later when I was finishing my album in a studio I spent three or four days singing the song and compiling the best bits. Finally, just to check that I hadn't missed anything I listened to the original and thought: 'oh, no, this original vocal is much more tender than what I've just spent three days doing.' So I ended up largely with the original vocal.
"I think that the early '70s equipment was the best-sounding ever made. A lot of the so-called advances have only been in the area of convenience, not improved sound."
"The funny thing about that vocal is that there's a function on Studio Vision called Strip Silence, which is like a digital noise gate. If you have five minutes of digital vocal recording a lot of what's recorded is actually silence, because of the gaps between the phrases. So in order to maximise your hard disk space, Strip Silence allows you to remove all those silent bits from the recording, keeping the placements of the phrases as before. It works in the same way as a noise gate. You can set a threshold, and anything that's quieter than the threshold will be removed. In order not to use up too much hard disk space I performed this function on my vocal that night, and I hadn't set the threshold very carefully. So the vocal is actually very clipped, some of the breaths and the beginnings and ends of words are clipped off in complete silence. A sound engineer in a studio would never do this, because it sounds unnatural, but it had the very peculiar effect on that vocal that it put it very much in a little pocket of its own, and that's why the vocal sounds the way it does."
This sounds like Dolby the teacher talking here (a sublimation of the mad professor?), explaining his working methods step by step, making sure he doesn't lose his listener, something which may be a result of his experience of giving courses at the Keyboard Institute of Technology in LA, and a 1989 tour of US colleges and universities in which he lectured, with his Mac, on new technology in music. He's also in the process of setting up his own school in Hollywood, teaching Mac-related technologies. We catch up with teacher Dolby again as he explains the why and how of the extraordinary collage of samples which accompany his digitally clipped vocals in 'Cruel'.
"It was all supposed to sound quite violent, because the song is full of regret about something that went wrong and which I could have avoided. So it's deliberate that there's a destructive anvil sound in there, which is actually a tambourine two octaves down. The break in the middle has a fretless bass, played by Matthew, doubled by a pan pipe sample which I also used on 'Mulu, The Rainforest'. A lot of the other sounds are samples of my voice, slowed down. Also, just before I started this album I got this fabulous CD sound effects library, called 'Hollywood Edge', that's used by all the film studios. I could load those sounds straight into Studio Vision using the digital output of my CD player. I wanted the end of 'Cruel' to have some Docklands ambience, so from the CD I selected some sound effects like water splashing on a pier, distant ships, seagulls, and so on. These different bits of wave forms appeared in Studio Vision and I just moved them around as elements of a sequence. So the end of the song is very cinematic."
Most of the Mac editing took place at Dolby's home base in Hollywood, after returning from the various location recordings. Apart from the Mac IIcx, with a 19" Radius screen, his home recording set-up is very modest. "I don't really have a home studio. It's just a room in my house with some gear." His working gear for Astronauts & Heretics included a pair of NS10s, an AKG414 mike for recording vocals, an SPX90, and the aforementioned Akai 1214 12-track, with its built-in mixer. Very low budget indeed, as the Akai was even borrowed from friend. Dolby says that it "worked great" for his purposes: "It's very compact. It was noisy and the channel nearest to the transport mechanism would record a hum, and also the recording with SMPTE was a bit dodgy. It sometimes glitched and made the sequencer glitch. But overall it sounded fine. I only used it to make demos, for reference, which I didn't need to play for anybody. I try not to take too much care with demos. You always run the risk that you'll do something which you can't recapture. The Akai 1214 was like a sketchbook. I thought the EQ on it was great, very natural, so I used its desk to mix my keyboards through."
After editing and establishing song structures Dolby moved to NRG Studios in North Hollywood, "which was a small studio with an old Neve 8038 desk. It was cheap enough — just a few hundred dollars a day — for me to book a lock out for five months and just leave my gear there." At NRG Dolby worked mainly on replacing his keyboard bass with real bass, played by either Matthew Seligman, or the Lost Toy People's Terry Jackson (who sadly died in an air crash during the recording of the album), and on recording vocals.
"I was recording my vocals on analogue at that time, because I prefer the sound of it. What I'd do is record six takes of vocals onto 24-track analogue, transfer them onto hard disk, and then make composites at home in the weekends." Backing vocals were also recorded at NRG, even though Dolby returned briefly to New Orleans to record the backing vocals to 'I Love You Goodbye'. After five months, and then a break because of the birth of his child, he moved to Smoketree Studio outside LA for the final mix. Smoketree again featured a Neve board, an 8068, this time with GML automation. "I think that the early '70s equipment was the best sounding equipment ever made. A lot of the so-called advances, like SSL desks, were really only in the area of convenience, not improved sound. In actual fact, the sound of an old 80-series Neve is a lot more flattering than that from a newer solid state desk. Old Neves have a really nice sort of crunchiness to them. If I solo something on them I'd feel really proud of the fact that I'd managed to get that on tape, whereas with an SSL I would feel apologetic about the sound and start EQ-ing it and mixing it-in a certain way. I tried mixing in an SSL studio and I hated it."
During the mixing stage Dolby ran an analogue 24-track and a 32-track digital recorder in sync with Studio Vision on the Mac, until he dumped, for reasons of convenience, the analogue material onto the digital machine, still running his keyboards live from the Mac. Which prompts the inevitable question: what keyboards? Luckily Dolby isn't yet bored with this one and dives enthusiastically into an extensive round-up, expressing some strong preferences along the way. His collection for this album consisted of an M1R, a D50, a Roland MKS20 piano module, a Roland MKS80 Super JX, a MiniMoog, a Roland JP8, a PPG Wave 2.3 and a Waldorf Microwave, and a Fairlight series III. "I don't do much sampling with the Fairlight anymore, because I've got other machines that sample better digitally. I have an S900, but now generally sample directly into the Mac, onto hard disk, editing things with Sound Designer, Digidesign's sample editor. But I've assembled a very big Fairlight sample library over the last eight years, so really all it is now is an expensive sample player. Most of the sampled drums on this album were played on the Fairlight, using samples that I've picked up over the years."
The Roland JP8 was used for the first instrumental chorus of 'I Love You Goodbye', a haunting, dream-like sound, similar to the sound of the main synth hook in Kate Bush's 'Running Up That Hill'. When queried Dolby recognises the similarity. "She may have used the Roland for that as well. I used portamento and no chorus on that sound. There's also quite a bit of MiniMoog thunder and lightning effects in 'I Love You Goodbye', which is me messing about opening and closing filters and things."
The memory prompts him to lament, the disappearance of "big knobs you can play with" on newer synths, a familiar litany. "One of the things that originally inspired me to take up the synth was — and this really dates me — when I was watching the Old Grey Whistle Test and Roxy Music were on. Brian Eno was still with them and he was wearing some kind of leopard skin outfit, including long laced black gloves and platform shoes. He was standing with his arms crossed in front of MiniMoog panel and every now and then he would lean forward and twiddle a knob. I thought 'this is great, this is what I want to do, you just have to twiddle a few knobs and get some great sounds.' I rather miss that physical aspect of synth playing today. I'm ashamed to say that with any of the modern synths I only know how to program the performance parameters, but I don't ever really get into partials or anything like that. There's no modern synth that I know inside out. The user interface doesn't encourage you to just go: 'well, I wonder what this knob does?' It's frightening when you flick through your pages and you see something that says 'TVF-16'. It's just not the same, and when you hit the '+' or'-' button you're scared that you might mess up the sound completely."
Dolby has checked out the Roland JD800 and the Oberheim OBMX — "they've got nice big knobs, so they're definitely retro — but the keyboard to which he keeps going back is the PPG Wave 2.3. "I like the tone of that one, better than of any of the new synths. It's not as glossy sounding, because it has fewer bits in it. [The Wave was an early analogue/digital hybrid keyboard, replacing analogue oscillator circuits with 8-bit digital wavetables] When it first came out it was much glossier than anything else and was used a lot for its bell-like top end. But I now use it mainly for fundamental and chorussy sounds."
One of Dolby's trademarks is his breath-like silken synth textures, which you'll find plastered all over Prefab Sprout's Steve McQueen, and to a lesser degree also on Jordan: The Comeback. They also feature strongly on his own records. According to Dolby these distinctive sounds are not the result of his using a specific keyboard, but of "my programming and my choice of sounds. Many of my sounds have a very percussive attack, yet a very smooth sustain and decay. The point where the vibrato comes in is very crucial too. There's no single sound that I use for that silken effect. It simply depends on the tempo of the piece, the register that I'm playing in and so on.
"I should add that there is a style to the way I place these sounds in the mix and how they work together with the vocals. Among the important factors are whether or not I record the keyboard in stereo; sometimes I'd set it back just a little bit with a repeat or reverb in the mix. A lot of it is the dynamic shape of how I play chordal parts and so on."
I described Dolby earlier as a musical chameleon, and it's not just his own album output which earns him the tag. Over the years he's played with David Bowie at Live Aid, as well as on Roger Water's hectic Berlin performance of The Wall in 1990. He's worked as a producer with Joni Mitchell, Ofra Haza, George Clinton, and NY rap duo Whodini. He wrote Lene Lovich's 1980 hit 'New Toy', and has played on albums by Foreigner, Joan Armatrading, Malcolm McLaren, Belinda Carlisle, Def Leppard, and the Thompson Twins. On top of all this he's found time to compose film scores for Ken Russell's Gothic and George Lucas' Howard The Duck, and even appeared on the Muppets, explaining the workings of a synth to an innocent young audience. He directs his own videos and was busy, at the time we spoke, writing songs for the movie Hollywood Ferngully which features amongst others Robin Williams, who will rap over one of Dolby's tracks.
It's an erratic and diverse list of activities, and when Dolby describes the odd combination of musical styles that is Astronauts & Heretics as more 'personal', where is the real Thomas Dolby to be found in all this? How does he see himself? He answers, laughing: "Primarily I don't see myself. Primarily I'm out to have a good time. I don't want what I do ever to be like a job to me, and if that means that what's going to be exciting to do next month is a film score, then that's the way I'll go. It's very much to the consternation of my lawyers and accountants and many others, because they'd rather that I was more focussed. But I like to keep stimulated. I like to feel that the stuff which is coming out of my imagination is constantly growing."
Interview by Paul Tingen
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