The Dolby System
Four years on from the successes of The Flat Earth, Thomas Dolby has moved to LA for his follow-up LP, Aliens Ate My Buick. Tim Goodyer discovers that aliens have a lot to say.
Pioneer solo performer, eccentric cult pop star, technical boffin - Thomas Dolby has worn all these hats, yet he remains best described simply as Thomas Dolby.
I'm sick of the TV
And I'm sick of the radio
And I'm sick of my Fairlight
So what do I do?
I get a new toy...
IT'S SEVEN YEARS since Lene Lovich made Thomas Dolby's 'New Toy' a UK chart hit. Seven years since Dolby was a little-known member of a little-known band called Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club. In the intervening seven years Dolby has built a successful solo career, released two albums which have earned the unanimous respect of musicians and fans alike, and produced records and "guested" on keyboards for acts as varied as Foreigner and Prefab Sprout. A couple of years ago he left Britain to take up residence in Los Angeles.
Right now Dolby is back in Britain promoting a new album, Aliens Ate My Buick, a new single 'Airhead', and touring with a new all-American band, The Lost Toy People. Toys again. Tell me about your childhood, Thomas.
"When I was a kid there were periods of intense boredom which I had to fight my way out of with any available means", he replies after an extended pause for thought. "Very often that meant a hand-me-down from one of my older brothers or sisters, an old Meccano set or something.
"I'm a real dabbler. I'm a dabbler in all sorts of things I would never take the time to master. I mean, I know nothing about computer programming but I have a Macintosh that I do a lot of stuff with. I religiously don't read instruction manuals. I think life's too short to sit there with an instruction manual on your knee. I'd rather just switch on and go - that's what I liked about the Macintosh initially: it is a toy, an idiot can turn it on and click a few icons open and do something fun with it. I dabble in video editing and I dabble in camera work... And I have a short attention span, so I need a constant diet of new toys to keep me interested."
Thomas Dolby - real name Thomas Robertson - earned his stage name as a nickname at school, where he had a reputation for "playing" with tape recorders and keyboards. Dolby Laboratories (of Dolby Noise Reduction fame) objected and lost. The name remains.
Dolby's toybox still contains the Transcendent 2000 synthesiser that began his collection of musical diversions.
"That didn't work very well", recalls Dolby. "It was a kit that somebody else made that I bought, and it didn't work very well at all."
The Transcendent was soon joined by a Moog Micromoog, a Crumar string synthesiser, a Fender Rhodes, a Roland Jupiter 4, an early PPG system (with which he performed his original solo concerts), a PPG Wave 2.2 (a gift from PPG because the original instrument was so unreliable), a Jupiter 8, a Fairlight Series II and a Fairlight Series III. And with the exception of the Rhodes, they all still play their part in keeping Dolby's boredom at bay.
"I would never say I'm going to junk all that stuff', he explains, "I've never sold or got rid of any keyboards with the exception of the Fender Rhodes which I always hated anyway.
"It's a question of horses for courses; there are some things that I'd still use the older keyboards for. For example, the sound of a Solina string synth was never really duplicated by anything else. For a certain kind of string sound it's the only thing to use. The sound of a Moog has never been duplicated either, in fact the bass sounds on 'Airhead' are a Minimoog MIDI'd up to a Fairlight sequence. I knew that was the only instrument that would really give me the sound I was after. I often come back to the PPG I use because I've never really come to grips with it. The machine is a complete enigma. I don't know if anybody outside of a small factory in Frankfurt really understands the thing. Consequently, when I go to it, I'll always be sidetracked. I'll always be drawn off at a tangent and I'll come up with something interesting for that reason. Whereas, if I use a Roland keyboard, I know exactly what I'm doing from the word go.
"The main thing is, I get bored very quickly if I stick with things that are tried and tested, so it's more fun to use something that I'm unfamiliar with - whether it's an instrument, a studio or a musician."
THE UNFAMILIAR elements currently contributing to Dolby's particular brand of intellectual pop music are the musicians that make up The Lost Toy People. They were recruited through an advert placed in The Recycler (an American Exchange & Mart), the intention being to find musicians with genuine enthusiasm for their craft rather than the seasoned professionals likely to respond to an ad in a "musicians' magazine". Listening to Dolby talk about the band it's obvious the experiment has been a success. But why has he abandoned the one-man show he pioneered with his temperamental PPG computer?
"I'm always doing U-turns. The fact that I've gone back to working with a band and working very low-tech is a reaction to the fact that everything I hear on the radio seems to be a couple of guys working in a room with the 'hip box' of the moment.
"The bass on 'Airhead' is a Mini moog MIDI'd up to a Fairlight sequence - that was the only instrument that would really give me the sound I was after."
"When I started out it was a relatively new concept. It was partly out of necessity for me because punk bands wouldn't let me join in 1977 because I knew too many chords. Instead I sat in my bedroom with a Revox and a Micromoog and built everything up myself. In the process I learnt to arrange entire songs myself.
"I was a kind of prototype for the Pet Shop Boys and people like that - a singer and a programming wizard. At the time it was very fresh. Now, to keep that sort of freshness, I feel I've got to get away from all of that.
"I feel very sorry for Kraftwerk who started the entire electronic dance thing. They were the inspiration for the whole glut of hip hop records and stuff like that. And they had to come back and be hailed as the masters of that genre and yet work with the same technology as everybody else. They had to come up with something that was going to be scrutinised and if it wasn't a landmark then it was a failure. That's a lot of pressure to be under.
"It's fortunate that I am able to redefine myself. People would be very surprised if Kraftwerk started using real drum kits and real brass - it's very specific what they do, other stuff is out of bounds. Whereas I've always had these different tangents to what I do and it's always been OK for me to use a band. I'm very lucky in that respect."
Aliens Ate My Buick bears the signs of an LP made by "a band" alongside Dolby's own trademarks. The songs are unmistakable examples of Dolby's ingenious pop; familiar ingredients are cunningly reworked into unfamiliar forms, the lyrics astute observations on people, their lives and their society. Aliens Ate My Buick makes no apologies for itself or its lyrical content - by far the most brash Dolby the world has heard. But the slower numbers that graced both The Golden Age of Wireless or The Flat Earth are missing - the only reminder of the introspective side of Thomas Dolby is 'Budapest By Blimp'. Also, uncharacteristically for Dolby, all the material was gigged before it was recorded.
"We went out and played clubs with the songs when I first wrote them", he recalls, "but then I went into the studio and worked on them for a few months. I kind of became accustomed to the way they'd evolved and it became hard for me to hear them the way they were before. But what's on the album is pretty much what we play live now. I wanted to get the ultimate performance - I hated the idea that maybe three nights ago at the Club Lingerie we did a better version of the song than we did on the album. Over the course of several days I recorded various different takes of each song and then I used the Fairlight Series III to compile the highlights of each take.
Everything was recorded to a click so I could take my favourite bass take and my favourite drum fill and so on. And I changed the structures of the songs - like, some are groove-based and I'd find that there were four bars too many somewhere but rather than just edit them out on tape, I'd reassemble things. So on the album there are a lot of very long Fairlight samples, maybe up to 20 or 30 seconds, that have been juggled around.
"The principle was to get the best of both worlds; to have the freedom to manipulate the sounds and the structure of the songs that you get from sequencing, but at the same time to have the freshness and the liveness of a musician playing a part.
"On the album, 'The Key to Her Ferrari', 'Airhead' and 'Hot Sauce' were all played with a live drummer and bass player; 'Pulp Culture', 'My Brain is Like a Sieve', 'The Ability to Swing' and 'Budapest by Blimp' are a combination of sequenced drums and live drums. It's sometimes quite hard to get a drummer to play with the same feeling you have on a drum sequence, especially with the Fairlight where it's possible to move the placement of a sound forwards or backwards in a bar or in a beat. Take the groove of 'Pulp Culture', I've got a lot of rhythmic elements in there: a bass part, bass drum, hi-hat, shaker and a snare drum, and to get the groove exactly the way I wanted it meant that I'd got to juggle for days. I'd do a little bit, save it, go off and watch TV for a while, then I'd come back and hit Play and think 'maybe the hi-hat could come back a bit more...'. It really took a lot of tweaking to get that feel the way I wanted it, and when we then went back into rehearsal, and I was asking the drummer to play it the way I'd become accustomed to it. It's very hard to say 'I think your hi-hat heeds to be a bit more laidback and your snare needs to be a bit ahead'. It's hard to get a drummer to relax and concentrate at the same time."
WHILE DOLBY'S FAIRLIGHT was an important part of recording Aliens..., it no longer appears onstage with him. It seems the technical sophistication of his solo tour with the PPG and the synced visuals of The Flat Earth tour have been put aside - at least temporarily. Instead, Dolby relies on a remote controller and a modestly-furnished rack of gear.
"There are three sound sources", he explains. "There's an Akai S900 which has samples transferred from the Fairlight Series III, a Roland Super Jupiter and a Roland MKS20 piano module. All of those go into an Akai MIDI mixer and through two effects: a Yamaha SPX90 and an Alesis Midifex. They're all mapped by a Cooper Electronics MIDI Link, and I play them from a KX5 slung round my neck and a couple of Yamaha pedals. They put out program numbers to the MIDI link and that sends out separate program numbers to everything else. In other words I'll build up an entire patch with sound sources, a mix, effects and a stereo output, and store it. Then, when I send one program number into it from either the keyboard or from the pedal, it'll send the appropriate numbers out.
"It's a lot of homework beforehand, although I've found during rehearsal that I can treat the whole thing as a manual setup; when we're running over things again and again I can tweak things as I go and keep storing them all the way down the line and keep notes on anything that needs attention. Then maybe on my own the next day I'll fine tune things."
"Punk bands wouldn't let me join because I knew too many chords so I sat in my bedroom with a Revox and a Micromoog and did everything myself."
His move across the Atlantic to LA seems to have turned Dolby's studied eccentricity into brash confidence.
"It's unhealthy sitting in studios for three months at a stretch. If I could make an album in a day, I'd be perfectly happy. I don't really enjoy the process of it for the sake of it, it's often very painful. Although having said that, this album was a lot less painful than either of the previous ones - I think, because I'm that much more secure about myself as a performer and an entertainer than I used to be."
Surely the man who took to the stage with his music and his computer in the early '80s must have had a fair amount of confidence.
"No, I didn't, no I didn't", protests the performer, "I was terrified."
Then a hand to help share the attention and the responsibility for the songs would seem the ideal solution.
"Well, that's kind of easier said than done. I didn't know anybody that could do it. At that stage I'd invented my music in a bedsitter and the way I heard it was the way I programmed it. It wouldn't have been the same to have got other musicians to do it."
But Dolby did enlist the help of other musicians, culminating in The Flat Earth tour in 1984.
"I had a bunch of musicians who were playing everything live, but at the same time, because we had in-sync video and sequences on a couple of songs, we weren't very flexible. We had to do the same set every night and we couldn't vary the tempo - according to the atmosphere on any night, a song might feel too slow or too fast, there's no perfect tempo. The band that I have now is very low-tech. Every time we play a song it's a slightly different length or structure or a solo will continue for an extra eight bars... It's all live, definitely, very much live. So there's really a lot more flexibility."
Although obviously suffering from the effects of jet-lag, Dolby exudes an air of quiet satisfaction over Aliens Ate My Buick. If his attitudes haven't changed from the early days of The Golden Age of Wireless, then his practices have. To me, the gap between The Golden Age of Wireless and The Flat Earth is greater than that between The Flat Earth and Aliens Ate My Buick. They share implied, rather than stated, chord progressions; they've replaced innovative commerciality with a certain sophistication. Apparently my opinion is not shared bv the other journalists Dolby has spoken to. And then there's the man in the street...
"I think the man in the street, not to insult him, picks up on the spirit on a record. He treats it like a stranger, and I think the stranger you meet on the first two albums you spy on through a keyhole - like a voyeur into another world. I think on this album he's talking in your ear. It's like a stranger who is uncomfortably familiar with you. I think it was a bit shocking to English people in America. Americans are very up-front, English people spend time talking about the weather before they start talking about anything personal, whereas the Americans will come right out with it. Usually that makes English people uncomfortable and maybe the same thing will happen with this record."
It may make Britons abroad uncomfortable but, as the comments made on Aliens... mainly relate to American culture, there may be more sympathy for Dolby's observations than he suspects. But then I suspect the majority of non-American listeners will miss the humour of his words. How will the musician gauge his success?
"As an artist, you have to assume that if you make a piece of music you like, there are enough people with taste in common that will like it as well."
"As an artist, you just have to assume that if you make a piece of music you like, there are enough people with taste in common with you that a lot of other people will like it as well. That's the only way you can go, I don't think you can use the yardstick of radio play or chart success or critical acclaim. I don't think you can allow yourself to be swayed by those things, you just have to make music you like. The only chance you have of any kind of success with music is by making music that you personally like and hoping that somewhere in the world there'll be somebody with the same taste."
But peoples' tastes are constantly changing. How much has Dolby's own taste changed since he began writing songs - does he even like his early material any more?
"Yeah, in varying degrees. I think on occasions I've just flexed a muscle without really feeling what I did but I definitely liked everything at the time. I'm proud of everything, and there's nothing I hate, but I have very high standards. I would never release anything unless I felt it was good enough. It's a very different approach to somebody like Prince who has, I suppose, the arrogance to believe that his every utterance is brilliant. A percentage of the time he's right, it is brilliant, but he doesn't set standards for himself. But then, this is a man who's released five albums and done a couple of tours and a feature film since I released The Flat Earth.
"There are different approaches to the same thing. He's brutal with his songs, that's the only way I can describe it. Sometimes he just misses, he makes records that could potentially have been much better songs, and some of his songs are much better in my head than they are on record - I get a real longing to hear 'Condition of the Heart' and when I do I'm disappointed by it. In my imagination it's a real classic."
Thomas Dolby has already done cover versions of songs written by Joni Mitchell, Dan Hicks and George Clinton. Time for a Prince cover?
"That might be a bit audacious. I wish he'd cover one of mine. I wonder what song he'd do... Prince doing 'Urges'?"
Dolby's return visit to British shores seems all too brief. Even given his nomadic childhood, it looked as if he had found his home in Britain where his eccentric image seemed most appropriate. But now he's deserted bustling London for laidback LA.
"I haven't deserted anybody - and there's no saying I won't be back. I just happen to be there at the moment, and I'm enjoying it. I've learned over the years to make my home inside myself, wherever I happen to be geographically. LA's a good place to be at this point in time, it seems to me, because there's a lull in energy in the world's capitals. LA, which wasn't a cultural capital, is taking the opportunity to catch up - that means new clubs, lots of studios, lots of bands...
There's definitely a healthy atmosphere - and not just for music. There's a lot more crossover between music and films now. Movie executives are realising that there are people in music that they need to chew up and spit out so they can absorb their energy. So a lot of interesting people, like Malcolm McLaren, who used to turn their noses up at LA are finding their way there now that it's seen the error of its ways. Although I don't know how long it'll last.
"In the mid-'70s music was disappearing up its own backside until Malcolm and Co came along and said 'it doesn't have to be this way'.
My own feeling is that something like that won't happen again because rock 'n' roll is an ageing medium and it's very hard to be subversive in it any more. If you want to be subversive it'd be better to make a film because there are a lot more sacred cows on a cinematic level. If you really want to do some damage, that's where you should do it."
It begins to sound as if Dolby is forecasting the death of popular music.
"I wouldn't say it's the end of its life span, it'll take its place as one of the traditional forms of music. There'll always be some club in town where you can go and see a rock 'n' roll band. If the Rolling Stones can do it when they're 45, why not when they're 65?"
And why not Thomas Dolby when he's 65?
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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