Science and Sensibility
Thomas Dolby explains his new strategy
In retrospect Thomas Dolby's emergence as the hi-tech musical equivalent of Tomorrows World would inevitably lead him into a constrictive digital nightmare. Now, Dolby has finally emerged from the techno-closet. He explains to Yvonne Kramer why and how he changed his strategy.
Forsaking his solitary work in the studio where he immersed himself in a maze of keyboards, computer programming and software, Dolby assembled a band in a studio in Belgium, and recorded his material live. Also making the addition of female backing vocals, he has drawn on the energy of recording in a group situation to produce a generally upbeat and optimistic LP, This Flat Earth.
Although there is very little synthesizer apparent on the LP, there is still a unique style that recognisably links the record to his first effort; a kind of surreal substance, both musically and lyrically, reflecting Dolby's observations about the world.
Leaving behind the techno/pop sound best exemplified by She Blinded Me With Science, the album draws on numerous sources, including funk/rap in the first single, Hyperactive, Latin and jazz in I Scare Myself, a pastiche of FM-radio rock in White City, and staccato rock in Dissidents.
You were barely 24 years old when your first album became a hit. Have you matured musically on this one?
"No, not really. Put it this way, if I have, I don't think it related to what happened to me over the last year. What has happened in the last year is that I've gotten a lot off my chest, like all of the work that I've done for other people before I recorded my first album. That kind of influenced the work that I did on The Age of Wireless. It was like I was just flexing my muscles. I think because I'm able to record and write in a certain way, I just kind of do it. It's like, "Hey, let's write a song like Radio Silence, which is sort of poppy and slightly jazzy. That song almost became an exercise in that particular style."
You've said in the past that — despite your relative lack of concern with commerciality, you weren't that surprised at the success, both commercially and critically, of The Golden Age of Wireless. Did you expect that same success with The Flat Earth?
"I never felt that my music was particularly electronic sounding, certainly not to the extent of Human League or Ultravox or somebody like that."
"It's true to say that I'm not obsessed with commerciality. I think that the reason my music is acceptable is because I'm more interested in the songs and the music, than the style and fashion of the moment. I'm interested in making music that will still be listened to in a few years' time, rather than thrown out at the end of the week with the dirty laundry.
"I think the success of the first album performed a function. She Blinded Me With Science is among the most accessible things I've ever recorded and I always hoped that it would act as a kind of springboard to get people interested enough to listen to the album, which was a little bit more demanding."
Was there pressure to come up with an equally-successful follow-up effort to 'Science?
"Yeah, I suppose so. But I think that the one thing I established with my first album was to expect the unexpected. So I don't think that anybody in their right mind is going to expect me to repeat the formula of She Blinded Me With Science over and over again, because that would sort of undermine the whole thing.
So you've left behind the synthesized sound for the most part?
"Oh, definitely, I never really felt that my music was particularly electronic sounding, certainly not to the extent of Human League or Ultravox or somebody like that. I didn't start with the premise that using electronic instruments was inhuman.
"I've played in rock 'n' roll bands and let me tell you, after the second date of an 84-date tour, you're not going to play with a lot of humanity. There's much more spontaneity from a bunch of machines. I really feel that if there is affection and soul in the musician and if that's the motivation behind the music, it doesn't matter if you use a Stradivarius or an OBX-A. People have used the general fear of technology as a weapon against it. People like to be bullied in that way. Heavy metal fans want to be bullied by a male up there on stage who is supposedly a better male than they are.
"People have used the general fear of technology as a weapon against it... Certain people — dare I mention names? — taunt the public with that fear of technology. Gary Numan is a prime exponent."
"Certain people — dare I mention names? — taunt the public with that fear of technology. Gary Numan is a prime exponent. I'm not interested in that at all. I'm not here to make music because of the latest advances in microchips. I just happen to be working in this era.
"But, as it happens, there are very, very few synthesizers used on my latest LP, which is because I arranged a lot of the material in Belgium with a band. In the old days — although I've always used a lot of different instruments on my records — I would tend to record alone, putting down drum machines and the bassline, then guitar or something like that and then flute or something like that. In this case, I got all the musicians together in a room and I didn't even roll the tape until I thought I had a complete arrangement. I just kept postponing putting any synthesizers on it, until it got to the point that I thought, "Well, this doesn't need any synthesizers, it's finished."
This is only your second release. Does it worry you that you've strayed from the sound and techniques that catapulted you to fame so early in your career?
"Well, a lot of what made me famous was the surprise and the unexpected element. I haven't left that behind at all."
Why such a loner in the past?
"I've never really been a great leader when it comes to working with other people. I'm shy about dictating what I want to people, even though I know what I want to hear from them. I took some professional engagements, working in bands, some of them were fun and memorable and some I'd rather forget. When I decided to make music as a solo artist, it couldn't be on those terms. It either had to be a spontaneous thing with the musicians or me working on my own. At that time, I had an awful lot to get off my chest, because I was capable of arranging a piece of music as well as producing it in the studio. I wanted to show that I could do that. I wanted to make a personal statement that all came from me. I didn't want anybody else getting the credit for what I knew I was going to do.
"I didn't regard the synthesizer as an awesome beast that threatened the domination of the guitar in youth culture or anything like that. I just saw it as another electronic tool... which could hopefully be led into textures that nobody had every heard before."
"That happened at a time when the technology was becoming available for one person to do it on his own. But I didn't really regard the synthesizer as an awesome beast that threatened the domination of the guitar in youth culture or anything like that. I just saw it as another electronic tool — like the one that had existed in recording studios for 20 years — which enabled me to explore abstract and personal sounds of my own, which could hopefully be led into textures that nobody had ever heard before. Textures that were personal to me and which properly expressed myself. So, that's how the synthesizer came about. I'm not protective about synthesizers. The moment that I find that the synthesizer is starting to sound like a different instrument, I find it more fun to get somebody in who knows how to play that different instrument. I certainly have no great desire to prove to everybody that all traditional instruments are obsolete because you can do it all with synthesizers."
How do you approach songwriting now?
"I tend to create songs from a visual standpoint, all of the pictures that were in my head. Very often I'm gripped by an atmosphere and that starts me off writing a song; like when you smell a smell that reminds you of something in your childhood. It finds its way into a part of you that you may not have been aware is there. I have to explore it a bit and find a way to articulate it."
Do you consider yourself primarily a writer or a musician?
"Well, it's very awkward to put tabs on it, really. Something I resist as much as possible is being pigeonholed. Somebody in, lets say Fred Astaire's day, or — even better — Frank Sinatra's day, wasn't categorised. You don't really consider Frank Sinatra an actor or a singer or anything in particular. He's an entertainer and he does various things very well. It would be unfair to try and label him or ask him whether he considers himself one thing or the other, because he's an entertainer. That's what I try to do as well.
And how has your recording approach changed?
"I go about it entirely differently. It's not so much a layered thing now. I try to get everything happening at once. As soon as it's all there, happening live, I turn on the tape machine. I have to make use of what technology and language is current. So, for that reason, I think it's very important to be at ease with those things and not to be intimidated by them, certainly not to react against them. That's why I view any kind of technological advancement or any fashionable advancement — whatever — with a kind of detached amusement. I'm very much an observer. I'm on the conveyer belt along with everybody else. I would rather use those things to my advantage than fight them and pretend that they didn't exist.
"I built it all up. It's more upbeat this way."
What type of equipment are you currently using?
"It's the same as ever, really; a Micromoog, an Oberheim, Solina string and Roland four-voice synths, a Jupiter 8, the PPG 340/380 Wave computer, Simmons digital drums, two vocoders, echo units, mixers, computer-synchronized video and film projectors and a custom-modified 1952 U.S.A.F. compression test kit. There's nothing very different apart from the fact that I use the Fairlight a little bit."
"You can get anti-burglar devices which switch TV's on and off in your house. I adapted some of them to one particular parameter on the synthesizer."
So, you're continuing to utilize computers?
"Yeah, I do use them quite a lot. My PPG computer was originally designed as a sophisticated switching device. It switched Tangerine Dream's light show on and off. It's just a bunch of 16 switches with a very complicated sequencing software program. You can put in very complicated timings and switch things on and off.
"The PPG is an additional synth consisting of wave tables made up of various principals on 16 harmonics of the fundamental soundwave, which is how my synthesizers work. I can sequence anything I want by playing it into the computer with the keyboards and adjusting the sound. For example, I can use up to eight voices, but the sounds don't tend to go together very organically. It's rather like overdubbing the same voice lots and lots of times. That voice doesn't get any bigger, it doesn't become like a crowd. It gets smaller if anything. You need different voices, because of the harmonic differences between the voices. It's rather the same thing with the computer. I use all eight voices at once, it doesn't really sound all that much bigger than two voices. So I can sequence things that way through the computer. Or I can use triggers from the computer to clock external sequences, like Roland or Oberheim sequences. Thereby, I can sequence any synthesizer I want or I can play it."
The legend goes that you've built some of your own synthesizers.
"I always found a lot of instruments very predictable and I wanted to find ways to start planning a few accidents, so I adapted some of my first synthesizers to my own needs. Of course, with computers, it's easier, because the nature of the computer is that everybody programs it to suit his own individual needs. So, I've used standard synthesizers since then and used computers to add some unpredictable elements."
Can you detail those elements?
"Well, without giving away trade secrets... when I'm apart from other musicians and working in the studio with machines, it's very straightforward. You give one particular note two purposes. So, as you're varying one parameter in the sound, you're changing another. You can set something up with a long switch and a very long timing on it.
You can get anti-burglar devices which switch T.V.s on and off in your house. I adapted some of them to one particular parameter on the synthesizer. It breaks things up a bit if, while working in the studio for hours, something changes drastically every couple of hours. It's much more fun.
"But also, when I work with other people, rather than describe to them in great detail what I want, what I've envisioned — although I have a picture of what I want when they come in — I'm interested in getting their own interpretation of what I wanted. They stamp it with their own personality rather than me just treating them like another piece of equipment."
Interview by Yvonne Kramer
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