Thomas Dolby – The Speed of Sound (Part One)


This is the first instalment of a two part interview with Thomas Dolby on the occasion of the publication of his memoir on October 11th. To pre-order via Amazon UK, click on the graphic of the cover.

To anyone interested in the last four decades of music, or who loves Prefab Sprout, the idea that Thomas Dolby – a man who wove himself through the warp and weft of audio-visual innovation during the entirety of that period – has written a memoir is nothing short of thrilling.

Leaving aside Dolby’s own diverse and fascinating work, he worked with or met pretty much everyone of note during the period. You don’t always see him, but he’s ever-present. To take just a few examples, he’s onstage with Bowie at Live Aid (and appears in about two shots of the BBC coverage). He played the classic synth riff in “Waiting for a Girl Like You” by Foreigner. He worked with and wrote for Lene Lovich. He visited Michael Jackson for a private evening at Neverland. He even compared notes on ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’ with a young pre-punk-epiphany Shane McGowan, of which we will hear more in this piece. And much more besides that.

So he was both performer and back-room boy. The Barnes Wallis of pop, you might say, for there is something of the eccentric wartime boffin about him, obsessively pursuing his idiosyncratic inspirations to the mild amusement or irritation of the ‘Top Brass’ until it turns out he was right from the outset, and he changes the world. If that sounds fanciful, recall that this is the man whose sonic products were in pretty much every mobile phone on the planet for a time.

As regards Prefab Sprout, he adopted on Steve McQueen and subsequent albums what you might describe as a sort of Karl Faberg‎é role towards Paddy McAloon’s ready supply of farm-fresh golden eggs. There could be no better partnership: Paddy, labouring upwards towards his artistic vision, a man who hates completing anything for fear it fails to reach the exalted heights of his imagination. And Dolby, who from the moment he conceives a project enumerates the steps that must be followed to get to the ultimate goal, and works systematically until it is attained.

Not that this is a simple relationship of a troubled unworldly poet and a practical artisan, there’s a bit of both of that in each of them, but more that they have complementary aspects and mesh together beautifully. We’ll hear more of that in Part 2 of this interview. 

I learned a little while ago that Thomas Dolby was about to publish a memoir, and was chatting about it to Stuart McLaren of the “Paddy McAloon and Prefab Sprout” Facebook group. I’d helped Stuart a while back with something Sprout related he was looking for and it turned out he was looking for it for Thomas Dolby, so there was a line of communication open. Ever the opportunist, I asked if he’d pass on a request for an interview to introduce the book and talk a little bit about his work with Prefab Sprout.

It turned out that the stars were aligned, and a time and date in June this year was set up.

I have to say, it didn’t start brilliantly.

I’d spent most of the morning fiddling with wires and software to try to figure out a way of recording an iPhone reliably without risking losing it all because of a dodgy app (no, it turns out there is NOT an app for that, or at least not one that works easily on a call without a lot of buggering about), eventually ending up with a throbbing headache, dry mouth and a horrific and very off-putting voice echo on the audio.

But on the line he is, and I nervously start out by reading out to him a list of things I think he might be identified as: musician, producer, video-maker, entrepreneur, teacher, storyteller, now of course writer, then chuck him the equivalent of what I felt was the equivalent of an underarm full toss with a tennis ball of an opening question, so as to get things moving nicely and convivially:

“So… from all these pursuits, what does your passport give as your occupation?”

“Ermm…. I don’t think passports have occupations any more do they?”

Dead stop.

I remember gulping inwardly, and thinking it was going to be a difficult hour. I was quite wrong about that as it happened, but it did later strike me that this maybe gave a little vignette of Thomas Dolby.

I’ve had a similar experience before in a previous life, talking to the art historian Raymond Lister whom I met a couple of times. Lister had the same easy eclecticism of pursuits as Dolby, and the same self-effacing modesty. Like Dolby, he appeared to wander the world like some sort of innocent abroad, effortlessly turning up in exactly the right place at precisely the right time. But you did get hints of steely determination and focus flashing in his eyes. Advance one half-baked or evidence-light theory about the relationship of, say, William Blake and Samuel Palmer, and you’d be summarily dealt with in the way a master tennis player despatches a short second service. Not with any malice, but efficiently and accurately.

On the phone with Thomas Dolby, I couldn’t see his eyes, but I could well imagine he might have the same look. Amiability, charm, and a laser focus that if called on could bring down a ballistic missile with a single sideways glance.

I suspect my mistake was that Dolby resists being pinned down to a category. The best I got out of him after pressing the point a little was “Ermm, yeah, it’d be hard to come up with a single word really… I suppose musician is the simplest.” In other words, he didn’t look for anything much beyond an answer that allowed him to move past the question. As if applying a label would diminish his ability to transcend it.

There are a bundle of easy answers to that question: “I guess I’m best known as…” “Most recently I’ve been doing mostly…” But what he went for was precise and correct, even if it was probably obvious it wasn’t what I was after. Dolby takes the most direct route between two points. Which is almost certainly why he tends to get to his destinations before the others.

Anyway, never one to give up easily, I gingerly return to the subject of his vocation. I put it to him that whether or not his passport cares to declare it to the authorities, what he really is is an explorer. That he launches himself sequentially into new directions, expeditions into uncharted regions so to speak, with enormous enthusiasm and energy, and with a compulsive desire to redraw the boundaries at the edges of the map…

And this time the motors splutter into life and the interview eases gently off the ground:

Yeah… I think that’s probably fair. I’m definitely lured in to areas that are not very well understood, or at least I don’t understand, and I investigate them, and often they require me learning new skills. I’m not one to read manuals so I like launching headlong into something where there’s pressure to figure out my own techniques and my own approach to them, and I really enjoy that process… when I get stuck into something I get quite obsessive about it.

“In general I’m focused on one project at a time. I don’t have a biological need to create music on an ongoing basis. I know a lot of musicians who would be like a fish out of water if they weren’t able to play music for more than a few days at a time. I mean Paddy McAloon would shrivel and die if he couldn’t get in his back room studio all the time and be making new stuff, regardless of whether or not there’s an outlet for it.

“For me, unless there’s an outlet on the horizon I’m not particularly creative. If you told me I had to release an album six months from now I would get focused on that and I’d be very focused on the outcome, the end result. From the beginning I’d be thinking about the title of the album, the album cover, I’d be visualising the moment when a fan put the album on for the first time… what do they hear, what does it sound like? And then I sort of work backwards from that. If I’m going to do a tour I picture a stage with an empty spotlight and a guy walks into the spotlight and starts singing, I imagine what it sounds like. And then I work backwards from that and fill in the blanks.

“So I’m very much like a sort of top down writer versus bottom up, I’m somebody who needs to get in the studio at 9 o’clock every morning and go to work and not come out until lunchtime. And so for that reason I tend to be focused on one thing at a time, so there have been long periods when I’ve done very little music. When I had a software company in Silicon Valley I did very little music. When I was writing my book I did very little music, and so it goes on.. at the moment I’m teaching, not doing very much music of my own so I think in answer to your question I tend to do one thing at a time and function on that.

“I think that probably the anomaly in the list you gave is the teaching part. I’ve come to learn about myself that I’m very introverted but I have a show off streak. Which is that I like to create things and show them to the world, and have people you know say ‘ooo arr’ and enjoy them and be impressed by them, so there’s definitely this exhibitionist aspect to my personality.

“But teaching is different, because teaching is by its nature a selfless thing. It doesn’t stroke your ego in any way, you’ve only got a small class of students to impress, not a large or potentially large audience.

dolby1“It’s a more esoteric thing too, because it’s about passing on everything I’ve learned or figured out, hoping some of that can run rub off on a new generation. You don’t get to pick ’em you know, you have a group of students assembled and that’s a class and you don’t get to filter them on the basis of ability, talent, enthusiasm or anything else, you’re presented with them and you have to deal with that and hope that at the end of the course they come out with the knowledge or experience. So the teaching aspect is in a different bracket to the rest of those explorations you mentioned.

“The things I teach vary but the core one is film music, and I teach that not just to composers but also to sound engineers and filmmakers so they’re grouped together and they come out of it. I’ve done a TV magazine programme about the arts districts where I’m based in Baltimore where the class got to make a sort of reality show about the local arts scene, and I’ve done a history of film music where we’ve looked at film scoring going back to the beginning of the 20th century. And then coming up with interesting programmes outside of that and generally promoting the film centre that we’ve built in Baltimore.”

So when and why did you decide to write a memoir?

Over the years I used to keep a diary on and off, and at various different times I had a Filofax, a Palm Pilot, an Apple Newton, a Blackberry; something I’d just keep notes on.

I was going through old drawers a couple of years ago and found a box of old Filofaxes and things, and it was just really interesting going through them and reading my notes. And what was amazing about them to me was that I wasn’t seeing the big picture at the time. So if was writing about Live Aid, or working with Stevie Wonder, or my first ever meeting with Prefab Sprout, there was no context around it, it was just my immediate notes, my feelings about that moment.

And I thought that as a historical chronicle it was interesting, because I’ve been through a lot. I’ve met a lot of amazing people, I’ve been lucky enough to have been in the right place at the right time on several occasions. But if someone in 2016 wrote a book about the Eighties, Nineties and Noughties, a book about the music business and Silicon Valley, about the Internet boom and so on, it would be with a 2016 perspective. With an editorial overview.

And that would be less compelling somehow because we all have the benefit of hindsight. It would be less compelling than the immediate thoughts and feelings of someone who was actually there at the time.

And because of my enthusiasm, my over-enthusiasm for all these different things, and the fact that I sort of bungled through and made some questionable choices, that would actually make these memoirs more compelling reading than a book written by some sort of 2016 guru.

“So my initial idea was to go through all of those memoirs and fill in the blanks. It would be like a day-to-day dated journal format. And I wrote a couple of example chapters from different eras along those lines and armed with those I was lucky enough to get a top agency in New York on board. We did the rounds of publishers and Macmillan went for it.

“Not long after that they said ‘We’re really looking forward to seeing the first draft of the book, but we have to get rid of the journalled format.” They explained it wasn’t very popular these days, not very contemporary and a bit off-putting to people. And it would really be best if I wrote it in the past tense in the first person, as a narrative.

“I was very disappointed because I was worried that that would turn it into the sort of retrospective guru book that I wanted to avoid. And I’m not experienced as a writer so I didn’t really see another way around that, but they said ‘Well look, just try it, but what you might be able to do is to stay in the moment and just write it as if it was the morning after, and stay in the moment and avoid the temptation to editorialise.’

“So I went ahead and wrote it like that, just staying in the moment, day-to day, and I gave in the first draft, and they said ‘This is great’, but the editor would insert a little note saying ‘maybe a single paragraph here with a bit of perspective would give us the background and the context to what you’re talking about?’ So that was the way I proceeded. I tried to keep it in the moment, keep the immediacy of the journals, but occasionally to step back and speak from a 2016 perspective.

“It starts in the late 70s when I’m living in a bedsit in London and going out to see punk gigs but wishing I could have a synthesiser and somehow fuse the energy of punk with kraut rock and Bowie and Eno and Kraftwerk and stuff like that. So it starts then and covers my music business career through to the Silicon Valley years and the Ted conference, and it winds up in a fairly happy place back in England in my studio, the Nutmeg, making ‘The Map of the Floating City’.”

How long did it take to write?

“Well I suppose the first draft was only about ten weeks. It was interesting because in the contract they gave me a maximum number of words which I think was 75,000, and a deadline. I worked out that in order to meet that deadline I would basically have to write 1500 words a day. So I got up every morning and went out to my lifeboat and sit there and not come in for lunch until I’d written 1500 words.

“And everyone I spoke to, writers and friends with writing experience, advised me that in the first draft I should just get it down, don’t stop and retrace your steps, just get it down, get through it. So I had an absolute blast doing that. I absolutely loved doing that in a sort of stream of consciousness and I was managing to meet my 1500 words a day quota. But then I realised before very long that at the rate I was going through my story the book was going to end up being 300,000 words long instead of 75,000 so although I’d get 75,000 words written by the deadline I’d only be a third of the way through the memoir! So then I had to reset my expectations and my deadline, and it was absolutely fascinating.”

How did you approach researching events, and did you get perspectives from other people?

“I had a framework of dates to hang it around. Some stuff I could Google. If I needed to look up what year from Langley Park to Memphis came out I could figure out when we recorded it, for example, and some events I had actual dates in my calendars for. I built a timeline, and if I needed a date between June and November 1985 I would just pick August.

“I had a list of about a dozen people I had to go talk to to consult and verify the dates. and the fascinating thing was that everyone’s memories are different. People suppress certain parts and remember other parts. And especially when you are somewhat in the public eye your memory of events becomes tainted by the way they’re reported in the press, or photographs or quotes from other people about the same period. Sometimes journalists get things wrong and they report things inaccurately, and you read that and it supplants your own genuine memories from the time. And then also you tell stories repeatedly over time. Without ever deliberately veering from the truth they evolve…”

They ossify…

“Yeah, absolutely, and the thing is that in many cases my book will be the only published version of these stories and so in a way I have a responsibility that I’m writing history for a number of other people as well. And so you have to respect their point of view and their memories of what went down. But at the same time I’m not going to walk on eggshells around people, I’m sure that some people are going to get pissed off when they read the book. That’s unavoidable, but I’ve got to tell it my way and I’m not trying to rewrite history. Hopefully the truth is compelling in and of itself.”

The book is on the US Macmillan “Flatiron” imprint. Are you expecting a UK edition? If so, will it have a different perspective to the US one?

“It’s quite possible that I’ll have a UK publishing deal in time for a UK release. And it would be nice to see it in bookstores here. I’m also recording an audio book during the summer so that’ll be available as well.

“I had to change quite a few things for the American editors, obviously spelling ‘c-o-l-o-r’ and so on, but also some terminology which they didn’t understand which I think would have been very obvious to the UK audience. There must have been a hundred changes like that that I took out which if there was a UK edition I’d like to be able to restore.”

It covers your professional career, but not your childhood and formative years. Tell me about how your love of music interacted with your love of technology in your schooldays.

“Well the first thing to say was that I dabbled in both really. I’m not a natural scientist because scientists have a line of enquiry that gets them all the way into a subject to really understand the nuts and bolts of it. And technology to me is more interesting when it retains its mystery. That’s to say where there’s a machine that I don’t really know how to work but I just have a feeling that if I grab this knob at that moment then I’ll get something good out of it, that I don’t need to know the specifications of it or how it’s doing what it does.

“And the same with music really. I wasn’t classically trained. I had a few months of piano lessons, I sang in a choir and I had to be able to do simple sight-reading to be able to do that. Much later in life I briefly studied orchestration when I started to get involved in film music and things like that. But for the most part everything I’ve learned about even musical technology is just been by doing, by trying it myself. And then seeing where it took me. So yes, in the early years I was certainly fascinated by both but I wasn’t interested in writing theses or dissertations about musical technology. I wasn’t interested in the academic aspect of it.

“What I would do is make compilation tapes off the radio. I had a transistor that picked up Radio Caroline, Radio Luxemburg, the BBC before it was called Radio 1 Radio 2, etcetera. I would record stuff off the radio and I’d make my own cassette compilations.

The machine I had it was a fairly hefty Phillips cassette machine with 6 or 8 batteries in it and a big leather case, a serrated leather case, and a shoulder strap, and it was quite hefty on your shoulder. I’d walk around with this, with headphones on, and that was really where I got the nickname Dolby because it had a Dolby button on it and everybody wanted to know what the Dolby button did.”

What music were you listening to?

MI0000017817“A variety of stuff really. Bowie, Kraut Rock. Singer songwriters ranging from Elton John to Joni Mitchell to Van Morrison, people like that and then slightly more eclectic… I would listen to jazz: Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Thelonius Monk. And ‘Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks’, quirkiness like that. Django Reinhardt and Stefan Grapelli. A variety of stuff. I even had a brief period where I was listening to progressive music, Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Pink Floyd I suppose. The Grateful Dead even.

“In those days you would buy a copy of the NME, you’d read a review of the new records and then you would go to the high street and go to a little booth and you’d ask to put on the record and you’d listen to it. Chances are you’d come out and buy it, because you wouldn’t get to hear it again unless you bought it and you knew that if you bought it and you really got to know the music you could pore over the credits and the sleeve notes and stuff like that. You would really immerse yourself in it, and because your friends were doing the same thing you’d spend hours discussing that new record and listening to it together.

“The naughty kids at my school used to go and smoke in the afternoons in a little cafe, and we would sit around poring over one cup of tea for three hours talking about music, and in 1975/6 it was Yes and Genesis and Steely Dan and stuff like that. But the most knowledgeable of my group was a guy called Shane McGowan, and he had an encyclopedic brain when it came to music. He knew everything. He could tell you who played sax on the 1962 version of X Y and Z. He was a pretty scary specimen even aged 15, but he had this incredible brain for music.

mcgowan“And I remember clearly one day we were all sitting there talking about the latest Yes triple anthology or whatever and Shane walks in and he goes ‘It’s all crap!’ We said ‘whaaat?’ ‘All that progressive music is crap. And the Beatles and the Stones, it’s all rubbish.’

“And we were like ‘whaaaat! how dare you?’ How could he possibly disrespect our idols? ‘What should we be listening to Shane?’ He told us to listen to Johnny Thunder, the New York Dolls, MC5, Iggy Pop, the Ramones.

“We’d never heard of any of these people but they were evidently American and we were deeply deeply shocked that he should be so irreverent, but there was something very tantalising about the idea that there was a whole other wave of music that would be more exciting.

“Shane is an amazing songwriter of course. I remember after leaving school I didn’t know he was a musician, so I was quite surprised when a couple of years after leaving school I bumped into him and asked him what he was doing and he said ‘well I’m putting a band together.’ I asked him what kind and he said ‘punk folk’ and I laughed my head off thinking he was having me on.

“It’s easy to forget there weren’t very many festivals or big acts or big gigs in those days but I saw the Grateful Dead at Alexandra Palace and Pink Floyd at Wembley, Earls Court and the Stones at Knebworth. There’d be two or three big acts or events per summer as opposed to per weekend as there are now but those were very influential to me. To go off as part of the tribe to be camping in some muddy field somewhere, they were very formative years.

“It’s quite a different experience to today, where music is for the most part is very personal because people have their playlists, their iPods, their phones, They’ve got access to everything so they’ve got their own music. And then you have these massive festival events where you do show up as a tribe and you share your enjoyment of the music. So I think the relationship between the fan and the music is very different now from when we were kids, it was a lot more rarified then and a lot more precious.

“If you chose to say ‘I am now a Pink Floyd’ fan then it was an investment and a very personal thing, you don’t want to look like an idiot, you want to find that tribe and you want to connect to other Pink Floyd fans by wearing the T-shirt and striking up a conversation going to their gig and all of those kind of things. So there was a lot more loyalty than there is today in a way.

“But all of this… I don’t want to make how things are now sound like a bad thing, I think this is evolution. I think things change. It’d be ridiculous if kids today had the same experience that we had 30 or 40 years ago. It’d be awful if that was the case, if nothing had changed during that time.”

Yes, back then you could never admit to listening to Chic AND Genesis.. You could get beaten up for that. There was a lot that was negative about the period!

“Yeah, they’re more tolerant now, it’s true. In fact our reaction to Shane’s outburst was echoed half a year later by the music business’ reaction to the Sex Pistols. I remember the NME review of the Sex Pistols gig at the Marquee where they said they spat at the audience, they swore, they could barely tune their instruments, the singer walked off after 30 minutes swearing, who do they think they are?

“That was the reaction of the music establishment to punk when it first came along. And these days that would never happen because the moment it happened some hip journalists would realise that it was cooler to support this rebellious outburst instead of questioning it. But those were just much more innocent times.”

So that takes us more or less to your bedsit in London, and the start of the book, so we’ll leave the continuation of the story to that. But I just wanted to ask about your Transcendent 2000 Synth…

transcendent“Yeah that was after school. I left school at 16 and I was working in a fruit and vegetable shop in Notting Hill gate. I had an electric piano, a Wurlitzer electric piano, but I really wanted to get into synths and they were expensive. A Mini Moog was two thousand quid back in the days when that was a lot of money. So I couldn’t really afford one, but there was this kit synth and I managed to get a hold of one. First the circuit board for it, and then I found somebody who could make a fascia done. I didn’t have a keyboard at first so I could only play it with a knob.”

So my interest here is in how that developed your facility for arranging. Was the fact that it was monophonic and that you had to layer sounds how you learned to visualise complexly layered productions, like in Steve McQueen?

“I have a mental picture. I mostly hear things in my head. I think I’m quite fortunate that way because I don’t really have that ability visually. I mean I can’t look at a textile and there’s a strand of blue that matches the curtains, I don’t see it with that kind of a lens. But immediately I can just hear everything, whether it’s Stravinsky or whatever I can hear every note and I sort of know why they work together the way they do.

“So when I imagine things mostly it’s fleshed out, 90% of the time it’s fairly fleshed out in my mind and then I just have to sort of recall what I imagined by actually making notes sound and mixing it that way. But a lot of it is just sort of reproducing something I imagined in the first place.

“As for the Transcendent 2000, I think there are two different things. It was monophonic and I only had a two track tape recorder at first so for example I had to program a snare drum on it. Then I’d run the tape with a metronome player playing the snare with my finger, and then I’d rewind the tape and program the bass drum and put that down. So you had to be very economical and the more layers you went through the more degraded the sound was because you’re bouncing back and forth and you’re adding tape hiss each time. There was also a risk that you make a mistake and you couldn’t unravel what you’d done so you had to be quite ingenious and thrifty with your sounds.

“But I think there’s a very different aspect to the skill of arranging. A lot of it is about economy. If you can’t hear an instrument it’s probably not because it’s too quiet, but because its competing with other instruments for tonal register or rhythmically and so often you have to take something away rather than add something.”

[In the next part of the interview, Thomas speaks frankly about his collaboration with Prefab Sprout.]

6 thoughts

  1. “As regards Prefab Sprout, he adopted on Steve McQueen and subsequent albums what you might describe as a sort of Karl Faberg‎é role towards Paddy McAloon’s ready supply of farm-fresh golden eggs. There could be no better partnership: Paddy, labouring upwards towards his artistic vision, a man who hates completing anything for fear it fails to reach the exalted heights of his imagination. And Dolby, who from the moment he conceives a project enumerates the steps that must be followed to get to the ultimate goal, and works systematically until it is attained.”

    Beautiful paragraph full of lovely analogies. The Faberge one in particular is fabulous.

    1. Perhaps; but the ‘systematic’ bit makes Dolby sound more like Thomas Edison, when in fact he is the musical incarnation of Nikola Tesla.

  2. For future reference you can conference in your own voicemail to record a call you’ve received. Or call it and then conference in somebody else if you’re making the first call.

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