The Quietus vs Thomas Dolby
The Writer vs Thomas Dolby part 1 : 1984
Sometime in the spring of 1984 during a school lunch hour, I picked up a 12” single by Dolbys Cube called ‘Get on out of my mix’.
The reason for this random purchase has long gone from my grey cells, but it could have been due to the promise of a free flexi-disc that included 2 extra tracks (live versions of Urban Tribe and Airwaves) as back then any extra music for free was a serious bonus point situation.
So, when the 12” was unleashed without the flexi disc I set into motion what was to become a long term relationship with Britain’s most unusual and unexpected pop star.
You see I wrote a letter to EMI.
An old fashioned letter that involved crappy 16 year old whining about being ripped off.
Amazingly my letter got through to a sympathetic soul as a few weeks later I was honored to receive a response.
Hand written of course.
The man behind the letter promised that he would try and track down a spare copy of the flexi, but then went onto to tell me how he wished he always caught a catch whenever he happened to be fishing in the river that was nearby my parents Yorkshire Dales pub.
Filing the letter on top of my pristine NMEs I thought nothing more of it, as surely a man working for EMI would not have the time to track down a skinny disc for some spotty kid stuck in the outback of the Yorkshire Dales?
Amazingly, again, my plea did not go forgotten as a few weeks later an EMI stamped parcel arrived.
This time the note was a lot more succinct, but alongside the note was the full length album ‘The Golden Age of Wireless’ by Thomas Dolby, one 12” by Vicious Pink, and a Vicious Pink record deck slip mat.
The result of this act of unexpected generosity was that I ended playing “Golden Age ..” more than any album released that year, and made me a fan of his music from thereon.
The Writer vs Thomas Dolby part 2 : 17th May 2006
I am in Chicago on a once in a lifetime adventure being paid for by my employers.
My head is literally spinning at the sheer vastness of the town and its architectural beauty, but I had a few nights to kill in this town of legends.
Who would be providing the soundtrack to this ultimate jolly?
Upon my arrival at the centrally based Hard Rock Hotel (a well worn cliché, but I wasn’t going to complain, I had never seen a tv in a hotel room as large as this) I checked the various local magazines that were left in the room to chance upon this listing :
17th May: Thomas Dolby – Sole Inhabitant Tour (Martyrs)
So while I’m in the city of acid house, Hefty Records, Lou Rawls and others, there I am with a chance to see some long forgotten UK 80s pop star on the comeback trail.
My head says ‘Go !’, but my heart is saying ‘It’s going to be cringe some’, thankfully my head won the war, and I went.
As I wrote for PlayLouder at the time (a review that is currently trapped in the dusty digital archives of a long lost database), the concert turned out to be a joyous occasion in which rather than dropping a load of backing tracks onto a laptop and performing a set of cheesy karaoke styled revisions, Thomas Dolby had dusted down his old synths, hacked into a few new toys, cyber’d up some old war era gadgets and generally put on the show of the year. Thomas beefed up the sonics of the originals that proved he was taking an interest in the more modern sounds of electronic music, but had managed to keep the other worldly atmospherics of the source material and despite the glut of grey haired mortgage payers, generally got the party bouncing to his anti-pop hits.
The Writer vs Thomas Dolby part 3 : 2009
At last it seems that the people behind Thomas Dolbys four major label releases (all of which were released on various sub-labels of EMI) have decided to give his catalogue another time to shine.
First up is the release of a straightforward compilation of the mans singles set down in strict chronological order, “The Singular”, accompanied by a DVD containing all the videos.
Then for the fans there will be the long awaited remastered editions of “The Golden Age of Wireless”, and “The Flat Earth”, each with some extras if rumours are to be believed. So after being asked by The Quietus team on a few occasions in the past to help and always refusing due to some inner fear of inadequacy, I couldn’t let this unique opportunity slip by.
Only one problem, I could ask too many questions.
Let’s start and see where we end up.
With the release of ‘The Singular’ how has it been revisiting your catalogue for the purpose of this exercise? Like revisiting an old friend, or exhuming some long forgotten ghosts?
It’s actually been fun pulling the singles together as sequence. It’s like fast-forwarding through your career. I think I grew up pretty fast over the course of one decade, before disappearing into a cone of silence for the second
And why now?
Before I release a new album (my first in over 18 years) I’d like listeners to listen afresh to my old stuff and see how it stacks up after all this time. The eighties were such a whirlwind of contrasting styles that you sometimes couldn’t see the wood for the trees
Given that each album swerved off into a new musical direction, which era of the catalogue do you find has stood the test of time the best, and why?
People like musicians to keep a sense of continuity, with each album being a progression from the last. But I always envied novelists, who are allowed to set each book in a different location or period of history, with a fresh cast of characters. I like each of my albums for different reasons. The stylisms of ‘Golden Age Of Wireless’ and ‘Aliens Ate My Buick’ were very strong but have probably aged, whereas ‘The Flat Earth’ and ‘Astronauts And Heretics’ were primarily very personal, atmospheric works, and so the songs tend to transcend fashion.
You had a reputation (often
backed up by the videos that accompanied the singles which are for all to see
in the DVD that comes with the compilation) for being quirky, and a techno-boffin.
Yet away from the singles, the albums were a lot more melancholy and introspective.
Did this double edge sword ever cause trouble, and did it become hard trying to appease the needs of the pop market, and yet maintaining your own sanity?
No question but that I made it hard for the marketing and promotion guys. I was hard to pigeonhole because of that dichotomy between the quirky extroverted synth-boffin, and the more introspective, moody me. If it was just about being a megastar I should have stuck to the former. But there’s a more important message to my music, and people that went deeper into into it picked up on it. During all the years I was away from music, the Internet came along and guess which songs people analyse and pore over? It’s stuff like Screen Kiss and Budapest By Blimp, the oddest and most intimate stuff.
Where did the love for technology
and old world come from?
You clearly love the modern technological aspects of the world, yet your music and visual imagery often harks back to days gone by.
It’s a strange and rather unique viewpoint, and something that I would suggest is a core part of the Thomas Dolby concept.
It is. I’ve always loved things that used to be very modern. I was a big fan of Jules Verne and H G Wells. It rarely mattered whether their predictions about the future turned out to be correct. What was great was the way they imagined worlds beyond the one they knew about. Technological solutions were needed to make those images come to life, and the technology of the imagination is often so much richer than the practical, commercial solutions that end up being rolled out.
There has been some reaction to the choice of coverart for the compilation – care to provide an insight as to why that picture was used?
I didn’t see the point in making Singular a product that looked like my other albums. I’m staring right into the camera. For once not surrounded by props and mysterious scenery. For that reason, my hardcore fans hate it! But they are not the target audience—they’ve already got all the singles and I doubt they’ll want to buy Singular. The aim is to scoop up a different set of fans who maybe weren’t aware of me before; give them an accessible entry point to my music, and hopefully they’ll want ‘GAOW’ and ‘TFE’ when they’re re-released in the Summer.
The tracks on the compilation are said to have been remastered. Does that mean that people who picked up the special cd singles that were released as part of the “Astronauts & Heretics” campaign will notice a difference in end results, as those featured many of the early singles on cd for the first time ?
I didn’t remix or re-edit anything. But digital conversion tools have improved a lot since these records first came out, so the quality should be better.
As I was to find out many years later, “The Golden Age of Wireless” was revised for the American release. Did this cause some heated discussions as to the track listing for the reissue?
I just reverted to the first (UK) version, but added the extra songs on as bonus tracks. I’ve also dug up a few demos that predated the album altogether, which are pretty amusing. They were recorded in hotels or in my back room on a 4-track cassette recorder, and the quality is crap but it’s interesting to hear the germs of the ideas that became the songs on the album.
Will the re-release have the live versions that were on the legendary flexidisc?
Wow, I’d forgotten all about that! I don’t even know what live tracks those would have been, but I have dug up a few live cuts that I like.
In an age when record labels love to compress the hell out of audio dynamics, how did you go about the process. I’m especially interested in regards to “The Flat Earth” an album that needs space and subtlety in the mastering so as to not lose any of the carefully crafted atmosphere – were you aware of the danger of revising the overall sonics of such a personal album?
It was a case of ‘just say no.’ People get scared that their music will sound wimpy if it’s too quiet compared to everything else out there, so they use adaptive limiting to make it more ‘in your face.’ But fans use the ‘normalize’ button when they compile playlists, and radio producers level out the volume when they play songs on the air. So all it really gets you is less dynamics. I didn’t even consider it. I did have to ask the mastering engineer to make a couple of songs less bright—notably Screen Kiss, which really doesn’t need to take your head off.
How much did your involvement with Trevor Horn and the production of “Duck Rock” influence the sound of The Flat Earth (eg. The Soweto styled guitars)?
The chords to The Flat Earth are directly lifted from a keyboard part I put down on Soweto, but that Trevor wiped. I remember when he asked me down to Sarm East to put the first overdubs on the tracks he and Malcolm McClaren brought back. It was the first time I’d heard South African music well recorded, and it was magical.
About “The Flat
I very much doubt I am the only person to think that Hyperactive (despite the fact that it’s a brilliant pop song ) doesn’t really sit well with the rest of the album. Is that part of the reason it was put at the end of side two?
Yes. I often think ‘Hyperactive’ and ‘Budapest By Blimp’ should have been swapped! Each is out of keeping with the rest of the album it’s on. But if that was the case, ‘White City’ would be the next to get the chop…. And so on. Many albums have a particular flavour, a kind of aggregate effect of the whole ensemble. I like that about LPs. To me, Screen Kiss and the title song are the flavour of TFE. So these days I think of Hyperactive as a kind of teaser for Aliens Ate My Buick…. Just in case the public were worried I would drift off into a kind of David Sylvian-esque dream state, never to return.
What was the reaction to “The
Flat Earth” given that it virtually eradicated any evidence of the synth pop
style that you had become so well known for?
Was there any resistance to the fans of “…Wireless”, or, would you say your fans have always been ready for your changes in direction?
Frankly, I’ve always pissed a few people off and it doesn’t bother me at all! I can’t imagine the day something I do will be universally welcomed and heralded as a masterpiece. The way I see it, if you’re not upsetting a few people, you’re probably not taking enough risks. That said, I’m very pleased that my hardcore fans know to expect the unexpected. My music covers a lot of different feels and styles, so you have to be quite broadminded to like it all. But I do whatever the song requires. On ‘GAOW’ my songs and lyrics were about technology, the weirdness of being human in the middle of huge political and changes that technology was bringing about. As a species we went from analog to digital in half a generation. So much of our existence now is fizzing all round us in the ether. That’s what Airwaves was about—the saturation of all available airborne frequencies, despite the rotten state of the terrestrial analog legacy, the radar towers and underground copper cables and electrical substations.
Have there been any discussions
as to the rest of the catalogue.
After all, “Aliens ate .. “ and “Astronauts ..” are not that easy to find these days.
I’d like to re-release those as well, but perhaps not until after my brand new album has come and gone.
What about the 12” versions of
Could I put in a request for the possible re-release of the “12 by 12” cd as I would suggest that you were one of the earliest proponents of the 12” remix.
Often the remixes were where things became a lot more interesting, not just an extra drum beat as many of the rest of the early 80s crowd were doing.
Clearly you enjoyed the freedom such a format gave you.
For example, your first Dolbys Cube release, ‘Get out of my mix’ was fascinating in how it merged 2 of your tracks, drew out the bass funk element and therefore predated the mashup/bootleg world by decades.
What on earth possessed you to make the track, and just how did you get such a thing past EMI?
I don’t generally like 12” mixes
done by other people. Francis Kervorkian’s mix of Dissidents was a notable
exception, and that will be on the TFE re-release. For my own 12 inches I
tended to just make the songs longer by mixing a few bits instrumentally, and
editing them all together. It lets you hear the parts in a bit more detail I
suppose, but I didn’t want to waste space on the CDs, when instead I could
include demos, love tracks, and a couple of unreleased outtakes. The Dolby’s
Cube tracks will both be included as well. When I did GOOMM I was just giving
my new Fairlight a workout!
Also, re that 12”, in my over analytical inactive teenage brain, I put the fact that you were saying ‘Hey John, get out of my mix’ to the ‘Science!’ shoutout, that this was an indicator to the world that you were somewhat fed up with the attention that the whole ‘Science!’ thing caused?
Actually that was Kevin Armstrong. And we did it before Science was a big hit. When you play Magnus Pyke’s ‘Science!’ in revers, it sound like he’s saying ‘NURSE!’
Will we ever see the full 12” of “May
the Cube Be With You” get digitized ?
After all, the b-side has some rather interesting insights provided by George Clinton as to which fizzy drink he likes.
Didn’t anyone listen to the record at the label? Surely people knew what was being implied?
Hmm, I don’t think anyone took a lot of notice.
I assume ‘Get Out of My Mix’ wasn’t included on ‘The Singular’ due to space restrictions, or was it down to the fact it was a 12” only release?
It didn’t really belong in the sequence of singles, and we ran out of space anyway. But it will be on the GAOW CD.
You worked a lot with George Clinton, producing and album and on Dolbys Cube – how did such a bizarre team up ever materialize?
We met backstage at Saturday Night Live; and had a mutual high regard for each other. He was about to do a James Brown benefit concert with P-Funk in a huge arena in Washington DC, and he had the brainwave of asking me to come up onstage and sing ‘Sex Machine.’ There was no rehearsal or sound check, and backstage was a gathering of the P-Funk hoardes, most of whom wanted to get close to George and hit him up for back wages he still owed them. I was in a corner trying to teach Bootsy Collins’ brother Catfish how to play the Sex Machine rhythm guitar part, which he had played on the original but completely forgotten. The funk dirge in E started up at like 130 decibels and I stood petrified at the side of the stage. Then I saw James Brown himself take a seat in the front row. I scarcely heard the MC mention my name, and I was up there giving it my best impression of an Oxford theology professor strutting his stuff. I ran over to the electric piano to play the solo, and it wasn’t plugged in. So I kicked the crap out of it, then sang the last verse and got the heck out of there, fearing a lynching. Later George found me back at the hotel bar and told me I had brought the house down
Producer/Session involvement or Pop star – which provides the most rewards?
It’s very different. One’s a grownup, the other’s a schoolboy! But I’m not a natural exhibitionist, it’s just a streak that floats to the surface every now and then, so being a 24/7 popstar was never my style. In many ways the producer hat fits me better, I pull the strings and work the controls while some kid with great hair is out there in front of the flashbulbs. Trouble is, when you’re a producer or session player, you’ve got a client to keep happy. I’m too selfish and single-minded for that. So in the balance, being an obscure cult artist leading a hermit-like existence in a secret lifeboat location, and only communicating with the outside world via FTP seems a logical way to live.
If the world suddenly twisted,
and you had a choice to only save one side of your catalogue which would it be : the Thomas Dolby material, or, the material that you
produced for others ?
I am aware that you regard very highly your production work with Prefab Sprout, but you have choose!
Collectively it would have to be my own work, with the Sprouts a close second. But if I had to pick one disk to put in a distress rocket capsule sent off to outer space, it would be ‘Steve McQueen.’
Your involvement in providing the
backing for Bowie @ Live Aid was a definite highlight of that day for me and I
have longed for that material to be made available commercially, how did all
that come about?
What are your memories of that day, did you feel part of the 80s club following that, or, was all a little surreal?
Matthew Seligman played bass on the Jagger/Bowie version of‘Dancing In The Streets’ and mentioned to Bowie that he was friendly with me. Bowie had been booked for Live Aid but his regular touring guys were all busy. So he called me and asked whether I could put together a band with Matthew, Kevin Armstrong and others. I rectuited Neil Conti the Sprouts drummer, and we put the word about for backing singers, a sax player, and a percussionist. Bowie was very busy filming ‘Labyrinth’ at Elstree Studios and we had to grab a few hours here and there to rehearse. But he kept chaning his mind about what to play—he started out wanting to promote his current single ‘Loving The Alien’ but soon realize Live Aid was much bigger than that. He settled on the 4 final songs the evening before the show, and we had never played them back to back. It was a warm day and I remember walking along the Thames at Hammersmith that morning and hearing the commentary already coming out of each upper storey window. I met Bowie at Battersea Heliport and he was in a foul mood because he detests flying. He jammed himself into his seat with a Homburg pulled down over his eyes, chainsmoking. He looked just like the bratty popstar in ‘the Thin White Duke’ documentary. But that was completely out of character—in reality he’s a total gent, funny, easy going. We banked over Wembley just as Freddie Mercury was wailing in closeup on the jumbotron. Bowie perked up once we landed and a flood of a hundred photographers engulfed us. Three minutes later we were onstage and I was muddling through the piano intro to TVC15. I was convinced I’d fluff all my parts, especially in Heroes which has a curious structure. But I just looked out over the crowd and channeled the 15 yr old Dolby, then one of the adoring Bowie fans out there in the crowd singing along. Surreal? No. More transcendental. I’m not quite sure what the 80s club is—assume that’s a somewhat sneering label—but I have no regrets about being there on that day, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Keyboards by “Booker T Boffin” on Def Leppards Pyromania : was that you then, and if so what other pseudo have you used over the years.
Yes, Pyromania and also parts of Hysteria. I didn’t really want to get tarred with the Heavy Metal brush, and the feeling was quite mutual—hence the pseudonym. It came about because Mutt Lange’s a great guy that’s not afraid to try odd things out.
Re the recent live show : Were you ever approached to join the very successful 80s
themed ‘Here and Now’ tours ?
Yes, often. They don’t appeal to me, because they seem to be a graveyard for formerly great artists who have lost their way. You wouldn’t catch Kraftwerk of depeche Mode on one of those tours, because their bodies of work (and the sheer quality) transcend the decades.
Having been at the Chicago show that was recorded for the live CD/DVD, it was very clear you were somewhat taken aback by the crowd involvement with certain sections of the classics () . Why such a shock? Surely from your online presence and the thriving fanbase passion you knew that people would be somewhat keen to hear them in a live setting, and more to the point, sing along with full force!
Hey, it takes years of practise to be able to fake spontaneity so convincingly!
Why the full keyboard set up ? Surely that was a lot of hard work reconfiguring the
Were you ever tempted to just do the laptop option?
I hate the way it looks when an
artist is buried in a laptop. I call it the Fletch factor.
It’s so introspective, not the essence of live music at all, and the audience may as well be listening to their own iPod and hearing halfway decent sound! I do lectures and keynote speeches jamming with a laptop, but that’s a big step up from watching your CEO give a motivational speech. If fans come out to see me in concert, I want them to know they’ve seen something unique. I take risks, and every night is different. (Some nights it all goes wrong and there’s no music at all!)
I loved the way you proved to the audience that you were building up each track from the elements as opposed to just hitting a ‘go’ on a backing track. I take it that this was an important aspect to your show?
It’s nice to deconstruct the grooves and show people how they’re put together. I mainly followed a script, but there was still quite a lot of margin for improvisation.
When did you realize it was going
to be good to tell stories in-between each track?
It was an excellent addition to the whole evening, and rather unexpected. You certainly seem to enjoy being a story teller as well as a pop star.
Yes, that was surprising to me as well. I don’t go to many concerts myself, and I assumed that most artists talk a lot between numbers—but judging by the reaction, people found it quite refreshing.
And on a personal note, why was
it that only one track was played from “The Flat Earth”?
[Actually I think it was two including “Hyperactive”, but I was hoping to hear more of the non-single material from the album]
It hadn’t occurred to me. I don’t think any of the others are very appropriate for the show I was doing. I thought about Mulu but never got round to it. Screen Kiss is too hard to sing! But I did play I Scare Myself at the Academy when Matthew and Kevin joined me onstage.
Re the final single that’s
featured on the compilation “Love You Goodbye” : turned
out to be very prescient lyrically.
Did you know at the time of its release that it was going to be your last single release on a major record label, or, had you already decided to retreat into the world of technology and become a family man and walk away from the mad world of record releases, and so used that track to tell your fans the situation.
Actually, chronologically that was a cheat because ‘Silk Pyjamas’ came out afterwards, but as you pointed out, ILYGB made for a more poignant closer. The song at the time had nothing whatever to do with saying goodbye to my fans! I didn’t plan to spend 12 years away, more like a year or two, but one thing led to another and I got wrapped up in Silicon Valley.
During the ‘wilderness’ years what did you miss the most about the whole pop thing, and what did you miss the least?
I didn’t miss anything, except my own songs. I missed the communion I felt with them. I didn’t feel an overwhelming desire to write and release new ones. Unlike say Paddy McAloon, who has a chemical need to write about two new songs per month!
When did you start to realize that there were still people fascinated by Thomas Dolby via the emerging internet, and at what point did you begin to regain control over things via your website/blog/forum etc.
I always thought of myself as a fringe artist, and acquired taste, only marginally commercial. When I listen to most of the other stuff out there, it’s clear I don’t fit in. Yet all the artists I admired as a kid were the same way, unmarketable and impossible to pigeonhole… Van Morrison, Frank Zappa, the Band, Joni Mitchell, Eno, Dan Hicks, Cpt. Beefheart, Robert Wyatt etc. As the Internet emerged it provided a way for rabid fans of those artists to converge and dissect their favourite music. I was pleased I was getting mentioned in those terms, and in a way the fact I disappeared made me a bit like one of those guys that died and just got bigger, like Nick Drake. As for the web site, I don’t think I do control it! I’m happy that my own domain is an hub of Dolby discussion, and that people are not scared to air their views. But they are mostly very respectful and mild-mannered.
If it hadn’t have been for the
online community that pours over every aspect of your history, do you think
there would ever have been a time that your material would be so revered again ? I mean how did the whole remix
for “… Submarines”
come into action. The 12 minute remix by minimal techno guru,
Ricardo Villalobos is a piece of modern electronic beauty,
that got an official seal of approval from you alongside various others
such as Afuken.
Did you track Ricardo down and ask for him to do his thing, or did the whole project happen outside of your knowledge, and you became aware later on?
It’s a natural fit. It made sense that younger guys like Richard Villabolos acknowledged that I’d been an influence on them, and BT whom I toured with. I never met him or even talked to him. ‘Submarines’ was really the perfect song to do it on though, because the stems are very good even in isolation.
With the recent remixes, and the
revised live versions, it’s apparent that you still have a love for electronic
So with that in mind, any ideas as to what style, or direction that your new album (I’ve read your tweets so I know about one famous guitarist being involved !) will take ?
No, not really! A lot of electronic music sounds like someone went through my Mac trash from about 1984 and took all the blips and bleeps I’d thrown away and made entire records with them. But most of the music I make is the way I would LIKE a given genre to sound, it’s just my imagination of what it could be.
My new album covers quite a lot of different styles. (Surprised?) It’s loosely divided into three parts, codenamed Americana, Urbania and Oceanea. When I left the UK in 1986 I sent a kind of postcard home in the form of Aliens Ate My Buick. Now I’ve returned it’s fitting I should sned one back to the States. So that’s Americana. But it has little to do with cheerleaders and lemonade, it’s more like a low budget road movie. Urbania is quite dark, sophisticated, somewhat funky. Oceanea is ethereal—inspired by where I am living and recording, and how it feels to return home to my roots after all this time. Together they compile the album, and I think it will be quite a travelogue.
Do you have any concerns that you are putting in many hours/months/years into producing music yet the end result will be that most people are listening to music via 128 mp3s on their respective mp3 players, that effectively strips away a majority of the production finesse that you have carefully crafted, or, do you see this as all part of progress (in regards to the way music is consumed) and therefore to be expected ?
In the old days people listened on transistor radios, or cheap hi-fis with one tweeter blown and one speaker under the settee. You can’t ever second guess how the majority will hear it, so you just have to make it as good as possible, and capture the essence of the song, so that if someone heard it coming out of an open upstairs window it would still sound good. And there are a surprising number of audiofiles still out there. Plus, over the years the Industry will upsell you higher and higher res versions of songs. Surely non-compressed iPods are only just around the corner?
In other words, I am trying to find out your thoughts behind the vinyl/cd/mp3 discussion, and what of the whole p2p world. Do you partake in any of the darker corners of the net, or, do you still hold firm and buy records/cds by the artists that you enjoy?
I can’t bring myself to do it unless I need something in a hurry for professional reasons. I don’t like the feeling of having my copyrighted recordings looted. But I’ve mellowed over the years. It turns out the more you give away for free, the more you sell. And why are we surprised? Music is built on the drug dealer model—give ‘em just enough for free to get ‘em hooked.
Etc etc .. I could ask hundreds more - but think its best I stop there ..
So, finally :
the beret, the pith helmet, or the panama ?
Do you think pop stars are missing out when it comes to the choice of headgear ?
Life is full of possibilities!