This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Thomas Dolby: Musician, academic, technologist, and author.
In a newly-released autobiography, “The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology” (Flatiron Books), Thomas Dolby recounts the details of his fascinating career that has led to the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland where he is its first Homewood Professor of the Arts.
It’s an exhilarating book that you likely will race through, just to relish the bumps, triumphs, and curves of this 57-year-old’s career.
Plus, he’s one hell of a compelling storyteller.
Dolby entered the world as Thomas Morgan Robertson in London, England in 1958.
His music career ignited at 17 after he discovered a Transcendent 2000 synthesizer in a dumpster while walking home fired from his job at a grocery store.
By 1982, after playing keyboards with Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club, and Lene Lovich as well as recording with Robyn Hitchcock, Foreigner, and Def Leppard, Dolby became an international cultural phenomenon with his international synth-pop hit, “She Blinded Me With Science,” and its brilliant, self-directed music video.
With a solid recorded catalog and a reputation as an electronica innovator, Dolby was soon sought out to work on projects with such high fliers as David Bowie, George Clinton, Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Wonder,
By the early ’90s, however, Dolby had grown weary of the machinations of the music industry. He moved his family to the Bay Area where he pioneered sound on the internet. He was behind adding audio to virtual reality, and he created Nokia’s signature ringtone.
In 2014, Dolby was named Homewood Professor of the Arts John Hopkins University where he is helping create a new center to serve as an incubator for technology in the arts.
When did you start working on the book?
About two years ago. It took a year and a half in total (to finish).
Several publishers had approached you to write a music business/tech-guru type book. Why did you decide to work with Flatiron Books?
They didn’t want to mess with the concept. That was a good thing. I think they felt that, although an immediate calling card would be people who remembered me from MTV or were into ‘80s music or whatever, but that the book had the potential to have a broader appeal.
Writing an autobiography can be quite a daunting task.
Well, yes. A lot of it was based on diaries that I had or on notes that I had made.
You came up with the idea of writing the memoir in a journal format after sifting through your personal archive of diaries, Filofaxes, Palm Pilots, Danger HipHops, and notepads.
Yes. I had a framework for it. I started out thinking that, maybe, I would just fill in the blanks in the same style. But it (the book) evolved into a first person, past tense narrative. The daunting part was the transition from the journal format to a single narrative. I was worried that I would lose the immediacy (of the storyline).
The book flows well and is easy to read. You seem to have brought some of the same editing skills you have utilized in music and film-making to the book.
I think that music and film editing as well…Yeah, there are some things that (producer) Mutt Lange taught me. One is this ability to be able to view things as for the first time. That’s a really important skill to have. I think you can develop it at the time but, once you develop that kind of skill, maybe, it works across different disciplines.
Was the first part of writing the book--when you wrote things down in a stream of consciousness---enjoyable?
That was actually the easiest part, really. Yeah, that was a lot of fun. I didn’t stop and sweat that, really.
You didn’t get sidetracked looking up dates or facts?
No. A lot of dates I could figure out just by googling them. Some things I had, and some things I didn’t immediately have at my fingertips, but I would pick a random date, write it in, and fact check it later.
In the past 15 years, there has been considerable disruption in how music is both distributed and listened to that weren’t as evident when we were going through the process. Did you reflect on that metamorphosis while reading notes written by your younger self?
I guess so. I think that as you get older, that unless you work incredibly hard to pay attention to how younger people are enjoying and accessing their music—pay attention to what they are listening to--it’s very easy to get out of sync with that. A lot of people tend to use their kids as yardsticks. I’m not sure how valuable that information is as an insight into an entire generation of music fans. It seems to me that in our lifetime music has gone from being a very rarified thing--where you would get excited before a record even came out. You would rush down (to a record store), put it (the record) on in a listening booth, and then you would buy it and take it home. You would spend the first few days flipping between side one and side two, and poring over the lyrics, and the credits, and discussing it (the record) with your friends. Then seeing if you could find articles about the artist. Maybe, they (the band) was coming through on tour. Music was a very rarefied commodity in those days.
In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, whenever a band released a new single or album, everyone knew about it.
Yeah. There was a fraction of the quantity of music coming out then. It was filtered by the fact that there was a finite number of record companies, and finite manufacturing capability, and stocking in the stores. That (amount of music), of course, is all close to infinite at this point.
There were also slim pickings in finding music in specific genres like blues, jazz or worldbeat. Today, it’s all available.
Yeah, that is exactly right. It’s great today from a consumer’s point of view that you basically can get access to all of the music in the world, instantaneously. That’s fantastic, and I think that it is good for music as well. There’s a certain friction-free environment where someone making a recording in their backroom can upload it, and have the same access available as a superstar act. It’s all very good from the point of view of the barriers to entering (the music marketplace) being down. That’s what you want when you are a talent starting out. You believe that this is the world, here’s the music, and they (music consumers) can fall in love with it.
The power of record companies in the past was that they controlled via distribution the path to music retail, consumers, booking agents, club and concert promoters, and radio programmers. Today, the biggest obstacle is being heard when so much music is available.
Absolutely. I agree with you on that. Generally, though, I think it’s a very good thing, you know. We moan about the issues that the record industry has but, in a way, the need for a music industry has gone away. Obviously, there are new gatekeepers, the iTunes, and Spotifys of the world, but the physical manufacturing limitation has gone away.
In truth, there was good A&R personnel and good producers under the old label system. It wasn’t all bad for artists trying to enter the music industry.
It wasn’t all bad, but it’s (the industry is) gone. What are you going to do? Busby Berkeley style of dance numbers have gone from the movies. There was a golden age for them, and you can go back and enjoy them, but you can’t resist forward progress. And, sometimes, the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. We don’t have the choice of winding back the clock and setting it to the way things were. All we can debate is whether the audience’s enjoyment is as good as it can be. I think that it’s fantastic now that you can get so much music so easily. That young people have a much more eclectic tastes, and ranges of likes than our generation had.
Few artists in the ‘80s were doing what you were doing on your own with your music in utilizing layered sounds. Frank Zappa, perhaps. Few record companies then would give artists such production control.
It is a form of orchestration, really. Many classical composers start with the piano, and then work out how to divide up the voicing between instruments of the orchestra; coming up with interesting tonal variations, and different forms of expression for the different parts. So the approach that I took to electronica arrangement, I would say, was like electronica orchestration.
Influenced by your approach to film editing as well?
What about that?
With “She Blinded Me With Science,” you took a storyboard into the label, and they said, “Is there any music to go with this?” You had an idea of what you were doing, you just hadn’t written the music yet.
Did you have a compositional or arrangement background?
I was never trained in that. I sang in a choir when I was a kid. I did a bit of music theory. That was about it really.
You are a silent film aficionado. What silent films do you like?
Not so much the art films, but just some of the classics of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. I’ve always identified with the underdog hero.
Were you, like some Brits, fascinated with American culture while growing up?
I think that inevitably my generation, growing up with access to American film and TV, were fascinated by the (American) culture. It was rare to travel in those days. I first came to the U.S.A. when I was 10. I had a friend at boarding school, and his parents were stationed in Seattle, Washington. So I came over. I was the first kid in my class, certainly, to have done that trip (to America). It was very unexpected. I found the (reality of the) U.S. different from TV, and the movies. There was a big cultural gap (between the UK and America) which has gradually narrowed I think. Over the years you would see a lot of American culture imported into the UK. Often turned on its head, and adapted with our own particular style. But that happened more and more quickly over time.
At the start of your career, it was an exciting time for music in the UK. Was it hard to break into the scene as an artist?
It was pretty hard. Unless you knew somebody, you weren’t going to get signed. You just sent a stamp-addressed envelope to an A&R man if you didn’t have contacts in the industry. I was involved with music, and one thing led to another. I got pretty lucky
You had early success as a songwriter with “New Toy” being recorded by Lene Lovich in 1981. The single reached #53 on the UK Chart. Your mother purchased 20 copies.
Yeah, she was always the first down to the record stores when I had a record out.
The first time an artist or a songwriter hears their music on the radio is a memorable moment.
Yeah, it’s very exciting. It certainly was a bit of a shock, but it didn’t take very long after that to realize that I was making a product, and I had a brand.
That in itself must have been a bit of a shock.
Yeah, but you get used to it.
Playing keyboards with Lene Lovich on BBC’s “Top Of The Pops” would have been a big deal because the next day everybody would have recognized you. Millions watched the show then.
Well, exactly. The population in the UK was 56 million at the time, and on a good night, two-thirds of the UK population were watching “Top of the Pops.”
Writing “New Toy” became a calling card for you in the UK music industry?
Absolutely. It got a lot of radio play, and notice. It’s a song where the composition and the arrangement are very evident. Within the industry, a lot of people took note of that.
You also performed on BBC’s “Old Grey Whistle Test.”
I did it with Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club.
With “Whispering” Bob Harris hosting?
Why get involved with a music publishing deal with Zomba Music Publishers at the start of your career?
I thought that getting a publishing deal might be a quicker way to get what I needed than trying to get a record deal right off the bat. So I sent music to a few music publishers. That’s how I met Mutt Lange. One of Zomba’s partners, I guess it was Clive Calder, sent Mutt my tapes and asked, “What do you think of this?” Mutt took a shining to the keyboard playing and said it was what he wanted for the Foreigner album that he was working on.
Mutt hired you to play keyboards for Foreigner's 1981 album “4.”
He took a chance on me. He believed in me enough to hire me for that project. I got the chance to work with someone who is a real craftsman, who puts so much care and attention into his work, and who is willing to take risks in the production area.
[The fees from working on Foreigner's 1981 album “4,” as well as revenue from tour dates, enabled Dolby to fund the studio time for his 1982 debut album “The Golden Age of Wireless” from which his solo career was launched.]
The tracks “Europa and the Pirate Twins,” and “Cloudburst at Shingle Street” from “The Golden Age of Wireless” contained electronica sounds many of us had never previously heard. Were there innovative producers around then that you considered peers like, perhaps, Brian Eno, who was also opening up a new universe in music?
Yeah, the ‘80s was a very interesting period in terms of genres breaking down, and people being willing to step outside the conventional labeling of genres of music. Brian Eno was very interesting with the experimental stuff that he did. The ambient music, the music for airports, and all of the collaborations that he did on the one hand, and the more commercial efforts with U2, Coldplay and people like that on the other end. He’s really a true renaissance man. It was very inspiring that he could have the cake, and eat it too.
As an artist/songwriter/producer were you given the necessary freedom in the studio? Or did you have label executives coming around trying to guide you?
No record company every got near my studio. It wasn’t necessarily because I prohibited them from coming down. But in those days there were some artists that you would mess with, and some that you wouldn’t. They knew that I always made up my own mind, really. It was great of them to indulge me like that, but the thing is that even if they are not pulling their weight, a record company can make life very difficult for you just by assigning their resources elsewhere if you don’t collaborate.
You discover your record isn’t a label priority.
Yeah, and often you would be a priority for a couple of weeks but if the record didn’t catch fire they would move onto to somewhere else.
You are credited as co-producer of Joni Mitchell's 1985 album “Dog Eat Dog.” She’s not renowned for sharing musical concepts. How did you two get on? You were brought in as co-producer with her then husband Larry Klein. Did that surprise you?
Well, it was very flattering. I suppose in my mind that I saw that there was this kind of through line of (band leader) collaborators including (bassist) Jaco Pastorius, (saxophonist) Tom Scott and others. I imagined myself in that role as sort of the latest flavor of being a Joni collaborator.
She had been experimenting with a Fairlight CMI at the time?
Yeah. She and Larry had just got the first Fairlight (one of the earliest music workstations with an embedded digital sampling synthesizer). It was very new to them, and I think that they wanted to work with somebody who had a bit more experience with it.
[Bassist Larry Klein became famously connected to iconic Canadian Joni Mitchell after being hired for her 1982 album “Wild Things Run Fast.” Romance ensued, and the two married in 1982. The couple worked closely together for more than a decade, including on Mitchell’s 1994 Grammy-winning album “Turbulent Indigo” that chronicled the end of their marriage. Despite the split Klein helped Mitchell with her albums, “Both Sides Now” (2000) and “Travelogue” (2002)]
An intimidating lady?
Yep. Certainly, she is. I mean very charismatic. A great storyteller. She knows her own mind. She has the right, and any artist has the right, to be thoroughly...how to put it? You know there’s no obligation for an artist to take input from anybody else, even if it’s the correct input. You have the right as an artist to be completely single-minded in terms of the choices that you make, and to ignore advice from others that may be objectively good advice. You can ignore that, and that’s fine because there’s a lack of single artist artistry in the world. There’s an awful lot of stuff that is made by committee.
So Joni, with all of these people that she had worked with--she sort of ping-ponged between them, taking little bits from here and little bits from there-- came to feel that at the end of the day that she was the only person that she needed to please. And she is absolutely 100% correct. There’s not ultimately a right or a wrong way of doing things. The artist has final cut, basically, and that’s the way it should be. As a producer or as a co-producer you are there to serve the artist’s needs. I believe that, and that was certainly my only desire, really.
How did you and Larry Klein as co-producers split up production duties?
How did we split up duties? Well, the band stuff was mostly recorded with Larry’s set of LA.-based musicians including (drummer) Vinnie Colaiuta, and (saxophonist) Wayne Shorter. In terms of wrangling them (the musicians) into the studio, and getting that happening, that was definitely Larry’s domain. I didn’t have a lot of input into that. We would then sample stuff and sequence it in the Fairlight. That was really my domain. Then the other thing that I would do was--going back to myself being involved with orchestration with electronics--I would take her compositions, and I would start to layer them and divide up the harmonies, and the chords into different parts with different sounds.
I think that was something that Joni didn’t really embrace on the album.
Sometimes I would be programming a sound that that was designed for a three or four note motif, and Joni would say, “Ooh, that’s a lovely sound.” She would bump me off the piano stool, sit down, and start playing a two-handed piano part on that sound. She’d say, “Record this. Record this.” This was in the days of limited tracks. I would say that this sound was not designed for a piano style part. It was just designed for a three note melody. She’d say, “No. I love it. Let’s put it down.” The engineer would say, “Well, we’ve only got a couple tracks left.” She’d say, “So we will wipe that stuff we did the other day.” I would be thinking, “You mean the stuff that took me 10 hours to program on Tuesday. You want to wipe that?” Joni would then say, “Yeah, yeah do it. I want to burn my bridges.” So we were slightly at odds from that point of view.
I would imagine a further clash came when fitting in her vocals.
Yeah, with the vocals. Quite often with a singer in the booth, and you have someone in the role of producer in the control room who is saying, “I really like that take if we just re-do the first line, and the 6th line then I think we have a great take.” You would punch that in. It was the day of analog tape. So you were burning your bridges (recording over recorded tracks). You were recording a previous vocal, and taking a chance that it (the new vocal) is going to fit, and work.
We found out quite early on that her choices of her vocal lines that she wanted to keep, and that she wanted to go over, were the direct opposite of the ones that I would have kept.
So there’s no answer to that, really.
It really doesn’t matter, objectively, who is right and who is wrong. She’s Joni so she gets to have her way. I backed off on that. My role for the months that I worked on the album became more and more marginal to the point where at the end I went to a different location, and I would program the Fairlight, and I would send over floppy discs to the studio where they were all working. It was disappointing to me. I liked some of the results, but it wasn’t the kind of easy collaboration that I’m used to with other people that I’ve worked with.
You played keyboards with David Bowie’s backing band at Live Aid in 1985, and again in 2000. David was known to be more open to collaboration than Joni.
Well, he had a very different style. Joni has a hand in every sound that goes onto every song that goes onto her albums. Bowie, on the other hand, I think believed in the talent of the musicians that he assembled, and he acted more of an inspirational figure, really. He brought out the best of the musicians that he worked with because they were inspired by him. They worked well together as a band and their talent came to the fore by his inspiration. So it’s a very different kind of leadership from Joni’s.
[Thomas Dolby and David Bowie were interviewed together at Live Aid].
David had no qualm about bringing in outsiders to flesh out his sound.
Well, yeah and, to be fair, he never took credit unreasonably for anybody else’s work. He would always give them credit; whereas journalists and media wanted to know about one person (David) and one person only, but I think that he was always very gracious with his musicians. Bowie was a collage artist in every sense. He would take a little bit from here and a little bit from there. But at the end of the day it always had his stamp on it. So he wasn’t an appropriator.
While working in tech start-ups in Silicon Valley, did you find parallels to the music industry?
They are very different industries. Music is magic fairy dust, really. You can’t predict how the public is going to respond to a new product the way you can to a bar of soap powder. Proctor & Gamble can’t sell music. The people selling music early on were basically music fans who, over the decades, made it into an industry, and they tried everything they could to make it (the process of releasing music) more predictable; to make it more so if they were going to invest millions in a new act that they would be guaranteed a return on their investment. But they never approached the quantifiable business practices of the high-tech industry, for example. There is some fairy dust in high tech as well. Who the hell knows whether the Apple watch is going to take off or be a flop? I am not saying that there’s no magic in the tech industry, but the way that it’s funded, and the way that it’s executed is a lot more methodical and scientific than the music industry. So, correspondingly, the people operating in Silicon Valley, it was a more adult environment, really.
The technology and music worlds were far apart in the ‘90s. Those in the music industry worried about technology, wanted to monetize everything, and were slow to adapt to what came to be offered via technology.
Yeah, and it was very mysterious. It was mysterious even to the business people, and I was not a business person.
Well, you had to be. You had your own companies, Headspace and Beatnik Inc. You may have been winging it as a tinkerer working with music and technology, and trying to figure out everything—but you were still a businessman.
Yeah, I had no choice. But to be fair, in the early days, when you have a VC-funded business, it’s speculative. It’s a different set of rules from a typical business where, if the numbers don’t add up at the end of the month, then you are out of business. (In the VC-funded tech world) you are given this red carpet that is rolled out, and you have a certain amount of time to try and prove an idea is viable. So it’s a different type of the thing. I had a board to answer to, but I didn’t really have...there was basically zero revenue from those companies.
Certainly, Beatink Inc. would have imploded, as did so many dot-com companies at the time, if not for Nokia licensing Beatnik Audio Engine technology in 1999. Can the VC-funded tech world be summed up as “We are going to give you X amount of funding, and we will give you a certain amount of time, and we will return and you show us what you have. Then we will either give you more funding or you close you down?”
That’s pretty much the sum of it, yeah.
Why did you resign from your own company, Beatnik Inc., and exit from the tech world?
I lost interest in it (music-based technology). It got mainstream. A lot of the things that I do, once they go mainstream, I lose interest in them. I am mostly drawn to something when it is still hazy. That was the case with most of the things that I did.
You are a self-described tinkerer. At various points in your career, you have jumped on and off projects that you found intriguing or that had promise or you felt you could express myself with. Do you primarily prefer working in sectors where the rules are still undefined?
Yeah. Once things go mainstream it becomes about engineering and money, basically. There’s less wiggle room, really, for creativity. That’s why I tend to move on. I am a migrant tinkerer.
There’s also an element of Mutt Lange’s anonymity with your career as well. Despite your music and video-based celebrity status, and significant name-recognition, you can pretty well walk anywhere you want today without being recognized, right?
Yeah. But we were talking about tinkering. Mutt doesn’t tinker. He can take something that is already good, polish it, and make a fabulous gem out of it with hours in the studio. There are not a lot of people like that. Artists tend to not have the patience. We want to quickly get to the finished results. That’s very different from me. Mutt didn’t do a lot of experimental stuff, really. He tended to work with artists that were already on a trajectory, and he just took them to the next label.
You spend three-quarters of the year in Baltimore. Where do you spend the rest of the year?
In the UK. I have three children who live there. They are in the ‘20s.
Do you still oversee hip-hop workshop classes for students at the Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore?
We do that after school. They (students) come down to the lab, and we teach them how to make their own beats, and how to record vocals and so on.
A rewarding experience for you?
It’s very rewarding. Baltimore is a big city with problems, and John Hopkins is relatively a big fish in a small pond. So we try to be a good neighbor. The nice thing about Baltimore is that just about everybody that you talk to has views, or are actively involved, in trying to answer, “How do we make it better?” That’s refreshing because there are a lot of big cities where people don’t have that attitude.
You were living in Los Angeles In 1994 when the earthquake hit and caused $240,000 to your home in the Hollywood Hills.
Yeah, that was a bit annoying.
With that extent of damage why didn’t you bulldoze the house?
We didn’t bulldoze it because it’s a beautiful 1920s Spanish mansion.
Still, you soon moved because you and your wife (American actress Kathleen Beller) were expecting your third child.
L.A. is not really a good place to bring up small kids.
Not necessarily always the best place for a creative person either.
Depends at what stage of your life that you are at, really.
When you approached John Hopkins University, you applied for a part-time film position.
That’s correct. It is still what I am doing now. I teach music part-time, and the rest of my time here is spent on community outreach programs and, generally, getting the new film center off the ground.
Was it a big learning curve switching careers to be now teaching 20-year-old university students?
Ahhh, yeah. It certainly was a big learning curve. Academia has a lot of quirks of its own. I have lectured a lot, but teaching is different. You need to roll your sleeves up and really get into the thick of things. John Hopkins’ students are brilliant but reserved.
They grew up embracing technology. Do you wonder about the path of their experiences in the future? Where they might take us?
Yeah. I definitely wonder. It’s an amazing time, really, for creativity, and the beginning of a new era. So it’s exciting to watch.
Meanwhile, you are now able to put the moniker “author” next to your name.
Yes. That’s nice. Along with the other monikers.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.
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