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THOMAS DOLBY INTERVIEW [2006]

AS I UNDERSTAND IT, THE REASON FOR YOUR SIDESTEPPING MUSIC FOR THE PAST FEW YEARS IS THAT YOU ARE PART OF THE TEAM RESPONSIBLE FOR INVENTING THE POLYPHONIC RINGTONE?

Well yeah, the way it came about was that Beatnik, the tech company I formed, built this very compact synthesiser and we built it really for downloading over modems on the web, in the mid-nineties, and Nokia who really created the ringtone - the monophonic beepy ringtone - saw phones coming out of Asia that had dedicated audio chips in them made by Yamaha and people like that which were playing polyphonic ringtones, but they took a lot of power and cost several dollars per unit. Nokia looked around for a synthesiser that was small enough and efficient enough to fit inside their standard phone. They came to Beatnik because they wanted to see out synthesiser and see if they could work with it and what we ended up with was a version of the synthesiser which could use samples, and in about '99 they started to ship them in their phones. Then there was sort of upgrade path we worked out with them where we added more voices and then eventually samples of real instruments aka trutones...

Basically I shifted Beatnik's attention right away from the internet and into cell phones and we became the pre-eminent company in that space and now over half the world's cell phones have Beatnik chips in them!

WHICH MUST BE A PHENOMENAL FEELING FOR YOU...

Well, you know... I'm very proud that the time I spent in the tech world eventually paid off - and it was a hard road - but I feel somewhat vindicated because I never wanted to take that long away from music! It was meant to be a couple of years and what with one thing and another it ended up being twelve years or something, but the fact that the outcome was good and that it has enabled me to go back to music for the love of it is a very good outcome and I feel fresh... I don't feel like I would if I'd been out there all those years, treading the boards and making a series of failed comebacks like some of my contemporaries...

JUST OUT OF INTEREST WHAT'S YOUR RINGTONE?

Right now it's one of my endangered species mating calls...

...WHICH I IMAGINE IS QUITE DISTINCTIVE IN A CROWDED ROOM!

Yeah, quite distinctive. I mean bird calls are designed by nature to emanate from small objects and travel large distances, but they're also quite soothing actually... if it goes off in a restaurant you actually get quite nice looks from people!

WHICH KIND OF JOINS THE DOTS FROM THE EARLY NINETIES TO TODAY AND NOW YOU'RE ON TOUR AGAIN...

Yes, I've been on tour since the beginning of April and I'm touring all the way through May and winding up in the UK in June at the Wireless Festival, and we've also put in a warm-up show at the Scala in Kings Cross just before that...

IT SEEMS LIKE A BIT OF STRANGE SCENARIO FOR YOU BECAUSE UNLIKE ALMOST EVERY ARTIST ON TOUR YOU'RE NOT ACTUALLY PROMOTING ANYTHING?

Yeah, I mean I did it because I wanted to do it! I've been away for quite a while and I had a kind of yearning you know? But I was busy with my tech business stuff and it's only really now that I've been able to take myself away from it to the point where I can get it all back in shape so I could go back on tour.

AND NOW YOU'RE BACK ON THE ROAD, IS IT EVERYTHING YOU REMEMBERED IT BEING?

It's actually better in many ways because I know who my audience is... I mean back then - because of the commercial success I had - I had a slightly schizophrenic audience, some of them had just seen 'Blinded Me With Science' on MTV and had got into me that way and others were interested in the more introspective aspects so it was a little bit hard really, but what has happened in the interim is that - very much to my amazement - people are still going onto the internet every day and arguing about my stuff and discussing the arrangements and the technology and the lyrics of the non-commercial work, the work that appealed to me at the time, that's what people were talking about and not the commercial stuff, so it's very gratifying to know that any impact I made wasn't built around the whole record company hype-machine and has actually been able to strike a chord emotionally as well... so that's really what I'm hoping for, to get back in touch with that and to join up those dots...

I SUPPOSE THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION FOR FANS THEN, IS WHETHER THERE WILL BE NEW MATERIAL?

Yes, absolutely! I have started writing again - although I can't really say yet how it will come out - but I felt I needed to, but first I needed to get back in touch with my audience and everything that is going on as well...

DO YOU KEEP UP WITH WHAT'S HAPPENING IN MUSIC?

No... (laughs)

WELL YOU HAVEN'T MISSED MUCH!

Well I suppose I do keep up a little bit, but people are always asking me what I'm listening to now but the things that are closest to my heart are the things that I listened to when I was younger and I suspect that your audience will understand that...

THAT IS EXACTLY WHERE THE SITE COMES FROM... THE FACT THAT TODAY'S MUSIC OFTEN CAN'T COMPARE WITH THE MUSIC WE GREW UP WITH, PARTLY I THINK BECAUSE WE HAVE LIVES NOW AND WE DON'T HAVE THE TIME TO IMMERSE OURSELVES IN MUSIC THE WAY WE COULD WHEN WE WERE GROWING UP.

Every time I talk like this I find myself turning into my parents, but I think that we all have a golden era to go back to which just can't go on forever...

I'VE BEEN LUCKY ENOUGH TO SEE YOU LIVE A COUPLE OF TIMES IN THE PAST AND REMEMBER THE HUGE AMOUNT OF EQUIPMENT YOU ALWAYS HAD ONSTAGE... WOULD I BE RIGHT IN THINKING THAT NOW YOU CAN JUST PLUG IN YOUR LAPTOP AND OFF YOU GO?

You would think so wouldn't you? Back then I was always surrounded by loads of equipment going wrong and today I'm still surrounded by loads of equipment going wrong! My technical set-up now is such that although I could do it with a laptop I can actually build the tracks from scratch. I have a headset with a camera which allows the audience to see my point of view, and so what I'm doing is instead of just triggering sounds from a laptop is that I am using old equipment boxes, old intelligence and naval equipment that you can buy for next to nothing on eBay and what I do is gut them and I retro-fit them for MIDI and use these big dials which makes it all bigger and I think makes it a far more satisfying voyeuristic experience for the audience.

AND PRESUMABLY IF YOU CAN BUILD TRACKS UP LIKE THAT YOU CAN ALSO BUILD THINGS UP IN A VERY SPONTANEOUS WAY?

Well the accidents are sometimes the most fun parts. The first couple of nights I was terrified that everything would just fail and on about the third gig I did that actually happened but afterwards people thought I was doing it in purpose... they must be mad, I nearly had a heart attack!

WHAT SORT OF SIZE VENUES ARE YOU PLAYING OVER THERE IN THE US? I'M NOT REALLY FAMILIAR WITH A LOT OF THOSE VENUES...

Well, they vary from large clubs to small theatres, so 800 - 1500 people or so and that's alright with me. I could probably have gone a slightly different route and gone on the eighties-revival circuit - I have certainly been invited onto several of those package tours - but without being disingenuous I want there to be a whole new chapter to my career, there's now a whole generation of music fans who have barely heard of me from back them but who I can hopefully get through to now.

Equally, with all the hype-machinery around the music industry these days I'm happy that there's now an option to actually just build on this very personal relationship that you can have via the internet, you know? Via the forums and the blogs and everything. Now I know the name and the address of everyone who buys one of my products and I know what they like about it, and it's also interesting - I can put a song up on iTunes tonight and by the morning I've got a bunch of comments about it so next week, if I want to change the lyrics or something, I can just put another version up. I might have a spike in sales because I'm on tour and then it might be quiet until Christmas where there's another spike but that just doesn't matter because there's not the 'sell-by date' that you used to have...

DOES ALL THIS MEAN THAT WITH YOUR NEW MATERIAL YOU WILL BE RELEASING IT VIA ROUTE OTHER THAN THE TRADITIONAL RECORD-COMPANY / MUSIC BUSINESS MODEL?

In the past it was stressful to me that I had to... with each release in the past it had to define who Thomas Dolby was at that point in time, and then I had to take that and get it approved by a string of executives and they would slot it into their busy release schedule. Then if it didn't catch fire within three or four weeks it was basically back to the drawing board. Now I can decide, for example, to do a whole album of quiet introspective stuff and put it out on a CD which in the mainstream can be perceived as my new album and the definition of what Thomas Dolby is at that point in time, but at the same time I can be doing little pieces for films and TV and commercials and also have my name on those, and they can also be available, on the internet, as downloads, as one-off EPs or whatever, and there doesn't have to be this kind of dilemma over which aspects of an artist to push. I'm really looking forward to this new era where there is just an array of options for the way in which you can go about your work...

WHILE YOU WERE PREPARING FOR THIS TOUR THERE MUST HAVE BEEN POINTS WHERE YOU WERE FORCED TO ASSESS YOUR CATALOGUE AS A WHOLE, IN PLANNING THE SETLIST AND EVERYTHING... HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT IT ALL NOW?

I'm very proud of it. There's very little that I did that I'm not proud of... a few choices production-wise that if I could do over I would do differently perhaps. As an example I did a version of 'Airwaves' that was only available on a cassette tape called 'From Brussels With Love' which is very rare and hard to find, and I actually think that it's a superior version to the one that was put on the album, which was perhaps a little bit over-produced. So I do have a few pangs of regret like that, but playing a song like that live today gives me the opportunity to put the record straight - I'm trying to stay true to the original but at the same time allowing myself to be influenced by what I have heard in the interim and by advances in technology.

What has been very interesting on this tour is that I've had people come up to me after the shows and say 'oh I really like the new ones', because I'm not playing any new ones! But they didn't hear the original album they came off and they just assumed it was a brand new song, and that is a rather nice tribute. I think that live either the songs stand the test of time or the modern treatment that I have given them makes them sound contemporary...

I HAVE TO CONFESS THAT WAS A SLIGHTLY LEADING QUESTION TO GET YOU ONTO THE SUBJECT OF BACK CATALOGUE... MOST OF THE QUESTIONS IN THIS INTERVIEW WERE ACTUALLY SENT IN BY FANS AND THE SINGLE MOST ASKED QUESTION WAS TO DO WITH PLANS FOR YOUR CATALOGUE...

Yes, there is a plan afoot to release a DVD package that EMI are looking at. What I'm hoping to do is get some new material from the tour which I can add to that package and get some fresh stuff on there as well. I don't think it will be a whole remixing into 5.1 exercise, but as it's a DVD package you may as well put everything on so it will include old remixes and b-sides and everything.

WHAT'S NEXT FOR YOU?

I'm going to do this tour and I'm really looking forward to coming to the UK - I actually told my agent that I didn't want to play in the UK until I had new material but then the Depeche Mode Hyde Park gig came up and I usually come to the UK about that time of year anyway - I still have a house in Suffolk and when the kids get off school we usually get over - and I liked the idea of a nice day in the park in London with Depeche Mode who are a band I admire very much... it seemed like a fun thing to do, but I don't imagine I will be coming back for a full-scale tour in the UK until I have some new product in the market.

So that's the next thing really; finish this tour and then get my head down and start recording some new songs. I've been writing a bit, I've got a piece in the movie 'Mission Impossible 3' which comes out next week and I've been co-writing with the guy who directed that movie, JJ Abrahams, who is an old friend - he also created Lost and Alias...

I'm taking video out on this tour and hopefully will be able to generate some live footage that I may be able to release independently or it may appear on the EMI DVD, and then it's all about luck and wherever the wind takes me!

THERE IS A RUMOUR THAT YOU ARE ALSO INVOLVED IN AN ANNIVERSARY EDITION OF PREFAB SPROUT'S 'STEVE MCQUEEN' ALBUM (WHICH DOLBY ORIGINALLY PRODUCED) POSSIBLY REMAKING IT AS AN ACOUSTIC ALBUM...

Well that's not completely correct, but there is life in the Prefab camp and they do want to involve me in their future efforts, but I don't know yet what form that will take!

MAY 2006

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