SCIENCE! Thomas Dolby Talks Classic Videos, Career Moments, New Album/Tour
There’s a lot you probably don’t know about Thomas Dolby. Developing an image as a bespectacled mad-scientist of electronic music in the early days of MTV, Dolby scored his biggest hit with “She Blinded Me With Science”, confounding an entire generation of American science teachers as their students exclaimed “Science!”, emulating the declarations of English scientist Magnus Pyke who appeared in the song and video. Aside from a 1984 chart appearance for “Hyperactive”, supported by an influential effects-laden video in high rotation, Dolby disappeared from the pop charts by the middle of the 1980s.
Along the way, however, the keyboardist extraordinaire became a musical force through supporting projects. He was in demand as a session player for recordings by bands as diverse as Foreigner, Def Leppard and Whodini. He played in David Bowie’s band at Live Aid, worked with Lene Lovich and George Clinton in a group called Dolby’s Cube, co-produced Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog album, and composed the soundtrack to the ill-fated Howard the Duck film. He also helped compose Nokia’s highly recognizable standard ringtone, and is the musical director of the popular TED Conference.
Now, he has released Map of the Floating City, his first full album in nearly twenty years, with an accompanying online video game. He is playing to sold-out audiences on his current “Time Capsule” tour, which lands in NYC at the Canal Room tonight. We talked with Thomas Dolby about his career as a musical factotum, “Science!”, and the “Time Capsule” project associated with this tour.
Your early songs all had videos. You’ve always seemed to have a full visual and aural concept running parallel in your solo work. How did that evolve?
At the end of the seventies, I was unofficially part of a underground electronic music scene while punk was sort of grabbing all the headlines and attention. It was in London, with Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle, and then folks like the Human League and Ultravox and so on. And people were using synthesizers before drum machines, so it was pop music without guitars and drums, which is quite static, so people used to use slide projections and film projections and so on. There was an art school component to that. My first solo performance had some slide projections in it. And I was from a very academic background, so I suppose the spectacles and all that leaned toward a more professorial side. And then music video came along, and with it the opportunity to send that up. I was very influenced by those underdog characters of silent films like Chaplin and Keaton and Lloyd. They weren’t swashbuckling heroes, they were more the little guy who ended up getting the girl, and that was sort of how I saw myself, vis-a-vis people like Adam Ant and Sting and Simon LeBon who were more the swashbuckling type.
When you speak about the underground electronic movement, it’s very easy to visualize it in terms of a band like Kraftwerk, who come off as visually robotic, but your music is much more heartfelt and has a sense of humor.
I think you’re right that Kraftwerk were an influence on the UK music scene, and there was a tendency for people to exaggerate the coldness and mathematical nature of machines. People dressed like mannequins, with Gary Numan being the first to enter the pop charts with that look. Even when Bowie went to Berlin for his electronic period, there was that chilly – cold war even – sort of vibe to it. And I plugged into that as well for a bit, many of my songs being set in a sort of dystopian future, and the image of the underground ham operator character. A dissident spreading the word, with ham-operated gear, etc. But as you said, it had a sense of humor, and it was all tongue-in-cheek to a certain extent. That said, I was up all night with a bunch of machines, so I couldn’t get away from that “Igor-in-the-lab” sort of idea. (laugh) But many of the people we are talking about in that genre weren’t conventional songwriters. They were interested in the way machines express themselves, but I was writing songs that I could sit down at a piano and play – ballads with intros and verses and choruses.
You’re more rooted in music than technology.
Technology gave me a palette for expression, and helped tell a story, but it wasn’t the be-all end-all of what I was doing, so that set me apart from those other guys.
What was the experience of shooting “She Blinded Me With Science” like? It was your first time in the director’s chair.
I’d had a few videos done before then with directors, and I wasn’t very pleased with the results. I’d gotten the record company to agree to let me hire Steve Barron. At the last minute, he was called away to work with Michael Jackson. His production company Limelight, and Steve’s sister Siobhan persuaded me to direct it myself. I said I didn’t know the lingo, so she invited me to a few shoots to see how it was done. She said anyone can learn the technical aspect, but not everyone has the vision to dream up a great concept. I told her my idea, and she said I should direct it myself.
Which music video shoots did you visit?
I went to Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” and Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” as I recall. I hung out with the crew and picked stuff up, and Siobhan explained to me what was going on. Again, I liked the fact that Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin directed their films. One minute they’d be behind the camera, framing the shot, and the next they would jump out there and do a stunt. They were very much my heroes.
What do you recall from the shoot day for “Science”?
In those days, it was a case of juggling union rates and rental rates. For example, you could do a lot by having a long day with overtime rather than shooting for two days, as long as no one was driving over 50 miles and it wasn’t a Sunday. All union things like that. And then they would cut corners, they would upgrade in those days, you’d see people wanting to jump up a level. The key grip would become a best boy, and the best boy would become a dolly grip, a dolly grip would become an operator, an operator would become a lighting director, and the lighting director would become a director. To get something on their resume, they would jump up a level, but at their old fee. These were the tricks that producers would use to get their money up on the screen.
When you were writing “Science”, did you have noted scientist Magnus Pyke in mind?
There’s a few to choose from in England at the time. (laugh) The BBC had this sort of cache of these guys – Sir Patrick Moore, who’s an astronomer, and David Bellamy, who’s a botanist, these incredible BBC characters. For Magnus Pyke, I guess the money was right and he went for it.
You said that you spoke to Pyke afterwards and it had become the bane of his life.
Yes, he said he went to the U.S. and he was more famous from the video than he was in England for his academic achievements, and that teenagers kept running up to him and yelling, “Science!”
I was one of those obnoxious people running around school yelling “Science!” in 1982.
And they’re still around! I heard that the San Francisco Giants, or maybe the New York Giants too, had a thing at their games where people were yelling “Giants!” and then someone else would yell “Science!” and it became a thing. It didn’t last long.
As a result of heavy airplay on MTV, “Science” became a much larger hit in the U.S. than in the U.K. Were you surprised that it became such a massive hit?
It was twofold, really. Part of it was MTV, but it also got massive club play. It seemed to happen at a time when there was a lot of crossover in urban clubs, so it was a big dance hit as well. I was surprised that MTV showed the video, and I remember being surprised that it ended up being a hit on the pop charts because I never had envisioned myself as a chart artist. None of my musical heroes were commercial fodder at all. What I liked about Frank Zappa and Jodi Mitchell was the fact that they were a bit rarefied. So that was quite surprising.
As they are wont to do, did the record company come back wanting another “She Blinded Me With Science”?
Of course! They never actually said that, they didn’t say “give us another dozen like that”, but they heard the next batch and didn’t really hear anything like that in it. And the new album didn’t have “Hyperactive” on it at that time. In fact, I’d written “Hyperactive” for Michael Jackson, and around about that same time, Michael said that he didn’t like it.
He actually said he didn’t like it?
Well, I asked him if he liked it, and after a long pause he said, “I like the drums.” (laugh) And then I asked if he wanted anything else, and he said, “You’re near Wales, right?” and I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Could you get me some ragwort for my llamas?”
How was it working with director Daniel Kleinman on the video for “Hyperactive”?
Great. Daniel was in that Limelight universe, having grown up with Steve and Siobhan Barron. He was starting to direct videos and commercials then, and grew rapidly into a major commercial director. He was very good with effects early on, so we sat down, and he showed me some of the possibilities and things you could do with those early effects – chroma key and so on. Between us, we came up with a concept, and we tried wherever possible to mix up physical effects with visual effects. For example, I have a box on my head and I’m tearing strips off the front of it, and we did that knowing we could visually put faces on the box through effects. At the time, it was very exciting. Looking back, I’m sure there’s an iPhone app that can do more than what we did.
What was it about the genre of music video that excites you?
In my music and lyrics, there’s quite strong imagery, and they’re quite evocative, if you just close your eyes and listen to the music. There’s never a requirement to have an accompanying visual, but I’m usually thinking about how I would do the video, given the chance. I think I tend to do that less these days because they don’t get shown, and therefore there’s no budget to make them.
You say that, but the video for “Toad Lickers” is pretty fantastic.
Thank you very much. We did that one in the spirit of the early videos. We had a tiny budget for it, but on the flip side of it, you can do a lot with a little these days, and I like that. That was shot with a couple of SLR cameras with no crew at all – well, we had two people in the crew total.
How did you end up playing on the Foreigner 4 album?
I’d sent a cassette to Zumba, trying to get a publishing deal. Zumba was owned by three guys, one of which was Mutt Lange. He liked my keyboard playing, and he was just getting into the Foreigner 4 album. I was working as a street musician in Paris at the time, and I’d actually fled England because of debt. (laugh) I was flat on my backside, playing in the Metro. Then I got a message from Mutt to fly to Electric Ladyland studio in New York and play on a Foreigner album. They liked it, so they kept me there for a month. I’d never spent much time in a studio before then, so I was like a kid in a toy shop. I was very into Brian Eno, and I’d never heard any ambient music on American AOR records, so I thought I’d give it a whirl, and it became the intro keyboards on “Waiting for a Girl Like You”. I also think that “Urgent” sort of tips its hat to my song “Urges”, in a way.
Then, they formed a label called Jive in the early 80s, and they were very excited by the explosion of hip hop music in the New York area. What they used to do was when they had spare studio time, they’d put musicians in there to record ideas. Then, they put in the rappers to do the vocal, and that was what happened with Whodini. I put down a backing track, they sent it over, the two guys rapped on it, and they sent it back to me. [The song became Whodini’s “Magic Wand”]
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the experience of scoring the film Howard the Duck.
The thing that inspired me to want to score a film was something like “Vertigo,” a Bernard Hermann score for Alfred Hitchcock. Clearly, that’s a very intimate relationship between a filmmaker and a composer. That’s quite rare these days. Ken Russell is one of the few auteurs who has pulled that off. My work on “Howard the Duck” was, in my opinion, very good, and the video was very good, but it fell down in a few areas. It’s not as terrible as people make out. In fact, if it was made these days, think of how much easier it would be to do the duck, whereas back then it was very primitive technology. Basically remote controls left over from “Star Wars” or something. That was the problem – it was five or ten years too early.
Did you get a direction on what they wanted from the music?
George Lucas was not involved at all, other than it happened in his facility. I got input from Howard Deutch, yes. Initially they hired me to do the score, but my score was way too subversive, much more in keeping with what the original comic book was. If you can imagine Tim Burton doing “Howard the Duck”, you get where I was. As thing began to spiral, it went from being a cheeky comic book b-movie into this big Hollywood thing. I think that Lucas kept going back to the money guys and asking to increase the budget, and it just spiraled out of control. The expectation was so high based on what they’d spent on it, people were disappointed. It was a drop in the bucket compared to what some movies cost these days. Now you look back on it, it’s become a bit of a cult classic.
How did the Nokia ringtone project come about?
What happened was that my company made a synthesizer that you could download in a webpage. So Nokia wanted a synthesizer in their phones for ringtones, they didn’t want to dedicate a chip because of the cost and liability. They asked if we could incorporate the synthesizer into their phone, so we sent some engineers to Finland where Nokia is based, and shoehorned a synthesizer into their phone. They needed default ringtones for the phones when they ship, and one of them was the one you think of as the Nokia ringtone.
Tell us about Map of the Floating City. Why did you take nearly two decades to record a new album?
There was no intention to stay away that long. I was glad to be out of it, in the end. In fact, it held little interest for me once the music business was about other things. A couple of the songs have been around for about fifteen years, but I hadn’t finished them. Most of them I’ve written over the past three or four years. As you get older, you realize that life’s too short to waste time on twiddling knobs, making grooves, riffs, things like that. In any case, times change. When I started, there were only a handful of us making electronic music, as we discussed earlier. Now there’s tens of thousands of people doing it because it’s cheap and it’s affordable, and there’s people devoting their lives to twiddling those knobs. Rather like people who disappear into World of Warcraft and don’t emerge for two years, there are people operating soft synthesizers, and there isn’t anything I can add to that. In a way, I’ve yielded my seat at the electronic music table to a bunch of guys actually want to be there now, and I don’t. What I do want to do is write new songs that express me. There’s still fewer people that do that from a singer songwriter standpoint. Much of them are recycling old ideas. If you hear a guy in a coffee bar strumming a guitar and singing, it’s not that different from Woodstock, really. If you know anything about me, you know that I’m always onto the next thing. I’d always rather be working in rarefied air. I’d rather go against the grain and do something that nobody else is doing. There are very few 21st century songwriters, so I’ve got my focus there.
Can you talk about the tour? I understand you are doing something very interesting with the fans involving a tricked-out “Time Capsule” trailer you have behind your tour bus.
I’m doing 26 dates in North America, beginning at SXSW and ending in California. This idea came up when I was speaking to a friend who is a filmmaker, and he said he was filming people and telling them to imagine it is fifty years from now, what would you say to people? He said it was interesting that people talk very differently. It’s kind of like how you would explain to someone from Mars what a toaster oven is. I thought about YouTube, and how half the videos are user-generated material, and if you added up all those guys who are sitting in their bedrooms. It’s actually user content, so I thought it would be interesting to get my arms around something like that. I came up with this “Time Capsule” idea. I saw this trailer based on a 1930s design, so I talked to them about creating one for this project. Then, I thought it would be great to plug it, and get people to come down and talk to us on camera. I’m compiling these thirty-second clips, regular people and celebrities and artists and musicians, giving their thirty-second clip to the future, talking to their great-grandchildren, or whoever is inhabiting the planet when our species is wiped out. Say an alien lands and discovers this time capsule — how do you explain to the alien what went wrong with the planet? And we’ll see how that goes.
If you’re in New York City today, the show is sold out, but the trailer is down at the Canal Room if you care to participate in the “Time Capsule” project. You can see previously recorded “Time Capsule” videos here. In the meantime, check out Dolby’s two most famous videos, and try not to yell “Science!” too loudly.