I read Thomas Dolby’s recent autobiography, The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology: A Memoir, and wanted to learn more about his recording life and thoughts. See also the sidebar to our interview with Mike Shipley [Tape Op #118], where Thomas talked about getting called in for studio sessions with Mutt Lange.
I was wondering what brought you to Johns Hopkins University and what you’re teaching there?
I’m teaching film music. I was very drawn to the project because Johns Hopkins was opening a new film center in a converted 1930s cinema in Baltimore. We’ve converted the building and put in a recording studio and a soundstage, a bunch of edit suites, a screening room, computer labs, and so on. The film departments of both Johns Hopkins and the local art college, MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art], have combined forces, so students from both schools can take the courses. I’ve helped design the recording studio here. I teach a film music class here, primarily for filmmakers rather than for musicians. We teach filmmakers what to expect from musical scores, how to work with musicians, how to do temping, final mixes, and so on to picture.
That’s a great idea to approach it from the director’s side.
Yeah. Generally there’s not very much of that in film schools around the country. There are various schools where you can go and do a film composition course, if you’re a beginner. But very often first-time directors will learn the hard way the good and bad aspects of building original music.
And how to get what you want from the composers?
Yes. Obviously there’s an art to this. It’s no good just asking for results. You’ve got to understand the craft well enough to realize what kind of direction is helpful to them and what isn’t.
Are you living in Baltimore full-time now, or do you still have your place in England?
An academic schedule is fairly limited, so I get to spend a fair amount of time in England where my family is.
Do you still have your home studio, the Nutmeg of Consolation, there?
I do indeed. That’s where I do my work when I’m back there.
I’m pretty fascinated about you building a studio into a boat that is parked on the land.
It’s a great environment for working. I found the boat on eBay, hauled it into my garden by the sea, and I had local traditional boat builders come in and help me fix her up. There’s fairly minimal equipment in there, and it’s not treated for acoustics. I didn’t want to spoil the ambience of a place by doing acoustic treatment, so a fair amount of [outside] sound leaks in when I’m using microphones. It’s not really for live recording so much as for composition and programming. The wheelhouse where the studio is has a good view of the marshes. When people come and see my studio, they say, “Wow, I don’t know how you could get any work done. I’d be staring out at the ocean all day.” I say, “Well, that’s me working.” The majority of my work is done with a blank canvas. Getting it down and recorded is the inevitable conclusion of that, but I do most of my composition in my imagination.
What instigated writing your biography?
I was approached by a publisher to write a tech guru book. I said, “Well, that sounds exactly like the type of book that I would hate.” But it did prompt me to go back through some old cupboards and find notebooks, diaries, journals, and so on. It was fun reading notes that I took in the first days of my career. I didn’t see the big picture. I was in the moment and didn’t have a clue what was going on around me; in my personal life and career as a whole, or in the music and tech industry. I think that actually makes for more compelling reading when in it’s in the moment like that, and we have the benefit of hindsight. I pop up in unusual places, and as I’m reading this I want to wring my own neck, like, “Why did you trust this guy,” or, “Why did you make that move, at that moment?” I think that’s what makes it compelling. I stay in the moment. I’d originally wanted to release it in journal form, but my publisher nixed that one, which worried me. I didn’t want to write an editorial from the 2016 perspective. But they said, “No, stay in the moment; put it all in the past tense and first person.” Every now and then they’d come back with a note saying, “Maybe a paragraph of context here might help a little bit.”
It’s hard to write about your own life. How do you put it into perspective for someone? You can’t get out of your own head.
I think that’s certainly true. I hopefully did a personal enough account of an insider’s view of two or three different industries that it would be fascinating to a music fan, or someone who’s a follower of technology. Certainly I was fortunate enough to have a ringside seat at crucial moments.
I think people forget now how polyphonic synths and technology like that didn’t exist when we started playing music.
You were waiting for technology to catch up with what you wanted to achieve, at points.
That’s true. On the flip side, when new technologies, business opportunities, or techniques came along, I was most fascinated with them when they were unexplored. I loved being one of the first people to dive in and set the rules and parameters for a new technology.
I love the story where you find the new Powertran Transcendent 2000 synth in the dumpster. What I was drawn to was the amount of time you spent trying to learn it and understand everything you could do with it, because it was your only access to a synthesizer. Now there is so much music technology at peoples’ disposal. Are they going to study it in the same way you studied that first synthesizer and wanted more?
I think when we have limited resources you really get under the hood and figure out alternative ways to do things. As an example, on the Transcendent, I discovered that if you turn the emphasis on the filter up high enough that it creates a note of its own. You can actually turn off the oscillator and play with the emphasis. For example, there’s a quite, whistle-y melody on “One of Our Submarines” [on The Golden Age of Wireless] that is actually playing with the filter as it is self-oscillating.
That’s a cool trick. With your first solo record, The Golden Age of Wireless, you started working with a producer initially and then decided to produce it yourself. Was that a revelation to you?
It was, slightly. I was worried whether I would have the objectivity to make the right decisions. But I felt that, at the end of the day, I’d have to please myself and hope the rest of the world would get it as well. I think that many of my musical heroes took that same approach. Prince would throw everybody else out of the control room and do his own mixes, even though he wasn’t trained as a sound engineer. There are probably some glaring errors and omissions in his engineering, yet he made incredibly single-minded records that work on so many levels and break a lot of rules. The flip side is somebody like David Bowie, who could do it all. He could play all the instruments and produce it himself, but his real talent was as a collaborator; as an inspiration for people around him. When I was working with Bowie, he’d force me to dig deep and pull out my self-expression. He was like the curator of the ideas that he worked with. He layered his own personality on top. I have certainly been fortunate enough to work with a wide spectrum of different types of talent. When I’m doing my own work, I try to keep myself fresh by never repeating the same formula. I very often pick a new genre of music to write a song, and often it’s one that I’m not that familiar with, or fluent in.
One thing I noticed, listening back to your first two records, is that you played with a wide sense of panning. Some of the instruments would be really spread out.
I’m into painting on the stereo soundfield. I like when you can create three-dimensional sound, just using two speakers. I suppose I do that by treating the left-right stereo field as one plane, and then sinking certain sounds back and subtly using a bit of effects. That was always the way I preferred to work. On the few occasions when I worked with actual multichannel sound, I found that much less exciting than trying to create a deep sound field across two speakers.
How did you end up producing Prefab Sprout [Steve McQueen, From Langley Park to Memphis, Jordan: The Comeback]? What was it that drew you to their music and such?
Their music is special. They have an extraordinary sense of chords and voicing. The closest thing I can think of is Steely Dan. It’s beyond a pop sensibility. It’s the use of passing notes and harmony, which Steely Dan has. Brian Wilson has it at times, but it’s very rare in the pop world. They have really charming “loose ends.” I wrote about this in my book, but Paddy McAloon basically wrote pages and pages of lyrics, and he would strum along on guitar while reading his lyrics. If he needed a bar to have five beats in it or a phrase to have seven bars in it, he would play it that way. If, in the middle of a melody, he felt he was singing too low, he’d jump an octave in the middle of a phrase. There are all these unschooled raw edges, which I find really fascinating, combined with the passion, the composition, and the melody. On top of that you have the very warm (in my opinion, very sexy) masculine voice. But Wendy [Smith], who’s the backing vocalist, has a very sterile, kind of breathy, airy voice. No vibrato, no expression, per se. They had a sound that was very unique. I would sample her voice and build a wall of sound out of it, with Paddy’s voice very intimate, up close, and up front. We created a vocal sound that was very individual.
It’s a treat to produce music that you know doesn’t have to be played out in a normal type of way. You can present it differently.
Yeah. Part of my job was to make sure that it stayed accessible. The first album, before I started working with them, turned out to be a little bit too didactic, with too many tempo changes in it. It was a little bit of hard work to listen to. Lots of fascinating ideas. Part of my job was to trim off a few of the rough edges, without losing the personality of the music.
Right. You haven’t done a whole lot of outside production besides that. Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog was a fascinating story of things going a bit awry.
I was one of four producers, along with Joni. She’d always been a huge inspiration for me, and I knew her piano parts when I was growing up. She was really the first female singer-songwriter who took a different route, and was a great poet and composer. I guess I had visions of being her latest collaborator, in the same category as Jaco Pastorius, Tom Scott, and so on – each of whom had flavored a period of her recording. I guess the difference was that keyboard was her instrument. Quite often, when I was programming a sound that was designed for a three note melody, she would come over, budge me off the piano stool, and start playing a piano part with that sound. It’s like, “Let’s wipe those five tracks we did yesterday and put this down instead.” I tend to use building blocks to break music down into individual parts and sounds, and it ends up being this collage of sounds. She’s used to a more linear approach, where you put down a piano part and add a string part. A more layered approach.
Have you done any other production in the last couple of decades?
Not really. I suppose, aside from Prefab Sprout, Joni, and George Clinton, I’ve done a fair amount of work for films where I was working with actors and writing songs for them. I did that with Robin Williams for a couple of movies, and I did it with Lea Thompson and Jim Carrey, specific people who I’ve worked with for films. Also Little Richard, Tom Jones, and John Goodman.
Have you got any music of your own that you’re working on lately?
I’ve been at Johns Hopkins the last two years, and teaching has taken up a lot of time. As soon as you finish grading one class, you’re preparing for the next. But I have a feeling I’ll get back to doing some more original music in the next couple of years. I think that periods when you have an oppressive, right-wing government in power tend to be very conducive for rebel music from the underground. That’s the only silver lining I can see, is that it’s sometimes quite good for music when you’re living like that. I’ve always felt very natural casting myself as the dissident underground, part of the resistance movement.
Well, you lived through Thatcher’s England.
Yeah. There was a similar dilemma back then.
A friend of mine said he saw you do a performance at Moogfest. He said that it’s fascinating that you could show up with a laptop and some controllers, whereas previously you’d have to take so much gear on the road.
It’s hugely freeing. People get very nostalgic about analog synths and so on. They were fine, but I like the fact that today it’s a lot more wieldy. It means I can work on multiple projects at the same time. My work has a lot of precision in it. The configuration and mix is really important. It was always awkward for me if I had three synths and a drum machine hooked up with a bunch of wires. If I didn’t finish the piece in one continuous session, then I’d never get back to it. There was always the fear that I’d never get quite back to where it was before. I never had total recall. Whereas with a laptop, you can crash your hard drive, but if I save a file it’ll open up exactly the way I left it. That’s the big benefit for me. I like to work on several projects at the same time.
If you could magically solve a current problem with audio or music, what would it be?
One thing that frustrates me with the current generation of students is that if you have a problem, the solution is just a few key presses away. They Google it, download the manual, post a message on a forum, or find a YouTube video of somebody who’s figured it out. There’s no such thing as a problem, really, because they blow past it. Throughout my career, I’ve had to navigate around roadblocks of one sort or another. That’s when you get creative. When you have to solve several problems, you use the resources at your disposal. I think that playing the hand that you’re dealt has been crucial to me. I try to push my students out of their comfort zones. I’ll lock them in an edit suite for a couple of hours with no internet and say, “Two hours from now you’re going to come into the main room and put your work up on a big screen, and we’ll watch the performance.” Just throwing a wrench in the works builds good things, I think.