Arts & Culture

Q&A with Thomas Dolby

We talked to the electronic musician, tech trailblazer, and Hopkins professor.

You’ve heard his voice on that iconic ’80s classic, “She Blinded Me With Science.” Now, electronic musician, tech trailblazer, and Johns Hopkins professor Thomas Dolby has penned a chronicle of his life, The Speed of Sound. He joined us to talk about how he decided to write the book, the electronic music scene, and what instruments he’s playing now.

When did you know that you wanted to write your memoir?
I was approached a couple of years ago, right about the time I came here, by a publisher, asking if I wanted to do a sort of music-tech business book. It didn’t really appeal to me, but it did prompt me to dig up some old diaries and journals I had, and they were really interesting to read because there was no context to them. And then I thought if I could string the journals together, fill in the gaps, and resist the temptation to editorialize, it would be more interesting than a retrospective. That idea got me an agent and the agent got me a meeting with the publisher, and I had about two meetings with the publisher and handed in the first draft and they said, ‘This is great. In the next draft, can we expect to see a continuous first person, past tense narrative instead of the journal thing?’ Apparently that’s not really en vogue these days. I was thinking it would be kind of fun to read something like Go Ask Alice.

It’s amazing that you had those journals because the level of detail that you have in the book allows the stories to flow seamlessly.
Well, a lot of them I have very clear memories of. But my memory is definitely selective. It’s a good thing that I had [my wife] Kathleen to remind me of what really happened. But it was interesting also because with the first draft, there were half a dozen people that I really wanted to read it and give me feedback, as it’s the first book I’ve written. So I sent it around to a few people thinking I’d get some constructive criticism, and the first thing they wanted to do was fix themselves in the book.

Did you listen?
I did. Chances are none of them are going to write a book like this, so I’m sort of telling their stories as well as mine. You have to be a little bit responsible. But I thought I’d apologize later.

You are very honest in the book, telling the good and the bad. Were there any stories that you balked about including?
Not really. Certainly as far as career stuff, I felt that if it had charm, it would be because you want to slap this guy around and say, ‘Oh, no no, it’s so glaring obvious of what needs to happen here.’ It would be a mistake to go back and whitewash it. On the more personal front, I was a little bit torn because it’s not stuff I’ve talked about in interviews, and it’s not stuff people ask—family life, disappointments, romances, that usually isn’t what people ask me. I was in two minds about whether to put that stuff in and whether it was ok to intrude into the privacy of people close to me. But I decided to do it really because the balance of the whole thing was crucial.

If it was just a business book, then I think people would be saying, as my kids did, ‘Why isn’t this guy a multi-millionaire?’ The answer is that I’ve always just been drawn to artistic possibilities, and as long as I can pay the rent that’s the choice I’ll make, against the better judgment of business people around me. And I just always wanted to keep my humanity through all of it, and it’s very easy when you’re the center of attention to lose that. I needed the book to reflect that that was a struggle.

It seemed like there have been several ethical dilemmas in your life that really determined what path you took, and it seems like that’s one of the things that’s most important to you is maintaining your ethical standards.
When I got stung for whatever reason—like the first time I was really close to getting a record deal and the evening before they canceled for no reason (which was either a U-turn on the part of the record company or that my then–manager had been trying to do something underhanded behind my back)—I was determined that I was going to try and counter that type of behavior with a similar type of behavior myself. I was going to try and be above that. Similar things happened in the tech industry as well, where I felt left down. In most cases it wasn’t deliberately spiteful or destructive, it was more that somebody else thought they were doing their job and I was the scapegoat. My solution to problems has always been creativity. When I was in a fix, I would always just go back to inventing my way out of it, and in a lot of cases, that was the only solution that I had. I’m not very good at politics.

Have you noticed anything specifically going on with you creatively since you moved to Baltimore?
I’ve been pretty busy teaching, so I haven’t been creating a lot of new stuff. I think as I’m teaching film scoring that it’s time I did another film score.

What kind of movie do you think you’d like to score?
Generally speaking the more cinematic a movie is, the more one notices the score. Oscar winning score are often for Dances With Wolves or Out of Africa or Gravity. There’s a lot of Hollywood blockbusters post Gladiator that have all been kind of same in terms of the approach to the score—the thundering drums and the choirs and the random ethnic instruments thrown in along with the giant orchestra.

Like the Verdi Requiem mixed with drumming.
Exactly. So that’s not particular interesting to me. I really enjoy working with so-called real instruments, and I enjoy that a lot more nowadays than twiddling knobs for months on end. I’d be happy to do an indie type movie with real emotions, because the most interesting thing about film scoring is the universality of music. If I find a chord change that affects me in a certain way, then I’ve often wondered, Will the audience perceive it the same way? But amazingly it turns out that it does.

With my music, and the feedback I get from forums and the Internet, people would talk about the same chord change emotionally like I felt when I was composing it. That’s a very gratifying feeling, and if your choice as a film composer is to underline what’s going on onscreen, do you stop short of manipulating the audience and telling them how to feel about something? You work with the director, but you’re also just a name on a crew sheet along with costumes and make up and all that. Collectively, you create an atmosphere.

What has it been like for you to watch the electronic music scene evolve?
It’s amazing to watch. When I started out, electronic instruments were very rarified and hard to get your hands on. They weren’t very reliable, they didn’t stay in tune, and they were all programmed manually, so if you spent hours working on something and then went to get some sleep and somebody came in and dusted and touched the wrong thing it would mess it all up. Or you’d trip on one of the chords and you’d be back to square one. Over time, they became a lot more accessible. You could save your work, and then there were libraries of sounds that you could buy that were programmed by someone else, so you could just focus on playing. So instead of renting studio time, you could just make music in the back of a coffee shop or whatever, and thousands more people had access to it. I was fortunate enough to dive into it and work with it. That’s a situation that I’ve always been very drawn to because I get a thrill out of working in an area that hasn’t been defined yet.

Generally speaking, when something crosses the chasm and goes mainstream, it looses its appeal for me. At each stage in my career, I kind of plunged in when no one had written the rulebook yet. That’s a really exciting place to be for me. If I feel like I’m one of a crowd of people who are jumping on a bandwagon, it’s not very stimulating.

Do you think it’s a good thing that so many more people are involved in it?
I think it’s definitely elevated the field, and even in the pop charts, you’re hearing the trickle down effect of all of that experimentation that’s going on at an underground level. That’s interesting and needed. I don’t go out to clubs much, so I don’t really understand the alternate dance music scene, but it’s very interesting to see the way it’s progressed. In the early 1980s, those of us who were using electronics were really struggling against this perception that it’s not real music, it’s got no feel, it’s got no soul to it.

The fact that, by the end of the ’80s it had gone more mainstream, and there were a lot of cool artists who were starting to use electronics rather than guitars and drums. A great example is Joy Division, who were sort of the prototypical indie guitar band, and suddenly started using synths. That was really a signal to bands of that ilk that it was ok to experiment with that stuff. And once they were doing that, they thought, why were we so snooty about it?

What instruments are you working with now?
I tend to start with the piano. It’s sort of ground zero for me. And I especially like that with a piano you don’t have to plug it in or anything. Any time you plug in a keyboard for the first time, you invariably hit a note, and there’s no sound, and you have to figure out why. I’m actually sometimes tempted to take up another instrument altogether and go and take lessons somewhere and not tell them who I am. Like go in a coffee shop and take one of those tags for French horn lessons.

What do you think you learned while you were writing this book?
I suppose that memory is quite selective. I think I became more aware of the pattern of the choices I’ve made throughout my life, including the mistakes. If Hollywood licensed this book and made a biopic, they’d have to change quite a lot because it’s not really the typical story. I think they’d want to fix things so I got the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And I sometimes wonder if I’d just tweaked things slightly if that would be the case.

The fact is I’ve never needed to struggle with a choice that I’ve made based on how I’m going to pay the rent, how am I going to pay the mortgage. I’ve always been able to go, ‘Wow, that sounds really cool’ and go for it. And that’s an enviable position for any artist, really. It’s absolutely ideal. There’s no body I’d rather swap places with.