Arts & Culture

Out to Sea

Pioneering musician Thomas Dolby brings his tech-savvy sensibility to Station North.

On a recent Wednesday morning, a dapper fellow in a fedora and black overcoat pilots a wooden skiff towards the wharf at South Ann Street. He silences the puttering outboard and drifts toward a cleat in the walk across from Bonaparte Breads. After tying up the boat and ascending a ladder to the cobblestone street, he points out a “No Docking” sign. “I hope I don’t get a ticket,” he says, in a distinctly English accent that suggests he pronounces Thames Street differently than the locals. At the Daily Grind, he orders an espresso and an Odwalla strawberry drink and turns a few heads on his way to a table in the back. As he passes, a woman in hospital scrubs mouths to her tablemate, “Who is that?” The tablemate shrugs.

Daily Grind regulars are accustomed to spotting the occasional celebrity since the days when Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire cast members came in for caffeine fixes. But the natty, seafaring Englishman isn’t an actor—he’s Thomas Dolby, the 1980s pop star (“She Blinded Me with Science”) and tech whiz, who recently relocated to Fells Point and started teaching at The Johns Hopkins University.

“I enjoy the vibe around Fells Point,” Dolby says, between sips. “This street in particular reminds me of the London Docklands, although that area has undergone a lot of redevelopment and isn’t as well preserved as this. There is a sense of history here.”

Dolby, exuding an engaging combination of English civility and intellectual curiosity, mentions the architecture, a faded “Wagon Repair” sign near his home, whiffs of H&S Bakery and Domino Sugar in the air, and the carpenters and electricians he sees around the neighborhood. “It’s a real place,” he says. “I like that.”

He also likes the fact that he doesn’t need a car, as he prefers getting around the city by bus, bicycle, and, weather permitting, boat. These days, he’s a regular presence around Hopkins’s Homewood campus and Station North, where Hopkins and MICA are redeveloping the Centre and Parkway theaters along North Avenue to house the schools’ joint film and media programs.

Dolby will be the artistic director of the Program in Sound on Film at Station North. He’s a curious choice if you only know him as a Reagan-era MTV phenom. But anyone familiar with Dolby’s career understands that, in many ways, he’s been preparing for the Hopkins gig his entire life.

“It makes use of all the things I’ve done,” notes Dolby. “It’s a perfect fit.”

He was born Thomas Robertson in London to a middle-class family steeped in academia and took his stage name from the Dolby noise-reduction system. His father was a professor of classical Greek art and archaeology who “basically lived in the fourth century B.C.,” says Dolby. “He was the epitome of the absent-minded professor.”

His mother was “very dynamic,” a math teacher with six children, of which Thomas was the youngest. His siblings would become teachers, like their parents.

Dolby grew up in Oxford and spent time traveling around Europe, sometimes accompanying his father on archaeological digs. “For a long time, I didn’t think I had much in common with him,” says Dolby, “but then I realized it’s all about storytelling. During the period he was interested in, stories were told through oral poetry and painting on pots. I tell my stories through songs.”

“It’s all crap! The Beatles, Genesis, all rubbish! We should be listening to Iggy Pop and MC5.”

Dolby graduated from Abingdon School—a boarding school that dates back to the 13th century and counts the members of Radiohead as alums—at the age of 16. By that time, he’d developed wide-ranging musical tastes. His early interest in singer-songwriters Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen evolved into a fascination with jazz composers such as Dave Brubeck. He got into Motown, the Allman Brothers, and prog-rockers like Genesis and Pink Floyd. He was even a Deadhead for a while.

But Shane MacGowan, who later formed The Pogues, pointed him in an entirely different direction. MacGowan possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of music and presided over a group of fellow aficionados that met at a local cafe. The group included Dolby, who recalls the day MacGowan pounded his fist on a table and insisted, “It’s all crap! The Beatles, Genesis, all rubbish! We should be listening to Iggy Pop, MC5, and [ex-New York Dolls guitarist] Johnny Thunders instead.”

The group gasped. “It was a slap in the face,” says Dolby, “but also exciting and rebellious, which had its appeal.”

Dolby played keyboards, an instrument shunned by early punk bands, so he mixed sound and worked as a roadie instead. But he became increasingly intrigued by the possibilities of electronic music and started building his own synthesizers, which he found more interesting and stimulating than punk’s primitivism. It wasn’t long before he was making music of his own, touring with new wave singer Lene Lovich, and doing session work. (In fact, that’s Dolby playing synthesizer on Foreigner 4, including the hits “Urgent” and “Waiting for a Girl Like You.”)

Dolby used the money he earned to record his debut disc, 1982’s The Golden Age of Wireless. It didn’t sell well at first and received just a handful of reviews that tended to characterize Dolby as a marginal, but intriguing, act. But MTV was generating interest in new artists, so Dolby’s record label bankrolled a video to help jump-start sales.

When the director bailed to work on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” instead, Dolby directed the video for “She Blinded Me with Science.” He also came up with the “Home for Deranged Scientists” concept and starred in the clip, which drew heavily on his love of silent film and the anti-hero personas of Chaplin and Keaton. “I was more comfortable with that,” he says, “because I never wanted to be an alpha-male frontman like Sting or something.”

The video was a huge success and catapulted Dolby to the top of the charts and international stardom. He quickly found himself playing sold-out tours, appearing at Live Aid (in David Bowie’s band), and performing at the Grammys alongside Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder. “It was delightfully unexpected, a mad time,” he recalls. “I felt like a fish in a bowl, and I definitely appreciated escaping back to my real life.”

Going forward, he scored a few films and pursued more idiosyncratic music that reflected his diverse tastes. His 1992 album, Astronauts and Heretics, for instance, featured guest appearances by Jerry Garcia, Eddie Van Halen, Cajun accordionist Wayne Toups, and Israeli singer Ofra Haza. That sort of eclecticism won Dolby critical praise and wowed loyal fans, but it cost him commercially.

Then, he didn’t release any new music for almost 20 years. He was on to other things.

Dolby was already working with technology firms, designing synthesizers and developing audio software, when he moved to Silicon Valley in the early 1990s. It was an ideal location for him and his wife, the actress Kathleen Beller (who played Kirby Anders on TV’s Dynasty), to raise their three children, and it was the perfect time and place for a techie to do business.

“Things were frenetic, and everyone was full of optimism,” recalls Dolby. “If you had a business plan on a napkin, you could get it funded.”

Dolby formed his own company, Headspace, which helped pioneer mobile ringtones. Headspace also forged partnerships with the likes of Netscape and Yahoo and developed an audio engine, Beatnik, that Nokia embedded in its mobile phones. At one point, the Beatnik technology was used in two-thirds of the world’s mobile phones. “Eventually, it became more about marketing than innovation, and that wasn’t very interesting to me,” says Dolby, who started entertaining the idea of getting into the “family business”—teaching.

“I felt like a fish in a bowl, and I definitely appreciated escaping back to my real life.”

After a stint as musical director for TED conferences and a multimedia tour for a documentary, The Invisible Lighthouse, that he filmed and scored himself, Dolby considered teaching positions in Boston, New York, and Baltimore. The combination of Hopkins and the Station North project sold him on Baltimore. “Hopkins was looking for a blend,” he says, “someone with relatively recent film experience and a handle on the technology. They basically hired me to teach music for film, which I feel semi-qualified to do, but I know I can assist in other areas, as well.”

Jeffrey Sharkey, Peabody Institute’s director at the time Dolby was hired, understood that. Sharkey said he expected Dolby to “enrich a number of fields at Hopkins and the Peabody Conservatory—from film and recording arts to computer science to business.”

To some extent, it’s already happening. “He’s proven to be an enthusiastic and effective supporter of our initiatives in Station North,” says Linda DeLibero, director of film and media studies at Hopkins. “He is a crucial part of the program’s plan to expand our work with Peabody in sound and composition for film.”

DeLibero notes that Dolby “has been game for anything, including performing ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ at Hopkins so many times that it’s fittingly become our unofficial JHU anthem.”

The class Dolby teaches, “Sound on Film,” is comprised of film and music students who, under his direction, collaborate on scoring their short films. Dolby has a firm handle on the technology, and he’s working on sharpening his classroom skills. “I’m not good yet at getting them to open up,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I need to get better at drawing it out of them, because they’re fairly quiet in class. But when they write their assignments, they’re absolutely brilliant.”

Dolby has also provided input on the layout of the new Station North facilities and the types of courses that should be offered in the future. He cites a need for keeping up with developments in episodic television and mentions the impact of locally filmed shows like House of Cards and Veep. He’s particularly intrigued by the potential of DIY filmmaking, because “the barriers to creating your own show are now down to nothing. It’s like what happened in the music world fifteen to twenty years ago when people could just dive in and make music on their computers. That’s what’s happening in film right now.”

Despite his high profile, Dolby stresses that he sees himself as a mouthpiece for the project, not some sort of savior. “As a Johnny-come-lately, I have little right to speak to any of the larger issues at play,” he says, noting his aversion to politics. “But I also realize it’s an exciting time to be here, in Baltimore and Station North.

“You know, this will be an amazing accomplishment if we can pull it off, and I just want to be part of it. I want to help tell the story.”

That said, Dolby departs the coffee shop and returns to his boat. He hasn’t gotten a ticket.

Within minutes, he’s off again, headed across the harbor toward something that’s caught his eye.