Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Thomas Dolby Robertson

Illustration for article titled Thomas Dolby Robertson

To the generally pop-literate, Thomas Dolby is best known for his 1983 novelty hit "She Blinded Me With Science." But that reputation bothers Dolby diehards, who know his contributions to music in the '80s reach beyond one silly technopop single. As a session musician, Dolby added synthesizers to Def Leppard's Pyromania and Foreigner's 4, two megahit albums that crossed hard-rock and pop, using keyboards to provide shade and color. As a producer, Dolby created the wiggy sonic environment of Whodini's seminal rap hit "Magic's Wand" (which he also wrote) and the subtle soundscapes of Prefab Sprout's soft Britpop masterpieces Steve McQueen (a.k.a. Two Wheels Good in the U.S.) and Jordan: The Comeback. He also produced Joni Mitchell and George Clinton, and has backed Robyn Hitchcock, Roger Waters, Joan Armatrading, and Malcolm McLaren, among others.

Dolby's first two solo albums are underrecognized, but they form his most enduring legacy. His 1982 debut The Golden Age Of Wireless is a rich, witty pop record full of pretty melodies, strange stories, and a mix of electronics that sounds warmer and more varied than the era's cold, minimalist dance music. The 1984 follow-up The Flat Earth uses more acoustic instruments, stretching songs into sprawling, impressionistic epics that touch on jazz and funk. Since that flurry of creativity, Dolby the pop star has laid low, contributing to soundtracks and putting out only two more studio albums of intermittent brilliance.

Most of Dolby's time since the mid-'90s has been taken up with his successful tech businesses. Restoring his real last name, "Robertson," Dolby founded Headspace–later renamed Beatnik–and developed sound engines for websites and video games, as well as better-sounding ringtones for cellular phones. Recently, Thomas "Dolby" Robertson spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about his brief time in the spotlight, his mechanical tinkering, and how his current occupation is merely an extension of his lifelong interest in making the artificial sound natural.


The Onion: When did you first start tinkering with computers?

Thomas Dolby Robertson: Since PCs have been around. Before that, I used to attack the more primitive technology with a soldering iron. I built my first synthesizer from a kit when I was 18. I would hook pieces of electronic equipment up to do things that they weren't really designed for. Before there were drum machines, I used to have to program drum sounds on my synth and play them with a finger. Then one night at a club I saw lights flashing on and off and I saw this little box, a lighting sequencer. I had a go at it with a soldering iron, hooked it up to a synthesizer, and it played the drums for me. When you listen to "She Blinded Me With Science," the drums are actually being played by a disco-lighting console.

O: Did you find that the crude devices you cobbled together worked better than the machines later designed to make those sounds?

TDR: I wouldn't say they worked better, but in the dark ages before technology becomes mass-market, there's a great opportunity to explore. I relished that. These days, with a laptop and a few hundred dollars' worth of software, you can do way more than I could when I started out. But it's less stimulating to me. I think it's great that it's accessible, but I feel like less of an explorer if there are ten thousand other guys in the world who have the same kind of set-up.


O: Do you get to tinker with hardware much these days, or is it all software?

TDR: I still tinker with hardware. These days, one spends so much of one's time at a computer. It's not very exciting, loading up one more program. It's more fun playing with big knobs and sliders. I still have some analog gear, and a few keyboards. If I'm able to switch my computer off for an afternoon and just play keyboards, that's like a vacation.


O: Back when you were playing inventor, how did you know what to do? Was it just a matter of trial and error, or were there some guidelines?

TDR: You make hundreds of little decisions as you go along, some of them not very consciously. And I guess I'd start with some idea in my head. A lot of my songs speak to the uncertainty that surrounds technology. Even a romantic song like "Airwaves" is a post-apocalyptic love story, really, set in this very unstable, dangerous time when technology has failed us. Looking for sounds, I was drawn toward things that were evocative and atmospheric, that drew on the bright and the dark side of technology.


O: Do you share some of those fears about technology?

TDR: It might be misleading to say that I'm afraid of technology. I am rather fascinated by the feeling of uncertainty that surrounds new technologies. But in a moral or sociological sense? No. I'm not going to pontificate about how computers are destroying our fabric, or anything like that. I think that progress is inevitable, and really, it's up to artists to make sure that progress is for the common good. I think this is what we do. Man tends to be ugly, and artists decorate to make things more palatable.


O: When did you get involved with commercial software development?

TDR: In the mid-'90s. I'd been doing it sort of as a sideline up until then, out of necessity, because nobody was making products that helped me do what I was trying to do. When I first started making music at the end of the '70s, I was kind of a hacker. In the '80s, electronic-music technologies became mainstream and I lost interest, really. So in the '90s I started getting involved with virtual reality and video games, and eventually the Web and cell phones, always working on the edge where there weren't really commercial products available. Initially, I went into it as an artist who lacked a tool, but over time, I got more wrapped up in the commercial aspects, as an entrepreneur. I started to think, "If these tools don't exist and there's such a big need for them, I should be the supplier." I built a business out of it.


O: Are you a big game-player yourself?

TDR: Not really. Not since Space Invaders in the pub. I've never really been that big a gamer. Like many people, I was hoping around the beginning of the '90s that games and virtual reality would sort of converge as a means to transport you to some kind of other world. It turned out that wasn't what the mass market really wanted. I'm still a little bit surprised. It's such a huge industry, it surprises me that there isn't a fringe that's more imaginative, more aesthetic. I've seen very few games like that, that really appeal to me. I think back to something like Myst, which is pretty non-violent and imaginative. I had fun with that for a couple of days. But in spite of its success, it never really led to a genre that was non-violent.


O: You think there should be an alternative gaming, like alternative rock?

TDR: Maybe it's out there and I just don't know where to look.

O: Have you been amazed by the speed with which technology has developed? For example, cell phones. You watch a movie from 10 years ago, and people have cell phones the size of their heads, while now they're the size of their pinkies.


TDR: I think Moore's Law takes care of most things, in technological terms. Stuff is going to shrink, bandwidth is going to get faster, there's going to be more colors, bigger screens, and so on. Most of that is inevitable. But what's interesting is how it affects our culture day-to-day. Living in the States, you tend not to notice–the way you would if you lived in Europe–how much cell phones have invaded people's lives. There's a whole new generation in European and Asian cities for whom the cell phone is their life. It's their ticket. Everything that's of importance to them is right in the palm of their hand. And it's affordable. It's not something that separates the haves and the have-nots. Everybody's got one, and everybody's got access to more or less the same stuff. Increasingly, it's going to be the only thing you need in your pocket when you go out. You're not going to need your credit cards, you're not going to need your car keys, you're not going to need a map or a book or an iPod or anything. You'll just need this one device.

O: You've been involved with cell phones lately, working on ringtones and sound for phone-games. What's involved with that?


TDR: The way that I got into this was that in the middle of the '90s I formed a company, Beatnik, that was concerned with Web-sound technology. When the whole dot-com crash happened, what Beatnik was left with that wasn't a bunch of fluff was a contract with Nokia, who were looking to put polyphonic ringtones into phones. Sort of by accident, the requirements for Web audio-software technology were not that dissimilar to what Nokia needed, because we'd made a software-based audio engine that could be downloaded very quickly and used files like MIDI files, but which had good fidelity because they could include actual samples of recordings.

Nokia had pretty much created the monophonic ringtone market on their own, and they'd seen Asian phones coming out with sound chips in them that could do polyphonic MIDI tones. But the sound chips cost seven dollars a unit, and Nokia sells 150 million units a year, so… you do the math, you know? They cast around looking for a software technology that could run on the central processor in the phone, and Beatnik always had the most lightweight and the best-sounding. Nokia licensed the Beatnik engine, put it all their phones, and have shipped 100 million of them since. So when the dot-com crash happened, we took a long look at what aspect of our business had some real staying power. And whereas the Web was a dead loss, the cell-phone ringtone market seemed very promising. We re-focused all of our efforts on that market, and subsequently Sony Ericsson, Siemens, Samsung, Motorola, Panasonic… Everybody licensed the Beatnik engine. It's the predominant ringtone in the world.


As a business, it succeeded, but it was not particularly interesting to me because it was just an engineering business. What was more interesting to me, really, was the fact that now suddenly there was this platform of hundreds of millions of people with a synthesizer in their pocket. And yet, a lot of the ringtones being sold were sort of cheesy-sounding MIDI ringtones. It just seemed to me that it would be more interesting to have things like submarine sonars and old grandfather clocks and lines from famous movies and bird songs and things like that. So I left Beatnik and formed Retro Ringtones, which does specifically that, making libraries of ringtones that we sell for a slightly more discerning type of user.

O: So you're not currently working with Beatnik directly?

TDR: I'm still on the board, and Beatnik's doing great, but it's an engineering and sales business, not particularly appealing to me as a way to spend my time.


O: The word "retro" in Retro Ringtones implies that these are older sounds that you're trying to recreate.

TDR: We have a fair amount of cult material. Old TV and film themes. Hawaii Five-O. The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. And in addition, we have categories like "Great Lies Of History," which is mainly quotes from… well, American presidents, actually. [Laughs.] Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, whatever. And we like to do '50s B-movie sound effects and things like that. I'm sort of drawn to sounds that aren't very high-tech. Actually, old music makes fantastic ringtones. I've got Louis Armstrong as my ringtone at the moment. When his horn comes blasting out of my phone, it's kind of cool, because we're used to hearing that music squished down in a lo-fi setting anyway.


O: You have a long history with trying to improve sound, dating back to the late '70s when you built PAs for punk acts. What did it take to make The Fall sound good?

TDR: [Laughs.] Well, they do sound good. [Laughs.] Any band playing live needs a sensitive sound engineer, because the fact is that drums and guitar amps and things, if you just mic 'em up, they sound like crap, you know? You have to do the same hundred or a thousand little things every time to make it sound decent, whether you're in the studio, live, or wherever. Even The Fall needs a good soundman. [Laughs.]


O: Years later, you were playing with Foreigner and Def Leppard, and you were quoted as saying that one of your goals was to teach people that synthesizers "don't have to sound like a crate of moribund wasps."

TDR: [Laughs.] How many years ago was that?

O: The mid-'80s.

TDR: Okay. That period's kind of a blur. [Laughs.] But no, they don't. And it's ironic really, because people like myself started using electronics in popular music and got a lot of accusations from music fans and critics that electronics are inherently soulless, that machines weren't capable of making soulful music. And the irony of it is that any instrument can make soulful music if it comes from the soul. Doesn't matter if it's a Stradivarius or a synclavier. You can make soulless music with a Stradivarius. So I found myself being on my back foot quite often, defending the use of electronics in music, saying, "Well, listen, it doesn't have to sound that way." And I think eventually, people came around to it. From the early '90s onward, interest in electronica in general grew, and there was a certain appreciation for the purity of an electronic sound. Whole genres of music have made an altar out of that electronic sound.


But I was never really in that bag. I think I'm fundamentally a songwriter, and I could play a lot of my songs with just piano and voice. Wouldn't be my choice, but I could. I use electronics to enrich and enhance the textures and the atmosphere. I'm not really into the sound of electronics for its own sake. Never have been.

O: Your second album, The Flat Earth, is practically electronics-free, correct?

TDR: Yeah, well, you have to be really good to make people think an electronic album is electronics-free. [Laughs.] I mean, there's a lot of electronics in there, but yeah, it doesn't sound like an electronic album.


O: And your first album, The Golden Age Of Wireless, which came out toward the end of the first technopop era, didn't really fit that genre, or post-punk, or new romantic, or any of the other sounds that were dominating the UK pop scene at the time.

TDR: Yeah, that was the problem. [Laughs.] No, I like that. My favorite music is hard to pigeonhole. There's no single genre that I really like or want to associate with.


O: Being a pop star in the UK for the time that you were, did you have to deal much with the notorious snobbery of the British press?

TDR: Yeah. It was very discouraging, really. The press is very snooty. It's hard, when you know that a magazine has come out with a review of your work, not to read it. But I taught myself to ignore it, because chances were it would be a bad review, not because I'm me, but because journalists aren't cool unless they slag off 99 percent of what they review.


And there's no way I would've been popular in Britain at the time, because I was never viewed as indigenous. The British are incredible at poaching cultures from elsewhere in the world, and just twisting them a bit and making them their own, whether it's blues music with people like Eric Clapton and the Stones, or reggae music with The Police, or African music with Malcolm McLaren, or Chicago house music, or whatever. We've always been incredibly good at this sort of imperialistic thing of bringing back the spoils of our plunders overseas and putting a unique twist on them, and a little bit of dry British humor. And I think that deep down, we have a deep guilt complex about that. So I think that what we do is we try to imbue our own homegrown musicians with a sort of indigenous nature.

People would like to believe that Morrissey lived in a housing project on the outskirts of Manchester, and that he got up every day, dressed in rags, and wrote a couple of heartbreaking songs before his tea brewed. But by the time most people had heard of Morrissey, he was already a millionaire. I've got nothing against him. I think that's great. But it's an unfair requirement to make of musicians to expect them to have no shoes on their feet, or it's not "authentic." That's not reasonable. That was one of the many things that made me uncomfortable in Britain at the time, when I was there.


Another was that the musicians were so very competitive. A number of times, I'd be on a TV show with Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran or Gary Numan or somebody, and they'd barely even talk to me or each other, because there was just this sort of daunting competitive vibe. Very unsupportive. But when I'd get off a plane in the States, people were coming up to me saying, "Man, your stuff is out there. What can I do to help?" [Laughs.] They applaud your singularity, that was my sense. I found it immensely liberating. I also liked the fact that there was always some club in town that was a blues club or a country club or a jazz club or whatever. There was enough of an ecosystem around of specialized music that it was okay not to be a mainstream Top 40 performer. So I made my home here very quickly. I felt a lot more comfortable here.

O: On the other hand, rivalry or not, you did get to back up David Bowie at Live Aid.


TDR: Oh yeah, I mean, I have no complaints. From as soon as I started doing well commercially, I started getting some interesting offers, to compose or play keyboards or produce. I love to do that. I'm quite happy to take a back seat. I wouldn't have given up that opportunity to play with David Bowie at Live Aid, or Roger Waters at the Berlin Wall, or some of those albums I did, like Joni Mitchell's… I just had a really rich and varied career in music. And then Prefab Sprout, you know, which is a band I love as much as I love my own music. A couple of their albums were as important to me as a couple of my best albums. I was very lucky to have that variety to what I did.

O: Why didn't you produce more?

TDR: Producing means months in the studio with a fair amount of responsibility. There's the budget, the deadline, the drummer's drug problem, whatever. You have to be a grown-up, really. When you're the artist, you're allowed to be a crazy kid, and everyone around you supports that behavior, because they know that's where the excitement starts. So they allow you to be irresponsible. I tend to ping-pong between the child and the adult, and I don't think I could've spent all my time in the back seat. Also, I'm something of an exhibitionist. I need to express myself and have my own name attached to it, rather than somebody else's. In balance, you know? In good measure. I think in retrospect, had I chosen a production career early on, it probably would've been a viable commercial choice to make, as a career. But then I would've missed out on a lot of other stuff that I did. So I have no regrets, really, about that.


O: Are you still writing songs?

TDR: Not really. Right now, I seem to have about 10 songs in my head that I've never recorded, so I have a backlog of material. If and when I get back to it, I may draw on that, or I may just rip it up and start again. But I do very much look forward to getting back to it. It was never supposed to take me 10 or 12 years to do this Silicon Valley entrepreneur thing. It's just that one thing's led to another, and it's been hard to turn my back on it. When every year starts, I hope it'll be the year that I get back to making some serious music.


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