The Sounds of Science

After a long hiatus, Thomas Dolby brings back scientifica


In the music world, the phrase "one-hit-wonder" refers to a song that receives so much airplay, the musician soon becomes a household name. It's a one-hit wonder because any follow-up album is usually relegated to the dollar bin in the music section of a store whose name includes "mart." Under that definition, Thomas Dolby may have been considered the proud purveyor of a one-hit wonder. However, he is anything but.

Dolby's 1983 smash hit "She Blinded Me With Science" was a catchy tune that came out during MTV's formative years. The result was a clever video in heavy rotation that rocketed the Brit into the American mainstream. In the early '90s, tired of touring, Dolby founded Beatnik, Inc., a company largely responsible for the ringtone technology used in most cell phones today. After 15 years of making an entirely different kind of music, Dolby is taking his show back on the road. A longtime fan (I still put The Flat Earth on the turntable at least once a month), I caught up with him as his Sole Inhabitant Tour 2006 was launching.

Boise Weekly: Did you create the Nokia tune?

Thomas Dolby: We didn't originate it. The Nokia introductory tune is actually an old waltz from the 19th century. Nokia used to have just beeps for ring tones. They wanted to be able to use polyphonic ring tones, which are multiple notes at the same time. In the late '90s, they came to Beatnik because they needed a synthesizer small and efficient enough to go in a cell phone. The only way at the time to do it was with a dedicated chip, but they didn't want to go to that expense. So we shrunk our audio engine down to fit into their phones. They've since shipped hundreds of millions of phones. All the other manufacturers [of cell phones] have licensed the technology as well.

Are you still involved with Beatnik?

I'm still the largest individual shareholder and I'm on the board of directors, but I'm not involved in the day-to-day workings.

Why did you decide to do this tour now?

My goal really with this tour was to get my chops back and get back in touch with my core audience, and, amazingly to me, there are still people like yourself who are listening to my music on a regular basis. Online, there are people who are still arguing over a lyric or a song. Interestingly, it's not the hits. They're not talking about "She Blinded Me With Science" or "Hyperactive"--it's songs like "Screen Kiss" and "Budapest by Blimp," the more personal and atmospheric songs. I'm really looking forward to doing some new stuff and I'm very much looking forward to getting face-to-face with [my fans] and hearing their stories about what they've been up to for the last 15 years. Then I'll take it from there.

In the '80s, there was clearly a science theme running through the titles of your songs. Was that based on your own interest in things scientific or a reflection of the burgeoning technology of the time?

I've always been interested in "scientific fetishism," if you like. I like the images and the ideas behind science, but I was never much of an academic myself. And certainly, I have a creative bent and too short an attention span to ever have been a good scientist. On the other hand, my background is very academic. My father was an Oxford professor, so I decided to draw on that and my tinkering around with technology and make that the basis for my image. I came out of the UK underground electronic movement in the '70s before it became part of the pop mainstream. I use to play these bizarre one-man shows around Europe and I wanted to reconnect with those roots, hence this tour. And it's a hybrid of old and new technology. I've got all the latest gear, but I've always had a passion for old oscilloscopes and ex-Royal Navy field equipment and things like that. I gut the machines and retrofit them so they can control my modern synthesizers.

Is Thomas Dolby a persona? Do you go by Dolby in your everyday life?

Yes, I do. What I did was amplify an aspect of my persona. Because that video ["She Blinded Me With Science"] was such a commercial success, it blurred the more sensitive side of what I did. And when The Flat Earth came out with songs like "Screen Kiss"--songs that were much more introspective--it made it tough for the industry to pigeonhole me. "She Blinded Me With Science" was a very flippant song, and a lot of my songs are much more heartfelt. But, by the end of the '80s, I was burned out on the cycle of album and tour and big labels. I was starting to get excited about the liberating possibilities of the Internet and new technologies that made us [musicians] less dependent on the industry. In 1993, I brought together a group of musicians to discuss what the Internet meant to us in terms of lifestyle. Recording equipment was accessible enough that we no longer needed to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of record company advance money to get a record made. That was the first thing: We no longer needed a bank to invest in us to get on the map. The second thing was, we no longer needed a distribution network to get this [the music] to store. Bringing those two things together meant a huge change in the lifestyle we led. And, Internet technology has closed the loop between musicians and fans.

At Beatnik, did technology people recognize you from MTV?

In Silicon Valley, I'd be in a boardroom in a meeting and half way through, the person I was with would get this weird look on his face and I'd say, "What?" and he'd say, "I was just thinking about the girl I was dating at MIT when your song was on the radio." In the beginning, I was trying to get into Intel and Apple and Microsoft and all these companies and explain to them why they needed to do a better job with music on computers. I think they took the meetings out of curiosity. But, early on they said, "This is all very well and cute, but we're in the business of selling products."

Fast forward to now and look at Apple's fortunes: they're based on music on computer [the iPod]. When I started, I couldn't even get people to put speakers in computers. To be fair, the rock and roll world is so alien to, say, Nokia's culture, they saw the value in having me around as someone who could straddle the two worlds.

Just then, Dolby's alarm beeped, reminding him of his next appointment. Thanking him for his time, we rang off. I won't look at my little Nokia cell phone the same way again.

Friday, April 21, 9 p.m., $10 in advance, $12 at the door, with the Ned Evett Trio, The Bouquet, 1010 W. Main St.