The Science Of The Floating City: Our Interview With Thomas Dolby

There are certain songs that immediately take you back to a certain period of time. Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science" has that effect on me. When I hear the opening strains of the snake charmerish synth, I'm transported back to my childhood home, watching Thomas Dolby on the psychiatrist's chair. Today, Thomas Dolby is running a successful online game and is readying the release of a new album (A Map Of The Floating City, due October 25th). Despite his busy schedule, he was nice enough to sit down with us and discuss the new album, his online game, his past collaborations, the early days of MTV, how MTV gave his career a boost and nearly killed it, and Jessie J.

Photo courtesy Thomas Dolby and Conqueroo
You're working on your first album in over fifteen years. How's it coming?
It's coming very well. It's more or less done and about to go off to manufacturing.

How would you describe it?
It's got a lot going on. I've been making it for nearly fifteen years. [laughs]

Actually, it hasn't been fifteen years in the making but it's been a couple. It really started when I moved back to the UK from California. There are three sections to the album, and they're quite distinct flavors. The first is called Urbanoia and has a city backdrop. I'm not really a city person. I get quite uncomfortable in cities and I can only take them for a couple of days at a time.

Amerikana is a fond recollection of the twenty-two years that I lived in the States. I became very enamored with Roots American culture, which in the UK tends to get a bit of a bad rap. But it has an authenticity to it, an indigenous quality to it which I really admire. I think the songs in Amerikana, although they nod in the direction of folk and country and even bluegrass in the case of "Toad Lickers," are clearly narrated by an Englishman on his travels. I think a lot of American folk music is passed from one person to another around the campfire, so they're all travelers, so I'm just one of those people passing through.

The last section, Oceaneer, is about returning to England to where my heart is. I have three kids and they were born while I was living in the States. To bring them back to my homeland and watch them take it all in was a very important milestone in my life, so I've been very happy and inspired since I've been back here. I have a wonderful environment here, I live right on the North Sea and I work in a converted lifeboat which is where I am this moment. [spins camera around and shows the view out of a porthole] It's right in the garden of my house, so it's a very cool place to work. It's powered by a wind turbine and solar panels, so I feel good about that as well.

Does this tell a coherent story or is it just songs about each of the three themes? It's not like a rock opera or anything like that?
It doesn't have a high concept like that. It's a collection of songs that span a wide range of musical idioms. But I've always been jealous of the way a novelist can set each one of his or her novels in a different period of history, a different geographical location, different set of characters, and so on. Whereas if we musicians step outside of ourselves, you get a few raised eyebrows. People say, "Have they gone dubstep with this album?" People are very suspicious of anyone that is able to flit around between different musical styles.

To me, the songs on this album tell a story. Like a novelist, I pick an idiom to tell my story. I think the coherence is the voice and the personality of the author. But I might lose a few people because this song, "Toad Lickers," is what I call a bluegrass/techno mash-up. I saw a couple of mentions online where somebody said, "I couldn't get past the first few bars because I don't listen to stuff like that, man. My friends would freak out if they heard this in my playlist." So you get a few people who are close-minded like that, but my hardcore fans have seen the twists and turns through my musical career stylistically, and if they're still around, it's probably because they're willing to be taken on that journey.

Can you tell us about The Floating City game?
During the years while I wasn't doing any music while I was in Silicon Valley running my tech company, the Internet sprang up and that's part of the reason I quit music and moved there in the first place was I saw immense possibilities in music on the Internet. The industry was clearly not ready to be revolutionized and they were digging in their heels. So I thought rather than get frustrated watching the industry get further and further entrenched, I'd rather go where the action was, go to Silicon Valley where the technologies were being developed and play a part in that and be a contributor to the changes that were taking place.

During that time, on the Internet these newsgroups would spring up where people would take on characters from my songs. You'd seen someone call themselves Europa, or Budapest, or Leipzig, or something like that. They wrote a kind of fan fiction based around the mythology in the songs. People expound on ideas that are mentioned in the lyrics, but take off on their own tangents. It's like J. K. Rowling fan fiction where they come up scenarios for Snape's childhood or something like that. I would see people get into these iterative dialogues with each other online, in character. I thought, this is sort of amazing because I never intended there to be a continuous narrative through all of my stuff. I thought I'd like to get my arms around this.

I noticed during the time I was away, people stopped buying albums but they are playing a lot of games and they are spending a lot of time on social networks and I thought the right platform for a new body of work might be something other than merely a CD. When I started out in the '80s, music videos came along and I wasn't getting much airplay, so I thought maybe I could make music videos and that would be a way to extend my expression. I very much had the same vibe with games and social networks, so I thought, "What if I create a framework which encourages fans to this role-playing, collaborative fiction stuff?"

The first thing I did was make a big database of every item, every object, every character, every place name, whether real or fictional, in all of my lyrics. I just went through and tagged them all and put them in a database.

Wow. How long did something like that take you?
It took me a couple of weeks to do.

Photo courtesy Thomas Dolby and Conqueroo
I would imagine.
I had this title, A Map Of The Floating City, in my mind for awhile and these three continents. I thought about these continents being around a fictional sea. With Google Maps, there's an API which allows you to overlay your own information on Google Maps or Google Earth. It's designed so that, for example, a cycling club could draw their own route map around San Francisco. But all of this is openly accessible using Google API technology. So I went in there and created an entirely fictional map and I overlayed it over the North Pole.

This is in a world where there are no polar icecaps anymore. I came up with this backstory which involves this terrible climate catastrophe after which there's really nothing left of the planet except the northernmost coasts of these three continents, Amerikana, Urbanoia, and Oceaneer. The human survivors have to make their way north and converge at the North Pole in a post-technology ghetto. Steven Levitt (co-author of Freakonomics) saw it and said it was a cross between Freakonomics and Burning Man.

When you play the game, you create a character and you requisition the hull of an abandoned ship and you're able to move northward by trading with other ships the items you have in your cargo. Some of the items just have a name and some of the items actually link to a visual, an object, a clue, a puzzle, something like that. As you move around by trading, you're actually collecting clues because nobody remembers what happened before the Penumbra, the terrible catastrophe that happened, because our brain chemistries have been radically altered. There is a mystery to solve, which is "How did we get here? What are we doing here? What are we trying to achieve here?"

There is a mechanic within the game of actually moving and trading, but a lot of the action happens in forums where people, in role, discuss what's going on. They come up with their own theories and conspiracies and are divided into nine tribes. Each tribe is trying to solve the problem collaboratively. There's a broadsheet called The Floating City Gazette which publishes news and notices, shipping forecasts, and warnings. Every time the editors publish The Gazette, we look at everything the players have written and if there's something we particularly like, we publish it and it becomes the truth. So the truth of the story is kind of being written by the players as they go along in real time.

Is there a winner or anything like that?
There will be a winning tribe. At the conclusion of the game, the successful tribe will get to have a private concert of the entire album by me and my band in their geographical location.

Cool. What's the reception been like so far?
Actually astonishing. There's currently 4,000 players. It could've been 40, it could've been 40,000, I really had no idea. What's remarkable is that the quality of play is really terrific. They've totally swallowed this world I've created lock, stock, and barrel, and they write to each other in character as if their lives depended on it. It's been amazing to me how they've worked through this stuff. When I've set puzzles, they've got a lot of expertise between them, so it's amazing to see how they decipher codes and things like this.

There's a patenting system. There are freak events in the world, such as "an epidemic of technopiracy" or "an attack by rabid seagulls" or "an infestation of carnivorous moths." In order to protect yourself from these freak events, you have to invent something using the items in your hold and they're all things from my songs, such as "a nest of tiny scorpions" or "tubes and wires" or "horse pills" or "a Spam tin" or "a metal bird." You have to come up with an invention using items you currently have in your cargo which will protect you from these freak events or else you get bumped South again. We've had thousands of patents filed, complete with diagrams, photographs, drawings, and elaborate scientific explanations for how these things work. If you're successful, we grant you a patent.

This seems like so much work. Is it going to be over with in a few months and then everybody's going to have to just turn it off and walk away from it?
It will end in a couple of months, but there may be a provision for the players to keep going with the game by themselves, unaided by the programming team. There's no business model for it. It's free. It works in a regular browser and we're not trying to sell you stuff. The advantage from my point of view, other than the artistic fun I've had with it which has been amazing and the gratification I get from it, is that I've had this hardcore fan base that has stuck around for the last fifteen years, but I need to get to a new audience. While it's wonderful that you can make albums yourself and release them yourself these days and get them on iTunes, you're competing against 10,000 others. I have the advantage that back in the days when there was a smaller roster of artists on your plate, I got quite well known. I have a larger group of people know about me, heard my name, might have one of my old records in their collection. They probably don't know that I'm back and making new music. Their tastes have moved on. The goal really of the game is to convert that group of people into hardcore fans who will run out and buy my album when it comes out.

Let's switch over to music. You've worked with so many artists over the years like Thompson Twins, Def Leppard, Stevie Wonder, Whodini. What was your proudest musical moment, collaboration-wise?
Probably Prefab Sprout, who I produced. Not so well known in the States, a bit of a cult. They're a lot better known in Europe and were very, very highly acclaimed over here. They cracked the pop charts, but the effect they had was a lot broader than that, kind of to the degree that Steely Dan is respected and admired in the States. Definitely quite esoteric, quite highbrow.

When I first heard [Prefab Sprout], they had one album out. The songwriting was astonishing, they had a great sound but it had some rough edges to it. My job really was sort of the fifth Sprout, to go in and round off the rough edges and make their sound a bit more accessible to the general public. I did two and a half albums with them and was very, very proud of that work.

What was the craziest or strangest collaboration?
Probably George Clinton. I met up with him in Miami in the Bee Gees' studio. We used to work in the studio at night and go fishing in the day. George loves to sit in a fishing boat all day with a beatbox playing the rough mixes from the night before and a little tin of doobies and his eye on his fishing line. That's how he likes to be. But when you get in the studio with him, it's kind of great because he's not a musician who will pick up my keyboard and show me how to play something or pick up a guitar. He struts around the middle of the control room and you just want to make his eyes light up and his ass start wiggling. He's a very inspirational guy to work with. You just want to find the groove, find the funk, and get him hopping.

Photo courtesy Thomas Dolby and Conqueroo
MTV will be celebrating its 30th anniversary on August 1st. How much of a role would you say it played in launching your career?
A huge role. As I mentioned, I put out my first album and it didn't make much of a splash initially. But I was very excited by video and I fancied myself as filmmaker and a writer and a bit of an actor, so I wasn't too bothered about my record not being successful. What I really wanted was to make a video.

It seemed like good timing because it was a period when it wasn't clear what a music video really was, but suddenly there was this outlet where MTV was in all the major cities and hip people were staying home to watch MTV instead of going out to clubs and concerts. It was very exciting artistically to take a crack at that.

Yeah, I think it had a huge effect. MTV was so significant when it first hit the major cities in the early '80s that radio programmers were seeing what was on MTV and they were adding stuff to their playlists based on its popularity on MTV. And ditto dance clubs. If there was something on MTV that was danceable, then it would come on in a dance club and people got very excited because they recognized the song from MTV. That was really what made my career take off, when "She Blinded Me With Science" was on MTV and in the dance clubs. Following that, it went mainstream and onto the charts and started to get a lot of radio play.

Your video for "She Blinded Me With Science" is one that everyone remembers and associates with the early days of MTV. Would you say your videos played a part in its success?
I think it was important that a handful of artists grabbed the medium by the collar and did something creative with it, to set it apart from Soul Train and shows like that in the previous decades. Because if music videos had just been a guy crooning into a microphone and a shot up the guitarist's trouser leg while he plays his solo, then I'm not sure if it would've taken off. But the fact that a bunch of us started to use it, either to tell stories as was the case with "Science" or to use it for creative special effects as I did with "Hyperactive!," you get great videos like "Sledgehammer" by Peter Gabriel that would be landmark FX videos that were new works of art unto themselves. So yeah, I think a bunch of us definitely played a big part in MTV's success because it was a whole platform, a new medium.

So you treated your videos as an extension of your art instead of a way to market your music?
Totally! There was a brief period when some of us were doing that. You had Laurie Anderson, and people like that. Talking Heads, who were doing very creative things with the medium. Quite quickly, it got to the point where a video was a checklist item for an artist on a major label. But most artists were too busy to want to delve into it or they just didn't have the creative inclination to make it their own. So what would happen is the record company video department would get storyboards from three different directors and then call the band in, sit down, and the band would pick this one because it made them look sexy and then it would just get done. The band would show up for half a day and do their bit, the rest was done behind the scenes.

There was a honeymoon period when videos were very much a creative art form. And I think quite quickly, that went away again and I don't know was the cause and what was the effect, but MTV started to get into reality TV like Jackass and stuff like that and people lost interest.

Did you expect MTV to get as big as it did?
I guess it was quite surprising. When you're in the thick of things, you never know how things are going to go. Only a year or two into MTV's development, the record companies actually had a plan to put them out of business by creating their own music channel and denying access to their content to MTV. I was actually a victim of that because these rumors started to go around and MTV basically said, "Well, screw you. We just won't use your content. We'll get it from somewhere else." So MTV called their bluff.

My song "Hyperactive!," which everybody was expecting to be a Top 5 hit as a follow-up to "She Blinded Me With Science," got struck off MTV for that reason. And it happened to coincide with an argument the labels were having with the radio stations. I lost all my radio play and all my MTV play in a period of about ten days. The single had started off quite promising in the first two or three weeks and then suddenly plummeted out of the charts. That was depressing but made me realize on "Science," all the stars aligned for that and I was very lucky to get that one away. And very unlucky that I wasn't able to follow it up with "Hyperactive!."

Do you think anything exists today to help new artists the way early MTV did? Well undoubtedly, the talent shows. That might be slightly unfair because there's a talent show mentality now. Jessie J became an overnight sensation without being on X Factor. But there was something about the fact that one minute you saw her there in her pajamas on her laptop, crouching on her bedroom floor, singing like an angel and the next minute you're seeing full-on S&M music videos in a night club with choreography. I remember that because my kid showed me this clip of her on YouTube and I was looking for a backing vocalist for a song on my album and I got in contact and they sort of laughed at me and said, "the train has left the station, sir."

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today and good luck with the new album. Do you have a release date yet for it?
Late October, it's looking like.

Well, thanks again and I wish you the best of luck with it!
Thank you very much. Nice talking with you.

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