If you're wondering what Thomas Dolby has done in the two decades since he cunningly fused pop and electronic music, the answer is in the palm of your hand: Twelve years ago Dolby left music and proceeded to develop the Beatnik software technology used in two-thirds of the world's cell phones. Unlike many performers who return to the stage, he doesn't need to do it for the money. Pumped up by new technologies and changing business models in the music industry, and re-invigorated by reaction to his initial tour dates earlier this year, Dolby is now writing his first album of new music since the early '90s.
He will also hit the road in March, with shows in Northern California and Texas, including SXSW in Austin on March 15. Ever the innovator, Dolby is pioneering a new blend of instruments: high-tech electronica plus live jazz brass. His spring touring ensemble will feature real-time looping on a computer laptop, along with a three-piece horn section (the Jazz Mafia Horns) comprising some of the San Francisco Bay Area's finest young jazz soloists: Adam Theis on trombone, Rich Armstrong on trumpet, and Ron Cohen on tenor sax.
Dolby took us on a guided tour of the old with the live retrospective CD and The Sole Inhabitant, each issued independently last fall on Dolby's own label and web site, and via CD Baby and iTunes. The album contained live versions of classic songs including "She Blinded Me With Science," one of the very first MTV-driven hits, and "Hyperactive," as well as great songs from the era that weren't seen on MTV.
"In some ways all that chart success was orthogonal to what I was really trying to do, which was develop the textures and rhythms of electronic music into a palette that a genuine songwriter could build stories upon. I hope that the DVD and CD helped re-establish my credentials as an artist before I move into the next chapter. I have new songs ready to start work on as soon as I've closed the loop and reconnected with the core fan base," he says.
Dolby feels that time has put his influence into perspective. "Though people tend to associate me with the '80s, I feel my roots are really in the late '70s and the electronic underground in London. Bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle and Clock DVA were playing small clubs around Europe in parallel to the punk movement, and many remained anonymous, only a few making it into the mainstream pop limelight during the '80s — Soft Cell, Human League and Ultravox. There were so few of us doing it back then that it's no surprise we get cited as influences when modern electronica acts are interviewed, but the legacy of that period is clearly very important."
The Sole Inhabitant is Dolby's first consumer product since 1992's Gate to the Mind's Eye, an audio disc complemented by a laser disc with accompanying animation. In that time, he hasn't approached a single record company, determined instead to harness the technology and distribution options available to indie artists today.
The audio CD was recorded live at Martyrs in Chicago, while the DVD was filmed at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston, MA. Dolby felt these were two of his best concerts of the year. The DVD features a sit-down interview/chat in which Dolby discusses his past and present careers and the stories behind the songs. The first batch of copies was autographed by Dolby.
Dolby has always maintained a loyal core of fans who were galvanized by tour dates earlier this year. Dolby intends to involve his fans in the birthing of the record, blogging frequently at his web site (www.thomasdolby.com) and posting reviews from shows along the tour route.
Fall 2006 tour dates received high praise from critics, who also applauded The Sole Inhabitant. Atlanta's Creative Loafing wrote: "Dolby plans to release new music over the coming years, which bodes well since these 20-plus-year-old tunes on The Sole Inhabitant are still exciting, slightly puzzling and — more than anything — compositionally sound with the times. Fly-by-night electronica producers had better watch their backs and start elevating their knob twiddles in order to compete with such a charismatic artist." The Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale added: "This new live retrospective sounds remarkably fresh and original after all this time. Most of the 11 tracks on The Sole Inhabitant were written during the Reagan years. And yet Dolby's catchy, funked-up ruminations on the politics of love, intolerance and cold-war paranoia sound as current as the day he first harnessed the power of samplers, synthesizers and computerized sounds." And the St. Petersburg Times summed it up: "If you're a novice fan of Dolby's, please consider (the CD and DVD) must-own primers into the music of a vastly under-appreciated artist. If you're a long-time fan, suffering from his extended absence from the music biz, the discs are an early holiday present to be treasured. Performing only one-man shows in this tour, Dolby seems to be wowing his old fans while building a new audience."
Dolby's solo set features him onstage with a bank of high-tech computers, a collection of vintage oscilloscopes and signal generators, a military headcam and antique radio operator earphones strapped to his head. Live visuals performed by renowned video artist Johnny DeKam allow the audience to experience the world through Dolby's eyes. He is accompanied by the jazz Mafia Horns. Audiences may be surprised at first to hear a darker side of Dolby, but of course he plays the hits as well.
The March Tour:
Sat. March 10 – SANTA CRUZ, CA - Kuumbwa PM (2 shows)
Sun. March 11 – REDWOOD CITY, CA – Little Fox Theater
Mon. March 12 – SACRAMENTO, CA - Harlows
Thurs. March 15 – AUSTIN, TX (SXSW) - Elysium
Sun. March 18 – DALLAS, TX – RockHouse Live
Thurs. March 22 – FAIRFAX, CA (Bay Area) - 19 Broadway