Thomas Dolby on Working With David Bowie, Eddie Van Halen, Def Leppard and Foreigner: Exclusive Interview
Thomas Dolby’s Twitter bio notes that he is a “recovering synth enthusiast.” But you want to believe that somewhere in his house, there surely must be a rig of keyboards sitting there, ready to go. And indeed, he assures us that even as he splits his time these days between Baltimore (where he shares his knowledge with students as a Professor of the Arts at Johns Hopkins University) and his homeland England, he likes to keep some things close by. But unlike some folks who have remained strictly analog purists, he’s happy that technology has come a long way.
“I’m not a big hoarder of vintage synthesizers. I’m rather grateful that the days of oscillators drifting out of tune and tripping over wires and the cleaning lady coming in to dust everything and messing up your patches and twiddling knobs by mistake, those days are gone,” he says. “I occasionally get pangs of nostalgia for them, but most of my work these days is just on a laptop, and when I get tired of it, I just hit ‘save’ and close it up and know that it’s going to load up again sounding pretty much the same whenever I return to it. I’m not sort of mawkish about old synths. But you know, it did rather bemuse me that the value of my original keyboards sort of plummeted in the ‘90s and is now probably up to where it was when I bought them.”
On the back of his new book, The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology, there’s a blurb from film director J.J. Abrams, who writes, “He rose during the advent of the British New Wave, but what was he, exactly?” That’s a question that Dolby is happy to unpack across the pages of his memoir, which details, for the first time, the story of his success in the music industry as an artist and the subsequent good fortune that he enjoyed in the tech world, beginning in the early ‘90s. With his company Beatnik, Dolby did a lot of things, including helping to pioneer the usage of audio on websites, and he was a key player in the eventual ringtone revolution that changed the sound of what we hear when somebody picks up the phone and wants to get in touch.
He has no shortage of entertaining stories (for example, the guy who yelled “science!” in Dolby’s 1982 hit “She Blinded Me With Science” learned that being famous isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be), and we spoke with him to talk about the book and his experiences working with classic rock titans like David Bowie, Eddie Van Halen, Def Leppard and Foreigner.
I talk to a good amount of folks from various progressive bands, whether it’s Genesis or Yes, folks like that and then also people like you, Howard Jones, etc. You guys were all born at the right time. I know as a fellow tech-head, it’s been really interesting to watch how technology has progressed across the years and for you, it must have been pretty exciting as the tools in your arsenal multiplied and things really started to evolve and get compressed to where they are today.
It’s interesting, The amount of people who still can program a synthesizer really well are now not just the sole property of a handful of musicians around the world. I think there are tens of thousands of people that are great at programming synths. But it was such a rarified thing when the people you mentioned starting out, and it was so relatively inaccessible, getting your hands on electronic instruments, that we were all de facto pioneers, really. But I think one thing that maybe set me apart was that in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there was a sort of movement to build a genre out of the coldness and the sort of alienation of electronic sounds. You know, electronic music was perceived by traditional rock ‘n’ rollers as being rather sterile and for wimps. [Laughs] So there were a handful of my contemporaries who played out that image and sort of really glorified that image in a way that I think was a little bit parallel to the way the gay community sort of embraced macho clothing and behavior a decade or so earlier. It was almost like a parody of masculinity, and I think the sort of Britain, the geeky goth look, of the early ‘80s and the music that went with it was a little bit of a parody of the kind of negativity that one felt from the conventional rock ‘n’ roll [scene].
Your book, The Speed of Sound, is very cool, for us as longtime fans — and also because it gives an interesting bird’s-eye-view into the life of one person who has spent his life immersed in technology, musical and beyond. I enjoyed the part about how you went back to notes that were scattered across a variety of yellow pads, notebooks, floppy disks and various devices. You mention specifically the private journal entries. How did this book take shape? Was it ever anywhere in your head as all of this was happening and as you were going through life that you might put it all down in a book someday?
I’m not sure about that. I thought briefly about being a writer as a career path and a vocation when I was a teenager. I enjoyed writing and keeping journals. I was approached a couple of years ago to write a book that was described to me as a sort of music-tech-guru book and I didn’t fancy that, really. But it did prompt me to go back and read some of those journals and see how I felt about them now. What I liked about them was that in the thick of things, I really had no perspective. There was no big picture. I just took things day to day and I thought that was kind of charming. Sometimes you would read the exploits of your younger self and go, “Oh no, don’t do it!” I actually thought that was a more compelling user experience than reading a 2016 music-tech-guru book where we all have the benefit of hindsight. What was kind of cool was that I was actually there, I didn’t really know what I was doing and so I was sort of blundering through it. Originally, I was going to publish it in journaled form and maybe fill in the gaps.in the same kind of style. But my publisher nixed that idea and said it wasn’t very trendy and charged me to write in sort of past-tense, first-person narrative. I was very concerned that I would lose what was charming about the journal format. But they said just stay in the moment and do it stream of consciousness as you remember it and we can fact-check it later, and if we see a need for you to step back and insert a paragraph of editorial from today’s perspective, then we’ll just put it in our notes. So sure enough, that’s what they did. The first draft is very much stream of consciousness, including things from the journals. The second draft that I did had a little bit more editorial overview, but hopefully without losing the immediacy of the first.
I think that was one thing I was interested about was the knowledge that you were going to pull back the curtain on your life outside of the music industry and it’s a section of the book that traces your work as an inventor and an entrepreneur and it does so without sugarcoating things. It is a very honest account that doesn’t just roll the good parts of the highlight reel. I feel like it shows bits and pieces of the dirty underbelly of the business side — including the dealings where maybe at the end of the day, there were some folks who weren’t very happy with Thomas Dolby, the corporate guy and I thought it was very interesting and compelling and brave that you were able to put that out there. Did you have any pause about putting all of that out there?
One thing is that the other people named in the book, other than the big celebrities, many of them are never going to write a book that will sell thousands of copies, and so, in a way, I’m sort of writing their story as well. So there was that aspect, for sure, where there was a certain responsibility there and that was interesting. I mean, I picked half a dozen people to give an early peek at the book to give me their feedback, and the first thing each one of them wanted to do was fix themselves. [Laughs] That was their priority more than critiquing me or giving me help with it. But you know, you can’t please everybody, so I didn’t go seek approval from everybody named in the book. I might lose a few friends, but you know, I didn’t have to change very many names. There weren’t many sort of pariahs in the book. But there are a few, certainly from the ‘80s, and there’s some of those guys who are dead or in jail so I won’t be hearing from them. [Laughs]
There are so many stories. Tell me about working with Mutt Lange and Foreigner on the 4 album. You spent a month with them, which had to be quite an interesting experience, spending that length of time in the trenches with one of the bands that was really at the top of the “corporate rock” heap at that point.
Up until that point, I’d never spent more than about 10 hours at a stretch in a professional recording studio, and then I was watching the clock because I was paying for it. So to have the luxury of being up all night at Electric Lady most nights of the week with any keyboard that I chose to hire from S.I.R., that was certainly a real thrill. I think especially the band themselves didn’t really know what I was putting on their records. During the day, they were doing vocals with Lou Gramm, and they would leave me at night or put me in the other studio working on my own with a relief engineer. And then they would come in and they would say yay or nay to the stuff that I’d done. I remember specifically, when I created the intro to “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” I’d done it with a technique that I’d long been hoping to try out, which was basically just to sort of build yourself a Mellotron by recording a sustained note on each track of the multi-track and manipulating them in a wave to create combinations of harmonies. I’d been longing to do that for years, and I actually got to do that one night at Electric Lady and put it on the intro of “Waiting for a Girl Like You.” The band came in in the morning and I played it for them, and there was sort of a silence and then the bass player said, “It’s a bit like massage music, isn’t it?” [Laughs] But to their credit, Mutt Lange and Mick Jones got it and it was very un-Foreigner-like in a certain way. It was certainly unlike anything Foreigner were famous for up to that point. I got a big thrill when, six months later, I’d be driving and there’d be an AOR radio station and on would come my “massage music,” 15 seconds of it before the groove kicked in.
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Were you in a situation where you would say the band wanted you there? Because that’s always kind of an interesting dynamic — if it’s the band that brought you in or it’s the producer that brought you in.
I think Mick Jones and Mutt were very much in cahoots at that point. They were both very clear about what they wanted and they both liked what I was doing. They’d had another keyboard player for the whole album and they weren’t really getting it. But I think they’d actually received a demo tape that I had sent to Mutt’s partners in Zomba when I was looking for a publishing deal. He’d liked the keyboard playing on it, and, in fact, I mention in the book, he was a very big fan of some of the sounds I used in a song of mine called “Urges” and the chorus sort of goes, “Urges, urges.” He asked me to put it one of their backing tracks and a while later, they added the vocals, which were “Urgent, urgent.” [Laughs] I raised my eyebrows slightly, but you know, I’m glad to have influenced them in a positive way.
The band had had elements of conflict at different points. How well would you say they were getting along at that point?
I never saw any conflict, to be perfectly honest. And I’m not just whitewashing that. They were fine. They seemed absolutely fine. I mean, it was interesting, because I also worked with Mutt on a couple of Def Leppard albums, and Mutt is a guy who basically made albums himself with sort of fairly minimal input from the band. Def Leppard was pretty much him and Joe Elliott. So that was pretty much the two of them. The Foreigner album was pretty much down to Mutt and Mick, obviously. The band were playing on it, but they were the creatives. And I think not everybody was comfortable with that about Mutt. I think it was a bit of a shock, certainly, when Bryan Adams started working with him. Bryan, at the time, had never spent more than about five or six weeks making an album, and it takes Mutt that long to get a drum sound.
What albums did you work on with Def Leppard?
I did Pyromania and Hysteria.
Do you remember specific songs that you worked on?
I worked on a lot of them under the name of Booker T. Boffin, which I mention in the book. I’ve got platinum albums on my wall, awarded to Booker T. Boffin. Mutt would have me double a lot of the guitar lines with keyboards to sort of thicken them up.
Mutt is legendary for putting artists through their paces and having them do this and that and all sorts of things over and over again. How much of that intensity did you go through with the stuff that you were doing yourself with him?
Oh, all of it. I realized I’d only ever looked at music through a magnifying glass and Mutt has a microscope. [Laughs] A high-powered digital microscope. You would play lines over and over and over again, and he’d go, “Yeah, it’s great. A little bit previous on the second phrase,” and you’d go, “Oh, do you want to punch into the second phrase?” “No, I think we’ll do the whole thing over.” [Laughs] Hours and hours into it, he’s still wiping everything in those days. It wasn’t like you could do endless takes and keep all of them, you pretty much had to wipe over what you did before. So it was frustrating, but it pays off in his mixes. I mean, they’re astonishing. I can’t say I’m a big fan of a lot of the records that Mutt has made, but I do admire him, the sort of maniacal attention to detail that he had.
You left with a good chunk of change from doing the Foreigner thing to work on your own record, so that was a benefit. Do you feel like the experience of doing that session work influenced you in other ways?
Yeah, the thing that influenced me the most about Mutt that I got from working with him was even after being hunched over mixing boards for 11 or 12 hours, working on the most minute details, he was able to sit back in his chair and say, “All right, play it from the top,” and you’d look at him and it’s like, This is a man who has never heard this piece of music before in his life. But at the end of it, he would say, “I think the middle eight needs to be extended two bars.” That decision that he just made could result in three or four days work, spinning in tracks and editing two inch multi-track tapes and all of the rest of it. It’s almost like a mind trick that you do where you just erase your memory of the last 12 hours and you just listen like a punter. That was astonishing to watch, and I don’t think that’s a skill that you’re born with. I think that you have to acquire that. But it’s important in all of the arts, being able to switch that objectivity on and off.
From a technology standpoint, do you think that was a better way to work? Because it seems like what you didn’t have in those days forced you to almost be more creative to come up with what you wanted to do.
Well, it certainly forced you to use your ingenuity. I have students these days, and one thing I notice about their generation is that any problem, you’re just a few key presses away from the solution. You look for the user manual, you go on a forum and ask somebody, you find a YouTube video where somebody has encountered the same problem, and they show you how they got around it. So people are really not used to obstacles today. They’re used to smooth sailing. It’s like, I’m going to max out my credit card and make an independent zombie movie and get it shown at Sundance. They’re used to just sort of blasting through without encountering any problems. Now, I’m not saying that’s a good thing to have obstacles in the way, but it led to a mindset where you thought, Okay, we’re going to hit roadblocks and we’re going to have to find creative ways around them, so you might as well have fun doing that. That was an important state of mind for me. I was thrilled by it. That’s why, throughout my career, I waded into things where I really had very little business being there. Because I get a thrill out of being out of my element like that. It’s harder and harder really in some ways to do that these days because help is always at hand.
You got the call to play with David Bowie at Live Aid. That had to be pretty unbelievable to be there with Bowie, playing those songs.
It was amazing. The whole experience was fantastic, the groundswell in the week or so before was just astonishing. Bowie himself, a week before the concert, didn’t really get what it was still. I don’t think any of us did, really. So his first instruction to the band was, “Well, we’re going to play my current single.” He thought he was doing a big gig to promote his current single. And then he got closer and he zeroed in on that and he realized it wasn’t about that. He was going to rise above that and do something transcendent, and so he kept changing the choice of songs right up until the last minute. We had three nights of rehearsal, I think, and the set that he settled on the last day, but we’d never actually played the songs as a set, back to back. So it was pretty intimidating, but everybody in the band were disciples of Bowie. As teenagers, we’d all adored him, so we’d all internalized the songs for all of those years. So any qualms that I had or fears about it were just sort of washed away when I was out there onstage sort of staring at his back and then like 100,000 people beyond him all swaying and singing along with “Heroes.”
You came into the experience as someone who had been a fan. What did you discover about the music and about Bowie as an artist, being inside his world?
He’s not a hands-on musician. He really thrives on inspiring the musicians around him to bring out something of themselves, and then he’s almost like a conductor in the middle of the room. He’d never grab a guitar from you and show you a chord or plunk out a melody on the keyboard. He would just stand in the middle of the room exuding light, and we all wanted to shine for him. It’s a very inspiring experience.
He’s certainly a guy who seems like he would have lived up to the hype.
He did. I’ve worked with a variety of people who were capable of making great records and films and stage shows and so on. He was that end of the spectrum. On the other end of the spectrum was somebody like Roger Waters, who can play every instrument and does have a point of view about how everything is done. And so he would think nothing about coming over and pushing you aside and playing the chords that he wants to hear. [Laughs] Ditto with the sound, the lights, the fireworks, the documentary footage, the marching bands, the projections — he had a hand in everything, and Roger’s a guy who sort of walks around with a black cloud over his head until everything is right and perfect. So constantly, it’s like, “Where’s the next weakness? We’ll iron that one out and we’ll make that work and we’ll move onto the next one.” Very, very different from Bowie.
The Astronauts and Heretics album, for a lot of years, was your final proper album. Looking back, what sort of things were going on that really influenced the inspiration and thought process for where that album went and how it sounds?
That album was a change, specifically, because I sort of really put to one side the idea of making music from the outside in. In other words, sort of starting with a particular groove or a particular high concept and then writing a song around it. I’d moved much more toward sort of writing from the inside out, which was more about personal feelings from experience and figuring out a way to get that out in the form of a song. So I think there was a different sort of method behind the songwriting on that album. The other aspect of it that was very different was that for the first time, I was pretty much on my own in the studio for most of the time that I was recording the album. I went out on the road and did quite a lot of recording. As I describe in the book, when I went to Louisiana, when I went up to Marin County to work with Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh, I went over to Eddie Van Halen’s house to work with him. Very often I would go sort of on location as it were to record those collaborations and then bring them back to a very small studio in Burbank, where I put the album together over the course of about six months, working many long hours in the studio.
You had a way to get to Eddie Van Halen and you wanted to get him to play on the album. Did you already have in mind him playing on those two tracks? Or was that something that came later, once you knew you could enlist the services of Eddie Van Halen to play on your record?
I was hoping that he would say yes. I knew him socially because of our wives knowing each other from the acting world. I’d hung out with him a few times socially, and we’d sort of discussed it. I definitely had him in mind, both for the guitar work on “Close but No Cigar” and the solo on “Eastern Bloc.”
When it came to working with him, did you coach him as far as ideas that you had, or did you just kind of let him do his thing?
It was a collaboration really. I don’t think anybody tells Eddie Van Halen what to play. But certain aspects of art are essentially part of the composition. Certainly the chord sequence on “Close but No Cigar” was something that I’d sort of imagined and composed in my head and probably even demoed before Eddie started working on it.
What sticks with you when you look back on that experience of working with Eddie Van Halen?
It was a very fun experience. There were a lot of sort of rock stereotypes that kept sort of popping up as we worked together. I loved jamming with him, and I think he enjoyed it too, sort of being drawn out and playing a different type of music. I think Eddie, in some ways, it’s a shame that his talents have been sort of limited for the most part to the Van Halen albums, because he’s got a lot more versatility and range than you would know, [even as] fantastic as his playing on his own albums [is]. I think if you listen to the rare examples of work that he’s done for other people, on my albums, on Thriller and so on, you get a sense of how great it might have been if Eddie had branched out a little bit.
It seems like it was quite a thing going to 5150 and his estate and just being inside his world. No different than the experiences you had with Michael Jackson.
It’s one that I wouldn’t have missed for the world. But I think that in some ways, the more brilliant and the more quirky these kinds of artists are, the more you can expect some very surreal circumstances in their everyday lives.
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