Life Stories #92: Thomas Dolby

Life Stories: Thomas Dolby

As I mention at the beginning of this episode, my inner 13-year-old was thrilled at the opportunity to talk to Thomas Dolby about his memoir, The Speed of Sound, because I’d been a big fan of “She Blinded Me with Science” and the album it came off of, The Golden Age of Wireless, for over three decades. But grown-up me was also excited to learn more about the inspiration Dolby took from the ’70s punk scene in London, and about the lessons he learned about himself and his craft while working as a technology entrepreneur in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

At one point, I asked Dolby about some of the frustrations he’d felt as a recording artist in the ’80s, and if, given that he’d been very successful as a producer for artists like Prefab Sprout, if he’d ever thought about going “the Brian Eno route.” He gently pointed out just how naive a question that is, in a way that also underlined his own ambitions.

“You know, Brian Eno is not really a ‘route.’ That’s like saying to a painter, did you ever think of going the Leonardo da Vinci route? You know, design helicopters and drum machines, and paint the Mona Lisa? Eno is really a law unto himself. He’s extraordinary both as a producer and as a solo artist, to have produced megahits by U2 and Coldplay but also to have invented ambient music and all the installations he’s done and so on… it’s really extraordinary. I would be flattered to follow in those footsteps. But I don’t think that’s a route you can pick…

You know, when Eno puts out a solo record, you don’t check to see where it got to in the Billboard charts, or how many copies it sold, or whether it’s getting much radio play. You just sort of assume that it’s going to be something that is just there, it’s out, available. It will be influential, but it’s not really going to make a mark on the mainstream. And I suppose I was too chicken to do that. I didn’t like the idea of a world in which my stuff would not even scratch the surface of the mainstream, because I do have the ability to do that and to make records like that. So I wasn’t ready to completely give up on that.”

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photo: courtesy of Thomas Dolby

13 June 2017 | life stories |