Thomas Dolby's "Speed of Sound": From "She Blinded Me With Science" to Silicon Valley and academia

Salon talks to the '80s synthpop star about his new memoir, the music industry and working in digital start-ups

Published October 12, 2016 10:58PM (EDT)

To many people, Thomas Dolby is best known for his kinetic 1982 synthpop hit "She Blinded Me With Science," which hit No. 5 on the Billboard singles charts. That song only scratches the surface of what the musician, composer, technologist, music industry expert, startup founder and now professor has achieved during his career, however — as uncovered via his new (and wildly entertaining) "The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology: A Memoir."

The first half of the book details Dolby's music career, which began with him discovering punk rock and early synthesizer technology, and then turning his focus to increasingly futuristic and ambitious music compositions as the '80s progressed. Simultaneously, he had a series of rather incredible (and memorable) industry encounters: visiting Michael Jackson's mansion; working with Mutt Lange on Foreigner's "4"; hanging out with Eddie Van Halen and George Clinton; and playing at Live Aid with David Bowie. The second half of the book focuses on Dolby's time in the tech trenches, courtesy of his tenure as the founder of Headspace (which evolved into Beatnik), which was trying to convince early internet companies how necessary sound was to web pages.

During this time, Dolby got a crash course in what it was like to work in Silicon Valley during the '90s dot-com boom — and then collapse — but found an unexpected success by licensing Beatnik's synthesizer to cell phone companies, starting with Nokia, which allowed for polyphonic ringtones. (The "Waltz" ringtone? That's all Dolby.) Currently, he's a Homewood Professor of the Arts at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches students about film music and technology.

On a recent weekday, Dolby finished up lunch and chatted to Salon about writing "Speed Of Sound," which is out this week.

Why and how did you end up writing "Speed of Sound?"

I was approached by different publishers to write a sort of music-business-tech-guru type book. I was unsure about it, and didn’t really want to cast myself as that. But I did go back and look at some of my diaries and journal entries going right back to the beginning of the '80s. I had them in old notebooks, and on yellow pads, and in old Filofaxes, and an Apple Newton, and a Palm Pilot and a Danger Hiptop, and then eventually my iPhone. It was interesting musicology because partly of the devices that they existed on, but partly because I was in all of these strange situations without really any context around them. It’s like I didn’t really know the big picture. And I thought, okay, if I wrote a retrospective book from the 2016 point of view, it would be very different from reading these rather over enthusiastic and sort of rather naïve journal entries written by a guy who was in the thick of things and couldn’t really see the wood for the trees.

And so I came up with the idea of writing a memoir in journal format. I had maybe a third to a half of the important stuff in original journals, but I thought I could fill in the blanks in sort of the same voice. And based on that, I found myself an agent, and based on that, the agent found me a publishing deal, and based on that I got my contract and had my first couple of meetings with the publisher. And in about the third discussion with the publisher, they said, “Well, we’re loving this project, wondering when you’re gonna do away with the journal format and start writing in first person past tense narrative.” [Laughs.] I was worried that that would take away from the charm of the journals. But they said, “Well, look, just write it in the moment. Remain in the moment and resist the temptation to editorialize. And do it stream of consciousness, just get it down, and we can verify facts and dates later in our revision and if we see the need."

So I did that with the first draft, and then they came back and every now and then the editor would say, “Perhaps a paragraph in here just to set this in context?” It worked very well and I found that I was able to sort of rethink myself into the moment and write it without too much benefit of hindsight, and then, every now and then, just put some context around it.

That's difficult to sit there and not want to go back and edit yourself. I completely empathize with what a difficult job that might be to do, especially because it’s your own life you’re trying to chronicle.

It was hard. The first draft, the stream of consciousness thing, writers that I knew said, “Just do it. Just lock yourself away, do a certain amount per day, and just get it down.” And I loved that part, absolutely loved that part. And if I needed a date between, you know, May 1984 and September 1984 I would just say, you know, "on July 22nd, 1984", I would just fill it in. And then in the second draft we did go back and fact-check everything, and I sent it around to the various people that were also there to get their input and so on. And the first thing I noticed was that everybody wants to fix themselves in your book. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] Unsurprising. You want to look your best.

Yeah, unsurprising. [But] you can’t do that with everybody in the book.

What did you say then? Did you have to put the hammer down and say, “I can’t do it — this is exactly what happened?” How did you handle those situations?

Some of it I was grateful for. I mean, that was the fact checking, really — they would come back with their notes, and there wasn’t much that I disagreed with. Of course, everybody’s got a selective memory, and there were some things where I could’ve sworn it was green and they said it was red. But there were other things where it was just sort of their point of view. I mean, for example, there was somebody in the music industry that I checked with. They took a music industry position and felt very slighted by the fact that I was so critical of the music industry, when in fact I was one of the lucky ones. That was his point of view, that I was given a lot of freedom, I was allowed to do my own thing [and] get self-indulgent, and that I resisted the pressure to follow commercial formula and instead went off and did esoteric, atmospheric, quirky stuff. That I was biting the hand that fed, and so on.

And I didn’t change my attitude to the music industry, but it did make me re-examine it from that point of view and say, “Well, am I being unfair to anybody here?” I mean, you can’t pin the blame on individuals. There was a whole industry that was going off the rails. They were just employees of large corporations, and so let’s not sort of tar them all with the same brush.

Especially the section where you were talking about the single, "Hyperactive," that basically fell victim to the backdoor label maneuvers. It was things that as an artist you have no control over.

“Hyperactive,” which was a follow-up to “She Blinded Me With Science,” on paper should have done just as well and, in fact, it fell victim to the industry wranglings. But I think from the book, you’ll see also that that made me realize that when “She Blinded Me With Science” was out, there was still all of the dark stuff going on — I just wasn’t ever made aware of it. So you assume it’s because you put out a great record and the public loved it and it was a hit, but in fact, there was all sorts of stuff going on behind the scenes that happened to go right. The stars were aligned for it — and the next time around, they weren’t.

It is so much luck and timing and being in the right place at the right time. You see that with so many different things in life.

I think that’s right. And part of the reason [the industry] was so formulaic was that you thank your lucky stars when they’re aligned, and you try and replicate as much of that winning formula as you can. And if you’re mentoring an artist, then you try and encourage them to just milk it for all it’s worth so that you can have a string of hits, you know. [Laughs.] And I wasn’t willing to play that game, really.

How was sitting down and writing this book different and/or similar from the way you’ve approached music in the past?

There were some similarities. When I was writing every day, it felt like the creative process. It was sort of like working on an album, to a degree, and very satisfying. So far, the experience of working with a publisher and doing the design and getting it out in the streets and going out and promoting it offers a lot of parallels. There’s more parallels, really, to putting out an album in the ‘80s than there is to making music in 2016, where it’s this very broad landscape with no obvious single formula for success. It's sort of a level playing field in a lot of ways. There’s so many different ways to go. But it’s just a bit of an unknown territory, really, if you’re putting out music today. Because there is no formula anymore.

I don’t even know what to tell up-and-coming musicians — as a journalist, I don’t know if anything I say helps, you know? It is a Wild West. It’s very strange.

The other thing is, commercially, what’s the prize at the end of the day? Well, it’s probably not record sales, you know. Probably the most you can strive for is that you up your fee for summer festivals. [Laughs.] And that’s how you get rewarded. So, yeah, it’s hard. But you can’t say it’s wrong, or that the old way was right. There was lots of hideousness about the old way of doing things, and I think, again, if you’re talking to an up-and-coming musician, at least now their chances of success, the gating factors are mainly about, “Well, do you make great music, and does the public really want to hear it?” vs “Can you get a cassette to an A&R man?" [Laughs.]

That’s true. Who maybe might listen to it among the stack on his desk.

Yeah, and if he doesn’t hear a hook by, you know, 20 seconds in, then he’ll just switch it off and chuck it in the bin.

Reading the second half of the book, when you enter the fray of Silicon Valley's early days, it really struck me how many parallels there were between that time and then your music career start, when you were sort of winging it and figuring out everything — from running the sound to tinkering with early synth technology.

There were definite parallels. I think the tinkering is what attracted me to Silicon Valley. Making software, programming, figuring out ways to use the new technologies in original and inspiring ways — I felt the same hunger and excitement when I first went to Silicon Valley as the early days of synths and New Wave and so on. I think that the difference was that I had an easy in to the corridors of power because I had a calling card from my first career. So, you know, the reason I was able to get in at the high level with tech companies would often be because they were after Rolling Stones tickets or something. [Laughs.] Or because they remembered, you know, that girl they were dating when they were at MIT when my record was on the radio. [Laughs.] So it was different from that point of view — that felt like a shortcut, which is a good thing.

I’ve done a little bit of work in the entrepreneurship and startup space. I have to say the whole second half of the book really captured the volatile nature of running and working at a startup, and how much pivoting goes on. There was lot of anxiety around that part of the book. And I think people don’t realize, it’s not just, “Oh, I’m working at Facebook and we’re valued at X billion dollars.” It's a very fraught experience.

It’s definitely fraught in a small startup, you know, for entrepreneurs. And the stakes are very high, but the chances of success are very small. It’s like deciding to open a restaurant. And in fact there is that comparison in the book, where I’m sitting at a bar with a restaurateur and holding up a mirror to my life and he said, “Oh, I never put my name to my restaurants, because sooner or later, they’re gonna go down the shitter. And unless you decouple your sense of self from your business, you’re gonna go down the shitter with it, you know.” [Laughs.]

That was, I think, the biggest mistake of my Silicon Valley phase, was that I took that calling card and that brand recognition, if you’d like, and I put that upfront because it would open doors for me. But as a result, I couldn’t really separate my sense of self from my company. And there are forces outside your control that can make you successful or a failure. And I internalized it all too much. To do that at the same time as you’re trying to raise a small family is probably a big mistake.

So after you wrote the book and put all these disparate memories and journal entries in context, what sort of perspective did you get on your time in both the music and in the tech world?

Well, I’m tremendously happy with where I am now in my life. I love what I’m doing at Johns Hopkins. In an odd way, and this is sort of hard to quantify, really, but the book talks quite often about — and I think you see me in the book — making choices that are musical choices or artistic or creative choices, when probably a businessman would have said, “No, no, don’t do it!” [Laughs.] “There’s such an obvious way for you to deal with this situation and you chose to take the artistic route instead.” I think that was always a frustration for people around me, was that was what was really motivating me. I think one of the reasons for that was that being relatively successful relatively young, paying the rent was never really that big an issue. And I’m not a greedy, materialistic person — I don’t need those trappings. Business for the sake of lucre was never really a guiding factor for me — and for a lot of the people around me, I think it was. And so that was frustrating for them.

I think I recognized that about myself. Writing the book, and seeing the parallels between these very different careers. And repeating some of the same, potentially, mistakes, but making some of the same choices, there was a pattern to them in these different chapters of my career. That was something writing the book really solidified for me. But I came out of it feeling very grateful for where I’m at, and grateful that I made those choices, and I’m very contented with where I am.

The other thing is that over the course of a lifetime or a career, you do actually get credit and acclaim for those choices. There's a certain accumulation. In where I stand at this point in my reputation, I feel that the fact that I had artistic integrity has kind of accumulated. You achieve a certain seniority and respect as you get older, from the net of all of those choices that you made. And it helps you in the long term achieve your goals because people, you know, that respect, will really help you get to where you’re going. It’s actually the first time I’ve talked like this, so I don’t have stock phrases to articulate what I’m talking about, but I hope that it is making sense to you.

No, it absolutely does, and I think you’re right. I don’t know if it’s just because of the pervasiveness of the internet and the way people go back and dig into different artists and careers, but there is a trend of taking different people and artists who had careers in the '70s, '80s and even into the ‘90s, and basically saying, “Hey, no, this was actually really good, you should hear this.” It's not revisionist history, exactly, but people using the benefit of hindsight and perspective to kind of look back and say, "There was a lot of really good that was there, and here’s why.” I don’t know if that made any sense.

Right, you know, I think it does. I’ll give you a specific example. This is how I came to be at Johns Hopkins: I was offered a sort of professor of the practice position at Boston University. [The school] has professors of the practice who they bring in, not from a scholarly perspective, but because they have current real world workplace experience in a given field, right? And it wasn’t a good match; I didn’t want to live in Boston. But it got me to thinking, along with my wife — who is from New York and has family there — I would actually like to teach, and I’d like to do something on the East Coast, where she could be close to her family and we’d be a little bit closer to the U.K., where our kids live.

I found this job opening on the Johns Hopkins website for a part-time film music lecturer, and while I was approximately qualified to do that, they wanted a c.v. and references, and so on. I wrote to them and said, “Look, I’m really sorry, I’ve never written a c.v., in my life, but maybe you could look me up on Wikipedia.” The head of the film department said, “Oh, I don’t need to look you up on Wikipedia. I know all about you.”

And I thought she was then going to say, “I remember you from MTV in the 1980s.” But what she said was that she had seen my self-made documentary, "The Invisible Lighthouse," which I toured with a couple of years ago, playing in small cinemas. She knew all about that project and the fact that I was sort of championing this DIY filmmaking ethic. She knew all about that, and had brought it to the attention of her students as an example of somebody just going out and making their own film.

The long and short of it is that I landed this position at Johns Hopkins. But that’s an example of the fact that, at the time, it felt a little bit underwhelming that I’d put all of this effort into this project, and I was playing to rooms full of two or three hundred people, not doing big theater tours or stadium tours, and that maybe it would all slip through the cracks. But, in fact, people were taking notice of what I was doing. So that’s an example of what I mean by when you make the right choices and you stick to your guns and you do great work, in the long term, it will come to serve you — and serve you better to achieve the right kind of goals.

Well, and the right people were at the shows. It might not necessarily have been big crowds, but the people who were interested in that, were the people you wanted to be in front of. So, what has been the most gratifying thing about teaching, since you have been at Johns Hopkins a couple of years now, correct?

Yeah, this is the beginning of my third year. Well, the students are super-smart. You know, my experiences with twentysomethings are limited. Obviously, I used to be one, and I’ve got three kids of that age. But meeting a group of very high-achieving, super-smart Hopkins students, it’s sort of a new experience. When I was starting out at each stage of my career though, I never had a mentor, really. There are people in the book that I’m clearly strongly influenced by, like Mutt Lange, the producer, Joe Rizzi, who was on the board of directors at Beatnik and so on, who had sort of filled in a bit of a mentor role for me. But in most cases, I just dove in and started doing by trial and error.

The thing about today’s situation — and the way things are today — is that if you’re a student and you run into an obstacle, the solution is probably a few keypresses away. You can Google it [or] you find somebody on Facebook that’s done a little tutorial video showing you how to do it. So in five minutes, you would have solved that problem and circumnavigated that obstacle. The know-how that I’m able to pass onto them is to take them out of their comfort zones and say, “Look, you’ve got to solve these problems without the help of Google and Facebook.” [Laughs.] You’ve got to do it creatively with the tools that you have in front of you, and the materials that you have in front of you.

Also, routinely, I’ll put students in a video edit suite with some music files and a scene from a movie, and they have to edit it together and write about what they’re doing, and about the process and about the collaboration with the internet switched off on their computers. And they’re really not used to being locked away in a room and having to solve these problems for themselves. Although the landscape will change — by the time they get out into the workforce, the software will be different, there will be more bandwidth and memory and computing power — but some of the fundamentals of the mindset with which you tackle a particular problem are constant. And they’ve been constant since I started at the beginning of the ‘70s. So it’s that that I have to give them. And that is quite unique, because they don’t get that from many of their other instructors who come at it from more of an academic perspective.

I was going to say, because you’re right, the real world experience that you do have and just the disparate experiences you had, I think that’s what "Speed Of Sound" really highlighted too — how many interesting musical and sonic detours you have had. I didn’t realize that you did music for Universal Studios rides. I went to that theme park around the time when it was there, and I would have had no idea that you did the music for that. That's very cool!

I think I saw early on that there were people behind the scenes. Mutt Lange is a great example. He’s probably the most successful producer in the history of the music business, and yet he’s far from a household name. And he wouldn’t want to be. He keeps himself out of the limelight, and he’d rather just focus on the work. He absolutely doesn’t want to be a celebrity, even though he married a celebrity. But you know, there is a value to being the puppet master behind the scenes. I was interested enough in the work in that period with location-based entertainment and theme park rides and theme restaurants and virtual reality and CD-ROMs and video games and things like that, I was just interested in the work for the work’s sake, and I didn’t really need to be in the spotlight as a sort of celebrity musician.

You were hiding in plain sight almost, in a sense.


Obviously, teaching is keeping you busy. Do you have anything else going on?

I want to do more film scoring, actually. Because you know, I’ve done relatively little of it, and yet I’m teaching students how to do it. What I did, I didn’t really stop to think about technique or the current state of the art or the industry or anything like that. So I feel that, so as not to be a fraud, I need to go back and do some more film scoring. That's currently on my horizon.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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