The exterior of the Canal Room is a touch jarring in the harsh light of day. The street-level windows of the TriBeCa brick building are plastered with giant, neon posters advertising the venue's reoccurring theme nights - events with names like "Back to the Eighties Show featuring RUBIX KUBE: The Ultimate '80s Tribute Band" and "Saved By The '90s: A Party with The Bayside Tigers." Checkerboard backgrounds and pictures of Screech abound. And for a moment, I'm worried for Thomas Dolby. It's hard not to entertain images of the singer being tortured with Teddy Ruxpins, forced to perform 30-year-old songs for a crowd of middle-aged showgoers squeezed into their prom dresses, in defiance of all laws of physics.
Things are much less troubling inside, however. The lights are dim and there's no neon to be seen - and while Dolby himself is MIA a few hours ahead of the show, a pair of dancers run around the space all steampunked out in corsets and high-heeled boots. One spots our photographer and asks whether we're there to "shoot the belly dancer." It's an interaction I can't help but relate to Dolby when he finally arrives, off-handedly comparing the whole thing to a traveling circus of sorts. "Actually," he responds, "it's quite simple compared to some other show. There's no video here, only three musicians, so this is the simple version."
This is the scaled-back version of Dolby's live show in 2012. For one thing, the tour had to leave its chrome 1930s-era trailer back in Jersey. Apparently it's just too difficult to get a giant time capsule through the Holland Tunnel. In its absence, Dolby describes the vehicle as appearing to have been "modified by Jules Verne and Nikola Tesla," adding that it "houses a video suite, which allows anybody from the public to shoot a 30-second message to the future. So, we've got a YouTube channel called Time Capsule TV and people are uploading these messages that they shoot in the time capsule and the most popular ones, based on the views and so on, we'll sort of preserve for posterity, for the future."
The multimedia offering is something of a logical extension of "A Map of the Floating City," Dolby's first new album in roughly 20 years, and a concept born in a makeshift studio in the singer's backyard. "I started working on it about four years ago when I moved back to the UK from California," Dolby explains. "I got set up in the garden of my beach house in East Anglia with a 1930s lifeboat, which some local boat builders converted into a studio for me. And it runs on a wind turbine on the mast and solar panels on the roof. It's all renewable-energy-powered. And it's a very inspiring place to be. I've got a periscope on the roof and I watch the ships coming and going in the sea."
For every one of me there was 19 other guys that never made it through that obstacle course and probably gave up and got straight jobs by the time they were 25.
It's a nice picture, certainly, quiet and serene. A long way from the industry he fled decades before, when he "went away," as he puts it, a conscious effort on his part. "The beginning of the '90s was a bad time in the music industry," he tells me, painting the scene as a bit of a horror show, this whole "idea of a record company patting themselves on the back and saying, you know, 'We've got a budget of $500,000 to break this artists,' and just throwing money at it at random. And then, by virtue of the fact that among all those labels there's only a total of 50 acts that the public will even get to hear to choose from, and some of those will sell millions and that sort of pays for all the mistakes that they make."
And really, in the grand scheme of things, Dolby didn't fare that badly, an artist who rode the major label rollercoaster and actually managed to make a name for himself in the process. "I was one of the lucky ones and I have them to thank now," he answers, humbly. "For the fact that I have a name now, that I can build on, so that's really great. But for every one of me there was 19 other guys that never made it through that obstacle course and probably gave up and got straight jobs by the time they were 25."
For someone who, for most intents and purposes, walked away from the industry that put him on the map, Dolby has managed to do a remarkable job avoiding the trappings of the straight world. In 1993, he founded Headspace, a diversion that would eventually turn into a 15-year venture. "It was a lot more fun to me to be making cool interactive music apps than struggling with the music industry which was sort of in recession," Dolby tells me. "But then, in the middle of the '90s, when the web came along, it was very easy to get venture capital funding for things and so, without much of a business plan, we were able to get funded to basically go in every day and make cool interactive music apps."
The company, later renamed Beatnik, developed RMF (Rich Music Format), a file type with a small footprint that brings synthesized sounds to a web page. Dolby explains it simply as being the audio equivalent to Adobe's Flash. It was enough to garner the attention of the world's biggest phone maker (at the time). "Nokia were looking for a way to do ringtones in their phones and asked us if we could port it to their phones, so we sent engineers to Finland and got it running, just a simple version of the Beatnik synthesizer running on Nokia phones. That was in about '98 and then they licensed it and it's been on every Nokia phone since and most of their competitors. It's over three billion units at this point and at its peak, it was on two-thirds of the world's cellphones."
A year before the launch of Headspace, Dolby gave his first TED talk, demonstrating a piece of software he'd written. It was a relationship that would fully blossom a decade later, when he nominated himself for the role of the conference's music director. "There's been music at TED for a while, but it was never very ambitious," Dolby explains. "It's a very important thing to help people assimilate all of the ideas that they're hearing, because if you're there for five days it can be mental overload."
But while he never strayed too far from the periphery, it would be another decade before Dolby would make a full-on return to music and, not surprisingly, his first album in nearly 20 years would have to be more than just a collection of songs. "People aren't buying albums very much these days," Dolby explains, "but they are spending a lot of time playing games in their social networks and so on, so I needed to find another layer to it. You know, my hardcore following would probably be fine with any format that I released in, but in order to embrace a new audience and perhaps a younger audience who were maybe too young to remember me from the first time around, I needed to find something to differentiate what I was doing."
I needed to find something to differentiate what I was doing.
That something was "A Map of the Floating City" - an album and game, a dystopian tale of a land in which the Second World War played out very differently. "My favorite aspect of the game was that people came up with their own stuff," says Dolby. "User content was really fascinating. They started taking the items they were collecting and inventing new things by combining items they had into something new. And then people started filing patents and we had to create a patent office and I put my son on it, sort of eight-hours-a-day, actually considering all these patents we were granting."
Dolby himself made cameos as "The Aviator," a pilot whose Floating City location was at the center of the quest. "The Aviator crashed landed his seaplane on an island of detritus that was circling at the North Pole. There was no icecap left anymore, there was just this sort of circular floating island, and that's where I was forced to crash-land my seaplane. [Players'] role was to reach the North Pole from three different continents and converge on it and there, create the Floating City."
The online game was released ahead of the album. Its storyline and characters developed as something of a creator-made fan fiction, a concept that grew out of his fanbase's own overactive imagination. "They'd take on the names of characters in my songs and they'd sort of write their own scripts based on the places where I'd set my songs and using items in the songs," Dolby explains. "I thought it was great and I wanted to encourage more of it, so I thought if I came up with a game that was a framework for that to hang off it would encourage more people. So basically, we went through all of my lyrics and we put every item and every place and every name into a big database and we came up with this sort of trading metaphor and then there's sort of a backstory to it."
It all came to a head as a celebration in the titular Floating City, a virtual space Dolby describes as something of a cross between Burning Man and Freakonomics, with the musician on the wheels of steel, spinning rough mixes from his forthcoming album of the same name. And when the long-awaited LP finally arrived, the Floating City closed its doors, a victim of its own success. "It had no revenue, so it was just a cost out of my pocket to keep it running," Dolby tells me. "So we had a sort of success / catastrophe." But while the game itself has become a virtual ghost town, the relationships developed amongst the melted ice caps of the Floating City have taken on lives of their own in the real world. "People have been turning up to the shows in character," Dolby says with a smile, "so there have been clusters of game players who have come and they meet beforehand in a bar and they trade stuff."
Roughly 20 minutes out from soundcheck, I've got to wonder who will file in through the Canal Room in a couple of hours. How many will arrive in steampunk goggles, ready to match the usernames of fellow Floating City inhabitants to real-world faces? And how many will walk past the wall of '80s nostalgia, waiting impatiently for familiar radio songs from three decades prior? In spite, or maybe because of self-imposed exile, Dolby is still capable of bringing in a diverse crowd, many weaned on pop music well after "She Blinded Me With Science" had come and gone from the Top 40 airwaves.
Like so much of Dolby's career over the past few decades, success here can be traced back to the use of technology not as a means to an end, but rather as an artform in and of itself. "Because of these new methods that we've taken to reach out to people - maybe it was the game that grabbed them or maybe it was the time capsule idea so they come down knowing only a couple of songs," says Dolby.
Now that I've got some momentum going, I'd like to take advantage of it.
And while he's the first to admit that he's not selling out stadiums, the tour has generated enough interest to ensure that he won't be leaving another 20-year gap between records. "Now that I've got some momentum going, I'd like to take advantage of it," says Dolby. "The old days, I used to always get distracted, because I would get to this point in a tour and somebody would offer me a film soundtrack or something. And in the middle of a tour that seemed like a good idea, so I would jump around from one thing to another and that was sort of frustrating for the label and the business people, because, you know, they always had to start from scratch every time. I'm a bit older and wiser now so maybe, you know, while I'm doing this one thing I'll try to keep the momentum up."
He's got big plans for that momentum: multimedia shows and special guests - all possible when he can move things into a larger venue. Until then, things will have to remain a bit scaled down, the classic labcoat and goggle setup traded in for a more subdued gray fedora and the army of electronics left off the tour in favor of a Mac laptop and a piano. And sure, Dolby may not have the sort of AV spectacle he'd prefer, but there's that belly dancer, floating around the venue upstairs and, of course, the disbanded tribes of the Floating City waiting for the show to begin.
[Image credit: Douglas Sonders, Cary Baker (Time Capsule); this article originally appeared in Distro Issue 43.]