Preview: British synthpop artist Thomas Dolby ventures out to the 'Lighthouse'
British synthpop artist Thomas Dolby ventures out to the 'Lighthouse'
October 24, 2013 12:00 AM
By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"I'm quite a contrarian musically," Thomas Dolby says in a phone interview, "so I never fully understood how I fit into the fabric of pop music. I've tended to go out on a limb in a different direction."
Dolby is best known as the post-punk synthpop pioneer and boy wonder who gave us groundbreaking albums like "The Golden Age of Wireless" and wacky singles like "She Blinded Me with Science" in the early '80s.
Thomas Dolby's Invisible Lighthouse Live
Where: Carnegie Free Library Music Hall, Carnegie.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Tickets: $26.60-$60; www.ticketfly.com.
When the next musical revolution came along, he didn't hang around to become an '80s nostalgia act, instead tossing music aside after 1992's mature "Astronauts & Heretics" for Silicon Valley. He co-developed the Beatnik synthesizer for mobile phones while also acting as music director for the TED conferences of inventors and thinkers.
Finally, in 2011, he re-emerged with "Map of the Floating City," his first album in nearly 20 years, and returns now with something completely different: a "transmedia" concert production that accompanies "The Invisible Lighthouse," his short film lamenting the final days of a lighthouse on a dreary North Sea ex-military island near his home off the coast of England. As a child, Dolby had gone to sleep with the glow of the lighthouse, which was no longer useful for navigation and is endangered by the erosion of the beach.
"I felt this real sense of loss when I found out they were going to close the lighthouse because I can see it from my house, I can see it from my [boathouse] studio, and I've seen it as long as I can remember," he says. "When I moved back to England after 27 years living in the U.S. with my family, it was partly so they could experience what I had as a kid. When you get older, you tend to get more nostalgic. But to an extent you have to just let it go and there will be other memories that will replace those ones, and it will be different for your kids than it was for you."
Nonetheless, he wanted to capture the beauty and mystery of the lighthouse and the island in a short arthouse film, which won best documentary and best director at the Los Angeles DIY Film Festival, among other honors. He started the venture in DIY and that's the way he finished it.
"When I first started shooting I was using my iPhone and sort of talking to the camera and my intention had been to find a professional camera person," he says. "I spent an afternoon with a professional camera person and it was great, but it was not what I wanted. It was like the BBC had sent a film crew out to interview me walking around the place of my forefathers or something and that was not what I wanted. The iPhone footage had this confessional quality that I really liked, like this stream of consciousness."
Of course, as a techie, he knew he needed more sophisticated equipment like Go-Pro cameras -- even spy camera equipment and an inflatable boat get around authorities who barred people from the island with warnings of unexploded WWII bombs.
"I tried to go through the proper channels to roam around the island, and I really wanted to spend the last night of the lighthouse on the island. And I got so little cooperation from the authorities that it amounted to sabotage, really. So I thought of mounting this sort of clandestine commando raid of the island with the cameras rolling and I walked across the island through the unexploded bombs thinking, if nothing else, it would make a good climax for my movie. I suspect that the unexploded bomb legend is a bit like the dragon in 'Dr. No,' just designed to keep the natives away from the island."
In concert, he and sound effects designer Blake Leyh ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "The Wire") create an instrumental score that incorporates narration and a handful of Dolby songs that suit the mood and subject matter. The second part is a Q&A with the audience, followed by a set of typical concert favorites.
Dolby, who used the money he made playing the memorable synth riff on Foreigner's "Urgent" to finance his debut album, is easily pegged as one of the pioneers of '80s synthpop, and yet it doesn't seem to describe the artist who was first moved to play Bob Dylan songs on guitar.
"Yeah, I think it doesn't really tell the whole story because I'm fundamentally a songwriter," he says. "The synth is my instrument, where for other writers the guitar is their instrument or the piano or whatever. But my songs, I think, I can play them for you on the piano and they hold up. Many people in the arts write music to sort of adulate the machine and they want machines to sound like machines, and that's literally the appeal of it. For me, I wanted it sound like orchestras and film imagery. For me it was a way of using sound and textures to evoke a certain atmosphere. But my songs have structure, they have intros and verses and middle-8s and choruses. A lot of postmodern music is very much in the moment. I'm a lot more old-fashioned in my songwriting."
He was certainly different vocally from the synthpop norm, revealing more of his singer-songwriter roots.
"A lot of singers in synth-pop bands almost sounded sort of mock operatic, like Depeche Mode, Human League, Orchestral Maneuvers, A-ha, people like that. That was the typical lead vocal of that era. But there were people who did slightly more eccentric wacky stuff, like David Byrne or Pere Ubu, you'd get a slightly more bleak approach to vocals. A bit more of a sort of David Lynch influence."
Just like the Clash is often remembered for a disco song -- "Rock the Casbah" -- Dolby is most associated with "She Blinded Me With Science," a frenetic synth-pop workout that borders on novelty.
"I always enjoyed playing it," he says. "I find new ways to do it and new twists on it and I think it's become somewhat iconic. I'm delighted that it seems to have an evergreen quality to it. It gets used in everything from shampoo commercials to the ringtone on 'Breaking Bad' in the final series. So I like the fact that it's taken on that mythical quality and, of course, my accountant doesn't mind either.
"The only downside is that it might be slightly misleading. It's a very extroverted song, but I'm basically an introvert. The bulk of my material is very personal, very atmospheric. The hardcore fans that analyze my lyrics and notate the chord sequences and make tribute records and things online, they tend to turn their back on 'She Blinded Me With Science' and 'Hyperactive' and things and are more focused on 'I Love You Goodbye' and 'Screen Kiss' and 'Budapest by Blimp' and the moodier side to what I do."
In the end, "Science," which features contributions from Andy Patridge of XTC, producer Mutt Lange and British TV scientist Magnus Pyke, has been more a plus than minus.
"Thousands of people discovered my music through the more outgoing pop stuff but found they were drawn in to the more personal stuff. That's what stopped me being a marginal cult artist and kept me relatively mainstream. I think it's a happy medium."
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.
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