The Techno Music Man

Thomas Dolby, an early force in electronic music, is cranking it up again

December 14, 2006|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,Sun Reporter

He was blinded by science and then disillusioned with the music industry.

Now, after a roughly 15-year hiatus from national touring, electronic-music pioneer Thomas Dolby is back on the road with a new live CD and DVD, The Sole Inhabitant. He comes to Sonar on Wednesday with house and electronica artist BT.

Though he had two hits with "She Blinded Me With Science" and "Hyperactive," Dolby stopped pursuing a career in music in the late '80s. One of his reasons for leaving was that the industry tried to fit him into a mold, he said. After he finished his last large-scale tour in 1988, Dolby rarely, if ever, played music -- even just for himself.

"I'm not somebody who has a chemical need to sit and play the piano or write songs," Dolby said.

Instead, Dolby founded a company called Beatnik, which develops ring-tone technology used in cell phones worldwide. He worked in Silicon Valley and raised three kids who never knew him as a semi-famous electronics artist. Dolby decided to get back into music after Beatnik became self-sustaining, he said.

Dolby's children listened to his records and watched his music videos but didn't really connect their father with the crazy-haired, goggled guy MTV made mainstream, he said.

"It's kind of amazing for my kids, because most of the time they've been on the planet, I've been a businessman -- not a musician," Dolby said. "Now the kids will approach them on the playground and say, `Hey, my dad says your dad used to be a rock star.'"

Born Thomas Robertson, Dolby earned his nickname by endlessly tinkering with synthesizers in the '70s. (His friends named him after Dolby Laboratories, which developed the renown Dolby stereo system around the same time.)

From the start, one of Dolby's goals was to bring a bit of humanity to synthesizers -- not just use them as a gimmick. And though solid songwriting lies under Dolby's quirky flourishes, he probably will never sit down at a piano and play an acoustic show, he said.

"I don't really have chops in the Elton John department," he said. "It's actually a waking nightmare for me to get stuck in a spotlight with a piano and a mike."

Live, Dolby plays homemade hybrids of vintage synthesizers he buys on eBay and newer digital equipment. He has a more physical connection with the older synthesizers, he said.

"They're a little bit unpredictable, but you get so much more of a kick out of twiddling a big fat knob on a 1947 oscilloscope to open a filter than you do clicking a mouse on a computer screen," he said.

"What you can do on a laptop these days is astonishing, but it tends to be a bit sterile," Dolby said. "A guy staring into a laptop on stage to me is a bit of a barrier -- a bit of an impersonal thing."

To make his live shows more inviting, Dolby wears a camera on his head while he plays. (He also still wears the mad scientist goggles, though nowadays his head is shaved.) The footage is projected onto a screen behind him. That way, audience members can see exactly how he creates the sounds for his songs. He builds some of the tunes one layer at a time, until he has a thick arrangement.

"Often times it goes wrong, and that's often the best bit," he said.

Dolby is performing only one new song on this tour, though he and BT are working on a joint set.

"Initially it's going to be existing material," Dolby said. "But who knows? If it goes well, we might do some brand new stuff together. We certainly have a lot in common musically."

Thomas Dolby and BT play Sonar on Wednesday. Tickets are $22.50. Doors open at 8 p.m. The venue is at 407 E. Saratoga St. Call 410-327-8333 or go to

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