NEW ORLEANS — Listed among the three days of acts at last weekend’s Voodoo Music and Arts Experience in New Orleans, a name from music’s past seemed to magically appear on the lineup: Thomas Dolby.
British singer, songwriter and electronic musician Dolby got famous in the U.S. with his offbeat 1983 hit, “She Blinded Me With Science.” The entertaining, incessantly shown music video for the song co-starred Britain’s celebrity scientist, Dr. Magnus Pike.
Dolby, having been inspired in the late ’70s by electronic musicians Gary Numan, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno, chose the path of synthesizer and drum machines rather than punk rock’s guitar, bass and drums.
Before and after “Science,” a minor hit in the U.K. that went to No. 5 in the U.S., Dolby amassed impressive behind-the-scenes credits. He wrote Lene Lovich’s 1981 British hit, “New Toy.” He played the descending synth riff in Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You.” He co-wrote “Magic’s Wand” for early hip-hop trio Whodini. In 1990, he joined Roger Waters for a performance of Pink Floyd’s The Wall in Berlin.
Into the ’90s, science, specifically software technology, dominated Dolby’s attention. His California-based company developed the polyphonic ringtone synthesizer for cellphone manufacturer Nokia. He estimates the technology is in two-thirds of the world’s cellphones. Dolby left San Francisco about five years ago. He and his family relocated to England’s southeastern coast, land of his mother’s ancestors.
“I should have gotten out of Silicon Valley a lot sooner,” he said during an interview before his Oct. 26 set at the Voodoo Music and Arts Experience. “But like a lot of dot-com companies, we were buoyed along by the dot-com bubble. When it finally burst, we probably would have gone up in smoke like so many others, were it not for the fact that Nokia licensed our technology for their phones.”
The shift from synthesized ringtones to clips of original recordings has since made Dolby’s technology less needed.
“Our time came and went,” he said. “I’m grateful that it was there, but I never really wanted to be a businessman. I did it as a creative act, originally, and it turned into something else. It kept me away from music for too long.”
Dolby released A Map of the Floating City, his first studio album since 1992’s Astronauts & Heretics, in October 2011. He played songs from the album at Voodoo Music Experience, including electronic funk number “Spice Train” and, a song about a misspent night in New York City, “Evil Twin Brother.”
Special guest Michael Doucet, the singer and fiddler with Cajun band BeauSoleil, joined Dolby on stage for another Map of the Floating City song, “The Toad Lickers.” A hybrid of bluegrass and techno music inspired by an article Dolby read about a tribe that gets high on toads, “The Toad Lickers” was a perfect choice for the Voodoo Music and Arts Experience.
Doucet also played fiddle for “I Love You Goodbye,” a song that began with a session he and Dolby recorded 25 years ago on the occasion of the Englishman’s first trip to New Orleans.
Dolby has made many visits since.
“Everywhere you look, everything you listen to, everything you eat, it’s always such a treat for the senses,” he said.
Unfortunately, New Orleans, and southeast Louisiana in general, have much in common with Dolby’s home in England. Both regions are flat coastal areas imperiled by rising seas. “The British Isles are tipping to the east, so the whole thing is doomed,” he said. “Where I live is a little bit like a British bayou. There’s a maze of waterways. I like to get out there on an inflatable speedboat and charge around.”
Dolby addresses the dilemma that island nations face in another of his latest album’s songs, “To The Lifeboats.”
“There’s a freak storm blowing in,” he sings. “I’ll be the last to leave the bridge, the last rat off your ship, England!”
Ecologically speaking, whatever will be, will be, but at least Dolby is delighted to be making music again.
“Technology has come such a long way, both recording and distribution technology,” he said. “That’s exciting, to find that whole new realm of possibilities. So, yeah, I’m very happy about it. It is what I enjoy most.”