Brit musician and composer Thomas Dolby appears at the Triple Door on Monday, October 10th for what is set to be part lecture part performance. The event, THE FLOATING CITY: A Dieselpunk Dystopia, will focus primarily on Dolby’s newly released album A Map of the Floating City – his first since 1992’s Astronauts & Heretics – and on the online game he created, The Floating City. Dolby’s written so many amazing songs – listen to “Screen Kiss,” “Europa and the Pirate Twins,” “Windpower,” “One of Our Submarines,” “The Flat Earth,” “I Love You Goodbye,” for starters to see what I mean. A Map of the Floating City embodies and recalls his best work with songs such as “Simone,” “Spice Train” and “Jealous Thing.” Dolby talked with me about the development of the album and game, and he also discussed how he came up with an entirely new persona, The Lost Airman. You can reserve tickets right here.
Does A Map of the Floating City feel a bit like a first album?
Thomas Dolby: It’s often said about artists that with your first album you’ve had 19 or 20 years of life experience to write about, and then your second album you’ve had six months of hotels and airport lounges. I actually feel like I’ve had 19 or 20 years of life experience – it’s been that long since I’ve done an album. There is definitely a sense of picking up where I left off.
The songs are nicely similar to ones that made 1994’s Retrospectacle.
TD: I think there’s a consistency to the personality of the songs and the vocal even though the musical idioms that I’m using are very different. I’ve always liked the way that if you’re a fan of a novelist then you sort of expect every new novel to be in a different period of history, different geographical location and it’s always they’re gonna keep you guessing as to where the next one is going to be set. With musicians, people like to pigeonhole us, to pin a label and a genre on us. That can be very restrictive depending on the kind of spectrum of musical influences and styles that you have. I really enjoy working in an idiom that I’m not familiar with. If you take, for example, “Toad Lickers ” – I wanted to write this lyric about this gang of eco-hippies holed up in the Welsh mountains who lick toads and come down in the middle of the night with the munchies and raid the skips behind the supermarkets. I thought, what kind of music would they listen to? It’s going to be a sort of mash up between blue grass and techno – neither of which are actually genres that I’m particularly au fait with, so I just took a crack at creating my own mashup, and this is what resulted.
I really love that song. The video turned out really well. Was it fun to do?
TD: It was a lot of fun to do. There’s actually an alternative country/Americana festival in the English countryside near where I live, on a farm. They asked me to play, and I said I’ll come and play if you lend me the barn for the day to shoot the video in. They said okay, and that’s where we did it. Somebody said, jokingly, you need a couple of cowgirls on backing vocals. And I thought, why not burlesque cowgirls? A guy I know, that’s a brilliant puppeteer who’s worked for Jim Henson and so on chimed in and said, do you want me to do the barn yard animals? But with a bit of a twist.
I’d borrowed it from the designer, who was John Galliano, who as you know got into a lot of trouble recently. He’s still around and despite everything else he’s still a fabulous designer.
I’ve always had strong visuals attached to your songs. How do you maintain that?
TD: It’s hard to explain. I often feel like I’m scoring an imaginary movie that’s running in my head. A lot of my songs, the inspiration for them is very visual. I’m very influenced by my surroundings, my environment. I moved back to the UK, out in the middle of nowhere, to this tiny hamlet on the English coast facing the North Sea – the whole of the east of Britain is gradually tipping, you used to be able to walk to Holland from here and the North Sea found a way through. There are little villages along the coast that have disappeared under the waves over the centuries – so where we are is ultimately doomed. It’s just a matter of time – hopefully not in our lifetime. It didn’t make sense for me to have a shed in my garden the way a lot of musicians of my generation might. I decided instead to have a life boat in the garden that serves a dual purpose, that it will be our escape if the waters rise suddenly – but then I put a big hole in the hull for a doorway so I’m not sure if the boat’s going anywhere but at least it’s raised my equipment up a few feet. So I sit staring out in my 1930s lifeboat over the North Sea. I have a periscope because a lot of anglers and birdwatchers use our beach, and if there are no birds or fish around they tend to turn around and stare into my studio instead. I draw the blinds and sort of perv them through the periscope. There’s a lot of interesting stuff out at sea. One of the largest container ports in Europe is just down the coast, so there’s massive container vessels going in and out. When the light is right it sort of looks a bit like the Manhattan skyline. At various times of day you get this archipelago of floating cities on the sea, and that became a moniker for the album early on. Some of the ideas on the album are songs that I started elsewhere. I found the songs falling into three categories, Amerikana with a K, Urbanoia and Oceanea. Amerikana was fond memories of living in the USA, Urbanoia was not so fond memories of cities – which I have a mixed relationship with – and Oceanea was very much about the homecoming to the coast of England.
Where did The Floating City game come from?
TD: I had this idea for the game, and I approached a couple online game companies, and they told me it couldn’t be done with the budget I had, that I had to modify my ideas. We assembled this amazing team of half a dozen people in different time zones – from the game scene they sort of knew each other but had never met face to face. [Andrea Phillips, game designer] and I met on Skype everyday, for what we’d call a scrum. We developed it over a number of months. Eventually it launched and had a twelve-week run. It was clearly very popular. At the end of it people had withdrawal symptoms. They basically demanded that we find a way to sustain the floating city. We’re about to launch, if you like, the sequel, which will be entirely player-driven. Some of my favorite stuff about the game was what the players came up with. They thought there was this complicated backstory that we’d worked out in advance but in reality, they would speculate about what was going on, and post conspiracy theories – and I read them. If there was something I liked I printed it in The Floating City Gazette as if it was the truth. They were actually kind of writing the story themselves and they didn’t know it.
Your new character, The Lost Airman – Is this something you came up with recently?
TD: I think he’s been sort of hovering in the ether for a number of years, but the first incarnation was [with] Evelyn Evelyn – I think the other half of Evelyn Evelyn was from the Northwest. Amanda Palmer was due to come to London to perform an Evelyn Evelyn show and she made it in, but he got trapped by the volcanic ash cloud. He managed to get in but there was a circus impresario character that didn’t make it, so she called me frantically and said would I mind being the impresario for the Siamese twins. This was with about 6 hours notice. I said well I’ll do it but I’m gonna come in character and I’ll surprise you. So the first incarnation of that character was at that show.
In a press release I received on you it mentions your son Harper, who underwent gender reassignment. Was “Simone” inspired by this? It’s such a beautiful song.
Actually it was coincidental. I had already written the song by the time Harper came out to us and told us about himself. Harper is female to male transgender, and the twist at the end of Simone is it’s about somebody who went the other way. On the surface it’s a story about a woman who escapes an oppressive relationship and heads for an exotic climb, but all is not well.
Do you have hints about your upcoming appearances?
TD: I’m going to have a couple classics up my sleeve to mix in. The songs from the new album have not really been played live before, and so I’m going to mix up songs old and new along with recounting The Floating City story, including the development through to the finale. I think it will be fun for people who didn’t play the game but I expect a lot of the gamers to show up. There’s been spontaneous gatherings of Floating Citizens, as they call themselves, in various cities. They show up in costume and character, like people going to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Have you acquired any new gadgets recently?
TD: Not really, I’m less of a gearhead than I was when I was younger. The kit that I had in the early days was very rare and expensive and heavy, never stayed in tune properly, so there was only a handful of us who were stupid enough to try to make records with it – which is why we got called pioneers. Studio time was also very expensive so unless you had a record deal you really couldn’t make a record. Today on the other hand anybody can make an album on their laptop. There are people with lots of time on their hands – similar to video gamers – that just spend hours, days and weeks on end fiddling with sequences and software synths on their laptop, and A) I don’t have the patience for that but B) I’m happy to relinquish the knob twiddling to younger, fitter people. The focus for me really is on the songs themselves. I can write a song and play on the piano and it still makes sense as a song. There’s not a whole lot of that out there. There’s less of the songwriting craft in general because we’re more focused on sort of post-industrial grooves with occasional vocals. That’s what compelled me to make an album of songs with whatever music idiom was appropriate.
When you were a teenager you busked in Paris?
TD: I was very broke at one point. I had to flee the creditors in England. I went and joined an old school friend on the streets of Paris as a busker. I was playing sort of Bob Dylan songs for Japanese tourists. It sounds quite romantic but it was not. I rescued from it by going to New York to play on the Foreigner 4 album.
When you 19 you toured with Bob Woolley?
TD: Yeah, I think Vancouver and Seattle were the first gigs we played. We were supporting Lene Lovich.
You sang in choir as a child, is that when you realized you could sing?
TD: I realized that I could pick out melody and harmony. I sang harmony in a choir from quite a young age – from 8 to 9 – and I sang the alto parts. I’m sort of blessed with very microscopic aural perception I suppose. That pays off in terms of arrangements, orchestration and production.
The new song “Spice Train” is wonderful. Where did that come from?
TD: Actually “Spice Train” was written as a reaction to The Floating City game. It was written as a sort of anthem for the game, that’s why it talks about the trading of exotic things – spices and silks and satins and so on. Another point of reference for the floating city was that in medieval Japan during the year of the floating world in Tokyo harbor, the merchants used to bring their barges in and eventually there was gridlock. During the day you could trade in silks and spices and at night it was a pleasure center, where people sort of forgot about the class system and you could sit down with a samurai or a merchant or a nobleman and enjoy all sorts of earthly pleasures while waiting to pass on to a better life in another world. That sounded like a good place to hang out. “Spice Train” reflects that feel.
interview by Dagmar