Contemporary Musicians, November 1993 (Volume 10)
by Jeffrey Taylor

Personal Information

Born Thomas Robertson in 1958 in Cairo, Egypt; son of an archaeologist; married Kathleen Beller (an actress), 1988; two daughters, one named Talia Claire. Taught himself to play guitar, c. 1970; dropped out of school to pursue music, 1974; performed with Jamaican R&B band and played jazz in restaurants; played synthesizers for Bruce Wooley and the Camera Club, late 1970s; toured Europe and U.S. with Lene Lovich; played in Paris subways; played synthesizer for Foreigner, Def Leppard, Joan Armatrading, and Malcolm McClaren, early 1980s; released debut single, "Urges," 1981; signed with EMI Records; released first album, The Golden Age of Wireless, Capitol, 1982; co-produced Joni Mitchell's Dog Eat Dog and produced albums by George Clinton and Prefab Sprout, 1985; participated in Live Aid concert; participated in Roger Waters's production of The Wall, West Berlin, 1990. Composer of film scores. Founder of virtual reality company Headspace.

Awards: Four Grammy Award nominations.

Record company-- Giant Records, 8900 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 200, Beverly Hills, CA 90211-1906.

In his self-directed video for his 1982 Top Five hit "Blinded by Science," a white-clad Thomas Dolby explored a fictional "Institute for Deranged Science." His encounters there with an eccentric old psychiatrist and a voluptuous dark-haired woman who stared seductively at him through thick glasses--all accompanied by an irresistible synthesizer hook--provided some of the most durable images of MTV's first decade. Yet this view of Dolby as a kind of mad scientist, tinkering with musical machines--a "Nutty Professor of rock," as Stereo Review' s Mark Peel has described him--is an oversimplification. A singer, musician, songwriter, producer, and director of considerable ability, Dolby's immensely varied work, both center stage and behind the scenes, has had a significant impact on popular music of the 1980s and '90s.

Dolby's refusal to remain inside any established musical strictures has made him one of the most unpredictable of contemporary artists. From the cheerful "synth-pop" of much of his first album, The Golden Age of Wireless, to the moodiness of The Flat Earth, the hard-driving funk of Aliens Ate My Buick, to the introspection of Astronauts & Heretics, Dolby has continually redefined himself as both musician and performer. The twists and turns of his career--motivated, as he told Electronic Musician, by "a puerile sense of mischief and an incurable romance with this little planet and its inhabitants"--have bewildered fans and critics alike but have allowed him to remain true to his belief, as articulated in Musician, that "the most exciting thing is the exploration."

Many of Dolby's musical peculiarities can be traced to his childhood experiences. Although of British heritage, he was born in Egypt, during one of his father's archeological expeditions. Throughout his youth, Dolby accompanied his father wherever his research led him--Greece, Italy, France, and the United States; as a result, Dolby never established strong ties to any one locale. He told Musician's Morgan Roberts, "I'm a very rootless kind of guy. ... The fact that I didn't have a root meant that I wasn't restricted by any musical guidelines."

Dolby's exposure to many different cultures during his youth led him to appreciate the magnificent diversity of the world in general, but it did not necessarily provide him with specific musical material. As he told Roberts, "It's not like I spent all my time in bazaars, enthralled by Algerian shenai players, or that kind of thing. I can't claim to have any ethnic authenticity simply because I've traveled a lot." In fact, Dolby grew up listening mostly to broadcasts from Europe on his HAM radio, through which he was exposed to an eclectic mixture of everything from the pop soul of Motown and rock experimentalism of Frank Zappa to easy-listening singer-songwriter Engelbert Humperdinck.

Dolby--who was born with the surname Robertson--taught himself guitar and keyboards as a young teenager. While in high school he developed a fascination for electronic gadgetry, earning from his friends the nickname "Dolby," after the laboratory that developed the Dolby noise reduction system. Dolby dropped out of school at age 16 to pursue music full-time, working in a Jamaican R&B band and playing jazz in restaurants. His first big break came when he was hired by singer Lene Lovich to join her tour as a synthesizer player; Dolby subsequently wrote the tune "New Toy" for her, and its success prompted him to concentrate on a solo career.

Dolby released solo albums in 1982 and 1984 and was then hired to compose a soundtrack for the 1985 film Fever Pitch. He became intrigued by film music, telling Musician' s Alan di Perna, "I ... love the idea of people first encountering my music in a movie theater rather than on the radio." Two more soundtracks followed--for George Lucas's Howard the Duck, in 1986, and Ken Russell's Gothic, in 1987; these projects included some of Dolby's most innovative work. Yet in the end, the experiences proved frustrating, especially in the case of Lucas's film, a disastrous commercial failure. As Dolby lamented to di Perna, the movie showed that "you ultimately have so little control of the end product in film. ... You can write great music for a lousy movie that nobody sees and you've defeated your purpose entirely."

True to his sense of adventure, Dolby continued to explore new outlets for his talents. His collaboration with Joni Mitchell on her 1985 album Dog Eat Dog, which featured Dolby's trademark layering of aural effects, led to a busy schedule as producer for artists including funk godfather George Clinton and lilting English popsters Prefab Sprout. With each project he labored to maintain the integrity of the featured artist, rather than imposing a "Dolby Sound" on the recording. As he told Stereo Review, "What I try to do as a producer is bring out and enhance the artist's own objective. When I'm in the studio, I like someone there to prod me, someone who'll say, 'Well now, this isn't so good, is it?' I've tried to do the same for the artists I've worked with."

Still, in spite of his deference to the artists for whom he works, as well as his constant quest for something new in his own music, a common thread runs through nearly all of Dolby's creations: a fondness for combining a variety of apparently incongruous elements to achieve a unified feeling. "A lot of what I do is really a collage, where you have little found bits and pieces you just throw together until the whole creates the impression you want," he explained to di Perna. In "I Love You Goodbye," for example, from Dolby's 1992 solo album Astronauts & Heretics, synthesizers, a Cajun band, an acoustic piano, and the sounds of creaking boards, thunder, rain, and buzzing insects intertwine over a driving bass line vaguely similar to the one made famous in Michael Jackson's song "Thriller." When fused with Dolby's idiosyncratic, evocative lyrics, the result is a vivid and slightly spooky portrayal of a bizarre excursion into Louisiana bayou country. Not surprisingly, the album made waves on the college radio charts.

In 1987 Dolby settled in Los Angeles, the audacity, materialism, and tackiness of which he vividly captured in 1988's Aliens Ate My Buick. In June of 1988 Dolby married raven-haired actress Kathleen Beller, best known for her role as Kirby Colby on television's long-running nighttime soap Dynasty, with whom he shares a large mansion once owned by a Hollywood art director. The couple'ssecond child, Talia Claire, was born in January of 1993, soon after the release ofAstronauts & Heretics.

Selected Discography
(Contributor) Joan Armatrading, Walk Under Ladders, A&M, 1981. (Contributor) Foreigner, Four, Atlantic, 1981. The Golden Age of Wireless, Capitol, 1982. The Flat Earth, Capitol, 1984. Aliens Ate My Buick, EMI, 1988. Astronauts & Heretics (includes "I Love You Goodbye"), Giant, 1992. As producer Joni Mitchell, Dog Eat Dog, Geffen, 1985. George Clinton, Some of My Best Jokes Are Friends, Capitol, 1985. Prefab Sprout, Two Wheels Good, Epic, 1985. Prefab Sprout, From Langley Park to Memphis, Epic, 1988. Ofra Haza, Desert Wind, Sire, 1989. Prefab Sprout, Jordan: The Comeback, Epic, 1990. Film scores Fever Pitch, 1985. (Contributor) Howard the Duck, 1986. Gothic, 1987.

Electronic Musician, June 1986. Keyboard, August 1986; May 1988. Musician, December 1982; May 1984; June 1987; May 1989; February 1993. People, May 16, 1988; February 8, 1993. Stereo Review, September 1988.

Additional information for this profile was provided by Giant Records, 1993.

~~ Jeffrey Taylor