Thomas Dolby's 'Floating City'

Oct 22, 2011
Originally published on October 23, 2011 4:30 pm

Thomas Dolby burst onto the pop-music scene in the early '80s with his quirky hit single "She Blinded Me With Science." One of his hits you might not have known about: the Nokia ringtone. Dolby didn't write it, but he helped develop the synthesizer software to play it in billions of mobile phones.

Recently, Dolby added "online game developer" to his resume when he launched The Floating City, a multiplayer game based on a dystopian alternate vision of the 1940s. That's one of many detours he's made in a long hiatus from his recording career, but this month, he's going back to his roots. His first studio album in 20 years, A Map of the Floating City, comes out Tuesday.

Dolby tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Audie Cornish that the decline of the music business was already under way by the time he quit it in the early '90s.

"The writing was on the wall: The first digital downloads were appearing," he says. "And I went to Silicon Valley, where it was quite the opposite. It was the beginning of the boom of the Internet. I had always been involved with some technology companies, because they made the hardware and software with which I make my own music."

Dolby began consulting for tech companies and eventually formed his own: Headspace Inc., later renamed Beatnik Inc. The company saw virtually no profit until the end of the '90s, when it created software that was used to make digital polyphonic ringtones for Nokia and other mobile-phone companies.

The new game and album fuse Dolby's dual careers in music and technology. In the game, players travel through three continents, joining tribes and trading with other players. Each continent is in turn represented by a section of the album, which was originally released as three shorter EPs.

"Coming back to music after 20 years away, it occurred to me that people aren't buying records much anymore, but they're spending an awful lot of time playing games and in social networks," Dolby says. "So, in order to entertain a younger audience, I needed to reach out in a new kind of way. What better way than to sort of create a social network based around interest in my songs? ... The places, the fictional characters, and objects from all of my lyrics go into this game. It's a little bit like collaborative fiction."

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Thomas Dolby burst onto the pop-music scene in the early '80s with this quirky hit.


THOMAS DOLBY: (Singing) You know, she blinded me with science...

CORNISH: Wait. Wait. Wait. Okay, probably every interview feature ever broadcast has started like this, with a blast of "She Blinded Me With Science" or "Hyperactive." How about something different? Here's one of Thomas Dolby's hits you may not have heard about but you've certainly heard it countless times.


CORNISH: He didn't write this ditty. But Thomas Dolby helped develop the synthesizer software to play it in billions of mobile phones. And recently he added online game developer to his resume when he launched the game "Floating City."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: At first I thought I was alone then they came, others like me foraging for relics...

CORNISH: In a world Dolby described as diesel punk dystopia, players look for clues in Dolby's songs in a quest for the floating city.

So Thomas Dolby has taken some interesting detours in his music career. But now, after 20 years, he's gone back to his musical roots. His first studio album in 20 years comes out Tuesday, called "A Map of the Floating City."


CORNISH: Thomas Dolby joins us from our New York bureau. Thomas Dolby, welcome to the program.

DOLBY: Good morning.

CORNISH: Twenty years is a long time for fans to wait for a new album. So, if you don't mind me asking, what took you so long?

DOLBY: Well, I'd quit the music business in the early '90s really because the music business was already sort of in decline. The writing was on the wall, the first digital downloads were appearing and the Gulf War was on and so on. And I went to Silicon Valley, where was quite the opposite, it was the beginning of the boom of the Internet. And I'd always been involved with technology companies because they make the hardware and software with which I make my own music, and I wanted to get to where the action was.

So I started consulting for tech companies and eventually formed my own, Beatnik, Inc., which for many years did sort of very cool interactive music stuff that made absolutely no money at all.


DOLBY: And finally, it paid dirt at the end of the '90 when we created the synthesizer which is in about two billion mobile phones.


CORNISH: The album is divided into three sections: "Urbanoia," "Amerikana" - with a K, and is it pronounced "Oceana?"

DOLBY: Oceanea.

CORNISH: Oceanea. How do these three sections fit together? And what was your goal with this project?

DOLBY: You know, I've always been very influenced by the environment where I am. And they lived for 23 years in California. And when I moved back to England with my family about four years ago, as a sort of fond memory of my time in the USA, I started writing the "Amerikana" with a K, suite of songs.




CORNISH: So you've got a renewable energy-powered studio built aboard a lifeboat?

DOLBY: I have indeed. I mean most self-respecting, middle-aged ex-pop stars have a shed in their garden with a studio in it.


DOLBY: But that wasn't going to work for me because we flood. And so I scoured eBay for months and eventually came up with a 1930s ship's lifeboat. And I got local boat builders to come in and to rebuild her with reclaimed timber, and added a wind turbine on the mast and solar panels on the roof. So I'm completely renewable energy-powered. So during the day, I collect energy in a bank of batteries and then I can work late into the night.

CORNISH: How did recording in that environment affect the writing process, 'cause I'm imagining you bobbing for some...


CORNISH: ...a bobbing studio?

DOLBY: Well, it's funny ‘cause friends come and visit me and my wheelhouse has an amazing 360 degree view. And I often look out through a periscope at the massive container ships coming and going from a container port nearby, and the wind farm that's being built on the horizon - 141 turbines - the largest in Europe. And my friends come and visit me and they go, I don't know how you would get any work done - I would just stare out over the sea all day. And I say, well, let's be working.


DOLBY: I mean essentially at love stuff that used to be modern and so the floating city concept, and especially the game of "The Floating City," has almost a sort of beyond steam punk feel. I guess the diesel punk is sort of the next phase beyond.

CORNISH: Right, talk more about the game, 'cause I did see that described as diesel punk dystopia.

DOLBY: Well, in the game there are three landmasses - the three continents you mentioned: Urbanoia, Amerikana and Oceanea. And they are arranged around a piece of ocean, which, as it turns out, is the North Pole. But there's been a terrible catastrophe and the world's weather systems are upside down. And most of the world is too hot to inhabit and has been inundated with floodwaters. And so the northernmost landmasses, facing the North Pole, have a few struggling survivors who have to push out into the sea towards the north, using the hulls of abandoned ships.

And the way that they get around is - 'cause there's no fuel anymore - is by rafting up one to the next, and trading items from their cargo in order to move northwards. And eventually all three continents converge at the North Pole and form a kind of floating city.


CORNISH: When you were growing up were you a big gamer? Or why did you create -why did creating a game appeal to you?

DOLBY: Well, when I was growing up, "Space Invaders" down the local pub was the only way to play a computer game, really.


DOLBY: No, I mean I've never been that much of a gamer. However, coming back to making music after 20 years away, it occurs to me that people aren't buying records very much anymore but they're spending an awful lot of time playing games and in social networks. So in order to entertain younger audience - you know, people that weren't old enough to be around the first time I was making music - I needed to reach out in a new kind of way.

And what better than by making essentially a social network sort of devoted to the interests around my songs? So I created "The Floating City" game using the mythology that's run through my songs, you know, for 30 years. The places and the fictional characters and objects from all of my lyrics go into this game.

CORNISH: You've been a pop star, a Silicon Valley engineer. You've written soundtracks, music director for TED, now this online game. I mean what in the world comes next for Thomas Dolby?

DOLBY: Well, that's what ever is least expected, really. I love being in a situation where I don't really know what I'm doing. That's where my creative juices really get stimulated. If I just trotted out the same formula, I would be bored instantly. I mean after I first had a hit, with "She Blinded Me With Science," the record industry was sort of urging me to isolate that formula and spin out a bunch more, and really sort of have a string of synth-pop hits.

But I went in the opposite direction and started doing much more atmospheric, personal songs. And this didn't go down too well with the industry. And it was really that frustration that led me to leave in the '90s and pursue a different career in Silicon Valley.

But now that I'm back, and the record industry is nowhere to be seen, there's really nobody in the way between myself and my audience. So when I sit down to write a song now, I'm thinking only of my audience and myself. And that's a very refreshing feeling and it's really charging me up.

CORNISH: Thomas Dolby, his new album, "A Map of the Floating City," will be released Tuesday. He joined us from our New York bureau.

Thomas Dolby, thank you so much.

DOLBY: Thank you.

CORNISH: You can hear songs from Thomas Dolby's new CD and watch a trailer from his online game, at

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.