Thomas Dolby Rocks the Computer in Studio 4A Thomas Dolby arrived in the 1980s with his hit, "She Blinded Me with Science." He sets up new equipment and performs in NPR's Studio 4A, demonstrating how times have changed for electronic musicians.

Thomas Dolby Rocks the Computer in Studio 4A

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New Year's Eve is a time to reflect on the past while looking forward to what may lie ahead; a perfect sort of back to the future moment for a little music from Thomas Dolby.


THOMAS DOLBY: (Singing) She blinded me with science. She blinded me with science. She hit me with technology.

SEABROOK: The mad scientist musician first boggled listeners in the 1980s with his smash hit, "She Blinded Me with Science." Fans might also remember "Hyperactive," "Airhead," and "One of Our Submarines." His last studio recording was in 1993, and you probably haven't heard much from Thomas Dolby since, at least you think you haven't.


SEABROOK: That crazy cell phone ringtone? That's right, it's Thomas Dolby. In fact, some 300 million phones today use his software and many play his electronic dabblings. His dip into the cellular world was supposed to be only a brief break from his more conventional music, if you can call it that. But that break turned into more than a decade of relative silence from Dolby - until now.


SEABROOK: This year, he updated his electronic rig - gone are the days of bulky synthesizers and actual tape loops - and hit the road again, now with a Mac laptop, a couple of small keyboards, and a drum pad. We convinced Thomas Dolby to drop in on NPR's Studio 4A and play us something with his futuristic electronic gear.

DOLBY: Coming back now after 10 or 12 years away, I feel like Austin Powers who went to sleep for a decade and woke up and there's all these shiny new toys.


DOLBY: So when I play live, I have some brand new devices with me. But I also have antique devices, like signal generators from the U.S. Air Force and oscilloscope from the Royal Navy, which I have retrofitted. So I can actually include them in part of my setup. Because it's a lot more satisfying, you know, to use like a huge brass dial to open and close a filter cutoff, than it is to use one of these little knobs and sliders on these new devices.


DOLBY: So when I play live, I'm layering, and I have a head-mounted camera on my headphones and behind me a big video screen. And I have a live VJ who's doing a mix of security cameras dotted around my kit. So people can see me layering this stuff, and they've described it as sort of watching somebody pull a rabbit out of a hat. They find it really fascinating.

SEABROOK: Could you sort of do for me, say okay, this thing over here, it does this and play it a little bit, and then say...

DOLBY: Yeah, yeah. I can actually build a track for you, if you like.

SEABROOK: That'd be great.

DOLBY: Yeah, okay. So I'll start with something like a shaker here. And then I can add sounds in.


DOLBY: And then I can pop the thing into record, and that means that anything I record will become part of the sequence. So you know, I can then add layers on top. So I'm going to put in some drums now.


DOLBY: I move on to a musical stand.


DOLBY: So now it'll become part of a loop, and I move on to a bass.


DOLBY: And once the whole group is going, and I've got it the way I want it, I can move on into the song.


DOLBY: And sing a song over the top of it. I'm going to start with a trombone part.


DOLBY: Etcetera.

SEABROOK: Wow, that's fun.

DOLBY: So it's like - you know, I mean, when I'm writing, I jam with this stuff. You know, I just find a bunch of sound stuff I like, and I'll just loop it around for hours, you know. And lyrics pop into my head, you know. I'll just jot them down on a piece of paper, and slice it or build songs that way.

SEABROOK: You know, it makes me think of the fact that in the '80s, when you first started playing this kind of music, your equipment must have been much, much bigger. I mean, you're sitting here right now with a relatively small amount of equipment. Back in the '80s, have a Moog, having a big synthesizer was a huge deal.

DOLBY: Oh, it was a huge deal. In fact, when I started on in the '70s, only super-rich rock stars or university music departments could afford them. And in fact, there were a bunch of us in the underground electronic scene in the U.K., people like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, we used to hang around out at the back of university music departments, diving into the dumpsters, hoping to find circuit boards that we could solder together to make our own synthesizers.


DOLBY: In fact, my first synthesizer was built from a kit in the back of a magazine, called a Transcendent 2000. It had all these blobs of solder hanging off it.


DOLBY: (Singing) I don't believe it, there she goes again. She's tidied up, and I can't find anything! All my tubes and wires and careful notes and antiquated notions, but it's poetry in motion...

SEABROOK: You are, of course, known as the guy who did "Blinded me with Science." Do you get sick of that?

DOLBY: You know, I mean I don't go out of my way to make stuff radio-friendly and, you know, I would have been a marginal artist at best. So I just view it as something of a leg up, and that drew people in to discover the more serious side of my music.


DOLBY: (Singing) I really should have seen through the airwaves. People never read the airwaves. Do we only feed the airwaves? I really should have seen through the airwaves.

SEABROOK: This year, 2006, as you look back on it, this is the year that you came back to the music business. Tell us what you've been doing, play us what you've been doing this year.

DOLBY: And it turned out this person was one K-Fed.

SEABROOK: Kevin Federline did that?

DOLBY: Yeah. I don't read the celebrity press, right, so I had no idea...

SEABROOK: This is Britney Spears's now ex-husband or something.

DOLBY: Yeah. So I went and investigated, and I had an open mind, you know. I think a lot of these celebrity spouses get a bum rap, you know.


DOLBY: But I listened to it, and frankly, it was twaddle.

SEABROOK: What does that mean?

DOLBY: Well, that means rubbish. It was terrible. It was all about player-haters or something. And then he hadn't had permission to do it, you know, and that's illegal. I mean, there's a straightforward way to do it legally, and he hadn't gone through the right process to do that. And so I needed to get it taken down, and he's already had half a million downloads from his MySpace page by this point.

SEABROOK: Oh my gosh.

DOLBY: And as they say, you know, you can't get the toothpaste back in the tube, so - it wasn't about a licensing fee for me, it was just that I didn't want my music contaminated.


DOLBY: So I tried to get it taken down, and the problem was, you know, how to get a cease and desist letter to Mr. Britney Spears. What do you do? You get a map of the stars' homes and look up Mr. and Mrs. B. Spears?


DOLBY: So I came up with a plan, and that was to take the post and desist letter and post it on K-Fed's MySpace page.


DOLBY: So it's like - this wasn't going to work. So I was just starting to give up, but I eventually came to the conclusion that I could get my revenge in a more upbeat kind of manner by writing a song, and so here it is.


SEABROOK: Let's hear it.


DOLBY: Well, (unintelligible) nearly paid the price. Don't keep doing that. You shouldn't have taken your fool advice. Don't keep doing that. And a doggie's a man's best friend. Don't keep doing that. I expect you to make amends. Don't keep doing that, doing that. (Unintelligible) now I sing this mantra, and I'm hoping you'll hear me out because your karma hit my dogma, and it's nothing to preen about, because your karma hit my dogma, but it's coming around - yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Your karma hit my dogma. Your karma hit my dogma. Your karma hit my dogma.

SEABROOK: You have a new live CD out in which you play a lot of these things. You have a DVD. But there are rumors out there on the Internet of a new album of all new music that you've been working on, coming out maybe in 2007? How true are these?

DOLBY: Whether it'll be an album or anything as quaint a concept of that, I don't know.


DOLBY: I mean, I love the fact in this day and age you can do songs singly or in batches of three or five, or put a song in a movie or a TV show or a commercial, you know, that you don't have to be constrained to the sort of 12, 14 song cycle.

SEABROOK: Well, Thomas Dolby, thank you so much for showing us your sort of one-man band here, your one-man electro-musical circus.

DOLBY: Well, thank you.

SEABROOK: Can you play us out with something, with a song?

DOLBY: Sure. You want to hear a little bit of the one that everyone knows?


SEABROOK: Okay, Mr. Blinded me with Science. Let's hear it.


DOLBY: (Singing) Yes, but as a known scientist, it would be a bit surprising if a girl blinded me with science. Science. It's poetry in motion. She turned her tender eyes to me. As deep as any ocean, as sweet as any harmony. But she blinded me with science.

SEABROOK: At our Web site, you can get full performances of Thomas Dolby in NPR Studio 4A and listen to Liane Hansen's 1993 Dolby interview. That's at

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