Archive for the 'Thoughts' Category

And so ends the Amerikana era….

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

The ‘Toadlickers’ music video came out, made a lot of noise,  reached #18 in the YouTube ‘most viewed’ chart, got a lot more views, then rapidly vanished from the chart altogether! I think this was a YouTube admin move because of its ‘explicit’ content (puppets having sex; and an offensive word meaning ‘born out of wedlock.’) C’mon YouTube, cut me some slack. Even the Pope is lightening up these days!

This reminds me a little of the year I got to #2 in the Guatemalan singles chart… and the following week there was a military coup and the chart was not published.

Shotgun pop music. Most appropriate for ‘Toadlickers’, I think. And so ends the Amerikana era… except for one small detail: I never released the 17 Hills ‘dissection’ vlogs. So here they are, parts 1-3! And, if you can sit still right till the very end, there’s some exciting and definitive news about the Oceanea EP.

Part 1 looks at how we recorded the 17 Hills backing track, and overdubbed fretless bass and pedal steel.
Part 2 focuses on the day I spent with Mark Knopfler doing the guitar parts, and how to give direction to a demigod.
Part 3 talks about Ethel, Natalie MacMaster, and how I came up with the song in the first place.

Hope you enjoy these!

a strange dinner with Julian Assange of @WikiLeaks

Friday, July 30th, 2010

Reading all the furore about WikiLeaks and its mysterious frontman Julian Assange, I feel compelled to tell this story about a recent dinner conversation I had with with him.

It was at a private ‘do’ at a restaurant in Oxford right after TEDGlobal earlier this month. Julian slipped in to the party uninvited, plonked himself down opposite me and ordered some fish. Just that morning he’d given a candid interview to Chris Anderson on the TED stage in which he’d quite convincingly defended Wikileaks and its right/obligation to publish leaked military secrets that, some could argue, put lives and reputations in unnecessary peril. A cloak of secrecy surrounded his visit to the conference and even the TED production team had been kept in the dark about the identity of our surprise final day guest.

Julian Assange is a slender 6′ Australian with a flock of white hair. He cuts a striking figure in a white dress shirt, sneakers and jeans. It struck me that this charismatic guy who’s Public Enemy #1 in the eyes of several large and deadly organisations — not least the CIA — might do better to dye his hair brown and wears specs and an anorak. Sitting across the table from him, I half expected to see a tiny red laser dot dancing across his white shirt. In fact, if you’re going to stick around overnight in a city where you just made a controversial public appearance that was instantly tweeted all over the blogosphere, why not just paint a big red target on your back?

I asked him if he fears for his life. “All the time,” he said, “but if it comes I hope it comes quickly”. (I’m recalling this as accurately as I can.) “Just today after my interview at the Playhouse Theatre, I walked down the street to my hotel, tightly surrounded by a crowd of people wanting to congratulate me, or heckle me or whatever. I got to the concierge desk. As I was waiting to pick up my bag I felt a strange itch on the back of my neck. I felt for it and shit! it was a Band-Aid I’d never seen before. Christ, I thought, this is not good, this could be the bloody end right here, and I looked around for someone scurrying off into the shadows. Did I feel okay? yes, but…. then I realised. It was the sticky tape from the wireless headset microphone I’d just worn for the TED interview.”

Julian Assange left our post-TED party and reportedly gatecrashed another, leaving that one early by the emergency exit, setting off the alarm, choosing a dark back alley to make his escape in preference to the brightly lit Oxford main road. He says WikiLeaks is underfunded. I only hope the company has room in its budget for a little Kevlar in its CEO’s wardrobe.

17 Hills dilemma

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

Just so you know, I don’t make musical decisions by committee. I believe ultimately as an artist you have to be selfish and please yourself, rather than trying to second-guess your audience.

However, one of the songs from my upcoming EP ‘Amerikana’ has two different vocal takes. The first went down live in the studio along with bass, drums, guitar and grand piano. The second I did several months later as an overdub. I’ve worked a lot on the song over the interim and I’m very close to it at this point, probably too close, and I was finding it hard to judge which was the best vocal.

So as an experiment I sent 16 friends two mixes each, just piano and vocal, A (live) and B (overdub.) Same piano track on both. Some of them are musicians, some are just friends I trust. I will paste their reactions below:


generally, prefer B….
it’s more english, and the words are clearer
which is important in this one..


B gets my vote. You’re telling the story more clearly without mawkishness..
A is a wee bit too melancholy for me though there is a section of A which is better.


B. Love and warm vibes


It is clearly vocal B that I feel is the stronger one. In vocal A, I don’t feel that you are really hearing the words and telling the story that you are singing. For example, the beginning of the first bridge. In vocal A, it sounds like part of the song. In vocal B, you stop to tell us that story. You make a change.


B. It’s the one which makes me want sing along. It’s the one which makes me really listen to the words. It’s the one that makes me tear-up.


I vote “B”. IMO “A” is not a confident, committed telling of the tale like “B”. “B” is a
unified piece, angrier in the right place, more vocally dynamic and far more
confident where the melody takes an unexpected turn and challenges the ear.
I would delete “A” and feel excited and positive about “B”.


my vote is for version B. It sounds lived in.


There is something in your voice on A that is impossible to repeat, and as music is a moment, the
moment is captured there so beuatifully. Not that the other vocal isn’t good. But A is the one. Trust me!
And thanks for asking my opinion.


I’m going to say vocal B! More personal and earnest, sounds like you “mean it” more, and reminds me of your Flat Earth era vocals.


B is very much the thomas that we know…..english, slightly more introverted
deeply soulful….closer to the airwaves thomas :) …and very
importantly I can hear all the words…


“A” makes more sense to me. “A” would be my choice if I were in your shoes.


B is the most engaging of the vocals by far – I understand you’re going for a world weary approach with A, but it’s a bit of a whinge to be honest – B is Best  – good tone and I actually want to listen to his story whereas the A fellow, well I’d happily pull the switch!


Vocal B sounds more decisive to me esp at the beginning.

Listening to the recent version I hear that it DOES sound like you’ve lived with this tune a long time… and I think that’s a good thing. So I’m not sure how much of a “gut decision” it represents, but I would be inclined to go with version B.


I vote for this one… Vocal B. I love your connection to the lyric on this one!


we prefer B.  Both are gorgeous, Version B seems to have more clarity


I have not filtered these comments. They were 16:2 in favor of B, with two lone souls preferring A.

Most of the criteria I felt were important—the storytelling and the emotion—I suspected A had the edge, but people actually got more of those same qualities from B. Funny how people perceive things differently! The aggregate of comments about A was ‘indecisive, worldweary, whingey,’… the story was not as well told and the words were not as clear.

I read the responses as they came in, feeling more and more comfortable with the idea of going with vocal B. The two lone detractors twinged something in my heartstrings, but I brushed over that. I was relieved they were almost unanimously in favour of B, because A is a technical nightmare—the vocal mic has piano all over it, making it virtually impossible to tweak for tuning and timing, or to get rid of lip smacks and asthmatic breaths.

Yet I am genuinely torn because my heart says in A I was feeling it more; plus wouldn’t life be great if I could do one-take vocals and never have to worry about them again!

Then I got this email from the guy that’s going to engineer/mix it with me next week, a man with a long an distinguished track record who did a great job mixing one of my previous albums. Yikes.


There is no comparison, as I suspect you knew, but just needed affirmation.  The live vocal (A) is perfect.  well..  it’s hard to understand “cell block E”, “cell block A”, and what exactly the crooked lawyer did, but please, you know its right.  There’s loads we can do in protools, as long as we lock in the mix on fresh ears, before the tweezing.
It’s fucking gorgeous.


The plot thickens…..

mystery track

Sunday, May 24th, 2009


The mystery song I played on my Wired podcast was in fact by David Bowie. ‘Letter To Hermione’ was on his 1969 album Space Oddity. A few people got it right but no postcard has arrived at the Nutmeg of Consolation (I’m relieved to say) so no jaffa cakes for you!

Backstage at Live Aid a few minutes before we went onstage, Bowie jokingly asked what we should play if we got an encore? The band had only learned four songs and anyway with the tight timing encores were out of the question. I quipped that he should whip out an acoustic and play ‘Letter To Hermione.’ “Hmm, that might be a bit of a floor-clearer”, he replied.

The tune is notable because in my opinion it’s the only song Bowie ever recorded in which he allows himself to be truly vulnerable. These lyrics are intimate and conversational, whereas his lyrical trademark involves layers of idiom, street-speak and rock’n'roll/drug imagery.

He reputedly wrote it for Hermione Farthingale, pictured above. But to me, and probably to thousands of his teenage fans at the time, this song was about MY first girlfriend that dumped me. (Ricky Gervais loves this song and included it in his Desert Island Disks, I wonder if he had the same experience?)

Her name was Becky. We met on a sailing trip on the Norfolk Broads aged about 14. She had long raven-dark hair and a voluptuous figure, and I was completely besotted with her. She lived in a posh part of North London. I remember making the trip to Belsize Park tube station dozens of times because they took your ticket at the top of the elevator so I used to skip out of paying by sneaking up the emergency stairs to the street. This was a long sooty spiral staircase–we’re talking something like 484 steps, it being one of the deepest tube stations in London. One time I got all the way to the top step only to find myself face to face with the grinning ticket collector. Terrified, I started to trot pointlessly back down those 484 steps with his booming laughter echoing after me.

Frankly, Becky was out of my class. I showed up at her house one time and her big sister answered the door. As I stood there in the pouring rain she told me that Becky didn’t want to see me and had gotten back together with her previous boyfriend who I knew was 17 and good-looking.

“They say your life is going very well
They say you sparkle like a different girl
But something tells me that you hide
When all the world is warm and tired
You cry a little in the dark
Well so do I….

He makes you laugh
He brings you out in style
He treats you well
And makes you up real fine
And when he’s strong
He’s strong for you
And when you kiss
It’s something new
But did you ever call my name
Just by mistake?”

[Ha! Just found this pic of the emergency stairs at Belsize Park. Apparently it was used as a bomb shelter in WW2.]


Top 10 reasons today is a fabulous day:

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Thomas Dolby
Pic: Richard Skidmore

1. Sun is out, steady gentle breeze.
2. The Nutmeg is generating LOTS of power, feel I could run the whole village off it.
3. Sitting in my wheelhouse editing 10 takes of Natalie MacMaster‘s delightful fiddle playing.
4. Engraver called to tell me some tiny brass plaques I ordered for my wooden sailboat are ready to pick up. ‘Jib’/'spi’/'cunn’/'kick’ etc. Will row out and do some drilling before this evening’s Loch Long race.
5. A sand artist I contacted in Isreal may be interested in working with me.
6. Booked an Eddi Reader vocal session in Glasgow next month.
7. Limbs aching satisfyingly after windsurfing and tennis yesterday.
8. Pot of Earl Grey just brewed.
9. My Wired Playlist Podcast is up on iTunes, featuring 2 1/2 brand new songs!
10. Reading enthusiastic feedback to 9, to my new singles album Singular, and to the track listing on the upcoming GAOW and TFE re-releases.

'The Singular Thomas Dolby' released today

Monday, May 18th, 2009




Thomas Dolby
The Singular Thomas Dolby
EMI Marketing UK – May 18th

This 2-disc CD and DVD (PAL) collection features all Thomas Dolby’s singles and videos. It is released in the UK on May 18th 2009 and is available worldwide as an import.

Thomas Dolby became one of the most recognizable figures of the synth-pop movement of early-’80s new wave. Dolby successfully harnessed the power of synthesizers and samplers, to make catchy pop and light electro-funk. Following the (1984) single “Hyperactive,” he put his own career on hold to some extent, as he began producing more frequently, including albums by Prefab Sprout and Joni Mitchell, working with funk maestro George Clinton, as well as exploring new synthesizer and computer technology but continuing to record into the ’90s.

There could be little to suggest this transatlantic future in debut single “Urges”, which along with flipside “Leipzig” was co-produced by that most peculiarly English of gents, XTC mainstay Andy Partridge. With the latter song still part of Thomas’s live shows today, even at this stage (1981), his song-writing prowess was well advanced.

Having broken away from touring with Lene Lovich, for whom he had written hit single “New Toy”, and with some money behind him from playing synthesiser for Foreigner and Def Leppard, Dolby set about turning some of his crackly demos into full recordings which became “The Golden Age of Wireless”. From here, of course, we meet “Europa and The Pirate Twins”, a semi-autobiographical romp about a French love affair; as well as “Airwaves” (presented here in its edited single form) and “Radio Silence” (which features Lovich); songs which fit the Dolby Modus Operandi perfectly. By this point, he had carved a niche for himself as a quintessentially British mad professor type – preoccupied with diodes and oscilloscopes – but also continuing (particularly in his videos) the themes of cold-war oppression and paranoia. Dolby’s own Uncle had been the subject of “One of Our Submarines”.

“Windpower” gave Thomas his first UK Top 40 hit, and consequent Top of the Pops appearance, with a song that pre-empts our need and preoccupation with Tipping Points and alternative energy sources, and lyrics that resonate even more today than they did then. Incidentally, the video included here is a rare treat for fans – a seldom seen cut from his 1983 concert, “Live Wireless”. But it was a song that didn’t even appear on original pressings of the album that both summed up Dolby’s personification in this era, and captured the hearts of the notoriously fickle American market. “She Blinded Me With Science” captured a Zeitgeist with its warm yet spooky synthesisers and intervention from eccentric pop-scientist Magnus Pyke. The single went Top 5 on the Billboard charts. Following on from this success was going to be no mean feat, and when “The Flat Earth” was released in 1984, its sophisticated sound was a battle cry to any doubters, combining Dolby’s signature keyboards into a more organic, layered sound. “Hyperactive!” –the result of a bizarre evening spent at Michael Jackson’s house — bore the most fruit, repeating the success of “….Science” in Britain, scoring Thomas his first UK Top 20 hit.

Whilst the epic “Dissidents” felt most at home as a 12”, the edit included here captures the spirit of the track – revisiting Dolby’s love of cold war espionage, and at the other end of the spectrum, the haunting Dan Hicks’ ballad “I Scare Myself” is turned into a piano-led affair with a sexy, sultry video. The latter is a solo embodiment of the shimmering, breathy sound that would form the heart of the Prefab Sprout sound he was integral to creating – production values which he has said he ranks amongst his personal career highs.

A year later, Thomas can be seen at the Grammys performing alongside Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder and Howard Jones – showing him not only to be at the height of his powers, but integrating perfectly into the Americas. However, at the same time, a very different collaboration was released. “Fieldwork”, was recorded with Yellow Magic Orchestra founder Ryuchi Sakamoto and accompanied by a high-concept short film, included on the (PAL) DVD in its single, and long-form versions.

In between working on several successful movie soundtracks, providing keyboards for Malcolm McClaren and Joan Armatrading, playing synth for Bowie at Live Aid, and producing albums for luminaries such as Prefab Sprout and Joni Mitchell, Dolby finally moved to America, where amongst his first endeavours was “Dolby’s Cube”, a project alongside funk legend George Clinton. This sci-fi saga of an alien peddling designer drugs is a pop masterpiece – complete with suitably silly visual version.

It was to be 2 years before another TD-LP – 1988’s “Aliens Ate My Buick”. It represented a huge departure. With his new backing band, the Bay Area based “Lost Toy People”, and a brand new sound, influenced in no small part by his work with Clinton, lead single “Airhead” was a funk-fuelled tribute to…. well, it kind of explains itself. “Hot Sauce” and “My Brain Is Like A Sieve” bring in elements of Salsa and Reggae respectively, the latter presented here in its radically different single mix.

Four years passed. Dolby was now heavily involved with the high tech industry, and was already becoming a renowned executive. His company Beatnik Inc. invented the first polyphonic synthesiser that could run natively on a mobile phone, and would go on to play a huge part in the advent of the multi-billion dollar ringtone industry. But he hadn’t turned his back on his music. And, despite his increased involvement in computer music during his day job, “Astronauts & Heretics” was his most organic to date. Lead single “Close But No Cigar” included guitars from Eddie Van Halen, featured soccer in the video, and became a Top 30 hit in his home country after being championed by an up-and-coming DJ named Chris Evans; perhaps the ultimate testament to his twin identities as an Englishman in America. “I Love You Goodbye” and “Silk Pyjamas” revealed heavy Cajun influences. Both videos, hitherto hard to find, and untouched even by the hand of You Tube, are included on this compilation, a treat for fans who haven’t seen them for years, if at all.

As Thomas’s involvement with internet music increased, the conventional music scene was left behind, save for a bit of soundtrack work from time to time. Though he has said on more than one occasion, the musical drought was not intended, it was a full 15 years before any suggestions of a new artist album began to surface. In the meantime, the music industry had changed beyond recognition, with ever more ways to access music in a variety of contexts and formats, a change that he had himself been in no small part responsible for, during his self-imposed exile. But that’s another story. Thomas is now back in Britain, with a wife and family who were mere twinkles in the Dolby eye at the time of “Urges”, and is hard at work in his own studio with many of his original collaborators. He’s back behind his synthesiser, and is playing live again, with a new album on the way. This return to his roots marks the end of a symbolic chapter of a remarkable music journey. What better time then, to sit back and listen as it unfolds before our ears, and for the first time in many years, our eyes – a living history of one of the great, but often unsung heroes of British (and American) music.

+44 020 7254 1112/

1-Urges (3.41)
2-Leipzig (3.52)
3-Europa And The Pirate Twins (3.19)
4-Airwaves (3.45)
5-Radio Silence (3.50)
6-Windpower (3.53)
7-She Blinded Me With Science (3.40)
8-One Of Our Submarines Is Missing (5.12)
9-Hyperactive (4.12)
10-Dissidents (edit) (3.52)
11-I Scare Myself (edit) (4.59)
12-Fieldwork (London Mix) (4.04) with Ryuichi Sakamoto
13-May The Cube Be With You (3.50)
14-Airhead (3.43)
15-Hot Sauce (3.18)
16-My Brain Is Like A Sieve (3.58) (Bill Bottrell single remix)
17-Close But No Cigar (4.08)
18-Silk Pyjamas (3.04)
19-I Love You Goodbye (4.34)

1- Europa & the Pirate Twins
3-Radio Silence
4-Windpower (Live)
5-She Blinded Me With Science (3.43)
6-One of Our Submarines Is Missing (Live)
9-I Scare Myself
10-Fieldwork (with Ryuichi Sakamoto) with Ryuichi Sakamoto
11-May The Cube Be With You
13-Hot Sauce
14-Close But No Cigar
15-Silk Pyjamas
16-I Love You Goodbye
Bonus tracks
17-Hyperactive (12” version)
18-Fieldwork (12” version) with Ryuichi Sakamoto
19-Hot Sauce (saucy version)

TED House Band from 2008

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

As there was no TED House Band this year, and many people told me they missed us, I decided to post a single MP3 of the pieces we played in 2008. Thanks to all who enjoyed it while it was posted!

Here’s the running order:

Mocha Swing (originally performed by Quadro Nuevo)
Tubas In The Moonlight (originally performed by The Bonzos)
Hello Cruel World (sung by Rachelle Garniez)
War Games (originally performed by Special AKA)
Somewhere Over The Rainbow
I’ve See That Face Before (originally performed by Grace Jones)
Hell I’d Go (originally performed by Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks)
Pre-Post Apocalypse (sung by Rachelle Garniez and others)
The Canyons Of Your Mind (originally performed by The Bonzos)
La Bombe D’Amour (Cajun cover of Whole Lotta Love feat. Kaki King))
We’ll Meet again (feat. Vusi Mahlasela, Nellie MacKay)


TED House Band 2008 (L>R Mark Stewart, Rachelle Garniez, Rufus Capadocia, Thomas Dolby)

José Antonio Arbreu

Friday, February 6th, 2009

One of this year’s TED Prize winners is José Antonio Arbreu. What an astonishing story. In the seventies Arbreu, a symphonic musician, started a program in his native Venezuela to get empoverished kids off the streets and transform their lives through classical music. He called this program El Sistema. Thirty years later his youth orchestras are considered some of the finest in the world. And last night we found out why: When a satellite link took us to Caracas for Arbreu’s very poetic acceptance speech, we were treated to a live performance by an orchestra of world-class teenage musicians, conducted by his protegé Gustavo Dudamel, now famous as the music director of the LA Philharmonic.

To describe this orchestra as spirited is an understatement. They are magnificent. They play music the way the Brazillians play football: it’s like a lifeline to them. And, as Chris Anderson pointed out, for a country like Venezuela to have a world class orchestra is good incentive to learn how to do a world class orchestral TV production—the camerawork and editing were exemplary. It’s usually pretty hard to get a talking head to work over a satellite link, let alone a live orchestral performance. It was simply breathtaking, and everybody around me was in tears, myself included.


(Pic: Larry Johnson)

Naturally 7, Jill Sobule, Ben Zander

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009


(pic: Joshua Wanyama)

These guys rocked the first TED session. Jill kicked off from the simulcast in Palm Springs with a typically melodic and enchanting song, written brand new for us of course, about her trip to the desert, and a motel that looked different from the web site. Jill has played many, many TED conferences going back to before the current Chris Anderson era, and though Chris is a stickler for ‘fresh’ Jill manages to come up with something fresh every time.

Naturally 7 are an a cappella group from New York, though that hardly does them justice—they call what they do ‘vocal play’ which means they ‘box’ multiple instruments, kinda the way Bobby McFerrin does it, but all at once and enhanced with realtime effects. For example, one of them sings a screaming lead guitar part, and it’s treated at the mixing board through a fuzz pedal and delays. We first became aware of N7 when we spotted a clip on YouTube that featured the band singing ‘In The Air Tonight’ in a rush-hour Paris subway car.

Ben Zander, director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, made a popular return to TED and coaxed us through singing the conference a happy 25th birthday, in Ben’s own inimitable way. He’s one of the most infectious speakers I’ve ever seen: just check out his TEDtalk from last year.

I was hoping there’d be a source of photos that I could rapidly link in, but the TED gallery seems to be a day or two behind. So I’ve borrowed a camera from Yesenia and if I can work out how to use it I’ll start to add pics to these blogs. I have to tell you all about Gamelan X, but I have to rush off to Session 3. Next up is the adorable Regina….

The Nutmeg of Consolation (i)

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

My renewable energy-powered lifeboat studio has a name! At the weekend, the Mayor of Aldeburgh performed a ‘launch’ ceremony, and 80 guests attended.

A lot of people have asked about the name, so I’ll explain. My original dream was to build a seagoing, carbon-neutral vessel, and sail around the world composing and recording music. It became clear I could not pull this off without a major corporate sponsor, and I couldn’t face going to them with my hand out. So I had to water down my plan a bit; but this ended up being just as interesting a project, with the added advantage that Kathleen (aka Mrs Noah) will actually agree to join me on board!

The Nutmeg of Consolation‘ is the title of book 14 in Patrick O’Brian’s brilliant Aubrey/Maturin naval fiction series. In it, Jack Aubrey’s ship is wrecked in a terrible storm in the South Seas (where my lifeboat also served.) He and a handful of survivors manage to build a small boat, constructed–like my new wheelhouse–of salvaged timber. After an epic voyage they make it to a Dutch port in Batavia, and are gifted a 20-gun barque, in which they sail back to England. Aubrey is humiliated to have lost his ship, but names his new one the Nutmeg of Consolation, which is one of the titles of the Sultan of Kampong.

I’ll be posting some more pics, and maybe a video guided tour of the boat over the next couple of weeks. In the meantime here’s Kathleen, my excellent signpainter, working late into the night: