Shed Life

I work and make music in a garden shed. It’s small but cosy, with windows on all sides, and a gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean. Didn’t Nick Drake write a song called ‘A Man And His Shed?’ He must have been thinking of me. My daily commute is 15 feet. Some days I’m still in my pyjamas at 2pm. When it rains hard like it is today, it’s deafening. Afterwards you can hear the frogs under the floorboards, and there’s a scent of wild garlic from the empty lot next door. I love my shed!

Today I’ve got an equipment problem so I’m kinda dead in the water, sitting staring out and waiting for Robotspeak to call me back (ace synth dealer in SF.) But it’s not my shed’s fault.

I wrote my earliest songs in the corner of a £12/week bedsitter in South London. In those days it was every musician’s dream to own a private studio. You were forever reading bits in the Daily Mail about Ronnie Wood’s 450-acre estate in Hertfordshire, the Georgian manor house with the deer park and recording studio attached, none of which he’d ever been in as he was perpetually on a tour of Japan or South America. That’s the life for me, I thought! Only unlike Ronnie I’d never leave the studio. Studio time was like gold dust. To get your music heard by the planet you had to have a record, and the only place you could make a record was in a recording studio. Trouble was, they cost hundreds of pounds an hour. Nobody had that kind of money unless they had a rich Daddy. Even drug dealers didn’t have that kind of money. So you needed to find someone stupid enough to lend money to a musician, in the belief you’d one day sell millions of records. You needed a record company!

I suppose I was one of the lucky ones. I found a record company, or they found me, and they shelled out for me to play around in studios for several years. I thought I’d better have as much fun as possible while it lasted, because I was convinced they’d soon find out how uncommercial my music was and pull the plug. I never really imagined I would have hit records, any more than my musical heroes did: people like Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Throbbing Gristle, Joni Mitchell, Pere Ubu, George Clinton, Television, XTC and Van Morrison, these were every label executive’s nightmare because they didn’t fit into the defined rock’n’roll pigeon holes. I would have been quite happy following in their footsteps by never getting on the radio or TV, and only selling a few thousand records each time out.

So it was quite a surprise when I found myself with a Top 5 single in the USA, a couple of gold albums, heavy MTV rotation, and a large following in urban dance clubs.

Of course, the first thing I wanted to do when the royalty check came in was build myself a recording studio. I picked out a prime location in West London, and started researching mixing boards, rackmount effects, and every keyboard imaginable. I laid it out in quite an innovative way with plenty of space in the control room for my tiers of electronics. I had an artist design unusual art deco-ish silk drapes so I still felt a little edgy and stylish, nothing like a spoiled rock star. I also bought a black 1964 Jaguar Mk2 and parked it in the driveway in the driveway and ordered in sushi while watching soccer games on a giant projection screen.

And you know what? I didn’t record a decent piece of music there in the five years I had that place. Frankly it was a burden. The equipment lost 50% of its value the day it was installed. The landlord saw how I’d done it up and immediately doubled the rent. I had to hire it out for commercial projects to offset the loss. And every night when I locked up, there was always tomorrow to carry on, until it was perfect, which was never. Yet often if I wanted to work on my own songs I would have to kick out a paying customer–so I ended up making a little setup in the corner of my bedroom again, and tucked away in there with my Roland Drumatix, I was happy as a clam.

So it’s no great surprise that I ended up here in this garden shed. It’s got everything I need, and no guilt attached. It never needs heating or air conditioning, as the equipment takes care of one and the foggy North-Westerlies blowing in off the Pacific take care of the other. It glows at night and looks pretty high-tech, in a ham radio operator sort of way, but when my roadies clear it out for a gig, it returns to its humble beginnings and you’re almost tempted to wheel a lawnmower in there.

One time I was working late and a little note slipped under the door, written in crayon by my then 7-yr-old son: “Dear Daddy. I hope yue ar having a good time en yuor shed. Love Graham.” I still have it pinned to the doorframe.

Yes Graham, I’m having a great time. Hooray for my shed!

Shed Note

26 Responses to “Shed Life”

  1. merujo says:

    I like the thought of wonderful music being concocted in a happily glowing high-tech shed somewhere on the Pacific coast!

    May there be many good times – and good tunes – yet to come in the Dolby shed!

  2. ryanwriter says:

    Hi Thomas,

    I just wanted to say welcome back. We have missed your music, and I for one am glad that you are making new music. I am old enough to remember when you were first on MTV.

    As I post this reply I am jamin to “She blinded me with science”

    Hope to see you on tour

  3. Apollo says:

    I agree with Merujo!
    As I’ve gotten older I think its amazing what we find we ACTUALLY need as opposed to what we thought we couldnt live without! :D

  4. Apollo says:

    It’s also quite amazing how a simple few words from a child can totally make your day. :)

  5. White City says:

    Hi Thomas,
    I’ve been away a while and have been totally gob-smacked to find that you’ve been playing again! A man turns his back for a couple of years and finds that against all odds the earth was flat and that concrete block you were tied to on the Windpower cover was in front of Sizewell B and and and…!

    The note from your son is priceless. My oldest is now 6 and I am starting to get these handwritten gifts that are more valuable than anyone else can start to imagine. If I only had my own shed here in Helsinki…

    ‘Over the moon to hear that you are touring. How could I have been so wrong and so out of touch . I knew about the 3 dates in Cal but the rest has totally floored me. I’m now on a mission to try and get to the Wireless thing in London.
    I’m still working for the same company but have been out of the loop so to speak, for a year or so.
    Can we expect the shed to shead? You can’t tell us that you haven’t got something down on tape that iTunes wouldn’t be able to distribute.

    I’m very glad to see that you are returning to ‘the empire’ as well and would it be out of court to expect that it is for more than a single appearance? It would be great to be able to see you perform finally after all these years!

    Kind regards from freezing Helsinki,
    Jon

  6. Reid Davis says:

    When I chatted with Duncan Sheik, he said this was the “English Country House” problem. As soon as a musician gets successful enough to earn his nice little estate in the countryside, the muse departs.

    Mr. Dolby, so glad to see you back in circulation sir! A strange thing happened in the intervening 15 years — kids who grew up on your quirky synth-pop, then fleetingly heard “Eastern Bloc” on Modern Rock radio, now edit somewhat influential music magazines (whilst, yes, also losing hair as well).

    Paste Magazine warmly welcomes you back, and if I can find space for a little something on all this, I’d love to give you some well-deserved ink. May the Cube be with you!

    ~Reid

  7. robromano says:

    Hey, Thomas, glad to see you in the so called blogosphere! I hope you enjoy your time blogging, it’s what you make of it…and if you can have a good time in a shed with some keyboards then I hope you have time on the computer with the thousands of fans and interested people.

    Your influence on electronic music is very important. I grew up on NIN, Skinny Puppy, Coil, Prick, PWEI and other bands like that. Without pioneers like you they’d have been traveling on dirt roads.

    Nice blog design, BTW!

  8. plan2succeed says:

    Mr. Dolby, I have always loved your music. Now, with kids of my own, I get them to listen to it as well. Honestly, it’s my opiniion that most new music is nowhere as creative as most classic music, like yours.

    Now that you have a blog, which I learned about from instapundit.com, I thought I would take a look. The first thread I saw was this one.

  9. ProfessorHiggins says:

    An Englishman’s home is his castle? Nonsense. It’s the shed. I have only owned one in my life, and that was a while ago now, but there was nothing like it for true recreation. It was done out proper, too: rows of antique wireless equipment, a long wire hoist to a nearby tree, a parafin heater (the mains wouldn’t run to a two-bar electric fire, which is also aesthetically acceptable), a comfortable, shabby chair, a rough bench splattered with solder under a four-pane window looking out over the garden, a much-hacked about 8-bit computer with a green monitor and all sorts of wires leading to homebrew gizmology. And no phone (these days, I guess the ubiquitous mobile would have to stored in an old biscuit tin to shield out the wrong sort of wave), and thus no Net. Well, there wasn’t really a Net back then, but even so online had a way of sucking out the time.

    To be there with a thermos as the afternoon darkened into evening, strange voices crackling in through the static as the ionosphere above relaxed into night-time propagation, a half-finished short story glowing on the screen: the world was held in perfect balance.

    Happy days.

    BL

  10. jymusic says:

    Hey!….Thomas…you really ARE the sharpest tool in the shed…except maybe for the computer…when it’s not crashing!

    JY

  11. sideiron says:

    Love the idea of a shed, full of gadgets, a place to escape to. The note under the door reminding you there’s a real world somewhere out there is just about the only acceptable way of being interrupted. Well, that and maybe a food delivery.

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