Thomas Dolby

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Thomas Dolby topped the charts in the 80’s by being among the first to embrace synthesizers in pop music and then proceeded to invent technology that made ringtones possible.  He compares Joni Mitchell’s melodies to jazz, shares a story about Bowie, and picks his favorite city anthem in his Guest DJ set. Dolby is touring the U.S. this Spring and will be appearing at the SXSW Music Conference.
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Note: he has two showcases on WED and FRI:

1. Beside You - Van Morrison
2.  Edith And The Kingpin - Joni Mitchell
3.  Heroes - David Bowie
4.  Sign O The Times - Prince
5.  The Passenger - Iggy Pop

Eric: Hi, I'm Eric J. Lawrence, and I am here with Thomas Dolby. Of course we all know him from his music career, but what you may not know is his involvement in developing groundbreaking technology such as cell phone ring tones, as well as serving as the Music Director for the acclaimed Ted Conferences. Today, we're going to talk about some songs that he selected that have inspired him over the years as part of KCRW's Guest DJ Project. Thomas, thank you so much for coming down.
Thomas: Hey, nice to be here.
Eric:  What's the first song you got for us?
Thomas: The first song is a Van Morrison song, it's called "Beside You". And, Van, in his lyrics, often talks about radio and you get the sense that he had this love affair with radio when he was a kid, you know, and that it was sort of what got him through a difficult time. He also strikes me as a guy that is never that comfortable in his own skin and you just feel that when he's at his best, he's seeking refuge in his music. And I think the absolute peak of that was the "Astral Weeks" album, which is so transcendent. And my favorite cut off the album is this one, which is about the only one in a minor key, and there's something spooky about the start of this song that's just always stuck with me.
Song: Van Morrison – “Beside You”
Eric:  That was Van Morrison with "Beside You", as selected by our guest Thomas Dolby. Well, what's the next track you've got for us?
Thomas:  The next one is Joni Mitchell. "Edith and The Kingpin", is really one of my favorite songs of hers, off one of my favorite albums "The Hissing of Summer Lawns".
And there's something about "Edith and The Kingpin", the melancholy of it, and the way that an apparently simple chord sequence sort of morphs into something a bit jazzier. There's this line she sings, "He tilts their tired faces gently to the spoon" -- that's the most evocative line that just summons up that period so well. But she goes so out melodically, I mean, it's like the most beautiful piece of Jazz that you've ever heard.
Song: Joni Mitchell – Beside You
Thomas: I think the first album I ever bought with my own pocket money was "For the Roses" and I had an interesting experience, because I used to learn the piano parts from those albums and once found myself in a piano warehouse with Joni, where we had been asked by the studio we were working in to pick a new grand piano for them.
And I would start playing intros to Joni's songs, and she'd go, "Wow what was that one?",
I'd go "'Ladies of the Canyon' side 2, song 3?". "Oh yeah!", and she'd sort of join in with it. So from opposite end of this piano warehouse, we were sort of jamming on these old songs of hers.
Eric:    That was Joni Mitchell with "Edith and the Kingpin" as selected by our guest Thomas Dolby. What's the next song you got for us?
Thomas:  This is a David Bowie song, "Heroes". Like many of my generation of British teens, we were completely in love with David Bowie through all of the changes in his career, the chameleon like volt faces that he did. And I suppose the most influential moment of his career, for me, was when he turned his back on rock ‘n’ roll and went to Berlin with Brian Eno and recorded a couple of albums -- "Low" and "Heroes" -- which were really the first time electronic music had really hit the mainstream, both in the pop charts, and the side 2's, which were the first time ambient music had really sort of hit the mainstream.
Song: David Bowie – Heroes
Thomas: "Heroes" is a particularly memorable song for me because I played with Bowie at Live Aid at Wembley in 1985, and I was very nervous onstage because he had been very busy at the time and we played 4 songs that we've never rehearsed back to back. We had a young band that we'd thrown together, and I was convinced that this song that had been an anthem through my teenage years, I was going to be the one to screw it up in front of a billion and a half people. But when I got up there, I was staring at Bowie's back about ten feet away, and behind him the Wembley audience, beyond that this invisible massive world TV audience, and my fingers did the walking, you know? It's just they were playing themselves; it was a magic carpet ride.
Eric: Now, how did you transition from this life of the rock star to doing things in technology?
Thomas: I'd been involved with technology because I'd talked to the hardware and software companies that made the stuff that I was using. Silicone Valley was a very exciting place to be, you know, this is where the tech companies were starting to figure out how to work entertainment into machines that were designed for crunching numbers. And, during the dotcom years, it became possible to get funded to do very cool, interactive music stuff, even if you didn't have any business model really, or revenue. Of course, most of those dotcoms went up in smoke. Mine would have done, were it not for the fact that the synthesizer that we created got licensed by the world largest mobile phone company, and after that most of its competitors. So, the Beatnik technology shipped in about three billion cell phones.
Eric: It's pretty remarkable to think that ringtones were something that you were kind of involved with.
Thomas: Yeah, I mean, I didn't make the ringtones, we just made the technology that all of the sound in a phone was played through. But, it's astonishing to see how that took off.
Eric:  That was David Bowie with "Heroes", as selected by our guest Thomas Dolby.  Okay, so what's the next song you've got for us?
Thomas:  I'm going to go with "Sign of the Times".  You know, in a way, I think that what Bowie was to the 70’s Prince was to the ‘80s. It was about fashion. He was a cultural icon.  He was a guy where you just hung on every new release that he put out to see which way he was going to go musically. And "Sign of the Times" is just great. It's so sparse. There's almost nothing going on and the vocal drives it.
Song: Prince – “Sign of the Times”
Eric:  Early in your career you were part of the vanguard of the new wave and sort of playing keyboards and synthesizers, but that wasn't just when those instruments were invented.  How did you come to play that kind of music and that particular instrument?
Thomas:  I actually started on guitar and I dabbled in keyboards.  The first synthesizers were very expensive and very heavy and needed a couple of roadies to shift them.  They didn't stay in tune and so on.  The first one that I was able to lay my hands on was actually a kit from the back of Popular Mechanics magazine.  It seldom worked properly, but I felt like a pioneer and I am often called a pioneer in that area.  But you couldn't help but be a pioneer because there was only about half a dozen of us stupid enough to take that on, you know?  It was so difficult.  Especially in the days of punk rock where, you know, I couldn't get in a band because they would have rather seen me trash a Hammond organ on stage than play a cool synth line.
Eric:  That was Prince with "Sign of the Times" as selected by our guest Thomas Dolby.  What's the last track that you've got for us?
Thomas:  The last one is a city song.  Iggy Pop, "The Passenger".  I'm not really a city person. I live on the edge of nowhere out in the east coast of Britain, in a village with twenty houses and no pub.  So I get a big charge when I go to cities, but I have an odd relationship with them.
This is one song that is sort of an anthem to cities which is somehow positive despite the fact that it's grimy.  He talks about driving through the city's ripped back sides and there is just something about it.  He is clearly a guy that loves to be in the middle of a city.  He is a city person.
Eric:  That was Iggy Pop with "The Passenger" as selected by our guest Thomas Dolby.  Thomas, I want to thank you so much for coming down and joining us.
Thomas:  Nice to be here.
Eric:  For a complete track listing and to find these songs online go to and subscribe to the podcast through iTunes.