Interview with Thomas Dolby (with Kevin Armstrong and Matthew Seligman)
from Noise No. 16, December 9-23, 1982 by Betty Page
Clone the crows! Betty Page extracts wisdom and schoolboy humour from TD and sidekicks Matthew Seligman and Kevin Armstrong...
'THE SPORTILY dressed, slightly oddball young man walked onto the stage. His National Health (Model 232) spex struggled with the glare of the spotlights. Gradually he was able to make out the vague shape of an audience in the heat haze. At this point, the young man thought he must be dreaming: 'iI'd been up all night programming the slides,' he said, lip a-quiver, 'so I was rather spaced out. We'd had to drive down from the country that day too. The manager warned me, but when I walked on the stage...'But nothing could have prepared him for catseye-style onslaught that awaited him; 'All the people wearing glasses just sort of shine at you and I realised it was a sea of Dolby Clones...!' When sidekicks Kevin and Matthew joined Thomas (for it is he) onstage, also sporting bins, it all seemed like a spectacle-wearers convention! It was all too much. At the eleventh hour after bombardment by lens-less Toyahs, Adams, Numans, it seemed that this Dolby fellow had finally brought face furniture back into fashion. Stuff those contact lenses, Mr Opticians, we're proud to be spectacled!'
That was an excerpt from 'Dolby Makes A Spectacle Of Himself (Live At The Marquee) Vol I'. A little piece of whimsy based on the startling Dolbycolne truth following Tom's rousing live performance at the notorious Wardour St warteringhole, accompanied by newly recruited sidekicks Kevin Armstrong (guitar and keyboard), Matthew Seligman (bass and keyboard) and of course, old faithful computer Henry. It was at a rum joint down Mexico way that I finally ran them to ground and grilled them over a few sports of mescal. Dolby live in London is now an ongoing thing, Tom being characteristically contrary and unhip by doing a residency at the Marquee. Can this be construed as a sadistic joke on the audience?
Tom: "I've suffered for my music, and now it's your turn!"
Yes, that's how I interpreted it, but then I'm cynical...
Tom: "I just thought it would be so boring and predictable to go and do The Palace or The Venue, and I just thought in spite of the legends, the notoriety, that The Marquee was the right sort of place to do. And also we wanted to do consecutive weeks because we knew it would still be evolving. I hope there are people who will come back and see something a bit different every week, with a couple of new songs we've worked out - either new old or brand new songs - and something in addition to that. Hopefully Lene (Lovich) will be doing a number. So by the end of the month it's going to be an all-star spectacular!"
Kevin: "We've got the guy juggling chicken hearts tonight..."
I definitely thought it worked in terms of audience participation. How about you?
Tom: "Yeah, it was really good. It was actually the fifth that we'd done together - we'd done three in France. We wanted to rehearse, so we thought we'd go to some country that was really musically backward where we can do concerts and it just won't matter. And France was the obvious choice."
Matthew: "I was absolutely terrified the other night. I can't remember being nervous before. Usually I can play the best!"
Tom: "These guys have only really played synth since we started doing this, which is good in a way because there is such a thing these days as a synth bore. If I'd just started working with a couple of keyboard players, it'd be 'my new programme's just brilliant, if I just put it on hold and bring in the arpeggios halfway through ..."
Matthew: "Instead it's 'where's F Sharp, Tom?'"
Tom: "It's good in a way because I think we've got a sort of fresh approach to it..."
Kevin: "The comic approach to synthesisers."
Tom: "Plus it's really nice to be able to use bass and guitar when required. In fact there are other strange instruments which will be incorporated at a later date. But first things first."
Having the bass and guitar lent a slightly - not really shambolic air - more a human element
one of us picks up a guitar, it's something familiar, y'know? We saw Yazoo on the box the other night and it was a bit boring - he's got everything on computer, and it's a similar potentially better system than the one we use, but he doesn't even play. We didn't want that situation to arise, we didn't want a mechanical Kraftwerk-style distance between us, so guitars are a good thing."
Tom: "But you've got to separate the conceptualising about how you perform live from the reality of it. The fact is, people want to see an update of shiny guitars and drums and things, they want to see something equally stimulating and happening, and although the way I used to play was fairly shambolic and certainly unpredictable, I think people need to feel it's an event, that they're not just voyeurs at someone else's indulgence.
"Apart from that, it's really good for me to be playing with other people again, but still under my own name, doing my own music. What I used to do was separate it an awful lot, 'cos after being a minion in other people's bands I really wanted to get rid of all the middlemen so I was directly in touch, completely in control myself, which I'm glad to have done 'cos it means I've covered areas I now know enough about to sensibly delegate them. At the same time it's a spartan attitude - what I'd do when I got sick to the teeth of working alone was I'd go off and do another project, and vice versa, and to do this is the best of both worlds, 'cos it's still got that sort of feedback which is really important."
Kevin: "And also those other projects to which Tom refers very often Matthew and I are involved in. This band has been sort of in the fourth dimension for a year or so."
You did seem incredibly relived, Tom, to be sharing the burden with other people!
Tom: "I don't know - if I'd carried on with the solo show then by this point I would've been a lot more confident in it, but I felt it was a bit of a faux pas, it was a nice idea but I don't think it's lost and of the intimacy through having other people onstage - there's probably more contact if anything, 'cos it leaves me a bit freer to perform, which is really nice."
You couldn't have known what sort of reaction to expect, especially considering such things as computer-generated gaps!
Tom: "The mistakes there were actually out fault and not the technology's, which is really nice, 'cos it really feels now that it's a musical set, not a series of commands, it doesn't dictate to us onstage."
Kevin: "In fact, it'll soon be the case that even if it all breaks down we'll be able to entertain the audience without any computer programmes or tapes - we're not actually that reliant on them."
Matthew: "The thing about computers is that logic is a really vulnerable thing, if you don't obey it completely it breaks down completely. In fact they're very exciting, because they're so rigid. The exciting thing about watching a computer show is whether it'll go wrong or not. Also we found that it started, just through little aberrations, writing its own drum parts and fills! In 'New Toy' there's a computer-written fill! I don't know how it did it, probably someone turned on a electric fire in another room!"
Kevin: "I wouldn't condone any mystification of computers because I think that's a real danger with them, you can think they can make decisions or be creative without us, but they are entirely at the whim of human thought. And they don't challenge or create anything."
Matthew: "The good thing about that computer is that you can give it a really boring beat and it enjoys ie, whereas if you give a drummer a boring beat, it sounds boring. And sometimes you need really boring beats. I can imagine a drummer being bored by playing 'Commercial Beakup'"
Tom: "In my case the argument is not between a drummer and a computer, it's that I want to play the drums myself, but can't physically do it onstage."
Back to the leading question of Dolby lookalikism. There's some sort of poetic justice about it, but it's not something I thought would happen.
Kevin: "I don't think that's something you've really projected, is it Tom?"
Tom: "What, wanting to be cloned?!"
Kevin: "I can't see any way that you've cultivated an image that would necessarily make people want to do that, I think it's an entirely surprising phenomenon. I mean, David Bowie, Ziggy, you can imagine people turning up in that garb."
Tom: "Maybe that's why."
Kevin: "You must get Boy George clones at Boy George gigs, but I can understand that."
It wasn't just the specs - some lads had the whole look!
Tom: "They probably do it better than me, most of them."
I can see the beginning of something big here!
Tom: "What a horrific thought!"
Kevin: "Walking down the street and being unable to get away from your own image! Yeuk!"
There's the whole question of people identifying with the music as well, the fact that people who are able to make themselves look like that are also heavily into the music.
Tom: "Yeah, well that I can see. I think association is quite important."
Matthew: "Brainwashing by association. That's what advertisers use. It's recognised as a very powerful thing!"
It's quite sinister, really.
Matthew: "Yeah, there's this drone in the background that's going to down out our conversation on this tape!"
Tom: "There was a guy down at Gillingham who had a copy of 'Science' ten days before it came out and refused to say where he got it. He eventually admitted he knew a rep. I have his head on a plate!"
Kevin: "His name will be mud"
Matthew: "The computer says 'nake' instead of 'name'. It's really sweet. When you switch it on, it goes 'bleep' and says Hello. Have you ever met it? You should."
I suppose I should interview him really...
Matthew: "Yeah, why don't you interview Henry?"
Do you talk to him?
Matthew: "It's really funny, when you make a bad mistake, do an inadmissible entry, it comes up with a question mark."
Kevin: "Yeah, when I was first learning to load the computer, I kept doing something wrong, it kept going beep and the question mark would come up. Eventually I did something so wrong that this sort of howling noise came out of the speakers and these streams of question marks filled up the whole screen! I just had to leave the room in terror!"
Tom: "It's definitely a oneman dog, that computer. It just won't respond to these two at all!"
Several people say they have to talk to their computers to make them behave.
Tom: "A lot of people just swear at them. The thing is, computer programming is basically a very anti-social activity, most people who buy one lock themselves away for the first three months and do nothing else. When you don't have any human company for days on end you start talking to yourself. The computer is your only friend if you get that involved in it. It doesn't really matter that much to me now, I've more or less mastered it and I'm not even particularly interested in updating it or getting the next big thing. If I find it becomes restrictive, like the band, if they do, I throw them out! But this is something I don't anticipate happening for a while."
So do you anticipate taking the show on the road?
Kevin: "Yes...sorry, sorry, no scratch that, not true at all..."
Tom: "I think it depends what class of gaff we get offered. I think a laborious tour of sweaty little clubs about the size of the marquee would be a shame, 'cos obviously it works better in a bigger space. I think if we do a tour in the UK it would probably be just before or around Christmas. The main objective now is to write the next album. Which I have a suspicion is going to be on video as well, which means it's going to take about twice as much conceiving."
Doing it in conjunction with the actual recording?
Tom: "Yeah, but that's nice in a way, when the initial idea for something is a visual one - something I've always tried to do, actually think ahead to the way it's going to look. That's what happened with 'Science' really. You get bands thinking about storyboards before they write the next single, but that's not quite the same."
Kevin: "Except that my pet hate at the moment is bands in the charts who swamp their vocals with echo because they can't write a sensible line of lyric that means anything, and the storyboard seems to take over, and a selection of bland and corny images are thrown together. Definitely don't want to be anywhere near that kind of mentality."
Tom: "I don't think there's much danger of that. It's actually a real challenge to do something completely different instead of just ten film clips accompanying the album."
Even as far as having the visual idea before the lyrics?
Tom: "Yeah, well 'Science' and 'One Of Our Submarines' were both done with that in mind. Certainly it was a lot easier to put together the video of 'Science' because I'd been thinking about it from the beginning."
You said before it was a sort of parody - do you think it'll be seen that way?
Tom: "I don't know. Yes, it's a parody, but it's not a cynical parody, it's fun, I hope."
Kevin: "There's all sorts of gentle influences like Buster Keaton in it."
Matthew: "Tom's Dad's in it!"
Tom: "Yeah, the Professor. We hired all these actors to be mad professors, but in fact the only one who was the true professional was the real one. He loved it. He's become quite a hero among the archaeological fraternity! Some of the running about you have to do with films is fantastically good fun, actually, just finding the most impossible things and dredging up sources, and once you get into that mentality you walk around all the time seeing and picking up on things you store in the old memory banks for a later date. I've been asked to direct for other people. The problem is really that there's not a lot of records I like enough to do..."
I wanted to ask a very sweeping question about the way you see electronic music heading, because it strikes me that there's not a lot happening at the moment that's very new...
Tom: "Well, I think Electronic Music with capital letters doesn't really exist any more for me - maybe Klaus Schulze is electronic music. It's subject to the same problems that all areas of popular music have got at the moment, that it's still coming down at a very fast acceleration in different styles and influences and suddenly drawing a breath and regurgitation some of the old stuff, and it's treading water really. The only real technological advances in the last five years have been the ones out of reach of the musicians who've got the motivation to do something with them."
So people like Vince, who can afford them, don't really use them properly?
Tom: "No, but I expect he'll get round to it. At the moment he's just using it as a facility for playing stuff live. His next phase will be to actually use them properly, I imaging. Aside from that, the only other people who've got those machine are people like Peter Gabriel."
It seems to me that everyone is at such different stages of developments in use and knowledge of the equipment that it's all going to happen at different levels.
Kevin: "Yeah, but it's not true that if you're not au fait with the technology you have no chance of keeping up with music, 'cos good ideas will transcend that whatever you use. There must've been a time when the electric guitar was treated like a novelty, but in time these things find their own level."
Tom: "It seems like the artists emerging nowadays are very sussed business-wise, they're probably more aware of what the business requires of a new artist than what the public requires, and for that reason there's a lot of people following each other like sheep. I think more people should've taken stock of Laurie Anderson although I'm not her greatest fan - because what she did was really low tech, it was ingenious use of a few simple, basic tools and completely set aside from the mainstream. It's a shame there aren't more people prepared to do something really individual. I think the record companies are really backward, they underestimate how outrageous, avant garde, or whatever, the public are prepared to go. They're very unimaginative. How can they complain they're not making money when they can do something like release that Bauhaus record? To me that's just amazing, astonishing."
"At the same time I think things like The Tube are going to open things up, and cable when it comes, and the fact that even things like the Noel Edmonds programme are showing people's home videos, the whole thing could become a lot more public. In a few years the slick production of some of the videos made nowadays, the TOTP performances, could look incredibly obsolete and old fashioned and a load of pulp. We'll just have to keep out fingers crossed, things are bound to change.
Have you thought a lot about the shifting of emphasis in the media?
Tom: "I think that personal thing about human contact concerns me 'cos what I'm trying to do is not make pulp in an area where pulp is the staple diet, and I think an awful lot of people are very prepared to have the same thing stuffed down their throats day in day out, and if you're fighting against that then obviously it concerns you, why it's happening, why they're more likely to buy a record like that or whatever. It's a bit difficult to understand sometimes why people don't require something a bit different, out of the ordinary."
On a totally different subject - how is Venice benefitting lately?
Tom: "It's doing quite will actually. In fact, I think it's saved! It's started unsinking automatically, it's so grateful for the support. It's six feet out of the water already, and will be going into orbit. In fact, I've started to feel guilty that Athens and Bangkok are suffering rather more than Venice."
What happens when the VIP Fund gets the money, do they tell you what they're going to do with it?
Tom: "It goes towards the next board meeting! No, a lot of it actually now is fighting the pollution, 'cos the Italians are building a floodgate and dredging out the bay, so it's all going to be al lot more secure. The main problem is now the air pollution - as fast as they can scrape the muck off it's filling up again."
Matthew: "It's a funny thing preservation. Of all the things to preserve, why the tourist industry?"
Tom: "They can think of much better things I can do with my money. Like give it to them."
Matthew: "I'd put it with things like the RSPCA. Things which detract you from thinking about the human condition are really strange."
Tom: "But that's such a big statement, I just happen to be doing this, it's not like the Au Pairs or The Clash, I don't demand that people know what it's all about in order to understand my art, it's just something I happen to want to do."
Matthew: "I think VIP is good from the point of view of defiance - you shouldn't sit back and let everything slip away."
Defiance is the code work: Dolbyised defiance against blandness, against mega-gigs at Hammersmith Odeon, and against defiance by upstart little computers called Henry. And as Matthew says, any further remarks do not exist as far as the machine is concerned...
Clones, start walkin'...