Thomas Dolby

Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever


Better than… spending the night trying to think of “She Blinded Me with Science” jokes.

Thomas Dolby remains on the cutting edge of technology. In fact, he earned the name “Dolby” because he was the first one at school to have a portable cassette deck. “It was very high-tech in those days,” he said last night in a brief interview before playing Hollywood Forever's Masonic Lodge.

By the early-1980s, Dolby had become a new wave nerd hero thanks to his hit single, “She Blinded Me with Science.” A decade later, he left music for a successful career in tech. His company, Beatnik, developed a synthesizer that was later licensed by Nokia and used to play ringtones on cel phones.

Now the music director for TED — the annual gathering of innovators in Long Beach — Dolby has marked his return to music in typically forward-minded fashion. His new album A Map of the Floating City was preceded by a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), which allowed members of his The Flat Earth Society fan club to collaborate and compete for opportunities to hear his latest songs.

The Floating City Game is described as dieselpunk, which Dolby says reflects the aesthetics incorporated into his work over the decades. Dieselpunk is an alternate history style of science fiction similar to steampunk, but for era of the advent of car and airplane culture. Where steampunk may draw inspiration from the work of Jules Verne, Dieselpunk looks for inspiration to works like Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Friday night, as part of a promotional tour for the album, Dolby explained the evolution of the role-playing game and the album, and played as well. It was a “cross between a TED Talk and a performance,” he said. He opened the night with “Europa and the Pirate Twins,” from his 1980 album, The Golden Age of Wireless. The character Europa, he said, became a major character in the corresponding game.

During the lecture, Dolby talked about moving with his family to an area in East Anglia with “20 houses and no pub.” He bought a a lifeboat called Nutmeg of Consolation on eBay and transformed it into a sustainable recording studio, powered by the sun and wind and renovated with reclaimed wood. He then performed “To the Lifeboats.”

17 Hills is the tribe in The Floating City Game for Southern California players. Dolby says that this team "kicked everyone's ass."; Credit: Liz Ohanesian

17 Hills is the tribe in The Floating City Game for Southern California players. Dolby says that this team “kicked everyone's ass.”; Credit: Liz Ohanesian

Dolby followed the same format for the rest of the night. The short mini-talks served to introduce songs.

Most fascinating was Dolby's description of the development of the game, which he says he gravitated to because of the popularity of social networking sites and video games. (And the fact that no one buys music anymore.) The concept was inspired by fan fiction based on his music, and he wanted to provide a framework that people could use to continue creating this kind of work. He was told a game of this scale based on user-generated content couldn't work, but lo and behold, it did.

Dolby talked about how the players would chat and speculate on story lines. These went on to influence his Floating City Gazette blog, which posted the news of this fictional world.

“If I saw something I liked, the Gazette printed it and it became the truth,” he says.

The Floating City world is divided into three continents– Amerikana, Oceanea and Urbanoia. The continents must compete to get to the North Pole first. Within the continents there are different tribes of players who collaborate with. The tribes are based on the location of your IP address, and 17 Hills — the group from Southern California, turned out to be one of the strongest tribes.

At one point, groups began hosting meet-ups outside of the game. Fan art and fan fiction was on the rise. Players were inventing tools, so many that Dolby had to hire his son to become a patent officer for the game. References to his songs were turning up over and over again in the universe. Europa became one of the most popular characters in the game and Miss Sakamoto (from “She Blinded Me with Science!”) even made appearances.

The dieselpunk aesthetic on display during Thomas Dolby's lecture and performance; Credit: Liz Ohanesian

The dieselpunk aesthetic on display during Thomas Dolby's lecture and performance; Credit: Liz Ohanesian

What made this lecture so inspiring was that the game doesn't appear to be a one-sided campaign to extend a personal brand. Instead, he provided a space where fans could get together, share ideas and be creative.

His new album is only part of the project. The bigger picture is that fans can take his music, interpret it in their own ways and share it with each other. Now that the album is nearing release — it comes out Tuesday — and the initial story line of the game has finished, Dolby has handed the game over to the fans. In my mind, this makes him a genius.

To close the set, he shared a story about his late friend, Dr. Magnus Pyke, the scientist who famously appeared in Dolby's biggest hit. Pyke had returned from a trip to the U.S. and complained that no matter where he went, people greeted him with the exclamation, “Science!” Dolby then played a few of Pyke's takes from the song, where he proclaims, “She blinded me, with science!” This led to the song of the same name. He then returned for an encore and played one more of his early hits, “Hyperactive.”

Personal Bias: I listen to TED Talks for fun.

The crowd: Hardcore Thomas Dolby fans. People who play A Map of Floating Cities. People who spent at least $40 at the merch booth so that they could get an autograph.

Set list below.

Set List*:

Europa and the Pirate Twins

To the Life Boats

Love Is a Loaded Pistol

Evil Twin Brother

Toad Lickers

Spice Train

She Blinded Me with Science

Encore: Hyperactive

*The set list is coming from my notes. If I'm missing any songs, please name them in the comment section.

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