Blame Thomas Dolby if cell-phone ringtones piss you off. Nah, he didn't write that egregious "Crazy Frog" tune. But the '80s synthpop legend best known for the international hit "She Blinded Me with Science" is responsible for the polyphonic squawking of mobile devices worldwide, thanks to audio software developed by his company Beatnik.
The man who titled his debut album The Golden Age of Wireless in 1982 and who influenced a generation of electronic-based producers would later become a tech visionary of another sort: Beatnik's innovations are licensed by companies including Motorola, Nokia, and Samsung.
Beatnik launched in 1996 as a spinoff of Headspace, which started three years earlier. "Beatnik was the name of our most popular product, so we eventually changed the name of the company," Dolby explains in an interview at a restaurant in Half Moon Bay, a coastside town 30 miles south of San Francisco. He lives there with his wife, former actress Kathleen Beller (whose resumé includes a two-year stint on Dynasty), and their three children.
He sits on the Beatnik board, but doesn't get much more involved than that. Music—not business—is still at the heart of Dolby's life. "Besides, I definitely don't have anything useful to contribute at this point," he demurs.
His phone rings just then; it's a jarring and horrible noise. And it's great.
Egyptian-born Thomas "Dolby" Robertson is on his first tour in 15 years, a back-to-basics, one-man show that revisits catalog favorites. But this won't be a rote laptop performance. Dolby doesn't just push buttons; he plays live. "At the end of the day, it's riskier, but more gratifying," he says.
It's been considerably longer than 15 years since he has interfaced with the major-label music business, a machine he calls "dysfunctional." For someone who made hit records by being experimental, Dolby wasn't encouraged by his label to continue that line of thinking once he had become a pop star. He found himself victim of a misguided focus-group mentality, where a typical marketing strategy for an album would be a full-page ad in Billboard followed by a lavish release party in Las Vegas when the tour came through there.
"It was basic ignorance, at my expense," he says now. "And I was expected to foot the bill for their childish marketing experiments."
These days, Dolby is much more excited about independent, internet-based outlets such as CD Baby, which allow an artist to make a significant amount per CD and enjoy the benefits of digital-based distribution without signing over all rights. Eight years ago, he released the Forties project via CD Baby to celebrate his 40th birthday. Every person who bought the CD left his or her name and a comment on his page. "Every sale!" he marvels. "It doesn't take a marketing genius to understand that this is something valuable."
Disdain for the music business made Dolby pull back from it, but the intervening years have deepened his feelings for his creations. And thus he is touring again, despite the rough economic reality and risks involved. Why now? "I miss my songs," he says simply.
"Thomas has that unique ability to infuse dry humor into even the most moody, introspective songs," says Seattle's Paul Sebastien of the duo Basic Pleasure Model, who open for Dolby at Fenix Underground. "His lyrics can transport you to another place, and then suddenly you'll pick up on a reference or quip that is just incredibly perceptive."
One of the new songs Dolby has recently completed is a collaboration with J. J. Abrams, the moonlighting creator of Lost, Alias, and Felicity, for the Abrams-directed Mission Impossible III. But mainly he's got a storehouse of vivid compositions firmly in his head.
After Dolby finishes this tour, he says, some of those tunes will be let out of his mind and into the ether. He may release a CD and/or DVD of the tour. As he envisions it, these new, pressure-free songs (and updated arrangements of old classics) will communicate directly with core fans without first having to run them up the corporate flagpole for approval.
There may be one overlooked focus group with which he has to contend, however: the whales he sees from the window of his recording studio/garden shed. They're surely tuned into his subsonic frequencies. And who knows? Thomas Dolby's golden age of whale song may soon be upon email@example.com