laptop. It’s the first time he’s been back to Vancouver in 24 years or so, and he’s a little wooden, a little hesitant up there on the stage of the Rio… but a LOT funny, dry of wit and, reassuringly, still a bit bonkers.
His merch girls are dressed as kinda-steampunks, his openers Aaron Jonah Lewis and Ben Belcher play bluegrass, and he’s got a converted tin contraption with his name on it – a “time capsule” in which you can lie and record a message to send to the future – parked out front. During “Spice Road” in the encore, he brought out a belly dancer. And for the final dumb classic “Silk Pajamas” he led the audience of primarly 50-something men in a clapalong. All so wonderful!
Also wonderful to learn: Thomas Dolby records in his backyard of his house on the East Coast of England. Not in a shed or cottage, but in a 1930s lifeboat that he bought on Ebay. It’s called the Nutmeg of Consolation, of course, and it’s solar- and wind-powered. The lifeboat makes sense, Dolby explained, because England will soon tip into the sea. “But the weather’s not always obliging,” he continued. “There’s not a lot of sunshine. So we often have to wait.”
Another gem: when Dolby was mixing the video for “She Blinded Me With Science” in 1982 he struck up an unusual friendship with one Michael Jackson, who was working on a little video for a ditty called “Billy Jean” in the studio next door. Michael suggested that Dolby – write a song and send it to him. He did, excitedly, and never heard back. “So I called him up on the number he gave me and asked him what he thought,” said Dolby. “Michael said he liked the drums. I was, uh, well, Michael, I rather quite liked the melody, is there anything else I can offer you? And Michael asked: ‘are you near Wales?’ And I said, ‘like the country?’ I’m about a 5-6 hour drive away. What do you need? And Michael said: ‘could you get me some ragwort for my llamas?’ and then hung up the phone. And that’s the last time I talked to Michael Jackson.” The song he sent to Jackson? “Hyperactive”. Brilliant.
The stories don’t end: Dolby talks about a trip New Orleans, and walking into the Maple Leaf Lounge where 15 brass players were on one stage and “generations of music came together in my mind.” He talks about how the song “Love is like a Loaded Pistol” came from dream in which he said Billie Holiday told him to write a song with the line, “this time it’s love”, and he thought “that’s a bit crap, innit?”. Or how “The Toad Lickers” came from a chat he had with Wade Davis, National Geographic’s “Explorer”, at a TED conference, naturally. Wade told Thomas about how some people actually did lick toads.
“So I wondered, ‘what kind of music would these guys listen to while licking toads? I figured it would be a blend of Appalachian bluegrass and hardcore techno.” Dolby then proceeded to take us through the layers of the song’s backbone: Imogen Heap, Natalie McMaster and “Loop 37B in Garageband.”
Oh, Thomas, it really has been too long. And despite a setlist peppered with a few sleepy tracks, there were myriad stand-outs. “Evil Twin Brother” with samples from Regina Spektor (and teen son Graham on drums!), “One of our Submarines” and “Europa and the Pirate Twins”rather quite charming. “Hyperactive” was goofy, as you’d expect. Hurrah!
And as for “She Blinded Me With Science”, his classic? Let’s let Dolby tell it: “I went back to the multitrack tapes from that time and was transported back to the day when Dr. Magnus Pyke – [a famous eccentric British scientist who tried to explain his world to the layperson via TV and panels] – came in.” Dolby explains he’d asked the “crusty old buzzard – he’s no longer with us so I can diss him now” to speak a line in the song, with mixed results. Pyke struggled with the line and the, err, mad scientist way Dolby wanted him to say it.
“So I gave him the line I wanted to him read, and he said, ‘It’d be a bit surprising if a girl blinded ME with science, wouldn’t it, Dolby?”
But they pressed on and Eureka! The song became a hit. When Pyke returned from a tour of the US, he complained to Thomas. “Your bloody MTV video is better known than my entire body of work. And people kept jumping out behind me yelling SCIENCE! Scared me to death.”
And with that tale, Thomas Dolby’s return to the stage just became perfect. \m/
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