Just One of Our Submarines
May 14, 2008 7:27 AM   Subscribe

Thomas Dolby builds up his songs before your eyes layer by layer in a podcast. Leipzig is Calling. One of Our Submarines. I Live in a Suitcase. Flying North. She Blinded Me with Science. Hyperactive.
posted by wittgenstein (32 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Awesome, thanks :)
posted by itchylick at 7:42 AM on May 14, 2008

I can't wait to check these out.
Dolby was my nerd-hero back in the 80's and it's good to see he's still touring and mucking about.
"The Flat Earth" was my favorite album.

Thanks so much!
posted by willmize at 7:48 AM on May 14, 2008

"The Flat Earth" was my favorite album

A buddy of mine's first album was called "Screen Kiss". I was sitting with the band backstage one night, and asked if that title came from the Thomas Dolby song.

Swear they all yelled "YES!!!!!" at the same time.

His stuff is here.
posted by timsteil at 8:05 AM on May 14, 2008

Too bad he only ever had one song.
posted by Afroblanco at 8:07 AM on May 14, 2008

There was one room in her house which was always kept locked.
It was the garage.
posted by Spatch at 8:16 AM on May 14, 2008

I saw Jon Brion do something similar at Largo in LA, where he has (had?) a weekly gig - I'm sure other Mefites have seen it, too. (Brion does it by playing portions of the songs on about 25 different instruments, and then having the dude in the booth loop those sections at the right time/rhythm.)
Just like the Dolby clips, it took a while for the songs to get going, but that waiting was more than compensated for by the ability to watch the quite fascinating process of the whole song emerging from assembled parts.
posted by Dr. Wu at 8:18 AM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Glad to see the man who took the WASP out of the synthesizer.

Thank you for posting these.
posted by munchingzombie at 8:18 AM on May 14, 2008

Now do Europa and the Pirate Twins!
posted by Eideteker at 8:19 AM on May 14, 2008

Thanks for this. I'm a big Dolby fan and have long maintained that he's criminally underrated as an influence on electronic music in general, and is unfortunately mostly remembered as a "one-hit wonder", much like a similar group of hugely influential and criminally underrated musicians, Devo. It's especially cool that he's evolved to make the most of current technology and is reinventing his back catalog with his recent live performances, when so many of his contemporaries have relied on just loading old recorded parts into samplers. Building a track live like that is NOT easy, even with state-of-the-art tech.

Anyone know what kind of software/gear he uses? I'm guessing it's based around Ableton Live.
posted by DecemberBoy at 8:33 AM on May 14, 2008

Probably Ableton, but I can't be sure. I was wondering too. The drum-pad thing is, I believe, a Trigger Finger.
posted by echo target at 8:53 AM on May 14, 2008

He didn't even write that turd of a song. And Flat Earth is sublime. I remember hearing the rest of Golden Age Of Wireless when I worked at a movie theatre in high school. His lyrics were so moving and cryptic to me at that point in my life. He was definitely a big influence. Blinded by Science was pure tripe and hobbled any chance of trying to convince the uninitiated as to his merits. Sort of like Nada Surf and 'Popular' is today.
posted by docpops at 9:03 AM on May 14, 2008

DecemberBoy, echo target: He uses ProTools. I happened to catch a short lecture he did before the Sole Inhabitant show at Berklee.
posted by (parenthetic me) at 9:22 AM on May 14, 2008

"My brain is like a sieve/But it's a place where we both could live"

This will help me revive one of my long-held, erstwhile abandoned musical complexes. The man's music always captivated me, now I can see his mind at work and it's tremendous.
posted by skyper at 9:27 AM on May 14, 2008

FWIW He's not building up "Science" layer by layer. All the percussion is already in place, as is the bass line. And he steps away from the rig for the entire bridge. While he's playing a solo at around 4:30, lifts his hand off the keyboard, and it keeps playing. Seems like he's triggering the vocal samples, but I have to wonder which other parts he's actually playing. Though I don't know why he would be miming.
posted by Greenie at 9:27 AM on May 14, 2008

Delightful post!
I'm eighteen again and feel fine.
posted by Dizzy at 9:41 AM on May 14, 2008

I think the best description of what he's doing comes from the man himself:

Voiceover for Flat Earth

I went to the Sole Inhabitant tour back in '06, and it really was an impressive show. While he does cheat with pre-loaded sections occasionally, it really did feel like he was performing a majority of the music live. He even had to stop a song after a few measures because his Mac hasn't fully flushed settings between songs, although I couldn't pick up on what was wrong. (wrong tempo? wrong key? Wrong sample set loaded? Got me.)

I just recently got Aliens and TFE again, and I can't stop listening to them, catching references now that my 13 year old brain didn't back then. As much as I adore The Golden Age of Wireless, he really didn't come into his own until the later albums, in my opinion.
posted by Kyol at 9:45 AM on May 14, 2008

Moar stuff from "Astronauts and Heretics" please! Especially "Goodbye, I Love You."
posted by OneOliveShort at 10:14 AM on May 14, 2008

This would be a very bad thread to declare that I love "She Blinded Me with Science". It isn't my favorite song of his, but come on.
posted by munchingzombie at 10:46 AM on May 14, 2008

The Flat Earth is quite a short album and, for all of that, something of a masterpiece. It's not something to which I can listen often, due to its power. The Golden Age of Wireless has some real gems, too; in particular "Europa and the Pirate Twins" (one of the few songs to come up with a single, in "Eastern Bloc") stands out. His writing really is an iron fist in a glove full of Vaseline.

My only regret is that "She Blinded Me with Science" has been beaten to death. That song is to 80's collections like Skeletal Family's "She Cries Alone" is to any goth collection.
posted by adipocere at 11:06 AM on May 14, 2008


All over New Jersey.

Sublime. Simply sublime.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 11:55 AM on May 14, 2008

His writing really is an iron fist in a glove full of Vaseline.


In the late 80s I used to love a Connecticut band called The New Johnny 5 that seemed heavily influenced by Dolby. I wish I had kept one of their records.
posted by LarryC at 12:27 PM on May 14, 2008

Dolby has always been one of my favorite musicians. I admit that I was pulled in by "Blinded me With Science" (and still get a kick out of it when it comes on), but that was just my gateway drug. I was hooked by "Europa," "One of Our Submarines" and the lovely "Airwaves."

Each of his subsequent major albums has had their share of stand out tracks. The Flat Earth had "Dissidents," "I Scare Myself," "Hyperactive," and "Screen Kiss." Aliens Ate My Buick had "Airhead," "Pulp Culture," "My Brain Is Like a Sieve" and "Keys to Her Ferrari." Astronauts and Heretics had "Eastern Bloc," "Silk Pyjamas" and "I Love You, Goodbye."

Some argue that "Blinded Me with Science" prevented him from having more hits later. I would argue that he was really destined to have other hits. As excellent as I feel his songs and albums are, subsequent albums didn't really match what was popular at the time. He followed up the synth-pop of Golden Age of Wireless with something that wasn't synth-pop nor in line with the Def Leppard/Bon Jovi tracks that were dominating the airwaves at the time. I mean, The Flat Earth is a great album and has aged exceptionally well, but it certainly wasn't the kind of music that radio was playing in 1984.

Without "She Blinded Me with Science," I suspect Dolby would have faded into quiet obscurity like so many other synth-pop artists of the period. I guess what I'm saying is, if that song is what led to me being able to discover "Dissidents" and groove to "Pulp Culture," well, I'm glad for it.

Anyhow, tl;dr - Dolby rocks.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:34 PM on May 14, 2008

LarryC: What?

It is a lyric from "Dissidents."
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:35 PM on May 14, 2008

Aaaaa! Dolby! (You guys did all the hard commenting work for me. That's all I got.)
posted by katillathehun at 12:59 PM on May 14, 2008

"The Flat Earth" was my favorite album.

Me, too. What a mind-blower. As a kid hooked on power-punk and new wave, this album was a revelation to me. To be honest, I had no idea music could be this good before listening to this album.

Dense. Layered. Intellectual. And consistently inspired.

And then the lyrics

Semaphore out on the floor/
messages from outer space/
deep heat for your feet/
and the rhythm of your heartbeat/
cause the music of the streets/
it isn't any rap attack

Semaphore from outer space? The music of the streets isn't any rap attack?

Those lyrics have caused to stop and think for years and years. As luck would have it, I was fortunate enough to sit front row (with my then-best friend & bandmate, Jeff Conover) at Thomas Dolby's April '84 Flat Earth concert date at the Tampa Theatre in Florida. For some reason, Tampa and Clearwater and St. Petersburg were these tremendous bastions of Punk, New Wave, and Post Wave music. And apparently, they still are.

Even more noteworthy perhaps, Aliens Ate My Buick, was produced by none other than George Clinton! Being a huge fan of George Clinton, Parliment and Funkadelic (although I had yet to get James Brown "the one" or Clinton's "mothership connection," I smelled something there even as a kid), I paid even closer attention to AAMB, and subsequently closer attention to George Clinton. One thing led to another, time passes, and the next thing I'm screaming at (my then-buddy/future marketing director at SPIN and RADAR) Marty Kahnle as we pass Atlanta's Centerstage, "THAT'S GEORGE CLINTON!!!" Marty masterfully spun around in the middle of the highway—on a dime!—and suddenly I am face-to-face with The Godfather of Funk hisself who smiles reaches over shakes my hand and sends my mind flying. It was like having electricity with soul leap from one body to then next. And then he gives us passes to the show! Wow!

Oh yeah, and one other thing? When I asked him about Thomas Dolby? George Clinton chuckles a little, and says, "Thomas is cool. We went fishing."

And the show was out of this world.
posted by humannaire at 2:08 PM on May 14, 2008 [3 favorites]

Nice story. George is the best Clinton to get to touch.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:44 PM on May 14, 2008

@humannaire: As someone who was part of the St Petersburg/Tampa/Clearwater scene back in the 80's I can most certainly vouch for your assertion. It's still a good scene; us old hipsters are still hanging out - alas not at the Bay Pines ABC any more. I remember seeing Devo at the Jai Alai Fronton, The Thompson Twins and New Order at the Tampa Theater, REM and The Psychedelic Furs at The Bayfront Center, and you know I'm going to go see Peter Murphy.
posted by willmize at 4:01 PM on May 14, 2008

How nice to see the love for Mr Dolby. I responded by wanting to listen to My Brain is Like a Seive from AAMB, which surprised me. And then Flat Earth, which didn't surprise me.

(Screen Kiss is the greatest Joni Mitchell song written by someone else. If you can, imagine it done in the same style as Hejira or Don Juan's Reckless Daughter)

The gig at Aylesbury Friars on the Flat Earth tour was the one bright spot in all of 1984 for me, particularly the stunt with the roadie and the false head during Hyperactive.

And I'd like to put in a word for his production on Prefab Sprout's Steve McQueen album, which is the finest bit of archetypal 80s production I know of. Usually all that high-mid range rattling makes me feel slightly ill, but that album could come from no other time, yet always sounds completely gorgeous.
posted by Grangousier at 4:24 PM on May 14, 2008

Oh yes, Grangousier, Steve McQueen (aka Two Wheels Good) by Prefab Sprout is a perfect album! It is such a surprise, especially for fans of Thomas Dolby.

And speaking of Joni Mitchell, you know Dolby played and performed on her Dog Eat Dog album from around the same period?

Lastly, willmize, that Devo show at Tampa Jai Lai (for the amazing Oh No! It's Devo! album, produced by Roy Thomas Baker) was outstanding! Also, for Mother's Day, I "surprised" my mom with tickets to the B-52's show at the same venue for their Mesopotamia tour. (She kept on telling her friends how cool her son think she is, "He's taking me to a concert!" Incidentally, we danced for hours! I wore a skinny knit tie with a rugby-striped short-sleeve polo and Chuck Taylors, in hindsight one of my more prescient young fashion decisions. Better than the make-up and New Romantic fob I wore to the Go-Go's, A Flock of Seagulls, and Rockcats at the Bayfront center!)

Good times, and the future seems to be just as stinkin' hot! Yeah!
posted by humannaire at 3:51 PM on May 15, 2008

Ah, I'd forgotten about Dog Eat Dog, yes. I originally made the Dolby/Mitchell connection on account of his cover of Jungle Line on the b-side of (I think) the original release of Science, as it's how I got into Joni Mitchell - "Wow! I didn't know she sounded like Adam and the Ants!"
posted by Grangousier at 3:55 PM on May 15, 2008

About the gear he used on his recent tours, on his blog he talks about the physical gear he used and about his software & performance setup. Turns out he uses Logic, some custom Max patches, and Stylus RMX instead of Live. He says he uses Logic, a more linear-style sequencer, because his music often has unusual structure & number of meaures and thus doesn't "chunk" neatly into 4- and 8-bar segments that Live is so good at handling.

His tour resulted in me discovering "Liepzig", an "In the Golden Age of Wireless"-era song I hadn't previously heard before. It's such a great song. And to hear & see Dolby play it live (via Youtube, but oh well) is awesome. It was on some early pressings of that album but not the one I had in '82. I learned all this from the interesting Wikipedia article on the album.

If you like TMDR, search around on the TED site or YouTube for his improvisations at recent TED conferences. They're a lot of fun, get to watch him build up songs bit-by-bit.
posted by todbot at 4:28 PM on May 15, 2008

Oof, I completely misremembered the ProTools thing above. todbot is right.
posted by (parenthetic me) at 9:05 AM on May 28, 2008

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