QnA with Thomas!
Got a question for Thomas about his music?
What other musicians he likes? Coke or Pepsi?
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Q: Hi Thomas,
Was going through my old No.1 UK magazine collection and reading a Whispers column in which it mentioned your (soon-to-be) performance at Live Aid with David Bowie. In it, they quoted you as saying “…and hopefully he’ll also be doing one of my songs.” Did you ask Mr. Bowie to do this? If so, what songs of yours did you consider would be good for him?
A: That sounds like wishful thinking! He has never discussed doing one of my songs, and in fact he very rarely does other writers’ material. Personally I wish he would get back to the way he used to write. The chord sequences of his stuff in the Hunky Dory and Space Oddity era are so amazing. He went post-industrialist during the Low period which was fine, and groovy for Let’s Dance, but then in the 90s he sank into linearity and IMO he has not written a good song in 20 years. I don’t quite get it. Prince–same problem. These guys are terrific inspirations and trendsetters for whole generations of musicians, yet they’ve abandoned the very thing that set them apart–their songwriting. Personally, I can’t be bothered much these days with programming, cool production, grooves. There are literally tens of thousands of people out there doing that. But few of them can write a decent melody, chord sequence, lyric, structure. Those of us that can, should!
A brief note to say how much I enjoyed last night at The Union Chapel. One question – I was gutted that you didn’t do Screen Kiss. Any particular reason why?
A: You must have arrived late! Screen Kiss was song #2.
Q: What comes first for you often, the patch or the melody? For example, when your sitting at a synthesizer, do you sometimes come up with a melody based on a certain patch you created, or is the melody constructed and you are searching for a sound to compliment that melody? Also, what do you do to overcome writer’s block?
A: Sometimes when I’m flipping through patches I come up with a melody that suits the patch. Then I often think ‘hmm, that’s actually rather good!’ So I record it like a kind of aural note to myself, and maybe use it later. But in general when I’m composing, I imagine a part and sound in my head, then program it, or if I’m lazy I just look for a pre-made sound that works.
I don’t really get writer’s block. I have never been a prolific writer, and I don’t have any pressure to come up with a certain quota of new material. It just happens, or it doesn’t.
Q: Greetings Thomas I always wondered who the Croydon girl was in Screen Kiss? I was under the misguided belief that she was a well known ex dancer expat actress that endend up in a big comedy with Kelsey Grammer, am I barking up the wrong tree?
Also I was wondering if the East Anglian Coast held any inspiration for elements of tracks on Golden Age; video on Europa, Shingle Street, Radio Silence?
A: I have no idea where that rumour came from! I think I know of the actress you mention (I’m not much of a TV watcher) but I’ve never met her in the flesh. Would it be fair to tell you who that song was really about? I don’t think so, it’s pretty incriminating. Early on the lyrics actually included her name–instead of ‘Croydon girl’ I sang ‘hey Lorraine’ (well it wasn’t Lorraine, I’ve changed that here for anonymity but Kevin Armstrong rightly pointed out that this sucked. In any case, I mixed a lot of fiction and fantasy in with the facts. Which is often is often the case with my lyrics. I was pretty hung up on this person, and she dumped me very unceremoniously. She was in the film business, hence the references to ‘rushes’, ‘vaseline’ and so on. She did spend time unhappily married in LA and drinking a lot. But it wasn’t Beachwood Avenue, nor was she from Croydon!
Obviously the East Anglian coast was and is a big influence on my music. I have a very strong connection with it. It’s an odd place, not idyllic and picturesque like Scotland or Cornwall or the Cotswolds. It’s mostly flat and windswept, and it’s full of history, especially from the world wars.
Q: Is it not now easier to create music now here in the next century with the aid of technology, as to say 1982.
With Samples and loops and the like?
A: Well, making music has always been easy, you just grab the nearest instrument and start singing. What’s really changed in the last decade or so is how easy it is to record your music, and then to make the music available to millions of people, without depending on a record company to finance and distribute you. I also think being able to work with a full instrumentation is very liberating. I’m not a multi-instrumentalist–I play keyboards adequately and guitar very badly, but that’s about it. Yet because of samplers and sequencers, I’m able to take advantage of a full orchestra, ethnic instruments, brass, and all sorts of percussion that would previously have been impossible; and once I had the experience of arranging for those instruments, I was confident enough to go out and find real musicians instead of samplers.
Q: Hi Thomas,
I follow the tech talk here with great interest. I have been a hardware guy for over twenty years but recently took the plunge into soft synth world with Arturia’s Jupiter 8V. With the orginal units being so hard to find and expensive these days maybe the software version will satisfy my analogue old school cravings. But therein lies the question, are they as good as the real thing? A friend of mine showed me NI’s FM7 sometime ago so I pitted it against my own DX7. I have to admit it sounded pretty damn good with the equivalent SYSEX loaded but somehow something was still missing or am I just being emotionally biased towards my own hardware. The JP8V though sounds incredible and comes with excellent testimonials. I would very much appreciate your prespective and will we be using soft synths from here on in or will hardware still have its place and appeal?
Jason (Perth, Australia)
BTW, any plans for a tour down under?
A: I think the softsynths sound every bit as good. People get sentimental about analog synths, but in reality they were a pain in the backside! They went out of tune, hard to interconnect, had bad signal-to-noise ratio, and were very heavy and accident-prone. That said, I do miss the tactile nature of all those knobs and dials. It’s a lot more satisfying to twist a knob than to click your cursor on a virtual version.
Q: Dear Mr. Dolby
I love your work, especially the retro-styled synth stylings on The Flat Earth and The Golden Age of Wireless. I have been wondering though, where do/did you get your suits & glasses and such as the brown suit seen in the music video Europa and the pirate twins, and do you have any suggestions as to where to look for similar clothing these days?
A: I used to shop at a place in Soho (London) called Demob, but I’m sure it’s gone now. I’m pretty sure that’s where that suit came from. Other than that, thrift shops in posh areas of London like Hampstead or Chelsea used to yield some really good old fashioned suits, and probably still do. My original round specs were antiques, but I lost them around 1982; after that I found a boutique eye wear shop that made me a new pair using photos of the old ones! But by the mid-80’s I’d stopped wearing them, as I discovered I got by perfectly fine without specs!
Q: Hi Thomas!
In the seventies, electronic music was as much a study of improvisation in the use of available gear, and getting things to function beyond their design, as it was about music. This creativity in the use of gear no doubt overflowed into the music, inspiring the musicians to pursue ideas they might not have otherwise thought of.
Now, for a fraction of the price of the old days, we can put together amazing software-based studios with every capability under the sun, no “gearprovisation” (I just now made that word up) necessary. So my question is this: Do you feel that limitation and working around limitation is an important part of being creative, or do you think that the truly creative people in the world can be even more so when the limitations are lifted?
A: I think you are definitely right that working around limitations is part of the creative process. I was way happier back when I had a single monophonic synth, a Boss Dr Rhythm and a 4-track cassette Teac Portastudio, trying to work out ways to make it all sound good, versus today when I tend to bitch about my slow broadband speed as I download a free demo of a monster softsynth with 500 presets.
Q: Dear Thomas,
As a big fan of yourself and Pink Floyd, i would like to know how you got on with Roger Waters and the other cast whilst filming ‘The Wall’, live in Berlin. Also, what was your reaction when Roger contacted you to appear in the video and did your musical genius influence it in any way? Keep up the great work.
A: I was delighted that Roger Waters chose me to play the sadistic Scottish teacher in The Wall. I have no idea what gave him the idea to cast me in that role as I always thought of myself as quite benign. I’d been a fan of the Floyd since I was a pre-teenager and here was yet another of my heroes calling me up for musical help. Plus, I got to dangle 50 ft up from the wall with 15ft long arms and legs, while looking out over 350,000 that filled the Potsdamerplatz.
How did I get on with him? well, I didn’t really have a chance to get to know him, but I’d say he’s a very focused control freak like myself. He wants every detail perfect, and there’s a dark cloud hovering over his head until it becomes perfect. I don’t think he was terribly pleased with me: I made a faux-pas by mentioning that I thought Dave Gilmour is one of the greatest guitarists of all time. And I also didn’t do the Scottish accent quite the way he liked it; and in fact, my first few attempts at the solo in ‘Another Brick In The Wall’ really sucked big wieners. But I think it all came together in the end.
Q: Hello Thomas,
I would like to know something about a project with “Cathexis” with Iki Revy ? I cannot find anything about on CD or in the Internet.
Can you help me ?
So, many thanks for your great new DVD´s and CD. I hope you will come a.s.a.p. to Germany.
Best regards !
A: Iki is a great percussionist whom I met when worked with Ofra Haza, for whom I produced and co-wrote a couple of songs. We later did two instrumental tracks in my basement, one of which he named Cathexis and put on one of his CDs.
Does Beckham’s arrival to American Soccer spark any interest for you?
A: I am not all that excited about Beckham arriving in the US, he’s pretty much a spent force as a player, though I guess he will add a bit of glamour. He’s a football simpleton, but basically a good bloke IMO, and you had to applaud his decision to wear a headband over his long blond hair and even go outdoors wearing a Bedouin’s man’s dress of some sort.
I have a Degree in Electronic Music and I’m starting to get serious about playing out locally here in the Metro Atlanta area. I watched your “Sole Inhabitant” DVD last night. (I have # 383/1000) and was very impressed with your rig. Where you are MAC, I am PC and will be using Ableton Live to drive the tunes. My questions are these: What are the pitfalls you had to work hard to avoid and how did you overcome what I like to call “too much technology” syndrome? And on follow up, What is your favorite chord progression?
A: It’s best to find two or three synths (or softsynths) that you feel really at home with, and learn them inside out. You’ll always get better results if you make sounds deliberately based on something you’ve imagined or heard in your head, rather than just flipping through presets on some new device you don’t know very well. Because if you do the latter, even if you find something good, chances are someone else in the world came up with the same exact combination. As far as chord progressions, I tend to like chords that change over a constant bass (eg Budapest By Blimp) or chords that stay basically the same over a shifting bass (eg Screen Kiss verse.)
A: Some friends of mine were making a movie and asked me to do a cameo. I sang a version of Tom Lehrer’s ‘I Hold Your Hand In Mine’ to a cadavre. They liked my character and it developed into a larger role than I anticipated, though sadly my song ended up on the cutting room floor.
Q: Hi Thomas,
As an accomplished academic, what did your father think about your pursuit of a career in music?
Also, what ever happened to your Jag?
A: I was the youngest of six kids, three of whom followed my parents into academia, so they were quite amused when I went off in a different direction altogether. My father was always very supportive of my aspirations in music. He was a published poet himself.
I sold my vintage jag around 1983 and made the mistake of buying a nearly new XJS convertible. Whereas the old jag commanded respect whether I was in Knightsbridge or Brixton, the new one was universally scorned. Even though I did once go 145 MPH in it, on a deserted backroad alongside an airfield road in Norfolk, which scared the bejeesus out of me.
Q: Hello Thomas,
Lyrically, what do you rely on when writing: conscious or subconscious?
A: Oh, preferably subconscious, every time. The other morning I woke up with a line in my head: “irreversable ambiguity can teach you a thing or two.”
Q: What current sound generation equipment (keyboards, modules, plug-ins, software) would you recommend to a musician (with the same aspirations as yourself) on a modest budget. Given the fact that the musician already has a Mac Pro with plenty of RAM and a controller keyboard. ….I know this is difficult but maybe you could mention a couple of vital pieces. What is your favorite sound generator?
A: You can do a surprising amount with Garageband, and it’s great value along with the various add-on Apple Loops collections. There’s an easy upgrade path from there to Logic Pro, which is mainly what I use. Alternatively, if you’re starting completely from scratch, you should check out Ableton Live, and Reason, both of which have completely different user interface metaphors, and see which feels like home.
When writing your new album how do you envisage the creative process – do you have 30 – 40 basic demos that you whittle down through trial and error, or have you 8 or so solid ideas that you’ll build the songs around?
A: This is amusing because I’ve barely written 30-40 songs in my lifetime! No, I accumulate ideas and have maybe a half dozen in my mind at a time. Usually they start life in my head only, I come up with them while I’m walking on the beach, in the shower, or driving my car. I can barely play them on the piano. They mostly consist of a song with a title and a mood, and perhaps a chord sequence. Often I have a quarter to a third of the lyrics. Then when I start to actually record them, I fill in the blanks. Sometimes this is like a crossword puzzle: I have a line that feels like, say, a good opening line for the second verse. That means line 3 will need to rhyme with it. Once I have that I can fill in lines 2 and 4, etc. Often I’m still missing a line or two when I’m ready to start singing the song. In that case I just mumble something, and usually these mumbles will eventually take shape into a line that fits logically with the rest of the song.
Can you share the story / meaning behind screen kiss and white city with us?
In an old interview you mentioned they were linked and a pop at America / Hollywood – you also held your hand up to this on the SI DVD which I think was real cool.
I have my own theory as to two films being important in these songs which are nicely linked by a Keith……
A: No, sorry. If they were ever linked in my mind, now I can’t imagine why. And I recently broke a rule and ‘spilled the beans’ about one of my songs in my blog–which got me several compliments, but also caused a lot of disappointment for people who didn’t want their bubble burst. I was left feeling that it’s not a good idea to let the audience get their nose under my tent!
I’ve been really intrigued by the idea and exhibit you had a number of years ago for a “Virtual String Quartet.” I’d love to know more about the conception and realization of this project. I teach a course in how musical genres/ensembles have changed over the centuries due to the evolution in styles and musical languages, and I’d love to include some information and/or documentation (audio/video/photo) of your project as one example of the string quartet in the late-20th century (a genre that has changed considerably since its 18th century creation)!
A: At the beginning of the 1990’s, everybody was very excited by the prospect of Virtual Reality. It was an easy idea to imagine in your mind–you just jack in, and you’re in an alternative universe that seems totally real, like The Matrix. However, most people’s actual experience of VR fell far short of the promise. The hardware was clunky and cumbersome, and the graphics at the time (running on IBM 286 machines that barely measured their speed in gigahertz) were jerky low-res and ran at a few frames a second. However, I had the idea that there was no excuse for the audio to be bad too; and that (as George Lucas knew well!) high quality audio really helps sell a substandard picture. So when Intel offered me a grant to create a music-based VR experience, I jumped at the chance. They were putting together a VR show to be installed at the Guggenheim Museum in SoHo, New York, and my part of the exhibit ‘The Virtual String Quartet’ allowed users to move freely in the midst of four computer-generated musicians playing Mozart. As you moved around a 9x9ft space, the sound was ‘convolved’ around you in quadrophonic sound. You could put your ear right close to say the cellist, and you’d hear the appropriate mix for that location. Or, if you were feeling naughty, you could tickle her, using the trigger on your joystick, in which case she would start to play variations in another musical style–for example, Appalchian bluegrass–while the other 3 musicians stuck with the Mozart. For the first few days the Guggenheim had lines around the block, such was the allure of VR in those days. Unfortunately the crowds dwindled as word of mouth spread that the graphics were nothing to write home about. But most agreed that my audio at least made the experience tolerable!
The ubiquitous mix tape (well, the mix CD now.) It’s a staple of fledgling romances all over the planet. People mix up music from their collections, make a compilation, and send it off as a token of love, affection, or misguided passion… I know you, like many musicians, have strong feelings about the illegal reproduction of your music. But what do you say to those folks who want to zap off their emotions in a happy jumble of songs? Is the mix CD evil? Or should it be seen as a way to expand an artist’s audience (while helping some hapless romantic express himself?)
A: I’ve always felt that personal use (ie among you, your family and friends) should be totally unrestricted. That’s the best way to share music, and to discover it. But there’s clearly a huge moral difference between personal use, and wholesale mass pirating, duplication and distribution, to anonymous millions of Internet users. The challenge is, how to fairly use technology or legislation to allow the one and prevent the other? It’s almost impossible to draw the line. And historically, the lobbyists, litigators, and politicians have been way behind the curve. It takes decades for copyright law to catch up with technology, by which time technology has moved on. This struggle has been going on since the printing press–not to mention audio recording, broadcasting, piano rolls, jukeboxes, cable TV and cassette tapes. While I have always fought against people who disregard the copyright notice on my records and go ahead and rip my music for the purpose of sharing it via illegal P2P networks, I am the first to admit that a certain proportion of music should be and always has been free. As musicians we need to give out free samples, to get the audience hooked so they will come back for more. It’s the drug dealer model! To that end, we produce music at our own expense and give it to radio stations who make money of the advertising revenue; we produce videos that we give to MTV so they can sell ads to Nike and American Express; we do this to get wide exposure so new fans can discover our music. Without that there will be no demand for any kind of for-sale product. And the Internet is the most effective method yet of getting that exposure. So clearly we need to embrace it. This is a tough time because we’re still at a cusp. In the end I believe it will all settle down–music will be cheap and easy enough to buy, that the convenience of obtaining music legally will outweigh the few cents you save by pirating it. There’s Evian, then there’s tap water
Q: My first very carefully considered but succinct question for Thomas is this: Major or minor?
A: Minor. I’ll choose music that challenges and probes and undermines–over music which affirms and reassures–any day of the week.