Thomas Dolby is a smart man. How smart? After taking time off in the ’90s from a pop music career that netted him a handful of hit singles (including "She Blinded Me with Science") and state-of-the-art albums, Dolby did very well in Silicon Valley, founding companies that helped shape the ringtone market. He’s also been the musical director at the renowned TED Conference since 2001. Dolby’s father? He was the late classical art and archeology professor Martin Robertson, whose 1975 book, A History of Greek Art, remains a frequently cited text in classical studies.
Judging by the stories on A Map of the Floating City, his new album and accompanying interactive game, you get the sense he is conversant in most any subject — from the history of military weapons technology to Billie Holiday. So I felt more than a little sheepish as I rang Dolby, my notebook dotted with questions mainly about how he trained his cat, a Cornish Rex named Mozart, to pee in a toilet. But Dolby was patient and amiable. And I had cat lovers to educate.
So how’s the tour shaping up?
Yeah, it’s gone very well! Very warm audiences who are receptive to the new material as well as the old. It’s more than just a walk down memory lane, this tour. There’s a lot of interest in the new album as well.
That has to be very gratifying. You haven’t released an album in 20 years. In that time you’ve done a lot of work in Silicon Valley and with TED. How have those experiences informed and influenced A Map of the Floating City?
I’m not sure it’s really reflected in the music other than “one gets older and wiser” and "one watches one’s kids grow up." The fact I’ve been away from music for so long means I’m really relishing it now and favoring it. There’s a freshness that probably wouldn’t be there had I been treading the boards. I would read about people making a comeback after two years away and I’d just laugh. I joked with Peter Gabriel that he’s prolific by my standards.
[Laughs] I guess that’s true. You’ve always been viewed as more of a studio artist. Though to my ears the new album is much more song-focused, with much starker arrangements and fewer production tricks. What was your musical aim when you set out to make this set of songs?
The songs write and arrange themselves, you know? Whatever’s appropriate for the song, whether it be a sense of space in “17 Hills” or “Road to Reno.” It’s dictated by the song or the story itself. “17 Hills" is like a traditional American folk lament: There’s a robbery, a jailbreak, an ambush, and a slaughter. So it’s appropriate I use piano and pedal steel guitar in the arrangement. The other end of the scale is "Evil Twin Brother," which has a full-on Euro-trance nightclub groove. Again, that’s just storytelling. That’s the soundtrack for the song.
I want to digress into a couple of cat questions. Because, you know, that’s what we do here at Catster. My editor sent me a video — see how I’m blaming this on my editor — my editor sent me a video of, uh, your cat. And, er, in this video, your cat was using a toilet more expertly than a lot of people I’ve lived with. How did you teach him to do that?
Excuse me. Can you rephrase the question?
Yes, sorry. I’m mincing my words here. [Clears throat] How did you train your cat to pee in a toilet?
Ah, yes. I sent away for one of those kits you can find on TV. We have two Cornish Rexes, and when they were kittens we sent away for the kit. We went through the early stages of the training and nothing seemed to happen. They didn’t seem to take to it at all. But when they were about three years old, out of the blue, Mozart suddenly took to it and has stuck with it ever since. And his sister still uses a tray. But Mozart uses the toilet and sometimes I’ll get up in the middle of the night and sleepily make my way to the toilet. Mozart will rush in ahead of me to use the toilet and stare at me defiantly as I wait around for him to finish up.
What’s really funny is I put that video online and within a couple weeks it had more views than any of my music videos. I thought, well, that makes my life very simple. I won’t bother with making album covers and videos and things like that. I’ll just have shots of my cat peeing in a toilet and I’ll get more popular.
[Laughs] Yes, that seems to be where we’re at culturally in some ways. And maybe it’s something to embrace. So this amazing feat wasn’t in any way influenced by the instructions the famous jazz composer Charles Mingus wrote out for people who wanted to teach their cats to pee in a toilet? I think he wrote this up in the ’60s or ’70s.
You might know the kit that I bought. There is more than one brand or more than one way to skin a cat, as they say. It starts with the tray on the toilet and you gradually move it toward the the circle until you finally take it away and the cat is left with only the toilet. That’s the way we did it. I don’t know if that’s what you were referring to.
Oh, no. I just happen to be aware of this four-step guide Charles Mingus wrote for people who wanted to train their cat to use a toilet. And I thought it was an interesting connection — two brilliant musicians who are also brilliant at feline potty training. But we should probably move on. [Pause] I always wanted to know what your favorite J.G Ballard novel was.
Yes. Something in your work suggests you’ve read a lot of J.G. Ballard.
The Drowned World? Yep.
The Drowned World. All right, yes! I love Ballard’s ’60s work best, too. The Vermilion Sands stories are my favorite. Yes. [Pause] So why The Drowned World?
It seems to transport me. I’m a very watery person. I have to be near water. That would be the thing I most enjoyed about that book, that it was all based around that.
Thomas Dolby is on tour in Europe. Here’s further information on how to teach your cat to pee in a toilet.