Thomas Dolby is a legend of synthesizer music. Most people know him for his mega-hit, “She Blinded Me With Science”, but the seasoned aficionado will know him as the wizard behind some of the most emotive, innovative electronic art pop of the age, including not just his solo work, but his collaborations with Foreigner, Prefab Sprout, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Trevor Horn, among others. Dolby left the music scene in the early ’90s to make it big in Silicon Valley by inventing the polyphonic ringtone, and returned in 2006 with a fantastic live show. Now, he’s on the verge of releasing his first studio album in 20 years. But this is no mere album release. No, this new album, A Map of the Floating City, is something of a concept album, preceded by an unprecedented experience: a community-based web game based on Dolby’s entire discography.
The game, also called A Map of the Floating City, is both a trading game and a roleplaying game, set in a post-apocalyptic 1940s, in which world-weary tribes attempt to sail the seas towards magnetic North, where the legendary Floating City resides. The game offers fans a chance to experience Dolby’s catalog in a new way, and gives new listeners a chance to be introduced to his incredible music, as well as a way to earn downloads of Dolby tracks. The grand prize is even more exciting: a private concert of the album in its entirety for the winning tribe. To pull off this incredible feat, Dolby enlisted the help of one of the leading minds behind alternate reality gaming, Andrea Phillips.
Consequence of Sound reporter and Nerdy Show host Cap Blackard, along with Nerdy Show‘s Sci-Tech correspondent Jon West, spoke to Dolby and Phillips about their visionary new project. Find out how it works, how it came to be, notes on a forthcoming world tour, early tales of D.I.Y. synthesizers, the exciting world of transmedia, and more, below.
To hear the interview, as well as our full chat with Phillips, head on over to the Nerdy Show, where it’s featured in the latest episode.
A Map of The Floating City will be your first studio album since 1992. The original plan was to do three EPs after the album’s release, each of them embodying different sounds from the album. But, much to everyone’s surprise, the third EP was folded into a much bigger project: The Map of the Floating City game. What was the genesis for this project?
Thomas Dolby: Well, during the 20 years I wasn’t making any music, while I was in Silicon Valley running Beatnik, my company, I was amazed to see that, on the Internet, there were little news groups and forums that sprung up, where people would analyze my lyrics, and my songs, and, in some cases, take on roles and characters from the music, and even write, sort of, collaborative fiction, like fan fiction. I started to feel like one of those guys that died and just got bigger, and so I was determined to try to get my arms around this, when I made my new album.
I’ve been working for a couple of years on A Map of the Floating City, which has three continents to it. Each one has a distinct musical flavor. The first two came out as EPs. One was just for my fan club only, and then Oceanea in March was generally released. The plan had been to do a third EP, called Urbanoia, prior to the album, but I came up with the idea of folding it into, as you say, a much bigger project. I liked the way that all of the people, places, and ideas from the songs seemed to have a sort of continuum to them. So, I put everything into a big database, and then I met Andrea Phillips, a very well-known game designer, and we talked about it, and she said, “You know this has really got a good basis for a trading game.” So, she educated me about that, and I really set about working on the back-story, and figuring out how trading could be the basic day-to-day mechanics of the game, with a much more intriguing, mysterious back-story going on, which would encourage people to stick with the game and solve puzzles.
The game is set in a really unique, post-apocalyptic world. I was wondering what you could tell us about the cataclysm that reshaped the Earth in your vision. I’ve seen a couple of different versions online, and it’s not clearly presented to the average gamer of Map of the Floating City, but the information is out there. What’s your definitive version?
TD: I think there’s been a lot of speculation among the players, which of course Andrea and I love. What we tell people in the game, is that there was some sort of cataclysmic event, which altered everybody’s brain chemistry to the extent that people don’t really remember what happened before. It’s set in the 1940s, which I think was a really fascinating time for technology, and for people, in general. I live on the North Sea of the east-facing coast of England, which faces Germany. So, there’s the relics of two World Wars all over the beach, here. There’s huge concrete blocks designed to stop tanks, and the remains of experimental weapons, like poison cluster bombs, and even, theoretically, a way to set the sea on fire by pumping oil into it, and igniting it.
And, close by here, there were experimental RAF bases where they were working with things like death rays, where you could point things like sine waves at distant bomber pilots, and disorient them so they would crash into the sea. So, the scientists in the 1940s were under this intense pressure to come up with what would give them an advantage over the enemy, and yet the people around here were living in this constant fear of being invaded and occupied by Nazis at any time. So, it was really an extraordinary period of time that might so easily have turned out very differently.
I was wondering how you and Andrea met. What were the circumstances?
TD: Do you remember, Andrea?
Andrea Phillips: I remember…I think that a friend of mine just introduced me to a friend of yours, who introduced me to you. It was really kind of a funny thing. I mean, to be honest, I didn’t plant this seed of a game. Thomas was already thinking along those lines. He was already thinking, and he had this fantastic, gorgeous vision, even before I came along. It’s been my role in this to do the very boring thing, and turn it down to sets of rules and code, to make everything much, much more dull than it was in his head.
TD: Well, I think realism, actually, is what Andrea calls it.
TD: I’ve made software before, and I’ve made Web sites before, but I’ve never really, you know, designed a game. So, I think the filtering that Andrea’s sensible mind has brought to the project was far from making it boring. Occasionally, we’d come to blows about what should or shouldn’t happen, and in her infinite experience in how you do and don’t treat the player, and to what extent you can depend on the gamers’ existing sensibilities based on their experience from other games, versus introducing completely new concepts to them, has been incredibly valuable. And, realistically, even when Andrea puts her foot down and says, “No, you can’t do that,” it sort of forces me to go back into myself, and think of a more ingenious way around it.
AP: Isn’t that always the way, with every creative limitation though?
TD: Hopefully [laughs]. It’s not always, Andrea. That’s not always the case. We’ve got the teamwork thing going here.
The game has some very principled trading mechanics, things that would make sense to the common gamer, but then also behind it are a lot of mechanics that regular gamers wouldn’t be adept to, like free-form thinking, role playing, lots of things that revolve around creativity. That sounds like a very difficult thing to gauge, but of course, a lot of the game is based on a top-secret scoring system. I was wondering what you have in place to evaluate so much original content.
AP: One of our primary metrics is, actually, just the other players. We have this rank-up system in the forum, so if somebody says something that you think is really amazing, they can go and give you a “thumbs-up” on your post, and you get your own reputation increased by that, which in a top-secret way, will improve your tribe’s score over time. And then, we just have to do a lot of human judgment, in terms of looking at the patents, for example. We have a number of people going through and reviewing patents, just to make sure that they’re keeping with the world we have going, and they’re at least vaguely plausible, or at least highly entertaining. So, that’s another way. It’s, of course, very hard to be objective when you’re judging someone else’s creative input. So, I guess, effort is one of the things that we treasure, even above execution. Somebody who spent five hours in MS Paint is going to be much, much more valuable than somebody who executed a really, really clever Google search and found something on Deviant Art.
In regards to the game’s patent system, what’s the larger purpose of making inventions and filing patents?
TD: Well to explain patents for a second, it’s a trading game. You have a vessel, you have in your cargo a number of items which you trade, and build on with other players, and find some random gifts of items, which we call “flotsam”, items floating around in the sea. You can also pick up items on what we call “daring excursions,” because, from time to time, bits of the sea bed are actually exposed, because the tides recede far enough, and you can make a “daring excursion” there and have a little experience which will result in picking up more items. So, you’re building these items in your cargo hold, and they appear to have no value, other than just a name, but in fact they have a lot of value, because there are freak events from time to time. For example, an attack of rabid seagulls, or an outburst of pirates that gets reported on the high seas, and in order to protect yourself against this, you are able to invent something brand new which will defend you. So, in the case of the rabid seagulls, for example, if somebody had in their hold, I don’t know, Jaffa cakes and radium, they could invent a poisoned confectionery, anti-gull device and this would be a way to get rid of the gulls. So, you file a patent for that using the items in your hold, and if it is approved, you get a nice little scroll in your profile, and you are now protected against the gulls. Somebody that didn’t file a patent in time will get bumped southwards, and southwards is bad, because everybody is heading north, as a tribe. [Recently], in the Floating City Gazette, we announced we’re heading into drought conditions. So, you’d better have something drinkable on board your vessel, or else you’re going to be in trouble.
So, my “fruit juice everywhere” is really going to come in handy, then.
TD: Well, that will come in handy, but someone who didn’t have a drinkable item might be able to invent, for example, an alcoholic still.
AP: Desalinization machines. I think we’re going to see a lot of those.
TD: I think so.
The game is filled with opportunities for winning actual prizes. Mp3s of your tracks are the simplest to get. I heard somewhere that there might be t-shirts as well, but then the grand prize is a private concert for the tribe that completes the game with the highest score. I was wondering how tribes are determined. Is it regional? And how top-secret is this concert going to be when it goes down?
AP: We do geo-sorting based on IPs. So, which tribe you’re sorted into when you register is very, very much determined by where you are in the world. It’s not completely precise and perfect, but it’s as good as, I think, we were going to get.
TD: We took care to distribute it as fairly as we could, along the lines of my existing fan club. Now, they may be slightly skewed, I think partly because if English is not your first language, you might find that you’re a little bit disadvantaged in the game. So, it’s possible that the distribution of the players for the game is not quite the same as my basic fan club. The other aspect, as well, is that this is not designed as a game just to thrill my hardcore fanbase, which is very devoted and very loyal, but is quite small because I haven’t released an album for 20 years. The goal really, is to excite a new generation of music fans about the music, both the back catalogue and the new material. So, we’ve tried to create a game which is interesting to everybody, and make sure there’s enough music in the game, both during the game, and as a prize at the end, that will hopefully get a bunch of new people hooked on the music.
I’m from the Clubland tribe, and during one of the “Daring Sorties”, I encountered a new track called “A Jealous Thing Called Love”, which was positioned on the Urbanoia continent. Is this, in fact, one of the Urbanoia EP tracks?
TD: Yes, it is indeed. So, you’ve made a good discovery there. I’ve played that song once or twice live, three or four years ago. So, there will be a handful of people that will have heard it. But, other than that, it’s pretty much the world premiere for that song.
That’s very cool. When I was listening to the track, and trying to determine whether or not it was from the new EP, I was attempting to discern a style, because the Amerikana EP was so very distinct, and Oceanea was also very distinct in its style. You’d described Urbanoia, in the past, as “scary” or “haunting”, but it wasn’t what I’d expected from that description. How would you define the Urbanoia sound?
TD: I think what distinguishes Urbanoia is in the lyrics, and the sense of storytelling from the singer. As I mentioned, I’m not really a city person. I’m excited by cities, but I can’t spend more than a few days there at a time. I sort of long to be out in the tranquility of my home. But, I’m fascinated by cities and the things that, you know…I like the implied threat of being out late at night in interesting places, parts of town. So, I think what runs through Urbanoia is more of a sense of being huddled into a confined space with a bunch of other people, which is a little alien to me, you know? I think I’m naturally more of a loner.
Is there a set end-date to the game, at this moment?
TD: Well, you know, we have somewhat of a sliding scale to the calendar, because we didn’t know how rapidly people were going to progress. There’s a limit in the game, which I’m sure Andrea could explain the reason behind it, but you can only do 10 trades in a day, and trading is how you move northwards in the game. That gives us a minimum amount of time it takes people to reach the North Pole. But, even after people reach the North Pole and the continents converge, the game is still not over, because there is still a lot of problem solving to do, related to the back-story.
So, finally, when a tribe starts getting, en masse, to the Floating City, is that where the tallies come in, or is there actually a very finite endpoint, a conclusion that they have to reach before the game ends, the concert’s announced, and then the album release date is announced?
TD: Well, all of that is a little bit fluid. I mean, the sequence certainly will be that the game ends, there’s then a free concert for the winning tribe, and then the album will come out. Those things are obviously interrelated. But, we’re going to watch very closely the progress in the game, and we have ways of reining that in a little bit. But, Andrea has really taught me that you don’t mess with the world that you create. You don’t sort of dump on players, and throw surprises their way, and make them feel out of control. You need to empower your players, right Andrea?
AP: Of course! I also think that it behooves us, in a situation like this, to be a little bit flexible about what we’re doing. One of the things that I like to do in a game is to adapt how it runs as we go along. Not changing the rules under a player’s feet, but adjusting for a better outcome, and, even toward the end, we have something in mind that we want to do, and we know how we want it to play out. But if it turns out that we find something slightly different that is going to satisfy a larger number of players, then we’ll probably tweak what we have planned.
Following the album’s release (October, 25th), I was wondering if there was another tour planned.
TD: I love touring. The thing is, I have to get musicians together for the tour. In the old days, you weren’t too worried about whether you’d lose money on tour, because a record company would, sort of, front you the money, and you would justify it, because you would claim that they could sell more records at the end of the day. In this day and age, you don’t have that luxury anymore. In fact, you don’t really invest in music up front, to nearly the same extent as you used to when I started. You tried to make everything pay for itself. Therefore, touring has to pay for itself, and that’s kind of hard for me, because I don’t have a lot of history, you know, selling tickets. It’s a bit like trying to buy a car when you’ve never needed credit in the past. If you’ve no credit, you can’t buy a car. So, it’s kind of hard for me to organize it, but yes, I will be touring in the fall. Certainly in the U.K. and the U.S., with the band that I’ve put together for the concert at the end of The Floating City. I hope to cover as much of North America and preferably some of Europe and even Australia and Japan, as I can.
That’s awesome! Have you had a world tour since you came back to music full-time?
TD: No, not at all. I’ve done scattered dates in the U.K. and the U.S., but I’ve never played in the Southern Hemisphere. I’ve visited Japan, but never played there. So, that’s something that I’m hoping to do, preferably once it starts getting really cold in England. That’s when I’ll head south of the equator.
Now, you mentioned that you’re touring in the fall. Do you have your eyes set on any festivals, like MoogFest for example?
TD: Actually, that really hasn’t been the focus this time. I’d like to try and do small theaters. I’ve been doing a lot of storytelling recently, related to the songs, and people seem to like that. As you probably know, I’m pretty involved with the TED Conference. I’m the Musical Director there. So, I’ve become a fan of artists and performers taking the lid off of what they do. In a way, it invites the audience into their creative process, and I’ve started to do more and more of that during my concerts. So, I think small theaters are really a better venue for me than festivals or clubs, where people’s attention is a little more sensitive.
Andrea, do you have any other projects down the line that you’re at liberty to talk about?
AP: The only thing that I’m at liberty to talk about right now is my book. I have a deal right now with McGraw Hill to write a creator’s guide to transmedia storytelling, which should be out next spring. I’m very excited about it. I do a lot of blogging about games, and about story-writing, and how to fit these things together. I have this series about writing for transmedia, transmedia being an umbrella term under which alternate reality games fit. Transmedia are not necessarily stories told in your communication’s media, but stories that have been fragmented into multiple pieces that induces a seeking behavior in someone to assemble all of the pieces, and work out what the big picture is. So, by that definition, you might call The Matrix a transmedia story. Because, you have the films, but you also have the graphic novel, and things that happen inform you regarding things that happen in the film and in the video game. You see, even, another plot that adds another angle on the motivations of the characters. When you do all of those things, it adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. That’s a kind of transmedia right there.
[Transmedia] is a truly visceral experience that doesn’t come from just a movie or just a game.
AP: Well, you know, there’s a sort of drive that people have to create fan fiction, right? And fan-fic is an indication to a creator that you haven’t made enough story yet, and that people still want more, which in crass business terms is also a way of saying you’re leaving money on the table. Transmedia is a way to provide more world, and give the people who want to be in your world a little longer, a way to live there a little longer, and again, in crass business terms, it’s also a way to make a little more money off the same story. So, I think that we’re going to be seeing a lot more about it in the next coming years. I think, in particular, this is going to be a really big year for transmedia. It’s hit some sort of critical mass, as a buzzword.
Thomas, growing up, you did all sorts of fantastic stuff, like building synthesizers out of spare parts, and performing electronic music in Parisian subways. All of that is very much in line with the D.I.Y. culture of today. I was wondering if you had any early-year stories on hand to inspire young, would-be electronic musicians.
TD: Wow. Well, it’s so different now. I mean, when I started out, synthesizers were really the domain of rich rock stars, recording studios, and university music departments. In fact, at London University, they had a computer music department. They had a skip out the back and every now and then I used to go around there when the pubs let out. I used to go through their skip, hoping to find a circuit board that I could solder onto the rest of my equipment, and build my germ of a first synthesizer. It was very hard to get things done in those days, and when I recorded I had to record onto a two-track tape recorder, where you had the ability to, sort of, bounce from left to right, and add new parts as you went. I would spend hours programming a bass drum sound, and sit there with my tapping on it like this [taps his finger in rhythm]. Then I’d rewind the tape, and, in between, into a microphone, I’d [makes noises in time] and that would be my snare sound. That’s pretty much the way I built things, and it wasn’t very in time.
I remember, one night, I was out at a disco and there was an empty dance floor with these red and green lights in it, flashing in time to the music. I thought, “Hmmm, how do they do that?” I found a lighting console, which was actually designed for Tangerine Dream’s light show, and I adapted it, and hooked it up to my synthesizer, and got it to play the drums instead. The next time you listen the drums at the end of “She Blinded Me With Science”, you’re actually listening to a disco lighting console.
That’s amazing! You’ve written music for a number of unlikely music projects, including things like the scores to Ferngully: The Last Rainforest,We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Tale, Howard the Duck, Ken Russell’s film, Gothic…Not to mention your incognito synth work for Foreigner and Def Leppard. I was wondering, of your off the beaten path recordings, what are some of your favorites?
TD: Well actually, I love all of them, even the ones that were attached to not such great projects. Howard the Duck springs to mind. That was, in a way, a soundtrack that deserved a better movie. I think the music in that film is really good. I’ve enjoyed all of it, and I enjoy a different challenge. In each of the situations that you’ve mentioned, I’m forced to really dig deep, really come up with something new, rather than falling back on tried and tested formulae. That, really, is what I always set out to do in my career. I hate the boredom that sets in once people pigeonhole you, and want you to repeat the same formula over, and over. I hate that sort of creative atrophy. So, I deliberately put myself in challenging situations, because I find that it stimulates new ideas. In the case of a couple of those, Ferngully and We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Story, I had small kids at the time, and of course it delighted them that I was spending my days at home working on soundtracks for animated movies. In the case of Ken Russell’s Gothic, it was the very early days of sampling, and Ken wanted a huge orchestral score, but didn’t have the budget for it. So, it was a great opportunity to get out the old Fairlight, and put together what, at the time, was one of the first orchestral scores completely done with a sampler.
The first time I ever encountered your music was actually in Barry Levinson’s 1992 film, Toys, with the “Mirror Song”. The film score and soundtrack are brilliant, and was produced by Trevor Horn, whom you’ve worked alongside in the past. Your track played such an integral part in the movie. I was wondering how were you approached for that? The track strikes me as being, in many ways, a very definitive Thomas Dolby-sounding track, in its lyrics and song structure. Did they tell you they needed it to fit a certain scene, or was the songwriting more organic?
TD: It’s hard to say. You get invited to do things, and sometimes it feels like fitting a square peg into a round hole, but there’s a little bit of push and shove, give and take. They adapted the script a little bit, as the music came in. It ended up being pretty cool in the film. It was actually because of working with Robin Williams on that, that I got invited to do Ferngully, in which, Robin played the part of a deranged bat. If you go back and look at Ferngully actually, I think, Avatar owes an enormous amount to Ferngully. Parts of the plot there are identical. I know people, for days, have dissected all the influences of Avatar.
Listen: “The Mirror Song”
I was wondering if you could discuss the production of the Toys soundtrack. From what I’ve read, it was very much Trevor Horn’s project. So much so, that Tori Amos’s experience working on it was a bad one. She found him to be meddling.
TD: The best producers in the world often get those kinds of accusations made about them. I’ve worked with two of the best in Trevor Horn and [Robert John] “Mutt” Lange. Both of them meddle a lot, but with very, very different styles. Mutt is very hands on. He’s a former sound engineer. He just hears sound with the most intricate detail, and makes you do stuff over and over again, until it’s absolutely perfect. You can spend 10 days working on just a kick drum sound. This drives people like Bryan Adams wild. Prior to work with Mutt, I don’t think Bryan had taken more than a month to make an album. And a month, you know, is really not enough time for Mutt to get a drum sound. On the flip side, Trevor Horn, he’ll sit at the back of the studio. You just want to perform for him really. You want to come with good ideas. You want his eyes to start to get really big behind those big Joe 90 specs of his. Every now and then, he’ll just listen to something, and go, “Sounds great. We’ll just splice it onto the middle-eight section, from then on,” and then, from down the corridor he’s got another team working on a dance mix. He plays God, really. He takes these huge chunks of mixes and puts them together. I’m sure Tori got really frustrated with that as well.
In my case, I’m a big fan of Trevor Horn. I’d known him for a few years, but I first worked with him on a Malcolm McLaren project, Duck Rock. They went off to South Africa. They were the first people to record a great “High Life” band, sort of out in the bush, in the projects of Africa, and bring those tapes back. I was lucky enough to be one of the first British musicians to overdub onto them in the studio. I’m full of admiration for Trevor, and his skill.
To hear the interview, as well as our full chat with Phillips, head on over to the Nerdy Show, where it’s featured in the latest episode.