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A Map of the Floating City may be Thomas Dolby’s first album in two decades, but any indication of the time lapse since his early ‘80s hits “She Blinded Me with Science” and “Hyperactive!” is obscured by the English innovator's penchant for the anachronistic.

Country, techno, lounge, and zydeco sprinkled with Dolby’s signature synths lend a timeless feel to the fantastical concept album, which features guests including Regina Spektor, Imogen Heap, and Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler.

Having recently played a few sets at SXSW music conference in Austin, Texas (“a bit of a zoo, but that’s South by Southwest for you”), Dolby is now touring on the new album with his steampunk time capsule trailer in tow.

In anticipation of his April, 16 date at Anthology (tickets $10-39), Dolby took a moment to talk with The Reader about A Map of the Floating City, the online video game of the same name, his relationship with the creative source, and his (characteristically science fiction) vision of the future.


The first song on A Map of the Floating City is called “Nothing New Under the Sun.” How is this idea relevant to your first studio release in twenty years?

“The message is the opposite of what the title says. When you’re creative and you’re struggling to find the next flash of inspiration and it seems to be absent, it feels like there is nothing left to say. Like, you’re wasting your time. You should have quit while you were ahead. And it can be very frustrating trying to piece lines together when the pressure is on.

"Just when you think there is nothing left to say, suddenly there’s a bolt out of the blue and music is in love with you and a melody or a line of lyrics comes to you that triggers a whole new chain of thought. So that’s really what the song is about: the replenishment of creative juices and the struggle that creative people have to stay in touch with the source.”

(Dolby appears to have found that connection again. Check out these lyrics from “Nothing New Under the Sun”):

Hippocratic oath,

apathy on toast,

psilocybin nutroast.


Panic on the seas,

mozzarella cheese,

diplomatic deep-freeze.


What is the concept behind this album?

“I’m very influenced by my environment. So I named the three sections of the album after imaginary continents. Urbanoia being cities that I’ve lived in with which I’ve had a sort of love/hate relationship. Amerikana with a ‘k’. I lived for 23 years in California and really enjoyed that and got an appreciation for roots American culture. And Oceanea is about returning to my homeland in the U.K. where I grew up and to give my own kids the experience of that kind of lifestyle.

"Where I live now (England’s North Sea coast) is very, very tranquil – a tiny village with twenty houses, no pub, no shops. I do my work in a converted lifeboat in the garden (Dobly calls it the "Nutmeg of Consolation"), so it’s a very inspiring environment.”


What inspired the video game?

“I tried originally to do the three continents as three EPs. As it got closer, I noticed that social networking and gaming got more popular in this day and age than buying CDs. So I thought, well, why not embrace a new audience by building a game around it. I also noticed in the 19 years I was away from music, there were websites and newsgroups that sprang up where people would analyze my lyrics and interpret the songs and annotate the chord sequences.

"There was even fan fiction where people would use the names of characters from songs and then write screenplays set in the places I name in the song like Europa or Leipzig or Budapest or whatever. I liked the fan fiction aspect and I wanted to embrace that, so I designed the game as a kind of framework to encourage more of that, both from hardcore Dolby nuts as well as new players who are coming in who are probably too young to remember the music the first time around.

"The game ran for a few months last summer leading up to release of new album and players could unlock free downloads, including rough mixes of songs as they evolved. On the road, groups of the game players have been showing up at gigs in costume as characters, sometimes meeting up before hand at bars and pubs, so that’s very nice to see.”


How about the time capsule?

“When the game ended last fall (the game was played from June through August 2011), some of the players were completely stunned and they didn’t know what to do with themselves. They were sort of addicted to the game. They played it daily for several months. And they were asking if there was a way of archiving the game and preserving it for the future, so I started thinking about that: how to preserve things.

"Back in Ronald Regan’s day he sent a capsule into space with a little bit of everything representing our culture. In this digital age, you don’t need a physical capsule, but I thought it’d be kind of neat and anachronistic to build one anyways looking like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and Nikola Tesla designed it and allow the public to sit in it and create some cool content for themselves and for me in which they give these thirty-second messages to the future.

"Some people are quite optimistic and were leaving messages for their great-grandchildren and others are not so optimistic and they’re basically assuming that in 100 years we won’t be here anymore, therefore the messages they’re leaving are for future villagers explaining where we wrong, where we went off the rails, how messed up our society was, and they give cautionary words to the future planet.”


What are your own expectations of the future?

“Well, I know that if we leave it to the politicians and corporations, there is no future. We can’t sustain the way we’re going. It’s just not sustainable. The problem really is that that power is in the hands of people who only look four year out or even a quarter out. It’s very hard for them to see the big picture.

"If there’s hope, it’s actually with the scientists because disruptive inventions and discoveries are really the only thing that can change the course of our history. We need to figure out how to make rain, or curse disease, or colonize other planets. Something has to change. If there’s hope, it’s really in the lab.”

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What I love most about Thomas Dolby is that he helps me realize I'm not quite as weird as everyone thinks . . .

April 4, 2012

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