What would a 1980s pop star who was behind the technology used in two-thirds of mobile phones be doing keynoting at DESIGN West?
Thomas Dolby, whose songs "She Blinded Me With Science" and "Hyperactive" became huge hits in the 1980s, kicked off his latest US tour last Friday night at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas.
His tour criss-crosses the US for the next month and it might seem strange that for the uninitiated he is breaking the slog of nighttime gigs to provide a keynote at the more salubrious venue of the San Jose Civic Auditorium during DESIGN West.
As a London teenager, Thomas Robertson was fascinated with the convergence of music and technology and urban myth has it that Dolby was dubbed "Dolby" by his friends after experiments with an assortment of keyboards, synthesizers and cassette players.
Up until 1990 he released a number of albums and was a member of David Bowie’s band at Live Aid and in Roger Waters’ performance of Pink Floyd’s The Wall in Berlin in 1990.
His keyboard and production work put him in the studio with the likes of David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Foreigner, Joni Mitchell and George Clinton and gained him five Grammy nominations.
Following hist Astronauts & Heretics album, a US Top 40 entry in 1992, Dolby made a 180-degree turn, career-wise, as he headed off to Silicon Valley. He pursued a separate career as a consultant with one foot in the music industry and the other in software development. He provided consulting expertise to companies such as Netscape, Microsoft, Sun, and Oracle. Eventually, he formed his own company, Beatnik Inc., which didn’t just ride the dotcom boom, it flourished, coming up with the polyphonic ringtone synthesizer for mobile phone manufacturer, Nokia. Beatnik produced the audio layer of Java and created the first interactive music sites on the Web.
In 1993, Dolby successfully established the Headspace company. Headspace developed a new downloadable file format designed specifically for Internet usage called Rich Music Format with the RMF file extension.
Dolby moved back to the UK from California and his home studio (powered by both solar and wind) sits on concrete supports in his North Sea backyard in Suffolk, housed in a restored 1930s lifeboat from an ocean liner. Last year he released his first album for 20 years, which was recorded using this studio. Great pics of the studio in this article.
The new album features Mark Knopfler and Eddi Reader and is divided into three sections - Urbanoia ("songs with a city/world music vibe"), Amerikana and Oceanea, which is inspired by Suffolk. The new album has a companion Floating City computer game and poster, inspired in part by his own songs from the 1980s.
"I would lurk around internet sites where I found people would log in as characters from my songs, and write fan-fictions based on storylines from songs, so you'd find a Europa, a Caroline or a Budapest," Dolby told BBC Radio Suffolk. "The Floating City game was an attempt to get my arms around this and all the items and character names in a lyric became the basis of a trading game."
Dolby recently told the Metro newspaper, "I’m at my most excitable when I’m doing something unexplored. When I started out, few people were making entire pop records with electronics. I had a natural inclination towards rich instrumentation. Each time something new came along – videogames, virtual reality, the internet – I thought I’d like to mess with that and define what it can be."
Dolby is Music Director of TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), which sees a 1000 CEOs, scientists, designers, intellectuals brought together at conferences in Long Beach, California, Palm Springs, California and TEDGlobal in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Dolby has also long been intrigued by the relationship between technology and music and his presentation entitle 'Unleash the Genius Within!' will start at 9.30am on Tuesday 27 March.
The keynote is free to all registered attendees at DESIGN West and it is advisable to pre-register here.