At least Thomas Dolby spent his down time productively. That non-iPhone cell in your pocket? Dolby — yes, the “She Blinded Me With Science” guy — invented the tiny polyphonic synthesizer that allows it to play the “Star Wars” death march, or whatever ringtone you’ve programmed for your ex.
While A Flock of Seagulls, Howard Jones and a dozen other hairstyles slumped around the country on 1980s package tours in the subsequent decade, the Britain-born Dolby ditched performing and recording altogether for a career in Silicon Valley. He’s happy thus far to have avoided the fate of his peers.
“I know some of my contemporaries from that period have been out there sort of doing the rounds, doing the rewind tours and the Vegas stints and things like that. I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole,” Dolby told the Sun-Times during a video chat from London. “A lot of my favorite artists, you’d sort of have to stop and think what decade they really belong to because they’ve managed to transcend that. The way you do that is by continuing to do great work and not dwelling on the past, and so that’s what I’m doing.”
6:30 p.m. Oct. 7
Martyrs’, 3855 N. Lincoln
Tickets, $17, (773) 404-9494, martyrslive.com
His tech start-up, Beatnik, landed its technology into a few billion mobile phones, so Dolby felt like retiring again. (He’s also served as the musical director for the popular TED lecture series.) With his windfall, he moved back to England, to the wild coast southeast of London, and built a solar-powered recording studio out of an old lifeboat.
He then … stared at the ocean for a while. Eventually, his daydreams turned into new songs.
“I’ve got a 360-degree view, with sea and marshes behind, migrating birds and these amazing, massive container ships that head off for the continent,” Dolby said. “People come and visit me, and they say, ‘Oh, I don’t know how I’d get any work done just staring out at this view.’ And I say, ‘Well, that’s me working.’ The knob-twiddling is the relatively easy part of it. It’s the initial inspiration which takes the work. … I don’t know if you’ve ever seen container ships up close, but they look like the Manhattan skyline when the light is a certain way, so it’s like a sort of archipelago of floating cities out there.”
Thus, the new album, “A Map of the Floating City” — due Oct. 25, his first new music since 1992’s “Astronauts & Heretics” — and a corresponding online game, “The Floating City: A Dieselpunk Dystopia.” This month, Dolby starts a mini tour that’s part performance, part live demonstration of the gameplay.
In the video game — crafted by game designer Andrea Phillips with advice from longtime friend J.J. Abrams (“Lost,” “Alias”) — players coalesce into nine different tribes and scour a post-apocalyptic landscape for various objects that have been named in previous Dolby songs. The winning tribe gets a private concert of Dolby performing the entire new album.
“There’s a backstory to it, which is basically that there’s been this terrible planetary climate catastrophe, and we’ve all been … stranded on the northernmost coasts of these three continents, with an ocean in between, and it’s getting hotter. So the only way for them to survive is to push out into the ocean using the abandoned hulls of vessels and container ships, and rafting up one to another until eventually the three continents converge in the middle in what turns out used to be the North Pole. It becomes this sort of strange barter society,” Dolby said. “The economist Steven Levitt saw it and said it’s like a cross between Freakonomics and Burning Man.”
The “Floating City” album sounds remarkably straightforward, filled with piano ballads and rootsy, acoustic Americana numbers featuring guest turns from Mark Knopfler, Regina Spektor, Imogen Heap and others. It’s a bit of a surprise given Dolby’s rep as a futuristic electronic pop pioneer (“science!”).
“When I started out, you couldn’t help but be called a pioneer because electronic music was quite rarefied,” Dolby said. “It was really quite contrarian to use synths, and only a handful of us were stupid enough to try it. … I was an individual; it just happened that my palette was electronic. But, I mean, nowadays there’s no sense in just joining the clamor to do yet another groove-based tune at 120 beats per minute. What it comes down to is that not many people write great songs that have a story and a narrative and a sense of personality behind the vocal, so I’d rather be focused on that, really.”
Dolby returns this weekend to Martyrs’, where five years ago he performed on the tour that reintroduced him to music fans. He then released that show as a live album and DVD titled “The Sole Inhabitant.”