It was a typical impromptu post-gig autograph session for Thomas Dolby. At least until a non-typical fan stepped up to the London musician.
“At the end of the line of autograph seekers at one of my shows there was a man in a suit who introduced himself as being from the National Trust, and he said I would be getting a letter,” said Dolby. “I haven’t received that yet, but you can be sure that I’ll have the cameras rolling when I open it.”
The letter is likely to have something to do with Dolby’s latest project The Invisible Lighthouse, a film and live experience that involved an undercover trip to an island off the east coast of England that contained the aforementioned lighthouse, which is scheduled to be closed in the near future. Now that’s taking risks for your art to a new level.
“Initially I tried to get all the correct permits and got very little cooperation from the authorities,” said Dolby. “So the idea came to me of just mounting a clandestine commando raid at dawn and doing it anyway. And I thought that would actually make a really nice twist to the story and it fits in with the element of a boy’s own fantasy to that section. It ties into the whole theme of unreliable memories and how we glamorize our childhoods.”
The Invisible Lighthouse is the living embodiment of a labor of love for the 55-year-old Brit, who continues to deliver compelling creative projects long after the 80s heyday that saw him register hits like “Hyperactive!” and “She Blinded Me with Science.” So if you’re expecting to see him on an oldies tour anytime soon, that’s probably not happening.
“As you can imagine, I’ve been invited once a week or so for the last few years to get on some sort of rewind / nostalgia tour, and while it could be fun, it seems to me to amount to an admission that my glory days are behind me, and nothing I do today will be of any relevance to a contemporary audience,” he said. “And in my case, I feel that I’m still doing good work and there’s more good work to come. I wasn’t a child of the 80s in terms of being a sort of fashion icon, having a sound that was synonymous with 80s radio or live shows or whatever. So hopefully, my work is a bit more timeless than that.”
It has been, and it is, with Lighthouse being the latest example. Take one look at the trailer for the live show, which arrives at the Gramercy Theatre in New York City on Monday night, and that will be evident, as it’s not a film, not a concert, not performance art, but a mix of the three. If that’s not the work of a vibrant and relevant artist, what is? And with his latest, he gets to bring something close to his heart to the world.
“The lighthouse is a bit of a passion for me, and lighthouses in general are being neglected,” he said. “It’s sad that it’s been not functional anymore because of satellite navigation. I think that they’re part of our history, and they’ve watched over so much – overseas battles and rescues and hurricanes and tempests. And the public has a love affair with them but is maybe not aware that they’re being neglected. In the USA, there’s actually a doomsday list of 46 lighthouses that are an endangered species and are actually crumbling, eroding, being vandalized, and so on, and I sort of feel especially in America, as a young country, historic landmarks like that should be preserved.”
As far as the film concertgoers will see goes, it’s still a work in progress, even though a finished version has already garnered critical acclaim and several film festival awards. Dolby seems to like it this way, and the show people witness this Monday will not be the same as that seen before or after.
“The film, I’ve been shooting over the course of about a year,” said Dolby. “It’s not full-time, and it’s been evolving as time goes on. The seasons change and I’ll go out and add a bit. When I started the film I didn’t know the outcome because they couldn’t give me a definite date on when the lighthouse was going to close, and I didn’t know if it was going to be with a big fanfare, whether it was going to fizzle out, or what was going to happen. So the whole project has taken me about a year. Putting the show together, I did my first performances of it in the spring when I was still editing the video, and it’s continued to evolve since then. I recently added Blake Leyh, the sound effects designer, as well, so all of that has continually evolved, and I think it will continue to evolve over the course of the tour. It’s a little different every night, and we have the fluidity to keep adding bits.”
In talking with the affable Dolby and discussing the idea of remaining a vibrant artist after so many years, I told him of a recent interview with one of his contemporaries, Howard Jones, and how Jones recalled Rolling Stone magazine saying back in the 80s that he didn’t even need to show up to his shows; he just needed someone to press a button. Not surprisingly, a quip like that doesn’t sit well with Dolby.
“I think that comment says more about Rolling Stone than it does about Howard,” said Dolby. “You have to move with the times. I resist that kind of automation in my shows, and part of it is because when you spend weeks on the road touring, you need to have gratification from what you’re doing, and I don’t think I would get that if I was essentially doing a playback show every night. I like being in the moment, I like taking risks, and I like the fact that these days, with social media, there’s an immediacy to the relationship between the performer and the audience that didn’t used to be there when I started out. It’s a continual loop and I feel much more involved with my audience than I ever did back then. I suppose a factor of it is an age thing as well. You get to a certain age and people are nicer to each other. (Laughs) I get a lot of satisfaction out of my live shows, and they’re risky. Sometimes I make a tit out of myself, but if you don’t do that every now and then, you’re probably not pushing hard enough.”
Thomas Dolby is still pushing hard. In the studio, on stage, and behind the camera. But as technologically advanced as his material can often be, it’s the simplest pleasures that still make him smile.
“There’s something intangible about music,” he said. “I write at the piano, often late at night, and I’m hunched over, plunking down chords, and sometimes I find a chord change that just turns my heartstrings in a certain way, and I think ‘why would it be that when I put out this record, that chord change is going to affect people emotionally in the same way it affected me?’ It’s a complete enigma, yet it does. And months or years later, I’ll see a passionate letter from somebody saying ‘I love that moment in ‘Screen Kiss’ where the chord changes, and it just made me think about…’ And sure enough, that chord change worked for thousands of other people the same way that it did for me. That’s a wonderful and intangible thing, and I keep going back to the well to get a bit more of that.”
Thomas Dolby plays the Gramercy Theatre in New York City on Monday, October 28. For tickets, click here