Having returned to Suffolk, England after spending over 15 years in Silicon Valley, Thomas Dolby found inspiration in a lighthouse that was part of his childhood memories. Located at the tip of an off-limits ex-military island, the lighthouse was about to close, prompting Dolby to get out and document it. A lack of cooperation from local authorities meant this entailed going out to the island on an inflatable boat and using a remote control drone camera for aerial shots. The endeavor evolved into “The Invisible Lighthouse,” a transmedia event that Dolby is taking out on the road. Performances consist of Dolby performing a live soundtrack and narration as the film plays, with Blake Leyh doing live sound design and effects. In a phone interview, Dolby discussed “The Invisible Lighthouse,” as well his career in general.
What inspired you to create this film? Were you planning all along to take it on tour like this?
I’d just finished my album ‘A Map Of The Floating City’ and when I found out that this lighthouse right near my studio, which I’ve known since I was a kid, was going to close down I felt compelled to document this in some way. I started initially just taking shots of the lighthouse with my iphone and sort of mumbling thoughts into the mic. As I looked at that footage, I thought ‘this is kind of cool, maybe I need to hire a professional cinematographer to come and get some better footage.’ And I spend a few hours with a camera woman, who was great, but I look back at the footage and although it was nicely framed and focused and lit, it had lost the confessional quality which my iphone footage had. So I thought, well the key is really to do it myself, because of the intimate relationship I have with the place, and I need to shoot it myself. So I got some new equipment and taught myself how to use it, and loaded the footage to edit on my computer. As I did that, I vaguely thought that maybe I could get this on TV late at night or as an internet download or a DVD or something like that. I started editing roughcuts together, still not knowing how the story was going to unfold. I showed it to friends and they all said that what’s really great is being in the room with the guy who shot and is narrating it, who wrote the songs, so I had this idea of taking it out on the road and keeping it as a live experience.
Was the soundtrack all composed specifically for the film, or does it also use existing material?
It’s a combination. There are songs in the film going right back to the beginning of my catalog. I think the earliest song is “Europa and the Pirate Twins” and then there is also “Windpower,” which is a song that I wrote in 1980. Ironically, while I was making this, I watched the construction of Europe’s largest wind farm on the horizon from the studio. One of the sad things I think about the lighthouse is that it’s a sort of transitional technology. It’s like before there were lighthouses there were the stars to navigate by, and now there are smartphones and satellites and radar. The lighthouse era was sort of this passing era. That’s dying out, and now we have this wind farm, which also might be as transitional technology while we figure out how to plumb into the Earth’s core for our power [laughs] or whatever it may be.
Could you describe the performance aspect, it terms of what is happening onstage around the film?
I actually first performed it in the Spring, when I entered it for a couple of film festivals. It won some awards and they asked me to come and do it live, so I performed in it in a simpler way, just narrating the picture back then. But as I’ve developed it in the past few months, I’ve added lots of live elements. When I perform it, I’m projecting it on a screen and there are two performers onstage. Myself with a keyboard playing the songs and also doing the spoken narration, which is pretty minimal. It’s like a tone poem rather than a David Attenborough-style documentary narration. And the other performer is Blake Leyh, who is a world-class sound designer. He’s done movies like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “The Abyss.” He’s got a wonderful way of mixing sound effects with music to make a very musical sound design. He does live Foley, so he has a tray of pebbles from the beach and twigs and leaves, and he does flapping of bird wings, and the ocean surf and the rattling of fabric and things like that. He does all of that live. So when you watch it, your attention is being constantly drawn from the screen to what’s going on on-stage, and then back again.”
Did you have any previous filmmaking experience?
Well I wrote and directed some of my music videos back in the day. I mean “She Blinded Me WIth Science” oddly enough came about because cable music television was just starting to happen, with MTV and MuchMusic and so on. I begged my record company to give me the budget to make a video. I pretty much wrote the storyboard for that before the song was even finished. The song was almost like an afterthought. Frankly, it kind of surprised me that it was commercially as successful as it was. In fact, getting to number one in Canada was the highest I’d charted anywhere at that point. I never really viewed myself as a commercial artist, it was just a moment of flippancy which sort of paid off. A lot of my work is very personal and moody and atmospheric. I guess once people got past the commercial side, some of them got hooked on the quieter aspect of my work. And others will just think of me as the guy that did ‘Science.’ I can’t really help that.”
You’d taken a long break from recording/performing your own music; what made you decide to get back into it?
I was quite strongly drawn back to it. I had a need to create a new snapshot of where my head was musically and where my heart was in middle age, really. I spent over 15 years in SIlicon Valley doing the tech things and helping with the TED conference, for which I was the music director. I really enjoyed that time, but I felt like a fish out of water because I do have a sort of biological need to make music every now and then. That was also why I moved back with my family to the UK after living in the States for 20 years. I wanted to reconnect with those roots and I felt that this part of Suffolk was so woven into a lot of my songs. I never wrote songs about text message breakups and voice mails and fast cars. I’ve always been influenced by my environment. the planet, space, the weather, history, geography, etc.
What type of equipment did you use to make the film?
“I’d never pointed a camera before in my life. And I’m not one to use manuals, so I wanted stuff that was pretty much point and shoot. The good news was that because it was all shot within 10 miles of my house, if I did it and it didn’t look right I would just go out again the next day and re-shoot it. My go-to camera was just a consumer camcorder from Panasonic that cost like $350. I also have a bunch of Go-Pros which were used on my sort of one-man commando raid on the island. I had a bunch of Go-Pros running in waterproof enclosures. You can walk around with a Go-Pro on a long extendable arm, which sort of looks like a steadicam operator is following you around. And I got a cheap quadrocopter drone camera…and when I say cheap I think that their business model is they give you the drone and make their profit with the parts that you have to buy after you crash it. I was out of the island sort of dodging these white Land Rovers because I wasn’t supposed to be there, and I had this quadrocopter floating around and various Go-Pros on sticks and things. I would just shoot reams of footage and then bring it home. I pretty much let the story write itself. When I started it, the lighthouse was still flashing. I had a hard time getting any cooperation from the authorities to figure out when it was going to actually end. I ended up being the only person who captured the last flash and that’s part of the film. It’s a bit of a shrine to the lighthouse. Because it’s not very dramatic when a lighthouse stops flashing – one minute it’s flashing and the next minute it’s not. There’s no little old lighthouse keep with a white beard pulling a big lever. It’s someone pushing a few keys on a computer somewhere else and it goes off. In this case, it was the first night it stopped flashing since 1792.
What type of musical set-up are you using for these performances? In the tour trailer, you’re using a large touch screen – what is that?
I don’t think I’m going to have that touch screen with me, unfortunately. Its a little bit too fragile to carry around. That touchscreen was running Traktor DJ software, which I was using to cue up various sort of canned score elements to play along with my keyboards and guitar. Other than that, both myself and Blake have Macbooks that are in sync. The film is actually running off my Macbook along with programmed elements. The lighting, fog machines and effects and things are all part of the same program in the Macbook. And then Blake mics up his footsteps and sound effect devices and treats them through his Macbook. We have a very clever PA system which is basically done over a wifi network; there is no soundbooth out in the audience. The guy who is mixing front of house sound can sit in any seat with an iPad, and Blake and I each have our own iPad Mini to do our own mixes. But it’s all part of the same mix, which is basically being done over a wifi network. So you’re not seeing a guy with a big mixer at the back of the room, just somebody in the audience who has a green glow on his face. That’s the front of house sound engineer.
Did you consider doing any live video manipulation?
Yeah, we considered it. But live manipulation is quite expensive, it’s not that simple. I would have needed a sort of VJ with me to do the live video mixing. In the past, when I was performing on my own doing the ‘Sole Inhabitant’ tour I had a VJ with me who was mixing live cameras along with canned video. But no, at any given performance on this tour, the video is the static piece and the sounds vary from night to night.
Do these shows consist of just the film and your performance along with it, or will you do additional songs as well?
The first 45 minutes is the film, then we do a Q&A with a local celebrity, or celebrities. That might be a musician, TV personality, blogger, filmmaker, novelist, or TV anchor; in each city we have a different guest. He or she and I will interview each other, basically, about film, music, different topics. In some places we’ve got somebody who is an expert in lighthouses or historical preservation. So it’s a little bit TED-like. As you may know, I was musical director of TED for 10 years, I really got into this idea of getting the audience sort of inside secrets of how we do what we do. That’s the idea of this sort of self-interview portion. And then in the last portion of the show, Blake and I play half a dozen or so songs from my catalog including ‘She Blinded Me With Science,” maybe “Hyperactive,” “Airhead.”
Will those talks end up online?
It’s hard to say. The film is not online, the only way to see it is to come to a live performance. But yeah, the goal would be to shoot the interview portions and put those up on YouTube.
How would you say the evolution of musical technology over the years has affected the way you work?
Well obviously at a certain level it’s gotten easier, you can do things on the cheap at home instead of spending hundreds of dollars an hour in a professional facility. The downside I think is that there are 10,000 other people who have got the same exact tools as you’ve got, so there’s a worry now that somebody by coincidence will have come up with the same exact combination of stuff. And they’re just going to put it up on YouTube overnight and you’re going to feel like a fool. So what that brings me back to is what can I do that’s unique? What really sets me apart? I think that for me, I’m fundamentally a storyteller – with my songs, or the film, or the game that I’d created. I’m quite conventional in the sense that there’s an arc to my stories – a beginning, a middle, and an end. An intro, then verses and chorus, with characters and locations. It’s kind of against the grain, a bit contrarian, because I think that the postmodern era of music is more about a groove, with a riff over the top, 8 bars of this, 16 bars of that. I’m not mocking that, it’s the way things are, but I’m trying to stay focused on the storytelling aspect.
You did some film soundtracks earlier in your career. Do you have any interest in doing that again, composing for other films?
I’d love to do more and might get back to that in the future. I’ve had mixed experiences doing that, because on a certain level you’re just one name on a crew sheet of hundreds and you need to fall in line. I like collaborating, but what I don’t like is if I spend days or weeks composing a piece of music that I love and then for some arbitrary reason it ends up on the cutting room floor and the studio owns it. That’s kind of unpleasant. I think that in a lot of films the music is kind of subliminal, like lighting. For action/adventure, I think that you could write an app that would put the music in it; it’s all very similar these days. But in other types of films you really notice the music. The films that win the Oscar for best score tend to be the cinematic ones, like “Dances With Wolves” or “The Last Emperor” or “Brokeback Mountain.” These are the ones where you really notice the music.”
Do you want to do more filmmaking in the future?
I’d love to do more films in the future, but I won’t be heading to Hollywood to pitch feature ideas. What I like about this is the maverick aspect of filmmaking, where you get some autonomy. I do think there are other great stories to tell, but I’m not sure I’ve got something else like this in me at the moment. But I’d love to tell somebody else’s. So maybe I’ll use my new skills and follow somebody else around and tell their story.
Music videos were an important part of launching artists and selling music when you started out in the 80’s. What are your thoughts on internet video leading to a resurgence?
To be perfectly honest, I haven’t watched many of the newest ones, I don’t really know how it’s heading. I can’t say I’m very interested at this point in a major label funding a major artist to do music videos with choreography, costumes, and lots of editing. I can’t see how that genre would have moved on very much in the last couple of decades. The flipside is that I love the idea of artists expressing themselves through the video medium, so I would imagine that when there is good stuff out there, it is when artists have done it themselves. Remember, I came from the era when what was exciting about videos is that you had your Peter Gabriels, and Laurie Andersons, and Talking Heads, people like that who were excited about the new medium and platform that music videos provided. They were actually getting involved creatively and expressing themselves in that medium. I don’t really feel that coming up with an outrageous new costume or new sexy dance move is terribly innovative in 2013.
Looking back, what are your thoughts on “Howard the Duck”? [Dolby wrote the songs performed by the fictional band Cherry Bomb.] As a kid I remember being really disappointed in the movie, but thinking that the music was the best part.
A surprising number of people actually genuinely love that movie. It’s become a bit of a cult. Once a month I get somebody saying ‘I love that movie, it’s my favorite movie, seriously dude!’ It wasn’t as bad as people made it out to be. I was never a fan and hadn’t read the comic book, and people were sort of upset about that at the time, but hey, what’s new? There are a lot of adaptations of comic books that haven’t really worked. I can’t disagree with you that the music is the best thing about it. I like the music in it, I like the video from it, and I had good laugh doing it, but it’s not the first thing I’m putting on my CV.
For more info about “The Invisible Lighthouse” and Thomas Dolby, be sure to visit his website at thomasdolby.com.See all interviews →