Thomas Dolby: Still looking for ways to innovate

Thomas Dolby interview

Thomas Dolby, in the ’80s.

At a mere 59 years of age, Thomas Dolby has already lived a life in full. In the 1980s, he became a musical innovator with his hit, “She Blinded Me With Science,” followed by five Grammy nominations and memorable appearances at two of the largest live musical events of his generation.

In the ’90s, he evolved into a technological innovator who was partly responsible for, among other things, the polyphonic ringtone synthesizer — the device that allows cell phones to play ringtones. Today, while continuing his music career, he wears the hat of innovative college professor, teaching a curriculum on the cutting edge of audio for the imminent virtual reality craze.

Dolby will present “An Evening of Music and Storytelling” at The Cutting Room in New York, Aug. 3; and at the Dante Hall Theater at Stockton University in Atlantic City, Aug. 6. Visit

In the following conversation, Dolby discusses how contributing to some of Foreigner’s biggest hits helped him get signed, his mother’s plan to help him climb the record charts, what David Bowie was afraid of, how he attempts to reverse engineer the process of songwriting, and whether or not people still associate him with the one word exclamation he popularized in the ’80s.

Q: It’s hard to draw a complete picture of who you are without first understanding your family, and the culture you were brought up in.

A: Yes, I was born in in London in 1958, and my parents were both academics. All five of my siblings are academics as well. My father was the classic absent-minded professor at Oxford and Cambridge, and his father and his father before him were all Cambridge professors. He was an archaeologist so he would go off to study Greek pots and stuff like that, and I was able to travel with him quite a lot. But other times while he was off traveling I’d be in boarding schools, so I was pretty much a product of the same kind of private British boarding school mentality as Roger Waters and the guys from Genesis were. I didn’t have nearly as bad an experience of it as Roger did though.

Q: Why do you think that was?

A: It was a different era. They’d abolished using the cane on students and it was a very good education academically. It was also the tail end of the British Empire so after having had a legacy of xenophobia and a somewhat limited scope of thinking, they tried to be more liberal and open-minded. I left school at 16, because I wanted to pursue my music career, right when punk rock was starting to take off in England. I thought it was thrilling because I had been following progressive rock and jazz and things like that, and then suddenly all these guys were saying, “It’s crap, it’s all meaningless. Music is all about energy!”

Q: Three chords and the truth.

A: Yes, exactly. Socially, it was very exciting and I was a big part of that scene. At age 17 I was working in a fruit and vegetable shop, just to pay for a ticket to see The Clash. Yet musically, I still had one foot in the progressive and jazz camps. Bands like Steely Dan sort of gave way for me to the more intelligent new wave material — bands like Talking Heads, XTC, Television, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Psychedelic Furs. I was sort of trying to succeed as an independent musician, and they were really my inspiration. They were doing the kind of intelligent music that I liked, and had broken through. Now we had punk energy and oddness, but with more than three chords.

Q: You are so closely associated with keyboards and the piano. Did you ever aspire to be, say, a drummer or guitarist early on?

A: No, it was keyboards for me right from the beginning. I was self-taught, but I’ve always had a very good ear. I could always pick things out on the piano. I wasn’t very disciplined, however, and never practiced or played scales or anything like that. I wasn’t a good technician then, and I’m really not now. I believe music is more about the arrangements, the choice of parts, and your choice of sounds — piecing together a patchwork using simple elements and building blocks, rather than virtuoso playing.

Q: There’s a punk ethos in that.

A: There definitely is. A sort of DIY sentiment in that you just pick something up and make some noise with it, and don’t have to spend 10,000 hours practicing it for it to be worthwhile.

Q: How would you describe the type of keyboardist that you became?

A: I’m a compositional keyboard player … My approach was always quite symphonic. In the early days of synthesizers, people got a lot of mileage out of the coldness and sterility of electronics. They made that a thing unto itself. I tended to use them to substitute for the fact that I didn’t have the London Symphony Orchestra and a brilliant band at my disposal. The aspiration was to create the sort of soundscapes that were every evocative, but done with very fine brush strokes, rather than bold ones. You can pick out a couple of parts, and very often, there’s a patchwork where they come together to make the whole. I think that was the thing I did differently.

Dolby on a 1984 magazine cover.

Q: So when it’s the late ’70s, very early ’80s, and you’re a symphonic keyboardist, do you feel the same need to form a band as a guitarist or drummer might?

A: To have a band fronted by keyboards would not have made sense, of course, but the more interesting bands at the time did utilize keyboards quite a bit. In fact I can remember seeing Roxy Music on late night TV and being very impressed by Brian Eno. He’d mostly just stand there doing nothing, but every now and then he’d twiddle one knob on a Moog (synthesizer) and adjust something. It was sort of the opposite of the way Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson would go about it. So I sort of saw Brian doing next to nothing on television and getting rich and famous and thought, “That’s the life for me.” (laughs)

Q: At the same time, did you also think to yourself, “I need to find a (Roxy music singer) Brian Ferry”?

A: No, but objectively it might have made more sense to, because even though I have an exhibitionist streak, I’m 90 percent hermit. The music that I most appreciated was quite introverted. It was drawn to oddball writers like Van Morrison or Joni Mitchell, Captain Beefheart or Dan Hicks. All wrote introspective, unusual and evocative lyrics — not everyday conversational lyrics. They also made unpredictable choices in regard to instrumentation and arrangement, and there wasn’t a particular genre they adhered to, so each new album was a surprise. That’s what I aspired to early on, and still try to.

Q: I find that an unlikely list of influences for you, especially because some of those artists probably required a little more seeking out at the time.

A: Yeah, I had no idea where any of them reached in the charts, or whether they were being played on the radio or not. It just didn’t matter to me. If anything, I would have felt that if they’d suddenly been massively successful, it would dilute it for me, somehow. I didn’t want the whole world to know about them. They were like my little secret, you know?

Q: I’m not trying to force a narrative, but “They’re my band as long as they’re not everybody’s band” is a punk sentiment as well. In addition to being songwriters, all of those people you admired were distinctive singers. Did you believe that you could also be one?

A: If I had a manager holding a gun to my head saying, “Look, to get in the charts, you need to have a frontman, you need to have a pinup so you can just focus on the music and concentrate on clocking out the hits,” then that would have been that and it would have become a different thing. But I was always perfectly happy to be quite marginal, you know? To be a little bit of a cult.

Q: How happy? Did you ever write with the intent of having a hit?

A: I will say that when I am creating, I’m very focused on the moment when the audience will be exposed to the song. Very often I’ll sit down at the piano and close my eyes and imagine that there’s an empty stage with a piano and a spotlight shining upon it — I’m looking at it as an audience member at this point — and I picture a guy walking onto the stage, sitting down, playing an intro and starting to sing a song. What does that song sound like to make me well up, you know? I’ll try to hear that in my head and then figure out how to play it. I try to reverse engineer the thrill the audience gets when they hear something great. I work backwards, and fill in the gaps.

Q: That requires a very capable musician. As you were gradually becoming one, did you arrive at a point where you would see or hear things that your idols were doing and think, “Oh, I could have done that better.”

A: Yes. I was developing my own ideas, and I am still developing ideas about my own performance. For instance, stagecraft is not something that I’ve ever been that concerned about. Essentially, it’s “Okay, here are the songs.” Also, I don’t jam, so that means when I create something, that is the definitive version of the song — it sounds a certain way and each part is crucial to the whole. But if I go out and play a song live and am unable to reproduce all of the parts, then that becomes quite an issue for me. And the mix is really crucial because I can’t afford a full-time sound engineer to mix the way I want night after night, and I can’t be in two places at once. So that is a compromise that I’ve already sort of accepted — that this is going to be a different thing when I play it live, but at the same time I’ll continue to try to get it as close to the ideal as I can.

Q: Traditionally, your music wouldn’t have been considered a safe commercial bet for a music label. How did you get your record contract?

A: It was for EMI, and it came about because I was hot. I had a written a song for Lene Lovich called “New Toy” which went in the charts. I’d also recently played on Foreigner’s 4 album, on some big songs where my keyboards are very evident. That album was a change for them because it had ballads on it, and the big difference in these ballads was the use of keyboards, which were new at the time for American rock radio. I also had an indie single out that received some good reviews, and I had my own songs and demos circulating out there via cassettes that I had sent around. So the record companies were somewhat ambushed by me (laughs). They became aware of me from several different places at once.

Q: You were also coming along at an opportune time.

A: That’s true. People like Duran Duran and Adam Ant and The Police were crossing the Atlantic with great success and there just seemed to be something of a British wave happening, so the companies were looking in our direction.

Q: Your work on commercial ballads wasn’t exactly a harbinger of things to come. Did EMI have any idea how eccentric your music was going to be?

A: They definitely knew what they were getting themselves into. It wasn’t until after I had commercial success that I ran up against a certain assumption from the industry, which was that once you achieve a breakthrough, you refine the formula and churn out a dozen more just like it. I was very uncooperative with that. “Science” was a hit and they said, “Now presumably you’re going to go back in the studio with the same musicians and the same producer and give us a bunch more Sciences.” I said, “Well, actually no. I have a bunch of different ideas.”

Q: Did you have a reputation for being particularly disagreeable in the ’80s? I feel like you might have. (laughs)

A: With the record company, yes, probably. I was never a diva, though, and I never behaved badly, which would have been the easiest thing. Because if you behave like, you know, Noel Gallagher and you’re always a bit fucked up and you’re sort of rude and you obnoxiously slag people off, the machinery works just fine. The people love you for it, it gets you in the papers, and everybody’s fine with it. That sort of behavior is not acceptable to me. So professionally, I had a good reputation. Probably not so with my record company, especially from 1990 onward.

Q: When you have a single as successful as “She Blinded Me With Science,” how much bigger does your world get?

A: It happens quickly. Everywhere I went, people from the record company would begin to turn up and say, “Hi Thomas, I’m the guy that broke you in this territory.” They’d organize my agenda for the evening and arrange for me to meet this person, and be nice to that person. I was still living in the U.K., however, so what I did like about coming to the U.S. is that everybody wanted to hop on my bandwagon, whereas everybody in the U.K. was looking at me like, “You think you’re special, do you?”

Q: That’s a very English thing.

A: It is a very English thing. If you wanted to do things differently in the U.K., they’d say, “Hey, that’s not the way you do it!” In the U.S., people would look at it like, “Wait, why isn’t anyone helping Thomas with that business opportunity?”

Q: Your parents, of course, are English. How did they feel about your success?

A: I was the sixth of six kids and of course all of the others went into academia as well, so by the time it got to me, my parents were quite amused that …

Q: They had a pop star in the family?

A: Yes, that they had a pop star in the family.

Q: Were they supportive?

A: They were. When I had a record out, my mom would go out to the local record store and buy up every copy because she thought that would affect the charts. They would order extras before she came, and say, “Mrs. Robertson! We’ve got your new records right here.” She’d buy 20 copies of the same record. (Robert laughs)

Q: How about the money? When you’re selling records for the first time in your life, never mind so many so quickly, do you know how much of it there is, and do you feel confident that you know where it’s going?

A: It’s very easy not to notice what’s happening. In your day-to-day life, there’s nothing you need that someone won’t snap up for you, so you don’t stop to think about who’s going to get the bill. The thing that gets difficult is that I don’t believe any artist is good at looking at a spreadsheet and having all the comings and goings make sense. Most artists are completely clueless about it and that provides endless opportunities for the middlemen to squeeze a piece out for themselves. There’s a delay in getting your money that works in favor of the people sitting on the cash. You’ll have to wait 18 months after a hit record, and only maybe then will you get to sit down with a patient and clever accountant who is willing to show you the numbers and refine them into a form that makes sense in everyday English.

Dolby’s 1984 single “Hyperactive!” was a Top 20 hit in England.

Q: Regardless as to when you count the money, an artist’s stake is far larger when you own the publishing rights to a song. Do you own publishing for “She Blinded Me With Science?”

A: Yes, and it’s a difference maker, for sure. You see some bands out there today performing these huge hits that they recorded in the ’80s but didn’t write. Some of the musicians may be on retainer for only $400 a week, but meanwhile there is a writer somewhere minting it. Unlike a recording contract, publishing draws from any use of the intellectual property — sales, radio play, television and especially commercials – with no costs deducted at all. One day you get an email and, ka-ching! — you make tens of thousands more dollars without lifting a finger.

Q: If Burger King reaches out and offers you a large amount of money to use “Science’ in a commercial, are you the lone decision maker in regard to whether that happens or not?

A: Yes.

Q: I have to imagine you get a lot of requests.

A: I do, and that’s why you don’t really want to accept that fat check from Burger King every time. It’s not a moral thing, it’s just good business. The song is a brand, essentially. If you cheapen the brand or dilute it too much, you take away from years of potential revenue, because now the high class companies in other fields may no longer want the association if people think of Burger King whenever they hear the song.

Q: Who has made the most lucrative offer for the use of “Science” to date?

A: I think it was Pantene shampoo. (Both laugh, as Dolby is bald) Yeah, in fact there was a perk that was something along the lines of a lifetime supply of Pantene. I was like “Well duh, where do I sign?” (laughs)

Q: You’re an intelligent and multifaceted person, and a talented musician. Does it bother you that, even among many informed American music fans, you’re known for just a few pop-culture things?

A: I’m very happy and grateful for it, because I think I owe the diversity of my career to that early commercial success. It was a springboard, really, for everything else I’ve done and am doing. I’m completely happy with that. I also enjoy the experience that people have when they knew me for one song or one big live appearance and then they discover this whole other thing about me.

Dolby performing in Roger Waters’ production of “The Wall,” in Berlin, in 1990.

Q: One of those live moments would be your performance during Roger Waters’ presentation of “The Wall,” in Berlin in 1990. You played the Schoolmaster in costume and had a memorable keyboard solo while chasing Cyndi Lauper around the stage.

A: I am deeply surprised that Roger picked me, as I had no idea that he was aware of me at all. I was especially flattered because people like Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and members of The Band — all of whom I adore — were involved, along with Tim Curry, who I had worked with before. At the time, it was by far the largest live musical event that had ever been attempted. It was a massive undertaking, and no single decision could be made without Roger’s approval. So much so that he took the care to correct the accent I was using for the character in soundcheck, while I was hanging from the Wall, 50 feet off the ground (smiles). Bless him, he’s a brilliant man. It was a wild experience, and working with some of my biggest heroes was just fantastic.

Q: You also played keyboards for David Bowie’s set at Live Aid, which was a notable moment in both of your careers.

A: When he was asked by Bob Geldof to do Live Aid, Bowie was already in the U.K., filming the movie “Labyrinth.” Members of his touring band were back in the states doing other tours, so he thought he would work with a young English band for this show. He reached out to me, and between the two of us we sort of stitched together a band. I don’t believe that Bowie understood the full scope of what Live Aid really was at first, because one of the things he conveyed to us was that he wanted to play his new single, “Loving the Alien.” As the event grew closer, he came to the realization that this was going to be something much different than your average charity gig, and he shifted his focus to living up to the moment by playing anthems that the audience could connect with. So every evening he would come into rehearsal and suggest different songs we needed to learn. Fortunately, being of our generation, we were disciples of Bowie and knew them all.

Q: Was he a taskmaster?

A: No, quite the contrary. He was a perfect gentleman. He would just walk into the room and shine. The musicians were so gaga about him anyway, but his personality brought the best out of us even more.

Q: What was the day of the show like for you?

A: The day was amazing as a whole, and I have wonderful memories of it. I flew to Wembley Stadium that day with Bowie, in a helicopter. He hated flying, and had refused to fly for years. Only recently had he even made the concession of flying to America — he would usually sail there. So obviously, a helicopter was beyond the pale. The traffic was too bad, however, so the helicopter was necessary and Bowie’s face just went pale when he had to come on board. He pulled a fedora that he was wearing down over his head and came aboard, and for the 10 minutes it took us to get over there, he was a complete diva (laughs)He was chain smoking despite the pilot repeatedly telling him he needed to extinguish his cigarette, and he kept asking questions like, “When we were going to arrive?” and “Are there any high buildings on the way?,” etc. But I’ll never forget when we banked over Wembley Stadium — this was in the early days of the jumbotron screens — and for a moment Bowie was silhouetted against this banking helicopter, and there in the background, was Freddie Mercury’s face crooning up at us.

Q: There were almost 2 billion people watching on television. Did you have any backstage jitters?

A: The time between us landing and hitting the stage was maybe all of 3 minutes. As we were being announced to the crowd, Bowie nudged me because I had to start things off by playing the intro to “TVC15” in front of this massive audience. We had never rehearsed those songs together as a set, but when we hit the stage our fingers just took over, and I could see Bowie with his blue suit in the foreground, and 100,000 fans behind him. By the time we finished with “Heroes,” I was on cloud nine. It was a magical feeling.

Q: Would you agree that “Science,” “The Wall” and Live Aid are the three things you are most widely known for in America?

A: Yes, or playing with Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock at the Grammys in ’85. However, I do have people come up to me and say, “You co-wrote the audio layer of Java.” Or, “Didn’t you design the synthesizer that was in all those Nokia phones?” They know me from the sort of the geeky end of things. And I hear from “Breaking Bad” fanatics as well, “Your ringtone was in it, wasn’t it?” and “Big Bang Theory” fans as well, because they used my song in the pilot. People pick me out from different places.

Q: Because you have so many other interests, have you ever felt like you were slumming it in pop music?

A: I think when you have an unexpected breakthrough in pop music, an unpredictable one, it can be an especially high achievement. I always had a huge appreciation for Brian Eno because he would record his own stuff, and was then able to record music for airports, and create ambient music, and then go off and produce U2 or Coldplay at the height of their careers. I have a lot of respect for achievement on that level. I’m also very proud of Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” because the intro on that was not something you’d heard on American AOR radio in 1982. You’d be driving your Trans AM across the desert, listening to the local rock station, and this thing would come on for a minute and you’d go, “What?!” and then it would segue into this lush ballad.

Q: Pop music can also be fickle. Did you exit the mainstream on your own accord, or where you sent along your way?

A: I was unhappy with EMI, and I met (Virgin CEO) Richard Branson and he said “Oh, you should really get off your label and come over to Virgin,” which I did. As I was leaving EMI, I tore everyone off a strip that I didn’t like. Unfortunately, six months later, Richard sold Virgin to EMI! So it was kind of like in that TV show, “The Prisoner,” when the background music goes like “Ga-jiiing”.

Q: I’d imagine you weren’t treated especially well when you returned?

A: It was like, “Oops, sorry. I’m back!” (laughs). So that was not great. But what had also been happening at that time was that I’d gone from using technology that I kind of had to discover myself and cannibalize to get it to do what I wanted it to do, to using mainstream equipment and software that was available to everybody. I was working with a Mac to make music and I started taking a keen interest in the hardware and software I was using. I was living in L.A. and most of those companies were in Silicon Valley, so I started to go there and consult them, and patrons would sometimes pay for my technology. As the speculation about the internet started to take off in the early ’90s, the whole center of gravity changed. There was just an energy and enthusiasm for it, you know? Sort of a sucking sound, whereas in the L.A. and New York music industry, it was quite the opposite. It was more like “Thomas, we’re not quite sure what to do with you at this point.”

Q: As you immersed yourself in tech you developed the audio layer for Java and, more famously, programmed the software for the polyphonic ringtone synthesizer. During those years, how often did you play music?

A: Very little. For most of the ’90s, I played almost no music at all. I occasionally played at a friend’s birthday party and places like that. But I was in no rush to put out records. For me at the time, creating software and working with that team was like the equivalent of making music and playing with a band.

Q: I have to imagine that some people whom you were working with, didn’t know about your previous life.

A: Yes, probably. There were certainly some people involved in my company that were just from the corporate world and paid no attention to pop culture at all.

Q: Did you prefer that people knew, or didn’t?

A: A little bit of both. As an entrepreneur, I was grateful for the fact that some doors had opened. Maybe they opened for the wrong reasons, but at least they were open. Then again, I’d be sitting in a conference room with some middle-management person and they’d suddenly get this look on their face and say, “I was just remembering this chick I was dating at MIT back when your record was on the radio. By the way, the Stones are coming through next week, could you get me some backstage passes?”

Dolby and guitarist Steve Vai received lifetime achievement awards from Roland and Boss earlier this year.

Q: It’s easy to understate just how out of fashion ’80s pop music was in the first half of the ’90s, especially anything with excessive keyboards or a sheen to the production. At what point did you sense that things were warming up out there for your ’80s work?

A: I wasn’t tracking it that closely, really. At the time I was paying more attention to technology and how that affected culture. I really felt that the internet was going to be a massive sea change in how we lived our lives, and it had so many interesting possibilities. It was unclear how it was all going to work out economically, but around every corner you turned, there was another meatpacking magnate from Texas who was willing to write you a check to fund your idea. It was a new gold rush.

Q: But at some point you had to know there was a renewed interest in your music, just from the increased requests for its licensed use. Did you ever consider that you could go out and perform your songs in front of enthusiastic audiences again, like you do today?

A: It’s hard to say, because I knew that the center of gravity for popular music is young, energetic people who want to go out and meet like-minded people and have a thrill. And in all frankness, they want to listen to somebody that they’d like to fuck. People of your generation have homes and kids and mortgages and college fees now, and they don’t want to be going out and standing in clubs for three hours. They’d rather have a comfortable seat with a good eye line, and good sound.

Q: Were you apprehensive to do it again?

A: A little bit, primarily because I’d see some of my contemporaries go out there and make it look slightly like an admission that nothing they did moving forward would be of much value ever again. Instead it was like, “Why not just walk down memory lane and relive the ’80s?” It would seem to me that the enduring acts of my age — Depeche Mode and Duran Duran are two examples — would not be seen dead doing those things. It would undermine their ability to put out something new that they could stand behind.

Q: You do play live music these days, but you’re merely moonlighting. Your day job is Homewood Professor of the Arts at Johns Hopkins University. How did that come about?

A: I think it’s largely due to the Ted talks I used to give. I would be asked to give keynote speeches, and they’d tell me I can throw in a couple of songs if I’d like. In the context of a speech I’d explain the background to the songs, and the sort of didactic framework around them. I was also the musical director for Ted for 12 years. Twice a year I would put together a house band and introduce the musical artists. I met some fabulous communicators, teachers and inventors and I found it all very inspiring. I just started thinking that further education had branched out so far at that point, there was really no reason that top schools couldn’t offer courses just like this, and that somebody like me couldn’t be teaching there.

Q: I think some people might be surprised that an English artist like yourself, who lived in California and made such a splash in Silicon Valley, now enjoys living in Maryland. Why Johns Hopkins University?

A: It was the opportunity that arose that really clicked for me, for a number of reasons. It’s known primarily for science and medicine research rather than the arts, and they wanted to be more on the radar in the arts. That challenge appealed to me. Also, Baltimore as a city has a lot of problems, but it has a lot going on as well, and it’s a place where if you do something worthwhile it can really make an impact that has a visible effect, as opposed to a big city where what you do is more like a drop in the bucket. I enjoy that about Baltimore, and I like that, as a city, it’s very English. The harbor where I live sort of evokes the London docks for me.

Q: Are you ever homesick for England, or have you been in the states too long for that?

A: I still prefer the working environment in America. It’s very supportive and easier to get things done, so from that point of view I find it sort of liberating. The U.K. is more straight-laced, and people are more judgmental.

Q: What does Johns Hopkins expect to receive by hiring you?

A: I had no idea at first. Initially, I was just sort of amazed they’d even have me. Not only did I not have a PhD, but I left school at 16! I think the reason I’m there is because the fees are very high, and students and their parents are rightfully very concerned as to whether this big investment can lead to a career in the real world for their sons and daughters. The university needs people from the real world to come in and mix it up with the more scholarly faculty. I’m starting a new degree course this Fall at the Peabody Institute, which is the music conservatory of John Hopkins, the oldest in the USA. The course is in music design for virtual reality games, which is a really hot topic right now. VR is set to improve rapidly and become quite meaningful in the next few years, and it’s very important to make sure that music and sound are well implemented..

In addition to his work at Johns Hopkins, Dolby conducts a music program for seventh and eighth graders in Baltimore

Q: I take note of the excitement you project when you talk about tech and education, as opposed to your music career.

A: It’s exciting because we don’t exactly know what’s going to happen in this field over the next few years, so there’s no single teacher who is qualified to teach a single curriculum. I kind of know what I’m going to teach this fall, but beyond that, who knows what is going to hit in the next few months? I will have to be willing to embrace brand new things and go with the flow.

Q: Which describes the way you first felt about music.

A: Yes, that’s true.

Q: You’ve been a pop music pioneer, a tech success and now a professor. A funny remark would be “The only thing missing from your resume is ‘Best Selling Author’,” but you happen to be that as well. Luminaries ranging from highbrow fiction writers to Henry Rollins have heaped heavy praise on your memoir, “The Speed of Sound,” and readers have awarded it a five star rating on Amazon.

A: I enjoyed writing the book, and it wasn’t really that difficult. A lot of the stories that appear are ones that I had told a lot over the years, and I’m literate enough that I was able to translate them to the page. It was a fairly matter-of-fact process, and a lot of the stories I was telling are quite light and witty. Some of the more personal stuff was most difficult to write, like in the Silicon Valley period when the kids were small and I was having a nervous breakdown and drinking a bit too much. I had never tried to tell that story, and I had to let my guard down and allow myself to be a bit vulnerable, which was a new experience. All told, I feel like the book consummated everything I’ve done, and gave it a sort of through line.

Q: It chronicles a well accomplished and interesting life, and an existence that goes far beyond the hit song that brought you to our attention in the first place. With that in mind, do people in public ever randomly yell “Science!” at you? (laughs)

A: All the time.

Q: All the time?

A: It happens constantly.

Q: What goes through your mind when that happens?

A: “Hey, it’s one more hit record than you’ll ever have.” (laughs)

Dolby’s website:

Follow Dolby on Twitter: @ThomasDolby

Follow Dolby on Facebook: @officialthomasdolby

Check out Dolby’s music program at Johns Hopkins: Music for New Media

Robert Ferraro is a former producer of radio talk shows and Major League Baseball broadcasts, who interviews pop culture figures. Previously, he held over 50 menial jobs, all of which he quit when he couldn’t find anyone interesting to talk to.

This article first appeared on Ferraro’s web site,

Facebook: @OfPersonalInterest

Follow Robert on Twitter: @PopCultRob

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Since launching in September 2014,, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.


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Donation Total: $20.00

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