On Saturday, Dolby will cruise into town to mix some of the then and now for a show at World Cafe Live, pulling his portable Time Capsule behind him. First unveiled at last week's South by Southwest music and tech conference in Austin, Texas, "it's actually a 1930s teardrop trailer as I'd envision it customized by H.G. Wells, housing a personal audio/video recording system. It's sort of a cross between a peep show and a passport-photo booth. We'll have it parked outside the venue. People can have a private time to record 30-second messages for the future. It might be a message for your grandchildren. Or, if you presume the human race won't survive, a message you can leave for future space visitors. We'll put them up on YouTube and award prizes for the best."
The next time Dolby goes to one of those futurist TED conferences where brilliant innovators share ideas and Dolby serves as the event's music director, Dolby will hit up "three guys who own their own spaceship — Richard Branson is one of them — and ask if they can distribute these messages in space. I'll put them on flash thumb drives, which they can then push through the escape tubes ... with the hope that someone or something will find it."
Born Thomas Robertson, this musician/thinker was given the nickname Dolby in high school because he was such a tech nerd, "and having Dolby noise reduction on your tape recorder was all the rage." When he started making music professionally, he reckoned there'd be confusion between Tom Robertson and Tom Robinson, a British rocker earning domestic acclaim for the hits "2-4-6-8 Motorway" and the sardonic coming-out anthem "Glad to Be Gay."
Ray Dolby (the San Francisco engineer who dreamed up the noise-reduction process) was not pleased by the co-optation of his name and trademark but got over it as Thomas Dolby added some cool factor of his own, introducing the world to the joys of shiny, high-tech synth pop. "Only eight or nine guys had synthesizers when I got started, and my first Fairlight set me back 90,000 pounds. Of course, today, you can get the same sounds out of a $50 iPhone app."
His other big claim to fame? Running a Silicon Valley company called Beatnik that scored a massive success with a Midi software/hardware solution adopted by global giant Nokia to generate polyphonic ring tones in mobile phones. The innovation was eventually implanted in "about 3 billion phones, worldwide, before they moved to MP3 and Wav files to do the same thing."
That windfall gave Dolby a terrific exit strategy. After 10 years away from music, he suddenly had the urge to create again, and in the most organic of ways and settings — aboard a solar- and wind-powered life boat he's put up on blocks behind his beach house in the British coastal town of East Anglia. "There's a lot of flooding there, so the typical garden-shed studio didn't seem such a good idea. The plan here was that if the tides did come in, we'd float away into the sunset."
Dolby then came up with "A Map of the Floating City," a globe-hopping set of music and also a companion video game that he put up on the Web for free so gamers and music fans could become part of the journey, finding clues and characters in Dolby songs and occasionally finding the artist himself playing DJ.
But if you're expecting him to start challenging the likes of Skrillex, think again. "I'm not really interested in that whole thing of lock yourself in a bedroom for two years with a computer and come up with some groovy sounds," he said. "I can appreciate the talent that takes, but if it doesn't have a really good melody, why bother?" So his new album was recorded with old-fashioned rock-band instrumentation and some earthly exotic flavorings from Indian to Latin. And with solid songcraft, from the funny cop-out of "Evil Twin Brother" (featuring Regina Spektor) to the fervent, folksy anthem "17 Hills" (Mark Knopfler and Natalie McMaster are guests on that one) and Steely jazz-noir of "Love Is a Loaded Pistol" and "Simone."
Maybe this time around, Thomas Dolby will help you see the light.
"Thomas Dolby: The Time Capsule Tour," with special guests Aaron Jonah Lewis and Ben Belcher, World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St., 8 p.m. Saturday, $17.50 and $27.50, 215-222-1400, www.worldcafelive.com; Sellersville Theater, Main and Temple streets, Sellersville, 8 p.m. March 28, $25 and $39.50, 215-257-5808, www.st94.com.