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Thomas Dolby charts cinematic journey on new collection of music

Brian T. Atkinson

Thomas Dolby’s excellent “A Map of the Floating City” charts a vibrant journey both energetic (“Spice Train”) and engaging (“Love Is a Loaded Pistol”). Edgy high watermarks reel like cinematic landscapes (“Evil Twin Brother,” “Road to Reno”).

Dolby supports the new collection Wednesday night at The Parish. “I’ve only played (in Austin) during South by Southwest, which is a bit of a zoo,” the 54-year-old says. “What I’m looking forward to most is actually having a soundcheck.”

American-Statesman: What have you been doing since your last solo album (1992’s ‘Astronauts & Heretics’)?

Thomas Dolby: At the beginning of the ’90s, I went to Silicon Valley. The music business was starting to go into decline and it was more exciting to get to the heart of the tech world. I did research work into interactive music over the Internet and eventually formed my company, Beatnik. We made sound synthesizers, which are embedded in most of the world’s cell phones, about 3 billion of them at this point.

Now, the new album. Explain the title.

Well, when I retired from Beatnik, I moved back to the countryside where I grew up in the UK. I built a studio in a wooden lifeboat from the 1930s, which is in my garden looking out over the North Sea. I would see these massive container ships that looked like floating cities in different states of light.

Describe the album’s three sections.

I dreamed up these three imaginary continents. Urbanoia’s about the mixed feelings I have about cities. I get a buzz for a couple days, but then I start to find it claustrophobic. Amerikana is a fond look back at America from the point of view of a traveler. Oceana is about returning to my spiritual home in England.

How was working with Mark Knopfler (on ’17 Hills’)?

It’s great working with him. I said, “I need you to help move the song along. I imagine you playing some answer licks to my lyrics.” He said, “I’ll give it a try.” He gave me more than a dozen takes and any one of them would’ve worked great.

Is there any truth to ‘Road to Reno’?

It’s like an indie movie directed by David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino (laughs). It’s got no real purpose, really. I just started writing and let the characters write it themselves. A lot of my songs start with real-life experiences but then I heavily fictionalize them. I tend to let my imagination run away with me.

How does ‘She Blinded Me with Science’ hold up 30 years later?

It holds up pretty well, really. I think it’s become an iconic song of the MTV generation. I’ve always tried to make music that’s timeless and hard to pin down to any decade or genre, but I’m happy it’s still getting played.

You became friends with Michael Jackson working on that video, right?

He was very sweet and very kind, cared deeply about music. He was a very sympathetic figure, I thought. I visited him in his house, which was certainly a bizarre experience. It did actually feature a large number of small boys in their dressing gowns and pajamas, but not in the way that the tabloids would like to have you think. He was just having a play date with the neighbor kids and their Tonka toys. It was all very innocent and very childlike.

Thomas Dolby with Knifight