Dolby Turns a Comeback Into

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It’s a dirty little secret that most “comebacks” have nothing to do with artistry. Many are spurred by alimony payments or tax trouble. But not so with synth pioneer Thomas Dolby. Beatnik, the technology start-up he founded in 1993, has done quite well. In fact, it’s Dolby’s technology behind most of the world’s ringtones, and he has a majestic view of the Pacific to show for it.

Now he’s touring again (with kindred spirit BT), promoting live CD/DVD The Sole Inhabitant, with plans to record his first new material since 1992’s underrated Astronauts and Heretics.

Why re-emerge? Two reasons, Dolby says: the rush of performing live, and the ease of connecting with fans online. “My strongest impulse, really, was to get back in front of an audience before recording any new material,” he says. “[Back in the ’80s] I had a commercial breakthrough and a lot of people had responded to that and to the hype and the marketing that was thrown at them. A smaller number had really connected with the quieter, more personal side of my music.”

And despite the flash of gimmicky circuitry that announced his arrival on the scene (hit single “She Blinded Me With Science”), Dolby’s more introspective material has held up well—with The Sole Inhabitant’s updated arrangements, impressionistic travelogues like “Budapest By Blimp” sound utterly contemporary.

Today Dolby is but one in a crowded field of songwriters using electronics, rather than acoustic guitars, to get their ideas across. Imogen Heap, Beck, Jem and Björk could be considered peers had Dolby not come before them all (Dolby considers Björk is a personal favorite).

Live, even though there’s only one guy with banks of equipment, it’s not a push-button act. “I’m taking quite a lot of risks with the live show,” Dolby says. “Several of the songs I build up from scratch using loops … and on a night where there’d been a glitch of some sort, I’d get back to the hotel after the gig and there’d be half a dozen comments about it and how much people enjoyed realizing that it was all a house of cards that could go wrong at any minute.”