Rewind: Philip Sherburne on “The Flat Earth”

Posted: September 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Features | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

In discussion with Philip Sherburne about “The Flat Earth” by Thomas Dolby (1984).

Why did you choose this album, and how did you come across Thomas Dolby in the first place?

Until I was 12 or 13, I got most of my pop music from Top 40 radio. There weren’t a lot of other options for kid living in suburban Portland, Oregon in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and I loved a lot of things that I’d probably cringe at now, simply because they were all that was available. This is not one of them, though. Thomas Dolby’s “The Flat Earth” has remained a personal favorite for a quarter century now, and within it I can find many of the seeds of my eventual love for electronic music. I don’t remember any first encounter with Thomas Dolby’s 1982 single “She Blinded Me With Science,” which was all over the radio that year. I’m sure it was the synths and samples that grabbed me. I had discovered synthesizers through the music shop where I bought piano sheet music – Bach, Czerny, Phil Collins – and was nuts about anything with synths in it (In 1983, I’d get one of my own, a Korg Poly-800). Curiously, I didn’t dig any further into Dolby’s music at the time, but then, the song was ubiquitous, and in retrospect, it was such an odd single it probably didn’t gesture towards a form bigger than itself, like an album. It was what it was, and that was plenty. In 1984 or 1985, I went through a brief period of checking out LPs from the Multnomah County Library. That’s where I came across „The Flat Earth“. It was the cover that got me. Around that time, I would latch onto anything that had the faintest hint of “new wave” to it, and the cover’s pseudoscientific markings and cryptic photo-montage seemed like the most modern thing I’d ever seen. In retrospect, the sleeve is hardly so dazzling — a slightly watered down version of Peter Saville. (In fact, it looks a little like a cross between the Durutti Column’s “Circuses & Bread” and Section 25’s “From the Hip”, but it lacks the elegance of either.) Still, it was good enough for a 14-year-old jonesing for the New. I remember sitting on the floor of my parents’ living room, hunched over the sleeve, trying to make sense of the whole package. Not to repeat myself, but “cryptic” is the only word that fits. Everything about the music seemed to hint at hidden meanings, from the sleeve to the lyrics: “Keith talked in alphanumerals,” after all. Who the hell was the guy panning for gold on the cover? Who were these mysterious Mulu, people of the rainforest? What was a drug cathedral, and why an octohedron? (I had so much to learn.) Etc., etc. I’ve long since stopped caring much about lyrics, much less concept albums, but I was young and impressionable then, and every flip of the record seemed to offer another clue as to some strange, grownup world I couldn’t begin to decipher. The same went for the music, of course. For starters, there was the stylistic range: “Dissidents” and “White City” were recognizable as pop music, after a fashion, but what was “Screen Kiss”? It presented a kind of liquidity I don’t remember having recognized in music before that – first in the fretless bass, the synthesizers and the stacked harmonies, and even the chord changes, but mainly it was the way it trailed off into the scratchy patter of L.A. traffic reports, multi-tracked and run through delay. I’d never heard the “real world” breaking into pop music before, and certainly not spun into such a purely “ambient” sound. “Mulu the Rain Forest” was another weird one – again, an approximation of ambient, long before I’d discover it. And “I Scare Myself” totally threw me for a loop. What was a Latin lounge jazz song doing here, especially sandwiched between the humid “Mulu” and the jagged, chromed funk of “Hyperactive”? There was no doubting the continuity of the album, but the pieces felt at odds, as fractured as the cut-up sleeve imagery; the sequencing seemed erratic and the two sides of the LP felt out of balance with each other, and yet you couldn’t have put it together any other way. Just like venturing to the edge of the (flat) earth, flipping the record had a weirdly vertiginous quality to it. (I was, you may note, an unusually impressionable adolescent, at least where music was concerned.)

At the time I got this it took some time to grow on me. Was it the same with you or was it love at first sight?

A little of both. There was definitely something off-putting about the record at first, but I devoured it anyway. I’d go so far as to say that the parts that alienated me were precisely what sent me back into it. I wanted to figure it out. All this might sound a little silly now. Today, I can recognize that a lot of it is pretty overblown, beginning with the lyrics: “My writing/ is an iron fist/ in a glove full of Vaseline”? That’s… pretty awful. (Also, it may go some way towards explaining the purplish quality of my own youthful stabs at poesy.) But for all its excesses, it kept drawing me in. I still listen to the fade out from “Dissidents” into “The Flat Earth” and feel a thrill all over again, all those gangly licks and hard-edged FM tones giving way to hushed percussion and a yielding soundfield… It’s funny, too, to listen today to the title track and even hear the tiniest hint of disco and proto-house in the rolling conga rhythms, things I had absolutely no idea about then. Whatever its failures, this was the album that, more than any other up until that time, convinced me that records offered more than just a hook and a chorus, that they deserved to be puzzled through, analyzed, unpacked. That they offered up their own little worlds, worlds I would aspire to inhabit.

Are there songs that you particularly love? Or even some that you don’t?

I don’t think I cared much for “Hyperactive” at the time – it seemed too jittery, too intense. Frankly, I’ve never loved Dolby’s voice, and much of his performance here runs counter to my usual tastes. He’s too strained, too belting. (The same goes for “White City.”) And the sonics of the thing are really rather unpleasant – all that slap bass and Chipmunk frenzy. In retrospect, though, it’s a rather astonishing song: such a weird, unstable amalgam of elements, such a jumble of sounds, and such a reflection of self-consciously “cutting-edge” studio technology of the time. Given the song’s subject matter, I guess he pretty much nailed it. Looking back, “Mulu” isn’t without its problems: namely, the whole noble savages thing (and the cod-Asian strings that open it). But I can live with that. The insect chatter, the thunderclap drums, the fretless bass, the rushing chants, the piano chords – every element gives me chills. I adore it. (Let’s not forget that my probable #1 favorite song of all time is Prince’s “Condition of the Heart,” which is excessive and absurd in much the same way.) “Dissidents” I still find an astonishing piece of recorded music. It takes so many twists and turns. There’s that teaser intro, which implies one very odd time signature before easing into a low-slung 2/4. There’s mixture of vocals – Dolby’s in the foreground, background, and everywhere else; voices of uncertain provenance sped-up and slowed-down; the foreign-language excerpts (prefacing the Conet Project and Wilco alike); the operatic snippets. And then there’s the way he constructs the beat, modeling it on the patterns of a typewriter, mirroring drum machine and typewriter samples. And I love how the song breaks the fourth wall, so to speak, when the paper’s torn from the typewriter at the track’s climax. And I could rhapsodize at length over my love for “The Flat Earth” and “Screen Kiss,” which make such a perfect one-two punch on the first side. Especially “Screen Kiss” — such quiet, expansive drama.

This album is usually viewed by critics as being more “mature” than his debut album, “The Golden Age Of Wireless”. Do you think this is true? How would you compare it to “The Flat Earth”?

„The Flat Earth“ definitely has a kind of grown-up feel to it, from the narratives to the songwriting, arrangement and production; the piano and bass give it a very self-consciously “jazzy” feel. It’s also one of the few Dolby albums not to travel under a kind of goofy, comic-book banner. I’ve always hated the mad-scientist schtick of “Blinded Me With Silence,” just as I dislike overtly “funny” elements in music in general. I’m not saying I’m right – I’m sure Chuck Eddy would disagree – but it’s just the way my ears are tuned. Dolby’s wacky, early-MTV persona does a disservice to “Wireless”, though. Behind the kitsch, there’s a darker element prefiguring the future-shock paranoia of „The Flat Earth“. Listen back to “Wireless” now, and it’s pretty sophisticated, in terms of both songwriting and production. “Europa and the Pirate Twins,” “Airwaves”… these are not the work of a one-hit wonder. Hell, “The Wreck of the Fairchild” has the audacity to throw together synth-pop, ska and foreign-language control tower transmissions: it may not be Cabaret Voltaire, but it’s not Howard Jones, either. And “One of Our Submarines” is simply a masterpiece. Talk about steampunk melancholy. “Bye bye empire, bye bye…” No wonder Ricardo Villalobos remixed it. The 21st century death of Anglo-American world dominance is spelled out right there.

This mad scientist pose Dolby often used (up to this day) is not very prominent here, apart from “Hyperactive”. And the humorous elements are toned down, too. What do you think made him decide for that? And why did he neglect it again for his later work?

Honestly, I don’t know. I’d love to hear that there was more music where this album came from, rather than the mad scientist’s lair.

Apparently Thomas Dolby managed to develop his own signature sound in the genre of Synthpop, nevertheless it seems to me that he tried to open up his spectrum a bit wider with this album. What noticeable influences would you point out?

I don’t really think of „The Flat Earth“ as a synth-pop album. Aside from some of the pads, the synthesizers tend not to be that prominent in the first place. There’s definitely an electro-funk underpinning; there are bits of George Clinton in “Dissidents.” Brian Eno’s atmospherics inform the overall texture of everything – something I’ve always liked about the album is the way that foreground (melody, riff, figure) bleeds into background (synth pads, delay, atmospherics) and vice versa; that’s gotta be an Eno thing. Roxy Music – “More Than This” has the same gooey, gliding sound that Dolby goes for. Bowie, a little, in the approach to space. A faint hint of Talking Heads in “The Flat Earth.” (This is all, now that I think of it, Eno-related.) I get a Trevor Horn vibe from a lot of it. Listen to “The White City” alongside something like Propaganda’s “A Secret Wish “ (1985) – there are the same loping, “ethnic” rhythms; the same synth washes, trumpets, portentous lyrics… even slap bass! Both records have that coked-to-the-gills sheen, a sound I’ve always loved.

Thomas Dolby also extended his ideas successfully as producer, with quite a broad range from Whodini, Adele Bertei to Prefab Sprout and Ryuichi Sakamoto. I think there are significant similarities between his solo and production work. Would you agree?

You know, I don’t really know much about his production work. Listening now to Whodini’s “Magic’s Wand,” though, you can certainly hear Dolby’s touch. It’s not a lot less goofy than Dolby’s own material, but funky tends to eclipse funny. (It’s interesting to imagine how we might think of him if he had been a streetwise black American instead of a nerdy white Brit; would we be calling “She Blinded Me With Science” an example of Afro-futurism?). In his 1981 production for Jane Kennaway’s “Year 2000″ (downloadable here:, you can hear Dolby all over it, even though it’s ostensibly a guitar-pop song. There’s that ambient synth intro (shades of Legowelt!). And the first four bars of the chorus, which do an interesting little modulation thing, remind me a lot of the vocal harmonies on “One of Our Submarines.” Then you also have the voiceover in the breakdown, “Even superheroes have their feelings…” – classic Dolby style, sort of mock-psychoanalysis-in-dub. With the Group’s, “Technology” (1983), he even sowed the seeds of Justice’ D.A.N.C.E.!

I always found it peculiar that a British electronic musician with somewhat limited pop appeal managed to plant his ideas to early electro, disco-funk and other established pop acts. Apart from being classics, like “Magic’s Wand” or “Steve McQueen”, how Dolby are those productions?

On “Magic’s Wand,” I couldn’t really say how much Dolby is cribbing from existing electro-funk and how much is his own invention, but that bass synth definitely sounds like it comes from his playbook. And while “Steve McQueen” sounds less immediately Dolby, if only for its country/blues touches that open the record, I hear Dolby’s touch in the sense of space – everything’s quite porous and cushioned – and in the details, like the little filigree of ambient guitar in “Bonny,” or the vocal samples (Fairlight?) on “Appetite.” I actually didn’t know this record before… thanks for the tip!

In my opinion Thomas Dolby is also a very original lyricist. How would you describe his way with words?

The lyrics to „The Flat Earth“ totally pulled me in when I first encountered the album. (These days, I could really care less about most lyrics – I suspect that one of the major things that drew me to electronic music was that I could finally escape all that feeble emoting that pop and rock so often entail.) I don’t want to overstate my case, though: I don’t think Dolby is necessarily a great lyricist. There are some real clunkers on the album: “Courting disaster we ran in the night/ Wings of an angel torn in flight.” (It’s times like these you actually wish they hadn’t included lyric sheets in albums.) But he does have a way with words. “Miller time at the bar where all the English meet.” That line has always stuck out for me (Who thought that the phrase “Miller time” could ever sound almost poetic?). Oddly, on this album, if you just read the lyrics on the page, they can look pretty dreadful. But he really makes them work in action – those rat-a-tat typewriters have forever impressed themselves on the word “dissidents” for me. Even at his purplest, maybe there’s something to be said for the way he collides images together. In “Dissidents,” you get writing, insects, palm, domino effect, iron, glove, vaseline, fuse, and kerosene all in the space of a few bars. That supercharged jumble fits perfectly with music that’s stuffed with isolated timbres and carefully mismatched sounds, music that feels almost collaged together.

Is there any later work of him that you like? I remember him suddenly popping up on the German electronic label Salz a few years back.

I pretty much lost track of Dolby after „The Flat Earth“. Which is odd, because I used to be pretty obsessive about the artists I really cared about. I think my tastes changed pretty rapidly around the same time I discovered the album: new wave and goth and punk and hardcore came tumbling in by 1985. My tastes narrowed, in a way – I lost my taste for studio experiments; I wanted raw and loud and dark. It wouldn’t be until 1994 or so that I started listening to “electronic” music again, Aphex Twin and Autechre and Biosphere and Sun Electric, all things that „The Flat Earth“ and New Order unknowingly primed for me. But what I have heard of Dolby’s later stuff doesn’t appeal much. “Aliens Ate My Buick” – the title alone was enough to put me off forever. And while I can hear interesting ideas lurking in a track like “Pulp Culture,” the music generally doesn’t push my buttons (If I want George Clinton, I’ll listen to George Clinton). Whatever magic happened to make „The Flat Earth“ seems to have been fleeting. Most people call Dolby a one-hit wonder, but I suspect he may be a one-album wonder. And that’s no slight. Those “One of Our Submarines” remixes are an old favorite of mine, though. I couldn’t believe it when I first stumbled across the record—at Sónar, I think it was, in the record fair. Ricardo Villalobos and Akufen remixing one of my favorite Thomas Dolby songs? It seemed too good to be true. I still think that’s one of Ricardo’s best remixes.

Thomas Dolby also works as an actor and film composer. Did you follow that streak of his career?

I have not. Looking at his filmography on IMDB, it actually appears that I’ve never seen a single film he soundtracked. Not even “Howard the Duck”. I do, however, recommend this video.

It’s Thomas Dolby at a NYC storytellers’ night, recounting a tale of visiting Michael Jackson’s home in 1982. There are limousines, thrones, and the immortal question: “What’s the deal with the kids on the balcony?”

He is still touring quite a lot, and has released some live albums in the past few years. I found it a bit surprising that this live aspect is so important to him. Have you had the chance to see him live?

I never have, and to be honest, it’s not something that appeals to me too much. I like recorded music. I’m most interested in what can be done in a studio that can’t be done on stage, in real time, with fallible hands. I suspect that „The Flat Earth“, in fact, played a significant role in tilting my tastes in that very direction. So to experience the music live… there’s such a risk of letdown, isn’t there?

Sounds Like Me 09/09

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