ROCK / Blast from the past: First he blinded us with science, then he deafened us with silence. But now Thomas Dolby is back. Giles Smith asked him what his plans were

Click to follow
This week, Thomas Dolby, the musician, singer and producer, is in a rehearsal studio in London, preparing his comeback. His concerts in London at the weekend will be his first British appearances for four and a half years. The trouble with being away for long periods, he says, is that 'when you re-emerge, it's like starting from scratch again.' So, though his new album is his fourth, he's back in the clubs on one-night stands - the Mean Fiddler on Friday, the Clapham Grand on Saturday.

Not that Dolby has ever been Wembley Stadium material (apart from that time he arranged and appeared with David Bowie's backing band for Live Aid). Each of his albums has drawn from an eclectic range of musical interests, and has stood largely at odds with the commercial mainstream. 'It was always my ambition to be viewed as an outsider who made odd records from time to time, like you'd look forward to a Zappa record or a George Clinton record. But you have to earn that: you have to to get to an age where you're starting to droop a bit.'

Still, there was one occasion in Dolby's life when his arrival at Los Angeles's airport was greeted by a fleet of limos. That was during 1984, with the success of his single 'She Blinded Me With Science', a berserk novelty record full of blipping synthesisers and featuring a guest appearance by Magnus Pyke. It went into the Top Five in America and consequently, when he flew across to LA, 'there were all these cars at the airport, filled with people claiming to have discovered me.'

At the time, Dolby knew someone who worked with Michael Jackson, so immediately after his television appearance - and mostly, he claims, in order to avoid the evening of entertainment the record company big wigs had organised for him - he phoned Jackson and introduced himself. 'He said come over, so I staggered up the drive in the pouring rain, lit by the headlights from one of the limos, and rang the doorbell. And there was a kind of Busby Berkeley staircase in there, and he came down wearing what appeared to be pink pyjamas. He climbed into this throne, a big medieval chair, and we got to talking about music and the weather, and he was very sweet actually. I thought we were alone in the house, but then I noticed little faces peering through the banisters. And a door burst open and 'She Blinded Me With Science' came blasting out of another room, and the faces reappeared and they were giggling. And I said, 'What's with them?' And Michael said, 'Oh, they're just my cousin's schoolfriends, they come over on a Thursday and play here.' And I said, 'What do they find so funny?' And he said, 'Oh, they just can't believe you're the guy off the TV.' '

That single effectively opened Dolby's career out wide. Before then, he had toured as a keyboard player with Lene Lovich. And he had been a session musician for a while, adding shiny layers of synthesiser to the airbrushed recordings of rock acts like Foreigner and Def Leppard. But after 'She Blinded Me With Science', his stock was high. He produced Joni Mitchell's Dog Eat Dog album, worked under Quincy Jones on the score for the film Fever Pitch, wrote the orchestral music for Ken Russell's Gothic. His work was mostly LA-based, his wife was American (the former Dynasty actress, Kathleen Beller) and he ended up living there.

Dolby's best work as a producer has been done with Prefab Sprout. On their last three albums, he set Paddy McAloon's songs in a context which frequently sounds lush and brittle at the same time, amplifying a tendency in the writing itself. It's a relationship Dolby keeps wondering about severing, for the sake of a change, 'but then a tape of Paddy McAloon's demos arrives and I'm thinking how could I refuse this?' One of his production methods involves using instruments 'taped and slowed down out of their natural range'. So that weirdly evocative paddle noise you hear on Prefab Sprout's 'We Let The Stars Go' is in fact a mandolin, slowed up until you hear the ticking of the plectrum across the strings. And that industrial anvil on Dolby's own 'Cruel' is a tambourine, played back four octaves lower.

'Cruel' is part of Astronauts and Heretics, Dolby's new album. It's the result of a fearless musical voyage which took him across crocodile-infested swamp lands to Louisiana, out to a dangerously remote warehouse in Marin County and round to his next door neighbour's. In Louisiana, he recorded some cajun musicians from a group called Beau Soleil. 'I did it in an accordion shop with a studio out the back. I'd booked three of them to come down, but word had got out and every time I turned around there was some other cousin called Jim-Bob with a banjo. So I wheeled them all in and recorded everything they did.'

And in Marin County, he managed to squeeze a contribution out of The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir - remarkably, the first time the two have appeared on somebody else's recordings. 'I wanted that inimitable tone. The Grateful Dead rehearse in a big warehouse out there. It was in an industrial district, with four big articulated lorries outside and this shiny BMW. I went inside and with his back to me in the reception chair was a man with a fine head of hair and an immaculate suede and leather jacket, I was quite surprised at the jacket and the BMW, but it was Garcia. I'd been expecting dirty denims and a Harley. I said, 'You guys are still the biggest touring band in the world.' And he said, 'I dunno man, these dirty hippy chicks just keep following us around.' Those guys are evidence that now you can achieve a seniority in the rock business like you can with jazz players.'

And he went next door, because that's where Eddie Van Halen lives. 'Usually with any musician, you can break the ice by quoting Spinal Tap. In his studio, he has about 40 guitars on stands, and I remember him reaching for one and I said, 'Don't touch that, it's never been touched.' And he just looked completely blank. So I said, 'Did you never see that film, Spinal Tap?' He said, 'Yeah man, but I didn't think it was funny.' And I said, 'Well, was it insulting to you?' And he said, 'No, it wasn't even insulting, it was just like my life. Except not as deep.' And I realised after working with him for a few days, it would be like someone just bringing a camera into your kitchen and projecting the film and everybody laughing. That was the last time I quoted the movie to him.'

'Astronauts and Heretics' is released by Virgin. See opposite for concert details.

(Photograph omitted)