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Q&A: Thomas Dolby

New wave '80s artist and electronica pioneer Thomas Dolby has launched his new "transmedia" game dubbed "The Floating City," which will also serve as a platform to expose his new music.

New wave '80s artist and electronica pioneer Thomas Dolby has launched his new "transmedia" game dubbed "The Floating City," which will also serve as a platform to expose his new music.

"Based on a crazy idea I have been nurturing since I began my new album nearly two years ago, it is the fruit of several months' hard work by a dedicated all-star team of developers and writers, and it's the prelude to my album 'A Map of the Floating City,' which will follow as the game reaches its climax," Dolby said in an advance.

Dolby said "The Floating City" game is open for registration via its website. Players from around the world will form tribes and collaborate to earn free music downloads, merchandise and concert tickets.

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Thomas Dolby

Completely free to the public, "The Floating City" is a casual game that hooks participants into building a whole story world as they form or join an already established tribe, Dolby explained.

"It runs on a standard web browser, smartphone or iPad without additional software installation," Dolby said. "It doesn't matter whether you're familiar with my catalog. But hardcore fans will be delighted to find that 'The Floating City' integrates characters, places, and objects named in every one of my albums going back to the beginning of my career."

A few days earlier, Dolby announced that he will be making several concert appearances at the end of July along with his collaborators, The Pirate Twins, playing short electronic sets featuring some '80s classics and possibly a sneak preview of a brand new track from "A Map of the Floating City."

The lineup will include Dolby on keyboards and vocals; Andrew Down on keyboards; Darren Goldsmith on bass and synth; and Mat Hector on electronic drums and samples.

Dolby is confirmed to play July 29 at Vintage at the Southbank, Royal Festival Hall, London, hosted by Martyn Ware of Human League/Heaven 17, and also featuring Alan Wilder (ex-Depeche Mode)'s band Recoil.

On July 30, he performs at Green Gathering 2011 at Chepstow, Monmouthsire. The long-standing summer festival, formerly known as BGG, celebrates alternative energy and lifestyles.

Dolby said he expects to do about 20 shows in the U.S. and a half dozen in the U.K. before the end of the year. SoundSpike caught up with Dolby recently to talk about his new three-part musical project, the new interactive game, and his affinity for rootsy Appalachian folk music that inspired his ribald single and video "The Toadlickers," which was nominated for two Webby Awards.

SoundSpike: So your EPs "Amerikana," and "Oceanea" were made available to fans via web downloads once they were completed, with the third part of the project being "Urbanoia," all of which will become the new album, "A Map of the Floating City," which is planned for release this summer?

"Urbanoia" is actually part of the game, and there's some additional material in the game that won't be part of the album. The idea of the EPs was to give fans a sneak preview of the work in progress. And I got the idea to combine it in something of a different experience. It's kind of an alternate reality based around the characters, there's and places in my songs going back to the 1980s. Hopefully it will be great for my hardcore fans, but also for a wider range of people who may have a couple of my old albums in their collection, immersing them in the mythology of the past work while introducing them to the songs on the new album.

SoundSpike: And now gamers, fans and members of the Flat Earth Society will not only be able to participate in "The Floating City," but participants can get hints to advancing in the game that are embedded in your new material?

My online community the Flat Earth Society has always had this slightly quirky, fictionalized atmosphere about it. And this game is sort of a magical mystery tour for the Flat Earth Society. Anybody can play because it's based in your browser so you don't need any special software or anything like that -- and it's free.

SoundSpike: And a number of the most dedicated and astute players will qualify to attend an invitation-only concert where you will perform the entire new project?

The game isn't about scoring points or individual prowess, it's about collaboration, and you get formed into one of nine tribes who have to figure out the solution to a mystery. So on summer tour, I will earmark some of the shows and depending on where the winning tribe is located, that's where the concert will be. And at that show we'll celebrate the epic win of that tribe by performing the new album in full.

SoundSpike: How did the piecing of this whole concept come together, and at what point did you decide that the new music would eventually be delivered within the envelope of the online game?

I'd been thinking about the game for awhile. I suppose there seems to be a gap between this very dedicated group of hardcore fans going back to the beginning, and people who were aware of me from my hits or other things, who wouldn't expect to hear anything from me in the summer of 2011. I felt too much like a cult artist, really, and the way the industry is, I'm not likely going to get tons of radio airplay again and playing stadiums. So I needed a way to get arms around this latent interest in my stuff, and I needed something to make this new music stand out. Since a quite of effort went into releasing the first EPs the way I did, and it took so much time, rather than pushing the album release out any further to release the game, I'd rather support the album in this optional way to get more important people involved.

SoundSpike: And material from 'Oceanea' is beginning to show up on commercial radio. Did you have that cliched experience of hearing your new song as you were driving to the grocer?

There's been some unexpected interest in the record, because I think the 'Oceanea' EP is very mellow and atmospheric. If you're expecting another "She Blinded Me With Science" you're going to be surprised. And in fact I did have that sort of found experience back in England. Interestingly, that song had the "B" word in it [bastard], and the BBC apparently felt that was too depraved for an evening audience so it got bleeped out. That was a first for me -- hearing one of my songs being censored.

SoundSpike: That had to be "Toadlickers." Speaking of that song, what made you delve into some of the little, or never before explored genres of folk and country -- like you did to an expert degree on "Toadlickers"?

It's not music that's indigenous to me at all, so it was new to me. I've always been jealous of novelists who can pick a new place, or a point in history as a setting for their work. And musicians who refuse to be pigeonholed raise eyebrows because they say "it's not his native music, it's not where he's supposed to be." I think that's a shame really, because I find it very stimulating to explore new genres if it's in support of an idea. So this song was inspired by a posse of eco-hippies I read was living in the Welsh mountains who were nonetheless very high tech with satellite antennas, and I wondered what kind of music they might listen to. I imagined it was a mixture of American Bluegrass and Techno. There's a side to it as well that is a response to Sarah Palin and the Tea Party -- the apparent return to American fundamentalism. People were a bit shocked to hear it at first, but they came around to it.

SoundSpike: Another innovative way you are reaching and appealing to fans new and old is through the V-logs on your website. I'm not sure any artist of your experience or stature has ever gone so deeply into the process of song construction.

There's a side of me that wishes I had a mentor when I was starting out. And I thought about artists and producers I admired like Sir George Martin or Brian Wilson or Quincy Jones. But if you saw a documentary about one of these people, it would be pitched to a mainstream audienceSince the web is so stratified [I thought] that creating the V-logs could create a very special, short film thing that gets under the hood, but has appeal to the level of fans and musicians who want to delve that far into it. My whole family is made up of teachers, but I don't think it would be for me to go off and be a University fellow or something like that. I enjoy taking the lid off things to see what's involved, and that's the person these V-logs are aimed at.


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