Synthpop legend Thomas Dolby takes us to a dieselpunk dystopia for his first studio album in 20 years

After becoming famous for such hits as 1982's "She Blinded Me With Science," synthesizer maestro Thomas Dolby spent 20+ years in the private sector inventing new digital music technologies. Now Dolby's getting back to his electronic music roots with his new album, the dieselpunk-inflected A Map of the Floating City.

Dolby told io9 about returning to music, becoming the unwitting inspiration for internet fan fiction, and The Floating City, an alternate reality trading game that he's using to leak new tracks. Dolby was also gracious enough to discuss his experience composing the Howard the Duck soundtrack, a résumé builder if ever there was one.

How did you come up with the idea to incorporate an entire storyline and virtual world into the release of your album?

During the 20 years or so that I wasn't making any music, sites on the internet were treating me and my songs like I was one of those guys that died. So I would lurk around those sites, and one of things that I'd noticed is that they weren't talking about my commercial success, they were digging into the intricacies of the lyrics.

People were taking on roles of characters from my songs and writing little bits of collaborative fiction based around my characters. I found that fascinating — I realized that a lot of people were listening to my music as a continuity to the body of work. For my new album, A Map of the Floating City, I wanted to make a link back to the previous albums from the 80s and 90s. So I wanted to get my arms around this collaborative fiction, and I came up with the idea for the game.

My idea originally was that the album had three sections named after three continents of the Floating City, and my plan had been to release an EP of each set of songs. But after doing two of them, I hit on this idea of the game. I thought, "Wouldn't it be great if the remaining songs from the album had to be discovered through exploration and problem solving?"

Synthpop legend Thomas Dolby takes us to a dieselpunk dystopia for his first studio album in 20 yearsS

Each of these three parts have very different musical flavors. Urbanoia is quite dark. Amerikana is a very fond look back at the time I spent in the USA and features talented musicians like Natalie MacMaster, Mark Knopfler [of Dire Straits], and Imogen Heap. Oceanea is my response to moving back to the UK and working and living in such a tranquil place. But there's a discomfort to it, as we're staring at the threat of rising water levels and global warming on a daily basis. That's very hard to get away from.

What were some of the more interesting specimens of fan fiction that you found on the internet?

There were some guys that created a sort of fantasy scenario about The Pirate Twins from the song "Europa & The Pirate Twins." The Pirate Twins were living in a dystopian future where you got around by blimp, and they wrote this whole storyline about their travels on the open seas, eventually arriving in Budapest (another title of one of my songs). So yeah, there were a lot of Europas online, a lot of Miss Sakamotos, a lot of Carolines.

One of the very first things that I did when I started the game was put everything in a giant database. Every place name, every item, every object named in a song that went in were grouped by songs and albums. I got together with a game designer named Andrea Phillips who has years of experience with alternative reality games. I showed her the database and she said, "This has the makings of a really good trading game."

Then we used Google Map technology to create an overlay of a fictional world. On the map, you find the hulls of abandoned vessels along the coastline that have been requisitioned by the players who are making their way northwards to the North Pole by rafting up to each other and trading.

Synthpop legend Thomas Dolby takes us to a dieselpunk dystopia for his first studio album in 20 yearsS

What is the significance of The Floating City's dystopian, alternate World War II setting?

I do most of most of work in East Anglia, on the eastern coast of Britain facing Germany. It's very exposed and underpopulated, and on the coast you can see the debris of various wars going back to Napoleon. On the beach in front of my house, there are huge concrete blocks left as tank defenses against the Germans. In some cases, there were strange weapons and defense systems that were built during the Thirties and Forties and tested there.

Those weapons range from ways of setting the sea on fire by pumping oil into it through cluster bombs and poison gas, and even weirder things like death rays built to disorient bomber pilots and cause them to crash into the sea. That time was fascinating and stranger than scifi itself, the speculation and the intense pressure scientists had to invent ways to get an advantage over the enemy. People along this coast were expecting to be invaded by Nazis at any time.

Synthpop legend Thomas Dolby takes us to a dieselpunk dystopia for his first studio album in 20 yearsS

Would you say The Floating City has a steampunk aesthetic?

Yeah, it hopefully avoids some of the clichés, not everybody's profile has goggles and there's not too many clockwork mechanisms or airships. Somebody said dieselpunk, which I can more relate to. I've never been a follower of fashion, but there's this continuation of ideas from my videos and photo shoots throughout the decades. It's consistent with the visual imagery that I've alway favored.

Your work has always has a futurist streak to it — where do you see the future of music in both production and distribution?

What I like about this technology is that I did two years worth of work in my backyard in a very inspiring setting, and when I press a button, tens of millions get access to it. It's incredibly liberating to sit down and write a song and worry about what the public will make of it, not what the A&R man and the marketing department will make of it.

Without any question, self-publishing has been possible for a while, but most musicians and artists aren't businessmen. There's a need for a new intermediary who is very good with technologies like targeted advertising on Facebook and Google or monitoring fan activity regional around the world. The rock manager of the future will be a bit like a day trader. Imagine a guy at a desk surrounded by screens, monitoring fan activity in real time and responding to it in order to maximize his artist's exposure. Advertising and marketing also costs 1/100th of what it used to when I started out because you can be that much more precise with your targeting.

Totally random aside: a while ago for io9 I wrote an article about the strangest superhero film soundtracks, and I mentioned Howard the Duck. I was slightly embarrassed to later receive an email from you objecting to its placement, as you believe it deserved to be the weirdest superhero song ever written.

What that soundtrack boiled down to was it deserved a better movie, but of course you never know from reading a script how things will turn out. To be fair, I have had some people tell me that they love that film.

For whatever it's worth, people aren't forgetting Howard the Duck any time soon.

It is a perennial favorite.

You can check out The Floating City here. The album's first two EPs — Oceanea and Amerikana — are available at Dolby's website.