Thomas Dolby's musical science comes to San Francisco 

New sounds: After a big new wave hit in the 1980s and a stint in the Bay Area creating audio software for phones, Thomas Dolby has returned to making music. (Courtesy photo) - NEW SOUNDS: AFTER A BIG NEW WAVE HIT IN THE 1980S AND A STINT IN THE BAY AREA CREATING AUDIO SOFTWARE FOR PHONES, THOMAS DOLBY HAS RETURNED TO MAKING MUSIC. (COURTESY PHOTO)
  • New sounds: After a big new wave hit in the 1980s and a stint in the Bay Area creating audio software for phones, Thomas Dolby has returned to making music. (Courtesy photo)
  • New sounds: After a big new wave hit in the 1980s and a stint in the Bay Area creating audio software for phones, Thomas Dolby has returned to making music. (Courtesy photo)

He practically defined the new wave movement with his 1982 hit “She Blinded Me With Science.” But Thomas Dolby became something of a mad inventor himself when he left music — and his native England — a decade later for Silicon Valley, where one of his happenstance discoveries with his software-development startup Beatnik would change technology forever.

“My company was up to 125 people at one point,” he recalls. “But the dot-com boom came and went, and when the bubble burst, we were left with a deal with a mobile phone company, one that actually had some teeth. So we just focused on that, and we made the synthesizer that’s been in every Nokia phone since 1999.”

Dolby, who appears in a performance and lecture at Bimbo’s on Thursday, has just returned to music. His new album, “A Map of the Floating City,” also is available as three “continent”-suite EPs, “Urbanoia,” “Amerikana” and “Oceanea.”

After 14 years in the Bay Area, he returned to Britain, where he records in a converted, solar-powered lifeboat in his yard.

“I miss San Francisco so much!” says the artist, who still maintains a residence here. “I’m a windsurfer, so I used to go to Crissy Field and sail there a lot, and I have a lot of friends in Noe Valley.”

Curious about Dolby’s groundbreaking device? He’ll happily sketch a schematic: “All of the sound you hear out of your phone has to get mixed, whether it’s an alarm, a beep, a ringtone or an MP3 file,” he says. “And companies want to make their phones for rock-bottom prices, so they don’t want to use a dedicated audio chip. But by accident, Beatnik had developed the smallest, most efficient synthesizer ever made, but for a completely different purpose, so it would download quickly on a Web page. So we sent engineers to Finland and adapted it for Nokia’s phones, and they’ve used it ever since.”

After nearly 20 years away, drastic changes in technology and the music business itself got Dolby excited about recording again, especially since his once-unwieldy instruments are now conveniently computer-based.

He even created an online social-networking game, “The Floating City,” to announce his comeback. More than 5,000 players logged on to the steampunk saga, competing for the grand prize — a private concert by Dolby.

Beatnik is still around, but no longer developing. “I found out something about myself,” Dolby says. “I’m only really excited in the very early stages of an entrepreneurial project. The moment something actually hits pay dirt and becomes all about sales? It’s no longer of interest to me.”


IF YOU GO

 

An Evening With Thomas Dolby


Where: Bimbo’s 365 Club, 1025 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
When: 9 p.m. Thursday
Tickets: $25
Contact: (415) 474-0365, www.bimbos365club.com, www.ticketfly.com

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Tom Lanham

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