JIM WELTE. Writer. Editor.

Thomas Dolby to Unveil ‘Invisible Lighthouse’ Transmedia Show at MVFF36

ThomasDolbyNutmegThe phrase “one-of-a-kind performance” gets bandied about in excess, but an Oct. 10 event at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre as part of the 36th Mill Valley Film Festival might boast enough rarities to qualify.

Thomas Dolby, the British musician and technology pioneer whose song “She Blinded Me With Science” became a hit in 1982, is debuting a live show in the U.S. that is part film, part concert and part transmedia event, with a smattering of award-winning rock stars and musicians throw in for good measure.

The Invisible Lighthouse, Dolby’s film about the closure of a lighthouse on the tip of a mysterious ex-military island off the east cost of England, will be screened as part of MVFF36. But the movie screen will be surrounded by a bevy of sonic activity, with Dolby narrating and performing the musical score, while Blake Leyh, an Oscar-nominated sound designer best known as the music supervisor for David Simon’s acclaimed TV series The Wire, performs live Foley.

The duo will be joined by a host of special guests, including Grammy-winning musician/producer Don Was, film composer Mark Isham, cellist/composer Zoe Keating, Mill Valley singer/songwriter Dan Hicks and stalwart Marin musician/producer Narada Michael Walden, among others.

The film has already drawn rave reviews, having won two awards at the 2013 DIY Film festival in Los Angeles. J.J. Abrams, the director of Star Trek Into Darkness and the forthcoming Star Wars feature film, described it as “touching, evocative, and beautiful.”

We spoke to Dolby, who has also had stints in Silicon Valley as the founder of digital audio company Beatnik and as the music supervisor for the TED Talks, about what people can expect from what seems like a one-of-a-kind performance indeed.

Patch: Where are you right now?
Thomas Dolby: I’m in Canterbury, getting ready for a show here.

P: You were born in London. How did you first connect with this lighthouse on an island off the coast of Suffolk?
TD: My father comes from an old Suffolk family. As you travel around Suffolk, you’ll see a lot of buildings that were built by my great grand ancestors. And my ancestors may have actually been able to walk to the lighthouse because there didn’t used to be a North Sea, but the isles are gradually drifting eastward. We’re all basically doomed (laughs).
So I have a very strong connection to the area because of my family, and I moved back from California to Suffolk so my kids could share the experience that I had as a kid. But it’s not the picture postcard England that many Americans come over to see. It’s quite a strange place because any time there’s been a war, this area was the frontline. You see the relics of the invasions of the Vikings in these big blocks of concrete dissolving into the sand. It’s a very powerful place. I remember seeing the lighthouse’s beacon flashing on the bedroom walls as a little boy.

P: Aside from the general lore of lighthouses, what specifically attracted you to this one?
TD: You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone. When I heard it was going away, there was this great sense of loss. I converted an old lifeboat into a music studio called the Nutmeg of Consolation (it’s powered by a wind turbine and solar panels) and out it in my backyard, and I could see the lighthouse from there.

P: You’ve always been known for your technical savvy, but how did decide to direct your first film?
TD: I’ve never been a photographer or a painter but had a little bit of experience with visuals. And now the HD video equipment that’s available really gives the guy on the street the same quality that professionals have. You can really go out and make a quality independent movie these days.

P: Because of the military history on this island, you didn’t get much cooperation from the authorities.
TD: They don’t really want people wandering around out there. I didn’t have a big production budget behind me, so they didn’t take me too seriously. So I just said, ‘Screw the permits – I’ll do a clandestine raid on the island.’ On a deeper level, the film is an exploration of memory and how our childhood memories become exaggerated and amplified. I reconnect with my childhood with this high speed RIB (rigid inflatable boat) into the muddy creek. I hammed it up and added a James Bond twist.

P: How did you know when to go to capture the lighthouse’s last moments?
TD: For navigation purposes, they have to publish something like that for the ships, so that info was freely available. I tried to get permission to spend the last night on the island but was denied. I got some beautiful shots of the last flicker of the lighthouse though. As far as I know I’m only person who caught that.

P: So you used a drone camera to film the final flash at the lighthouse?
TD: Yes I had a relatively cheap remote controlled Walkera QR X350 GPS Phantom Drone. You can control it with an iPhone. Through online forums for people who fly drones, I met a guy named Chad Johnson from Humboldt. He flies a military grade, high-powered drone with a very powerful camera on it around in the woods and beaches of Humboldt. I got him to shoot it.

P: How did the format of this show develop? Was it a standalone film first or did you have this sort of live narration, live musical score and Foley sound effects idea in mind at the outset?
TD: The whole concept was a constantly changing thing. Because it was only me, I had the luxury of not needing to write a script and make a pitch and get it funded. It was very seat of the pants. I brought back the footage and started editing it myself. As I did, I would speak lines of narrative into my laptop. I let the music and the visuals tell the story for the most part.
But as my family occasionally ducked their heads in as I narrated, it soon became apparent to me that for the experience of someone watching it, it was very special to be in the presence in the room of the author narrating and playing the music. So I came up with the idea of taking it on the road.

P: You put out your first album in nearly two decades in 2011. Was that a conscious decision to step away from releasing albums for so long?
TD: I was very keen to keep putting out albums. The time I spent in Silicon Valley was never supposed to be 19 years. But at the beginning of the 1990s, I was very burnt out on the music industry, and Silicon Valley was a very special place to be. As inevitably happens, you get sucked into these things for longer than you expect.

P: Much of that time was at Beatnik, the digital audio firm you founded.
TD: Beatnik was only modestly successful in the early years, and it took off as the mobile phone era arrived. It’s very hard for an entrepreneur to extricate himself from his company. It comes to equal your sense of worth, in a way. But the TED Talks were a great segue from there.

P: Your career has been such a fascinating mix of music and technology, in many cases several steps ahead of where the nexus of those industries was at the time.
TD: History has a way of changing the way things are perceived. I’ve very often been one of the first people who dives into a new medium or technology that I find appealing. But you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time, and I’m not sure I’ve had the knack of timing.

P: For instance?
TD: By 1993, you could download an mp3 file of your favorite song from Compuserve, and I saw that and thought, ’That music is being uploaded from a computer just like mine. Not only can people share music this way, but artists using a computer like mine could be hitting a button and sending it all over the internet on the spot. That’s going to be a revolution.’ But it took years for that to come to the forefront. It was only the mid- to late-90s when the download epidemic took hold and the music industry had to decide to either stamp it out or find a way to turn it into cash.
Steve Jobs will always be the man remembered as ushering the music industry into the digital age with iPods and iTunes, but by the time Apple got involved in that business, the rest of us had just about given up in horror after all those years. The music industry had tried to wipe out Napster and they were in despair by the time Apple came along. But 100 years from now, people will picture Steve Jobs in a garage saving the music industry.

P: How did you connect with Blake Leyh on this project?
TD: He was employee number 10 at Beatnik. We’ve known each other for a long time. He’s a brilliant guy, and he liked the idea of doing something very different.

Click here for more info on or to buy tickets for Thomas Dolby’sThe Invisible Lighthouse performance on Oct. 10 at 142 Throckmorton Theatre as part of the 36th Mill Valley Film Festival.

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October 1, 2013 Features, Film, Music, Patch, Q & A