Thomas Dolby, looking dapper in a boater hat and hip glasses whose lenses reflect the light of his laptop, sits at a back booth of Canteen in Station North, only a couple blocks from the new Hopkins/ MICA buildings—the old Parkway and Centre theaters on North Avenue—where he will help run a new program, which the university sees as a sort of digital incubator that will change the neighborhood and turn it into what Katherine S. Newman, dean of Hopkins’ Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, called “a Silicon Valley for the arts,” according to The Sun.
Dolby, who is best known for his 1982 hit ‘She Blinded me With Science,’ has led a varied and interesting career at the forefront of music, film, and technology. After his early-MTV-era ubiquity, he helped develop the technology responsible for the ringtones available on over a billion phones worldwide; he was in charge of the music for the TED conferences for a dozen years; and he made the film “The Invisible Lighthouse” in 2013.
In many ways, this background makes Dolby the perfect person to fill Hopkins’ new Homewood Professor of the Arts position. But, though Dolby’s quasi-steampunk style fits the gritty futurism of the neighborhood, he is also a surprising choice.
“It was serendipity first and foremost,” says Dolby over a cup of tea. “I’ve been interested in teaching for a while. I’m from a family of teachers and I started thinking about it last fall.” He interviewed as a professor of practice at a university in Boston, and though it didn’t work out, “I started thinking about what it would mean to be on the East Coast,” says the Englishman. “I lived in California for more than 20 years, but my wife is from New York and we have a lot of friends here and we liked the idea of it and liked the idea of teaching, so I thought I would see what else was around, so I was looking in different universities.”
Dolby says he knew nothing of Johns Hopkins outside of its reputation as a medical center. He saw an ad for someone to teach the ‘Sound for Picture’ course and wrote a letter to the department chair. “I felt I wasn’t really qualified to do it and she felt that I was hugely overqualified,” he recalls of his conversation with Linda DeLibero. “I wasn’t really a specialist in sound for picture, I’ve done a film score and couple TV scores so I know my way around it, but it’s not what I’ve specialized in. But she said ‘your practical experience would be a very good compliment’ and felt that it is the direction the university is trying to go to give the students the tools and skills to hit the ground running with a well-paying job rather than making tea for a production company.”
He was intrigued, but was even more interested when he was told about the collaborations with MICA—which is partnering with Hopkins for the new Film Studies Program in the Centre Theater, which will house offices, classrooms, and screening rooms—and with the Maryland Film Festival, which will operate out of the Parkway, which will host a three-screen, 600-seat theater.
“She explained this area to me, and when I came to interview, I walked around a little bit and people thought I was completely nuts,” he says. “But it was in the daytime and I didn’t stray too far from civilization.”
Dolby is extraordinarily charming, so one could almost miss what he just said. Civilization? If such a notion seems condescending, and maybe, with his British accent, even a bit imperialistic, it’s also worth noting that this is the way that people at Johns Hopkins are presenting Station North—the arts district that occupies the Charles North, Greenmount West, and Barclay neighborhoods—to visiting dignitaries: as a place where it would be “completely nuts” to walk around in, especially outside of “civilization.” In other words, a neighborhood in need of Hopkins to come in and transform it.
It seems like a good point in the conversation to get outside of the cafe and walk around a bit. I point out Dan Deacon’s practice space, figuring that Dolby has a lot in common with Deacon, who has recently been scoring films. “Who is that?” Dolby asks. As we continue to walk, it becomes increasingly clear just how isolated Dolby—who lives in Fells Point and currently teaches at Peabody—has been from the neighborhood he is supposed to transform. He has not been to the Windup Space, The Crown, or Liam Flynn’s. He has also never been to Red Emma’s or Canteen until today.
Still, Dolby thinks his lack of knowledge concerning Station North might end up being advantageous. “There is a lot of cynicism but hopefully being too naive to get hamstrung I can just blast right through,” he says. By now, we’re sitting on a bench in front of MICA’s new studio center and, in an almost surreal scene, a group of 12 O’Clock Boys blast up Howard Street on dirtbikes, popping wheelies through the intersection, their racket drowning out our conversation. Despite the roar, Dolby doesn’t seem to notice them, as if he is so wrapped up in the neighborhood’s future that he fails to see the present.
He’s certainly got a lot of big ideas, including a tech incubator and a television show that is a musician’s version of “The Actors’ Studio,” which his students would learn to produce. He is even involved in the design of the building at 10 E. North Ave. where he will be working. “I’ve helped redraw the plans and have recommended acousticians [for the building],” he says. “I’ve got music-industry professionals to come help. There’s a screening room in there and I said that to me is the ideal teaching space. Let’s get comfortable with our popcorn and have the screen come down and then stop and start it and say, what happens if we do it this way? You have to be in the same setting as the audience to see how the music affects you. This should be a teaching space as well.”
Still, he is, perhaps, most enthusiastic about the way all of this will affect the surrounding neighborhood and the city itself. “As I became more aware of the politics involved and the baggage involved in former efforts—and I’ve only scratched the surface—I thought, well, if we can pull this off, it’s going to be a really great story. It’s going to be evangelizing it to the world. And I said ‘Who’s going to do that?’ And they said, ‘We don’t really have anybody.’ So I said ‘I’m your man.’” He intends to take his vision to New York, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood, in order to sell them on Baltimore, and specifically, Station North, as a major hub of innovation in the intersection between the arts and technology.
For a man who has done so much, the challenge is part of the draw. “The last time I saw Malcolm McLaren [the former manager of the New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols] he was about to get on a plane to Warsaw, Poland, and I was like ‘Oh, what are you doing there?’ and he was like ‘Oh, the Polish cultural ministry has hired me because they want Warsaw to be attractive like Barcelona or something like that and they want to be branded. I’ve done fashion, I’ve done rock ‘n’ roll, but I’ve never done a country.’ So those words start ringing in my ear: ‘I’ve never done a neighborhood.’”
The concept of bringing someone in to “do a neighborhood” is troubling, but Dolby, who has only been in town a few months, is trying. He is performing his first-ever DJ set this Saturday at Paradox (later in the month he will DJ in New York). And, in an attempt to get to know the city better, he does not have a car and relies either on public transportation, a bicycle, or, appropriately, various app-based transportation services such as Uber or Zipcar, all of which he thinks are transforming cities and the way we move about them, though he admits, that at this moment, he’d settle for an app “that would tell me when the 11 bus is coming.”
As we walk up toward Red Emma’s to continue the conversation, Dolby pauses to address his vision for the neighborhood. “If I have anything to do with it, we’ll have the best of both worlds,” he says, taking off his hat and wiping his famously bald crown. “It’s like you preserve the character of the neighborhood and you keep things cheap enough so that people can afford it and live their lives. But certainly if you live on a really blighted street over there and it’s not safe for your kids to play on the street . . . then you have to slightly take your lumps and your taxes might go up but you’ll get more in return.”
Another round of dirt bikes roar by, almost calling into question the Dolby/Hopkins/TED techno-utopian vision of the neighborhood, but also, paradoxically affirming it—as if Dolby himself were somehow part of the super-slo-mo aesthetic of Lotfy Nathan’s film “12 O’Clock Boys,” in which the dirtbike riders turn the city’s blight into high art.
“But, I’m a little bit reluctant to just plow on in [to debates about the neighborhood] because I don’t know the history and I’m not very political anyway,” he says as we walk into the anarchist collective bookstore.