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.
"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."
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."
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.
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."
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.