Gary Numan: Electric Pop
The New Wave icon's back in town
By Michael Flanagan
Gary Numan is a visionary musician who has done something few have managed to do: to move from one style to another in his career while growing his fan base. Known most prominently for his iconic electronic 1979 song, "Cars," the musician, (real name Gary Anthony James Webb), has been evolving as an artist since his father gave him a Gibson electric guitar at age 15.
Now 56, with a wife and three kids, Numan has retained little of the outsider 'queer' edge from his early days of alienated android stage costumes. In fact, he seems to enjoy performing.
His latest work Splinter: Songs from a Broken Mind is evocative of dark landscapes with a gritty compelling industrial sound (it's no wonder he counts Trent Reznor among his fans). He brings his very successful tour to The Fillmore on April 6 before leaving North America for Australia, New Zealand and a return to Europe. Do yourself a favor and come see this iconic musician perform (and listen to his astounding new release). We discussed his most recent work last week in anticipation of his coming concert:
Michael Flanagan: Would you speak a bit about the sound which you've developed over the last decade - the darker, industrial sound you now have - what was the motivation and inspiration for the changes in your sound?
Gary Numan: It started in 1994 with an album called Sacrifice, although in many ways it was simply going back to making music the way I had done when I first started. After I had some success in the late 1970s and early '80s, I began a series of albums where, with each one, I would evolve the sound, or try new textures, and I moved away from the heavy electronic style I started out with.
Although it was a worthwhile ambition to not be tied to one style of music, it didn't entirely work out for me. The career began to falter somewhat and I started to write songs not from the heart, as I had done before, but strategically, to try to please the radio pluggers or the record label A&R people, to try to salvage my career. That all ended in tears and by 1992. I thought my career was over, so I simply went back to making music as a hobby, for the love of it, and I almost abandoned all hope of keeping my career alive.
That return to writing from the heart saw an immediate change back to the dark, heavier sound, although this time round much darker and heavier than anything I'd done before. I rediscovered my love for making music, and I found that I was back to the place I was most at home; musically speaking, heavy electronic. But, as before, added to a guitar, bass, drums foundation. It's a very powerful combination when you get it right.
You have been working with Ade Fenton since Jagged . How did you two meet and what is it that you find most fruitful in your musical work together?
We've actually been friends for many years, long before Ade started to produce music. Many years ago he brought some things he was working on to the house and I was very impressed with the quality of what he was doing. I kept my eye on that for a while and then, when I noticed how quickly he was learning and how impressive the results, I asked him to work on one of my songs. That came out really well so, still being cautious, I asked him to work on one more. That also came out really well and so I then asked him to work on the entire Jagged album. He's very clever, very creative. We have similar tastes so, although we do argue about things at times, as they progress, we usually see eye to eye and the end result is always impressive. Ade's contribution to the new Splinter album is enormous. I honestly believe that he is one of the best producers around now and, if he chose to, could take that side of his career as far as he wanted to.
In recent interviews you've spoken about depression and your music, and the subtitle of Splinter is 'songs from a broken mind.' Do you find that producing music and touring help alleviate depression and how do you feel that depression has affected your work?
I've only been diagnosed with depression once, in 2008. Splinter is mostly about what that was like and the various thoughts that spin off from it. Apart from that, although it's true I'm a bit on the moody side, depression hasn't really been a feature of my music or my life. I have always tended to write about darker things, but that's simply because those are the things I find interesting to write about. When I was younger I had that alienated, 'no one understands me' vibe going on for a while.
But, to be fair to me, that was also the time when
it was first suggested by doctors that I had Asperger's Syndrome, so
I think I probably was alienated and misunderstood. I think the Asperger's part
of me, the shyness and lack of confidence that has plagued me always, has had a
difficult time dealing with what I've chosen to do for a living. Everything
about my core personality is not suited to being a performer, and I've had
to develop a wide range of mechanisms to allow me to do this. I've been doing
it so long now it all feels very natural but, underneath it all, it really isn't
natural for me at all.
I don't think I saw anything that most other people didn't see coming, to be honest. In a way, much of what I talked about in those early albums was a very extreme view of what might have been possible in a nightmare future scenario, so I'm very happy that the bulk of it didn't happen. Who would want machines programmed to rape and murder people out after curfew to be real? I am fascinated by technology, and by what the future may hold for mankind, but it's certainly not what I'm thinking about when I look out at an audience. I'm usually just trying to desperately remember the next line to sing.
In at least two songs from Splinter there are songs which evoke a non-religious viewpoint, the title song and "We're The Unforgiven." Have you experienced any push back from religious types regarding your music, and has this been more apparent in the U.S.?
Nothing major so far. I don't write any of that stuff to offend people, that's not my intention, but it does seem that some people are very easily offended. The album that looked mainly at my non-religious points of view was called Exile and that came out several years ago now. That picked up a certain degree of animosity from some quarters and it was, primarily, from religious groups in the US. I do not believe, in fact I find the very idea of a God utterly ridiculous, but I have always felt that if it brings people happiness and comfort, why do anything to spoil that. On the other hand, it seems to cause such widespread hatred and cruelty. I tend to think the world would be a far happier place without it.
In 2009, you performed some of your classic songs to popular acclaim with Nine Inch Nails. How did you come to meet Trent Reznor? Do you have any work planned together?
We first met in Baton Rouge many years ago when Trent came to see me play. He was working on The Fragile then and had recorded a cover version of my song "Metal," which he gave me a copy of that night. We saw each other off and on over the next few years, usually when Nine Inch Nails played in London. I was then asked to guest at their big show in London in 2009 and then for the farewell shows in Los Angeles a few months later. I got to know Trent a little better during that time.
Now that I live in Los Angeles, we live reasonably close to each other. In fact, Trent wrote the first of my testimonial letters for my immigration process, which was a great help. I played some shows with NIN last year, which was great, and we have talked about doing something in the studio at some point. I'm not the most confident person so I'm very passive about such things, which probably isn't the best attitude to have with Trent. We'll see.
As you are now living in Los Angeles, is it likely that we will be seeing more of you in Northern California?
It's already happening, I'm pleased to say. We did a small West Coast tour last August, which came to Northern California, and we're now playing a much larger US tour which will also take in Northern California. My ability to concentrate on the US in general is so much stronger now that I live in LA. It's going to make a big difference to my career opportunities here. This has always been my favorite place to work. It rewards effort and lacks much of the cynicism that bleeds from some other parts of the world. I'm very happy to be here.