August 31, 2017 Interview – Gary Numan
When in doubt, always trust your gut. Words of wisdom for anyone ever unsure of which path they should take in life and the unwritten motto of Electronic music pioneer Gary Numan. Infatuated by music since a young age, Numan would go on to front Tubeway Army in the late ’70s before embarking on a solo career that would help shape the world of popular music. In a time when Electronic music was still relatively infantile, Numan would be a groundbreaking leader in the fast growing genre with his 1979 album, The Pleasure Principle. A record which included the New Wave staple, “Cars,” Numan is considered a highly influential creator for many who followed.
Since taking a bumpy, yet enlightening road in the years after, over the past two decades, Numan has found peace of mind as a songwriter as he taps into another fantastic body of work with the new album Savage (Songs from a Broken World). Recently we caught up with the thoughtful Numan to talk the past, present, and future, as well as his will to stay true to himself.
CrypticRock.com – Beginning with Tubeway Army over four decades ago, you have gone on to a successful solo career and are considered a pioneer in Electronic music. Through the ups and downs, what has this journey been like for you?
Gary Numan – It’s been interesting, actually. It started really, really well. I think I made my first album at the end of 1978, and by early 1979 the second album, I was quite prolific then. The second album got to number 1 and everything had exploded. Later that year I had another album called The Pleasure Principle get to number 1 – it did in Britain anyway – and that one did really well around the world, even in America. So everything started fantastically well. It had its dark side as well. Nothing ever comes like that without a price to pay. But strictly speaking, it was very positive and very exciting.
Then it started to go a little bit wrong. By 1991-1992 I was pretty much dead and buried to be honest. I didn’t have a record contract, I wasn’t selling anything. The live side of what I was doing was pretty much collapsed – you couldn’t give tickets away, literally couldn’t give tickets away, because we tried (laughs). Then I had a long look at what I was doing, why I was doing it, and if I wanted to stay in the business. That coincided with meeting Gemma, who became my wife. Together we just started to think really deeply about the future and what to do. Gemma introduced me to a whole lot of music that I hadn’t heard before.
I’d realized that I’d been writing songs for all the wrong reasons for the first several years up until my 1992 period. I’d been writing songs not because I loved them, but more because I wanted to do anything that would keep my career alive. I was listening to A&R people, I was listening to advice from everywhere, and it just went from bad to worse, really, and I realized that. So I thought, if I’m going to stay in the business, if I’m going to carry on doing this as a profession, then I need to take it back to being a hobby the way it was when I was a teenager, when I really loved doing it just for the sake of writing songs. That was all I was interested in. So that was the intention.
I started to work on an album called Sacrifice, which I think came out in 1994. It was a labor of love. Gemma introduced me to a lot of things I hadn’t heard before that were very inspiring. I went back to making Sacrifice as a hobby. I did everything myself. I’ve always written everything, but I played everything, engineered it myself, did it on my own at my studio at home, and that set me off in a completely new direction. The music was much heavier, much darker, and I have to say I fell in love with the whole thing over again. Only this time, I guarded it a lot more jealously and I didn’t allow myself to be swayed by the desire to be famous or to sell more things. I just wanted to do something that I really loved.
I have pretty much stayed with that attitude from that day on until today. So the music has been consistently heavier and darker than anything I did before. It’s clearly avoided commercialism. My stuff doesn’t really touch radio at all, but I’m really happy. I’ve really enjoyed it. Strangely enough, in a lovely way, every album that I’ve made since 1994 has done a little bit better than the one before.
It’s been a strange career. Massively good start, incredibly horrible ten years later, and then a very slow but enjoyable drifting back up again through the last 25 years.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds like it’s been a really interesting ride, for sure, and it is great that you rediscovered your love for music along the way. Obviously, it has all paid off. You have continuously progressed through the years working with Industrial and even Metal styling. Is it important for you as an artist to experiment with different styles, and what have you learned from these experimentations?
Gary Numan – I think of it more as sprinkling flavors on things. It’s a seasoning rather than a radical influx of a different type of music. I was always trying to do a heavy, kind of Electronic music when I started. I remember a long time ago – I think it might have been Siouxsie from the Banshees – I listened to an interview that she did on the radio. She didn’t mention me by name specifically, but she was talking about other bands that had a happier slant on Electronic music than what had happened before. And as I was the only thing that had happened before, I was pretty sure that she was talking about me being the darker sort or more miserable end of it. I think that’s what she was getting at. I think what I’m doing now for some time is actually the logical extension of what I was doing.
The problem was I lost track, I got corrupted a little bit. When you have a great deal of success quite early on, and then it starts to slide, I think for a while you stay true to your guns. You carry on doing what you think is best. But as it continues, you slide and you start to get into money troubles and you start to see records not appearing in the charts, and nobody will play them anymore, I think – for me anyways – there was a panic that set in. I lost my confidence in that I was making the right decisions and writing the right sort of things. Whereas before, none of that mattered. I wrote what I loved and I did very well with it. Over a period of time, what I was writing wasn’t working anymore, and so I did a kind of a terrible thing and I started to listen to advice.
We are constantly surrounded by people who think they know better. People that – if you were to believe them – could completely transform your life and make you a huge, huge stadium-filling Rock star again. It’s all bullshit, and they’re all crap. None of them know what the fuck they’re talking about. But at that point, I lost so much faith in what I was doing, and I wanted to be successful again, and there is where the corruption comes in – I wanted to be successful again so much that I started to listen to advice. I started to write things that I didn’t really have my heart in.
I was just desperate to try to get back in the chart, desperate to find a song that radio would play, desperate to find something the A&R men would support and put a bigger budget into promotions. All these kinds of things, and you sort of lose your soul a little bit. You lose your own sense of direction, and your own sense of how you want to sound, the sort of things you want to write about, the way you even want to look, things you want to talk about. It all becomes so corrupted and so messy, and that’s what happened to me. It wasn’t until about the 1992 period where I put out a really shit album called Machine + Soul, and I realized when I met Gemma and we started to talk about these things, I really realized for the first time, genuinely, that I was hopelessly lost and I just wandered away from the direction I should have been on all the time.
I felt that in 1994 when I made that Sacrifice album, it felt as if I stumbled back across the path again, as if I’d been in a fog, and I suddenly wandered out of the fog and tripped over and found myself on the exact same path that I’d been on in 1979 and 1980. So I just picked up and started going again and it was heavier and darker and more Industrial. Funnily enough, if you look at the things that Trent Reznor talks about as being influential on him, it was all the early stuff that I was doing, and in a strange way it also became influential on me again. I just picked that up and did what I should have done all along, I think. I should never have wandered off and done these other things that I’d done. I should have just carried on doing what I was doing, and I think if I had have done, then my music would have been a lot better, and it would have been a lot like I’m doing now, but it probably would have been a bit sooner.
CrypticRock.com – Everything you are saying is quite fascinating. It just goes to show that you should always trust your instincts. As you said, obviously you listen to people with an open mind but you should really follow what you believe in.
Gary Numan – Yeah. That’s a big lesson to learn and it’s all the more surprising for me because I was so arrogantly confident about my own ability before that. I don’t mean as a songwriter or anything like that, but in my own sense of direction, where I was going, what I wanted, and how I was going to get it. People would say that I was arrogant, but it wasn’t really arrogance, it was an absolute sureness on where I was going and what I wanted to do. It came as a real surprise to me to realize that I’d totally lost it and just wandered off track.
This desire to get something back actually wasn’t that big a deal to me, as it turned out. I think it’s a mixture of things. It all happened to me when I was very, very young. I was only 20 or 21 when it first happened. I was a solo act, so I didn’t have a band around me to share the pressure. The record company that I was with was a very new record company. It hadn’t had any success before. I didn’t have management. Eventually my dad kind of stepped in and started to handle that for me. Initially I had no management at all, so I was very much floundering around on my own trying to make sense of everything.
I have Asperger’s. I’m on the autism spectrum, so the way I saw things wasn’t always necessarily the way that they are actually were. The way I reacted to things was also not what people expected and that came across, I think sometimes, as arrogant. But it was never meant to be that way, I just don’t interact very well with people because of the Asperger’s. So it was just a great big knotty can of worms, really (laughs). I’m just really glad I came out the other end of it and I love what I’m doing now.
CrypticRock.com – It is great that you found your way again. You have been very consistent through the years and you are now set to return with your latest album, Savage (Songs From a Broken World) due out September 15th. What was the writing and recording process like for this album?
Gary Numan – Well, it was interesting actually. The last album I did in 2013 was called Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind). By my standards, that one had done the best since the beginning. It was the first album that got on the chart again back in Britain, it got really good reviews, album of the month. A lot of people were saying it was the best album I’d ever done, certainly one of the top three albums I’d ever done.
So the general reaction to it was fantastic and I allowed myself to enjoy that for about ten minutes, and then I worried about what I was going to do next, how I was going to make something that could be as good as Splinter. I felt a real pressure with this one, and I was sort of cowardly in that I kept putting off actually starting it. I didn’t actually start it until the end of 2015. If I’m really truthful, I didn’t really, really get back into it until the end of 2016. Most of the writing—not every song—but most of the writing was done between October 2016 and this past April. So it all kind of happened in that 6 to 7 month period.
I felt really, really under pressure when I was writing it, so it was very important to me to make sure that all the choruses were as anthemic as they could be, that all the songs had a powerful chorus, that they had really cool grooves, that the noises on it, the sounds on it were new or interesting that hopefully the majority of people would never had heard before. It really gave me a strong sense of focus on it. The fact that it had to be as special as I could make it, it really gave it a great deal of focus, but I think it helped.
CrypticRock.com – It certainly did help. What about the lyrical concept of the album?
Gary Numan – Lyrically, I didn’t really know what to write about when it started because apart from being a bit scared of starting the album, life itself was actually quite good. I emigrated to America. I’m quite happy here. My children are all healthy. Life generally is pretty good, and so I didn’t have any great crisis like I did have with the one before. I’d been through a three or four year depression. I was on medication for that, so I had a lot of things to write about on the last album. But with this one I didn’t really have anything.
So what I’ve been doing is writing a book. I’ve been writing a novel – trying to – for quite some time. I had all these ideas, kind of loosely connected ideas to do with the novel, so when I started to write the album I just thought that I’d liberate all the ideas from the book and turn them all into musical versions of what the book is about, which is essentially about a future world where global warming has happened and the planet had been devastated. A great many people died, but there are some left, it has become a more tribal society than it is now. The East and West cultures have merged, there is no religious problem anymore, although in the album it actually does reappear and start a bit of trouble again. That’s really what it is.
It’s kind of a Science-Fantasy record. Initially, it was just nothing more than that. It was just a silly future type of fantasy sort of thing, but then when Donald Trump became president and the whole climate change and Paris Accord thing happened, it suddenly gave it a lot more relevance. I’m a great believer in global warming. I don’t think it’s nonsense. I think it’s a very real thing and a very real problem, so when President Trump pulled out of the Paris Accord, and he’d been threatening to do that for some time before, now the album was no longer a futuristic Fantasy type thing. Now it was actually something that might happen. It could actually happen.
This desire to control temperature before it became an unstoppable thing might actually happen. It might become an unstoppable thing and we end up in this planet. So it was interesting. It gave me something to write about that was a lot more fulfilling than just writing something that was purely Fantasy. Even though I think it’s still very unlikely, I don’t think it is going happen. The fact that it’s possible, gave the writing of the album a much stronger base if you like, a much stronger foundation. Though it’s a scary subject, it made it a lot more fun and enjoyable to write. I’ve ended up being really happy with it.
CrypticRock.com – As you said, it is kind of fascinating how these science fiction topics are becoming reality. It happens a lot sometimes when it comes to Science Fiction films and stories. All of a sudden we see them come into reality.
Gary Numan – I think that’s probably because a lot of the science fiction ideas that you see – the futurist ideas that you see, much of that is based on what’s going on now. Much of that is people looking at possible end results of that, be it the use of nuclear technology or, in my case, with global warming. So in some respects, some of those things are likely to happen to some degree or another. Maybe not as extreme.
I think as a writer you tend to look at the extreme version of what might happen because it’s more interesting to write about. With me, with the global warming thing, it was more interesting to write about an absolutely devastated planet and the awful things that people would do in order to survive, and the guilt along with everything that comes with that.
I even had an element of religion being added into the story. They find an ancient text which turns out to be a snippet of the Bible, and the group that find it, immediately start to believe it was meant for them specifically. They then start to live according to these words, and then soon after that they decide that everybody else should live along the lines of these words as well, and they start to oppress and they start to kill people that don’t believe. They kidnap and supposedly “re-educate” children, that sort of thing. What was already a terrible place immediately becomes much worse as soon as religion reappears.
Again, these are extreme views of something for the sake of writing, really. Almost certainly very unlikely to happen, but you write about something subtle, it’s not so much fun to write about. In a sense, it’s a bit of a cop-out to write about an extreme version of something because it just makes it easier for someone to do that.
CrypticRock.com – Right, that makes sense. As as writer, you want to try to go to the extreme because that makes it more interesting. Savage is not all doom and gloom. While contextually dark, there is a sense of hope in these songs?
Gary Numan – Well I think so. I think what you say is absolutely true. Although the fact that matters are a little bit harsh, a little bit brutal in places, I don’t think it’s necessarily negative. There are lots of examples in there where people are very torn by what they’ve done and wish to be better. There’s a song called “Ghost Nation” where they entirely separate themselves from the rest of humanity in an attempt to avoid becoming what they see humanity becoming. There are people there, much as there are now, good people fighting against the things they see as being wrong in the world and doing their best to speak out against it and to act against it in a more positive way. I think that definitely applies to the album. Musically, there are some big moments. There are some really pretty things, as well.
Although the music, generally speaking, is pretty heavy, I think there are some really lovely, gentle moments and there are some pretty moments on it. As a listening experience, I don’t think it’s ever negative or down. Quite the opposite. Even the heavier songs are pretty powerful and very groovy with great big chorus and quite anthemic melodies going on. I don’t think it’s a negative experience at all.
We’ve just done a few gigs in Britain…we did five shows in Britain as a taster, really, to see how the new songs would go with an audience, and it was fantastic. The new stuff worked really well live. It’s incredibly powerful. The most powerful stuff I’ve got going in a live situation, and it was incredibly uplifting as a gig and the people reacted to it in such a cool way. I think the album works in much the same way.
CrypticRock.com – Agreed. As you had mentioned, as a songwriter, you have always had a wonderful knack for creating some beautiful, yet dark songs. What draws you to the darker side of melody?
Gary Numan – I’m honestly not sure. In a very simple way, it’s the only thing I find that actually moves me in any kind of way. But why that should be I’m not entirely sure. There is something about happy music that just doesn’t reach me. I can’t believe for a second that I’ve got some kind of an evil soul or there’s anything wrong with me (laughs). I just find happy music just drifts past me. It doesn’t register on any level at all with one or two exceptions, but not many really. But heavier things, things that discuss or talks about darker subjects or darker emotions for some reasons, that gets straight through my skin and touches me in a way that happy music doesn’t. I never really understood why that should be.
I did have a lot of people first ask me when I first moved to Los Angeles if being in a brighter, warmer, funnier, and friendlier environment than Britain would have an effect on the music. Would the music become lighter and happier and bit more optimistic? Clearly not. I think the reason for that is that the place that I write songs from is very much inside my head. It’s the little dark corner inside my brain somewhere where these things exist and these things are reflected. They are all alive there. I could be living in the sunniest place in the world surrounded by happy people and I would still write the same sort of music. It wouldn’t have any bearing whatsoever because it doesn’t come from an environment. It does come from my experiences a little bit, but essentially that life experience all sucked into one tiny little part of the dark corner of my brain, and that’s where it all comes out from.
Whether I’m in the rain in Britain or the sun of Los Angeles, it doesn’t seem to have any effect whatsoever on the sort of music that I’ve written. It never has done, but personal experience does. If something were to happen around me to the people that I love, then that would definitely have an effect on it. In terms of environment and where I am, it doesn’t seem to have any effect on me at all, but I just don’t know why that is. I don’t even know if there is a reason for why that is. It’s probably just all down to as simple as taste. It’s just what I like and there’s no real reason for it.
It might be more than that. I wonder sometimes if it’s the Asperger’s side of me that has some impact on that. I do not interact well with people, general speaking. I have pretty much my entire life been a loner. I’ve much more preferred my own company and I do have a tendency to think slightly more negative. I’m very nervous if I go to new places, for example. If I’m in a city I get very nervous; I’m very uncomfortable around people. I wonder if that might have some bearing on it. In all honesty, I really don’t know.
CrypticRock.com – Interesting. Sometimes it is impossible to pinpoint these things. Maybe there is no real reason. There is beauty in darkness and it makes for great music, for sure. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock.com covers music and Horror/Sci-Fi films. If you are a fan of these genres, what are some of your favorite films?
Gary Numan – Horror films I’m terrified of. My wife is a massive Horror movie fan and insists that I go along with her. I spend most of the film looking at the back of my hand or the back of my hat that I’ve pulled down in front of my eyes. I’m such a wuss when it comes to Horror films, but I have seen lots because of my wife. I’m not an expert by any means, nor am I a connoisseur.
My favorites would probably be very obvious, I’m afraid. The Exorcist (1973) is one, and I can actually watch that one without hiding behind my hands. I also thought the first Paranormal Activity (2007) was fantastic. One of the ones that my wife loves that I went to see was The Blair Witch Project (1999), but I never found that to be particularly good. I wasn’t even particularly scared of Blair Witch, which she found amazing because she was terrified. But I’m not really a big Horror film fan.
I love Science-Fiction. My favorite would be, again pretty obvious, but the very first Alien (1979) I thought was amazing, and Blade Runner (1982) was my favorite forever. I’m very looking forward to Blade Runner 2049 coming out as well.