Interview: Gary Numan

Andrew Perry

By Andrew Perry

on 10.14.13 in Interviews

For more than 30 years now, Gary Numan has cast a singular, distinctive and ever-unsettling shadow over British pop. Picking up the baton from Kraftwerk in the late 1970s, he took synthesizer music to the very top of the pop charts, while also presenting his own uniquely nightmarish vision of the future, full of alienation and fear.

Though inspired by sci-fi writers like Phillip K. Dick and JG Ballard, much of his music’s paranoia was from personal experience: He famously wrote one of his biggest hits, “Cars,” after he sat in traffic in central London, pre-fame, and a bunch of strangers started thumping on his windows, apparently trying to lynch him.

After his star waned bitterly through the ’80s, he met his wife, Gemma, who identified that Gary’s social anxieties resembled those of a relative of hers who’d been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome — a mild form of autism. Since then, his music has taken on a harsher, industrial edge, but he himself has been a lot happier, now understanding his own make-up more fully. He has also come to be celebrated as one of electronic music’s most influential pioneers: according to no lesser authority than Prince, “There are still people trying to work out what a genius Gary Numan is.”

His 21st album, Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind), is probably his most melodic in two decades or more, while also plumbing new depths of lyrical darkness. He has, however, just moved his family to sunny Los Angeles, California, where Andrew Perry tracked him down for this compulsively revealing interview.

It’s been seven years since your last fully-fledged album, 2006′s Jagged. How come?

The change of lifestyle, from having no children to having three, was pretty fucking dramatic. As much as I love my kids, I really miss my old life as well, and I was wracked with guilt about it. After Jagged came out, we’d just had our second baby, and I was really struggling.

I had a bit of a midlife crisis. I turned 50 soon after that as well, and I started to get really paranoid about being old, and dying. I couldn’t look at old people in the street without getting upset, and actually getting teary-eyed and crying. It got really weird, and I realized at that point that something was wrong with me. So I went to the doctor’s, and apparently I had this underlying clinical depression thing going on, so they put me on pills for that — which initially didn’t work, it just made it even worse. Then they got me sorted.

So I stopped being this up-and-down, borderline bipolar thing, but it kind of zombies you out, the cure. It makes you flat. To cut a long story short, for three or four years I was on medication for depression, and I had absolutely no get-up-and-go, no desire, no drive to want to do anything. I would’ve quite happily sat there, looking out at the rain until the day I fucking died, because nothing bothered me at all. My wife calls it my Forrest Gump years, because I was just out of it.

So how did you actually get back to making music?

They did one of those classic American interventions on me. My wife and Ade Fenton [Numan's production sidekick] and Steve Malins, who was managing me at the time, they took me out to a local pub and tried to explain to me that I hadn’t written a song in three years, and could I understand that that wasn’t right? And all I could say at the end of this hour-long chat was, “You know what, I think I’m gonna buy a kitten.” Fucking hell, man, surely that lets you know that something’s not right.

So, for three years, I did nothing at all, then for the next two years, I tried, and as I was getting better and coming out of it, I’d write a couple of songs, and then it’d be three or four months where I didn’t do anything again. When that Dead Son Rising album was done at the end of 2011, that brought me back. Then I started to work on what became Splinter.

Hardly anyone got to hear Dead Son Rising, because you only released it semi-officially online. Why was that?

It was a side project for me and Ade Fenton. They were my songs initially, most of them, and then Ade did so much work on it production-wise — it went out as a Gary Numan album, because that’s the way Ade wanted it, but I thought it should’ve been a Gary Numan and Ade Fenton album, but he said, “No, let’s make it just a Gary Numan album, because it’s been so long since your last one, you need an album out.” So we did that. That was the last push I needed, to get me back on my feet.

After that, at the beginning of 2012, I started to write Splinter. The first part of 2012 went well, then I emigrated, which was a bit of a setback to progress: I had to get a studio built when I got here, but as soon as that was ready, I knocked out another half a dozen songs really quickly, in about four of five weeks. That was it, the album done.

I know the album’s subtitled Songs From a Broken Mind, but sound-wise it feels like there’s a little more light in the dungeon than on your last few records. Did being in L.A. help you to lighten up?

Not really. The funny thing is, most of the subject matter is about those years when the depression was building up. So in terms of content, it’s not particularly uplifting or happy. I’ve been trying to think of how to explain it recently: if you go to see a horror film, or a really powerful but dark thriller, you don’t come out of the cinema depressed, you come out of it excited — you’ve seen something exciting. Although my albums look at darker things, I don’t think they’re depressing. It’s still quite an exciting listening experience — hopefully, anyway. I certainly think with Splinter, there’s some pretty big, driving songs in there — big, powerful stuff, as well as some more gentle and haunting stuff.

Was the more melodic sound this time influenced in any way by 2008′s Replicas tour, where you revisited the tunes from the height of your pop career with Tubeway Army?

Well, we definitely decided we wanted to make it more electronic than the last three or four, so although there are still guitars on it, there is a definite shift of emphasis. It sounds almost amateurish really, but I was also putting things into the album which are very filmic, because I want to get into film music — I was using the album almost like a CV.

I certainly noticed the huge swell of orchestration on “The Calling.”

Yeah, and there’s another one called “My Last Day,” where the whole end of it is just this massive orchestral thing that takes off and flies. Because I’m using string sections and so on, maybe that’s vaguely reminiscent of the early days — I used to do that a lot. “Cars” has got this great big string line on it. There’s quite a lot of it on [1979 album] The Pleasure Principle.

The other thing is, Ade is a massive fan of all that stuff, and I know for a fact that he tries to sneak a bit of it on, here and there — like, hang on, that sounds a little bit like The Pleasure Principle, you’re doing that on purpose. And he goes, “Oh no no no!” and I’ll go, “You can fucking take it off now…” We have quite a few “discussions,” shall we say, about that sort of thing creeping onto the album.

In the early days, it was always very much you in control, the Gary Numan show. How come it works for you now, with such a close collaborator?

I’ve got a lot of faith in Ade. He’s extremely creative, very clever in the studio, and understands the equipment and the software far better than I do, I’m embarrassed to say. But, at the end of the day, it’s my album, and any final decision comes back to me, so it’s still kind of my thing. I just recognise the huge contribution he can make to what I’m doing.

Are you aiming at the pop charts with this record? Do you ever hope for that kind of recognition again?

No. I think if I was aiming for that kind of success, I’d be making different music. There’s no way this stuff’s gonna get played on mainstream pop radio. It’s doing pretty well in Britain on alternative scene, and I noticed that the single went into the UK Top 40 Rock Singles chart at No. 15 — I was amazed! It’s been such a long time, 20 years or more, since I’ve even thought about charts and that sort of thing. But luckily there are other kinds of success, which still make it a worthwhile thing to be doing — arguably, even more satisfying.

As well as people coming round to how cool and forward-looking your music always was, people also understand now why you seemed so weird and alienated while you were at the top. With the benefit of hindsight, and of your Asperger’s diagnosis, you must have been so unsuited to being a star on that level. It must’ve made you feel so uncomfortable…

I was an uncomfortable pop star, yes [laughs]. That’s a good word for it.

Still, you were one of the biggest in Britain and then you suddenly announced some farewell gigs at Wembley. On your return, a couple of years later, you were ridiculed in the press, and your career nosedived through the ’80s. Were you bitter?

I think if it had all stopped soon after that — if my career had been one of massive success and then it all slid away, ridiculed by the press, finished — I probably would’ve been a bit haunted by it. Life does leave its mark on you.

Luckily for me, that isn’t the way it worked out. I was able, by luck or by judgment, to ride through the very worst of it, and kind of lift myself out at the end, and here we are 35 years later, and I’m highly credible, I’m covered and sampled by fucking everyone, I’ve got a list from A to Z of people who talk about me being influential, and so on. So I’m in a very enviable position, people wanna talk to me. I am still out there.

Since the early ’90s, you’ve been bigged up by many of pop music’s biggest names — from Kurt Cobain and David Bowie, right through to Kanye West. Do you feel vindicated, feeling the love from other musicians?

No, I’ve never felt vindicated at all. I really understand that a lot of the criticism I got was justified. The lightshow was amazing, but I don’t think I was very good onstage. I think it took me quite a while to learn how to do it. I also understand that when I first came along, a lot of people genuinely didn’t like it. They didn’t get me, they didn’t get the image, they didn’t get the music, and they didn’t like electronic music in general. They probably resented the fact that I got so successful doing something that they didn’t like, so you can understand why there would’ve been a certain amount of hostility towards me.

It’s unfortunate, and I wish it hadn’t been that way, but I do understand it. So I’ve got no feeling of vindication about it, I’m just really glad that it’s been different for quite some time. In a way, I’m paid back now. I have such an enviable level of credibility, I guess, that it kind of balances the fact that I had absolutely fuck all for the first five or 10 years.

People who’ve only heard your hits from the turn of the ’80s may be surprised by the heavier, more industrial sound you’ve been pursuing since 1994′s Sacrifice. What impulse sent you in that direction?

Well, I met my wife in ’92. This is ’round about the time I was at an all-time low. I was writing some terrible stuff, I looked shit, I’d run out of money, nobody was interested — nobody was even slagging me off! That’s even worse! It was a pretty grim time, and I honestly thought I was finished. I said to her, “I don’t think I’ll ever have another album coming out, so you’ve got me at the wrong time.”

She was great, though, and she started to introduce me to bits of music that I’d never heard, things that’d escaped me — much heavier and darker stuff than I’d been listening to previously, and I really loved it, and it really encouraged me to go back in the studio.

I honestly didn’t think I’d get ever get another record deal. I just went back to doing it for the love of doing it, and it made such a difference. You realize at that point that you haven’t been doing it for those reasons for quite some time. You’ve been trying to write songs to get on the radio, or to keep the A&R men happy — just anything to salvage your career, and it’s the wrong reasons for writing songs. You learn an important lesson: The first thing you must do is write what you love, then do what you can to sell it once it’s finished. That way, the sense of satisfaction and pride is so enormous, and I’d lost that, very, very badly.

Anyway, as soon as I started to write from the heart again, it was heavier and darker, and I had subjects that I wanted to talk about, and I stopped being aimless and drifting and just searching for success. And I’ve been there ever since. I’m almost obsessed about keeping that attitude.

Why move to L.A.? Working reasons, or climate reasons?

Mainly it’s a lifestyle thing, to be honest. My wife always wanted to live here, as long as I’ve known her, and that’s 21 years now. So there’s been that gentle but relentless pressure. But in truth I’ve lived here once before, and I really did love it, and I always intended to come back. And then your life takes you in different directions, and it just never happened.

Then, I’ve got three daughters, and for all of the talk of sexual equality in Britain, there are still more obstacles put in the way of women than there are with men. I think there are more opportunities and options here [in America] for women. If I go out and have a meeting here, there’s a really good chance that at least half the people, if not more, in senior positions, are gonna be women.

The other side of it, obviously, is that the climate of Britain was just getting me down. I’m getting older and I wanna get as much out of life as possible, and it’s hard to do that when you’re sitting indoors, looking out at the rain. And I wanted my children to have a more outdoor life.

There is a good work reason as well. I’m very interested in evolving the career over the next five or 10 years, into film. It’s just a recognition of the fact that I’m getting older, and lucky as I am — I’m still very fit and I’m not aging that badly — obviously the end of it is getting closer, and I wanna have something already in place, that I can step into when I wake up and decide that that’s enough of the touring and the albums. And where better than Los Angeles, if you wanna do film music?

So it’s about having a viable creative avenue to pursue, until you kick the bucket?

I guess so, yeah, there’s no reason to stop. I don’t have a pension. There’s nothing to stop me from making albums forever, I guess, but with my sort of stuff, onstage it demands a certain sort of performance to make it believable, and I think there’s gonna come a point where I’m just gonna look too old. It’s gonna look silly, like an old man trying to look threatening. I can’t walk around a stage with grey hair, looking mean and moody, I’d just look like an idiot.