Electric dreams still stirring emotions – the Gary Numan interview

Gary Numan - New 2It must have been on London’s Capital Radio when I first heard Tubeway Army, 35 years ago this month. I was only 11 at the time, yet already knew the charts inside out. But this was something else.

With my transistor radio under the pillow, I was a regular Little Nicky Horne listener. Big brother had made an impression, and I loved my punk and new wave – something that never left me. But just what was this stirring electronic sound?

I was too young to know about Mellotrons and Moogs, and while I was vaguely aware of an odd German band by the name of Kraftwerk, this seemed to have more about it.

It fitted in somewhere down the line with David Bowie – in the charts again with Boys Keep Swinging – but I couldn’t really say where.

Not long before, we’d cajoled gifted village church organist Mr Bryant into playing pieces reminiscent of old Bela Lugosi horror films after choir practise (yes, I was still donning cassock and surplice at that stage).

This took that on again though. The synthesiser had definitely arrived.

I loved Autobahn, but this seemed like a punk version, and far more ballsy than the weedier synth pop of Depeche Mode, OMD and Visage that followed within a year.

And whatever was happening in Sheffield with The Human League, and across the pond with Ohio weirdsters Devo, was definitely not on my radar yet.

TubewayArmy_frontI was further mesmerised when I tuned into Top of the Pops and finally saw for myself the 21-year-old Gary Numan as part of a six-piece Tubeway Army on Are Friends Electric?

The wan look, the black boilersuit get-up, unsmiling and other-worldly, in complete contrast to white-suited, smiley Mike Read on the BBC4 re-run I spotted this morning, from the band’s third of four weeks at the top.

The backlash against the synth would follow, and I too would rail against most of that New Romantic electronica that followed, with my Smash Hits days soon over.

But this was something fresh, something brooding, the hairs going up on the back of the neck.

More to the point, he still has it all these years on, Numan having released last year possibly his finest LP since early successes Replicas and The Pleasure Principle.

Gary_Numan_Pleasure_Principle_ReplicasIt’s odd to think now that punk-influenced Tubeway Army intended their debut album to be guitar-driven.

But then Numan found a minimoog left behind in the studio, and started experimenting. By the end of June, he had his first No.1, and within three months Cars hit the top spot too.

While Tubeway Army were decommissioned, Numan’s fame was already assured, going on to have more solo hits in the ’80s than any other artist.

I’ll not go into too much detail from there, but in time his fame ebbed, although a cult following kept him afloat as his mega-finances dwindled.

A major re-awakening followed in recent times, and the strength of his latest album, Splinter, is a case in point, suggesting a performer back on his game, released to critical and artistic acclaim.

Gary Numan - New 1And now, he’s set for an ‘intimate club tour’ of the UK, alongside festival appearances in Dublin and Knebworth Park.

The tour takes in a number of towns and cities Numan has not played in a long time, getting back to his roots following a successful earlier round touring the new album.

But few of us will forget our first listen to Are Friends Electric? and Tubeway Army’s screen debut 35 years ago – including the man himself.

“Pretty much everything that happened in 1979 was startling to me. It was just one thing after another, like a tornado, everything spinning by so fast you could barely register what it was before it was gone and replaced by something else.

“It felt exciting but dangerous, the pressure was enormous and I was entirely out of my depth the entire time to be honest.”

Do you find that original TOTP appearance left us with the wrong impression of who you were?

“I don’t think you can ever know what somebody is like by watching them perform, no more than you can know an actor by watching them act. It’s a performance; it’s a mixture of natural character but heavily mixed with many other things.

“Most of the famous people I’ve ever met have not been the way you would imagine from watching their performances.”

You’ve flirted with images over the years. Could that be a David Bowie and glam influence?

David+Bowie+-+Boys+Keep+Swinging+-+7-+RECORD-126305“Not as far as I’m concerned, I don’t see any glam influence at all in what I do, far from it in fact. My use of image to begin with was to portray a character in the song.

“The lyrics to Are Friends Electric, my first big single, in fact the lyrics from the entire album that single was taken from, Replicas, were all based on a collection of short stories that I had been writing. That first image was one of those characters.

“Lots of people have used image over the years, Kiss, Bowie, in fact the list is massive if you look back. Some do it to create a spectacle, some to enhance the meaning behind the music. That was my path; I thought the image would help with the meaning behind the music; as the music has evolved over the years so the need for an ‘image’ has faded away somewhat.”

There seems to be a mutual respect with Bowie. What do you make of what’s he’s doing today, and last year’s The Next Day?

“It’s true he’s said some very nice things about me but I haven’t listened to The Next Day so I have no opinion about it. I’ve heard good and bad opinions. I’ll check it out one day.”

I gather that your Dad bought your first Les Paul. Was there a good level of support at home for your dreams? And do you look at your parents’ sacrifices in a different light all these years on (as a proud Dad yourself)?

“There was am amazing level of support at home and, in a very real sense, I owe my parents a phenomenal debt of gratitude. I have always known that, always said so, never forgotten.

“I have the same feelings towards my own children that I think my parents had for me. Everything I do is to try to make their life better, to make their future happy and secure.

“I have a very different life these days because of the children and the things you give up for them. But, to see them happy is the reason I get up in the morning.

“Having children seems to bring an automatic switch from a self serving life style to one where my desires are very near the bottom of the list.”

Was there a defining moment when you realised where you should be going with Tubeway Army, moving on from that initial punk influence?

download (9)“Definitely; I went to a studio to record my debut album, under the name Tubeway Army. We had been signed as a punk band and that should have been the content of that first album.

“But, when I arrived at the studio, I noticed a synth and asked if I could try it out. I loved the sounds and so hastily converted my punk album to an electro/punk type album and took that back to the record company.

“Within about six or seven months I was number one so it all came good very quickly. Finding that synth was the defining moment of my entire life in many ways.”

I can hear bits of bands I loved like The Stranglers and The Vapors in those early recordings. Which bands did you admire from that era?

“In the punk era? None really, I only played punk to get a record deal. Once I had the deal I was looking at where to go from there, I had no real love for it.

“For me punk was a stepping stone, a way of getting my foot on the first rung of the ladder.

“By the time I had a deal I thought punk was already fading so I was keen to move the band away from it, with or without the synth.”

You’ve played with some big names over the years. Do you keep in touch with many?

“Not on a day-to-day basis, but I only ever work with people I like so it’s always friendly whenever we do meet up again.

“Now that I live in the US it’s become easier to have closer relationships with some of the US-based bands but, as I say, not on a regular basis.

“In truth, I don’t really keep in touch with anyone very well. I’m a terrible friend in that regard as I’m riddled with all social anxiety issues.

“Luckily for me, my wife is the opposite, very sociable, and she works constantly to stay in touch with everyone.”

Gary Numan - New 3Are your friends largely within the music industry, or do you like to leave all that at the studio door?

“Most are. We do have friends now who are parents from the school our children go to but most of them are music business people.

“Not many people outside the business really understand the life so it’s easier to talk to people that do I suppose, not that I’ve ever consciously chosen people in that way, it just seems to work out that way.”

Whose records do you listen to at home? Or out on the road?

“I don’t listen to music much at all. That is one thing I tend to leave at the studio door. I do go to see bands fairly often and I tour a lot so I seem to be around music all the time. At home, though, I like to keep away from it outside of work.

“I don’t listen to radio, don’t listen in the car, very rarely watch music TV and don’t play music in the house. It annoys my wife and children as they really love listening to it so I bought them all iPods. Listening to music stops me thinking, it gets in the way.”

Your loyal support has stood by you through the years. Did that help you sharpen your focus when the sales weren’t coming in?

“Well, my sales went from about one million in the UK to about three thousand at one point so, in truth, only a tiny few stayed with me throughout.

“I’m very grateful to those three thousand people obviously but I’ve had to rebuild my career almost from the ground up since the low point of 1992 so it was that drive and desire that was my focus.

“Since 1994 each year has been a little better than then one before, with 2013/14 being a lot better so things continue to improve. I will never forget how close it came to being over though.

download (10)Do you ever tire of playing those initial hits?

“I can’t say they all excite me as much as the newer songs but I’m sure that’s the same for everyone in a band, it might even be true for the fans themselves come to think of it.

“Some have held on to their excitement though, not the big singles perhaps but some of the older album tracks.

“I do rework them from time to time to give them a new feel and I think that helps. It keeps them reasonably fresh for band and crowd alike.”

In time came the re-appraisals, with critical acclaim for a more industrial sound and plenty of celebrity fans. Now we have a generation of established musicians telling the world what a huge influence you were; does it ever make you want to shout, ‘Told you so!’?

“God no; I have never thought I was anything special so when the initial success came along and the press were extremely hostile I just thought they didn’t like my music and I have no argument with that; I have no axe to grind about that time, if they didn’t like it fair enough.

“I’m glad that those same albums are now talked about as being ‘classic’ albums, influential and innovative. That obviously makes me feel good but I’ve never thought ‘Told you so’ about it.

“I have a level of respect and credibility now that I couldn’t have dreamed of back then and my new albums, Splinter in particular, have had the best reviews I’ve ever had.

“Splinter was made album of the month in many music magazines and publications around the world so I have no issues whatsoever with anything that was said way back when I started.”

download (11)There are the samples on more recent hits too – from Basement Jaxx’s Where’s Your Head At? to Sugababes’ Freak Like Me. Were you flattered by that attention?

“I’m flattered every time someone covers one of my songs, or samples something of mine. I feel honoured that someone wants to do that.

“Many of my songs have been covered or sampled by other artists who are themselves great song writers in their own right so it’s huge nod of respect and appreciation to me. I’m still totally blown away when that happens.”

By 2002 you had chart status again, slowly working towards where you are now with Splinter. I’m guessing you’re proud of the finished product and the reaction?

“I’m very proud of Splinter and the reaction to is has been incredible, all over the world. The charts themselves don’t mean that much to me to be honest but seeing the album reach out not only to existing fans but to a new generation of people has been very exciting.

“The Splinter tour has been the most intensive and long running tour that I’ve done since the beginning of my career so it’s been hard work, but very satisfying.”

We Three: Gary Numan, his wife Gemma, and producer Ade Fenton (Photo: edfieldingphotography )

We Three: Gary Numan, his wife Gemma, and producer Ade Fenton (Photo: edfieldingphotography )

You’ve clearly clicked with your producer, Ade Fenton. Is he good to work with? Does he instinctively understand what you want?

“Ade is very good to work with and did a fantastic job on Splinter. We do have our arguments from time to time but we get on well and, whatever we argue about musically, it’s always to try to make the album even better.”

Are there any artists out there you’d still dearly love to work with?

I’m quite passive about such things. I am not the most confident person in the world and so I tend to wait for people to come to me. I’m too shy to put myself forward for any collaboration.”

Are you still excited by synthesisers and effects? Might there be a time when you go out on the road with just an acoustic guitar and a harmonica – Numan Unplugged?

“I’m still totally obsessed about creating sounds, doesn’t need to be a synth to be honest, anything that makes a good noise can be recorded and manipulated and turned into music.

“I still work with the very latest technology, and I love that, so I’m unlikely to tour unplugged in the forseeable future; having said that, there are other ways of playing live, online for example that might lend themselves to a more unplugged type of performance.”

Flying Time: Gary Numan, airborne (Photo: Simon Button)

Flying Time: Gary Numan, airborne (Photo: Simon Button)

Flying has always been a passion, from your Air Training Corps days onwards. Are you still a regular in the skies? And do you ever feel the need to recreate your solo round-the world flight?

“Since the children came along I’ve pulled out of flying. I was an aerobatic display pilot, flying World War Two combat aeroplanes at air shows all over Europe.

“I taught that for a while and, for a couple of years, was an Evaluator for the Civil Aviation Authority in the UK.

“Unfortunately it’s quite a dangerous thing to do and most of my friends were killed in various accidents over the years.

“When the children came along I decided it was too risky a thing to do as a hobby, plus I had other demands on my time, so I got out of display flying.

“I tried normal light aircraft for a while but it seemed so tame after the air display world it didn’t hold my interest.

“I do miss it though and I hope to get back into some kind of flying activity in the near future.”

You’ve shown your prowess on the road too, behind the wheel of fast cars. Any race-off with AC/DC’s Brian Johnson planned after your Sky1 series success?

“I haven’t seen Brian since the motor racing TV show we did together with Sky, but that was great fun.

“Although Brian won that final race I won the overall Championship so we both walked away happy. That was a fantastic experience, one I would love to do again.”

Gary Numan - New 4I gather home is LA now – are you ever likely to come back to England?

“For work and to visit friends and family yes, but to live, I doubt it. My life here in Los Angeles is so very different to my life in England.

“I wake up to blue skies and beautiful sunshine everyday, I’m surrounded by stunning mountains,

“I’m a 20-minute drive from Hollywood, 30 minutes from the ocean via a drive through rugged canyons.

“I can go snow skiing in the morning and surfing in the afternoon (should I want to). The amount of different things to do here are just incredible.

“Recently I was sitting at an outdoor restaurant by the Pacific and watched whales swim by. It’s an amazing place.

“The people are very friendly and helpful, the service is unbeatable and my wife Gemma and the children have never been happier.”

Gary+Numan+-+Praying+To+The+Aliens+-+Autographed+-+BOOK-414888Is there a plan to update your autobiography, Playing to the Aliens, any time soon? Or maybe write part two? And did you find the writing process difficult?

The writing process was easy, I have no problem with writing, be it stories or lyrics luckily enough. My problem is memory which is shockingly bad.

“I am now though working on a part two of the autobiography, which I hope to have finished and published sometime in 2015.”

You have the imagination to successfully write fiction too, I would say, judging by the soundscapes of your songs. Will that ever be an option?

I’ve been working on a novel for quite some time. A high-fantasy epic in fact, so I’m diving in at the deep end a bit.

“Again, I will be working on that over the next year and I will see what I come up with. I have a strong desire to move into writing as time goes by so, for me, it’s quite a scary thing.

“If I find I’m no good at it, which is highly likely, I will have to abandon a dream that I’ve been working on for many years.”

So what’s next after this tour? New recordings? More film soundtrack work, maybe?

“I’ve just finished a film score for a film called From Inside, an animated nightmare of a film about a pregnant girl’s journey after civilisation has been destroyed.

“Once this year’s touring is over I will get on with the new album, the follow-up to Splinter.

“But other film offers are also beginning to come in so I will need to plan my time carefully, especially as I have to work on the novel and the autobiography as well.

“I’ve also been asked to write music for a new TV series, so lots of things to juggle and consider in the coming months.”

1958298_652155484844288_1913374066_nNow you’re set for this more intimate tour; is that a big step for this famously-introverted performer?

“No, I’m used to gigs of all sizes. On the last US tour they ranged from 8,000 to 800, it just depends where you are.

“It’s true that I’m quite shy as a person but I’m anything but when I’m on-stage.

“The stage performance is very aggressive and not the slightest bit introverted, apart from the fact that I don’t really talk that is.

“I might say ‘hello’ at the start and ‘thank you’ at the end if I’m in a particularly talkative mood, but that’s about it.”

What made you choose these venues?

“I wanted to visit places we didn’t get to on the last tour, I wanted to bring the show to the fans rather than keep expecting they come to me.

“Having done the previous tour with the big production, playing the smaller places opened up the opportunity to tour the album in a different, more intimate way.

“We are playing Hammersmith Apollo in November, so we will be back to the big production for that one. In fact that will be the biggest production on the entire Splinter tour.”

Finally, given the chance, what advice might the 56-year-old critically-acclaimed, seasoned performer and recording artist Gary Numan give 16-year-old Gary Webb, about to make his way in the wider world?

“Try to enjoy the moment more and stop missing out on that because you’re worrying too much about what comes next. That has always been my failing.”

1467202_702785003114669_6710846807697630286_n* For more details on Gary Numan and his forthcoming dates and plans, head to his official website here.

* With thanks to Gary for his honest and sterling efforts from afar, plus Ian Cheek for organising this interview.

* This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt interview with Gary Numan, published in the Lancashire Evening Post (with the online version here).

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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5 Responses to Electric dreams still stirring emotions – the Gary Numan interview

  1. Thanks a lot, Malcolm.
    A most informative and entertaining interview with a fascinating musician.
    I was knocked out when I bought “Splinter” (on vinyl, of course!). It is dark and edgy in parts and sweeping in others. And I love the Dickensian gothic images. I will probably write about it sometime; if I do, I’d like to link to this post if that’s OK with you.

    • writewyattuk says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Bruce. While you’ll probably spot elements of question and answer email responses, Gary answered around three-quarters of my questions (more than I’d expected) and proved particularly honest and thorough. What’s more, you can detect the humour there that rarely gets attributed to him. A top man, and a pleasure to deal with. And yes, Splinter is a great album.

  2. Pingback: Gary Numan / Roman Remains – Preston 53 Degrees | writewyattuk

  3. Pingback: PLEASURE SPLINTERS | VINYL CONNECTION

  4. Pingback: Restart on reel two – back in touch with Gary Numan | writewyattuk

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