Following the success of his 2013 album Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind) and its accompanying two-year world tour, Gary Numan returns to the UK soon, for a live celebration of his breakthrough long players, Replicas, The Pleasure Principle and Telekon.
After a tentative toe in the water with 1978’s Tubeway Army, it was those records that spawned his biggest commercial hits, sit-up-and-take-notice moments like Replicas’ Down in the Park and Are Friends Electric? turning Numan into an apparent overnight success, before The Pleasure Principle‘s Cars cemented his place among other-worldly pop royalty. The 1980s were coming, and this Hammersmith-born innovator was already a few steps ahead.
He’s not been known to dwell on days gone by before, but this electronic and industrial music pioneer feels now’s an ideal time to revisit ‘the three albums that changed my life’. As he recently put it, ‘I very rarely look back at past glories but with these shows I intend to not only look back, but celebrate those early days. Without those songs and experiences I wouldn’t be here today’.
Based on the west coast of America for some time now, his influence has been recognised by a diverse array of names via collaborations, covers and samples – from Prince to Lady Gaga, Jack White to Kanye West, Beck to Queens Of The Stone Age, and Foo Fighters to Nine Inch Nails for starters – and this autumn he brings it all back home, for an 11-date itinerary. He’s not one for phone interviews, and unfortunately my budget doesn’t run to return flights to LA, but – as he did when we last caught up two years ago (with a link to that interview here) – Gary responded to my e-mailed questions with a high degree of honesty, for what turned out to be an extremely thorough and open one-to-one Q&A session, this 58-year-old iconic artist starting by describing his surroundings as he typed.
“I live in Los Angeles these days, so I’m sitting by a bay window in the house, looking out across the back terrace towards the swimming pool. It’s a lovely day, as always – blue skies, temps about 101 degrees today, so a bit hotter than usual. The house was built back in 1992 and made to look like an old English castle, with battlements, secret staircases, trapdoors, hidden compartments and a large 20’ bronze dragon in the front. The kids love it.”
Last time I saw Gary was at Preston’s 53 Degrees, two summers ago, for what proved an amazing live experience (with my review here). My ears were still ringing the next day and the venue foundations were shaking. What’s more, he seemed to be enjoying it as much as us. Not as if he was letting on, of course. I got the feeling he was far more at ease with it all than 35 years ago, with a true sense of pride in his past and present work.
“I’m very comfortable on stage now. I’ve been doing this for my entire adult life so it’s as natural now as eating dinner. I love touring, being able to travel the world, to play your songs to people that genuinely love them, to be with your closest friends, it’s just an amazing way to live life.”
Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind) was nothing short of a triumph, and his powerful live set reflected that. Furthermore, he somewhat seamlessly incorporated the big numbers from the back-catalogue. Will there be a few extras from Splinter or his current ‘work in progress’ during this tour?
“Not this one. I was very happy with Splinter, and the reaction to it was incredible, but this tour is entirely devoted to those early albums, so no sneaking in of recent songs. I do have ideas about gigging the new album in a series of little regional launch events next year, but I’ve yet to figure out if that’s a good idea or not. I still have quite a way to go yet to get that new album finished, so I’m getting ahead of myself a little.”
This September we have instead a show comprising material from Replicas, The Pleasure Principle and Telekon (including my excuse for speaking to Gary, a Friday 16th date at the Liverpool Olympia, with more detail here). Has it surprised him, looking back, just how creatively productive he was back then?
“Not entirely. I have Asperger’s so have a natural leaning towards being obsessive. Back then being in a band, having a record deal, and especially working in electronic music, were all very new to me as I was about as obsessed as I’ve ever been. It was all very challenging, but very exciting. It filled my every waking moment and so I’m not surprised I was so prolific.
“The creativity side of it came about because everything was new. The sounds, the instruments, the freedom to do what you wanted. I didn’t feel bound by conventional song structure, or songwriting standards or practices, so I just went off and experimented with all of it.”
There must have been more lean spells over the last three and a half decades, but on the evidence of Splinter and the live shows that followed, he’s back on a creative high. Is the hunger still there to write and record most days?
“Not every day, but most days, yes. I have a family now, a wife, three young girls and life has different things to offer rather than being buried in a studio all day, but I still love it. I have found though that, over the years, the pressure and worries that come with writing each new album have steadily increased. I definitely find each one more difficult than the one before. Splinter flowed very well once I got stuck into it but it took a few years to really get to that point.
“But I’ve always said that writing is more of a need than anything. It’s the way I deal with life. I write it all down, shape it into music, and in so doing seem to ease out all the stresses and strains that affect us all as we live our lives – ironically by doing something I find very stressful, so it doesn’t entirely make sense!
“I don’t dream though, or I remember them very rarely, maybe two or three a year at the most, so I’ve often wondered if writing is how I put things in order, the way dreams are supposed to for most people.”
There seems to be a bit of a trend from established acts to appeal to a nostalgia market and live off past glories. That doesn’t seem to be the Numan way though. I guess that after this tour he won’t be working on a similar tour format for the albums that followed, from 1981’s Dance onwards.
“It isn’t something that will become a regular part of what I do no. My interest is always in what I’m doing next, rather than what I’ve done before. I am obsessed about moving forward, not living on past glories. But I feel my previous reluctance to play much older stuff has often been seen by fans as arrogant selfishness and I regret that, so decided a while ago I would back off and be more agreeable about it.
“My relationship with fans is very important to me and so these tours of older material will feature again, now and then, in the future, for those fans that like to revisit that stuff. Nothing will change the fact though that the thing that gets me up in the morning, the thing that still excites me, is going in to the studio and writing new music, and then taking that on tour all over the world.
“These retro things can be fun, once in a while, but it’s absolutely not what I see my career settling into. This is fun for now, for a few weeks, or for a brief period between new albums, but I won’t touch it again for quite some time after this tour is over. The new album will be ready soon and all my interest and drive is leaning towards that.”
Revisiting those first three albums in preparation for this tour, was he surprised by any of the material? And has that given him a fresh perspective on the late ‘70s/early ‘80s Gary Numan, as opposed to now?
“I’m surprised at how little it’s dated. Quite proud of that actually. I’m surprised how unconventional so much of the songwriting was, how strange much of the song structures are. I didn’t realise quite how different it all was, and it must have seemed incredibly different back then. So I went into it as a duty to my long-suffering fan base, but I’m coming out of it very satisfied with what I did back then.
“I’ve spent so much of my career trying to distance myself from the past that it never occurred to me, until quite recently, that a lot of the stuff I did back then became influential for a good reason. I have a lot more pride in my history in 2016 than I ever had before. Doesn’t change the fact that I still want the new album to be the best thing I’ve ever done of course. History is history after all.”
There’s always been a strong sense of ‘soundtrack’ to Gary’s work, such as the way he devised short stories into songs early on. How does he feel he compares as a writer today, this contented family man in his late 50s, to this young bloke finding his feet at the time of Replicas and The Pleasure Principle?
“I think I’m better. I went through a bad period from the mid ‘80s to early ‘90s when I think my songwriting was nowhere near good enough, or creative enough. But with the Sacrifice album in’94 I got it all back together, and I’ve been steadily improving ever since. Most fans, and even more critics, put Splinter right up there with the three classic albums we’re playing on this tour. I didn’t think that would ever happen.
“A lot of reviews said Splinter was the best album I’ve ever made, so I’m just getting stronger if anything. But having a family brings more stress than a single man will ever comprehend, so it’s not surprising to me that my music just keeps on getting darker and heavier. I might be contented, but it’s a harder life than anything I ever had before.”
Will some of those songs he’s playing involve a few tweaks or rewrites? Taking for example his current take on Are Friends Electric? I loved the original, but his current live version seems even more claustrophobic, surging, and perhaps more what it was really about.
“Much of it is as it was on the original album, some of it is tweaked, but all of it has an added power that the technology back in the day just couldn’t get close to. It all sounds like a very powerful version of what people will already know. I intend to change the set around a lot as well, generally pulling six or seven songs from each album per night, but changing what those six or seven are as the tour progresses. So if you come to more than one night, you should hear quite a few different songs.”
What’s the set-up for this tour? Who’s joining him, and has he chosen any special guests?
“My long-serving band is still with me, I’m very glad to say. Richard Beasley on drums, Steve Harris on guitar, David Brooks on keyboards and Tim Muddiman on bass. Not sure about guests yet but it would nice to get Russell Bell and Chris Payne from the original band, who first toured these albums, to join us here and there. I think the fans would appreciate that.”
As home is California these days, might he be sneaking off to old haunts while he’s back over here, quietly reflecting on days gone by?
“I would like to and will try to, but touring is so full on, the days are so packed from beginning to end, it’s very hard to do. I do come back outside of tours to visit old friends and family so it’s easier then to revisit memories. I’m very happy in California but can’t deny I miss a lot of things about England.”
“Absolutely. As I sit here today I’ve spent just 17 days at home in the last three months, so progress on the album has been almost non-existent for a while. It’s been incredibly frustrating and I’m desperate to get back in the studio and get on with it.”
It’s a brave move, involving your fans in an album project. For a guy who readily admits he’s pretty shy, it seems unlikely in some respect that he’s promising snippets of ‘work in progress’ along the way.
“That has been a lot harder to do than I expected. A feeling made worse at times by some of the reactions that come in after each update. I would never normally let anyone hear things until I was completely happy with them. But, with the Pledge campaign, I need to let people hear things long before they’re right, so that they can see how it evolved from the original, clumsy, flawed idea, into the thing that works. That means letting things go out that you know are wrong, that you know will never end up like that.
“With each one I take great pains to remind everyone that these are not finished ideas, these are the tiny seeds that the good things will hopefully grow from, and yet, every time you get people writing in with detailed critiques of what’s good and bad about them, some of it surprisingly insulting. It’s a little frustrating at times that some people are still not quite grasping what it’s about. These updates are not finished pieces of music, so it’s pointless to be praising or rubbishing them.
“The idea of the campaign is to open a window on the process, not just how a song develops from tiny seed to finished item, but everything – the sleeve, the lyric, the programming, all of it. And more than that, how I cope with it. The extreme ups and downs that I go through, the stresses and strains of trying to create something new, something better than the last album, widely regarded as the best I’ve ever made. I feel that pressure badly.
“I have really bad days where I’m in a pit of depression, nothing is working and you genuinely start to feel you’ve finally lost it. It’s a horrible thing to deal with, very frightening, and it happens many, many times with every album. I want people to see all of that. I want them to know what I go through to make these albums. Mostly though, I want their experience, when they listen to the finished album, to be enhanced because they do know the thought process behind every word, and they do know what I went through to make it. I hope it will bring us closer in a fan/artist way, and I hope it will bring them closer to the music.”
I’m guessing the independent approach of crowd-funding appeals to him. Are his days of working with the big corporations behind him?
“Correct, I’m not a big fan of the old way of doing things. Not just the big labels either, I had real problems with the big record store chains as well. I was glad to see them begin to fade away because in my experience trying to run my own small label, it was the record store chains that did the most damage. They abused their power by insisting on such outrageous deals that it became impossible to survive as a small independent label.
“But, there are so many things wrong with the way the big music labels, and most of the small ones to be honest, deal with their artists. I still get royalties for my back-catalogue from old, conventional record deals and it’s shocking how little filters back to the artist. But, arguably, the labels need to be that greedy to survive. It’s the entire old school business model that’s wrong and that’s why I love the way things are changing.
“There is so much doom-mongering about the state of the music business these days, falling sales, blah blah blah, but I genuinely see what’s going on now as something of a golden age. Everything is being rewritten, the way labels work, the need for labels at all is in question, the way managers’ commission, the industry standard of 20% for management will hopefully be a thing of the past soon.
“It’s all changing, swinging back towards those artists that are smart enough to stand up and resist the old ways and forge a new path. The tools are out there now that can make becoming truly independent a reality. Having said all that, Pledge for me is nothing to do with crowd-funding. I earn more than enough money and have my own studio, so funding is not a problem. For me Pledge is about creating a unique experience that will build stronger and closer ties to my fan-base.”
Is he set to work on the new album with producer Ade Fenton? The pair seem to rub off on each other very well.
“I don’t know to be honest. I’ve been doing everything on my own so far. I’ve produced most of my albums myself actually but the three I made with Ade were all brilliantly done. He’s extremely creative and works very hard. I haven’t made up my mind what to do with the next one yet but have a few meetings in the coming weeks so hope to have that side of things sorted out very soon.”
Last time we spoke, Gary let on how his wife Gemma – a former Numan fan club member, originally from Sidcup – and their girls love music around the house, while he’s happier leaving his at the studio door. What’s inspiring him to get back into that studio at the moment? Are the ideas coming thick and fast?
“I get inspired by so many things it doesn’t matter that I don’t listen to music that much. You actually hear music everywhere without needing to sit down and play your favourite albums. It’s on adverts, films, TV shows, trailers, it’s just everywhere. Plus, inspiration can come from more than just music. A conversation can give you an idea, an article you read, a photograph, a painting, a noise heard out in the street. Inspiration is absolutely everywhere.
“Life itself is the biggest source. The fears and worries, the joy (not that I use that one very much) all these things go in and create those little sparks that ignite your imagination.”
Touching on the wider America – and I would say the same’s happening here amid the EU referendum fiasco and so on – there seems to be something of a national identity crisis, scarily so in many respects, not least with support for more xenophobic political elements gaining ground. How does he see it all as a stranger in his own land (both in the UK and the US arguably)?
“It’s just awful – politicians latching on to the fears of people, turning that fear into hatred and resentment, just to win an argument, or to win votes. Tolerance and kindness is being swept under the carpet. Understanding and sympathy vanishing under the weight of xenophobic ignorance and self-serving greed. It’s deeply upsetting to see people you thought of as decent human beings begin to form opinions that are full of venom and bitterness.
“Politicians are encouraging people to start putting up walls, pointing accusing fingers at anyone not quite the same as them, blaming everybody else, anybody else, for the problems we all face. It seems as though, because of just a handful of forceful people around the world, civilization is suddenly sliding rapidly back into the dark ages. It’s shocking, and terrible. It’s hard to believe it can be happening.”
On the run-up to our interview, I was listening to Gary’s splendid recent collaboration with past writewyattuk interviewee John Foxx on Talk (Are You Listening To Me). He readily acknowledged the former Ultravox frontman as a big influence, and like him he’s still pushing boundaries and exploring possibilities. Any chance of further work together?
“No plans at the moment but I’m open to all things obviously. It was great to finally work on a track with John. He was such an important part of my early work in electronic music.”
Since 2014, Gary’s also worked with Protafield, VOWWS and Jean-Michel Jarre, on a video game, and so on. Are there other projects at the moment taking shape?
“I did a guest vocal on a Duke Spirit track recently for Record Store Day, I worked on a track by a band called Dusky which is coming out soon, a four-track EP with my friend Andy Gray which was part of the new Hunters TV show in the US and quite a few more that have slipped my memory at the moment. All I really want to be working on for the next few months is my own album. I need to get that finished.”
Gary wrote some moving words about his Mum’s recent passing. I guess that puts everything else – not least career and so on – into perspective. His parents were always there to encourage him, weren’t they?
“Yes, they did everything they could to support me from the moment I first showed an interest in music, and continued to support me once it all became successful. My Dad managed me until 2009 so it was very much a family affair for a very long time. Losing my Mum in June was very hard and everything just stops for a while. I’ve hardly touched my social sites, done nothing on the album, no Pledge updates. I’m slowly beginning to get back into things now though.”
Gary gave me a glimpse into his family life in our last interview, not least telling me about his girls and how ‘to see them happy is the reason I get up in the morning’. So how’s home life right now? Is it a happening environment?
“I love it. It’s obviously not without its problems as each one of them tries to find their way as they grow, but I love everything about it. Gemma and I just passed our 24-year mark since we got together and have our 19-years married anniversary very soon. It’s still perfect, still very happy.
“I genuinely miss her when she goes to the shops so it’s just the same now as it was when we first got together. The children, who are 12, 10 and 9 at the moment, are all growing up to be lovely, creative little things. Everyone is healthy for the most part (Gemma has had a few issues and scares here and there but everything has worked out) so I’ve nothing to complain about whatsoever. The girls push the boundaries all the time of course, and life is not without a bit of shouting once in a while, but things are very happy.”
Finally, last time we spoke Gary told me he was making progress with the second part of his autobiography – following 1997’s Praying to the Aliens – and also a ‘high-fantasy epic’ he was working on. Any publication dates in the offing?
“Unfortunately not, but I’m still working slowly on both those projects. I would love to have the autobiography part two out towards the end of 2017 if possible, and the novel the year after. That would fit in very comfortably with the album and tours that are coming over the next two years.”
Gary Numan’s UK tours starts on September 15 at The Foundry in Sheffield and ends on September 26th at Bexhill-on-Sea’s De La Warr Pavilion, with dates in Liverpool, Coventry, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Glasgow, Nottingham, Oxford, Norwich, Portsmouth and Bristol en route. All tickets are available via this link or by calling 08444 771000. And for full details, ticket info, and all the latest from Gary Numan head to his official website, with a link here.
You can also keep in touch via Gary’s official Facebook and Twitter pages, while fans might also want to check out a ’77/’81 memorabilia, press clippings, rare images, concert pics and memories Twitter link.
Meanwhile, to pre-order and be part of Gary’s creative journey towards his new album, check out his Pledge Music link.