Gary Numan has had an extraordinary musical career spanning almost five decades. He rode the first wave of British punk into developing electronic-synth rock fused with science fiction themes.
Numan had two worldwide hits in 1979 with “Are Friends Electric?” and “Cars” which he told the Sentinel was, “probably the happiest song I ever wrote. And it was about road rage.”
Numan just released his 21st studio album, “Intruder,” and is preparing for a late 2021 tour that will take him across Europe and the U.S. including a gig at San Francisco’s Fillmore on Oct. 22. Numan has spoken openly of his struggles with anxiety, depression and Asperger’s, a syndrome characterized by repetitive, obsessive patterns that he believes has benefited his creative focus and drive. Numan spoke with the Sentinel about “Intruder” and how music saved his marriage.
“I can’t speak for all creative people but I tend to believe that we are very sponge-like, so we soak up everything that’s around us. Most of my music is not influenced by other music because I don’t actually listen to music often. But I watch films, TV, I’m having conversations all the time, reading books, looking at photographs or paintings,” Numan said. “The world is absolutely overwhelming at any moment with things. And it’s all going in and that sponge is getting fuller and fuller. When you sit down to make an album you just kind of give that sponge a squeeze and all that stuff comes out. And hopefully what happens is it’s merged with your own inventiveness and creativity that’s in there, too.
“The worry is that when you create new things, you might unwittingly copy something. I don’t think I have, but there’s always a risk,” he continued. “I do remember many years ago, in the late ’90s, I was working on a song and really thought I’d come up with a blindingly good chorus. I called up to my wife and said, ‘You’ve got to come listen to this!’ And she said, ‘I’ve just been playing that! That’s Siouxsie and the Banshees!’ I went, ‘F— off!’ I said, ‘Really?’ I hadn’t realized it. But she’d been playing it upstairs and I’d obviously been hearing it, but not really registering. Thank god she told me! That would have been hideously embarrassing!”
“As far as process is concerned, I’m not really aware of having one,” Numan offers. “When I say, ‘I’m going to start the next album on Monday…’ And I am actually going to start the next album Monday! So, when Monday comes along, I’ll sit down at a keyboard and see what happens. Coming up with melodies, I can do that all day. The more difficult stuff comes when you start to add layers and complexity to the song. The tune is the framework that everything else is wrapped around. Long before I send my songs over to Ade Fenton, who produces my music, I produce it to a fairly complete level; the dynamics, the feel of it. The lyrics tend to be the last thing because I feel that the lyrics should be guided by the mood of the song. It almost makes itself. I often describe it as kind of a stumbling forward kind of process.”
Now 63 years old and the father of three teenage daughters – Raven, Persia and Echo – Numan has hit a new stride in the 21st century with critically acclaimed albums like “Splinter” (2013) and “Savage” (2017). He’s also collaborated with Battles, Jean-Michel Jarre, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and others.
Making music is a need
“Making music is a need. And it has been very useful. That ability to get emotions out has been almost life-saving at times,” reports Numan. “As an example, my wife had postnatal depression after our second baby and by the time the third one was born, she was in a terrible state. Then for various reasons I got diagnosed with depression. We had this long period of several years where both of us were not in a really good place and not getting on the way we used to. At one point, I was thinking about leaving. And so was she, although I didn’t know that at the time. And I went outside and started to write a song called ‘Lost’ which went on the ‘Splinter’ album. ‘Lost’ reminded me of all the things that I loved about Jemma that I’d forgotten. I wrote the song and apologized for everything that I’d said, forgetting how amazing she was. And that was the last time we ever argued. If I hadn’t been able to write songs and go deep inside and get all these things out, then we probably wouldn’t be married now and my life would be totally different.”
Numan, who has also flown as a stunt pilot, moved to Santa Monica, California in 2012 and more recently became a U.S. citizen.
“I used to think that the majority of people are good and decent. But I feel less confident about that now,” Numan confides. “That’s partly because of the last four years that scraped off this thin layer of civility (in the USA). I’ve been living here a long time and I’ve got my American citizenship now. So, I feel I’m allowed to say this; my impression of America was of a far more tolerant and all-encompassing country than it turned out to be. It seems we only needed one unpleasant figurehead to come to power for that thin layer to be peeled away, to see all that hostility and resentment that were lurking just below the surface. That’s what the pandemic highlighted more than anything else; this division. It’s made a lot of things very nakedly visible. In a way, ‘When You Fall’ hints into some of that.”
“I want to talk about the fear you breed / I want to talk about your faith / And how you keep a straight face.”
— “When You Fall” by Gary Numan from Intruder
Punk Rock: A vehicle to somewhere
“I found punk rock really exciting to begin with. I remember going to see Sex Pistols in a London club called Notre Dame. I saw The Clash when they were in a little bar somewhere. I did find it very exciting but I never thought it was for me,” Numan remembers. “I developed Tubeway Army in 1978 as a punk band because I saw punk as an opportunity. It was; go out and say what the f— you want, and do what you want, and just rip the s— up while you can. That’s what music should be about!
“At that moment it was as if a load of doors suddenly appeared on a wall that had been firmly in your way before. There was no way through that wall apart from major record companies and massive independents who were very arrogant, selective and difficult to get into. All of a sudden that wall had a dozen big doors in it and you opened a door and behind it was half a dozen little punk labels. Suddenly there was lots of opportunity. Punk for me became a vehicle to somewhere.”
Bulldozer of a sound
“The electronic thing for me was absolute luck. I went to a studio to record our first punk album with Tubeway Army and a synthesizer was there, sitting in the corner. I’d never seen a real one before. I thought, ‘Look at that, man. It’s just covered in dials and switches and buttons.’ It looked so cool, like Starship Enterprise in a box,” recalls Numan. “They let me have a go of it while the other two are unloading the guitars, amps and drumkit into the studio. I just pressed down one key and it was awesome. It was the heaviest, hugest bulldozer of a sound. The whole room was shaking. I never heard anything like it and I thought, ‘That’s me. I’m done.’
“I made three albums in 11 months. ‘Tubeway Army’ was first and the next one was ‘Replicas,’ then ‘Pleasure Principle.’ I was flying. And then all the major labels wanted an electronic band. The whole thing just took off and it became a genre in its own right. I honestly believe that it was probably the last true revolution in music. I’m really proud to have been a part of it. And I really was just a part of it. A lot of the credit I get is largely undeserved because I was near the front but I wasn’t quite at the tip of the spear. There were people like Human League and OMD and Daniel Miller who went on to do Mute (Records). Ultravox had made three albums by the time I made my first one! They were genuinely groundbreaking. So, I come along and had all the success and stole their thunder a little bit.”
Making music is essential
“I’ve always believed that we are shaped, more than anything, by the way we deal with adversity. It’s the disappointments, setbacks and losses that we have to endure that do far more to shape the people that we become, then all the good experiences,” says Numan. “Making music is an essential part of who I am, of how I deal with the world and how I cope with the ups and downs of existing. Being able to write is an amazing thing. It gets rid of all of my tensions and worries. It’s proven to be an incredibly helpful thing for me to get me through life and not sort of be bouncing off the walls all the time.
(By JOHN MALKIN | Santa Cruz Sentinel correspondent)
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