Interview with Gary Numan

Icon – One who is the object of great attention and devotion. Legendary – 
acclaimed, renowned, so celebrated as to having taken on the nature of a
legend. Sadly Both these words are appointed so readily, often to those
yet to earn such meaty descriptions, that their core meanings have been
somewhat diluted. But in the case of Gary Numan applying these
words is completely justified. Despite some breaks, Numan has maintained
creative momentum since his explosion in the late 70’s, still producing
vital material that captures the interest of both old and new fans, as
well as inspiring his musical contemporaries. He has not needed any help
to stay relevant in today’s music industry, but it is undeniable that
the droves of adaptions by the likes of NIN,  Foo Fighters, Marilyn
Manson. Sugababes and Basement Jaxx have not only introduced young music
fans and chart followers to his sounds, but successfully reminded us
all of his stunning catalogue of classic songs.  I was lucky enough to
get the chance to find out more about his writing and recording process
and how he feels working within the music industry today…..

I first met you at The Artrocker Awards last week. How important is it to you to keep up to date on new bands and music scenes?

It’s something I like to be aware of, and it’s something I’m very
interested in, and from time to time you can learn a lot by listening to
what some other people are doing. It’s always good to find someone or
something you can learn from. Mostly though I have a very clear idea of
what I what I’m doing musically and where I want to go in the future and
it doesn’t rely too much on what other bands are doing. I am perfectly
happy to be a force of one, or a part of many, as long as I’m making the
music I want to make. If other bands are doing the same sort of thing
as me, that’s okay with me, if no-one else is doing it, that’s also okay
with me. I don’t ever feel vulnerable or isolated.

Is it also important to be seen at events with the way the music
industry works today – to maintain a certain amount of media presence
etc?

I think it can help but you can easily over do it and be seen at too
many things. I don’t go to that many. It’s good to meet the media in a
relaxed and fun atmosphere, it’s good to meet up with other bands and
artists, often people you’ve not met before and are interested in.
Sometimes you bump into a hero and that’s always scary but exciting. I
think if you are lucky enough to be given an award it’s the least you
can do to turn up and say thank you for it. Some people seem to make a
career out of attending functions and having their photo in Hello
magazine. I think that can be counter productive.

The music industry will have undergone many changes during your lengthy
career. Would you say have always been good at adapting to these?

I think so. My career has centred around technology since day one
pretty much. I was designing my own web sites in ’95 and learning raw
html so I’ve tried hard to stay on top of, and adapt to, new
technologies and other non technological changes as they’ve come along. I
haven’t grasped the full impact of every new thing from the very
beginning but then not every new thing is suitable. I’m lucky in that
I’m fascinated by new technology, I want to know all about it, and I’m
desperate for change, always. I think this puts me in a reasonably good
position to deal with the changes in the music industry. To me, every
change is not something lost, but a new opportunity.

Do you think the genre you work in makes it easier to enjoy the
changes – the technological advancements in terms of instrumentation and
tracking records for instance?

Without a doubt those of us working in electronic music are fed an
almost bewildering amount of new technology. We need to stay flexible in
our thinking to cope and adapt to every step forward. I think that
flexibility of thinking is what enables me to adapt quickly to new
changes both in recording and the music business in general.

I read that you’ve had a bit of a mishap recently, that Logic
deleted some of your new tracks. Do you miss the simplicity of older
techniques in these instances?

No, I don’t miss that much. I’m perfectly happy with the way things
are now. We have some truly formidable pieces of equipment that help us
to make music. Having said that, I am going to buy a piano to have in
the house so that I can sit down and play an idea as it comes to mind
without needing to rush out to the studio and fire up the Starship
Enterprise just to record an idea. The deleted files was my own fault, a
stupid mistake in a stressy moment. And, luckily, I found a back up
drive with all those songs still intact.

You have been working with Producer/DJ Ade Fenton on Dead Son
Rising and your next album. Can you describe your working relationship
and the environment you work within?

I have a studio here in Sussex, Ade has one in Nottingham, and we
swap files back and forth on-line with lots of phone calls in-between.
From time to time we get together and go through things, try out ideas,
but mostly we work independently from each other but in close contact. I
work up a song to start with and usually get it to a near finished
state, Ade then takes those files and makes it better, I get those
improvements back and sort through them, I then write the lyrics and
sing the vocals and add any last minute parts that come to mind. Up
until Dead Son Rising I would then mix the songs but my hearing has
deteriorated quite badly now and I can no longer trust what I hear so we
will probably mix together in the future. Ade mixed Dead Son Rising but
I felt too out of the loop with that and I don’t really want to be out
of that process again.

Do you generally agree on all production decisions or do you have
heated debate about certain tweaks Does the fact that he co manages you
make a difference?

The managing thing doesn’t really play a part in production decisions
but we do have lots of discussions about what’s right or wrong. The
final decision is mine though as it’s my album. It’s a fairly easy
relationship to be honest considering the pressure we are under at
various times.

You have said that originally you intended the current album to be
a filler one to maintain momentum until the next one. You were honest
with your listeners about this intention.. Do you think there is enough
honesty in the music industry?

I do not like to see fans lied to in an attempt to squeeze more money
from them. We were completely upfront with our release schedule for
Dead Son Rising for example. We made it very clear from day one that we
would release three versions, what you got with each of them and what
they would cost. We were advised at one point to not mention the top
price version so that fans would buy the other two and then when the
special one came out some of them would buy that as well, even though
they already had a cheaper version. We all thought that was a dreadful
thing to suggest, a blatant rip off and abuse of the very people that
were supporting my career. That kind of dishonesty annoys me and hurts
the business. Fans are very aware of that sort of thing and they have a
right to be angry if they are treated badly. We are very honest and open
about anything that involves the fans.

Seeing as you had clear intentions (although it panned out
differently in the end), do you have a clear idea/concept for the next
work?

Yes, very clear. I want the next album to be a huge, epic onslaught
of massive riffage and soaring chorus’s. That however may deliver an
album too one dimensional so I’m expecting a reasonable amount of
deviation to creep in along the way. But it will be, nonetheless, heavy,
dark and anthemic.

Do you think its harder to instill emotion into electronic/synthesized music? Is it hard to create warmth for instance?

I think instilling emotion is one of the great strengths of
electronic music, providing you know what you’re doing. It is more than
capable of delivering heart rending emotion, or brutal power. It can do
anything. The factor that makes all the difference is the man or woman
sitting in front of the keyboard and what they bring to the process. The
technology can deliver anything, you just need to point it in the right
direction and give it the right guidance along the way.


You have said that your writing process often starts with a drum loop.
When do you decide on the lyrical content or mood of the track?

Lyrical content is the last part of the process for me. The mood of the
track evolves from the very beginning as each new layer is added. That
mood then dictates the lyrical content. I have always done it that way.
The music is the mood, the vocals and lyrics reflect that mood.

You have said that ‘music is an arrangement of sounds’.Would you
ever take a leaf out of the likes of Imogen Heaps book and use
unusual/household objects to create sounds and rhythms for your
recordings?

I did that sort of thing back in the mid 80’s before sampling came
along and made it all so much easier to do. We would go on expeditions
around the studio complex, or streets, depending on where we were, and
make hundreds of recordings of us hitting things, dragging things,
scraping, whatever. We even put microphones up the exhaust pipe of my
car. We recorded pretty much everything that made a noise, took it back
to the studio and then spent countless hours manipulating it into every
stranger and more interesting sounds, splicing long loops of tape to
create rhythms out of those sounds that we then played to. Then along
came samplers and 90% of the work was done for you. Creating sounds is a
huge part of what we do, it’s a lot of fun too.

You used to be rather ruthless, deleting any songs you didn’t feel
that were working. It’s a good thing you didn’t do that when you
temporarily discarded the latest record. I believe your wife was playing
it and you didn’t recognize it as being you!

It is a good thing. I stopped deleting absolutely everything that
didn’t get onto an album about 10 years ago, although I still delete
lots of stuff. When I started to gather unused songs for the new Dead
Son Rising album, which was intended from the outset to be made up from
older unused songs, I only had about 14 to choose from so I’d still been
pretty harsh on getting rid of stuff. To be honest though, the vast
majority of Dead Son Rising is newly written material and very little of
the original demo’s or songs remain, which I think has made it a
better, and certainly more satisfying, album to make. I have learnt an
important lesson though and I will be far more careful with the amount
of things I delete in the future.

Many may not know that guitars are your first love, that a
Sunburst Les Paul was the first instrument you played. So was there a
song, band or artist that made you want to experiment with electronic
music ?

No, strangely enough. I went into a studio in Cambridge in 1978 to
record my debut pop/punk album with my band at the time ‘Tubeway Army’.
We were a three piece, drums, bass and myself on guitar and vocals. When
we arrived I noticed a synth called a Mini Moog in a case in the corner
of the studio control room, waiting to be collected by a hire company.
Luckily for me the studio owner let me have a go of the synth, which I
loved immediately and so I changed my musical direction there and then. I
used that synth to quickly alter my guitar based punk songs into synth
based electro/punk songs and took that album back to the record company.
They were not entirely pleased to be honest but put it out anyway and
so my electronic career was underway. It was only then that I started to
research if anyone else was making electronic music. I was aware of
Kraftwerk but that was about it. I soon found out that there were
several other bands doing it, and some had been for some time. My
favourite was the John Foxx led version of Ultravox. John Foxx was a
very important inspiration to me.

You have taken breaks along the way, has there been a point where
confidence dropped or you became so disillusioned with the industry that
you thought you’d just concentrate on living life and your love of
flying – leaving the music behind?

There have been many points when confidence dropped. I’m not blessed
with that much confidence at the very best of times so dealing with a
fragile level of confidence has always been  a problem for me. I’ve had a
few periods where I thought that my career was over, the late 80’s –
early 90’s being the worst by far. I was in serious trouble then as the
quality of my songwriting was far from it’s best, the media had lost
interest in me completely and I had very few fans left. I also had
massive debts and more than a few problems on the home front so things
were grim with little hope of improvement in sight. I’ve never wanted to
leave music behind, but it’s often seemed as though it wanted to leave
me behind.

The Battles said in an interview that you’d be the first to admit
that you don’t consider yourself a singer. Is this a confidence thing,
or does it just not feel natural to you?

It’s a lack of confidence, coupled with a lack of talent. It amazes
me that some people think of me as a good singer. I do okay with what I
have and I’m lucky that enough people like my voice and buy my albums
and come to the shows. I do love singing though, and I’m very envious of
those people that are genuinely great singers. That control and power
is something I will always admire in others.

You aim have your new album out by April next year so that you can
tour later in the year. Is playing live the main draw for you? How do
you cope with the touring lifestyle, is it harder now you have a family?

I aim to have it finished by April/May but with a release date
sometime in September. Playing live is by far the biggest attraction to
me. I love pretty much every aspect of being in a band but touring is my
favourite part. The touring lifestyle is made for me. I’m totally happy
living on a bus, I love travelling, I love the friendships and
camaraderie that develops through life on the road. The only downside is
my children. My wife Gemma works with me on the tours so she is always
there but the children can’t come very often. They all go to school and
the hours you work on tour are not conducive to the well being of little
children. I miss them very much and they miss us so I try to limit
tours to two week stints whenever possible. This is not the best way to
tour but it’s the compromise we make to try and keep some small degree
of normality to our family life.

Trent Reznor, who you have stated you plan to work with and who
frequently cites you as a major influence, put his musical talents to
use for the soundtrack of Social Network….You have previously provided
narration for Voltaire’s short film Odokuro in 2011.. Have you any
further plans/aspiration in this department?

I would love to get more involved in writing for film but it is a
notoriously difficult thing to get into and to succeed at. It remains a
long term ambition but only time will tell how that will work out. I
also have ambitions to write novels so I may have to choose which one to
devote my later years to.

Your songs have been covered and sampled numerous times. Has there
ever been a request you’ve said not to, as you always seem very
complimentary about covers of your songs?

I’ve never felt the need to decline any request for samples and I’m not
even sure I can legally say no to someone doing a cover version. It’s
not been an issue though as I’ve had no reason to want to say no to
anyone. I’m genuinely flattered that people want to sample or cover my
stuff. I obviously like some versions more than others but that doesn’t
take away the gratitude I feel to those people that choose to record or
perform cover versions of my songs.

You loved Pop Will Eat Itself – Friends cover so much that you
ended up covering the cover.. Are there any modern songs that you are
itching to cover yourself?

No, I’m not really that interested in doing cover versions, I write
too many songs of my own. There are plenty of great songs around though
and I get to collaborate from time to time with other people which I
find very interesting and challenging.

Certain songs of yours are always commented on.What work are you most proud of though?

Although ‘Cars’ is not one of my favourite songs from a songwriting
point of view, I am extremely proud of how well known it’s become around
the world. I think most songwriters dream of writing something that
becomes that famous. ‘Are Friends Electric’ I’m equally proud of for
kick starting the whole electronic music revolution into the mainstream,
it was fantastic to be a part of that. But, I think the best songs have
come from the last three albums, songs like ‘Pure’, ‘A Prayer For The
Unborn’, ‘Jagged’ and ‘Dead Sun Rising’ mean a lot to me and are songs
that I’m very proud of.

There has been much speculation about your living arrangements. If
you were to move to warmer climates, as rumoured, do you think it would
affect your sound? Perhaps the grey skies of the UK inform your sound
more than you think.

I don’t think so but I’ve never written outside of the UK so it’s
impossible to know for sure. I hope not. I’m very happy with the music
I’ve been making for the last 17 years or so and I would like to
continue with that, get better at it. I think the warmer climate will
simply encourage me to work even harder. That’s if we actually go of
course and that is still far from certain.

You’ve achieved so much in your career, what else do you want to tick off?

I want to write novels, film scores, make more and better albums,
tour in countries I’ve still not been to and tour again in those I have.
Apart from that, I just want to keep on doing what I’ve been doing.

Do you worry about reviews?

I don’t worry but I’m always relieved if they are positive and, if
they are, I’m happy to read them. If they are not I try to avoid them.
But, good or bad, they have no effect on the music I make, they never
have. I do think they can have a big influence of whether people will
listen to an album, and so perhaps buy it, and so they are very
important. No point worrying about them though, they will be what they
will be. All you can do is make the best music you can and then hope
that those reviewing it hear something of worth.

What is on your recently played list on your ipod?

The new album by ‘Officers’ called ‘On The Twelve Thrones’, and the
Dragon Tattoo movie soundtrack that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have
just released.

Leave a Reply