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Gary Numan - Interview

  by Andy Cassidy

published: 28 / 8 / 2011

Gary Numan - Interview


Influential electronic music artist Gary Numan speaks to Andy Cassidy about his new album ‘Dead Son Rising’, its difficult inception and his career which is now five decades long

Gary Numan is not afraid of candour. I was slightly nervous about interviewing him, but his charm soon settled any nerves, and, rather than an interview, our conversation became more of a casual chat. Numan is a veteran of over thirty LPs and has had a career spanning five decades. Starting with the band Tubeway Army, Numan is perhaps best known for his hit singles ‘Are Friends Electric?’and ‘Cars’. His new album, ‘Dead Son Rising’, has just been released in three different formats (including a deliciously tempting Super Deluxe Edition featuring a DVD, 12” remixes and much besides), and he is touring the UK over the next couple of months. I wanted to know more about Gary’s new album and hopefully find out a bit about one of rock’s more enduring characters. PB : First of all, what was the last album you listened to? GN: I did a single with a band called Battles and they sent me a copy of the finished album, ‘Gloss Drop’. I’ve been listening to that. I’m on one son. Obviously I’m not on the rest of it, but I wanted to check it out… and see what it was like. It’s a good album. They’re a really good band actually. I’m glad to be involved with the single. Unfortunately with the riots in London, all of the stock got burnt in the warehouse, and I had all these hand-written lyrics that were going to be secreted into certain copies for people to find and it’s all gone, which is a bit of a disappointment really for the band. Hopefully they can get some more made up and it won’t be too damaging for them. PB: Writing, performing and producing your own music must be a dream job. What were your plans career-wise when you left school? Did you always intend to go into music, or did you have another career pathway in mind? GN: Yeah, one of the reasons I left school was that it was getting in the way. When I was a kid I was quite bright. I went to a grammar school and was doing quite well there and then I just realised that I wanted to be in a band, doing the whole music, pop-star thing, and then school became a massive irritation. I just wanted to get out and get on with it. I felt like - It sounds stupid – that I was fifteen and the world was passing me by – stupid really, but you think differently when you’re a kid. When I came out of school I was full-on in bands and getting my shit together, writing songs and just trying to make it all happen really. PB: It seems to come quite naturally to you, the whole being in bands/pop star bit, but I’ve always been struck by the fact that you seem to shun the rock ‘n’ roll life style. For example, during your first flush of success in the late 70s/ early 80s you still lived at home with your parents. GN: Yeah, I was pretty sheltered. That’s very true, partly because I had brilliant parents. When I was a kid they were massively supportive of what I was doing. Even though I got expelled from school, and clearly I let them down badly from a conventional point of view, nonetheless they got right behind me with the music thing. They helped me out in every way they could, helping me to buy equipment when I didn’t have a job to start with. They were absolutely brilliant. I didn’t have any sort of great push. They weren’t trying to push me out like a lot of parents do when their kids become eighteen or nineteen ,and they were just really lovely and helpful. I used to write songs on piano. I had this old pub piano that used to be at their house. My day was I’d get up and I’d spend all day plonking away - if I wasn’t working- plonking away on the piano trying to write songs. I wrote all my early really big stuff was on this old, out of tune, pub piano. So, again, if I’d moved out, I’d have had to go home to play piano, so I couldn’t really. I didn’t want to go anyway – I was very happy at home. It was kind of like my office in a way, so even if I’d gone out and got a flat somewhere, I’d have gone back there every day to write songs and play the piano, and keep sending out the demos to record companies, all that sort of thing, so I had no problem with it. The whole rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle thing, I got into it because I really loved music, and I loved the lifestyle that seemed to come with it, but I never was that big on the whole rock star excesses, the trashing hotel rooms, TVs out the window – utter bullshit. I never got that side of it. I really wanted the money – I thought, “What a brilliant job! Great money, girls like you, you get to travel a lot and you’re doing something you love doing.” Music for me was a massive, massive hobby, and it was really, really important to me and I loved doing it. It was pretty much all I did all my teenage years. All my mates were going down the pub and going out and doing other stuff, and I’d just be at home. I was very insular. I’d be sitting at home playing guitar or, in later years, piano, just working on my songs and I just loved doing it – that was my hobby. PB: Your hobby certainly paid off in the long-term. You’ve had a career that’s lasted over thirty years. GN: Yeah, it’s had its ups and downs to be honest! It’s been great though. For a long time I felt really bad about the fact that I’d blown out of school and that I’d let my family down and so on, and the whole pop star thing is such a one in a million thing to make it, but then again if you come out of school and you’re highly qualified in something or another then maybe, maybe, you don’t throw yourself into it as totally as you need to. It’s hard to know, isn’t it? My dad was always going on about having something to fall back on, but I think that if you don’t have something to fall back on you have absolutely nothing to lose and you give it everything you’ve got. PB: You mean that it makes you all the more determined and spurs you on? GN: Yeah, I really don’t know the rights and wrongs of that, but I certainly have nothing to fall back on whatsoever! I went to college because I missed all the O Levels. I didn’t even take any O Levels or CSE’s or whatever they’re called now, so I went to a college to try to do a five O Level course to try to get some sort of basic qualification. That was to keep my mum and dad happy. And as soon as I got there, everyone was into music and in bands all over the place so it just made things worse if anything. I only lasted, I think, one and a half terms, and I got “invited to leave!” So, that was the end of my schooling. It’s not that I didn’t GET any qualifications. I didn’t even TAKE any! I kind of slipped through the education net, somehow. If music hadn’t worked for me, I’d be living on the street now probably. PB: I’m sure it wouldn’t have come to that! I’m sure your parents would have helped you out – from what you say they sound very supportive. GN: Yeah, but I don’t know how far you can push that though! You’re right. I was very lucky and it all worked out for the best for me. PB: Your new album is called ‘Dead Son Rising’. Where did the title come from? GN: It’s a somewhat long story. When the album was first talked about it was actually going to be a filler album. My last album proper was called ‘Jagged’, and my next album proper is called ‘Splinter’ and that’s coming out next year and we knew that there was going to be a bit of a gap in between. It takes me quite a while to make albums now and Ade Fenton, who manages me and produces my stuff, said, “You must have a lot of out-takes or songs that you’ve not used sitting on a shelf somewhere. Maybe we should put some of that together and put out an album, you know, like an out-takes album to keep fans interested in this gap period.” Actually I don’t have a shelf of out-takes. For the first twenty-five years of my career I didn’t save anything. If a song wasn’t working for me for any reason at all, or if I simply had too many, I used to erase everything, which was a very, very stupid thing to do, and I’ve obviously realised it very late in life, but nonetheless I did realise it eventually, so I did have a few songs, only about fourteen or fifteen songs - I must have thrown away hundreds over the years. Anyway, I went to the studio and said, “This is what I’ve got, some out-takes from the last two or three albums,” so we decided to put that together and that was going to be the new album. And then Ade went off and did some work on it ,and then I did some work on it and then, unfortunately, I went off it really, really badly. I thought what Ade had done was great, but I thought my original songs that I wrote were rubbish, and so I just said, “I’m really sorry, mate, I know we’ve put quite a lot of work into this, but I just don’t like it. I’ve got to be honest. I don’t want it to come out,” and I turned my back on it. I don’t think I did any work on it for a year and a half, maybe even two years, and so it sat there, but because of the amount of work I’d been doing on it, I wasn’t really doing anything on ‘Splinter’ so it actually backfired really, really badly. Then I was on holiday last year in Florida with the family, and I was in one bit of this house that we’d rented and I heard this bit of music come out of one of the bedrooms which my wife Gemma was playing and I went flying out to her and said, “What’s that? That’s great! I really like that!” – it was me! I didn’t recognise it! Bloody hell! I hadn’t heard it for so long, you know, but I thought, “How can that be?” because the last time I heard that album I thought it was shit! Now I thought it was brilliant and I love it! Fuck me! How weird is that, you know? It must have been a like a confidence thing or you know how you sometimes get a bit down on yourself over something… PB: Perhaps you found yourself too close to the material? GN: Yeah! It could be that. Everything you do sounds like poo and you just can’t dig yourself out of that hole of self-loathing. Weird thing! Anyway, I came back from holiday and said to Ade, “I’m really sorry, mate, but I love it all again now! Let’s do some more to it and finish it!” But nonetheless, when we went back to it and worked on it some more I got really into it and we totally changed pretty much every single song that was almost finished before. We had pretty much a finished album, but every single song was torn apart completely and redone from scratch – melodies were changed, chord structures were changed, the entire production, almost 100%, was redone, so the album we’ve released, this new one, instead of being a filler album of old songs, is 99 ½% brand new stuff that we’ve written, so it’s had a very tortuous path from concept to completion, but it’s worth it because we’ve actually put out not a filler album but a brand new album. I have to say, though, that, although it’s gone out as a Gary Numan album, it’s very much a Gary Numan and Ade Fenton collaboration. Ade did so much on the songs that, even though I technically wrote them to start with, I’ve had to say, “You know, you’ve done way more than a producer. There’s a lot of writing gone into that and as far as I’m concerned these are co-written songs, “so it should be a Gary Numan and Ade Fenton album, but Ade didn’t want that for some reason. I think he still sees it as [a solo] album, but it’s not, it’s really not. If you look when it comes out you’ll see that the songs were written by me and Ade, and Ade produced it – it’s a complete collaboration album. PB: The songs on it are very powerful. Your intensity as a performer has not diminished over the years while many of your contemporaries have “gone soft.” GN: [Laughs] I do know exactly what you mean, actually. PB: What inspires and drives you today, and how does it differ from the outset of your career? GN: Very little actually. I think when you very first start you dream of being number one and you dream of selling out Wembley and all those big places – the obvious ambitions. So when you’ve done that, you can back off a little bit. I think for some people song-writing isn’t just a hobby, it’s more of a need. You have a lot of things in you . I have a thing called Asperger’s Syndrome and I don’t actually interact very well – I have a few friends, a few good friends, but nonetheless a few friends – I’m not very good socially. I’m alright in interviews funnily enough, but that’s a different sort of situation – I can talk for England! Generally speaking I’m very quiet, I don’t interact well, so for me music has always been an outlet…it’s almost like therapy in a way. Any problems or things that I need to get out can come out in the music. PB: Like catharsis? GN: Not necessarily directly either. Quite often lyrically they’re massively disguised and they talk about other things whereas in my head I’m actually referring to something else. If anything, it’s getting worse: as I’m getting older, and I’ve got children now, so I have a lot of anxiety to do with the children, the world and all that, and so it’s still there and it’s still pouring out. The thing that I don’t understand is how other people that are doing this…I’m lucky enough to have been doing this for a while – how they get mellow. It’s like what you were saying before, why does that happen? I can’t understand how that fire and that passion diminishes. To me, if anything, it burns stronger and brighter as you get older. I honestly don’t get it. I was talking to someone about this at length yesterday, when I was out doing something and we were both saying that it’s really common for people who’ve been around for a little bit and then their music gets blander and middle, and as you say it softens up. What happens? How can they listen to that and be proud of it? How can you do it? Do you say, “Oh that’s a great piece?” No, it’s not! It’s not a great record, it’s just soft shit! What are you doing? I don’t understand it, and it’s not happened to me at all. PB: Yeah, that’s very apparent. Your recent records are every bit as uncompromising as your early ones. GN: Maybe it’s a commercial thing, because commercially what I’m doing now is not the best thing to be doing if you’re talking about wanting to make a lot of money and have a chart-topping career. My music is way too heavy definitely. It doesn’t get on the radio, and it has a limited appeal because it’s not pop music – it’s much heavier than that, but that’s a clear decision that I’ve made to make this kind of music for quite some time now and for it to be getting, if anything, even darker and even heavier as each album comes out. I know what I’m doing. I know that, commercially, it’s not the wisest thing to be doing. I went through a period in the late 80’s when I was putting out stuff that I thought would be good for the career, not really the sort of music that’s in your heart, but commercial and thought, “This is the sort of music that I should be making,” and it was horrible, and I look back on it now with no pride whatsoever. ‘Machine and Soul’ being the prime example, and ‘Strange Charm,’ and there’s an album called ‘Outland’, but ‘Machine and Soul’ was the absolute pit of where I went. I went so far down the wrong route and that album was so bad that it made me stop and ask, “What the fuck are you doing?” My whole mindset was wrong, my attitude was wrong, reasons for writing songs: all wrong, and I had to have a big old talk to myself after that and I just went back to doing it for a hobby. The album after that was called ‘Sacrifice’, and it was much, much heavier; a very different record from what I’d done before, and I was doing everything myself on it – I didn’t have guests and singers and players. I did it all myself, just went right back to the way I was when I started, on my own, as a hobby, and that was the start of my renaissance really. PB: Numan is not your own name. I see a parallel with Bowie’s various stage characters, and wondered about the choice of Numan as a name: were you deliberately creating a “new man” in the sense that Bowie created Ziggy Stardust, was it a nod to the Germanic elements in your music, or was it simply something that appealed to you at the time? GN: Yeah, my real name is Webb. Funnily enough, it is relevant to Germany, and it is relevant to Bowie, but not in the way you think. I didn’t think Webb was a good stage name, I just thought it was a very common sort of name. Anyway I didn’t want that as my stage name and I hunted high and low for quite a long time, probably a good couple of years, to try to find a name that I thought would suit me, would suit Gary at the beginning and would kind of give me the vibe that I was looking for. I ended up in the Beggar’s Banquet’s offices one day, in the back of their offices, and they look onto a railway track. It was noisy as shit, and I was in there and in-between trains I was trying to concentrate on what I was doing, and I had the Earl’s Court copy of the Yellow Pages and I was going through the Yellow Pages. I’d done the phone book thing, but phone books don’t work because you get hundreds of the same name or it changes slightly, and you just get blinded to it – nothing really leaps out at you. So I started using Yellow Pages because the names are always different and – this sounds really stupid now! – and I got to Neumann Kitchen Appliances, a company in Earl’s Court that sold fridges…and I thought, “That’s brilliant! I really like that! Gary Neumann! That works really well.” This was when Bowie was doing his Berlin thing, and I thought, “Oh, I can’t have a German name, that’ll be terrible,” so I took the ‘e’ out and the ‘n’ out and it became ‘Numan.’ I didn’t connect at all with the “new man” thing, not until years later when someone said, “Oh, is it new-man?” I didn’t even spot that, which is unlike me. I’m normally quite good at Scrabble and things like that! I didn’t spot it at all! But, no, it wasn’t, it was a German name and I thought it would be bad to have a German name, I liked the ‘Numan’ – it felt like it belonged to me, you know? Gary Numan: it flows nicely and has a nice connotation to it, but no, there was no ‘new man’ thing attached to it and there was a Bowie connection, but I at the same time I was also moving away from it. PB: The name Numan has led to your fans calling themselves “Numanoids,” which is a fantastic name. They are a pretty dedicated bunch, I think it’s fair to say. What is it, do you think, that makes them so loyal to you? GN: Well, I think that the obvious thing is that they have to like the music and relate to me as a person, but I have tried to be good to them over the years: I’m very, very accessible, a little bit less so now, actually, but up until quite recently it would be normal practice for people to wait at the bus after the show and I would sign everything, never turn down autographs, sign everything that comes to the house, send out wedding cards to people who are getting married – you just really try to be accessible and not aloof and shun them. And I think, not for all of them, because you’re always going to get grumpy people, aren’t you, but generally I think that’s recognised and appreciated. I try to put on really good shows for them, play live regularly, and up until recently I used to churn out albums incessantly…recently, I have slowed down a bit. PB: Yeah, looking at your discography, it’s clearly the work of someone who’s keeping busy. GN: I think one of the things that hardened the loyalty was the fact that the press were so hostile to me in the early years. I had huge problems with the press. They really did not like me at all, and I think that kind of hardened the loyalty of the people who did like me. All those people who were wavering on the fringes, I think the press probably got rid of them, unfortunately, so again, it did hurt me quite badly from a career point of view, but the people that were very into me at the time, it made the hardcore harder. And I think that really helped, because in a strange way, the press being so hostile actually helped me to form such a strong hardcore that that carried me through those leaner bits which is why I am so aware of how good the fans have been to me and how loyal they are, and I think we have a very good relationship, generally speaking. PB: Noel Fielding’s character, Vince Noir, in ‘The Mighty Boosh’ is a huge fan, and constantly raves about your music. You actually appeared in an episode. How did that come about? GN: Well, I’m a big ‘Mighty Boosh’ fan anyway. When I first started seeing me brought up in the show on TV, I actually thought it was taking the piss and I used to get really scared – as every episode went by I just thought it was going to be horrible, but it wasn’t. Then I went to see them live, and met them, met Noel and Julian afterwards, and they were really lovely. Noel even had a Tubeway Army badge. We exchanged phone numbers, and we kept in touch a bit and he’d been out to see us a few times and they had ‘The Mighty Boosh Festival’, and they invited me to be on that and then they said, “Do you want to be on the show?” I didn’t realise that they’d invited me to be on it the series before but somehow or another it didn’t get to me. I’m not quite sure what happened, but the message didn’t find its way to me, so they thought I wasn’t interested. I was so embarrassed, I didn’t even know about it. I’d have LOVED to have done it. Anyway, we got invited up to do the one that I did appear on and just had the most brilliant time. They are such a good group of people. They tend to surround themselves with their own friends; all the extras in the show, they’re all their own mates. It’s got a really nice vibe to it. The crew that they work with are all really good people. I think if the people themselves who are making these things are down-to-earth and approachable that spills out to the people around them. And I really like Julian. He works pretty much the way we operate as well, so it’s really good. I’m really proud to be a part of it, and I had a really good time making it. And I have to say, these days, pretty much anywhere I am in the world, if anyone comes up to me who’s twenty-five or under and knows who I am, there’s a fifty-fifty chance that it’s because of ‘The Mighty Boosh’ – in terms of profile, it’s done me no harm whatsoever. I didn’t expect that, I had no idea that was going to happen. I just liked the show and it was a great thing to be on. PB: There was talk of ‘The Mighty Boosh‘ making an album. Is that something that you’d be interested in participating in? GN: Oh yeah, I’d be up for that. When they did the festival actually they did their own set, and Julian is a genuinely brilliant guitar player. I was absolutely amazed. I went up the front and said, “Fucking hell! That’s not just some comedy blokes put a band behind them. He’s right up there doing this.” He is a much better player than I am! He’s fantastic! So, yeah, if they wanted to make an album, they certainly could. PB: You’re touring the UK in September, and you’ve got the new album coming up. What’s after that for Gary Numan? GN: Well, after we do the September shows, I go back into the studio to do some more work on the ‘Splinter’ album and get that pretty much finished. Then in December we go back on the road to do a second little wave of more ‘Dead Son Rising ‘shows and after that we go back into the studio and finish off ‘Splinter’. We’ll try to get ‘Splinte’r out as close to early-spring as possible, and ,as soon as that comes out, the rest of next year is pretty much devoted to touring the ‘Splinter’ album around the world. I think in places outside the UK it will probably be like ‘Splinter/Dead Son Rising’. We’ll be pushing both those records but with the emphasis being on Splinter. So that pretty much takes up the whole of 2012. We expect to do a fairly big world tour to start with to take us right through the spring/summer into autumn period and then, as that finishes, we’ll probably go around again and do what I think of as a consolidation tour. Just say, for example, that you go across America you can do twenty-twenty-five shows, I think we should go back about six months later and just do the major cities: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles – do the main areas again, consolidate the tour that you did just to give it that second little kick. I think these days just going around and doing a tour to promote something, when you’re talking about music like mine, which you know isn’t going to get on the radio and is going to have limited media outlets, then I think it’s important to double-emphasise the tour just to hit it again. That’s the only way you’ve got of getting out to people and letting them know that you’ve got an album. It’s not something I’ve done before. In the past, I’ve done it in the conventional way; you go out and you tour and that’s it and you go back and you make another album, but I don’t think that’s the way to do it now, I think you need more work and more effort put into the live side of things and just to keep pushing it to people. Festivals are such a great way of reaching out to more people, and I think for someone in my position and if you don’t get radio play then festivals become absolutely vital to what you’re doing. But you do need that new album – they don’t particularly want you unless you’ve got a new album. PB: Thank you.

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