Interview: Gary Numan
Published on October 7th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
You know when the introduction to an interview begins with “…needs no introduction”, and then they go ahead and introduce them anyway?
Well, we’ll spare you the paraphrased potted history of Gary Numan’s legendary career, but we shall nudge you towards his forthcoming twentieth studio album Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind).
“Rich swathes of substance course through its electrified veins”…that’s what we said in our review of it, so consider yourselves firmly instructed to circle the October 14th release date on your calendar. (If you haven’t got a calendar, go out and buy one especially.)
A resident of Los Angeles for just about a year now, Numan was able to secure a visa under the remarkably apt classification “alien of extraordinary ability”, a case for which demands the provision of testimonials from the media and/or notable peers.
We’re just guessing here, but we reckon his case may have been helped along somewhat by public pronouncements of admiration over the years from such eye-popping luminaries as David Bowie, Prince, Beck, Trent Reznor, Afrika Bambaata, Damon Albarn, J Dilla and Tricky.
With a Steve Read-directed documentary film titled Gary Numan: Android in La La Land also on the way, these are heady times for Numanoids the world over, young or old; and there are many of both. Expect to see them out in their droves when he comes over for a UK and Ireland tour in November.
JDs and lentil men, it is Rocksucker’s great honour to reproduce for you our interview with the one and only Gary Numan (hmm, looks like we introduced him after all)…
Congratulations on a storming new album. I could imagine songs like “Here in the Black” being a big hit if the infrastructure was still in place for edgier stuff to cross into the mainstream. Does any part of you rue the fact that it’s not?
Thank you very much; I’m very happy with the album. I think it’s a shame that music outside the middle of the mainstream struggles to get heard on radio but it’s been that way for my entire career, probably since music was first played on the radio.
The general public are given such a very limited choice of music to listen to it’s almost a disservice supplied by radio. There are some excellent exceptions of course, BBC 6 Music being one of them. It would be great to see more variation making its way up the charts but it is what it is. It would be especially satisfying to see something dark and heavy in there. I’m not holding my breath for that though.
I read that the album’s genesis dates back seven years. Does that mean it was being made in conjunction with Jagged and Dead Son Rising? If so, were they all clearly defined in your mind at the time, or did you write them all first and split them up into albums later?
Actually, after Jagged I slipped into a rather long period of depression. I was on medication for several years and I don’t think I wrote a single song for at least three years. After that I slowly came off the medication and began to get myself together again. I did manage a number of songwriting sessions but they were short and sporadic. I didn’t really get into any kind of flow but at least I was doing something.
Slowly, towards the latter part of 2011, I started to work again and managed, mainly thanks to the efforts of Ade Fenton, to get the side project Dead Son Rising album finished and released. Soon after that, early 2012, I began to work a little better and it was then that Splinter really began to take shape.
I probably had half of it done by October when I immigrated to Los Angeles. That was a huge step to take and it really felt like a new start in life. I found that very exciting and I worked harder than ever. I finished the second half of the album in my new LA studio in just a few months.
All three of those albums sound “darkly cinematic” to me. You’ve mentioned the possibility of doing soundtrack work; has anything more come of that?
Yes. I start work on my first film score in December, with Ade Fenton. It’s a special version of an animated movie called From Inside about a nightmare train journey through an apocalyptic world. It’s very dark.
I’m really looking forward to getting started on that. For me it’s a gentle, stress-free first step into writing music for films and I’m very grateful to John Bergin, whose film it is, and Brian McNelis at Lakeshore for giving us the opportunity to work on it.
“Lost” is striking for how vulnerable it sounds. Is it about anything or anyone in particular?
Yes. When I was going through the depression period my wife Gemma was also going through postnatal depression. She got it during her second pregnancy and it stayed with her right through the third pregnancy and beyond. It was a nightmare for her and, sadly, because I was in a bad way myself, we started to lose that closeness; lots of arguing, petty nonsense.
It got so bad that I started to think about leaving. It was during that time that I wrote “Lost”. I started to think deeply about what my world would be like without her. I was able to put all the shit to one side and remember all the things that were special about her.
I think when you start to argue a lot the bitterness that flows pushes out the memories of how you used to feel, the things that are amazing about that person. They make you forget why you love them. Writing “Lost” helped me to remember. I finished the song, went inside, gave her a big cuddle and we started to get it all back together from that moment on.
I can’t say that writing “Lost” saved my marriage but it certainly helped us rebuild it. It’s possibly the most important song I’ve ever written.
I love the phrase “An Alien of Extraordinary Abilities”. It sounds like it should have been the name of your forthcoming film! Did you use the testimonies from Bowie, Prince, Beck, Afrika Bambaata, Damon Albarn, J Dilla, Tricky etc. for your case? How many of these people have you met or are you a fan of?
We certainly had all the cool quotes we could find as part of my petition to the US Immigration authorities. My testimonial letters were written by some amazing people, including Trent Reznor, Dave Navarro and Alan Wilder, and I was very grateful to them for taking the time to write them.
I’ve met quite a few of the people you mention but not all. It’s an extraordinary thing to me to have had so many people, of such high calibre themselves, say such cool things about my influence and contribution to music. I’m very proud of that and it’s had such a positive effect on my confidence and my career.
Have you been surprised by how your music has endured? By how many young people still turn up to your shows, and how many young musicians still cite you as an inspiration?
Very surprised; I certainly never intended to write music that would last. I always thought of it as every bit as disposable as any other kind of popular music. I was just having fun and trying to do something that appealed to me first and foremost.
I always assumed that if I liked it, there was a reasonable chance that some other people would like it as well. I didn’t think that much about it at all to be honest. To be where I am, to have the level of credibility that I have is a very cool thing and it genuinely amazes me that new bands are still talking about me as an influence.
My career has been very up and down though. I’ve gone through long periods where I really thought I was dead and buried so it’s not always been positive and enjoyable. I’m so glad that I’ve arrived at the place I am now though. I’m very happy with the way things have been unfolding.
Are you happy with how the film has turned out? Do you ever get used to seeing yourself onscreen?
The LaLa Land film is still a work in progress but I’m very happy with everything I’ve seen so far. It’s beautifully shot, beautifully edited. My understanding is that they will keep filming until the end of the UK tour in November and then the long process of piecing it all together will begin.
I believe the film will be ready for February although quite what’s going to happen to it at that point I couldn’t say. They’ve filmed some incredible stuff though.
You’ve openly criticised some of your ’80s/early ’90s work. Can you not even listen to it anymore, or do you occasionally revisit it and perhaps even reconsider your stance?
I rarely listen to any of my own music. I rarely listen to music at all come to think of it. I doubt I will ever reconsider my stance on certain albums but you never know. The point is though, at the moment the music I’m making is of a particular kind and there are periods in my career when the music was very different. I don’t believe you could mix those styles in one show and have it make sense.
I very carefully choose the songs so that the set has a consistent vibe running through it. Some of the older stuff works very well, some of it doesn’t. I don’t think I was at my best towards the end of the ’80s and early ’90s so I have no desire to try to get those songs into the set. I have so many other, better songs to choose from.
What do you think of the new Nine Inch Nails album?
I think it’s great. Brave and unexpected, but isn’t that what Trent Reznor always does; the unexpected? I’m very interested to see what the NIN fan base make of it once the dust has settled. There are few people savvier than Trent Reznor though so I can’t believe he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing.
Might you perform “Cars” together again when you play dates with them at the end of this month?
That’s for Trent to suggest, to be honest. I’m grateful to be playing the shows with NIN as it is, anything else would be icing on the cake. I have a strong connection with NIN and it’s something I enjoy very much but I’m very careful not to push in any way.
Is there a chance you’ll collaborate in the studio?
We’ve talked about it more than once so it’s very possible. When it might happen though is another matter. Trent is extraordinarily busy almost all the time, and I’m not exactly sitting on my arse either, so finding a good time for both of us will be tricky, especially in the coming year and a half. I’d love to though so I will definitely move things around to make it happen if I possibly can.
There have been quite a few cover versions of your songs. Do you have any particular favourite(s)?
I thouht the NIN version of “Cars” was quite special. Fear Factory did a great version of “Cars”, and Foo Fighters and Marilyn Manson both did great versions of “Down In the Park”. Pop Will Eat Itself did a fantastic version of a song called “Friends” a few years ago. There have been so many great cover versions it’s actually hard to pick just a few.
Finally, is there much new music that you admire?
I hear stuff all the time that impresses but if I could pick one band that I’m really into at the moment it would be Officers. I’m eagerly awaiting their second album.
Gary Numan, thank you.
Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind) will be released on October 14th through Cooking Vinyl.