Born Gary Anthony James Webb, lieutenant and wing
commander of the eighties techno service drill, the
Tubeway Army, Gary Numan enjoyed brief but enormous
success in the UK at the close of the 1970s with singles
like "Are Friends Electric?" and "Cars" and best-selling
albums like " The Pleasure Principle" and "Telekon".
The epitome and heir to a post-war pop culture that
was wholly fashioned on technology, and its use in mass
production and consumption, Numan took the infectious
algorithms of Moroder, the steely practicality of Kraftwerk
and the alien aesthetic of Bowie and somehow made it
his own. In the UK at least, Numan was seen as some
kind of new-wave Columbus.
somewhat less remarkable reality, however, was that
Numan was simply a catalyst. A prodigious and potent
catalyst, agreed, but the fact that Numan found it difficult
to take it further is probably more a consequence of
his obstinate social circumstances: he was well educated
- well funded, and for the music-industry at that time
at least, irrefutably middle-class.
Unlike the hungry and angry scour of the disenchanted
techno youth that came in Numan's wake, with bands like
Joy Division and Nine Inch Nails, the desperate romanticism
of the class outsider synonymous with many of today's
music legends was not naturally Numan's garb. The fact
that his often extravagant and aerial bouts and misadventures
became of greater interest to the press than his music
suffered the cruellest blow of all - he became something
of a foppish and addictive caricature for the UK tabloids.
Not exactly the stuff that dreams are made of, but not
exactly the ludicrous failure of myth either. Over confident,
perhaps, but judging by the scores of Numan disciples
today, like the Chemical Brothers, Marilyn Manson, Orbital,
Trent Reznor, Billy Corgan, Squarepusher and Aphex Twin,
not, perhaps, over-rated.
Numan's star began to dim and his sales - not unlike
many of his ignominious flights - dropped sharply in
altitude. In recent years he has turned to a more modern,
darker sound for his music. In this interview he discusses
the reasons for that change and shows that the perception
of Numan possessing a nonchalant confidence was truly
a misconception. Indeed, he comes across as a genuine
musical explorer, blemishes and all.
Crud: The new album, PURE (Eagle/Spitfire)
seems to have a lot of the elements of your earlier
music, but with a harder, darker texture. How did that
Gary Numan: It's actually the third album since
the direction I was taking brought me much heavier and
much darker than the first one came out in 1994. So,
it's the third in an ongoing direction, really. The
way it came about is, when I first started writing,
I was really searching for sounds all the time, and
I used to try to be really quite creative. I think what
happened was, when I had some success, it was good for
the first two or three years, but then it all started
to slide away from me. I didn't really notice when it
happened, but over the years, as the ages progressed,
the reasons for writing songs changed, and I think I
got lazy, and I stopped searching for sounds. I spent
quite a few years just trying to write songs that would
get me back on the radio. Really, I was kind of in a
survival kind of situation where I was trying to keep
the career alive and keep it going. So, I started to
write songs for commercial reasons, and then things
got worse and worse and worse. So, I did an album in
'92 that was called "Machine of Soul" that was probably
about the worst album I've ever made. It was at the
end of that that I had a really serious rethink about
everything to do with why I was in the business and
why I was writing and if I wanted to carry on doing
it, and so on. I went back, as much as possible, to
writing songs for fun, the way I had when I started,
and started looking for sound again. I just went right
back to the way I was when I was a teenager, first time
writing songs, with all the enthusiasm for it. I started
trying to be innovative again and using sounds in more
interesting ways than I had been doing. So, what you're
saying makes a lot of sense in that the way I'm writing
now, and have been for the last few years, is very much
the way I wrote when I first started. It's the bit in
between that got a little bit misguided.
Crud: How has the new album been received?
Gary Numan: It's been fantastic. This is, I think,
my 17th or 18th album. I can't remember for sure, and
I've had the best reviews on this one - ever - including
when I was doing much much better in the early '80's.
So, from that point of view, it's been a real relief.
It's not a particularly commercial record. There's not
a long list of songs on it that you could take off of
it that would make really, really great radio singles.
It's pretty heavy and it's pretty dark. Some people
have said, "maybe this isn't the right album at this
particular time." I disagree with that. I think it is
exactly the right album for me to be making at this
particular time. I was always worrying about commercial
success before, and it pretty much finished me off.
So, I'm not going to get into that way of thinking again.
Crud: The sound on the new disc seems to remind
me a lot of the more sedate portions of newer groups
like Korn and Marilyn Manson. Do you see yourself influenced
by them or do you think that you have influenced them
or is it more of a mutual independent discovery?
Gary Numan: It's really hard to say sometimes
where an influence comes from, and whether it's really
clear in your mind when you're doing something or whether
it's something that you heard years ago and forgot,
but it comes out nonetheless in songs you write - it's
really hard to say. Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor
and people like that have said on a number of occasions
now that I was influential in what they've done. It's
fantastic for me that they said that. I'm very flattered
by it, but you wouldn't really notice it too much -
I don't anyway - in the music that they've made. So
they've taken the influence and dome something really
constructive with it.
I think at the moment that I'm kind of feeding on things
around me that I find exciting. It's as simple as that
really. I'm a long term Nine Inch Nails fan. I've always
been a big Deftones fan. I love what Manson's doing.
Marilyn Manson did one of my older songs some time ago,
before I even heard of him .
I'm not into the pop scene at the moment. The whole
way the chart developed over the last few years, I think
it's become really puerile, and it offers me nothing
whatsoever. So, a lot of what I do is just reaction
against that, regardless of where the influences are
coming from, but by doing that I've discovered a whole
new range of music, particularly when I was on tour
here in '98. I was out with Trent Reznor on that tour,
actually, and Marilyn Manson came on stage with us at
one gig. I was just introduced to a whole range of music
that I hadn't really been aware of before. That had
a big effect on what I was doing with this one, because
I was sort of learning as I was writing. I was learning
all the time how to do it, and how to do it better.
I really think the album is just one in an ongoing series
of records. I think the next one is going to be heavier
and darker, more aggressive. I still really do feel
like I'm learning. So, I'm kind of listening to everything
I can get my hands on. So, the influences are probably
all over the place.
Crud: In many ways you sort of personified the
'80's electronic/new wave persona. Was there ever a
sense of that for you, and if so, how does that relate
to where you are today?
Gary Numan: At the time I had no idea at all. I'm not
glowing with confidence with what I do. When I'm in
the studio, I'm often really worrying about what I'm
doing and never really sure that I'm getting the best
out of myself. I often write far more songs than I need
because I'm still trying to write better songs. So,
I don't just sit there thinking, "oh this is gonna be
this and this is gonna be that." All I'm sitting there
thinking is, "I hope to Christ it's good enough." I
really am worried, constantly. I am a worried studio
person. So for me to be finding out now that these people
have been saying these things about my influence and
sound, it's been a big surprise to be honest. It's quite
an amazing thing, it really is, but all I can remember
is sitting in the studio just being worried and desperately
trying to make the album that's better than the last
one. All I could hear was what is wrong with it. I look
at all my mistakes with every album I've ever made and
try to learn and try to move forward. I never once sat
back and thought I was being clever or anything special.
I look around at other people constantly from the first
album I ever made right up to today and just look at
people and think how talented they are and how innovative
people around me are. I just try to keep up really.
Crud: What do you think of people like Fear Factory
covering your music?
Gary Numan: It was great. It was really, really
great. I was kind of a fan anyway. Actually, to be honest,
when it first came along, and they fist asked me to
get involved with it, I was slightly worried about it
because it was "Cars" again. I thought people were gonna
think, "Oh God, it's Gary Numan, he's only ever written
one song and he's flogging it to death", but then I
thought it might be a really good opportunity to introduce
my name to a new generation of people that probably
haven't hear of me before. With the fact that it was
Fear Factory, it was actually going to be a much heavier
version than any other version that had been done of
it. I thought it was worth taking the risk. The thing
is, with somebody in my position that's been around
such a long time and has only really had that one hit,
I have to be really careful. I wouldn't want to be seen
as just using that one song all the time and constantly
living on past glories. I think that's a really bad
way of trying to move a career forward. For me, I thought
that there was kind of a risk attached to it. That it
could backfire, and people could just think, "Oh God,
nostalgia", but it didn't. Overall, I think it worked
really, really well, and I really got on with the band.
I really, really liked them a lot. Then it got me back
to doing video, which was really, really cool. The last
time I was in London, when they played at Brixton, they
invited me onstage when they did "Cars", so that was
really cool. It was a really good experience, and I'm
really glad I did it.
Crud: We've already talked a bit about musical
influences. Who would you see as some of yours?
Gary Numan: Well, when I first got into electronic
music, I used to listen to Ultravox a lot. They were
the only people really who were doing things where they
mixed synthesizers - electronics - with conventional
instruments, and that's what I wanted to do. I didn't
want to replace old instruments the way people like
Kraftwerk had done - with just all electronic. That
kind of didn't work for me. The things that Bowie and
Eno were doing were kind of not really what I was after
either, but Ultravox were. Ultravox were very much in
the same sort of vein. So, I listened to them quite
a lot. Before that, I really wanted to be a pop star/rock
star because of people like T Rex and Marc Bolan and
so on. I was a Bowie fan for a while, but not for that
long. More recently, over the last five or six years,
I guess - well, I've been a Nine Inch Nails fan for
a long time. I love Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson,
Deftones. At the moment, I think Snake River Conspiracy
are really cool - really into that. Actually I don't
think there's any of the people that I liked when I
was first writing songs - I don't listen to any of it
now. The tastes I've got have just changed over the
years. I tend to listen to things that I can learn from.
So, whatever kind of music I am trying to make at the
time, I listen to things I can learn about that. So,
to me listening to albums is almost like going back
into the classroom. I'm studying all the time on how
to do it.
Crud: It seems that one of the curses of being
a musician is that it is hard to just listen to music.
You are always sort of breaking it apart, analyzing
Gary Numan: It's hard to avoid that isn't it?
You're forever thinking, "that's a good snare drum"
or "that's a cool bass sound - wonder how they got that."
Before you know it, the song's finished and you're still
trying to figure out how they got that bass sound, and
I'm just like that with everything really. My wife listens
to stuff. We're listening to the same track and instead
of saying, "oh, that's a great song", I'm going, "that's
a great reverb on the snare." And, she's going, "what
are you doing?" I just can't help myself.
Once it becomes your living, or once it becomes your
whole life, really, then the way you listen to music
does have a slight shift to it. I don't think really
that you could ever get back to the way it was when
you were a kid, when it was just fun. It's still fun,
but it's different. It changes somehow.
Crud: Are there any musicians with whom you would
like to work?
Gary Numan: Well, actually the last few times
I met Trent Reznor, Trent talked about doing some writing
together. I'd love to do that because I'm a big Trent
Reznor fan. I met Billy Corgan a couple times in London
recently. He said a similar thing, that he like to do
something later this year. So, again, that would be
really cool. Afrika Bambaataa - I actually was talking
to them early part of last year about doing an album
project that he was coming out with and he wanted to
work on one of my songs, too. I think Nine Inch Nails
has just done the same song. So, I'm not sure that's
still going to happen, but, again, that would be cool.
Crud: What's been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?
Gary Numan: I've got more Spinal Tap's than I
can count. We used to have these three columns that
were in the roof of the light show. They were about
4 feet wide and about 16 feet long, and they would just
lay along the roof. They lit up in these different colors.
They were like solid structures. At some point during
the show they were on remote and they were actually
lowered down, and they would then come onto the stage.
You'd have these three giant columns, kinda like a sci-fi
coliseum. That was the idea behind it anyway. Then one
particular night, as they came down, one of the road
crew had laid on the back of it. We used to have these
two girl singers in the middle of the stage at the back.
So, the audience couldn't see it, but as this thing
came down, this man was on the back of it, completely
naked. The only people who could see him were these
two girls who just freaked out completely. Most funny
thing you've ever seen. That was good fun.
Another time I was onstage and I was at the microphone,
and I walked back towards the drum riser. We were just
about to finish a song. I was making eye contact with
the drummer so we finish at the right point. As I walked
away from it, the front truss collapsed. It came down.
So, that would have been quite heavy if I hadn't been
moving back. The reason I was moving back was that I
couldn't remember when the song finished. If I had been
a little more rehearsed, slightly more professional,
I probably would have died. So, that was a good moment
to escape from.
Gary Numan site - www.numan.co.uk/
Numan Fan site - www.numanboy.com/
Numan Fan site - www.garynumanfan.nu/
Numan Fan site - www.afenet.com/
Interview conducted by Gary Hill for Crud
Music Magazine/Music Journal
Additional report by A. Sargeant.
see also: http://www.musicjournal.com