The British legend talks to BLURT ahead of his new album and accompanying U.S. tour.And yes, friends—he’s still electric. (Check out videos and tour info below as well.)
BY GIL MACIAS
Electronic music pioneer Gary Numan is ready to remerge again with his 20th studio album called Splinter: Songs from a Broken Mind, which hits shelves on October 15th via the Machine Music label. The 55-year-old musician has been making innovative electronic music for over 35 years now and influencing and inspiring a vast list of other musicians along the way. Always looking forward and never looking back, Gary has always been ahead of his time, experimenting with sounds, always evolving, and never dwelling in the past.
When you listen to classic albums like The Pleasure Principle (1979) and Telekon (1980), it’s very apparent that they were ahead of their time, too. The music industry and radio stations constantly shoved “Cars” and “Are Friends Electric?” down our throats, but there was always more to Gary than just those two singles and he has an enormous catalog of songs, some better than the ones that became “hits,” that transcended the commercialism. Splinter has that industrial-rock sound fused with Gary’s signature noises, experimental computerized shrieks, but most of all, strong melodies. It’s an album that would make Trent Reznor (who is a big Gary Numan fan, by the way) weep tears of joy.
We here at BLURT have had the privilege of hearing the album in its entirety, and it’s without a doubt one of the best things Gary has ever done. Aside from the hair-raising power anthem that is “I Am Dust,” other tracks like the sinister and disturbing “Here in the Black” and infectious “Love Hurt Bleed” and “Who Are You” are destined to become Numan fan favorites. Gary recently played The Observatory in Santa Ana, California and the show was electrifying. The setlist (see below, at bottom) featured a mix of old and new, something Gary has warmed up to these days, but of course, the old stuff has been reworked to fit with his current sound—nothing sounds like they did back in 1980.
We were lucky enough to chat with Gary over the phone a few days later and talk about his new album, battling depression, relocating to America, why Splinter took nearly 7 years to make, and why he has such a beef with anything “retro.”
BLURT: You have excellent taste in music. I was quite pleased to see that you invited Losers to tour with you in the UK this November. You even played their new single “Azan” before your show started during sound check and mentioned them in a recent radio interview you did. How did you discover their music?
NUMAN: Through Eddy Temple-Morris, actually. Eddy’s got a radio show which I was on a couple of years back. You go on and play things that you like. He would play a track and I would play a track. We were kind of introducing each other to different sorts of music. He got a really good feel for the music I liked and listened to. He sent me an album of a band called Officers, which I thought was fantastic. So I went back and did Eddy’s show a second time and he mentioned Losers. A while back he sent me the new remix of the “Azan” track. I thought it was absolutely amazing. It’s one of the best things I’ve heard in such a long time. I sent it to my producers and said, “Hey, you got to listen to this, this is brilliant.” I wrote to Eddy many times and told him I loved it. He wrote back and said they had a new album coming out and if there was any chance of touring. And I said, “Coincidentally, I’m touring the UK in November and don’t have a support band yet, so you’re more than welcome to come on out.”
Well, I’m happy you’re touring with them. They’re a great band. I was also happy to see you at a recent IAMX show in Los Angeles. A lot of these newer bands who grew up with your music consider you an influence. You seem into a lot of current electronic music. Do you find that some of these younger bands influence you as well?
Certainly with a band like Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor has talked about me having an influence on what he was doing when he first got his band together. And I’ve obviously always been a big fan of Nine Inch Nails and I’ve undoubtedly taken plenty of stuff back from Trent. It does work that way. It is a reciprocal thing. I toured with Officers, the band I mentioned earlier. We did a song together called “Petals,” which I thought was really good. In fact, the song on my setlist, “The Fall,” that was the Officers remix of that song. I think their remix of my song is probably better than my original, so that’s the version we’re doing for this tour. So influence does work both ways, with some bands more than others.
You mentioned Nine Inch Nails. You got Robin Fincke to tour with you. How did that come about?
Robin is a friend, actually. I got to know Robin quite some time ago when Nine Inch Nails came to England. It was after my guest slot when they played London in 2009. I came to Los Angeles for their final four shows of that tour. I was there for about two weeks, and I was probably hanging with Robin then more than anyone. Both me and my wife got to know his wife Bianca very well too. So when I moved here in Los Angeles in October of 2012, I had only been here for about a week and Trent called and said he was having a birthday party for one of his children and he invited us to that with all of my children, so that was really cool. Robin was there with his little girl. We probably see Robin more than anyone. He’s probably our closest American friend. It was as simple as that, really. He played a few tracks on my new album. With these shows coming up, he just asked if I’d be up for him coming along. He’s so brilliant—he’s an amazing guitar player and he’s got such a presence onstage.
I’d like to talk about your new album, which I think is one of the best things you’ve ever done. Your new album has a lot of strong melodies and hooks. It’s dark, moody, and it’s very catchy. It’s a much different musical structure than your last album. This one has a variety of songs and so many of them are worthy of being singles. I was quite pleased to hear quite a few powerful anthems, as well as slow, moodier stuff.
I wanted to do an album that was very, very melody driven. I try to do that every time, but with this one—[pauses] actually, that’s almost a lie. When I first started to put the album together, my original idea for it was really flawed and one-dimensional. I wanted it to have one song after another, which were huge, powerful and riff-driven, anthemic songs. I think that would’ve been a massive mistake. I did a side project thing with Ade Fenton called Dead Son Rising —that was far more varied. It even had instrumentals on it, but very, very varied in terms of pace and dynamics and so on. I really enjoyed it and thought it was a much better way to go with Splinter. With Splinter I tried to have a much wider variation. The song “Lost” is essentially just a piano, keyboard and vocal. “I Am Dust” is much bigger and guitar driven. There are some slower strange ones, so there’s a good variety.
Even your vocals have a new energy. On songs like “I Am Dust,” your voice seems stronger and more in the foreground instead of being layered with effects.
I’ve never been happy with my voice. I’ve always thought my voice was lacking and I’ve been quite dismissive of it over the years, and to hide that, I tended to cover it with effects, reverb and harmonizers and all the tricks of the studio to make it sound better. Ade has been saying for a while, “You really shouldn’t be doing that, you’re voice is fine. You just need to let it breathe.” So we argued about that a lot with this album. By the end of the day, he had his way. So the vocals on this album are probably the closest ever to the way I actually sound. There are very little effects and very little reverb here and there. There’s no harmonizing or fattening whatsoever. And I’m still getting used to it. It’s also mixed a little higher than I’d normally go. But that’s how I actually sound. On previous albums, I tended to swamp it with effects.
Were you already writing this album before you moved to Los Angeles? You moved there almost exactly a year ago. Sometimes a change in environment can inspire writing music. Did L.A. have any influence on the new record?
It had an influence. During the 7 years it took to make this record—[Pauses] The 7 years weren’t spent trying to make it. For the first 3 or 4 years, I did nothing at all. I got depression, my wife got post-partum depression. I had a new family; I had a massive amount of problems going on. I had to deal with medication for 8 years. It turned me into a zombie. It was all very horrible. Midlife crisis, all that shit, were piling together to give me an unpleasant 3 or 4 years. Within those years, the thought of starting another album and all the emotional stresses and strains that come with them, I thought it would be a mistake to take on something like that when you’re already suffering from depression. And my marriage was rocky for a while. Life was very different. I didn’t adapt to it very well. Because I was on medication for depression and I didn’t have any drive. You just sit back and watch the world go by and it’s just horrible. Your life just ticks away and there’s this fog of couldn’t care less-ness. It’s a really weird thing. I went for nearly 4 years without writing a single song and that’s what I do for a living. How crazy is that?
So anyway, you come to the end of all that, the marriage is fixed, everything’s fantastic again, and I’m used to being a parent and I found that lovely middle ground between family and career and started to write again—but in little bits and pieces, a few songs here and there. Then there was another gap. It took me a while to get back into that flow. I probably didn’t start writing the album seriously until late 2011 or early 2012. And this was when the immigration thing was in full flow and we were trying to get that happening. When I arrived in Los Angeles at the end of 2012, the album was only half way done. I was so happy and enthusiastic about being here. If felt like a new life. It felt like such a brilliant new phase in all of our lives. I got a studio set up here fairly quickly. I just threw myself into it. The children were out in the swimming pool, they were happy. Everything was cool. It was sunny and it was going to be sunny tomorrow. In England when it’s sunny, everything stops. Because you run out and enjoy the weather. Everyone in England calls in sick on a sunny day, because they’re probably not going to get another one. It made a difference being here. It took two-and-a-half years to be allowed to come here. It was such a big thing for us. Work and music seemed exciting again. The opportunities here seemed enormous. In the first week we were here, I was having meetings with several people for score writing and various things. All of a sudden, a whole new area of music was becoming available to me.
Did any particular songs or lyrics emerge from your newfound happiness in Los Angeles?
The subject matter was not influenced by being here. The subject matter for most of it went back to those 3 or 4 years when I was depressed. There’s a few songs on Splinter that are about my relationship with my wife when it got rocky and the pain of all that. There’s one song called “My Last Day” that was inspired by a lady we met at a school while we were here in America. She had a very difficult problem with an illness and could’ve died any day. That was the prognosis of it—you don’t know how long you have left—it could be any day. I talked to her a lot and her courage was unbelievable. She had courage I would never have. Well, she had an operation 2 weeks ago and they actually fixed it. It’s fucking amazing. So now, I actually feel guilty having that song on there because it was such a horrible thing, you know? I thought, “what if she dies?” So yes, there are some influences from being here, but not by the climate or the lovely life, none of that. I don’t know what it is, whatever makes the creative part of my brain kick into gear, you can guarantee it’s going to be something a bit heavy. If I go out today and I go to the beach and I have a really happy day, I’m not going to write a song about it. If something shitty happens, I’m probably going to write a song about it and I wish it wasn’t like that. I’m never going to write “Shiny Happy People.” [Laughs]
So after you take in all these experiences, do you jot down notes or lyrics in a book? “Here in the Black” has great lyrics by the way.
I do make a lot of notes, actually, a word here, a line there. It can be anything, really. I could describe something I’ve seen or a feeling. When it comes to actually writing the lyrics, I do use my notes occasionally, but they don’t form the backbone of the lyric writing. What comes first is the music. The music will be there and that will have its own atmosphere, vibe, and sense—and that is very, very important. That can really guide you massively into what you want to do. Other times, you might want to lean on the notes a little bit. Sometimes it’s just simple memory. You’ll think back to something that happened. “Here in the Black” is actually about depression. I tried to come up with something that was almost a narrative that could be something from a film. Where it is not obviously about depression, but you kind of translate it, you move it sideways, you move it into a certain situation where you’re in the dark and you’re lost and something is coming and you can feel it coming and you can’t get away from it. I tried to make it almost like a scene from a film—you could film that song, you could film that just from the lyric and create something really quite frightening and disturbing. But it’s actually not, it’s about depression and what it’s like going through that and the feeling of being lost and that something is there waiting for you, because that’s how it felt to me.
So is depression the reason behind your album’s title?
The reason why the album is called Splinter: Songs from a Broken Mind is because of the depression. I felt broken. That’s where that subtitle comes from. It’s not a nice thing at all. You feel damaged and you know you’re not the person you were. Something just snaps. Panic attacks, anxiety attacks. At one point I had a massive hang up about being old and dying. I remember this one particular time I was sitting in my car and I saw this really lovely, old couple walk past. They must’ve been in their eighties. And I looked at them and I thought to myself, “How can you deal with that? You are possibly months away from where one of you is going to die really soon.” It’s a horribly morbid thing for me to be thinking about, and I thought, How beautiful that you’re together still—but one of you is going to die soon—how the fuck do you deal with that? How can you function as a normal human being? You’re walking down the street as if everything is ok, and nothing is ok. And I started crying like a baby. And I thought to myself, “Fucking Hell, Gary, what are you doing?” And that started to happen more and more and my wife said, “You’re not alright, you need to go talk to someone.”
So I did and I got on the medication and I was all fixed. But it’s such a weird thing to experience. You come out of it golden and shiny on the other end. You come out of it and your marriage is happier than ever. I’m absolutely cool with my family and I love my children and everything is lovely. You still got the pressures and strains of career and you still got ambition, disappointment and desire but it’s completely within a workable frame. Now, if something goes bad, I will be a bit down for a few hours, but then I get back up again.
You’re a solo artist, so can you tell me about your writing process? At what point does the band get involved to flesh things out and when do you know a song is finished?
It’s just when you can’t hear anything else making a song any better. It’s as simple as that really. With a song like “Lost,” it’s a very empty song, there’s very little going on. The demo I sent Ade was pretty much the song that’s on the album. He said to me, “I just can’t think of anything that’s making this better.” So I said, “Well, that’s it then, that’s it.” Other songs come back and they’re huge and powerful, but you can hear places where something would work and you fill in those gaps. It’s like having an audio jigsaw puzzle. There comes a point where you put in that last piece and there is no room for anything else and it looks perfect. “Here in the Black” was a nightmare—it’s like a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. We must’ve worked on four entirely different versions of that song before we ended up with the one that felt right. At one point I had six different choruses for that song—could not decide which was the one. I did another and another and we ended up using the first one. Sometimes that’s just the way it works. You go round and round in circles. Other times, the song direction itself can go in different ways.
When you play old songs like “Metal” and “Are Friends Electric?” during your recent shows, they seem to have evolved, been reworked and integrated with your new sound. Right now, a lot of artists who have been around as long as you have been revisiting their roots, even going as far as resurrecting sound equipment from the ‘80s, both onstage and in the studio. You’re considered an electronic music pioneer who’s more interested in the future rather than the past. But do you ever get the itch to go back and play those old songs the way you used to back in 1980? Or maybe a retro style album?
Not really. To be honest, I don’t think it’s ever occurred to me once [Laughs]. As you know, I don’t do that many old songs when I play live and it’s always been a bit of an issue between me and older fans. Every once in a while, and I’ve only done this three times in my career, I will go out and do a tour where I just play the songs from an old album. Or, I play the songs from an old album and stick some new stuff at the end of it. Or I’d do the album in its entirety. Last time I did that was in 2010 with The Pleasure Principle. Not my favorite thing to do, to be honest. It just feels like you’re standing still, you’re not doing anything exciting; you’re just revisiting some past glory. But it does seem to work. It seems to be an acceptable compromise if I do that once in a while—the fans have stopped complaining that I don’t do old material.
I got into electronic music because it was the first thing I’d ever found where the music was as much about the sounds as it was about the melody. A big part of making electronic music is that you go out and create brand new sounds that nobody has ever heard before. I don’t mean sound as in genre, I mean actual sound. You can kick the table and you record it and manipulate it and use it as a sample and no one’s ever heard it before. I’ve made that sound—to me, that’s a cool thing. It’s part of why I always loved electronic music. A part of the process would be, what are you going to do that has never been done before? Sometimes you succeed at it and sometimes you don’t to be honest. I’ve made plenty of albums where I didn’t do very well at that, and I done others where I’ve done alright. It’s not like it’s a radical huge departure from anything you’ve heard before, but nonetheless, there have been a significant number of sounds on Splinter that I’ve never used before and I know other people haven’t because I’ve made them. I made them by hitting things and dragging things across concrete floors and then sitting on my computer and manipulating those sounds until they become usable in a musical environment and I love that. I don’t have any interest in going back and looking at the past. I always thought electronic music should be about what you do next. It’s a very forward looking genre.
How do you feel about newer, younger artists who are going for that retro sound?
It surprises me a little that there are so many people around now coming into it—and this isn’t a criticism—I honestly don’t mean this as a criticism at all, because everyone should be happy to do their own thing. But it’s surprising to me that so many people are coming into it almost in a retro way, trying to recreate the sound of the ‘70s or early ‘80s, looking for technology that would give them that sound, referencing music from that era, and doing it as if it’s something new. But it’s not [Laughs]. I’ve already done this. I did all this a lifetime ago. It really isn’t a criticism. I just don’t understand the excitement. It’s already been done, you know?
I’m going to assume it’s “Cars,” but is there a song of yours that you’re tired of hearing or playing or being associated with your name?
I’ve got two songs like that actually [Laughs]. In England, the song that was most successful for me was “Are Friends Electric?” It went to number one for four weeks. It was a song in Europe that launched electronic music. That was the first really big single that did it. That song haunts me over there, and here it’s “Cars,” obviously. Up until a few years ago, I saw them as these big rocks that sat on each shoulder and they got in the way of anything else I was doing. I would go onto a radio show, they’d play “Cars,” talk to you for a little bit, not play anything new, and then I would walk out and they’d play “Are Friends Electric?” And I’d go, “fuck’s sake!”
You just couldn’t get away from it. I would do a really big TV show in England where you’d do three songs, they’d transmit two and keep one as a back-up. They’d say to me, “We want you to do ‘Cars,’ ‘Are Friends Electric?’ and one other.” [Laughs] I’d say, “Aww, come on, you’re going to play ‘Cars’ and ‘Are Friends Electric?’ aren’t you? You’re not going to play my new song, I’m not doing it.” So the director promised me he’d play one new song and one old one and that they weren’t trying to take advantage of me. If I just go on and do “Cars” and “Are Friends Electric?” it just makes it look as if those are the only two songs I care about. It makes me look bad. No one would think they’re not letting me play new stuff, they’d think it’s me. You feel as if the music industry itself wasn’t letting you move forward. I went through a long, long period of really hating those songs and not playing them.
But then, there comes a point where you realize you’re just being childish. With “Cars” in particular, there are so many bands in the world who would absolutely give their arms away if they could write something that was that successful, that lasted that long. To have a song that’s in its third or fourth decade still being covered, still being used on TV all the time, still being sampled. It’s just as successful now as it was the day it came out. I’ve learned that that’s a special thing. I should be proud that I wrote it and I should be proud that it had such longevity. I was just being childish but there were reasons for that childishness. It really did feel like a big, bloody obstacle. Every time I walked out my door, I felt like I had to walk around this mountain that was “Cars,” before anyone would talk to me about anything else or listen to anything else. But I’m at peace with it and cool with it now.
So we talked about what old songs have always haunted you, but what about the looks, fashion and imagery of the ‘80s? Are there any photos you’re sick of or other certain things you can’t escape?
There were some images that were less agreeable than others, but I’m alright with all that. I look back now and I might look at something and think, “Of fuck, that was embarrassing,” but things seemed to work at the time. I can do the same with anything. I can look back at a lot of things, album covers, songs, lots of songs l wish I had not written, compared to those I’m glad I had written. I think any career that’s been long, certainly like mine that’s been very up and down and quite a rollercoaster ride, I think you’re going to see mistakes, things that you didn’t do, that’s that you should’ve done, things you wish you hadn’t done. If think if you spend too much time doing that, you’re not enjoying the moment, really. Where I am now, I’m happy. I’m enjoying it. I’m still here, making good music, people are still interested, people are still coming to the shows, and I’ve still got the optimism that things are going to get even better. I think you can look back and learn from those mistakes and carry that knowledge with you, and I think I’m doing better now because of it. I think I’m a better person, I’m more mellow, I think my songwriting is as good as it’s ever been, if not better. Luckily, I still look ok even though I’m getting old. I can run around onstage and not look too embarrassing [Laughs].
The internet and social networking have drastically changed the music industry. Everyone has a voice now. You’ve even recently posted photos of your dog and a photo of your family at Disneyland on your Facebook wall—which was cool, but also such a surprise to see. What’s your opinion on getting instant feedback from your fans on the internet? And do you have a limit on how personal you get with your fans?
I don’t read much. I’m not good at interacting with it, which is part of the reason why it’s there in a way. In that sense, I’m kind of sticking my head in the sand and ignoring a lot of what the internet has to offer. But the reason for that is, in my experience, the internet has given a voice to everybody and so few people know what the fuck to do with it. They just shout shit at people. Things like, “That’s rubbish,” or “you look fucking ugly,” you know—it’s so negative. So much feedback is hostile and not constructive. Some little man liking to see his name on a website, thinks he’s got a fucking opinion. [Sighs] It’s so frustrating. It’s disappointing that so few people know what to do with their voice. You do not want people to be crawling up your ass—it’s not as if you want everyone to love everything you do, because that is useless as well. You can’t learn from that. You need honest opinion, but venom, the level of hostility and cruelty is shocking. Is this [how] people are actually like when they’re anonymous? The anonymity of it is another thing. The cowardice of people saying these things hidden away in their little rooms.
I don’t get that involved in it. I didn’t even know Twitter had comments until my wife showed me about a week ago—I think it was the Disneyland picture, actually. She said the comments were really lovely. But I don’t want to see what people say, it can ruin your entire day. Who wants to? Why would you expose yourself to that? I have no interaction on my website, but we have a thing where people are allowed to send in questions. My manager will sort out all the offensive ones and I just get the ones that are actually worthwhile. Apart from that, I always try to talk to fans at the gigs and there you get genuine opinion. No one is going to be hostile but they are going to tell you what they thought, and some things they didn’t like, but it’s good, healthy, constructive criticism.
So earlier we talked about current artists you like. You emerged in the late ‘70s and there are a lot of other artists from that same time period who are still around touring and making new music. Is there anyone from that era you follow, keep an eye on, or keep in touch with?
Not many. I know some of them. Alan Wilder [Depeche Mode] is a really good friend of mine, one of my closest friends, so we stay in touch. There are other bands that I know and if I see them, I’ll say hello, but it’s not like we’re close friends. People like Human League, I like them, we meet up and chat and it’s friendly, but we don’t hang out or socialize really. I was always pretty isolated. I never got involved in the whole music business circus. I didn’t go to clubs or do too much of that. My wife is a bit more like that, she loves it. She’s kind of bullied me into doing it more than I ever used to. I do it enough and it is actually nice and you do get to meet other people and talk about music and things, but it’s not so much that I become that omnipresent person that you see at every after show party. It’s partly me. I’m not brilliantly sociable, to be honest, I’ve got Asperger syndrome. People like Trent Reznor, I hang with him a bit and Robin Fincke, obviously. I went to go see Peter Murphy recently, I met Peter many years ago—things like that.
You also tend to shy away from festivals. I was a bit bummed that you weren’t part of KROQ’s Flashback to the Future festivals from ten years ago. They got people like Siouxsie Sioux, The Cure, Billy Idol, Duran Duran, Devo and a lot of other great ‘80s acts involved.
I wouldn’t have done them. Anything that’s got any kind of retro label—I would avoid it like the plague. There’s a series in Europe, I think they’re called Here and Now tours or some other ridiculous name. But they’re not here and now, they’re fucking past it. They’re living on past glories. And even to be asked to do that, I kind of get insulted. I’m not living in the past, I’m fucking relevant. I think it paints the wrong picture and it gives out the wrong signals—signals that you’re tied to a particular era. That’s where you were, that’s where you are, and that’s where you belong. And I don’t feel that, so I got a little bit of a hang up about it. I don’t think they’d be any good for me. I love music now. I love music that’s around now. I don’t have this romantic longing to revisit music from the past.
Mick Jagger has been making music for over 50 years now. You’ve been doing it for about 35 years. Do you think you have another 15 or 20 years in you?
I would love to keep going until the day I die. There’s nothing else that I like to do more. Whether that’s realistic or not or if I’d even be able to do it. When you’ve been doing it for 35 years, 15 years doesn’t that far away. There’s absolutely no reason I shouldn’t be doing it in 15 years except that I’m going to be 70 years old. Can you imagine doing what I’m doing now at 70? I hope so—how cool would that be? I think there’s going to come a point where my ego or vanity kicks in and says, you just don’t look right anymore. You can’t do this, you look to old and it’s embarrassing. Part of the reason for coming to America was being aware of that. I think film music is an obvious next step for me. I’m not sure I’m going to like it, so I’m in the process of talking to people and getting soundtrack work, very small things, learning the skills, the terminology and the pressure. Learning the difficulties that come with that and dealing with people in the film industry, I’m not sure it’s for me, but we’ll see. It’s all part of thinking of my future.
And your next album?
My plan is to finish a soundtrack in December or January then do another American tour. Because I have children, I only tour in small chunks. I do 2 or 3 weeks and then I come home and be with the children. I try to keep the family thing consistent. In between the tours and the children while they’re at school, I’ll go to work on a new album. The intention is to have a new album finished by the end of 2014. I have an arrangement with my producer, for every week I’m not touring; I have to write at least one song.
So we’ll see how that goes. I think it would be a mistake to not stay on it. I got new American management, things are going very well, I’m very optimistic with Splinter, and I think to have a long gap after that would be an absolute tragedy. It’s very important that another album is not only ready by the end of next year, but that it’s really good.
Gary Numan’s U.S. tour starts Oct. 17-18 in Los Angeles. Tour dates at his website: http://www.numan.co.uk/tour/
Santa Ana (Sept. 4) Setlist:
The Fall (Officers Remix)