A veritable electronic music pioneer is on the phone this month — Gary Numan. Cited as an influence by techno founding father Juan Atkins, Richie Hawtin and Boys Noize amongst many others, Numan’s strangely isolationist experimental synth-pop gatecrashed the charts in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as tunes like ‘Are Friends Electric?’ and ‘Cars’ permeated into mainstream consciousness.
Now living in Los Angeles (“it’s brilliant”), he’s about to release his first album in seven years — ‘Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind)’. Co-produced with Nottingham’s Ade Fenton and featuring Robin Finck from Nine Inch Nails on guitar, the album is more varied than his previous one yet still on the industrial/electronic continuum he’s been following of late.
Gary tells DJ Mag that he didn’t do any recording for the whole of the second half of the noughties after his last album came out. “We had a family, and the change in lifestyle was dramatic,” he admits. “I got depressed and was on medication for that, started getting anxiety attacks — I got into a midlife crisis. I got myself all fucked up for three or four years.”
Moving to America last year helped lift his depression, “and it seemed like I got a new life,” he says. “The work ethic is back. The album is dark and heavy, cos I was looking back at those difficult years. It’s not ‘Shiny Happy People’ that’s for sure, you’re not going to listen to it and feel uplifted and go out and have some fun. It’s a bit dark.”
Way back when you were doing Tubeway Army stuff in the late ‘70s and solo stuff in the early ‘80s, were you consciously trying to push boundaries?
“Not really. I went into the studio to make a punk album — it was me, my friend on drums, and my friend on bass guitar, a three-piece punk band. I got to the studio, and there was a MiniMoog in the corner, which they let me use for the day. I’d never seen or played one before — I don’t think I’d ever played a keyboard before — so we opened the box and got it out. I had no idea how to set it up, pressed the key, and what came out of it was a huge phat Moog sound that it’s so well known for. The room shook, I’d never heard anything like it, and I just fell in love with it there and then.
“Because they let me use it, I was able to quickly — and very amateurishly — graft on electronic noises to my punk album. I went back to the record company with this very rushed pseudo-electro-punk album, which they didn’t want or expect — so we had a big argument about it. I was trying to convince them that this was something completely new — I’d never heard anything like it before, not realising that Ultravox and John Foxx were already on their third album — and that this sort of music was going to be massive. And they weren’t having it. We almost had a fight at one point — it got really heavy, standing up and shouting at each other and getting aggressive. “So it wasn’t about trying to push boundaries, it was just finding something that made sounds I’d never heard before. And being absolutely blown away by that.”
Just having a go like that was quite a punk rock thing to do…
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I didn’t want to do punk, and I didn’t want to do anything that had been done before, which is a very lofty ambition. But I had no idea what it was, it was almost like a Eureka moment where you accidentally stumble across something and think, ‘That’s it, that’s the thing we’ve been looking for’. For me it was technology, and the noises that it made, and I just turned that into music.”
When you subsequently heard about techno and electronic artists who cited you as an influence over the years, how has that made you feel?
“My reason for being in electronic music and sticking with it for so long is because it’s technology-driven and therefore a very forward-looking genre of music. We are being given software that is advancing all the time, new ways of layering and manipulating and creating sounds, it’s a very forward genre to be in, so it just strikes me as odd that there are people in it that look backwards and try to recreate early sounds — sounds and styles that have already been used. “I can’t imagine why anybody would get into electronic music if they weren’t interested in trying to do something that you haven’t heard before. Surely that’s your reason for being in it? That’s always been my main thrust — to try to come up with sounds. Not just from synthesisers, but anything.
“I’ve spent countless hours walking around banging things with a little recorder in my hand, dragging chairs across the floor. Even on this album, the door to my daughter’s room has a real Hammer House of Horror creak to it — I’ve recorded that. Then I fucked about with it. You can make the most amazing noises and then look for places to use them. That’s where my enjoyment comes from — that’s where the fun comes from. In a sense, music is a vehicle for me to bolt on interesting noises. It’s every bit a part of it as coming up with the melody.
“I’m not knocking at all that people are now referencing the late ‘70s/early ‘80s music and trying to recreate it, but it’s so not what I’m in it for.”
The techno founding fathers said they were influenced by you, but they weren’t trying to copy what you did…
“I don’t think techno references my early stuff in the same way at all, so I’m totally cool with it. It’s more the electroclash thing that I had a slight issue with. Issue is the wrong way of putting it — it makes it sound like I’m down on it, which I’m not. I don’t understand why you would get into electronic music to look backwards.”
You’ve been sampled many times — for instance, Armand Van Helden and the Sugababes both sampled ‘Cars’. How often do you get requests for sample clearance for one of your old tracks?
“You get it all the time, probably one a week or one a fortnight. What do I usually say? I say yes to everything. I don’t mind. The thing is, my version of that is done, it’s out there, and at that point I don’t think about it too much, really. So when somebody comes along and says they want to use ‘Cars’… there was one recently, it was fucking dreadful, they’d tacked it onto the most… my dog could have written something better. It was the worst bit of songwriting… it wouldn’t even have qualified as songwriting.” Did you block it, then?
“It had ‘Cars’ at the beginning, then veers off to this other shit, then goes back to ‘Cars’ again… and they said, ‘We think we should give you 10%!’ Hahaha, really!? You are fucking joking! Because you think the other 90% is… you’re having a laugh. So there are a few issues like that, but I still wouldn’t say no you can’t use it because no matter how you feel about the rest of it, my version of ‘Cars’ is out there — it’s set in stone, as it were, and if other people want to come along and mess about with it, I don’t care. I’m not particularly precious. I can think of a few things that I might say no to… say somebody wanted to use the song for a racist political party. There are a number of moral reasons where I would say no to something.”
What about if Jedward or Paris Hilton, or somebody who was equally as cheesy, wanted to sample ‘Cars’?
“I don’t care, I don’t care who it is that wants to use it, cos I’m done. For me to say no, I’d have to think of myself as better than them. Or my music as being more worthy, and I don’t feel like that. Even when terrible songs come along, that’s my own humble opinion, and I don’t think I’m better than they are.”
I’d say you’re better than Jedward!
“I don’t make a judgement about that, if people come along and want to use it — even for a terrible song — I’m still actually terribly flattered, because it means they like ‘Cars’. It’s difficult to explain, I’d have to think about how to put it better, but if Paris Hilton wanted to use my song I’d have no problem with that.”