Gary Numan talks Music, Family, and More
By Kevin Tshiamala
If you have not the slightest idea about Gary Numan, pardon my English, but go French yourself. His holistic influence in music is second to none. HEAR had the pleasure of interviewing Gary Numan and we could not have been more excited.
HEAR Magazine: So it was seven years between your last album and your latest album. Some say this is your finest album or “your finest hour.” Why the large gap? What was the process or what was different between this album and your last proper solo album Jagged?
Gary Numan: The subject matter of most of the songs on the album are actually concerned with ‘the gap’ and why it happened. I was diagnosed with depression in 2008 although clearly I’d been in trouble for some time leading up to that. I didn’t write a song for three years, maybe longer. My career was fading away, my marriage began to suffer. The cure was almost as bad as the depression in a way so it was quite a difficult period. Added to that my wife Gemma was diagnosed with Post Partum Depression around the same time so she was having huge problems of her own that I was, temporarily, ill equipped to help her with. That’s what the album looks at and that’s why there is such a big gap. Once I was getting better and starting to write again the album came together very quickly. The process was very similar to Jagged in that I write everything on piano. I then flesh it out, so to speak, in my own studio before sending those ties off to Ade Fenton who produces my stuff, rather brilliantly in my opinion. The thing about Splinter that was different was that I immigrated to the US half way through making the album.
HM: I know your album, Splinter, came out a few months ago, but what are you most proud of about the album or better yet what are you most excited about with the album?
GN: I’m proud of it because it’s about the most emotional and open album I’ve ever made. Making it not only helped save my marriage, but helped me get through the final recovery stages of the depression. I’m proud of it because many reviewers talk about as being the best album I’ve ever made which is quite something when you’ve been making music for over 35 years. A number of reviewers have commented on the fact that it doesn’t have one weak song, no padding whatsoever, and I’m obviously proud of that. It’s added a level of pride and excitement to my life and career that I find hard to put into words. I could barely have wished for more. The thing that I find most exciting about it is how it’s reaching out not only to the audience I’ve had before, but to new people. I’ve never had such an inrush of new people before and that’s such an amazing thing to see happening.
HM: How did you find your voice? It’s hard to describe, but infectious when listening. Did you always have this voice as a musician or did someone help you tune it in some way? I always hear musicians or vocalists say, this person came in early in my career and told me to be more flat or don’t push too much. Is this a similar story you have or did you lock down your voice early on?
GN: It is what it is. I’ve never really liked it that much if I’m honest, but I’ve got used to it over the years. I’ve never had any lessons or guidance on how to sing and I’m pretty sure I breathe badly and sing from all the wrong places. I hear ‘diaphragm’ mentioned often by singers but I have no idea what they’re talking about. No, I just sing and what comes out comes out. I really do envy those people that are gifted with beautiful voices though.
HM: Do you still play “Cars” at shows? If so, I mean do you have any sort of angst or sigh, or just don’t want to play it anymore. Or do you truly enjoy reliving that song and those days?
GN: I still play it. It’s not the high point of the set to be honest, but it’s obviously a very important part of my career so it would be somewhat arrogant and childish not to play it. Strangely enough the reaction to it varies from night to night. Some crowds seem very excited to hear it, others not so much.
HM: So we’ll continue to travel back in time and then we’ll get back to the present. You have had kids in the past few years. Has becoming a Father impacted your music or musical creativity/drive in any way?
GN: From a creative point of view hardly at all. I did get a flurry of feedback when the first child, Raven, came along suggesting that I might start writing happy, fluffy songs about the beauty of life but that clearly didn’t happen. It impacts me in that it’s something of a juggling act trying to maintain a busy career and also be a fully hands on Dad. I spend almost every minute of my non working time with them and I miss them very much whenever I’m away. As for drive though, I’m probably working harder now than I ever have before. Part of that of course may be the need and desire to make their future as secure as possible. The responsibility of that is certainly something I feel.
HM: You have always had this rough, rugged, bad ass, dare I say punkish, persona. I read somewhere that you once stated, “I’m not socialist, I don’t believe in sharing my money.” Which to me is a great quote, but is your personality still in line with the persona that we seen grow over the last couple decades?
GN: I honestly don’t know. The on-stage me is very different from the off-stage, but nonetheless, is no less genuine. I’m very down to earth; I don’t really go in for the rock star attitude thing. I think anyone that thinks they know me by watching my shows or listening to albums would really not know me at all. Even interviews only show a part of the picture but that’s probably true of most people I guess. We all take time to get to know really well.
HM: It is known that Nine Inch Nails are big fans of yours and that you have played with them and vice versa. How did this relationship start and can you just further elaborate on your musical connection?
GN: I heard a Marilyn Manson cover version of a song of mine called Down In The Park many years ago that was produced by Trent Reznor. When I met my wife Gemma in 1992 she was playing me a lot of NIN stuff and my interest really grew from there. I first met Trent in Baton Rouge when he came to see me play. He was working on The Fragile album and had recorded a cover of a song of mine called Metal, which was amazing, and he gave me a copy of it. It just continued to grow from there. I would see NIN play whenever they were in London and we would meet up. Now of course I live in Los Angeles, about a 20 minute drive away Trent’s house, so we see each other a little more often. I’ve joined NIN on stage a number of times over the years, which is always an exciting thing to do, and we supported them in Florida recently when they toured there.
HM: It’s 1992; Machine+Soul just came out, where are you in your career at the moment? Take me back to the early 90’s, did you think or have an idea that you wanted to continue this long, or did you even believe that you would be able to still be in the public eye making music in the 21st century?
GN: The early 90’s were a nightmare for me. My music was shit, I was badly in debt, I had no direction musically speaking, my songwriting was poor, I had no record deal and very little hope of ever getting another one. I thought I was finished. I went back to making music for a hobby, for the fun of it, and in so doing a re-found my love for it. My music became much heavier, much darker, more aggressive, and so I found myself heading down a road more industrial than anything I’d done before. I was amazed that the album I self released at that point, an album called Sacrifice, did much better than anything else had done for years and started a resurgence in my career that has continued to build up to the present day. When I was first starting out, at the age of 19 / 20 I couldn’t imagine life beyond 30, let alone a music career, so I’m amazed to still be here doing this. Especially as I think I’ve handled my entire career pretty badly.
HM: Your first debut solo album The Pleasure Principle came out in 1979. What was the deciding factor in splitting up with the Tubeway Army?
GN: Tubeway Army was never a band. It was me, my friend Paul Gardiner and a variety of different drummers. I wrote all the songs, made all the decisions, designed the sleeves, it was my thing. When I switched from Punk to Electronic music in 1978 I wanted to drop the Tubeway Army name and go out as Gary Numan then, before any success, but the record company wouldn’t let me. It was only when I started to sell a lot of records that I had any power and was able to drop the band name. It looked as though I’d had some success and then dropped the band, but that isn’t the way it happened at all.
HM: Have you always written your own songs alone or do you have someone you like to work with?
GN: I write everything, always have. On very rare occasions I will write a track with someone else but out of the three or four hundred songs I’ve released (I’m not sure of the exact figure) I think about ten are co-written, something like that.
HM: Where did Valerian come from? Why Numan?
GN: Valerian was an early and dreadful attempt to come up with a stage name. I saw it written on the wall of a building in London when I was about 17. Numan came from a London edition of the Yellow Pages phone book. It was actually Neumann Kitchen Appliances so I dropped the e and the extra n, as that was a German name and I didn’t want that, and so it became Numan. My real name is Webb, I didn’t think [it] had the right feel for what I wanted to be.
HM: The late 80’s were particularly tough musically for you. Can you speak a little bit on this?
GN: Musically I lost my way, increasingly, as the 80’s evolved. I became more interested in saving my career than writing songs I really loved. I started to write strategically, based on whatever bit of advice had been given to me recently, and it was soul destroying and got me nowhere. The early 90’s were even worse to be honest, but I managed to turn it around in ’94.
HM: So the Gibson Les Paul Guitar, is this your favorite type of guitar and Why?
GN: I’m not really a guitar expert, far from it. I bought a Gibson Les Paul when I was a kid because Mick Ronson used to play one and I loved Mick Ronson. I don’t play well enough to talk much about guitars I’m afraid, but I have always loved the look and feel of the Les Paul. I’ve had mine for over 40 years; it’s the longest lasting possession I’ve ever owned. It’s been on every album I’ve ever made, and every tour I’ve ever played. It’s battered, scarred, and has been rebuilt at least three times. I love it.
HM: When did it all start musically for you as a child and when did you know you wanted to make this music thing a lifestyle?
GN: I first became interested in music when I was about four years old and it never went away. I had a guitar soon after, and I was trying to write songs before I was a teenager. It was when Marc Bolan and T-Rex came along in the early 70’s that I realized that it was all I really wanted to do. That or be a pilot actually, I loved both things. I decided to make music my career and flying my hobby when I was still at school.
HM: So jumping back to the present, how did you team up with Big Black Delta?
GN: My Management team suggested the package some time ago. They played me music from Big Black Delta and Roman Remains, showed me some video footage, and it all made sense to me. We are all different to each other and yet complement each other very well. I really like what they do musically, both bands, and I like the performance aspect of it as well so it seemed to me that fans would be getting a lot of good music for the price of their ticket, which is very important. That’s the way it’s turned out. The fans have reacted very positively to all the bands playing and, luckily, they still seem to have enough energy left for me when I come on. The audiences are being given a shade under three hours of live music in one gig so that’s pretty cool.
HM: Have you ever played Detroit/Pontiac, if so when? If not, do you have any sort of feelings or opinions about the current state of Detroit?
GN: I’ve played it a number of times over the last 35 years, can’t remember what years exactly though. I think the last time we played in the area would have been Pontiac and that might have been 2010 but I could be wrong. As for the state of Detroit, I know little about it apart from the common knowledge that the city continues to have big problems. It must be very demoralising for so many people to see something like that happen, to see opportunity dry up, and vanish entirely.
HM: Any shout outs you’d like to make? Any upcoming events you would like to mention? Any projects, albums, songs, or concepts you are personally working on?
GN: When I get back from this tour I [will] finish a film score I’ve been working on with my producer Ade Fenton. In fact we’ve co-written the score, for an animated movie called From Inside, and it’s a cautious, but exciting first step into the world of movie scores for me. I have another track I’m working on with Jean Michel Jarre for a new album he’s putting together. I start my next album, the follow up to Splinter, in April although we’re not expecting to release that until early 2016. I’m trying to write a science fantasy novel but I’ve been trying to do that for years so it’s hardly imminent. We take the Splinter tour to Australia and New Zealand in May and then we start to play festivals both here and in Europe throughout the summer. We are working on a career documentary and I also have an update to my autobiography to write at some point this year.
HM: What advice would you give to up and coming artists (not specific to music)?
GN: I wouldn’t give them any, I’d listen to what ideas they had. Quite often new people coming in to the business have some very fresh and clever ideas that we could all learn from.
Rapid Fire – Choose one or the other, or introduce your own. No explanation needed unless you prefer to leave one.
HM: Depeche Mode or Velvet Underground?
GN: For me Depeche Mode, especially around the ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’ period. One of my favourite albums.
HM: Telekon or Exile?
GN: Both good examples of different eras of my career. I actually couldn’t choose between the two.
HM: Beck or Queens of the Stone Age?
GN: Again, I actually couldn’t choose between the two.
HM: Croydon or Chelsea?
GN: One is rough, the other is pretentious, don’t like either. Still, you’re less likely to get mugged in Chelsea I suppose. No offence intended to the lovely people living in Croydon.
HM: Tottenham or Liverpool?
GN: If this is a football question then I couldn’t choose, I hate football.
HM: Prince or Jack White?
GN: I’ve never met Prince, but I did just meet Jack White very recently who was very cool so I’ll go for Jack. On the other hand Prince has said some very nice things about me which I’m very grateful for so maybe I’ll choose Prince. Actually, they’re both talented beyond belief so why choose. Both.
HM: Digital or Analog?
GN: It matters not. All I care about is the sounds that come out at the end of the process. I have absolutely no interest in whether it’s Analogue, Digital or a man with a big stick.
HM: Talking Heads or The English Beat?
GN: I’ve never heard The English Beat so not a fair choice, but probably Talking Heads even if I had.
HM: Final Question: In a 1979 interview you stated, “I got involved in music because I love everything about it, but now I’m in it you see the other side and it isn’t much fun. Not as glamorous and enjoyable as you imagine… All this chart and TV thing, it’s only fun while it’s new and then it won’t be long before it’s a job and a strain, and when the whole thing becomes too much besiness then I’d stop.” Do you still feel the same way and will you stop?
GN: No, I don’t feel the same way anymore, but it was all very genuine at the time. In fact I did stop for a while many years ago as I just didn’t adapt to it at all well. I wanted to back out, take some time to try to understand what had happened, and then come back in at a pace I was more in control of. It can become very much like a business, and I have friends who treat it exactly that way, ruthless and cold and very cut throat, but I still like to think of it as fun. My bands are amongst my closest friends and we have a good time on the road, even when it’s a hard and punishing schedule.
It was a pleasure to be able to ask Gary Numan these questions. Even though I was born a decade after his appearance on Top of the Pops, his music remains to be influential.
Gary Numan and Big Black Delta will be performing at The Crofoot Ballroom in Pontiac, MI on March 28th. Check out our show preview here
For more information please visit Gary Numan’s official website: http://www.numan.co.uk/
For social media please visit: https://www.facebook.com/GaryNumanOfficial
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