A CONVERSATION WITH GARY NUMAN
Gary Numan, innovator, genius and musical legend, has just released what many consider to be his best album in years. Critics have agreed with me on this — rave reviews and high chart placings are a testament to a successful piece of work. Gary is currently in the UK touring the Savage album, and I was fortunate to be able to chat with him prior to his sellout show in Manchester’s Academy.
As the new album was sounding fresh, I questioned how much of the new material he would be including in the tour sets each night, as Gary is renowned for being flexible and changing setlists almost on a nightly basis. He explained to me that the new stuff “seems to work really well live.” He emphasized the importance of set structure, and that he had to be quite careful about what old songs he included, so that there would be a seamless transition between the older and the new material. “I try to pick songs that you can rework in a way that sounds more comfortable beside the new stuff.” Numan interspersed a new song with a classic as the set progressed during the evening. He elaborated that he has also reworked and reinterpreted the older tracks to make them somehow different, which also helped him as an artist, in that the songs then became like new ones, and not tired and overplayed classics from another era. He singled out his hit “Cars”, which is now performed stylistically different, and much in the manner that the Industrial Metal band Fear Factory had done a few years ago. Numan now plays that particular song much heavier. Also with another oldie, ”Down in the Park”, he stated that “We do a much heavier version than the original.” He explained that they stay true to the originals in terms of structure and melody but just add different elements to them, “so the whole set has got to be coherent.“
The success of the new album had come as a surprise to Gary, but it was a help to him that people already knew the new material when it came to playing it live. He was quite surprised by the new album’s initial impact. ”It did really well, and it’s proven to be a popular record.” The new songs were not having to be forced into the set. Numan agreed that perhaps it was becoming increasingly more difficult to create a new album. “Each one a little harder than the one before.” He felt that In terms of subject matter, it wasn’t an issue in itself because the world is constantly changing, and there are new problems …” There’s always some fucking arsehole being an arsehole, and then your home life has its challenges, and things will be going well for a bit and then something will happen, whatever it might be, and so there’s always this ongoing source of things to write about.” It was more challenging for him musically to keep moving forward and evolving. His last album charted at number 20 in 2013, so that itself had brought additional pressure when it came time to record its successor. The more success that you have, the bar is subsequently raised for what comes next. From having a certain level of success,and for that to then subsequently fall away, has an impact on an artist mentally. From number ones, there is only one way that you can go, as momentum drains away. ”But I think if you do it to be famous then I think it’s going to be really difficult. If you do it because you just want the glory of it all, then when it starts to dip, I think you’re really going to struggle. But if you do it because you love it, and being successful is kind of the icing on the cake, then it’s easier to take. You have your good bits and your bad bits.”
I was keen to try to find out how Numan actually saw his place in musical history as a role model and an influence for other artists. He explained that he didn’t view his position as insular. “I don’t wake up in the morning and think oh, I’m a fucking legend.” After the huge level of life-changing success that he achieved in the eighties, I was curious to assess the level of impact that had made on him personally at that time. Had he embraced the fame and all that had gone with it, or was it alternatively difficult to come to terms with and actually deal with it? He explained that he had always been very grounded. He fully gave credit to the other elements of both luck and marketing that had also contributed. “I was aware that the record company took an enormous gamble on making what at the time was an unusual song, “Are ‘Friends Electric?” He described that track as being too long, you can’t dance to it, and it doesn’t actually have a chorus. The marketing printed up the song in a picture disc format. Picture discs were a novelty in marketing at the time, so many people purchased it and it broke into the lower part of the chart. From that time right up to the present, he alone was responsible for choosing an album’s singles and which tracks to release in that format .
“I know, very aware that a big part
of my big success to begin with was
down to somebody making a really
bold decision on my behalf”
~ Gary Numan – Manchester 2017
For the release of Savage (Songs From A Broken World), Numan had, like many artists these days, chosen to utilize the Pledge Music format. I was curious as to why he had chosen that particular way to preview his new album release. How had he decided to go in that particular direction and now that the album had been released had his experience with that lived up to his preconceived ideas of what it would deliver both to himself as an artist and also to his fan-base? Numan stated that he did not have any defined expectations at the start of its development. The record business he fully recognized was changing and evolving. There is a purveying air of gloom and despondency around the industry. However he offered an alternative,“I think that’s really a narrow way of seeing it, because it’s not just about record sales.“ He felt that the changes in the business had also resulted in some positives. There had been other things, and “now it’s increasingly about building a better relationship with the fans that you’ve got, making them feel a part of it, not in an interactive way in terms of creativity, but so that they feel more a part of what’s going on.” Specifically in terms of the Pledge concept, Numan explained that in the early days of his fan club, they had operated a similar ideology in terms of organizing interactive fan activities 25 years ago. “I was doing things with a fan club where we would have competitions and every month we would go out and do a cool thing, go-kart racing, paint-balling”. He elaborated that he certainly did not wish to become a friend to the fans, but instead also wanted to remove the gap between himself and them.
I had read that Gary had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and I was curious as to what personal sacrifices he had to battle and overcome to establish a long career in the public eye. He stated to me that he didn’t feel that he had actually made any sacrifices, and that he also felt that he didn’t see his condition as a handicap, not even when he was younger. ”It has an impact. It definitely has an impact, but it’s an exchange of traits. There are things that I can’t do very well, which is a shame, but the compensation for that is I do a whole lot of other shit really fucking well, and I’m able to concentrate to a degree that not many people I know can. I’m ruthlessly focused when I need to be, but emotionally I can detach somewhat and so bad reviews and that sort of thing do not bother me at all.”
However in the modern internet age when everyone has the power to wield as an online critic with a poison pen, surely that would have made it extremely more difficult, I suggested. He explained that he didn’t read reviews or opinions, either positive or negative. He personally chose to just ignore all that side of things. Returning to the Asperger’s, he explained, ”It gives you tools that are very, very useful for this business I think. So I think it’s an absolute bonus for someone that wants to do this for a living. The downside of it is I’m not very sociable, I’m not very good at small talk.” He was able to have fan meet and greets before shows, however, so I was keen to find out what strategies he used to cope with those situations. He explained that it was a learned skill, and that it was something he could deal with in short doses. He was comfortable in his own environment in those fan situations, t,he fans were nervous not him, and that he was actually comfortable himself. “So it’s easy. But I can only do it for a bit, and then after a bit I begin to struggle with what to say and when to smile. So I can do it. It’s like a controlled explosion. I can go boom and then I’m fucked again, and then I get out of the way and I go and hide, but it’s something that I’ve learned to do over the years.”
I always ask myself how artists can cope with their loss of personal privacy that they give up when they choose a career in the public eye. It’s become even more difficult in the modern internet age to have any sort of private life following that career path. Numan surprised me when he responded “It was a lot worse when I started. It’s not much of a problem now to be honest. I think living in America helps, but even when I lived here it wasn’t that much of a problem. I think that sort of obsessive thing with privacy is an issue”. He also had no sympathy for artists that complain about negative comments on social media platforms like Twitter — his answer –“ Don’t fucking read it.” Again he reiterated his own personal choice to not participate in the social media circus. “The only people I care about are (my wife) Gemma and my kids. If my kids and Gemma are proud of me, then I’m absolutely fucking happy, and I don’t need any of the rest of it, and I don’t mean to be dismissive of the lovely people that say nice things, and it sounds a bit like that and I don’t mean it that way at all. It’s a self-protection thing. You know, don’t read any of it because it will fucking ruin your day.”
Knowing that Gary now had three children of his own, I was curious to discover if he had passed on his musical talent to his children and if they would be replicating his own musical journey and career path. His parental pride and joy was clearly very much in evidence as he replied to me.
“Blimey they’re better than me. Raven, the oldest one, has been writing songs for a while and is fucking amazing. In terms of pop music, she pisses all over me. She’s got a feel. I was never any good at pop music and that’s why I’ve ended up doing all this heavier stuff but she’s brilliant at it, really got such an ear for melody and she can really sing. Little Persia, the middle one who sings on the record, a phenomenal voice. She has a control over her voice that I’ve never come close to. Really amazing! A brilliant piano player.”
When I interview artists I am always keen to find out what song actually still emotionally moves them and takes them to a different plain mentally, even though they may have heard it hundreds, maybe even thousands of times over the years Numan replied that particular songs for him acted as triggers to particular events. “Things that remind you of holidays and songs that you don’t even like. I remember “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep”. An awful song. It takes me back to holiday. Yeah, there are songs that are influential in what you listen to, and change the way you thought about music a little bit”. His first introduction to music occurred when he was really little five or six years old. “My mum and dad were watching TV, and there was Hank Marvin and The Shadows, and I was blown away with that. It wasn’t so much the music, as the fact that the guitar was electric. I had never thought of that before and it had dials and switches, so I geeked out to it rather than music-ed out to. It was the technology. It’s not really technology, but the fact that it was electric. That’s what got me going. So I came in, I got interested in music, not for music really, and then later on when it became a bit of a career choice, even then it was still more shallow. It was a lifestyle choice. I wanted the life that those people seemed to have”.
Wrapping up my interview, I concluded by asking Gary Numan if he could reverse roles and interview someone himself, who would that person be? “There’s a man called Bob Stanford Tuck. He was a World War 2 fighter pilot, fucking awesome, and I got the chance to meet him once and I chickened out. I was too intimidated.” I shared with Numan that I had experienced similar feelings when I got up that morning and had considered that I would be interviewing him.