In a searingly honest interview, Gary Numan shares the highs and lows of an extraordinary career.
In a searingly honest interview, Gary Numan shares the highs and lows of an extraordinary career.
Gary Numan is sitting on a multi-coloured couch, dressed entirely in black, talking about his openness with fans.
During the making of his new album, Savage, he shared updates online every step of the way: from creative blocks and bad moods to the excitement of pulling it all together.
He also offers VIP rehearsal packages, where you can ask questions and even play the instruments, as well as meet-and-greet sessions at every gig.
Still, Numan is always looking for ways to bring people in even more. He’s currently toying with the idea of a speaking tour that unpicks his career, illuminating the lessons learned along the way.
There are a lot of those. As the world’s first synth-pop superstar, Numan wasn’t always so accessible. When his career opened with a run of three number-one albums between 1979-80, he was perceived as an android-like enigma.
In reality, he always felt like an awkward outsider – and the pressures of success only compounded that instinct, causing him to withdraw from public and recede into a creative crisis that almost ruined him.
Today Numan has reached a point where he can deconstruct his career, and its salvation, with disarming honesty.
In a cosy room at an old-fashioned members club in Soho, the 59-year-old – who’s from West London but lives in L.A. – rolls up his sleeves, shoos his wife Gemma away and launches into incredibly detailed answers that leave little unexplored.
I’m an introvert. Even when I’m around groups of people I like, it drains me. How do you manage all the meet-and-greets that you do, given that you have Asperger’s?
Normally I don’t interact well. But the thing that makes meet-and-greets not so difficult is that I just have to go, ‘Thanks very much.’
You don’t have to follow an ebb and flow or pick up on all the little things that someone with Asperger’s would find difficult.
Interviews are very easy too: I can just talk about me. [laughs] It’s not the same as trying to keep a conversation going, which is what I find stressful. I’ve got a couple of minutes – tops – before I’m stuck. It’s awkward but Gemma guides me through it. She’s my buffer.
A musician once told me that ‘Cars’ had become an anthem for people with Asperger’s. Did you ever think of that song along those lines? Or has it always meant something different to you?
‘Cars’ is just about me being set upon in London by a couple of men in a car who took a dislike to me. Maybe I cut them off; I don’t know what happened. I ended up driving onto the pavement just to get away. It’s something that stuck in my mind for a very long time.
When it came time to put some lyrics to this little riff I came up with, it was nothing more than a recounting of an unfortunate experience which made me realise that a car is like a small personal tank in the modern world. It cocoons you from violence and horrible things and it can safely take you away.
Do you feel detached from the music you made early on in your career?
A little bit, yes. I do. I can’t imagine how you would feel connected to something you wrote 35, 40 years ago. Even if you’d had a fairly boring life, age alone would make you feel like a different person. The only connection that remains is what those songs did for you, how they thread through your career.
From a creative or emotional point of view, they’re like the vaguest of memories. You listen to these songs, which were essentially teenage tantrums, and it’s difficult to relate to the angst that bothered you then. It’s like looking back at old film of you as a kid: it’s nearly always embarrassing.
When you’re considered a pioneer in something, does that create an internal pressure where you’re always wanting to break new ground? And if so, does that become frustrating over the course of a long career?
No, it’s not frustration. But it is something you try to do constantly. A lot of the music I did in ’79 is now considered influential. ‘The stuff of pioneers.’ Well, that took over 30 years [to be deemed that], so who knows how people will think of what I’m doing now one day.
I didn’t write the early stuff to be considered a pioneer. You’re just trying to write the best songs you can. The way it’s perceived in decades to come is just impossible to predict. I can’t honestly believe that anyone – unless they’re unbelievably arrogant – sits down thinking, ‘In 30 years’ time, this is going to be classic stuff. It’s just that good.’
When I first recorded that early stuff, I was just trying to sing the right notes, trying to think what to do next – feeling lost half the time. It was experimental at best. Chaotic.
We had three days in the studio and could only afford to have a synthesizer for two of them. There was no time for second takes. If there were bum notes, you had to leave them in.
But it was really exciting, partly because of those constraints and partly because you knew something special was happening. I loved every minute of that: the promise of what was just around the corner, the realisation of all these things you dreamed about.
Was the idea of getting close to it better than the reality?
When it finally comes, it’s never what you think. Never. All the bullshit that go with it takes a bit of getting used to: the reactions, the hostility. By the time that settled down, I realised my career was nose-diving quite badly.
Ten years go by and it looks like it’s all over. Gone. You can’t even give records away. No one’s interested. You lost your record deal. No one wants to sign you. You realise that your songwriting has actually got a bit shit. [laughs] You’ve been corrupted by this desire to get the success back. You sell your soul a little bit.
At the end of all that, I made a particularly bad album called Machine and Soul, which made made me rethink everything. ‘I shouldn’t have put that record out. I shouldn’t be in this position. I’ve no idea what I want to sing about; no identifiable style. I’m absolutely lost and floundering around creatively.’
Then I met Gemma and she helped me in two different ways. First of all, she exposed me to a whole load of brilliant music that had completely passed me by: Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, loads of things.
I’d been very reclusive for a few years; flying airplanes and trying out all sorts of different stuff. But this new music rekindled something. It made me want to write again, to make something completely different to what I had done before.
All my thoughts of commercialism and charts and radio play – that went out the window. I went back to doing music for the love of it. I hadn’t even realised that I hadn’t been doing it for love because I’d lost my soul completely.
The other vital thing that Gemma did was explain to me – over the course of many arguments – what I’d done wrong. I’ve always suffered from a real lack of confidence. I’ve never thought of myself as being particularly good at this.
How do you think that impacted the music?
I would play guitar on the demos and then get another guitarist to play it ‘properly’ on the record. Same with the keyboards and vocals. I’d bring in fantastic female backing singers and have my own voice right down in the mix.
In my mind, I was making it more musical, better quality. But what I was actually doing was taking out all the ingredients that were important to the people who liked me before.
So with this newfound love of music and a new understanding of what I’d done wrong, I made an album by myself called Sacrifice, which was so heavy and industrial sounding. I really enjoyed that because it was music that I actually wanted to make. I had no record deal. It didn’t seem likely I would get one. I was massively in debt: £600,000 at that point.
Life pretty much sucked, really. I’d fucked it completely – royally fucked on many, many levels. Yet the support from Gemma, and being able to make this one album, was enough for me to to find my way back again at the 11th hour.
I started writing things which were more interesting, more experimental, more aggressive. All those things people liked me for started to come back.
The last album, Splinter, did better than anything I’d done since 1980. It got in the charts, earned brilliant reviews – whew! So that’s my career in a nutshell: started good, collapsed, just about salvaged it from the abyss and I’ve been slowly drifting backwards up ever since.
Never to my former glories. Not even close. But the thing that I’m proud of is that most people who get to my age tend to become bland or more legacy focused – nostalgic. I’ve done neither. The music has got ever harder, rather than middle-of-the-road.
Why do you think that is?
I have very little to do with nostalgia. I do a retro type tour of my old albums once every five, six years because I don’t do much old stuff when I play normally. I just don’t want to. I’m aware that there’s a significant part of the audience that would really like to hear more of that stuff, but it’s from a different era and it just feels like it weakens the power of what I’m trying to do now.
If you follow me, and you want to stay following me, this is the way it’s going to be. Every new album will be a progression from the one before. I will not dwell on the past. I have no interest in it. And if you don’t want to be a part of it, then don’t come. I understand the harshness of that but this is the way I’ve always been.
At this point in your career, do you feel like you have anything to prove?
I think you always do, yeah. I really believe that you’re only as good as your next album – and if that sucks, you should suffer. I don’t think that just because I wrote a number one song in 1979 anyone owes me anything.
It paid me very well and gave me a nice time, but it would be unforgivable to try and live off that for the rest of my career. Whenever you put out a new album, it should be great – hopefully better than the one before – and worthy of still having people come to see you and write about you.
You should earn it. Every single time. When you don’t, you’ve to put your hand up and say, ‘I could have done better.’
I don’t have to prove anything in terms of hits. Statistically, I’ve done it all. My career will span 40 years next February. If I want to be around for year 41 or 42, I need to do another album that’s really fuckin’ good and justifies me still being there.
It’s hard to have any clear perspective on these things when you’re right in it, though. The creative process can lead you to a pretty vulnerable place. How do you choose what advice or feedback to follow and what not?
I don’t listen to any advice. That’s what fucked me up to begin with. When I started, I made it really quickly doing a type of music that no one else was interested in.
I had to fight with record companies just to get them to release the first album. The whole electronic thing – there were others doing it before me but it was still underground; it certainly hadn’t gone mainstream.
When it did, everyone wanted their own electronic band. This was the next big revolution after punk and, even though I got a lot of stick, it was cool to be a part of.
For a while there, I thought I had an instinctive feel for what needed to be done. I would get a phone call from the record company asking if I wanted to work with such and such, and I would go, ‘Nope.’
I would think about it for five seconds and genuinely believe that I had an instinct which would tell me the right thing to do. Utter bollocks. I had no instinct whatsoever. I was just lucky that I’d made a few right decisions early on and that made me think too big of myself.
So when I started to make decisions that didn’t work out, I was a bit slow to admit it. [laughs] Eventually I recognised that I don’t really know what I’m doing at all. Talk about a loss of self-image!
By that point, my career was slipping. That’s when you start to doubt yourself a lot. As soon as you do, that friendly piece of advice becomes a little bit more appealing… so you listen, you act on it.
And that’s it! You’re done for. Absolutely done for. It’s very hard to come back from that point because you lose all sense of self-direction and self-worth.
I have Asperger’s, so I have an extraordinary degree of focus by nature. I can go in one direction and nothing can swerve me. But when my career went to shit, I swerved off like a child.
If someone said, ‘Everyone’s doing ballads now’, I’d be like, ‘Oh okay, I’ll do a ballad then.’ It was pathetic.
I’ve often said that becoming successful from making alternative music is like standing at a railway station when an express train zooms by. You put your hand out to grab it and, by some miracle, you manage to hang on. You can feel everything taking off – but you’re still on the outside looking in. You’re not really part of it.
Electronic music was never fully accepted at that time. It did really well, and it had lots of fans, but the press hated the ground I walked on. Pretty much every other band with a guitar hated me too.
I was a pariah to ‘real music’. The musicians’ union even tried to ban me because they said I was putting real musicians out of work. I was a permanent outsider hanging on by the skin of my teeth, knowing that I couldn’t last because I was losing my grip.
Eventually – and I believe it was the moment I started listening to advice – I let go and fell off. So you find yourself in the middle of nowhere. That train is gone.
You’re all battered and beaten up. And you just wander off into the woods looking for something. That’s how it felt. Luckily, by meeting Gemma, she found a way of guiding me back to the track again.
So you will listen to Gemma. Is that because she’s a fan and knows you so well, being your wife? A lot of partners won’t tell you if they think something is shit. Instead they’ll tell you what you they think is best.
She didn’t try to do any of that. It was a very unique fan perspective from someone who is extremely intelligent and could also argue with me about it repeatedly until I got over my own arrogance.
There was no attempt to brainwash me with any of the music she introduced me to either. She would just play it upstairs and I kept running up, saying, ‘What’s that? This is amazing.’
The incredible thing is that these same artists were saying lovely things about how influential I’d been… and there was me, career dead and buried. How does that happen?
It was like they’d taken this little moment I produced and had done exactly what I should have – taken it further, turning it into an entirely different animal. There’s no reason I couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t gotten so fucked up with the whole fame thing and all the record company arse-ache that came with it.
I had to learn on the back foot. The equipment had all moved on. There’s me: meant to be the godfather of electronica and I’ve no idea how half this shit works anymore. So I bought myself a basic sequencer and sampler and started to learn the techniques.
Another thing that helped enormously was a tribute album called Random , which had about 25 bands doing cover versions of my songs.
A man called Steve Malins was instrumental in making that, which was a fantastic honour and helped bring me to the attention of people who had long forgotten me.
So when that new wave of interest came towards me, I made sure I was doing something worthy of it.
You’ve been through a lot. Do you think an artist needs to have some conflict going on in their life in order to say something worthwhile artistically?
I think it helps if there’s something that makes you feel deeply. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a conflict in your personal life. But I do think you need to be affected by something in the world if you’re going to write in a meaningful way.
I’ve always been pretty selfish, I’ve got to say. I’ve mainly written about me – though not with the new one, funnily enough – and the problems I’ve had. I think part of the reason for that is I’ve always thought of songwriting as a kind of therapy.
As a result of the Asperger’s, I’m very, very moody. Pre-Splinter , my moodiness was completely out of sync with reality. Something really good would happen and I could just plummet. Instead of being happy, my brain would make me miserable.
Or if something terrible happened, I couldn’t give a shit. I’d be having a great fucking day. And it would drive people mad.
‘Why are you miserable when you’ve got a really good chart position? Why are you happy when your dog just died?’
My emotions would just do whatever they wanted, regardless of what was going on in my life. I couldn’t fix it and that got wearing. I developed depression around 2009, 2011, which I took medication for and wrote about in great detail on Splinter.
But after getting through all that, the ups and down weren’t as bad. I got back in sync. Now if something fucked up happens, I’m upset about it. If something great happens, I’m pretty cool with it.
It might sound silly but it’s a lovely thing to be emotionally in sync with the people around you and what’s going on in your life. It had never been that way, right up until my mid-50s.
So whatever happened to me getting depression, I actually came out of it better than I was before. I think the fact that I was able to write about it on the last album so openly was very cathartic.
It was like getting it all out to a therapist. And because you want to get it right, you try to express exactly what happened in the best words you can find. It’s a fantastic way of sorting it out; you’re just talking to yourself but it serves the same purpose.
I came out of that more even, without any noticeable scarring. Now that I’ve made another album while managing myself, there is quite a workload to take on in addition to the creative stuff and the touring.
I’ve got three kids too. Life is mental. [laughs] It’s just full on, all the time. I got three hours sleep last night; it may not be much better tonight. Just constant emails; decisions to be made; things to be done. I wouldn’t be able to do that, pre-depression, because I would have been all over the place. I’m much calmer now.
Are there any little bits of wisdom you’ve picked up from your kids?
Yeah. They’re really together and they see the world in pretty clear terms. Persia, the middle child, especially. It’s mostly common sense: how much water I should drink, how I need to rest more.
‘You don’t need to get upset about that, Dad. It’s not worth it.’ All these cool little things that let you know they’re watching all the time, aware of what’s going on. It’s really cute. Sometimes they do say the most sensible things and you should listen. [laughs]
The new album has an apocalyptic vision behind it. Do you have faith that the world isn’t all just going to go to shit?
I do, actually. I’ve been writing a book for quite some time; it’s where the ideas for this album came from. It looks at the idea that global warming doesn’t stop in time and everything does go to shit.
In all honesty, I don’t think that’s likely. But with the rise of Trump, I wondered, ‘What if we were alive to witness one important person make a silly move that triggers something we can’t recover from?’ And we actually might be.
But I think the rest of the world will do what’s necessary to stop that – in terms of global warming anyway. As soon as Trump’s out of the way, I believe things will be back to the way they were before. Still, it’s a fascinating time to be alive.
Is the book a novel?
Yeah, one of those epic ones – if I ever finish it. I really hope to. I have ambitions that as I get older, I will end my days writing novels rather than music.
I secretly suspect that the reason I haven’t quite finished it is that I’m a little bit scared to find out I’m not very good at it.
All the time I’m working on the book, the dream is alive and intact. As soon as I finish the book and it’s shit, then the dream is shattered.
That would be such a crushing defeat and I don’t know what I would do because I want it very, very badly.
So a part of me wonders whether I’m dilly dallying on purpose. It might just be that I’m really, really busy with everything else and I don’t have time for it. A bit of both, maybe. I will do it. I’ll just try to not be too broken up if it’s not very good.
How do you measure the success of something like an album?
I think you can measure it in a number of ways. The first is simply, ‘Do you like it? Do you find these songs an enjoyable listening experience? Did you capture what you wanted to convey? Is there anything in there you regret doing or not doing?’
If you’re happy with it on that level, it’s a success. Then there are the other levels, like the commercial side of things: how many albums do you need to sell in order to be considered successful? It becomes hard to quantify.
It would be easy to sit here and say, ‘If it goes top 40, I’ll be happy.’ But if it did, I’d probably be thinking, ‘Fuck, top 30 would be so much better.’
You naturally get sucked up with desire the closer you get to the next level. Two months ago, you didn’t care because it seemed unreachable. All of a sudden it starts to seem possible – and then it becomes everything.
True success is to be number one everywhere… in terms of commercialism anyway. I’ve done the first bit: made an album I’m really happy with.
But would I be more happy if it went top 10? Probably would. [laughs] Quite a lot more. Not necessarily from an ego point of view either. But if an album goes top 10 in Britain, that sends ripples around the entire world.
People who weren’t interested before now want to talk to you. Opportunities suddenly appear. You can name what tour you want to go out and support on. It would be naive to say that doesn’t matter.
But that’s the side of it that you can’t control. Given how much shit you’ve been through in the past, do you feel equipped to deal with wherever that leads you?
The vast majority of my albums haven’t gone in the charts, so it’d be no surprise to me at all if it doesn’t.
But Splinter was widely regarded as pretty much the best album I’ve ever made. After that, the pressure I felt when making this new one was enormous.
I really struggled with it, at the beginning especially. I lost all judgement. Nothing seemed good enough. It was really difficult for a while there – and all this with Pledge [a direct-to-fan music platform] watching on.
So to see an album go even one place higher, I would feel that I’ve improved again. I would celebrate that for 10 minutes and then I’d immediately start to worry about the next one.
That doesn’t sound like fun at all.
[laughs] It’s never ending. Pressure, pressure, pressure until you die… and then it’s all over.
Savage: Songs From A Broken World is out 15 September on BMG.