One of the pioneering figures in synth-driven rock, Gary Numan laid the groundwork for new wave, electro-pop, and industrial music with his chilly, futuristic sound. His original band Tubeway Army offered an edgy mix of distorted guitars and pulsing synthesizers on its 1978 debut, but Numan would embrace electronics completely on the group's breakthrough album Replicas and his subsequent solo effort The Pleasure Principle, which featured the massive international hit "Cars."
While huge sales and lavish live spectacles maintained Numan's stardom in the UK well into the '80s, later forays into electro-funk and dance wouldn't find the same success. After years at sea, Numan reinvented himself in the '90s by delving into the grinding guitars and heavier beats of industrial music. Since then, Numan has enjoyed a career renaissance. His influence has been celebrated by the likes of the Foo Fighters, Trent Reznor, and Marilyn Manson, and his classic songs have been sampled by the likes of J. Dilla, GZA, Basement Jaxx, and Armand Van Helden. Last week, Numan took the time to answer a few questions ahead of this Sunday's show at the Fillmore in promotion of Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind), his latest album.
I'm familiar with the story that you discovered the synthesizer when you went into the studio to record the first Tubeway Army album. But I was wondering if you were influenced by any early synth-focused acts like Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream?
I knew of them of course; I even bought a Kraftwerk album and a single or two, but it was not the sort of music I wanted to make and so, at that time, I still had no thoughts about getting into electronic music. It was because of the way in which I discovered synthesisers, and what they could do, that shaped not only my interest in electronic music but the sound itself. The fact that Kraftwerk were SO synthetic didn't appeal to me.
I still loved guitar, bass, drums -- the whole rock star show of being in a band. I went into a studio to make a punk album as a three piece guitar, bass, and drums band. It was then I saw the first real synth I'd ever seen. I had a go and fell in love with it immediately, and so, it added to what I already had. It was this accidental meeting that gave me the line-up I had: the guitar, bass, and drums made it familiar enough to people to be acceptable, while the synth part of it was different enough to make it seem cool and interesting. I think that's why it worked so well back in the late 70's.
Did you have any keyboard training prior to recording that album?
No, I've never had any musical training of any kind. I still don't really understand the theory of it at all. I just experiment until it sounds right.
The first time I saw you at the Fillmore back in 1998, you seemed genuinely surprised at the audience's enthusiastic response. Do you have any memories of your experience on that first tour of the States after so many years away?
It was a great tour, and I was genuinely surprised that so many people came out to see me. I had been so worried that nobody would even know who I was, let alone be bothered to come and buy tickets for a show. Especially as the music had changed considerably since the first time I came.
It seems that the distant, cool android persona so central to your early career has given way to something much more visceral and emotional as your sound has evolved. Is that an outgrowth of the subject matter of your more recent songs?
That, and a level of experience and confidence that comes from doing something like this for a very long time. My songwriting has matured considerably over the years, but I think the biggest change has been in my stage performances. I don't think they could be any more different to the way they used to be.
Whereas before I moved very little and seemed somewhat cold and distant, these days I move constantly. It's aggressive, and I am as far removed from cold and distant as you can get. I still don't really talk to the audience though. We just roar from one song to the next. It's relentless and very powerful, but I find it exciting in a way I never did when I was first playing live.
The staging for the show I saw last fall seemed bigger in terms of lighting and projected backdrop than other tours I've seen. Have you considered returning to the larger scale production of your early live shows?
I would love to, but it's more down to what size venues I can play. We are carrying more on this tour than any other US tour since the early days, but it's still being squeezed into modest venues. I would need to be selling much bigger places to be able to bring those large scale shows back. That's the hope and ambition of course: We all want to play in bigger places to more people. I have always loved big, spectacular shows. It's exactly what I did when my career was at that level, but you have to be realistic about the level you are at. Next album, maybe. :)
In an interview from a couple of years back, you referred to the heavier, industrial direction Splinter took as a "mistake" commercially. Do you still feel that way after the positive reception it's received?
The thing to understand is that I choose to make this sort of music knowing that it's a very difficult genre to sell. I know the risk I'm taking, and I'm very aware that I have very few opportunities to reach out to a mass market with it. It is not radio friendly in that it won't be played on any of the stations with huge daytime figures. They will be playing, understandably, things like Katy Perry and all the really cool pop stuff that's out there.
So, with this sort of music it's extremely difficult to get it heard by the vast majority of people. That's not a grumble, as I say, I chose to do this. Saying it's a "mistake" was tongue in cheek, and was a jokey way of pointing out that I'm not attempting to be "commercial." I would welcome greater success, I really would, but I want it to be from making music that I genuinely love, and that's the music I've been making for the last twenty years.
From what I understand, the songs on Splinter were written and refined over a long period of time. With your interest in new technology and software, did some of those songs change dramatically over time with the introduction of new programs and studio tools?
Actually, Splinter was written and recorded in about a year, maybe a year-and-a-half, and that included immigrating to the US half way through. The long gap between Splinter and the previous album, Jagged, was because I was diagnosed with depression and didn't write a song for nearly four years. I had a very difficult time for a few years. But, even though the album was made in a relatively short space of time, many of the songs changed significantly during the recording process, some of them several times.
It's not because of the technology though. It's because any song can go in more than one direction and sometimes you just need to explore some of those until it feels right. For example, "Here in the Black," from Splinter, had four entirely different main versions and about thirty two variations overall. It is always exciting getting new software or equipment, and beginning to understand what you can do with it, and how you can add it to the music.
Given the mutual admiration and musical connection between you and Trent Reznor, have you discussed recording or doing a full tour together?
It's been mentioned a few times. Trent is very successful, very busy, and I have no wish to be seen making use of our friendship to further my career. I'm very sensitive about that to be honest, so I wait for Trent to make the first move. He has been very helpful to me already, in a number of ways, and I am very grateful for that. That's enough. If he ever calls and says do you want to spend a week or two in the studio, I would be there of course, but it's not something I would ever try to push along myself.
I loved the piano version of the "Are 'Friends' Electric?" you played on the last tour. Do you see yourself revamping earlier songs in a similar way or even pursuing the idea of a stripped-down, more acoustic-oriented recording?
We do revamp older songs from time to time. I try to keep the parts that people relate to intact, so the main arrangement and the melodies are all kept as they were, but then we just heavy up everything around that. It's important that people hear the songs they're expecting to hear, in a way they can relate to, but it's equally important that they sound as though they belong beside the newer heavier stuff.
Given the heavier guitar sound you've favored since the '90s, have you revisited material from the first Tubeway Army album beyond "My Shadow In Vain"? Both "Listen to the Sirens" and "Steel and You" seem good fits (Yes, I admit these are requests thinly veiled as part of a question)...
We have done a lot from that album -- including "Listen to the Sirens" -- at various times. This tour, though, focuses very much on Splinter and then takes songs from the more classic earlier albums like The Pleasure Principle, Replicas, and Telekon. It's always difficult to know what to play and every country seems to have a different requirement depending on what albums and singles did well there. Plus, of course, I want to play songs that I personally enjoy and get excited playing. There are a lot of factors to try to satisfy in a live set.
How was your SXSW experience? Did you have a chance to take in any other shows and were there any acts you saw that stood out?
I barely had chance to breathe. It was the most hectic thing I've ever done, but it was very exciting. I had gone there with the intention of checking out lots of bands, but I was just booked from the moment I woke up to the moment I went back to sleep. Six sets in three days, countless interviews, panels, and seemingly always running from one place to another. I'm really glad I did it, but it was such a relief when we left. I was shattered.
I'm excited that I only had to wait six months instead of several years between seeing you perform this time around. Do you see yourself touring the US more frequently now that you've relocated to Southern California?
Yes, definitely. Living here is already making a huge difference to my ability to really focus on the US, both with live work and general promotion. I'm doing radio sessions, tours, in-stores, huge amounts of press; it's all very vibey to be honest, but these are things that were difficult to do when I was based in the UK and only came to the US once every few years. I also have new US management who are great and really making a difference.