Thirty years ago, Gary Numan was beginning to find the peak of his musical powers. Are Friends Electric? had been a massive singles hit, and he was following up in double quick time with The Pleasure Principle. This period is preserved by an anniversary edition of the album, complete with demos and remasters, sporting new livery in an anniversary edition.
Numan in the flesh is similarly well preserved. Looking sharp – jet black hair and nail varnish – he talks animatedly when asked to revisit the memories of those early recording sessions.
“As we were making the album,” he recalls, “or as we were doing the demos for it, the single before – Are Friends Electric? – had just started to get into the chart and do really well, so it was this amazing time. I always used to find going into the studio was an event anyway, I always used to get dressed up for it. You really felt like you were doing something, and didn’t take it for granted.”
One event in particular stands out in his memory. “The day I did the demo for Cars, I came out of the studio and was just behind The Strand, walking back to the place where I’d put the car, and I heard Are Friends Electric? coming out of the window. It was the first time I’d ever heard one of my songs being played by somebody else, and me and two other blokes stood outside this window, this woman’s window that was two floors up. She was ironing, and though I couldn’t see her we could just the silhouette at the curtain, and she was dancing to Are Friends Electric? while she was doing the ironing! It was surreal, but we stood there for the whole song, watching this woman dancing.”
Suddenly his life was going to change. “All that was happening, and people started asking for autographs just as we were starting to make The Pleasure Principle, and because of that it was the most vibey album that I’d ever made, and the whole world was just beginning to open up. It was an absolutely amazing time. In the middle of all that we were in the studio doing stuff, and every day the record company were coming in and saying good things about it, and it was genuinely a dream come true. Four weeks of that – I loved it!”
Revisiting the record reveals other elements of Numan’s approach. “It’s funny, because when I listen to the record it’s not that part about it that comes back to me, it’s what’s wrong with the record!” He clarifies. “It’s an unfortunate characteristic that I’ve always had, that I can never listen to myself, because all I ever I hear is what I should have done, and The Pleasure Principle is riddled with stuff like that.” Does that mean there are mistakes in its execution? “Yeah, but mostly instrumentation.” He pauses. “I suppose of its time,” he grudgingly admits, “it was probably alright, but you can’t listen to it in that way. I can’t, anyway.”
So what’s so wrong with it? “I find the arrangement’s a little bit clumsy, and the feel of the production is very thin. It means you go into a chorus and it doesn’t really explode. Now, with the whole dynamic of the song you learn to do it better. But there’s virtually none, in this record anyway. A song will start with the chorus, and it’s at the same level as the verse before it!”
Does that mean it has more of a live feel? He shakes his head. “I don’t think so, because if anything you can do more extreme dynamics live now. This was only my third album, and I made three albums in 12 months – like bang bang bang! I was still at the start of my songwriting, then, and very young – I had just turned 21. I was very naive, and not worldly in any way at all. So when I listen back to it I realise what it did, and from that I have particular affection for it, but from a songwriting point of view or a production point of view I could have done a much better job.”
He considers further. “But then I suppose it might not have been the album that it was! I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad trait to have though, because only by listening to what went wrong before that you can learn. It’s like relationships really, you make one mistake and fuck it all up, then you have another one, and try and do a bit better. Then suddenly you’re grown up and you’re handling it properly – ish! Musically, though, I would be worried if I thought I knew a lot. Even now, I don’t feel massively confident that I know a lot about making music, and still feel that there is a vast amount to learn.”
Numan’s pioneering spirit, that spirit that led him to those three albums in a year, still burns beneath the surface. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years, but every time I start an album I find the strong need to find sounds and ways of structuring sounds that I’ve not done before, within the framework of something that’s original. Something you come up with might be original, but it’ll be so weird that you just can’t listen to it! So there’s middle ground – and sometimes I’ve failed dismally at it, other times I’ve done a bit better. It’s the genuine intention when you start an album to try and make it better, to fix mistakes from the last one but make a big step forward, to find new sounds and new ideas, and then hope for the best after that.”
He opens up further. “I had a period in my middle years where things weren’t going so well and I was really bothered that the career was sliding really badly, and I went through a period where I was writing songs just to keep the career alive, and trying to second guess the sounds that people wanted.” He winces at the thought. “It was horrible, as I had no idea of the sounds that people really wanted, and secondly you shouldn’t write songs in that way, you should do it because you genuinely love it, not because you think you might be giving people what they want.”
“Even now, I don’t feel massively confident that I know a lot about making music, and still feel that there is a vast amount to learn.”
– Perfectionist Gary Numan retains his pioneering spirit of discovery.
Something had to change. “I had this soulless period in the middle, and it wasn’t until about 1994 that I got out of that and made stuff that I really loved. Not commercial in any way – it was difficult to sell – but actually enjoying my day, and not going through the motions.” It’s an experience that has nonetheless been valuable in the long term. “With things like making The Pleasure Principle, I was getting a real joy in what I do because it was new and exciting. I lost all of that. It was my own fault, nobody did anything to me, but I lost the way of thinking and got all career-orientated. But then from ’94 onwards I got back into that way of thinking and have been here ever since.”
So he knows what to do to avoid such periods? “I don’t think I’ll ever get back to that,” he says. “As soon as someone says ‘that’s a good radio track’ you think ‘I won’t be doing that again!'” My more recent stuff, I know it’s radio unfriendly, but I’m quite proud of myself for that. Most people who have been around as long as me are doing the opposite, trying to milk things and following that safe middle road, doing versions of what made them successful.”
Has the internet helped, with less reliance on radio playlists? It’s a question he considers at length, before addressing the recent debate on downloading.
“I think the internet is brilliant, as a tool, and it’s made a big difference for me, being able to communicate.” There is a flipside, though. “The problem is, if you’ve got a website you’ve still got to tell people that you’ve got it, so you’re back to the problems of letting people know you’ve got an album out. I’ve not found that the internet is a magnet for anyone that might possibly be interested in me.”
And on downloading? “They talk about free downloads being something you should accept, because it encourages people to find a way of getting into your music and will help with tickets for gigs and so on. I’m not noticing that – I’m still selling the same tickets for gigs that I was 10 years ago. Some of the foreign sites with free downloads that have got counters, it’s interesting – but from a point of view for making albums for a living, that’s gone for me. On the last album, I still haven’t covered the cost of what it was to make – and I make albums cheap, nearly all at home in my own studio. Yet if I’d had earned the amount that have downloaded it for free I’d have done alright. If there is anything good about it it has put the influence back on playing live.”
We move on to discuss his approach to live music. “When I started we always had a massive light show, and it was a way of competing with the rock gods – you’re not going to impress as much just standing there playing your keyboard. So I got people in to play, to make it more a conventional line-up, but the light festival meant that you could listen to the music if you wanted, watch the light festival, or watch a few of us on stage moving around. I just thought that was the best way to go about it. If you’ve got a phenomenal light show around it that compensates, but I personally find the most interesting thing to look at onstage is someone who is really passionate about the performance they are giving. If you’ve got both, then you’re quids in!”
He considers the artists he admires live. “Rammstein I would say is brilliant to watch, and I saw The Prodigy at Brighton, and thought they were awesome. I would say that was probably the best live show I’ve seen for a long time,it was absolutely relentless. With them, everything works live, even the stuff from the albums – it just explodes.”
“Churning out riffs, it’s something I do all day long!”
– Gary Numan, riffmeister
This year Numan has done more outdoor events. “In the first 20 years of my career, I didn’t do festivals at all. There’s one thing I remember, that just before I made it Ultravox did a festival at Reading, and they got absolutely hammered. It freaked me out so much I thought there’s no way electronic music is ever gonna make it at a festival. It was only when I got asked to do the V festival by Jarvis Cocker, who was picking the bands for it that year, that I agreed. At that point I couldn’t get radio play, so I realised that was the only way I was going to get seen by more than just my own people. So I did that one and it was really good, rather than just doing my own event.”
Festivals, he says, “are really hard to get unless you’re flavour of the month, and I think there’s a real stigma attached to people who have been around a long time, if you’re not U2 or massive like that. There’s quite a lot of preconceived ideas that you have to try and get over, but luckily so far my festival experiences have been really good.”
Even in the week of interview, Numan has had two requests for sampling. How does he feel about the whole idea? “Primarily it’s flattery. I’m proud people want to do it, and use yours rather than write their own. But equally I’m surprised so many people do it, because I find it easier to write a tune. The idea of borrowing a bit of someone else’s, it’s a bit alien to me. That’s a little riff, it’s not the only one in the world! With the ones this week, it’s the Cars riff with someone talking over it. I would say surely you could think of something of your own? Most of the money you make from it will come to me now, but then again maybe that’s what you deserve, if you can’t write a riff of your own. I’m just surprised that people don’t seem to be arsed! Churning out riffs, it’s something I do all day long…”
‘Churning out riffs’ is at the heart of his studio practice. “Most of the writing process is sitting down playing. You might come out with a piece you like and loop it, and something that catches your ear – you see what happens. You record a lot of that stuff, then go back to it later and play around with it, chop it up. And then you start to process it properly, putting your own sounds on it. A lot of the early stages you’re looking for bits, then you start to put those bits together, then you find a good sound for it. Then you’ve got your building blocks.”
That sounds familiar.”It’s a bit like Lego really, and it looks like lego a bit sometimes on the screen. Quite often the first month or so of songwriting for me is amassing a collection of sounds and clips. The last album I gave myself five days per song – the first day to come up with the ideas, the second day to sort out the arrangements and shit, and the other three days to flesh it out from a production point of view, so you have a reasonably produced version of it. And then you can send it off.”
Does he use the old equipment still? “No, not at all. I thought I had a mini Moog in the garage the other day, but couldn’t find it. I don’t have any allegiance to old gear, I don’t collect keyboards at all. I’ve got a guitar that my dad bought me, I really love that – it’s been on every record I’ve ever made and every tour I’ve ever done, it’s covered in scratches and bits of cardboard hold it together. It’s got a proper career-long history, and I love it. I’ve never had that with synthesizers. People talk about mini Moogs and get all teary eyed – but to me, they just make noises!”
“We had an engine come apart, we were coming out of Greenland into Canada and the right hand engine started to break up…” – Gary Numan’s aerobatic adventures
Numan’s current album project is Splinter, due early 2010. “It’s sliding a bit”, he readily admits. “The early-ish part of next year is the aim now. I’ve got an armful of bits but it’s putting them together, that’s the bit I’m really looking forward to doing. My problem is I’m easily distracted with the children! I’m thinking of buying an industrial unit, having it somewhere else as the studio is in the garden at the moment. I need to be able to go to work, it’s very different from going into the garden. You never get your mind into that other place where it needs to be.”
It’s about mindset. “I need to get my brain into a place where it focuses on the sounds and the vibe the song needs. You need to be away from all of that, the kids knocking on the door and stuff.” Not that he shows resentment for this, you understand. “I used to be really productive in the studio at home, but now it’s been thrown out the window. I do have a reasonably big boat, it sounds a bit flash but it’s a sound idea, I’ve been thinking of setting up a ProTools studio there.”
Transport – it’s a Numan preoccupation, and no form excites him more than flying. “It was the biggest thing for me for a while. I’m an aerobatics display pilot, and was an examiner for people that wanted to be display pilots. So if you suddenly bought an aeroplane and thought you could be a display pilot you’d come to me. It’s designed to keep people alive, so that someone rich doesn’t go up and kill themselves!” I ask him if he has hooked up with that other celebrated pilot, John Travolta, but he shakes his head. “I gave Bruce Dickinson a ride in my aeroplane though, when he was still doing lessons, and he’s gone on to big aeroplanes now. I did that for a bit and had my own air taxi company, but I had a chance meeting with someone that took me to World War 2 aeroplanes, and I just loved it.”
Flying doesn’t translate much into his music, however. “I’ve only written two songs about it, and both were about that sensation that something’s about to go bad. I flew round the world in 1981 in a little airplane, and had some real adventures in that. If you spend a lot of time in them you find they have their own personality – every machine does. They have all kinds of ways of communicating to you, you begin to notice things like a strange little rumble. You start to explore what it might be, and can be aware of a problem coming a long time before it actually happens. But now it’s not so good, because you’re half way over the Pacific, and have a long way to go!”
He’s had worse, too. “We had an engine come apart, we were coming out of Greenland into Canada and the right hand engine started to break up. That was quite frightening, because it was late at night, minus 50 degrees, and the propeller was moving. It was amazing it kept running. It was terrifying, we had about four hours to go or four hours back, and had to make a decision as you had to fly up a channel and back, manually.” He laughs. “So I’ve only written two songs, but not one about how lovely it can be. I’m not good at that, writing songs about lovely things, I’m much better at darker stuff.”
It’s a natural point on which to finish. Numan is a candid, very talkative interviewee but never garrulous, and in the space of an hour has put his career and life into context. As the media celebrates the role of the synthesizer in the music of the last 30 years, it’s only right his life and works should be to the forefront of any of those discussions.