Lately there’s been an unseemly rush by a bewildering assortment of musicians to cover and sample songs by a bloke from Hammersmith.
Pop kittens Sugababes reached number one with Freak Like Me earlier this year, a song that essentially added the girls’ vocals to Are Friends Electric? by Gary Numan. And his song M.E. was sampled to form the basis of dance outfit Basement Jaxx‘s top five hit Where’s Your Head At? last year.
Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, Foo Fighters and Armand Van Helden have also adapted Numan’s songs, leading to talk that he’s one of the most influential artists around. A far cry from the things said about him when he first emerged onto the music scene in the late ’70s. But what’s the man himself doing these days?
As he sees the compilation album Exposure – The Best of Gary Numan 1977-2002 released in celebration of his 25 years in the music business, Numan wants it known that being influential is all very well, but he doesn’t appreciate being pigeonholed.
“I’m glad people think I’m influential,” he says in a chummy London accent that is quite contrary to his oddball image as the godfather of electropop. “I’m happy at being talked about as part of the ’80s, but what I object to is being labelled as someone only from the ’80s. I’ve had singles in the chart in the ’90s and I’m doing pretty well now.”
True. Exposure has just crashed into the official UK album chart and Numan is now busy recording an all-new album for a major label. He describes the new record as a darker and more industrial affair, in common with his more recent albums, than the synth-based pop he’s best known for.
“I’m with a label called Artful, part of Universal, and I have my own imprint called Jagged Halo, on which this album’s been released,” he explains.
“I’m surprised more people don’t do it this way. You get a small, highly-focused team who let you do what you want without interference whatsoever and who are very sympathetic to you,” he enthuses.
“The potential is there to do some good with Pop Idol…”
– Gazza Numan
“And the distribution system is fantastic. One of the main problems you have on a small label is getting your stuff into the shops,” he continues. “With Universal you don’t have that problem.”
Now he finds himself in musically peculiar surroundings, where Pop Idols, aging punks and white trash rappers command millions of sales. Numan’s opinion of Eminem suggests they won’t be collaborating any time soon.
“I saw him at Reading,” he says. “He was on after Marilyn Manson, which I thought was a travesty. Some bloke walking up and down with a DAT, talking a lot – and lyrically it’s supposed to be clever. Plenty of people write cleverly but can also write tunes.”
“I don’t mean to knock him,” he points out. “If people like him that’s fine, and it’s a skill I don’t have, but it just does not touch me at all.”
And while he admits to buying The Sex Pistols‘ God Save The Queen, he wonders if the single’s re-release goes against the whole punk ethic and dismisses it as “an absolutely blatant attempt to make money”.
“Most modern pop music is directed at pre-pubescent children…”
– Gazza Numan
Which brings us nicely along to Pop Idol – about which he surprisingly unscathing. “In an ideal world, the money being made from those records will be spent on developing new talent,” he says. “The potential is there to do some good with Pop Idol, so I don’t think it should be dismissed out of hand.”
“But musically speaking it doesn’t do anything for me,” he continues. “Most modern pop music is directed at pre-pubescent children – which isn’t a crime. They’ve got every right to listen to things and like things, just as someone who’s 15 or 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 has. And people should be there to cater for that. The problem arises when what avenues there are to promote music are so dominated by that one particular kind that other kinds of music don’t get a look in, and there is an imbalance in what is available for the public to make their choices from. That’s why I get frustrated. There are so many really good things out there, but if it isn’t that pure pop format you’re very unlikely to see it or hear it on radio or TV. We have Kerrang and MTV2, and dance and R&B are well catered for, and there’s obviously a huge amount of pop stations, but rock doesn’t seem to do too well. And most of the really cutting edge development is happening in the rock and industrial field,” he mourns.
“I went to a Spice Girls gig once,” says their unlikliest fan ever. “I was slightly arrogant about it and said I wasn’t going to get anything out of it and was wondering why I was going. But although it wasn’t my cup of tea, a little kid of about eight or nine years old in front of me was having a brilliant time, waving her arms and singing along to every word. I said to (my wife) Gemma then that that’s what it’s about and we must never forget that. If people like the music, that’s the be all and end all. Anything else is arrogant and judgemental.”
What is his sort of thing then? Apart from Marilyn Manson, obviously… “Fear Factory, Linkin Park, Fear Factor, Limp Bizkit, Korn, Rammstein… anything that’s heavy and particularly the more industrial stuff. I just immerse myself in that stuff.” Not the expected answer of an “electropop godfather” by any means – but Gary Numan has always been about more than that. He says he likes Curve too, and is working with Dutch dance outfit JXL and Ozric Tentacles spin-off Eat Static soon as well.
“I’m not into dance music as much as industrial. With dance music I have to be choosy and wade through lots of things to get to what I like,” he explains. “With my own stuff I have no intention of going dancey at all.”
Cover versions, of course, are clearly helping Numan’s career along. Of Sugababes‘ record he says, “I like it and I think the vocals they added to my music work really well”.
But Sugababes’ fans might not remember when Numan first appeared on the music scene with Cars and Are Friends Electric? in 1979.
Back then, he wore make-up, never smiled and inspired onlookers to suggest that he probably dreamed of computers – and that he was some kind of androgynous robot.
“What robot do you know that has spots?” he asks, smarting. “I had spots! That was the only thing about me that was different to anyone else. I wore make-up because I had bad skin when I was 21! So much for androgyny!”
What about the serious stage demeanour? “I didn’t smile on stage because I was nervous and I didn’t want anyone to see my Bugs Bunny teeth and my floppy lower lip,” he says, somewhat disarmingly. “And people would say of me afterwards, ‘Oh, this is a really stern, robot-like person who never smiles and is really alienated.'”
“I’d be like, ‘What the fuck is that all about? I’ve got big teeth!’ Much more of it was made than ever intended and I played along with it for a bit – maybe too much, for now it comes back to haunt me.”
“What the fuck is that all about? I’ve got big teeth!”
– Gazza on his unsmiling demeanour
He explains away his perceived mechanical side as a penchant for learning. “I went to grammar school but got expelled for bad behaviour. That gave me a chip on my shoulder. I’ve been obsessed about learning ever since.”
His wife Gemma says he has boring bedtime books. “I have manuals next to the bed! I bought a little boat and the first thing I did was a big course in how to drive boats better!”
He’s better known for flying than powerboating, though. Infamously, he was all over the news when the plane he was travelling in crashed. He’s quick to point out that he wasn’t flying it. “A commercial pilot crashed the plane, not me!” he says, hotly. “I was an examiner for a few years for the Civil Aviation Authority, I did low-level aerobatics, I’ve flown World War II planes at air displays and round the world and I’m cleared down to 50 feet.”
Numan is at his most animated and unreserved when he’s telling stories of his flying experiences. He tells me of an expedition in a World War Two aircraft which almost ended in disaster in the Pacific, and another adventure in which a plane’s engine began to break apart over the Arctic. It sounds absolutely hair-raising, and Numan’s engaging repartee keeps the story going, and we chat for nearly 20 minutes about it.
“My wife doesn’t want me to (fly aerobatics) now,” he concludes, “as she’s known several people to be killed doing it. She doesn’t want me to fly at all, never mind air displays. Do you really want someone that you love and care for being upset?” he asks, sounding for all the world like the world’s best husband. “I really miss it and want to do it again, but for the time being I’m not doing air shows anymore. I’m still flying to keep my hand in, though.” Perhaps he could become a storyteller, I say.
“I’d like to get into storytelling,” he says, again somewhat unexpectedly, but by now I’ve decided that anything I thought I knew about Gary Numan from the media prior to this interview is just plain wrong. He announces that he’s achieved all his big ambitions and is now looking for smaller challenges. “I’d like to have a successful book. It’s likely to be a sci-fi fantasy thing, with demons and magic and sorcery and all that. I’d like to spend the first few books just getting good at it.” He’s up for doing a freefall parachute course, too.
With a new generation getting to know his old work through cover versions, and his new work being distributed through satellite TV stations and a major label, the engaging Gary Numan looks to be in the ascendant once again. He’ll just have to learn to live with it.