The influence Gary Numan has had on electronic music can’t be overstated – his early work with Tubeway Army (“Are Friends Electric”) and as a solo artist (“Cars”) inspired artists ranging from Trent Reznor to Bloc Party, the Foo Fighters to Interpol, Marilyn Manson to the Smashing Pumpkins.
Though Numan may have been overshadowed by those he’s influenced, he hasn’t taken a break, having released over 20 albums in the last 40 years! He’d be forgiven if he was just phoning it in but that’s not the case – 2013’s Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind) and 2017’s Savage (Songs from a Broken World) are solid, dark and disturbing synth-pop masterpieces.
Looking at an unofficial Numan website, it doesn’t appear as if the legendary musician has ever played in Columbus (is that right???) but that changes on Sunday night when he performs at the Newport Music Hall. Nightmare Air will open the show. Doors at 7pm and tickets are $25.
While this interview was done via email rather than by phone, it was still a thrill to have a chance to ask Numan some questions.
You probably hear this a lot … my introduction to your music was via one of those K-Tel-type compilation cassettes that my mom bought me when I was a kid. “Cars” was the standout track among the typical radio fodder – it was different and, frankly, for the 9-year-old me listening on an old-school cassette player under the covers of my bed, it was a little creepy. Having never written a song myself, when you were writing “Cars”, did it feel special to you, like it might be a hit or was that by total luck of your label deciding to release it?
It didn’t feel that special to me at the time of writing but it got better as I worked on it. I wrote it on bass guitar actually, one of only two songs I’ve ever written on bass. I thought it was a good riff and when the high string synth was added later it seemed quite exciting but I didn’t imagine it would become such a big deal and still be as popular decades later. There was never any doubt it would be the lead single from the album though so I guess it stood out.
I had the chance to meet (for just a brief second) Tony Iommi back in the early ‘90s. I passed him in a hallway of the same venue that you’ll be playing in Columbus and the only thing I could think to say was, “Welcome back” because Ronnie James Dio had just rejoined Black Sabbath. The band did put out albums with a different singer (Tony Martin) but they didn’t have nearly the recognition that Ozzy or Dio-era Sabbath albums had. With somewhat of a sly smile, he looked me in the eyes and said, “We were never gone” and then continued walking. Likewise, you’ve had a very consistent career of releasing new music but, I’ll be honest, I had sort of lost track of your newer releases until Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind) was released. At any point in your career, have you felt like you were making a comeback, like more people were paying attention to you than they had in a while, or, like Tony Iommi and Black Sabbath, were you never gone?
I’ve been doing this for over 40 years and it’s been extremely up and down throughout that time. I’ve always thought that ‘Comeback’ applied more to people that had quit, or temporarily moved on to other things, rather than people whose career ebbed and flowed as the years went by. A ‘Comeback’ is actually defined I think by whether the media take an interest in something or not. If they didn’t show any interest in the previous album, but they do in the next one, they say you’re making a comeback, which is nonsense really.
There is no doubt though that I’ve had periods where things were going great, and periods that were disastrous, and everything in-between. I’ve made about 21 albums of original material since I started, maybe more, so I’ve always been there trying. I’ve lost count of the amount of ‘comebacks’ I’ve been credited with over the years, none of them were real. I’ve always been there, just not always noticed.
Thanks to Spotify, I’ve had the chance to dig deeper into your catalog and listen to albums that I may have missed when I was a teenager. I absolutely love the newer stuff but also love albums like Dance and The Fury. Do you use Spotify (or other streaming services) to go back and listen to music that you may have missed or not have had access to when you were younger? If so, is there a particular artist or band that you love now that you feel like you missed out back in the day?
No, I don’t follow music at all. I don’t listen to the radio, I have no idea what’s going on in the chart. I work on my own music, I go to see bands when I can, I tour constantly, I take my kids to see the people they like, I listen to things my wife Gemma discovers and plays when she’s getting ready to go out (which is a lot of cool stuff actually) but I don’t follow anything myself.
Tell me what it’s like to meet artists who claim you as an influence? I mean, artists ranging from Trent Reznor to Marilyn Manson to Dave Grohl have not only cited you as an influence but have had the chance to work with you over the years. When you meet these artists, is it a mutual love fest? I have to believe they are nervous to meet you. Are you nervous to meet them?
I don’t really get nervous around people because they’re famous. I’ve been doing this for my entire adult life and I’ve met a huge number of people. Seen so many come and go. Fame itself doesn’t intimidate me but talent can. I’ve been in awe of the genius I’ve seen in certain people, Trent would definitely be one of them. I can’t say if it’s a mutual love fest, I don’t know how they feel about me, but I do know that having people like that cover my music, talk about me as an influence on they’re own music, that means a great deal to me.
Your music – in my opinion – has always had a futuristic sound, even dating back to The Pleasure Principle. If I could hypnotize you and take you back to 1978 and then ask you what you thought the world would be like in 2018, would you have thought it would be like Blade Runner or would you have imagined it much like it is today with new technology but not huge changes like flying cars and such?
It’s not a million miles away from what I’d imagined in broad strokes but the detail is different. I did think that computers would be running things, which is partly true. I didn’t see the internet as such but I did expect information exchange to be similar to the way it is, although in a more sinister way. In many ways changes are less obvious when they come over time, much like the hour hand on a clock, but I do believe the world to be very different now to what it was in 1978.
As a follow-up to that, what are your thoughts about the technology of 2018? To name just one thing that blows my mind, we have – in essence – a camera / video camera / endless music library / gaming system / telephone / map / communication system / etc – all in the same device and it fits within the palm of our hand (I always tell my kids how many different devices it took for me to be able to do what they can currently do with their phones!).
I think it’s amazing. I think it’s even more amazing how easily we accept something considered almost miraculous by yesterdays standards and how easily we adapt our lives to it. But, amazing as it is, it leaves me with a growing sense of unease.
I love things that make me feel nostalgic (ie – watching the ‘80s-based Stranger Things, playing pinball machines, buying old vinyl). My wife is not nostalgic at all, rarely looks back. Are you nostalgic and, if so, how do you scratch that itch? What do you do to bring yourself back in time? Or, are you more like my wife and always looking forward, not concerned about the past?
I just look forward. I have no lingering interest in what I’ve done, only what I’m going to do next. The past can serve as a lesson, how things can be done better, how you can be better as a person, but I have no desire to try to relive or recreate things from the past. The one exception to that is old airplanes. I’m a pilot and my passion is flying old World War Two airplanes. I was an aerobatic display pilot for more than ten years, before I became a father, and I was perfectly happy to take part in various re-enactments of WW2 battles.
I watched a short interview with you and you were absolutely glowing when speaking about your daughters. Can you tell me how they inspire you as both a father and as a musician?
I can’t honestly say they inspire me as a musician but my life revolves around them completely, and my wife Gemma. Family is everything. Everything I do, career, music, touring, whatever, is all to make the family happy and to give them every opportunity for the future. Becoming a father changes many things. I got out of display flying because almost everyone i knew was killed in various accidents and so it seemed too dangerous a thing to do when you had children that depended on you. I hope they decide to move into music as a career but if not, I’ll support them in whatever they choose to do.
Not sure if this is something you want to talk about – if not, that’s fine – but wondering if you can tell me about the musicians who play with you on tour? You’ve been performing under your own name for so long which makes you the focus and also makes it easy for you to work with whoever you want, whenever you want. I wasn’t sure if you like working with the same musicians and they tour with you or if you piece together a touring lineup from available musicians who have the right look/attitude/etc.
They’ve been with me for a very long time. Richard Beasley on drums, Steve Harris on guitar and David Brooks on keyboards have been with me for 20 years plus, Tim Muddiman on bass is a the new boy and he’s been with me for about 12 years so they are an absolutely vital part of the touring aspect of my life. We are all best friends, very close, never an argument. It makes the stresses of being away from home so much and the pressures of touring very bearable. It would be so much harder if you didn’t love the people you tour with. Same applies to the crew actually. The crew I have now have been with me for about five years, since I moved to the US, and I can’t imagine doing it without them now. We even go on vacation together at times.
As mentioned earlier, I don’t have any musical abilities which is why I gravitated to writing about something I love so much. Every once in a while, I’ll write something and think, “Now THAT is goooooood.” Is there a particular line (or lines) on Savage that you thought to yourself, “YES! I certainly hope listeners recognize how good that lyric is?”
I wouldn’t dare claim that anything I’ve done is that good. I do try very hard though to make sure the music and the lyrics are as good as they can possibly be. Quite often a lyric that makes perfect sense to me can seem quite obscure to someone else so what I see as good might read as gibberish to someone else. What matters most to me is do I like it, does it say what I want it to say. Before anyone else listens to my music and starts to praise or criticize it you can bet your life I’ve already agonized over it countless times.