Four decades into his career, electronic music and experimental pop mastermind Gary Numan remains a productive and assertive artistic figure. After the surprising success and modern rebirth of of successful albums Splinter: Songs from a Broken Mind, his most recent work, Savage: Songs from a Broken World, unfolds dark themes with a post-apocalyptic narrative which graceful blends Mr Numan’s classic electronic style with a modern sheen. Speaking on topics from modern inspirations, social empathy, work habits, stage shows and his inspiration on a generations of critically acclaimed artists, A Love That’s Sound is pleased to present a conversation with the legendary Gary Numan
David Lacroix: You brought your tour by Vancouver about a year ago to promote “Savage” thoughts from a broken home. What was your experience performing at the Rickshaw Theatre, that neighborhood has a rough aesthetic outside.
Gary Numan: [laughs] And inside… it’s not the cleanest place I’ve ever been. I’ve done it before, maybe two or three times now. Yeah they’ve got good sound, we’ve always had really good shows there but it’s not a good place. We always get changed on the bus we don’t use the dressing rooms, it’s too dirty and horrible in there. It’s actually… I find it sad when I am there. The people that are there are suffering. It’s really horrible to see. The last time I was there I had my children with me and it freaked them out a little bit. We were trying to let them know not to be afraid, that these are people with problems and they deserve our sympathy. As far as the show was concerned, the crowds are great. It’s actually a very lively venue. But it is a bit gunge-y.
DL: Many bands from East Vancouver have had an interest in social issues. Black Mountain or Skinny Puppy for example. Has this fictional aesthetic allowed you to talk about anything that would be too difficult or awkward to approach directly?
Gary Numan: The thing about a science fictional album like this is that it is not a thing that you believe in or experienced. With the previous album Splinter, that was very personal to me, that was about the whole problem I had with depression and getting through that and the damage that it caused to my relationship with my wife and that whole battery to get through it. When that was done, when you are talking those songs I am open, very open, I have no problem talking about personal things like that. It was easy in a sense that it was very close to you and you felt everything very deeply and you wanted to talk about it. Writing about it was an important part of the whole recovery and then talking about it after was an extension of that recovery. Something like Savage, it’s easy to talk about it because I wrote it but it’s not real. I’m very much an open book. I don’t write anything that I am not willing to talk about. I have rather always used songwriting as a release and outlet for tension and worries.
In a sense, writing for me has been more of a need than a desire. I know it’s both actually but I found it at various times in my life to be very useful to write songs as a way of getting certain feelings about. Understanding that, under the course of writing something, certainly something that means a great deal to you, you’ll begin to write it and you think “that’s not quite right, it doesn’t quite express the feelings that I had.” So you think about it more and you write it again and you work on it and chip away until you get it to be the thing you want it to be. That’s therapeutic to be able to do that, it’s pretty much like sitting in front of a therapist on your own. I’ve found it’s really useful to do that; sometimes it’s important and necessary and sometimes it isn’t.
When I sat down to write Savage, life had been good. The previous album had done very well. I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t do as good a job as that one but life was good. The kids were happy, everyone was healthy. We moved to Los Angeles and everything was good. I didn’t really have anything in me that I had to get out so I started to borrow ideas from this science fiction novel I’ve been trying to write forever, the album sort of just fell into place.
I hadn’t intended this to become a science fiction record, I did those couple of songs to get going just to have something on the table. And then Donald Trump came along in the campaign for the Presidency and he was saying all his things about global warming and so on that resonated because that’s what the book is about. I sort of reacted to what he was saying by writing more songs about this global warming thing, stealing more ideas from the book, until the album became a musical version of the book. And it became what it became, I hadn’t intended that when I stared, it just fell into place. The imagery that came with it, I got involved with BNV the record label, as the project progressed from first song to first show, it just kept getting better. It’s been a really enjoyable project. I’ve had more fun and had more satisfaction from this than anything since the beginning. I still love it, it’s still going.
DL: David Lynch the famous director has stated that it is a myth that artists must be depressed and that artists are more productive when they are happy. Do you feel that you are more artistically productive when you are happy?
Gary Numan: When I’m happy I’m not overly interested in working, funnily enough. It used to be worse than it is now. In the first half of my career, I felt that I needed to be in a pretty dark place to write. I didn’t think I could do anything at all unless I was in a dark little corner. I really believed that for a long time and I think it was partly true but as I got older, certainly since the children have come along, I don’t have the luxury of that anymore, if you could call that a luxury.
I had to adapt after having children, I was no longer free to work when I wanted to. I struggled with that for quite a long time. I would go into a studio before children and I would slowly zone myself into where I needed to be productive and then I would be out there for the rest of the day, into the early hours; it took me a while to get there. When the children came along, life was very different and I wasn’t able to do that. My working time was three hours here and then two hours more after I picked up the children from school. Everything became fragmented, I couldn’t get it to work, I couldn’t get into the place where I needed to be to write.
I’ve adapted over time. Now I can go into a studio and in 30 minutes I’m right where I need to be. I’ve lost that need to be in a dark place to do which is good because I’m more productive but somehow it all comes out dark. I do not make happy records. I don’t. I never will.
DL: On some of your earlier tours, you were particularly renowned for your use of an integrated light show. Will your upcoming tour be using a light show?
Gary Numan: Nah, I used to do those shows when I was doing massive places, places with four or five thousand people where you can throw some serious money at a light show and you’ve got the space to have it and the room height to do it. You can indulge yourself a lot more when you are more successful. I can still do that in Britain, we use big fuck-off video screens and all kinds of clever stuff going on but in North America not so much. I’m not playing in the sort of places that can fit it in and I don’t have the kind of money that can pay for it. So, it’s different.
I’ve had to adapt to a career that’s been up and down more times than I can count. You do what you can based on what your career is at at the particular time. You look at the places you are playing, you look at the guarantee, you look at how much it costs to stay there with a band and crew and the flights and the thousand and one other things that make touring expensive and then you look at what is left and you do the best that you can. We carry a very modest but very flexible little rig with us, we try to bring it into all venues and augment the existing systems, we adapt.
One of the things that I long for is to get back to a place where I can carry that sort of a system, that sort of a light show on a regular basis. It’s somewhat frustrating that I can do these shows in Britain that look amazing and are somewhat spectacular and then you go across to France and you can do fuck-all. Jesus Christ, it’s only 22 miles away and all of sudden you can’t do anything, you can’t do anything because you don’t have the same audience. It’s just all part of a long career; you do well, you don’t do so well. One country you take off, another country disappears.
DL: How do you feel about new generations of fans from bands influenced by you coming to your shows and showing interest in your music? How do you feel that you relate to new generations?
Gary Numan: It’s cool that people talk about me in a very positive light for the most part. I’m considered to be influential now and a pioneer of early electronic music and that’s lovely. I really am proud of that and it’s always good to meet bands that come along to the shows. It does make you proud but it’s not something that I wake up in the morning and think about, it’s done nothing for confidence. I still have all sorts of confidence problems when it comes to making records so it hasn’t changed that at all. It’s good to see bands that have been influenced by you doing great things. It’s not just new bands either, I did this festival with an artist called Front 242 in Belgium. He was on the side of the stage dancing around, and after he was chatting talking to me about the influence I had on that band. I was with Trent Reznor recently in Switzerland, I did a song with Trent and Nine Inch Nails. When Trent was introducing me, he talked about the importance of stuff that I have done had on him. These are lovely things to hear, it’s incredibly cool to hear people of that calibre saying that sort of thing. I’m incredibly proud but I do think a lot of my success was lucky. I came along at just the right time. I was just in the right place at the right time. A lot of what happened to me was luck and i’m very aware of that. I’ve never claimed to be anything special, I never claimed to be the first electronic artist. I was around when it started and I was part of that early wave of electronic music and luckily I’ve managed to stay around until now. To see that you’ve had some impact on music 40 years on is a cool thing.
DL: Some of your artistic contemporaries such as Depeche Mode, Peter Hook and Jean Michel Jarre have been very critically well received in recent years. How do you feel about your status as a pioneer of early electronic music and electronic based influences displacing rock and roll?
Gary Numan: I’m embarrassed to say this but I don’t really follow music at all, I don’t know who’s around, I don’t know who is new. I know Jean Michel quite well, we did an album together a while ago. Don’t listen to it at home, I don’t listen to it in the car because I get annoyed. I think to be in something of a bubble these days; I do my own thing, I do my own music, I do my own tour. I go to see shows quite often, I get a good dose, if you like, from that. But I’m actually embarrassing out of my knowledge as to what is going on. I will hear a track when we are out traveling, I’ll go “who is that?”
I’ve stopped caring, what music is doing. I just do my own thing, I love doing what I am doing and I’m very happy with that. When I was younger, when I first got into it , I was absolutely obsessed about everything about; I knew every band in the charts. I knew every band that wasn’t in the charts. I had a phenomenal collection of albums and singles and was very much on it. I thought that was my life, everything about music, I lived for it. As I got older, the only thing I live for, as far as music is concerned, is my part in it, the part of it that I do.
When I’m not out on tour and I’m with my children, I don’t want anything to do with music when I’m with them. It’s become a very different animal with me. For a while I didn’t care about it at all but more recently it started to bother me again and I’ve become more concerned. I think I should be more aware of what is going on. I should be hearing far more music than I am hearing at the moment and I’m trying to do something about that by restructuring things because I feel I am missing out on a lot. I’ve got a great deal of pleasure from music when I was a kid and I think I’m missing that again. My kids love it, they are obsessed by it and it’s such a lovely thing to see. It makes me sad that I don’t have that anymore so I’m trying to cultivate that again.
Interview / Photography: David Lacroix
Artwork: Marie Ingouf
All photos from Gary Numan’s performance at the Vogue Theatre, Vancouver 10/01/18.