Interview with Electronic pioneer Gary Numan

Gary Numan interview with Northern Transmissions. The Electronic pioneer comes out with his forthcoming LP in May

Once considered an emotionless and cold genre by critics, electronic music is everywhere now, thanks in large part to the pioneering work of Gary Numan. Gary Numan exploded onto the music scene almost overnight with his hit “Are Friends Electric?”, and he hasn’t stopped looking for ways to innovate since. Gary Numan recently launched a Pledge Music campaign to provide fans with “behind the scenes” access to the creative journey of recording his new album, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to 2013’s Splinter. We reached Numan in Los Angeles.

Northern Transmissions: Crowdsourcing has become more popular in recent years with bands recording new albums, what inspired you to try a Pledge Music campaign for the new album? Were you nervous when you first launched it?

Gary Numan: I was nervous when I did it, not in doubting the format, but it’s just a new thing for me. I’ve always done the more conventional route. It was a little bit daunting having to sell something before having written anything. You’re worried if people will be interested, will it be successful, will there be public failure, and those kinds of concerns.

The thing about the Pledge method is that it’s quite a fun project. There were two things that pulled me in to crowdsourcing. Firstly, I was trying to find a way of putting out an album that didn’t go the conventional route. The last album I did, Splinter, went out through the usual licensing/distribution route, and it did pretty well – one of my best selling albums in years – but still not near the number of sales as back in the day. I was really disappointed with how much money I actually made from it, certainly not enough to make a living on. It’s pretty surprising when you see an album coming out and look at the amount of money that the album’s generating overall, then you see the amount of money that actually comes back to the artist. I really do think that life has gotten better as an artist, and so I was looking for a way of bypassing the traditional system. I wanted to eliminate the layers of people in between the album’s completion and reaching the audience. I felt the old system was just not good enough. The Pledge campaign is a way of trying to find a more efficient method as an independent artist of reaching out to the fans. I think the more direct route I can find with the fans, the better I’m going to make an album.

The other thing is that it occurred to me through several meet-and-greets how little the fans know about the actual process. They get the album, but they don’t really understand what’s involved in it. It takes a long time to make albums, it’s actual hard work. It’s a real emotional process. When you start an album you know you have quite a long process ahead of you. Your confidence just plummets every time you go to the studio and you don’t have a good day. It’s really an emotional rollercoaster, and I wanted people to be aware of that. I didn’t want people to see glimpses of clever moments, I wanted people to see the other side of it: the stress, throwing things around, how an idea evolves, why the first thing you start off with very rarely ends up the same way, why you change your mind, why that lyric didn’t work, why you wrote five choruses for that song before choosing none of them. All these things were not being talked about and I thought it would give the fans a very interesting experience. When the album does come out they’ll find it a very interesting thing to listen to because they were aware of what a challenge and torturous process it was to make.

NT: Have you encountered any downsides so far to the crowdsourcing method?

GN: The only downside is the work that goes into updating people, it’s a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. I found that almost immediately you become pretty reluctant to have people listen to ideas that aren’t perfected and that you know won’t make the album. However, that’s the very point of what I’m supposed to be doing with this process. I’ve put out ideas that I know are shit, so I’ve put out introduction videos. It takes a lot more time, and it also breaks up the creative process by taking the time to make the updates. To be honest, the interruptions are a problem I didn’t expect to have. It’s been very interesting, a great thing to do, but it’s a lot more difficult than I expected on many levels, and we’ll see when it’s all finished if it was the right thing to do or not, but I think it is.

NT: What about setting up a live webcam in the studio to prevent the interruptions?

GN: Some people have mentioned that to me, but the truth is that you can easily spend four or five hours at a piano just going over the same little thing with tiny adjustments. Or listening to snare drums for fucking hours making tiny tweaks and adjustments that will bore a lot of people. Yes, I can do that, and there will be a rare moment when they catch something of interest, but most of the time making record is actually extremely boring and very long winded. You’re putting in hours and hours for a tiny little improvement in a song. Even on a good day if the barebones of an entire song are finished, that still takes ten hours for a couple musical parts and a drum beat. That’s an awful lot of webcam watching for the skeleton of a song. Maybe I’ll warn people that what they’re about to watch is extremely tedious, but that some good moments might happen.

NT: People ask you often about the technology you use, but I’m excited to learn more about your songwriting from your studio updates, especially because for this project you haven’t written any of the lyrics yet before going in studio.

GN: Lyrically I’m very much driven by the music itself. 99.9% of the time the lyrics are the very last thing that get done. When I start with the lyrics, they’re just noises or random words that come to mind. I might be singing nonsense, but what matters is the vocal fluctuations and melody. On the very last day of a song’s creating process I’ll retool the random phrases I sang and write proper words. I have a little book that I’ve had since the 1980’s, all full of interesting notes that come to mind. I very rarely use the book anymore and I don’t know why that is, I used it a lot when I was younger. Maybe because life itself has so much more going on as an adult with family and different worries from what I had as a kid. Actually, one thing I am trying to work on now is writing my first novel. I do write a great deal of notes for that. Last I checked I have a couple great chapter ideas for that book that were brought back and turned into lyrics.

NT: Your first songs with Tubeway Army were really routed in punk, was it a difficult transition adding synthesizers to punk music at the time? How was it first received by audiences?

GN: I was on a punk label, Beggar’s Banquet, for Tubeway Army as a three-piece punk-rock band, but I was never known as a punk. To be honest, I was kind of a mercenary about it. I only formed a punk band because I realized there were lots of opportunities for punk music at the time and lots of media interest. The only punk band I ever really liked were the Sex Pistols. I saw it more as a great opportunity to get a record deal. We put out two punk singles then went into the studio to record our first album which should have been a punk album. I got there to record the album, and there was a synthesizer in the corner when I got there. It changed my life entirely. I had a go at it and it was fucking awesome. The room was shaking and it was the most powerful thing I ever heard and I was obsessed with electronic music in that moment. I very quickly converted these very amateurish punk songs into even more amateurish punk-electro songs. The record company was horrified to begin with, but eventually they decided to go with it. They saw enough in it to let me go back a few months later to make another album. After that, “Are Friends Electric?” went to number one, the album went to number one, and I became well known. It all happened very quickly. Some people loved it, it went to number one and was pretty massive; and there was an equally strong anti-reaction to it. Lots of people thought it wasn’t real music. Just shit really [laughs]. A lot of people didn’t really get it at all and didn’t see anything in it. The Musician’s Union actually tried to ban me for the next two years, saying I was putting real musicians out of work. It was a bit of an insult when you think about it, but it just shows the level of ignorance and hostility there was toward electronic music. It took a while. It really annoyed a lot of people who didn’t get it when the music became huge. The people who did get it got it to such a ridiculous degree, I became an overnight phenomenon! You can imagine how much that annoys people! I got hammered in the press, there was a very mixed double-edged sword. On one hand, it was unbelievably amazing. On the other hand, you couldn’t even imagine the hostility I received when all I did was write a song that people liked; I hadn’t done anything wrong. The reaction was truly shocking. I have Asperger’s so I don’t relate to people at the best of times and I didn’t have a manager, so every single ounce of pressure was dropped squarely on my head. It was quite a difficult time really, but mixed with the amazing realization that everything you ever dreamed of can suddenly happen.

NT: With that backlash, does it surprise you how Top 40 radio today is dominated by synth-based pop and electronic drum beats?

GN: Not really, I was always amazed that it wasn’t like that before. The thing about electronic music is that people talked a lot in the early days of how emotionally cold it was. I never agreed with that. I think the perception of my early records left a lot to be desired. When you think about a guitar or a piano, they have no “problems” attached to them. They sound the way they sound. If you sit at a piano, it sounds like a piano. You use the notes to create melodies that express your emotions. That’s where it stops. With electronic music and synthesizers, you can play your notes and melodies like you do on a piano, but you can actually also find the sound itself that expresses the feeling you’re trying to say. There’s nothing else in the world like it where the sound is so infinitely variable. With a synthesizer you have far more ability to express your emotion than any instrument on the planet.

NT: Many people have covered your songs, from Foo Fighters to the Dead Weather to Nine Inch Nails, what is your favourite cover of your own song?

GN: I liked Trent Reznor’s version of “Metal”, which I thought was particularly brilliant. I like the Foo Fighters cover, it was really cool. Adina Howard used “Are Friends Electric?” mixed with other vocals for “Freak Like Me”, and in the pop world that would probably be my favourite. I was quite blown away by how it turned out. Fear Factory did “Cars”, that was brilliant as well. There have been so many! Grace Jones did a song of mine too that was great. It is really flattering when you hear someone’s done a cover of one of your songs, I don’t take it for granted at all. I still get embarrassed and blown away by it. A lot of the people that cover my stuff are very cool people in their own right, and are very innovative and inspirational people like Trent and Dave Grohl.

NT: You were awarded the “Innovation in Sound” award from Q magazine a couple months back. Do awards like these still surprise you, and are you comfortable being hailed as a pioneer or as legendary?

GN: When you’re a kid and you start making records and writing songs, you have heroes of your own that you think of as legendary and you can’t even imagine what that must be like to be that well liked and thought of. All you want to do is write a decent song and make it as good as it can be, then you get a record deal and try to make your album the best it can be. Then you make your second album and try to beat your first. After a while you keep trying to top yourself and before you know it people start to talk about you as a pioneer, as innovative, and as a legend. How cool is that? You’ve become the thing that you used to look up to with wide-eyed admiration. You’ve become one of those people that are seen as pioneers. And yes, I am really proud of it, it’s just the best thing ever. I go to these award things and some people go up there and they’re cocky as fuck, and it really makes me angry because I’m genuinely proud to be there getting an award. I am very grateful and honoured that people think that way about me because it has taken me a long time to get this high level of credibility that the press wasn’t giving me in the early days. I am proud of it and I find it very arrogant seeing people go up there and kind of make fun of it. In a way, the awards don’t really change the way you think about yourself. I’m aware of my career and the great things people say, I’m proud of it, but when I go into the studio, I’m every bit as nervous as I was before. It doesn’t help your confidence at all, I still struggle very badly with confidence. I get nervous about what I’m going to do next. I’m even anxious right now as to what I’ll accomplish in the studio later today. I guess people would think that I’m confident and know what I’m doing because I’ve made so many albums and get these accolades, but it’s not like that at all. On stage I’m confident and know what I’m doing. In the studio, the constant pressure we put on ourselves to do better is tremendous. Splinter, my last album, received the best reviews I’ve had in years, but the next morning you wake up and think “Fuck, now what?”. You just get worried all the time. You might enjoy the moment for a few hours at these events, but then the next album pops in your head.

NT: Is there anyone who you would like to give the “Innovation of Sound” award to?

GN: I’d give it to Trent (Reznor). I think he’s an absolute genius. He’s done just huge things for music in general, but especially electronic music.

NT: On your current tour you’re playing one of your classic albums each night. What led to this big shift in your approach to embrace the older material over the new albums?

GN: I realized there was going to be a big gap between when Splinter came out (2013), and the next one (will be released later this year or possibly early next year), and so I thought what should I do? Last year my managers came up with the idea of some retro shows. You know I usually don’t do much retro stuff. I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder and I don’t like looking backwards. I’ve had a longstanding grudge with doing too much old stuff in the set, I’m way more interested in what I’m doing tomorrow or next year. My managers said that because I don’t do old stuff very often, and because I have nothing else going on, it would be a perfect opportunity to just go out and do old stuff. It will be a bit of an event for all the fans because it is so rare that I embrace the past. When they first suggested it I said no fucking way am I going out just to do old songs. What really convinced me to do it was that the reaction to Splinter was so positive and strong that it made me realize that a lot of the problems I had with my back catalog were kind of answered. I always believed my back catalog overshadowed everything else I did, a few songs in particular. For a long time I would see a photograph of myself in a magazine and it would say “80’s rock star” underneath, and I thought I’ve never been able to escape the 80’s. But with the last album, people said it was the best thing I’ve ever done. It was really successful and I was very happy with it. I finally felt I came out from under that shadow and I became more relaxed with my back catalog. I realized it’s something I could be proud of rather than try to distance myself from it. So I decided to do three in L.A. to start with, then three in London, three in Ireland, and now we’re going to do some more in Chicago, New York, Moogfest, and maybe Toronto. These will be three night events, each with a different album in its entirety every night.

Top 5 Albums

Songs of Faith and Devotion – Depeche Mode
The Downward Spiral – Nine Inch Nails
Systems of Romance – Ultravox
The Slider – T. Rex
Floodland – The Sisters of Mercy

Interview by Stewart Wiseman