With a career that has spanned nearly four decades, his approach to electronic music remains an inspiration to artists across genres and eras.
In a castle in the San Fernando Valley lies the lair of music icon Gary Numan. Outside is an enormous statue of a dragon, inside a St Bernard (almost as large) greets you on arrival. He's a new addition to the family – a rescue pup, and huge. The lord of this manor could be as outwardly intimidating as this entire set-up, but he's a humble presence. Notorious for hits such as 'Are 'Friends' Electric?' and 'Cars', Numan's early career was too often misconstrued, tainted by a sometimes fraught relationship with the media and challenged by the hostility of the music industry at the time, still deeply committed as it was to the guitar, bass, drums approach of old. Numan, however, stuck to his guns, outlasted his naysayers, and became renowned not just as a pioneer but as an institution. Today, with a career that has spanned nearly four decades, his approach to electronic music remains an inspiration to artists across genres and eras, from stadium goliaths such as Depeche Mode, Prince and Nine Inch Nails to alternative heroes such as Beck, Damon Albarn and Marilyn Manson. Even Kanye West owes him a debt and David Bowie once credited him with ‘ writing two of the finest songs’ in British music. It's no surprise he recently received the Ivor Novello Award for Inspiration.
Now, Numan is preparing his 22nd studio album titled ' Savage (Songs From A Broken World)'. He's a busy guy. A self-proclaimed “one man band”, Numan has always been something of an outlier living on his own terms. These days he manages himself, so has to balance being the artist with all manner of other duties; booking shows, designing flyers, endless scheduling. A mark of overcoming that challenge is currently slightly red and raised on his forearms. The lyrics of the new album's opening track 'Ghost Nation' are now tattooed there, a reminder of the past 18 months of writing and recording in a studio at the side of his garden.
Numan moved to LA five years ago with his wife Gemma and three daughters. He's originally a West London, Hammersmith boy – born Gary Webb. His father drove buses at Heathrow Airport and, with his mother (who sadly passed away in 2016), bought him his first acoustic guitar at the age of five, kickstarting his obsession with music, and sound inparticular. “I had tiny little hands but I learnt a few chords and could strum very badly,” he recalls. Music was one of two obsessions. The other being machines, specifically airplanes and racing cars. The fascination with both machinery and music left the young Numan unsure of a specific future path, but he knew he wanted to do something that would be challenging, constantly evolving and take him around the world. He wanted something endlessly adventurous.
School was a troubled time unfortunately and he was expelled from multiple places due to bad behaviour. In machinery and music though he found a comfort zone. “Music became the thing I most wanted to do,” he says, “and school became just a huge wall in the way.” That was something that made a lot more sense to him once he'd discovered that he had Asperger's Syndrome. As he talks today he explains that he’ s “socially incompetent”and “terrible at eye contact.”He has a five second rule for that. “If I look at someone for more than five seconds I'm probably being too intense. If I look at them for less than three seconds I think I give the impression that I’ m not showing enough interest. So I'm counting all the time while I'm talking. It's hard work.” He laughs. “Interacting with people is, for me, just a series of rapid calculations, and worry.”
Expelled from school before sitting any exams and so leaving with no qualifications, Gary decided to forge a career in music while punk was all the rage. “Punk to me was a means to an end. It wasn't what I wanted to be doing long term." Nevertheless he started a punk outfit called Tubeway Army and signed to Beggars Banquet in early 1978. In the studio while making their debut self titled album a life changing moment took place, Gary discovered a Moog synthesizer in the control room and started experimenting with it. He reinterpreted all the punk songs he'd initially written and over the three day session turned them into pseudo-electronic numbers. After a huge argument with the Beggars Banquet label owners about this collosal change of direction, they eventually deferred to Numan and, to their credit (and good fortune), released those revamped electronic songs instead of making him re-record the punk album they’ d signed him to make. The follow-up record 'Replicas' contained 'Are 'Friends' Electric?' which went to Number 1. Then came the whirlwind. Three Number 1 albums in succession. Two world tours. All within a year. “
It came good so quickly but I didn't feel vindicated by it. I was absolutely trampled by the speed of it,”says Numan. “It was like standing in front of a fast moving train. I was on my own, same as now, but
with no experience whatsoever. I had no meaningful guidance. I'd only ever done a handful of shows in tiny little clubs. All of a sudden you're Number 1, the press are comparing you to these megastar legends and you've only been there for what felt like two minutes. I was overwhelmed, beaten up. I felt like I was fighting for my life.”
Resistance to this new kind of music, and Numan in particular, from some parts of the music business establishment was considerable, even the Musicians Union tried to ban him, claiming he was putting real musicians out of work, “How insulting is that?” He laughs. “It was an entirely new form of music and it caught a lot of people out,” he explains. Already existing underground electro artists were equally annoyed that Numan received success before them. Guitar bands, on the other hand, derided him for not making “proper music”. “I never really understood why it was as hostile as it was. All I'd really done was written some songs that a lot of people liked.” he says. “Luckily attitudes changed and things got better, eventually.”
After the Number 1 successes of his albums ‘ Replicas’ ,'The Pleasure Principle' and 'Telekon', he played three Wembley Arena shows in 1981 and then intended to retire from touring to concentrate more on studio work and developing his songwriting skills, although not before flying around the world in his own aeroplane, including an incident in India were he was arrested on suspicion of smuggling and spying. “That was interesting” he says. Musically though the career spotlight had become a monster and Numan a recluse. “Fame makes you a target for every disenchanted idiot with a grudge”. Music went form being a hobby to a huge global nightmare, “You couldn’ t escape from it. I was entirely unprepared for the extreme reactions from the media and the public, both good and bad, and I found all of it frightening. It took me a long time to even start to get used to it.” All that's changed now of course, as there's a tremendous amount of respect for Numan. At the time however, after ‘ retiring’ , it all started to slip away. He found himself getting sucked into bad decisions. “I was releasing an album a year, every year,” he says. “But it was getting worse. The success was sliding, album sales were going down, ticket sales were going down, I started to panic and I made that fatal mistake of listening to advice, and so I lost my way. I started to make music born out of career desperation and other peoples opinions rather than my own artistic satisfaction, a horrible period.”
All changed in the early '90s. Numan stopped listening to other people, and started listening to one significant person – his new wife Gemma. She convinced him to get back to his initial appeal, to stop hiding behind other players and other singers. “Gemma managed to make me understand, after a lot of arguing, that I'd progressively taken out the Gary Numan part of my sound because of my lack of confidence. I didn't like my voice or my playing, I had no confidence at all.” he says. “The “'Sacrifice' album in ’ 94 was a genuine return to doing it for the love of it. Not trying to revitalise a career, not thinking commercially. I'd given up to be honest, things had got so bad that I thought it was all over and so I went back to doing it for a hobby. I had no idea if ‘ Sacrifice’ would even get released. I had no record deal at the time and it looked unlikely I’ d ever get another one.” When the album was self-released in 1994 on his own label, Numan's career was simultaneously being reappraised by the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Saint Etienne and Damon Albarn. “I see influence both coming to me and from me like sparks,” he says. “People will see that spark and it'll ignite their own ideas. We are all triggered by something else.” Nine Inch Nails Trent Reznor it’ s said listened to 'Telekon' when making the classic 'Downward Spiral' album. “I listened but I can’ t hear it,” Gary laughs. “I would never have known. That's a brilliant use of influence, to turn it into something entirely your own.” He adds “Luckily that wave of new interest in me came at a time when I’ d got my songwriting back up to a good standard. A year or two earlier would have been a disaster as I was still lost then.”
Numan had become part of the zeitgeist again. Later on he'd be sampled by Basement Jaxx (‘ Where’ s Your Head At’ ) and The Sugababes (on their huge Number one hit ‘ Freak Like Me’ ). “That 'Freak Like Me' song,” he says. “I was really proud of the fact that 25 years after I had written that music it still sounded cool and current.” His experience throughout the '90s gave Numan the confidence to be hellbent on never pandering to radio or to A&Rs or industry trends. He is staunchly independent. It's something even today's young breakthrough acts can look to for inspiration.
Fast-forward to 2017 and he's taking the exact same attitude forward in his songwriting now. Numan's past few albums have been much heavier and darker. Interestingly electronic music has now become the sound of the masses due to the availability of cheaper technology at home. Anyone can make music now, which Numan finds liberating and thrilling. “Everyone should have an opportunity and not be thwarted by needing expensive equipment. Those with talent will still rise above.” he says.
Carrying a recorder with him wherever he goes, his inspiration is sound, atmosphere, the wider world. There's a recording from the London Underground on one of the new tracks, such was Numan's obsession with a particular noise a train made on a recent visit to London.
Lyrically, however, the material for 'Savage' wasn't obvious at first. When Numan released his last album – 2013's highly acclaimed 'Splinter' – he had a deep well of real-life inspiration to draw from: a three year period of severe depression and family turmoil. This time around he went far more conceptual. As a child, Numan wrote short stories, influenced by Philip K Dick and William Burroughs. He was consumed by science fiction - “or epic fantasy”–, always fantasising about how civilisation might look in the near future and what the human race could become. His 1979 album 'Replicas' focused on that, but since then all of these ideas have been relegated to a novel that Numan describes as “never-ending”. He began to lift ideas from that novel to inform this record.
'Savage' is set in a post global warming, apocalyptic, Earth in the not-too-distant future. There is no technology left and most of the planet has turned to a desolate, desert wasteland. Food is scarce, water even more so and human kindness and decency are justa dim and distant memory. Western and Eastern cultures have merged, more because of the need to simply survive than any feelings of greater tolerence or understanding. It’ s a harsh, savage environment, as are the survivors who still roam across it.
While he was writing the record, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. It made sense to make him and his climate decisions the catalyst for the apocalypse theme of the album. “The songs are about the things that people do in such a harsh and terrifying environmnent. It's about a desperate need to survive and they do awful things in order to do so, and some are haunted by what they've done. That desire to be forgiven, along with some discovered remnants of an old religious book, ultimately encourages religion to resurface, and it really goes downhill from there.”
Made partly in his own studio in LA, and partly in the UK, the album was produced by long-time collaborator Ade Fenton. He also set up a Pledge Music campaign to create an experience for fans that would let them see how an album was put together from first note to the finished shrink wrapped package. A strategy that brought Numan closer to his fans, and allowed him to communicate the blood, sweat and tears that goes into making a record. “I find every album I make to be more difficult than the one before,” he says. “It’ s like climbing a mountain, and it gets ever steeper. I wanted people to understand what it takes, how hard it can be, the emotional roller coaster that is part and parcel of doing this, and that it can be a real battle, with yourself as much as anything. Confidence comes and goes and you can be your own worst enemy at times.”
With 93’ s 'Splinter' album having received the best reviews he'd ever had (not to mention the best chart position he'd had in 30 years), the pressure was on to beat it. “I don't want to repeat myself,”says Numan. “People who have been around for a long time often tend to bland out a bit and become more middle of the road, or they hide in nostalgia and live on the back of what they did before. Both of those options are awful. Being proud of your legacy is one thing, but becoming trapped by it is another thing entirely. I'm not one for self praise but I am very proud of the fact that as I've got to the more precarious latter part of my career the music's got progressively darker and even less radio friendly. I've done the opposite of playing it safe.