tea with numan
After swashbuckling around London’s outer reaches while chasing down previous Tea With…subjects Paul Hardcastle, Normski and Alison Moyet, I was happy to find that, for the fourth instalment of the series I was to be invited to fly out to Gary Numan’s LA mansion, all expenses paid, to conduct a wide ranging interview. Was I fuck. Dashed were those dreams of the two of us perched by his arsenal of vintage synthesizers, chatting, smoking cigarettes and drinking Lapsang Souchang into the early hours. Instead, I was offered half an hour on a dodgy skype connection, during which I attempted to extract the electronic music pioneer’s life story between large glugs of PG Tips and frequent expletive laden asides…
Hi Gary, let’s start at the beginning – What are your earliest memories of appreciating music?
Honest to god, I was 4 or 5 years old – I was watching tv one day with my mum and dad and something came on, I think it was the shadows actually, so nothing cool but they were playing electric guitars and I was fascinated by that, the fact that youd plug it in – I was a real geek, I loved techy things even as a kid. I was just fascinated by the fact that it had dials and switches and it was electric, that sounded really exciting. I got into it at that point, but it was more to do with the technology than the music. All throughout my teenage years music was something that came with the technology I was interested in. Its probably why I ended up in synthesizers, it was a natural thing for me. You remember the monkees? Im old enough to have been a fan. When I was about 8 or 9 years old we had a little thing in our street called the Monkee juniors and we were going to people’s houses and miming to monkee records for money on their doorsteps, so I did that for a while.
I was a massive T Rex fan when I was, what, about 14 or 15 and I think it was really then that I probably started to think about it as a career. And even then it was a lifestyle thing – the lifestyle that Marc Bolan projected was really exciting and I wanted that. So, once again music was secondary, I wanted the lifestyle. It was until later that music became the most important thing, before that it was a bit shallow really – a means to an end. Initially i started writing songs more earnestly and putting bands together and then obviously when the synthesizer thing came along and I went in that direction, music became everything at that point, and its been the case ever since then.
So, when did you start making music?
Well actually I have clear memories of my nan saying to me, i must have been 11 or 12 and she said to me: why dont you play something we know? And I said: Well I dont want to, I like making up my own tunes, nan. It was only a little groove or riff or something, either on her little piano that she had at home or on my acoustic guitar that my mum and dad had bought me. So, right from the beginning as soon as I started to learn chords I wrote my own stuff, my own little tunes rather than play somebody elses. I think I was ten or eleven, pretty young.
I love the story of the musicians union trying to ban you because you were putting proper musicians out of work. You describe yourself as a barbarian when it comes to songwriting – did this make it hard to get a deal when you started out – have record execs tried to meddle with your music?
Yeah, to be honest I can play guitar well enough to get a gig in an average band, I play keyboards well enough to get into a less than average band and I dont think Id get a gig in anyones band as a singer!! So lucky i do my own thing really! Ive never seen myself as a musician as such, I play well enough, but I see myself first and foremost as a songwriter and I play various things well enough to be able to get those songs onto tape. Beyond that I dont think of myself as a player, I can stand in front of a really good player and I would be able to play something to them and say: thats kind of what I want. So I can use it as a descriptive form and I do play pretty much everything on my records: Im not saying Im shit, and I might be being a little bit hard on myself but I dont think of myself as a great player. Ive worked with some phenomenal musicians over the years, for example on this record, the new album, the guitarist Robin Fink is on it. Just amazing, the other people on it too, really great players. I know that Im not in that class, never will be – but I was able to write the songs that theyre playing on with the skills that Ive got. Id like to be a better player but to do that Id have to practice, and I never practice so i get what I deserve I suppose!
So, you received a lot of negativity at the start of your career?
Yeah, a huge amount – from the music press in particular, from the musicians union, obviously and even from other bands. Even now, Wayne Hussey from The Mission, a really good friend of mine now – but he was saying when I first came along him and his band all hated it, theyd gather round and slag it off saying Its not proper music because it wasnt guitar based. There was this very, very rigid opinion, in a wide area, about electronic music – I think its one of the few times actually that the public have got into something on a massive scale before the industry itself was even prepared to accept it. If my memory is right, Are Friends Electric was number one for two weeks before Radio 1 even play-listed it. So even at that level, people in the industry couldnt take to it at all. Then they did, but only with the people who followed me, acts that came afterwards. So I got a huge amount of stick for it, which they kind of carried on beating me with by proxy in a way, because they were then praising everyone else who came afterwards and still slagging me off! That took a long time to go away and I really didnt enjoy it at all. I was really dissapointed. People were saying amazing things and the album is selling in its hundreds of thousands and youve got these people going: Oh its not real music is it? You know: Fuck OFF!
Id be interested to know who you were taking your cues from, when it came to electronic music – who were your infuences in that field specifically?
Well Kraftwerk had been doing it before me but theyd gone the very, very full on non-human route with it, and as much as I liked some of it it wasnt what I wanted to do at all. Bowie had done the Low thing, which is almost kind of classical music, but with Eno. Very Eno-ish. Again, I really admired it but it wasnt what I wanted to do. What happened with me was I went into a studio to make a punk album: with a drummer, the bass player and me on guitar. When I arrived there was a little mini moog synthesizer sat in the corner of the control room and Id never seen a real one before and the man that ran the studio said I could have a go on it. I was fascinated by it, that technology thing again. I turned it on, pressed a key – cos I didnt know to set them up, I had no idea what the knobs and buttons did – so I just pressed a key. Lucky enough for me it had been left on a sound that was that classic moog sound, that huge, big fat bottom end. I pressed this key and the whole room shook. It was unbelievable. Fucking Hell! Thats amazing! What a sound! So I said to the studio owner: Can I use this, can I put this on the tracks that were working on? He said, alright if you want. It was supposed to have been collected by a hire company earlier that day but they hadnt turned up.
So I grafted these noises onto these punk songs that I had and I ended up with this mix of synth, guitar, bass and drums and I thought: That works. Thats electronic music that I can deal with. So, took that back to the record company – they were unhappy, but eventually it came out bla bla bla, but thats way I eneded up with that sort of mix – it was adding electronic music to a conventional lineup. Which, at that time, I hadnt heard before, so my big argument with the record company was: this is something very new, I dont think anyone else is doing this at the moment, its only a matter of time until other people get on this, because this is amazing and wont remain a secret for much longer. I had no idea that loads of people were already doing this, I just hadnt heard of them! I wasnt at the forefront at all, I was one of the last to get into it! Ultravox were on their third album! So when I went out and tried to find people who were doing this I was horrified with how many people I found!
Luckliy, I made another album soon after – which had Are Friends Electric on it, and I was the first one (electronic album) to become really successful. I read lots of interviews with people like Andy Mcluskey from OMD who were absolutely outraged! Id come along right at the end of it and now people were talking about me being the person that made it. Me having this succes with something theyd been doing for a couple of years. So, Ive always been very aware of that and Ive always been at great pains to point out over the years that although I get a lot of credit for starting the electronic thing, I absolutely was not the first person to be doing it. I was very lucky, I just came in and did all the right things to succeed with it – I was just very lucky really.
Ive read you talking about technology and a disinterest in retro fetishism, which makes perfect sense. Ive always thought of your music as futuristic – I know you write on the piano but what else are you using, technology wise, to produce music these days?
Ive got pro tools, a mac, spectra sonics, native instruments, all the latest software – virus keyboards. I don;t have that thing, I think for me electronic music was exciting because it was all about sounds that you hadnt heard before. I was more interested in sounds than I ever was in technique. For me its always been about sounds and atmosphere. It was always a very forward looking thing, and I saw it as not being experimental in the sense that Phillip Glass is and people like that, but none the less it was kind of the cutting edge of what was coming in modern music. So, Ive never lost that – its still the case for me. But electronic musics been around long enough now that it has its own retro, its own nostalgia and I find that a bit disconcerting to be honest. You now have people who are coming into electronic music who are referencing early electronic music as their source: Thats the thing theyre aiming to be. Thats almost the opposite to my whole reason for being in it – its not about recreating what weve done. It feels like youve gone backwards 35 years, and I get no excitement from that.
All the equipment I used in the old days, that people are now reverently talking about and trying to recreate – I sold it. Because Id done it. I got all the sounds out of it that I thought were good and then I got rid of it. Theyre like screwdrivers, synthesizers, theyre a tool. When you break one, or when youve done all you can with it – you get another one. People get really offended by my attitude, I dont mean to be dismissive but I dont give a fuck about all this analogue/digital – fucking timbuck tu as far as Im concerned. I dont really care what makes the noise, i just care about the noise itself. I have spent a significant part of my life walking around places hitting things with sticks, with a tape a recorder, hitting metal staircases, dragging things across concrete floors, kicking things and seeing what noise it makes. Ive got a vast library of sounds from doing silly things like that, cos its just about the sounds. I spent a week once whispering words and noises into a microphone and them manipulating it to see what I could do with it. People get really hung up on: Is it analogue though? Who gives a fuck if its analogue or not?! Like its some kind of holy grail or purity. Fuck off man, go and slam a fucking door and record it! Stick it into your machine and see what you can do with it – because itll be every bit as relevant and arguably as useful as going back to an analogue synth. Its all a bit of a nonsense, i think people lose sight of the inventiveness of sound. What youre looking for is sounds you havent heard before, go out and create them any way you can.
Has being based in LA had an influence on your music – something about your music is undeniably other worldly – but also, somehow very British – in its darkness, its palette. Have you felt the LA sunshine creeping in and do you subcribe to the idea that your surroundings effect your art?
No, not at all. Not even a tiny scrap. So Im living proof that the theory is bollox actually! For me, the creative part of my brain is in a very specific place – a very dark corner and the things that ignite that part of my brain are very specific, too. Ive never written a happy song in my life, yet for large parts of my life Ive been very happy. Ive had lots of success, Ive been very happily married – Ive been with my wife for 21 years now. I love being here in LA, very, very happy. Half the album was written here but yet the album is still pretty dark, and I think thats because the place it all comes from is this little dark corner. It doesnt really matter where I am, who Im with or how happy life is, the things that I find interesting to write about always tend to be dark.
Youve said you had a sort of mid life crisis during the making of the new album, I know it took some time to finish – was the lack of musical output part of the crisis and, if so, do you feel like its completion has in some way put that phase of your life to rest?
Its been 7 years since the last one, but Ive spent about 2 years on this one. Lazy as fuck for five years!
No, some of it was(music related), some of it wasnt – erm, the crisis luckily was largely over, finished by the time I started the album. Me and my wife had three children fairly quickly, my wife had post natal depression really badly, she was in a terrible state for several years and my mid life crisis, it wasnt shagging young women it was that I was terrified of dying. A crisis in the other direction! I was on anti-depressants, we both really struggled with suddenly having a young family, we went from no children to three children in a short space of time and I really didnt adapt to it well. I love them to bits, but I missed my old life and I felt guilty, struggling with it. The thought of starting an album in the middle of all that – me and my wife had real problems for a bit – we were hating each other, hating ourselves. It was messy as fuck. I find albums challenging things – I find each one harder than the one before. I kept putting the album off, I couldnt face it. I put it off for years. Id do little bits and pieces but I never really got stuck into it. It was the last year and a half that I got going with it. In the middle of it all of course we emigrated to America, which didnt really help. So, most of the album actually feels quite recent to me – none the less, all of the songs on it go back to the problems of the last few years. Im writing a book – the never starting story Im calling it, because I never fucking start it, I just write notes! Ive got thousands of pages of notes and some of those drifts into songs.
Is the new album a meditation on the difficult times of the last few years?
Theres a song on the album called Lost which was instrumental in keeping our marriage together. I was thinking about leaving, because Im a coward and I was going to run away, and I went out and started to write down what life would be like without her if I left. It made me realize what a stupid thing I was about to do, so that was probably one of the most important songs Ive ever written. When you write something you think very deeply about it, you have to. I came in from writing that song and I came in to my wife, gave her a big hug, apologised to her and started fixing things and it made a massive difference. I wonder, if I hadnt done that, what stupid things I might have done…..
And with that our time is up: the skype connection makes that bloop sound, Gary goes back to recording slamming doors and I down the tepid remains of my PG Tips while staring ashamedly at my analogue synth in the corner of the room.
Gary Numan’s new LP Splinter: Songs from a Fractured Mind is out on Numan’s own Machine Music label on October 15th. Pre order it here.