Thirty-six years down the road, Gary Numan is still the proverbial square peg, resolutely resistant to the music industry’s trade in round holes. From his era-defining The Pleasure Principle to October’s upcoming twentieth full-length LP Splinter, Numan has proved an innovator and survivor, traversing punk, synth-pop, funk, dark-wave and industrial, and creating a legacy that’s influenced everyone from Nine Inch Nails and Battles to Little Boots and Afrika Bambaataa.
Ahead of his gig at Leamington Assembly on Friday 7th June, Chris Sharpe caught up with Numan, discussing everything from plans for the year ahead, to artistic identity, self-doubt, and the source of one of British music’s greatest outlier’s longevity.
CTS: Hi there!
GN: Alright mate, how you doing?
CTS: Not too bad, how are you, how’s everything going with the new record?
GN: Yeah very good thanks, got back to England on Tuesday and headed up to Nottingham where Ade Fenton whose producing the record is based. Yesterday and today has been spent going over the final mixes and just making any last minute changes we want to make, just the eleventh hour final run-through of everything. Then tomorrow we drive down to London and have the mastering session tomorrow, so it’s a pretty important part of the process
CTS: It’s been quite a long-gestating process with the Splinter LP, you’ve now got a confirmed release date in October and as you say you’re mixing and mastering this week, but you’ve been working on this about… four years?
GN: It’s been about seven years actually, since an album proper came out. It’s not been seven years fully on it; I’ve had long periods of not doing anything at all on it with spurts of working really, really hard on it for months. My work-ethic has not been quite as consistent as it could have been to tell the truth!
Lots of other things going on, I emigrated obviously and moved to America, third baby came along, so a number of quite major things have happened within that seven years that has distracted me and taken me into other things, but nonetheless it feels like it’s been a huge project, and I’m pleased it’s nearly finished.
It’s nice to have a new full album ready to go, we had one about two years ago called Dead Son Rising but it wasn’t really the full-on studio follow-up that Splinter is. It was almost a side-project, which Ade and I worked on it together, but this is the next-album proper to the last one Jagged.
CTS: Dead Son Rising, you released it almost as a compilation of things you’ve been working on during that time [between Jagged and Splinter], which is a testament to that fact there’s been so much else going on. Especially after all of that, but it must be a relief to have a full on, cohesive…you know, an album.
GN: Dead Son Rising certainly started out as a collection of songs that we just hadn’t used, mainly from the previous two albums. When I started talking about it I was slightly dismissive of it, you know Splinter was taking a long time and this was almost filler album. But in truth it actually didn’t turn out like that, we wrote a lot of new songs for them, the things that were taken off the shelf were changed very dramatically, and in the main they had very little to do with the original songs.
It ended up being much more of a genuine album than I’ve been talking about, I did it a disservice really in the way I presented it to people. We didn’t have plans to release it around the world, we aimed to put it out to the British fans as a bit of stop-gap measure, and I think I didn’t really do right by it, I do think it’s a really good album, and we should have put more effort into it basically than we did, looking back on it I should have been a lot more confident about it. So hopefully with Splinter we can make up for some of the mistakes I’ve made on Dead Son Rising.
CTS: In doing my research for this, I’ve discovered just how frank and candid you are about things like this, your back catalogue, the records and things that inspire you, and you’re particularly condemning of what you term your “middle years”. Do you sometimes regret being hard on your earlier work, as just now with Dead Son Rising, or is that self-criticism sort of a big spur for you to carry on and work even harder on your music?
GN: I’ve been kind of cursed with a lack of confidence from the day I was born – certainly when it comes to music – even now with this one I’m thinking “ahh shit, wish I’d have sung that better, wish I’d sung a better melody than that one”, it’s almost unavoidable really.
The good thing about that is, that you’re constantly checking and double-checking and trying to make it better. You know you’re not easily satisfied with things, I think not being particularly confident, I know it’s a bit of a pain sometimes, if not most of the time, but it does drive you on, it doesn’t mean that you listen to something and think: “oh that’ll do”, you listen and you think “no, no it won’t do, must be something better I can do with that”.
It doesn’t mean that I’m going to write great songs because you’re limited by your own talent… or lack of! It does mean though, that you do get the best out of what you can do. On the other hand, I wonder how much stuff I’ve erased over the years that was actually pretty good because of the lack of confidence thing. It’s kind of a double-edged sword, it can work in a positive way but it can be pretty destructive really.
CTS: You’ve been in the music business for over 35 years now, and whilst in a very early interview I read, you suggested that you couldn’t imagine yourself being in music for much longer than a few years, but obviously it’s become something that you can’t really live without. What do you think has been the spur for that: is it that converse lack of confidence/wanting to make things better that has been a cause of your longevity, pushing you through difficult time-periods and into different areas and wanting to achieve new things?
GN: I think, one of the main reasons I’ve been going a lot longer than I expected to is because of, to put it very simply, I’ve been able to. When I first started, most people, even people who were kind of in favour of what I was doing, were still saying you’ve probably got about two or three years – make the most of it.
As a young man, I didn’t certainly, you don’t really think much beyond thirty… I had lots of plans in the early part of my 20s, big ambitions [Numan is a highly accomplished air display pilot, and professed plans to start a WWII nostalgia-trip tour company].
I couldn’t really imagine what life would be like at thirty, when you were that old. It comes and goes and you find that you love music as much as you ever did, and you don’t want it to stop. You still want things you want to achieve, there’s a lot more music in you.
I think some people they get to a certain point in their career and they either lose interest or run out of that desire to experiment, an awful lot of people that are around along time tend to kind of bland out, go MOR. And I’ve kind of gone the opposite way, over the last kind of 10-15 years the music has got heavier and heavier, darker and darker, less and less radio-friendly. From a commercial point of view I’m doing everything wrong!
I think it’s because I’ve still got, that passion for it, that drive for it, and I still want to keep coming up things with new things, I’m not happy to sit back on back-catalogue and past-glories… quite the opposite I do very few old songs now, when we go out live, I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder about retro and nostalgia and anything I’ve kind of done has to be yesterday’s news, and I’m not interested in it, so my attitude to it has pushed me on to keep doing new things and new things musically all the time, where most other people go the other way and do “Greatest Hits” tours and that kind of thing, and they seem to be happy re-living their “golden moments”.
I’m not, I have no interest in that whatsoever, and that’s what keeps you going, the drive to want to keep doing better albums, it’s just something that’s there, can’t get rid of it.
CTS: When you do, do old material it has changed, metamorphosed so much. When you think of songs like ‘Are Friends Electric?’ and that very original, but very vintage Moog line… I saw that performance you did with Little Boots a few years back, and it’s just huge, the pianos are there instead and it’s gorgeous and it’s industrial mixed with the sort of balladic.
GN: Yeah it’s changed a lot.
CTS: By doing that with your work, it’s almost brought your audience with you. You’re not denying the past, but you’re bringing it together with your newer material in one encompassing entity. Is that something that you’re aiming for with the show in Leamington Spa on the 7th? As a sort of a one-off event, is the idea – before the album and festival season… – to touch-base with older fans, or to showcase the new album?
GN: We’re going to play some of the new songs at Leamington, obviously we’re doing a big, big tour in November, and this is a good way of getting reaction to it, to find out what songs are working and what songs are not working quite so well, which of the older songs we’ll mix in with the new stuff.
Some of it will work better than others, we’re having a kind of educated guess of what’ll work on tour in November, Leamington will be kind of a test-bed for it. We might find that: a particular song, that we thought would work well with Splinter material might not work as well as we’d hoped – it might sound too dated or it might just have the wrong feel for it.
So in a way it’s a brief test for what’s to come in November, musically at least, light-show wise it’s going to be very different, we’ll be able to sort of gage from that any, any changes that we need to make.
CTS: Why did you pick Leamington particularly for this kind of show, I believe you played here on the Dead Son Rising tour, so is that a kind of conscious decision to get off the beaten-track of the tour circuit (instead of being in say, Birmingham) in order to reach people in a different place, or is it just a case of finding the right venue for the show?
GN: We played there before and we just really liked it. We were looking for somewhere kind of in the middle, we’re doing a show the next day in Brixton, like an electronic music festival [The Playground Festival featuring the likes of Squarepusher, Kavinsky and Lapalux]. So we didn’t want to go to London with this particular show, and it was just ideal really for quite a few reasons. It’s a good size, it’s a lovely building actually, really cool.
CTS: You’ve previously mentioned ‘A Prayer for the Unborn’ is one of the favourite songs you’ve ever made, and I’d be inclined to agree, I think Pure is one your most powerful, visceral albums… if that songs in the Top 3, what would the other two be at the moment?
GN: Oh god that’s such a hard one, because I’ve done about… 400 of them, I can only remember a fraction! ‘A Pray for the Unborn’ is a big favourite, a song called ‘Pure’ actually off the same album is another favourite, still do that live. The title-track from Jagged, I love ‘Jagged’, that’s one of my favourites to do live. I would properly pick those three actually, not ‘Are Friends Electric?’ or ‘Cars’.
For me the early songs, the big Number 1s, they have fantastic memories because of what they did and how successful they’ve been over the years, but in terms of the actual pieces of music you’re proud of – if you take how many they sold etc. out of the equation – if you take those aside and just look at them as a piece of music I wouldn’t choose those. They wouldn’t be in the Top 3, they wouldn’t even really be in the Top 10… I just think as the years have gone by, I’ve written better things that are more exciting to play and more dynamic.
CTS: With that I supposed in terms of song-writing, the kind of very electronic field of music within which you’re based, that’s changed so much over the course of your career in terms of production and creative technology that you’ve grown with that.
GN: Yeah definitely.
CTS: That ability to be inspired and bolstered by that ever-expanding scope, seems to be reflected in the clips of upcoming tracks from Splinter that you’ve put on Soundcloud – ‘I Am Dust’ and ‘We’re The Unforgiven’. They’re really crisply produced, the electronic programming is meaty, and the outcome is that you’ve managed to channel a real punk-rock energy through an electronic sphere. Are those soundscapes a really good representation of what has been attained on Splinter?
GN: The clips on Soundcloud are a pretty good representation of where it’s gone. I had intended for it to be just one massive riff after another, I had fairly one-dimensional kind of ambition for it to be honest which was pretty stupid really!
I just wanted it to be huge and anthemic and so on, and then we did Dead Son Rising, which isn’t like that at all. I really enjoyed the variation that was on that album, I started to think that this one monster riff wasn’t the right way to go with Splinter. So I started to write a lot of things that were quite different, there are things on the album that haven’t gone on Soundcloud yet, so it’s actually a lot more varied in terms of tempo, feel, and fullness actually from a production point of view than the Soundcloud samples are giving. But they definitely give a good idea of what a large chunk of the album is like.
CTS: I look forward to getting my mitts on it! Thank you very much for your time Gary, good luck with the show and the rest of the year too, it sounds like it’s going to be a big one with the tour and the much anticipated Splinter.
GN: Thank you very much!
Gary Numan will be playing Leamington Spa Assembly on Friday 7 June. Tickets available via: http://www.seetickets.com/event/gary-numan/the-assembly/702348