Gary Numan

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Interview by Mark Bayross

July 2001: What kind of an introduction does Gary Numan need? Although he refuses to take credit for it, he is the man who single-handedly invented an entire genre of music by crafting pop songs from electronic sounds. He had two consecutive number ones, with CARS (one of the biggest-selling songs of all time) and ARE FRIENDS ELECTRIC?, before going on to release over 25 albums, all of which entered the Top 75, and five of which went to number one.

Recently the likes of Billy Corgan, Liam Howlett and Trent Reznor have testified to the huge influence of his music on their work, while covers and collaborations with Fear Factory and Marilyn Manson have helped bring him a new audience. Now, Nine Inch Nails are about to include a cover of Numan’s “Metal” on their forthcoming remix album and, best of all, he has released PURE, a new album of startling creativity and power.

PURE is an incredible, dark, strong album – what inspired you to write it?

It is really just a continuation of the previous two. I did an album in 1994 called SACRIFICE which itself was a darker and heavier reaction to a really bad album I’d done before called MACHINE AND SOUL. Basically I’d run out of money, I’d run out of ideas, my private life was shit and I was listening to the wrong advice. That album [“Machine and Soul”] was a watered down piece of shit. My creativity was at an all-time low, I was selling no records…

Then I met Gemma, who is now my wife, and she encouraged me to look at myself, look at what I was doing. I mean, I know I can’t sing well, I can’t play guitar or keyboards well either, but she taught me not to be embarrassed about that. She showed me that I have a certain style. She encouraged me to stop worrying about success and to start enjoying myself again. And out of that came SACRIFICE – I really enjoyed making it, and it was a very non-commercial album, but I had regained the way I used to feel. I felt like I was starting out again, in fact I was selling no records at the time, so I kind of was starting again [laughs]. So I stumbled back across a road I should have been on all my career. Then with the next record after that, EXILE, I got a recording contract. I toured America and Europe for the first time in years. EXILE sold four or five times as much as SACRIFICE, which itself sold four or five times as much as the record before it – I was on an upward curve.

Then, in America, I started going to a lot of industrial clubs, hanging out with Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor. I love that sound – it’s so much more dynamic, the way its put together; I knew it was what I should have been doing. Fortunately, the record company let me do it.

How long did the record take to make?

Well, it took me two years to get all those sounds out of my fucking head! [laughs] But I am very happy with it – it’s the sound that I had in my head. I know it won’t get daytime Radio One airplay, but as far as I’m concerned the success is more about the quality of the music than whether it goes Top 40. I mean, Fear Factory can sell out Brixton Academy and you don’t hear them on commercial radio… We did a show at the Brixton Academy last Friday and there, many of the audience jumping around were hardly even born when I was first in the charts…many of them weren’t even embryos… I seem to be of interest to a whole new audience, which is great.

Are any of the songs on the album particularly personal?

Yes, three of them. There’s a song on the album called ONE PERFECT LIE – two weeks into recording the album, my old Alsatian died. She had got ill and we couldn’t fix her, so we had to put her to sleep. We decided to end it for her before she began suffering, so she at least died happy. Then my nan died. Then one of my closest friends from my aviation circle was killed in an accident. Then we had a baby that died – there are two songs about that: MY LITTLE INVITRIO and PRAYER FOR THE UNBORN, although that’s mainly just me raging at God. There’s also a song called “Torn” which is about people who are into auto-asphyxiation. I was introduced to this woman who gets turned on by being beaten up by gangs of people – I mean how mad is that? Someone who is prepared to risk their life, to die in the pursuit of the ultimate orgasm…

Did you ever think you would end up knowing people like that when you started in this business?

Well, it’s no great surprise. I used to know heroin addicts when I was a teenager. I mean, music produces extreme reactions in people. I remember when I was 19 or 20 playing in a punk band, one night I was locked in a room with a huge gangster who wanted to fuck me up the arse because he thought I would do anything to play in his club. That scared the shit out of me!

I’m not surprised…

I didn’t want the gig that badly…[laughs]

You know one pretty high profile weirdo, though – Marilyn Manson. Is he really anything like the persona he has created for himself?

It’s difficult to say really. I don’t know him that well. Whenever I’ve been around him, he’s been pretty normal. He’s always entertaining. But I’m not sure his image is fake – I think he really means it. That guy’s covered in cuts all over his fucking body. He’s like any performer, really. I mean, I am a lot more…arrogant…on stage than I am the rest of the time. When I’m on stage, I can let out that side of my personality. I guess he’s the same.

Do you think the media will ever tire of vilifying people like him?

I don’t see the point of all that. It’s not like he’s doing anything too outrageous. Sure, he upsets a few religious minorities, but it’s been done before. Iggy (Pop) used to wind up the establishment ages ago – he’s a fascinating person. I think we’ll always have people like Marilyn Manson, and really, he’s not worthy of being vilified like he is. Blaming him for the Colombine tragedy was so fucking stupid, you know? If you’re going to blame him, then why not blame me? And if you’re going to blame me, blame Marc Bolan… It’s the media who make him into this figure, just so they can sell more papers. In fact, the media and Marilyn Manson are both doing the same thing – they are both trying to attract people’s attention, trying to draw us in.

But the media is only there for its own sake and will make things up just to get more readers or viewers. I mean, Jo Whiley, that lying fucking bitch, said I was a racist. When her series was finished, Heat magazine did a round-up and it said that I had a “close to racist rant about R & B”. That’s total crap. All I said was that R & B music had become a caricature of itself – you know, always the same hand signs in the videos, the same low camera angles – and it had absolutely nothing to do with skin colour. Fucking racist my arse! Then they had got Jo Whiley in the magazine saying that there was an “awkward silence” in the studio afterwards. That lying bitch! The guy from Gomez was agreeing with me, even Baby Spice agreed. Then they cut to a shot of my face looking all mean and angry – basically they edited the programme to make me look like some kind of racist. I mean, for God’s sake, I had said earlier in the programme that the best record that week was the Maxim single, and that has Skin singing on it – and they’re both black!

Do you think its getting any easier to hear decent music in this country?

Well, I’ve got MTV2 and that seems to be getting better. They showed the Deftones last night and they sometimes show stuff like Marilyn Manson. But it is frustrating over here. Maybe releasing a dark and heavy album now is a bit stupid of me, but then there’s always America or Germany…

And you shouldn’t let the mediocrity of the current musical climate stop you. There are some promising trends here, though – have you been keeping an eye on the electronic scene here? Have you heard VNV Nation, for instance?

I met them at a festival we played together in Europe. Yeah, they seemed very nice. Would you put Inertia in that category? They’ve supported me and I think they’re pretty good. I try to keep track of different stuff.

You have said that, rather than creating a new genre of music, you opened a door for other bands. Which of these bands has most impressed you?

Nine Inch Nails, without a doubt. But also Depeche Mode. I think “Songs Of Faith And Devotion” is a work of genius. Getting rid of Alan Wilder has been their biggest mistake – his contribution to the band, especially on that album, was fantastic. The intricacies of the production, the grooves… “Ultra” didn’t quite have the same impact. Apparently they’re doing another one now. Who else?… Beck – what he does is quite innovative; Marilyn Manson… Deftones talk about the influence of eighties music on their sound. I’m not sure you can hear it that much, but it would be nice to think I had in some way influenced them.

Have you heard Nine Inch Nails’ cover of METAL on their new remix album?

Yes, Trent played it to me in 1998! I don’t know if the version he’s releasing will be the same, but what I heard was incredible. I’m flattered he’s done it at all. That man has so much creativity it’s frightening. I mean, where I have, like, three ideas, he has 103! His approach to things is so…complete. I’m very proud he’s chosen to cover one of my songs.

How many albums have you released? Over 25 is it?

Let’s see… 18 studio albums, lots of live albums and compilations… I must have done 20 or 30.

…Are you sick of just hearing about CARS and ARE FRIENDS ELECTRIC?

[much laughter] It’s been funny…I suppose those last two, yes. I am very proud of them and I’m glad they keep on doing things, but it is hard to move out of their shadows. People think I’m just about those two songs. I turned down the “Big Breakfast” three times because they wanted me to go on and sing ARE FRIENDS ELECTRIC? with Zoe Ball or something. It’s bad enough being seen as an eighties act, without having to do things like that. The funny thing is, both those songs were originally successful in the seventies, but everyone sees me an eighties act. I am a bit paranoid about it – I need to establish that I am a valid, current act now. That’s why I said no to those retro tours that were being set up – I mean I was flattered to be asked, but it’s the kiss of death, to be seen as some kind of nostalgia act. I’m very proud of my back catalogue – CARS has been amazingly successful – it has charted in four decades – but this new album is where I’m going, it’s what I want to be doing. It seems I’ve been accepted again, I’ve made a record that’s viable – the music’s good and it’s been well received by almost everyone.

Will the next album take a bit longer or can we expect a quick follow-up to PURE?

I’ll start writing the next one when I get back from Europe, some time around the end of November, although I’ll only get a couple of months to myself, and then I start touring Britain and America until May. This is the problem really – what do I do? A bunch of festivals? A tour? Go to the Far East, or to the US again? I know I need to keep up momentum now, and touring will help that, but it’s almost impossible to write new songs when you’re on a tour bus. I need to get another album out by the beginning of 2002, so that I can capitalise on the situation I’m in now.

Well, I hope Gary does capitalise on his new-found re-acceptance at the musical cutting edge. While the timelessness of his early classics has been emphasised by numerous covers and re-releases, not to mention the number of Gary Numan tribute bands out there, he is, as he says, still very much a contemporary musician.

PURE is a remarkable re-affirmation of his talent in these Manson-dominated times, and I can’t wait to hear what the follow-up sounds like, whenever he can find the time to write it between tours. In the meantime, go and see Gary on tour. Just don’t shout for CARS all evening.