Interview: Gary Numan

In Conversation with Gary Numan

My phone rings, I answer and the voice on the other end is asking if I'd be interested in an interview with Gary Numan. Is the Pope Catholic or the sky blue (sometimes)? Well with memories of Gary performing on Top of the Pops in 1979, a reminder brought to me thanks to the BBC's 'I Love the Seventies' still fresh in my mind from a few weeks ago, I don't care if friends taunt me about my musical taste at times, this was a childhood memory brought to life. I almost snapped his hand off, but the phone got in the way, ummm, blueberry. So we arrive at the day and time arranged and I prepare to call the reborn dark prince of techno.

Already inscribed into music's history books and once even described as 'one of the founding fathers of techno', I asked Gary how it was that after 24 years and 17 studio albums, he had managed to 'stay fresh' and reinvent yourself at every turn, rather than turning into another pub band like Status Quo?

So what's it all about? Well following the recent release of Gary's album, Pure, the 17th studio album in a career that has crossed 4 decades, he is doing the rounds. His last release was the album Exile, an album that although containing the words of one pissed 40 year old, is still very Gary Numan in musical content. 'Pure' is an album I would liken as going on a day trip with Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson in the back seats, the kids fighting as we get stuck on the M4, whilst journeying to the South Wales Coast. Why? I'm unsure, but we couldn't afford the flight.

"I think, er, well it's hard to say actually. I think I've tried to at every turn, but I've failed dismally, often."

You think so?

"Yeah, I think so. Some of the directions I went in were misguided, to put it mildly, but I was trying at least to go into different areas, but like I say, some of them worked and some of them didn't. I think where I am at the moment is my most successful."

Is this where you feel most comfortable?

"Absolutely, without a doubt. I've done three albums, the new album is the third since I went into a darker, heavier direction and I'm very comfortable here. I like what I'm doing, I like what I'm writing, I like the whole thing. So really it's as much as anything my own, I get bored. People talk to me all the time you know, like why don't you go back and do a new version of 'Our Friends Electric'. I say, well why the fuck would I want to? Let someone else do a new version of 'Our Friends Electric', and that's kind of the way I am. When I've done it, I've done it. It's not a hard and fast rule, I don't mean that at all, but generally I tend to do something and move onto the next thing and see where that goes and then move onto the one after that. It's in my nature really, it's never been an attempt to reinvent myself, I'll just drift along and drift from side to side, picking up things along the way really."

It's in this sense that you appear to be continually moving forward, rather than looking back.

"Yeah, I think I sometimes move sideways (laughter ensues), but I'm always moving anyway."

Throughout his career Gary has been referred to by many terms, some nice, some not so nice. I wanted to discover if there were any of these that Gary had identified with during this time?

"I don't remember much of it at all, the only thing I really remember that sticks in my mind, is that Paula Yates called me 'a fat white grub', dunno why that sticks in my mind, 'cos I'm as skinny as a beanpole! But otherwise, none of it. It goes in and it comes out of my backside."

I've read that you were once described as a 'whey faced synthesizer wizard'...

"Have I? (fits of laughter)"

I just wondered if any of these terms that had been attributed to you have stuck in your mind?

"No, no, there have been things I've read that I've thought, 'oh that's nice', there are also things I've read that I've thought, 'umm, that's not very nice'. But I don't dwell on it at all, I don't store it, I don't store the good or the bad, because it's just someone's opinion, if you're going to dismiss one, you've got to dismiss them all, don't dismiss, but don't take too much to heart. You have to; you have to gloss over it. You must be the boat sitting on the water and all this stuff that's going on are the sharks swimming underneath, providing you stay on your boat, and providing you don't look down too often, it doesn't make that much difference to anything, really. But it can make a huge difference to me, or to you, to the artist concerned, if you let it and you have to do whatever you can do to stop it bothering you. It's a self-survival thing and I know a lot of people who don't learn it. I know people who have bad press, a friend of mine's having a bad time at the moment, but reads everything! I say don't fucking read it! If it's going to bother you, if you know they're going to say something bad, don't read it. It will annoy you, it will upset you, it will make you miserable, it will shatter your confidence when you go into the studio and you'll have to soon, so don't read it."

And your relationship with the press?

"I must say that my relationship with the press in general, in this country, has changed beyond recognition. I started socialising more, I actually got to know a lot of the press personally now."

You were always seen as very detached.

"Yeah, I was very reclusive, I kept well out of all of it, but that was a mistake I think, really. Since I've been going out more, socialising amongst it, I've actually found a lot of people in the press all right actually. I think it's one of those things, where if you're out amongst it and if you're meeting people face to face, then an awful lot of things that started out being petty little rumors don't ever develop. Because they see your face, you talk to them and perhaps realise that you're not quite the wanker that they thought you were, or perhaps you don't take your music as seriously as they think you do. I always used to get allot of stick 'cos I was always on all of my own covers, well it's my album, you know, I'll be on the cover if I want! If you don't want to be on your album cover, then go and make one and don't be on it! There's an awful lot of stick that I thought was petty, but also I have to be honest, some of the things that were said about me, were, with the benefit of hindsight, right. So some of the criticism was justified, I have to accept that and that is the same for every body."

Gary Numan, his music has become a key word in many artists closets, with the likes of the early wave of electronica, Human League, Depeche Mode, OMD to name a few from the early 80's, to the likes of Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson and a host of today's alternative stars. How do you explain this mammoth influence you have had across the world and almost 2 generations?

"Bizarre 'in'it?"

Is it strange when you look at it that way?

"Oh man yeah, it really is. I sit here and struggle, worry and fret. I make myself feel ill, I walk to the studio and I feel physically sick, because I'm so worried whether I'm going to come up with anything or not. I've not always been quite as bad as that, but I'm quite aware of my own limitations and I've tried to do the best I can, for me. I've never seen it in terms as writing anything influential for anybody else, or what anyone else, artist wise at least, is going to think of it. I've always been into trying to self improve, 'cos I'm always aware of my own limitations and so it's just a very weird thing. I could never come close to trying to explain how I've had such an impact, such an influence. These are very clever people, these are not rubbish people, these are very influential in their own right. So that I could be an influence on anybody, I'm proud of, the fact it is people like Reznor and Corgan, and the fact it's across such a wide range of musical styles, it's across the board..."

You've had dance mixes made of your songs?

"Yeah, I've read things that have talked about me as being one of the founding fathers of techno. I did an interview with Africa Bambaataa, who said he based his whole hip-hop thing on me and Kraftwerk and early European music from the 70's. So to be an influence on people, who in their own careers have been influential as well, is just amazing. It's all a bit...do you know something, it's such a big thing, I can't really take it in, that's the truth of it. I'm just blown away by it. This is the first album I've made since all of this really kicked in. I see this as a very pivotal album, it's the one that's either going to see me on, or it's going to finish me off. Now for the first time in years, people are waiting for it and you will be judged (nervous laughter) on this one. They've ignored the past half a dozen or more, but this one will be judged and luckily it's been judged well. We've had, I think 10 or so major reviews and 8 of them have been brilliant, 1 of them's been shit and 1 of them's been average."

Do you read your press?

"I only read it if people tell me it's all right, I don't read anything first hand at all."

When writing songs like 'Our Friends Electric' and 'Cars', which have stayed the test of time so well, did you ever consider that you were 'painting such a master piece'?

 

"No, no. You see 'Our Friends Electric' was 2 songs stuck together, because I didn't know how to finish either of them. (runs through the tune - doesn't translate though unfortunately), one day I hit a wrong note and I thought 'oh, that sounds better', but it was a wrong note 'cos I can't play very well. My whole career goes back to 'Our Friends Electric', and it was two songs I couldn't finish off, so I stuck them together, and I played a wrong note! So there you have success based on a total lack of ability. And then you've got 'Cars'. I went out to buy a bass guitar. I sat down at home, got it out of the case and the very first thing I played was (another musical tune - again translation is lost, but you know the one), I thought, oh that sounds all right and 10 minutes later I'd written the song. 5 minutes after that I'd written the lyrics, because they're as easy as you can come across. So in 15 minutes I've written a song that has become one of the biggest songs in history (laughs hysterically), it's just luck."

Something you'd never imagine in a million years?

"Yeah, you know that they say, if you put twelve monkeys in a room, sooner or later they're going to write the works of Shakespeare. Well that's true because it happened to me. I didn't write Shakespeare, but I wrote 'Cars' and I can't play for love 'nor money, and there you go you're an influence! God, are you sure? I can't believe how I've stumbled through my musical life and it ended up being considered influential, it's just funny."

Now sadly, perhaps the thing that has not shadowed, but certainly is the specter in the back of my mind, are recalling the news reports regarding Gary's flying career. Accident after, that I remember, incident. Now I asked how true these reports had been? And had he really been arrested in India, picked up as a suspected spy, and how had these occurrences effected the artist we see today?

"Well first of all quite allot of them hadn't happened actually. On the flying thing I've only been in one accident, and the plane was being flown by a professional pilot. So I've never been at the controls of an aeroplane that has been in an accident, I've only been in one crash ever and that was one that someone else was flying, when the aeroplane broke down. But I did become a display pilot, I've been an air display pilot since '83, I teach low level aerobatics and I'm an examiner for people who want to become display pilots in military aeroplanes. I got quite good at that, I'm only one of two civilian instructors that are allowed to teach at this special school."

How do your pupils find this?

"Most of the people that are into aeroplanes and wanting to learn this very advanced level of flying, know of me anyway. I'm not tooting my trumpet, but I've been one of the most famous display pilots in this country for one and a half decades now, so they all know me. In fact some people know me more from that, than they do from music. There have been periods of time that I've only done flying interviews and flying programs and when the music was sliding down, people didn't even know I was making music, so allot of people thought I'd gone into flying full time, so not a great surprise to most people. I did get arrested for the suspicion of smuggling and spying in India. I got arrested for something? Oh yeah, I got arrested for absconding from bail, argh bollocks."

No Gary, that was just carelessness.

"(chuckles) Something stupid."

No, honest I put it in the wrong page in my diary.

"What! It's almost true. My lawyer rang up and said I've applied for a cancellation for you, 'cos I was recording so you don't need to go. But he didn't get it, he applied for a postponement, but he wasn't granted and he didn't tell me. So he gets to court and stands up and says, well he's not here, but this is why, I told him not to come, it's entirely my fault and took all the rap for it. But the prosecution stood up and said, 'Gary Numan has shown a cavalier attitude to British justice' and they f**king arrested me again! I said why? I had to go to the police station and the Sargent comes out and meets me in the car park and officially arrests me again for absconding from bail, you know it's just, utter bollocks."

In a way there, the press were your judge and jury?

"Yeah (smirks). No there've been times when they've been really helpful, I've no bitter axe to grind at all, I really don't. I know I've had a hard time with them often and often got unnecessarily so, but I had some good times as well. I've got no big problem. But there are people who are not going to like me because they just don't like the record and there're people who are not going to like me, 'cos they just...don't like me! (laughs) And they'll get to me by slagging the record, I understand that because people are people, we've all got our little hang-ups, bitterness and things to get over. And sometimes we take it out on other people, people that represent something that we are opposed to, we will use someway of getting at them, indirectly or directly. I don't have a problem, that's why I don't have a problem with the NME, I understand what's going on (chuckles). But to answer your question, yes these things do shape you very, very much and what you are. The way you see the world. The way you react to it. The way you find out about yourself I think as you go through life, shapes more and more the way you see yourself.

I've never been a fighting, drinking sort of bloke, but I've always been aware of that, I've always felt a little bit cowardly because I don't beat people up, and 'nor do I think you should. But in the back of my Neanderthal background, there is a bit of me that says, 'you should really sick up for yourself and punch somebody if they say something', but I'm really not that way. So when I flew around the World and we had some very, very serious moments, double engine failure as we flew over the Pacific at night, you are convinced you are dying, there is nothing that can happen, but by some miracle it gets sorted out. Quite allot of that happens and you find how you react is a pleasant surprise. You're calm, you're not crying, you're not gibbering into your bib. You're very manly and you get on with it, and you cope in what is a very, very terrifying situation. And when you come back from that, you think 'who gives a f**k whether I don't fight, but I've shown more bravery in one second on that trip than half of these drunken arseholes have in their entire lives'. And you begin to build up your own self esteem for your own reasons and your own values, so the older you get the more comfortable you become with yourself, if you like what you find. Maybe you don't like you and you don't become comfortable, but I'm all right with me. I'm not the nicest person in the World, although Gemma's (Gary's wife) helping me enormously to become better. And I'm not patient, and I'm not tolerant of idiots and they're allot of things about me that are aggressive and blunt and could be improved, but basically I'm alright with me, I understand my problems and I work around them. But in general I'm all right, I think I've shown perseverance, dedication and loyalty to friends and courage when needed. So I'm very comfortable with how I've ended up."

That seems a fitting note on which to leave this delve into Gary Numan, the man and his music. Only remaining to say that his new album, Pure, is currently on release and in my opinion is some of his best work and on his play list at present are new albums from bands Def Tones and Sunner. So do yourself a huge favour and check out all three.

Nick James.

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