Gary Numan on the vagaries of musical fashion and doing it all in the box

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It’s fair to say that Gary Numan doesn’t write many ‘upbeat’ tunes. The electronic legend’s breakthrough album, 1979’s Replicas, depicted a cold, dark world of isolation and unhappy androids. Follow-up albums featured paranoia, atheism and yet more isolation. 

While recording 2013’s Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind), Numan was plagued by depression and wrote about the effect it was having on his family. 

“Thankfully, I beat the depression,” says the smiling 58-year-old, adjusting himself on a comfy armchair in a West London hotel. “And I have to say that life is great. I’m enjoying living in LA [he moved there in 2012]. I’ve got a wonderful family. Splinter had some great reviews and I’ve recently signed a record deal with BMG, who are really excited about the new album.”

Ah, the new album. Presumably, with life looking rather groovy, the songs feel a bit… lighter?

Let me stop you there. Numan’s 22nd album is called Savage (Songs from a Broken World). Track titles include Pray For The Pain You Serve and My Name Is Ruin. 

“People write about what affects them, and this album is about global warming. Initially, some of the ideas came from a novel I’m writing about a post-global warming world. That’s why I decided to film the video for My Name Is Ruin in the Californian desert. I was trying to say, ‘Look, this is what we’ll be left with. A wasteland… and temperatures of 46 degrees’.

“I don’t normally get up on my soapbox about stuff, but this is something that affects us all. Especially with Donald Trump in the White House! If the politicians don’t wake up, this really will be a broken world.

“Ha ha! But yes, even though life is being kind to me at the moment, I still struggle to write happy songs.”

Gary Numan’s unhappiness has served him well, fuelling his musical imagination for almost 40 years. Encouraged by the anger and energy of punk, the teenage Numan picked up a guitar and formed a band, but very quickly discovered something far more interesting than a Gibson Les Paul: a Minimoog. 

Barely a year later, he’d introduced electronic music to the masses with tracks like Are ‘Friends’ Electric?, Cars, and a trio of Number One albums. The music press hated him and his bloody synthesisers, but Numan has been namechecked by everyone from Liam Howlett and Trent Reznor to Beck and Damon Albarn.

Before you got your hands on that Minimoog, did you have any interest in electronic music? Had you been listening to Bowie, Roxy Music, Kraftwerk and the like?

“I did have a couple of Kraftwerk albums, but it all sounded a bit too mechanical for me. Bowie’s Low album was the first time that I’d really been struck by the power of electronic music… tracks like Warszawa. There’s a grand, almost classical melancholia to those songs. That atmosphere hinted at something I was searching for, and I found it far more interesting than any of the punk stuff that was happening in the late 70s. 

“I didn’t know it at the time, but I suppose I was trying to combine that electronic thing with the spikiness of punk. And, as luck would have it, there was a Minimoog in the studio where I was working on an album of punky, guitar-based songs. I plugged it in and played a note. My God, what a wonderful sound!

“We’re now in an era where everyone is familiar with the synthesiser, but back in 1977 and 78, they were still something of a rarity. Almost like a novelty instrument that people used for making funny noises. To actually have one in my hands and to be able to feel the power of that sound was… well, it changed my life. 

“My first thought was, ‘What if I transfer my basic guitar riffs to the Minimoog?’ Instead of going, ‘chug-chug’ with barre chords, I played ‘dum-dum’ on the Moog. It sounded fucking brilliant! Completely by accident, I found what I was looking for.”

My first thought was, ‘What if I transfer my basic guitar riffs to the Minimoog?’ Instead of going, ‘chug-chug’ with barre chords, I played ‘dum-dum’ on the Moog. It sounded fucking brilliant!

The main riffs for Are ‘Friends’ Electric? or Cars could have been played on a guitar, but it just wouldn’t have sounded the same.

“Exactly! There was this sense of menace and drama that seemed to be built into a synth… a simple riff became much more than just a collection of notes. And that was perfect for me, because I wasn’t a particularly good musician. 

“Even though punk was happening, there was still this idea that ‘songwriting’ was something special. You had loads of musicians who were writing stuff with all these tricky chords and million-note solos, but with a synth, you didn’t need to do any of that. I remember being interviewed in those early days and saying something like, ‘Why play a million notes when one note will do?’ With the Moog, you could literally take a single note and it could be an ever-changing, unfolding masterpiece. 

“Is there another instrument that will do that? Of course, if you put a guitar in the hands of a master musician, he can do that, but the beauty of a synth is that anybody can play it and anyone can make an interesting sound with it. The knobs and sliders are right there in front of you… it’s almost daring you to have a go.”

Despite the success and the revolutionary sound, the press didn’t take kindly to you, did they? 

“I was young, and I’ll admit that I did have a big mouth, but I don’t think I did or said anything that deserved that level of… they just seemed to enjoy having a pop at me. They had a go at me for looking miserable on Top of the Pops. I was nervous! I wore makeup cos I had acne!

“And they were always having a go at the music. When things were going well, that didn’t bother me so much, but most artists have a cycle of popularity and when my sales began to decline, they really started taking the piss. Is it a crime to try different directions and different musical themes?

“That constant criticism really knocked me back. Obviously, it didn’t help that, once we hit the 90s, my career was going down the toilet. It was a horrible time; a downward spiral. Musically, I was in a hole. There was a period of about two years where I never kept anything that I worked on. My confidence was so broken that I almost thought it was going to finish me off. I wondered if I was ever going to be able to write anything that people would want to hear. As far as I was concerned, the career was over. 

“Luckily, that coincided with a period of… let’s call in reappraisal. Suddenly, you had people like Trent Reznor saying nice things, people started being a bit kinder, and I felt I could stick my head above the parapet. 

“The strange thing is that I’ve never really fully recovered from that two-year depression and panic. As soon as one album’s finished, I start panicking about the next one. I start worrying if my career’s going to be OK. Will I ever write another decent song?”

Even after 22 albums? 

“The thing about being a songwriter is that it’s one of those disposable talents. It’s a fairly common ability. Look around you and look on the internet; songwriters are ten a penny. And a lot of them are great, great songwriters who will never get a chance to bring their music to a wider public. The only thing that distinguishes me from them is luck. Luck that I found that Moog. Thank god it wasn’t a clarinet that somebody had left in the studio!”

If only out of a sense of loyalty, is there still a Moog in the studio? 

“There is! In fact, there are two. Moog very kindly sent me a Voyager and Minimoog D, which did get used on the album. I have got the software versions, but, c’mon, if the real is thing available, you’re going to use it. 

“That’s pretty much it when it comes to hardware. Everything else is in the box. Why would you lug around all that hardware when you’ve got an almost limitless collection of fantastic-sounding synths that you can load on to a computer? 

“That move from traditional studio to on-board was a complete godsend for me. There was no way that I could have survived making albums in a ‘studio’, because it simply became too expensive. With Pro Tools and a computer, I can make an album anywhere. 

“Not only that, but I’ve also learned a whole host of production and mixing skills that I would never have learned in the old days, because there was always somebody there to do it for you. Usually somebody who was being paid out of the money you hadn’t yet earned from selling the album that you were working on.”

What’s the setup in LA? 

“I live in an area that’s residential use only, which means I can’t build a full recording studio. The compromise is a large vocal booth in an outhouse. It came as a flat-pack, with a couple of blokes who set it up in an afternoon. That’s my working space. All the pre-production, vocal recording and demo-ing is done there, but then it gets sent to [long-term collaborator] Ade Fenton. That’s when we start putting together the finished version.”

Are there certain plugins that you know will give you a ‘Numan’ sound? 

“If I could, I would create a whole new palette of sounds every time I made an album, but, in reality, there are a few ‘stock’ plugins that keep finding their way onto albums.”

You’ve been very vocal about your love of Omnisphere. 

“The king of all plugins, without a doubt. 1 was pretty bloody amazing, but 2 takes it into another world. What a phenomenal array of sounds, and what a phenomenal array of starting points - pull up any preset and you’ll be inspired. But then you’ve got the manipulation, too. Easily accessible, incredibly intuitive ways to change and shape the sound. If you don’t find what you’re after in the presets, you will be able to create it fairly quickly. 

“Anybody who knows my music will know that I use a lot of pads and atmospheres. But the problem with pads and atmospheres is that they can all start to sound a bit samey. With Omnisphere, you don’t seem to get that. Each sound you choose and add will always give you that something a bit different.

“I use it a lot on everything I do, but I know that I’m only scratching the surface of what it’s capable of. A truly beautiful piece of software.”

Of course, that’s the point where my mind starts racing and I think, ‘That’s it. I’ve lost it!’

So, you like it, then? 

“Ha ha! I like anything that Spectrasonics do. Great company who know what musicians want. Trilian; everything you need for the bottom end. Native Instruments, too. I’ve got a suite of their stuff on the computer. Some Korg plugins; Ethno 2, when I need to get ethnic.

“I’m still a fan of old-fashioned found sounds, too. I have a stereo recorder that I carry around with me when I’m ready to start making an album, recording bits and pieces from a normal day: traffic, people, the sound of the desert. They can really help to create atmosphere because… well, they are, technically, ‘atmospheres’.”

Earlier this year, you were awarded the Ivor Novello Inspiration Award in recognition, they said, of your influence as an electronic pioneer. In the almost-40 years you’ve been releasing music, has the actual process of songwriting changed much? 

“Obviously, there’s a lot more to play with in the studio, but my starting point has always been the piano. When I was kid, my parents knew I liked keyboards, so they bought me this knackered old upright piano. That’s what I started writing songs on, and that’s what all the early albums were written on. I later realised that it was slightly out of tune, which probably helped me create something a bit… different. 

“These days, it’s a piano preset from the computer, but that’s where I work out melodies and chord structure. After that, it goes into the computer and gets fleshed out with a few pads and loops, I add my gobbledegook vocals, write lyrics to the gobbledegook, and there’s a demo. If things are going well, the demo version takes about a week, but you can usually tell on day one whether the idea is going anywhere.

“Of course, that’s the point where my mind starts racing and I think, ‘That’s it. I’ve lost it!’ I literally have to start talking myself out of the panic. ‘C’mon, Gary. Things will be OK. This is just an off day. Pull yourself together’.

“If anybody ever recorded it, they’d think I’d gone mad.”

Stay up to date with Gary’s releases and other activity at his official website.

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