Gary Numan Interview
Published in Blog Archive, Culture Bully. Tags: Interviews, Music.
Gary Numan is an icon within the realm of synth pop and industrial music. Generally considered an originator for his work in the late ’70s, Numan now takes his minimalist creationism to a new heights within the realm of dreamy, moody electronic based industrial. With his latest release, Jagged, Numan futher proves that his star hasn’t fallen. In this interview he discusses the development of his latest sound, his influences in the last twenty years and playing with T-Rex’s Marc Bolan.
Some of your latest songs are very robust as far as industrial is generally considered. The sounds bear a weight deeper than a lot of more commercially successful industrial, which tends to be based on much more of an electronica base. What do you attribute your band’s sound to?
Gary Numan: I’m not sure but I would guess it has something to do with this. I am constantly looking for new sounds and, in so doing, will often stretch the technology but I’m sure others do the same so that’s not the complete answer. I hate the very idea of doing the same thing twice and so I’m always looking at where to go next, rather than revisiting where I’ve been, musically speaking. That may have something to do with it. I think in a ‘live’ frame of mind when I’m working on new songs in that I try to imagine how a song will sound live, rather than just the studio version, and if it isn’t huge I tend to abandon the song. I like songs that are multiple layered, songs that take many, many listens to hear all that is going on. The first time, the main melodies need to hit home, after that an increasing amount of lesser but vitally important layers of production should become more obvious to the listener. I like big or strangely haunting sounds. Little or thin doesn’t interest me at all. Finally, I try to make each album sound bigger and more powerful than the one before so it’s a very focused direction in terms of sound creation.
In your recent interview with The Times Online you mentioned that an album needs to be a body of work and that the sounds on an album need to sound like they belong together. As your career has progressed, how have you grown better at making the album’s sounds become more fitting to each other?
It actually gets harder as time goes by because the amount of sound generators available these days is incredible. The degree of manipulation that you can then bring to bear on those original sounds is staggering. That enormous variety needs to be controlled if the album is going to sound like a body of connected work throughout the length of the album.
It was easier when I started as the equipment was much more basic and had a much smaller amount of usable sounds. Having said that I’m sure that a small army of people would disagree but that’s the way I see it. One of the reasons that the new Jagged album took so long to make was for that very reason. I had already recorded more than half of the album when I changed producers and started to work with Ade Fenton. The sound of the album that we came up with was so different to what I had done before I felt that we had to redo every thing that had been done up to that point or else it was going to sound like a collection of songs by different people from different times. It didn’t hang together at all. Once all the songs had been reworked with me and Ade working as a team the sound became more consistent. All the songs on Jagged sound as if they belong to that album and no other.
Within the terms of modern rock, you are an originator. One of the most commercially successful, and in my opinion, better, covers of your classic “Cars,” by Fear Factory, and other like it have helped reintroduce your work to a new generation. I’m curious as to what you think of modern interpretations of your music and how they have helped your career?
I’ve enjoyed listening to all of them. New ones are coming in all the time in fact so it’s an ongoing thing. Some I’ve liked a little more than others but it is such an honor, as a songwriter, to have other artists cover or sample your songs, I find it a very enjoyable experience. I’m very flattered that it has happened so often and by so many high caliber bands and I think they have helped my career considerably. Firstly they would have raised my profile to people who may not have heard of me. Secondly, the respect that it gives me as an artist and songwriter has the secondary effect of encouraging many people, including perhaps some in the media, to rethink how they see me and my contribution and, for some, to see it in a more complimentary and positive way. I’m very grateful that not only am I covered and sampled on a regular basis but that so many comments about my influence are made by artists that are themselves very influential. It makes me very proud but a little nervous that, with each new album I make, I will fail to live up to it.
Which modern acts or artists that you are a fan of are currently close to breaking out and finding a new audience in the way that The Pleasure Principle did for your career in the late ’70s?
None that I’m aware of. My career was actually built around a single in the UK called “Are Friends Electric,” which was number one here for four weeks. That song got into the charts because of two major pieces of luck, and who can predict luck? I see very little in the charts that has the depth or the power to interest me. So much of today’s chart music is based on looking backwards for ideas rather than forwards and I hate that. It’s too light weight, too wimpy. The heavier, more interesting things struggle to get heard so it never seems likely that they are just about to break and find a bigger audience. Still, it happens from time to time so perseverance obviously has a lot to do with it. My other problem is that I drift in and out of following music; depending on how busy I am, so I often don’t know if something is new or old. I like Combi Christ, Velvet Acid Christ, and others but I don’t know how long they’ve been around.
Touching back on a comment you made to The Times, you mentioned that there is a lot more stability of sorts when writing songs as a team compared to writing alone. How did this outlook lend itself to the new album?
I don’t write as a team, I produce as a team. The song writing itself is still a very insular process. The problem with writing on your own is that it’s very easy to get into a downward spiral of self doubt. It’s easy to lose perspective and therefore your confidence. Sometimes you need someone to say ‘that’s good’ to make you believe it isn’t the useless piece of shit you’ve come to think it is. I’m terrible for loving something in the morning and hating it by the evening. It can make song writing a tortuous process at best. I’ve learnt now that, in those darker moments, erasing everything is a mistake. Keep it, go back to it a day, or a month, later and thing again, with a different mood, and see how I feel about it then. Quite often I love it again. Being able to move away from something without getting deeply depressed at your own incompetence is a very useful trick to learn.
Considering how artists’ songs and styles age as they grow older what has directed your style to where it is at this point in time? Who has influenced you in the last twenty years?
So many people but key would be Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode in the early ’90s and virtually no one since then. A song here, a song there, but no one band that blows me away completely. A lot of people have great things to offer though so I’m not saying I work in a void but I can’t think of anyone that I can rely on to consistently put out albums overflowing with genius. I doubt many people could though, I know I can’t, so that’s probably an unrealistic thing to look for. I get bits and pieces from all over the place. I listen to anything that I consider useful, anyone that is doing things I wish I had done or that I could learn from but, as I say, it’s bits and pieces, no one band in particular.
If you knew that there was one final tour and one final show and you could choose any band to play with you on your last billing, which band or artist would that be?
Difficult to answer. Would I choose someone so great they would blow me off the stage or someone so shit they would make me look good? I always loved and wanted to meet Marc Bolan from T-Rex. He died before I had any success so it never happened. Yes, I would choose Marc Bolan. And he would blow me off the stage.