From headline slots to chart topping reign, Conor Kevin O’Nolan chats to Gary Numan about synth stigma and set list trauma
“I’m not the most confident of people musically, so I tend to wait for people to come to me, then decide if I can add anything worthwhile or not.” It’s difficult to assess just how big of an impact Gary Numan has made on music today. Without him, Sugababes never would have covered ‘Freak Like Me’ and Basement Jaxx’s ‘Where’s Your Head At’ may never have materialized.
Numan’s music has evolved dramatically over the years. His synth-pop beginnings have been left firmly in the past, replaced with a much darker and fuller industrial sound. Latest album Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind) resembles more dark-wave artists like Mortiis than his once infectious electro-infused records.
His best-known songs will likely remain ‘Cars’ or ‘Are Friends Electric’, but he has no interest in trying to pen a new radio-friendly unit shifter. Numan’s relationship with his older material has been tumultuous over the years, vehemently refusing to play classics, however, he’s recently gone full-circle. “I stopped worrying about what people expect over three decades ago… I do what I love and hope for the best.
“I’m very aware that my music these days is dark and heavy, but I’ve no right to expect radio to play it to help me out. I’m very proud to have written songs as successful as ‘Cars’ and ‘Are Friends Electric’, but I’ve written many songs that are better than either of those two.”
In the years leading up to working on Splinter, Numan ran into difficulties making music, as his mind fell into a darker reserve. “It’s been seven years since my last studio album Jagged but, in truth, most of that time was spent dealing with some issues that had nothing to do with music or career.”
He admits, “I began to suffer with depression, which got worse until I was put on medication. That lasted for about four years in total and in that time I barely wrote anything at all.”
After completing a side project towards the end of 2011, he regained some motivation to make more music, “Work on Splinter started in earnest in 2012. I had written a number of things in small spurts before then and so it wasn’t an entirely blank canvas, but most of it was taken from then on.
“I had a gap in late 2012, when I emigrated to America, but soon got a new studio built and finished it off in the months. I would say nearly half of it was written in those last few months in Los Angeles.”
He attributes a dramatic increase in his productivity to his move to LA, “Moving to Los Angeles really does feel as though we’re starting a new life. That excitement translated straight into working and I have never worked as much or as hard. I have found the American attitude to work admirable and it’s really made me want to get on with it.”
His attitude to writing is wholly pragmatic. “Splinter is no different to most other albums I’ve made, in that you just keep writing until you have enough songs you’re proud of to fill a CD. An hour seems to be the magic number these days. It used to be 40 minutes back when vinyl was the main format. God knows what it will be when CD finally dies and digital is king as that’s essentially open ended.”
This work ethic has contributed to a problem Numan faces whenever he tours and needs to develop a set list. While making an effort to play a variety of his music, including the crowd pleasers, he can struggle. “It gets worse with each new album. If I only play 10% of my catalogue I would still be on stage for about 4 hours.”
Similarly, the studio processes for making electronic music have transformed enormously over the past few decades. Justifiably regarded as the pioneer of this electronic wave, even so, Numan doesn’t romanticise the now fashionable equipment of the early days.
“I’m not sentimental about any of it. The only instrument I have that I genuinely love is my guitar. Synths and computers are like screwdrivers, just tools. Get the best out of them and move on. I totally embrace new technology and I have no desire to look backwards at older tech. I think for some people certain old synths have developed a kind of romance around them, which I don’t really get.”
Numan’s career has been an interesting one. He may never attain the sort of popularity he once had, but it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t really mind. Content making his own brand of dark electronic music, Numan’s breaking some form of new ground with every step.
Gary Numan plays The Button Factory, Friday November the 8th