Gary Numan: Instant fame is terrifying and exciting in equal measure

Gary Numan
Gary Numan
Courtesy of the Artist

Gary Numan has influenced an entire generation of musicians and fans with his sound and style. Dave Grohl, Trent Reznor, and Marilyn Manson are among those who proclaim Numan's work as an influence on their own and have recorded cover versions of his old hits. His song "Cars" has made an appearance in everything from the Tom Green film Freddy Got Fingered to Armand Van Helden's dancefloor hit "Koochy." You may also remember the song "Are Friends Electric," recently covered by the Dead Weather, from Numan's 1970's band Tubeway Army.

Numan's dark, paranoid persona has mystified fans for decades, inspiring a small army of "Numanoids." By 1994, after finding his success in the pop market to be rapidly deteriorating, he decided to concentrate on exploring more personal themes and moved in a harsher industrial direction, regaining critical acclaim.

In 2008, he was diagnosed with depression, The ensuing battle with his mental illness culminated in the release of a new album, Splinter, and a U.S. tour. Gimme Noise spoke with Numan about his prolific career and personal growth over the many years since achieving "instant fame"as he prepares for an appearance in Minneapolis Sunday at Mill City Nights.

Gimme Noise: You are often considered a pioneer of electronic music. What has it been like for you to watch electronic music gain traction and suddenly enter a phase of mainstream popularity?

I'm embarrassed to say that it shows how out of touch I've been, as I didn't realize it wasn't already part of mainstream popularity. I had my first number one single in the U.K. in 1979 and that created a huge move towards electronic music over there. Depeche Mode and many other great bands followed very soon after. Since then other massive bands have come along, like Nine Inch Nails and others, who have had phenomenal success and who were very much electronic at heart. So I have never thought of it as anything other than popular with the mainstream. But, so many people that I talk to now are talking about electronic music as this huge new thing I'm genuinely surprised. I guess I'm surprised at my own lack of awareness but, having said that, still proud to be considered a pioneer of an entire genre of music.

How did your fascination with synthesizers begin?

My fascination with synths, or electronic music in general was by chance. I had gone to a studio to record my debut album, which should have been a punk album as my band was a three-piece punk band at the time. In the control room was a synth called a Mini Moog. They very kindly let me have a try and I was just blown away by the sounds it made. Everything changed from that moment on for me. I was convinced that this sort of music, those sort of sounds, was the future -- mine, certainly -- and I became very passionate about it.

What was the experience of "instant fame" like for you? What does "fame" feel like today?

Instant fame is terrifying and exciting in equal measure. It changes every aspect of your life almost beyond measure and you have no time to adjust or adapt. It's a rocket ride into the dangerous unknown and I can completely understand why it fucks people up. I am an extraordinarily well-grounded person, about as down-to-earth and un-"star"-like as you can get, and even I struggled with it. I eventually pulled out of the whole thing for a few years to try and get a firm grip on reality once again. I became a recluse, shut myself away, come to terms with it all and then slowly emerged once again but this time with my hand on the controls. These days I don't think of myself as famous, so it's not a problem. Those people that do recognize me are very cool and it's a nice thing.

Gary Numan: Instant fame is terrifying and exciting in equal measure
Courtesy of the Artist

Can you talk a little bit about your persona? How does the public you differentiate from you in your personal life?

My basic nature is extremely shy but I've been doing the music thing for so long I've learned how to switch to that "Numan" part of my personality that can deal with all the performance requirements when I need to. The on-stage persona is a more extreme version of course. When I'm doing interviews or meeting fans I have one version, on stage is another. But when all that is done I just switch back to the real one again. It's a coping mechanism, I guess. My basic nature would never allow me to do this for a living so I've had to create alternate characters that I can hide behind to get the job done. I've been doing it so long now it's become virtually automatic and it isn't even a conscious thing anymore. I just flick from one to the other.

"Cars" has been called "the ultimate song about technology dividing us." In my opinion, technology divides us further every day. How do you feel about technology in society now?

"Cars" was actually about feeling safe in a car whenever I was outside the safety of my home. It puts me in a metal bubble and protects me from all the horrible things that people can do. A tad paranoid, perhaps. But it's a feeling I've always had. I'm a technology fan, so I welcome almost all new technologies as they come along. I don't see them as a threat the way some other people seem to, not yet anyway.

As for being divided I do see signs of that in one way -- a group of people at dinner all looking at their phones and not talking to each other, for example. But, on the other hand, it enables us to have more contact with people we otherwise may not have been able to reach, so it takes on one hand and gives back with the other. I do despair of online help systems which are usually no help at all, and the near impossibility these days of simply talking to a human being at a big company if you have a problem to discuss. If I have any problem with technology it's in that area but, if you think about it, it's the way that humans are employing that technology that's the problem. Big companies don't want to pay to have helpful staff to be accountable for problems it seems, so they get rid of the human and put a never-ending series of 'just press 1' type options until you give up trying and go away.

My wife and I don't allow our children any kind of video game when we're out. If we are out eating, for example, we expect our children to talk to us, and to each other, and not become little zombies with their faces pressed to a screen. The technology is mostly okay in my opinion, it's how we make use of it that is the problem, where there is one.

In the early '90s, how did you come to the decision to make a departure from your previous sounds and head in a more industrial direction?

My career was pretty much dead and buried in '92. I had no record deal, no sign that I would ever be able to get another one. My record sales and ticket sales had dropped to a level so low it was just embarrassing and I was massively in debt. They were trying to repossess my house, it was quite a horrible time. I also put out an album called Machine and Soul, which was not very good to be honest. Because of all these things I thought I was finished, so I went back to making music for a hobby.

I abandoned all thoughts of saving the career and just started to write music that I really loved rather than as desperate attempts to get back on the radio or keep A&R men happy. As soon as that happened, the music began to come out much heavier and darker and I fell in love with making music all over again. I've stayed on that path ever since. In a way it was returning to the attitude I had when I first started, when I didn't think commercially at all, I just wrote from the heart, and I now guard that attitude very carefully.

I never think about the commercial aspect of what I'm doing. Obviously I want the music to be successful, but that must NOT be the reason for writing it. You write what you love, what you feel passionate about, and then you hope it does well. The thing is, when I was trying to write radio-friendly, chart-type music, I was pretty bad at it anyway. At least now I have a lot of pride in what I'm doing. Not just the music itself but my attitude and reasons for doing it.

You've claimed that NIN's "Closer" is your favorite hit single of all time. Is this still true? Why or why not?

It is. It's just a brilliantly put together piece of music. The most infectious bass riff ever from the start, a great vocal hook, so many amazing parts that drift in and out that keep you guessing. It's unpredictable. It's a masterpiece.


How has having children changed the way you look at things?

My life is totally different because now it revolves almost entirely around what the children want and what's best for them. Before, my wife Gemma and I did what we wanted and we had a very free and easy lifestyle. Now it's highly structured to suit the needs of the children. It's expensive, stressful, scary, time-consuming, and almost entirely unappreciated by the children themselves, bless their selfish little hearts, but I wouldn't change it for a second.

I don't think I look at life that differently, though. I look at people that are looking at my children differently as I find it hard not to be suspicious of anyone even glancing their way, but I guess most parents live with that fear. I now live my life for them, for their future, rather than my own. It's a shift in emphasis which was immediate and natural. If they needed a heart, I would give them mine. It's a love so absolute it brings tears to your eyes just thinking about it, a feeling I'm sure most parents are familiar with. I feel the same way about my wife though. Family is everything to me.

You recently released Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind). Can you please tell us about this album, what inspired it, the creative process, what it means to you?

I was diagnosed with depression in 2008 and spent the next few years fighting that. My career got into trouble, my marriage suffered, life itself was quite troublesome. In many ways the cure for depression is almost as difficult to beat as the illness itself. I didn't write a song for nearly four years, I had no motivation whatsoever. The cure stops you caring, about anything. People would try to tell me that my career was going down the toilet and I just didn't care.

Eventually even I realized that I had to come back to the real world but it took some time. That's what Splinter is about. The fight against depression and the cure. It is highly emotional, albeit in a loud and aggressive way for the most part.

A song on the album called "Lost" I wrote when I was thinking about running away from the problems Gemma and I were having so much of it is very personal. I think because it documents a particularly difficult time in my life the album is extremely important to me. Not only that, it felt to me that the album came at a very important point in my career. I had just moved to the U.S. and, effectively, started a new life. It had been many years since the last album and so I felt that if Splinter didn't go well my career would be in serious trouble. Luckily it's all gone very well, it even got into the top 20 in the U.K., my first Top 20 album for about 30 years, so I'm blown away by the reaction to it. I can hardly believe how positive the reaction has been.

Do you have any big regrets?

I'm sure I could come up with a very long list from A to Z but if I'm honest I don't really look back and dwell on the past. I learn from mistakes, if I can, and then look forward to a better tomorrow. I have always been far more interested in what tomorrow might bring rather than looking back at yesterday, even if yesterday was a great day. Tomorrow holds every possibility, all the excitement and optimism. Yesterday will always be just a memory and it just doesn't hold much interest for me. Regrets can become a burden that weighs you down as you try to live your life.

What's next for you?

A film score, a collaboration track with Jean Michel Jarre, an update to my autobiography, a novel, a new album, a documentary and more touring and festivals. Then we'll see what next year brings.

What can we expect from your show in Minneapolis this month?

We play a lot of the Splinter album, about nine songs, but we also interweave that with some older songs that we can rework in a heavier more industrial way to suit the newer stuff. In fact, I think I'm playing more older stuff than I usually do on this tour. In the last I would usually make about 20 percent of the set for old songs. This time it's nearly 50 percent. I'm still trying to find the right balance between what I want to play, what the older fans want to hear and what the new fans know at all. I have people coming to see me now that are largely unaware of my earlier albums so it gets quite tricky knowing what to play. I'm loving the set we're playing on this leg though. It's hugely powerful and, apart from one song, pretty relentless.

Gary Numan plays this Sunday March 30 at Mill City Nights with Big Black Delta, Roman Remains and DJ Jake Rudh. Doors at 7 PM. $25 advance/$30 day of show, 18+

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