Q&A: Gary Numan On New Album Splinter, His Legacy, And Surviving A Mid-life Crisis
If you have enjoyed electronic-oriented music at some point over the last couple of decades then you can feel free to send Gary Numan a thank-you note. Over the past 35 years, Numan has released some of the most influential electro-synth music ever to be performed by an alien-looking English person with a penchant for pancake makeup and robotic stage moves. His early albums as Tubeway Army (Tubeway Army, Replicas) launched a style of synth-driven pop music that would eventually make Numan famous (and many of his imitators much more famous), but it was his early solo work (The Pleasure Principle, Telekon) that would not only make him a kind of electro-icon, but also inspire a generation of young Trent Reznors to sit down at a keyboard and get weird. This fall Numan will release his 20th album, Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind), and embark on a world tour. Having survived a three-decade-long career of terrific highs and more than a few terrible lows, the 55-year-old musician seems to have finally come to terms with the legacy of his back catalog and the various complexities of being viewed as a middle-aged icon. I called him up at his home in sunny Los Angeles to discuss.
STEREOGUM: It sounds like your new record, Splinter, was under construction for a very long time. What took so long?
GARY NUMAN: Yeah, well, yes and no. When the last one was done … which I think was about 7 years ago, I had my second child, and shortly after that I had a third child, and then if I’m really honest with myself, I had a bit of a midlife crisis right about the age of 51-ish. It wasn’t that I wanted to go out and sleep with young girls and things like that, but the other way, I’d become really terrified about getting old and dying and I now had children and my old life seemed to be long gone … and I missed it. Also, my wife got post-partum depression really bad, so I ended up in this weird place for quite a few years really. That’s why it took me quite a while to start it. You know, the thought of starting another album is hard, they kind of become mountains to climb, especially when you’ve made a lot of them already. The thought of all of the emotion, the kind of ups and downs that you know you’re gonna go through in the process of making it, I just didn’t, I didn’t wanna do it. And so after I’d kind of dealt with all of that — you know, become a happy parent again … then I just found that being a parent of three kids was so demanding, I didn’t have a lot of time. So I would do a bit here and a bit there and it was just bits and pieces, bits and pieces … and it was really pathetic. It dragged on for way too long. Although I actually did a surprising amount of good work, it just felt like lots of bits and pieces of kind of nonsense, you know? I just didn’t feel like I was getting into any kind of groove with it, any kind of real direction with it at all. But the last year — mainly after I got here from England in October — things turned around. I wrote half of it in the last few months, and the other half was all drawn from these bits and pieces I’d been tinkering with for years. I pulled it all together. I don’t know what it is but coming here to Los Angeles has totally sorted me out. My work ethic is back to what it was and I’m in the studio every day. The album has gone from being something that I was terrified to start to being something that I’m extremely proud of, so it’s a fantastic kind of end result for me. But the first few years were really difficult. I was on anti-depressants for three years, and all that horrible stuff. I’m glad all that’s gone because that was no fun at all.
STEREOGUM: I knew that you had moved from the UK to LA, which is not a simple move to make, especially if you have a family. It sounds like it was ultimately a great transition, but was it a hard thing to do?
GARY NUMAN: Uh, it was quite a process, yeah. I’m totally glad I’ve done it. I wish to God I’d done it ten or twenty years ago. My wife pretty much from the day she was born wanted to live in Los Angeles for some reason, so ever since we’ve been together — just a few days over 21 years now — it’s been a topic of conversation. There’s been kind of a day-to-day subtle pressure on me to move anyway. And I’ve always loved it here, but I don’t know, my career was struggling at times and so I tended to just stick to the place that I knew best. Eventually I became more and more disenchanted with my life over in the UK and I decided to make the move here. But yeah it took probably took two and half, three years of planning before decided to make the move and talk to a lawyer — an immigration lawyer — and went through with the process. It’s not as if it’s massively difficult but you’re spending hours each day filling in forms and so on, there’s a fair bit of that, but the way that I had to come here was on one of these non-sponsored routes. I’m not employed, obviously, by anyone and I don’t have family here, so it had to be that particular way. As it turns out, there’s very few avenues for that, I had to get something called … I think it’s called being an “alien of extraordinary abilities.” It sounds very grand when you read it out loud — and it’s slightly embarrassing to read it out loud — but it essentially means you’ve had a bit of success and you’re not going to be a drain on American society. You’re not gonna come here and suck money out of the system. You gotta be putting money into it. I think once you prove that — and it does take a while — then you’re on the way with the process and then you’re evaluated in various stages and if you’re lucky you get through it, they finally let you move here. I feel privileged to be allowed to be here, and not to sound too corny, but I see it as a gift to me and to my family. I really do, I take it really seriously. I’m still being really careful, I don’t want to break any speed limits and get kicked out of the country. I genuinely feel privileged that I’ve been allowed in. I think it’s an extraordinary country and I wish I’d come here earlier.
STEREOGUM: It’s a hard thing to do. I have a friend who’s a photographer from London who paid six or seven thousand dollars to an attorney to help her stay here in the states — where she has a successful career — only to find out she has to leave. She couldn’t make it happen.
GARY NUMAN: It is hard, I mean when you look at the level of success that they’re wanting. If I had a Grammy or an Oscar you can pretty much sail in on the next plane, but if you don’t have that … then they “grade” the success you’ve had. It’s like celebrity quiz: “Did you get this award?” “No.” “Did you get six of this other kind?” “Uhh … no, I’ve got three.” It is embarrassing! Having to find all these newspaper articles, anything that says you’ve been influential is a desirable thing, so I was very lucky with that in my recent times. If people done covers of your songs, that’s seen as a good thing … or if you’re seen as innovative in any kind of way. You’re earnings need to have been of a reasonable level … and I’ve had some serious ups and downs so that was tricky. There were times where I was massively in debt, and I’m like, “God I don’t want to tell them about that year.”
STEREOGUM: I never even thought about that. Who gets to be the person who decides? Like who goes over all this and reviews your press clippings and tells you whether or not they deem you are famous or innovative enough to move to the states?
GARY NUMAN: It was a pile of paperwork over two inches high. I’ve been doing this for 35 years and I’ve done a lot of stuff. So to just sift through it and find all the things that were – first that actually say something nice … a lot of it doesn’t! [laughs] You gotta find all the nice things that were done by magazines or newspapers that were considered worthy or of a higher level. So it took about two years of just building up the portfolio before we sent it. It’s a long process. I’ve been told that it’s normal for them to come back to you and say, we need more in this area or that area or more information that covers that part of your career. But we had none of that, no second questions, so we seemed to sail through pretty easily. Again, I was very lucky. We had various testimonials come in. The first one I got was from Trent Reznor, I think a month or so after he got the Oscar. So that was a very high-powered way start to things. Needless to say, it was an interesting experience.
STEREOGUM: What a strange occasion to make you pause and take stock of your entire career … for better or for worse.
GARY NUMAN: Yeah, I’ve been pretty aware of exactly how up and down it’s been. There have been some fantastic moments, but it’s had some diabolical bad periods as well. It’s one of the reasons why I was slightly nervous when I realized I was going to have to pave the way to come here, I wasn’t confident that I was anything like the sort of person they were wanting. I think because there’s been so much — in the last maybe 10 years or so — there’s so much talk about me, which is far more positive than it was in the first 10 or 15 years. There’s a lot of talk about me being influential, or a pioneer, and it was excellent to get so much of that together. So it’s possible that if we’d tried to do this 10 or 15 years ago that I just wouldn’t have had the weight of support that I was able to sort of pull out on this particular attempt. It’s all very well that I’m saying I’d have liked to come before, but there’s actually a good chance I wouldn’t have been allowed in because I didn’t have the credentials I have now.
STEREOGUM: It must be gratifying to be so cognizant of how many people tout you as an influence and knowing that your work has this kind of resonance with people and affected people in the way they make music in so many different ways. Did you have a sense of that before you had to go through this process?
GARY NUMAN: No, honestly I had no idea at all. I had a very good first few years, but the hostility that came from the media at that point was pretty high. There was a lot of resistance to electronic music when it first came along, even in England where it was number 1 and it was selling shit loads. I think the media was slightly behind the curve on that one and one of the problems of being on the front end of something is you kind of open the door to something new and exciting, but the resistance around that … when you’re the first one to put your head through the door so you get punched in the face quite a bit. I think what happened to me was I got the shit kicked out of me and I kind of fell over … and then all these other cool people trampled over me and went through the door. I think I suffered a bit for that. I’m not whining about that AT ALL, it’s all come good for me, so it’s not an issue. But back then in England I had the first big electronic single; the first number one electronic single ever. Kraftwerk had been there before me, and a number of other people had drifted around before me, but I seem to be the one who made that big transition into mainstream pop music and mainstream public awareness. So I took a fair bit of stick for that. Then things didn’t go so well, and blah blah blah … it’s been such an up and down ride. Now there is so much talk over the last few years, so much more positive talk. Even the NME, which slagged one of my albums into the ground when it came out, they gave it a naught out of 10 or a 1 out of – something horrible – anyway, they reevaluated it and called it this groundbreaking classic and said all of this lovely stuff. So everything kind of turned around and all the hostility that was there to begin with has gone the other way in my recent years, so it’s kind of … I’ve been around long enough to kind of enjoy that. To answer your question, it’s very cool for me to read some of the things that are said now, like Trent Reznor for example. To have someone like that who I admire enormously talk in very positive terms about the influence my music had on him and Nine Inch Nails and that he’s covered one of my songs … it’s wonderful. It makes you very very proud that, first of all, you’ve had that kind of effect and influence on things and it … I don’t know. On the one hand it gives you a level of confidence that I’m lacking most of the time, but with that confidence comes a kind of pressure. It’s funny. If someone says you’ve done something really special, that need to keep doing it is obviously there, you don’t want people to be disappointed with what you do next, and you don’t want to be lesser than you’ve been in the past. So when people talk bout you doing something groundbreaking and pioneering, in my head I just go “Fuck it! I have to do that again? Now every album has to be special!” And I know that I’ve not done that … I know I’ve done some right shitters over the years and I’ve let myself down quite badly, but I think with the new one I feel more confident that it’s … it kind of keeps me alive in that sense. I’m not nervous about it in that way. I’m very confident. I’m not saying it’s groundbreaking or pioneering, but I think it’s a good album and I think it’s worthy of the credentials that have been generously given to me over the years.
STEREOGUM: It’s a very dark record. When you listen to it now, does it seem sort of reflective of the time in which it was made … does it reflect the difficulty of getting back into making music?
GARY NUMAN: Yeah, I think a lot of the stuff I was going through in the last seven years … it’s riddled with it. That’s what it is. It did come from a particularly difficult time — both for me as an individual and as part of a marriage. There were times before that that I thought I couldn’t do it anymore. I think the fact that it’s kind of dark in lots of places is understandable to me really when I think back to where it came from. I’ve been with my wife for 21 years and very happy, but I would be lying if I said we hadn’t had some real things we had to get through. We lost a baby at one point. Shit happened. We both were going through depression type things at the same time … we both very difficult to adapt to suddenly having a family after being pretty much free and easy and having a fairly cool life before that. Money has come and gone at various times, which has been a bit shocking. There’s been a lot of shit to get through, which we have. These days everything’s cool and very positive. We’re living here in California and everything’s great and the kids are healthy and we’ve come through it brilliantly, I think. But nevertheless as food for creativity it was … it’s strange, but it’s fucking excellent actually. It gives you so much to have to write about … but it definitely veers towards the darker heavier side.
STEREOGUM: Well I don’t think people would expect you to make a sunny California pop record. I’ve had the opportunity over the years to interview lots of artists who’ve had very long careers. A lot of people have told me it’s great to have a lot of success early off in your career — to have a hit single or a smash album right out of the gate — but you sort of have to make peace with the legacy it creates for you. I remember talking to Robert Smith and he was saying that no matter what he did for the rest of his career people would always say, “That’s great! Now please play “Boys Don’t Cry” again please.” There are worse problems to have for sure, but it’s definitely a cloud you’re operating under forever. Your early records are so iconic; do you ever feel you’re always competing with your own history?
GARY NUMAN: I think you are. I think that’s just a fact of life … and I’ve had a long struggle with that. I guess part of what happened in the last 7 years was really about beginning to accept that. As you say, it’s a good problem to have. To have written something that becomes famous is a rare thing. Obviously the thing for me is “Cars” in America and England it’s a song called “Are Friends Electric?” Those two songs. I used to see it as if I’d created a shadow that kind of put a downer on everything else I’ve done since. But it’s not that. It’s not a shadow at all, it’s something far more positive than that, but it’s just taken me way too long to realize it. It’s a very cool thing to have written something that has lasted that long and is still known to some people as arguably one of the more famous songs ever. I am now very, very proud of it, but there was a time when I would have almost denied that I’d done it. The amount of effort I put into to trying and distance myself from those songs is ridiculous when I should have actually been embracing it. Generally I’ve got a real problem with anything “retro” at all. My whole reason for getting into electronic music — well, any kind of music really — was this desire to come up with new sounds, new technologies, new ways of doing things, and it’s still part of why I do it. I’m far more interested in what I’m going to do tomorrow than what I did yesterday, certainly what I did 30 years ago. So it’s been hard trying to embrace something that’s been such an anchor to the past. I’ve been trying to lift that anchor almost constantly so I could move on.
And there were a number of reasons that I felt held back by it. For example there was a really good TV show that used to be on in England called The White Room and they said, “Can you come on the show” – it’s a live TV show – “We want you to play 3 songs, and we’ll transmit two of them, but we want you to play ‘Cars,’ ‘Are Friends Electric?’ and one other.” And I went, “Oh come on, I know what you’re going to do.” So I got on the phone with the director and said I’ll do it if one of those songs will be a new song. Then I can do it, but if I go on the show and you just transmit “Cars” and “Are Friends Electric?” it’s going to look to everyone as if I’m just stuck in the past and that’s the only two songs I ever wrote and it doesn’t do me any good. He promised me right there on the phone, and he said, “We’ll play your new single and we’ll play one of the other two, and did they? Fuck. Fucking “Cars” and “Are Friends Electric?” So you’re almost kind of made to feel as if they’re holding you back because you go on to do a radio show and they introduce you with “Cars,” and they outro you with “Are Friends Electric?” and it’s like, for fucks sake! You know … you’re not allowed to move on, so instead of being something that you’re proud of it becomes this chip on your shoulder because you’re just not allowed to move away from it. The opportunities to play new music are almost entirely denied to you – they will only talk to you if you play an old song or they’ll only have you on the show if you play an old song. It becomes this thing you just want to get rid of this legacy that you’re not proud of, that does hold you back. So it’s taken me a while to – it’s taken me 30 odd years – to accept that and to be at ease with that. And funny enough it seems to be coming less of a problem now as I’ve come to accept it. People have been not wanting it as much. And that has to be coincidence, but that seems to be what’s happening now. I’m doing things now where people don’t want me to play “Cars” and “Are Friends Electric?” and funnily enough I’m happy to!
STEREOGUM: I’ve read in interviews where you’ve said that a lot of what’s perceived as your stage persona really had to do with being quite shy and not very comfortable about being a performer. Has that changed? I mean you’ve toured so much since then, do you feel more comfortable now being out in front of people?
GARY NUMAN: Yeah. When I started I would get so nervous I couldn’t even hold a conversation for two or three days before going to a show … and we’re talking small gigs in little bars. I just couldn’t do it. And my dad one day took me aside and said look if you really want to do this as a career, you’re going to have to find a way of dealing with this otherwise you’re life is going to be horrendous and you’re going to spend it all being sick and not being able to talk to anyone. You’ve got to deal with it, and the way I dealt with it was image. I started to dress differently and take on a persona, and I would hide behind that on the stage. So onstage I became very arrogant and cocky and I’d come off stage and it’d be like throwing a switch — I’d be right back to what I was before, and to a certain degree that hasn’t changed actually, but now it’s kind of a … it’s not something I need to do. It’s sort of an automatic thing. My wife swears I walk differently when I’m “being Gary Numan” as she calls it. I walk differently and I even do things with my face that I don’t do normally. I speak differently. So I obviously am still slipping into some kind of other part of my personality, but I think that’s the difference – it’s not a fake thing anymore, it’s a part of my personality that I can switch on to do that. I don’t get nervous and I don’t get stage fright or any of that sort of thing. I guess I’ve been doing it so long that all the things that can possibly go wrong have gone wrong … and it’s not the big deal you think it’s gonna be. So for me being on stage by far is still the most fun part and its definitely most exciting part of what we do. Now I still like being in the studio, I like putting albums together and I still really get a lot out of that, but if I had to choose one aspect of it that I would never give up it would be being on stage. I love touring! The traveling, being in the bus, traveling around … you often read that people kind of hate that side of it but and I don’t get it. I love it. I love touring.
STEREOGUM: I’ve also talked to a lot of people who make electronic music about just how radically technology has changed since they first started making records. The guys from Depeche Mode were saying that they actually went back and sought out the equipment that were using when they made their first records, having over the years having abandoned it for newer technology. Has that aspect of making music — the technology aspect — changed radically for you? Does it change the way you make songs?
GARY NUMAN: It doesn’t really change the way I write songs because I write pretty much everything on piano anyway. It’s all melody first, arrangements first, and then we start to flesh it out with noises and sounds and so on. So from that point of view I sit down now and write a song pretty much the same way I’ve always done, but what comes next … yeah … it’s almost beyond comprehension, it’s so different than it used to be. Like I go back to before even MIDI was invented, before computers – in music anyway – were even invented, before sequencing was normal, back when everything you played you actually played with your own little fingers. So yeah … I haven’t felt the need to go back to early technology yet, but I’ve read a ton of interviews with people who are doing that. I’m still looking forward to new technology. I’m still looking at technology for tomorrow rather than what I did in the past. I just feel that if I were to go back to that stuff then it would invariably sound more similar to what I was doing then and that feels like it would be a step backwards. It would be a nod towards a retro attitude. One of the problems I have at the moment, it’s not a big issue, but there’s a lot of electronic music around now and some of it is clearly inspired by things that were going on during the late 70s and I find I’m less excited by that. It sounds so reminiscent of the things we were doing then … and it doesn’t feel like it’s gone anywhere. It should be about what sounds can we make that we’ve never heard before. It’s not about trying to recreate something that we’ve done 35 years ago because we’ve done it. I think trying to invent the future — that’s a great aim. I’m not saying I’ve always succeeded with that because I think I’ve failed miserably most of the time, but it’s an aim to have, a goal to have. And I just don’t think that going back and looking at older equipment it really the right way to go about that. Talk to me in a year and I might be saying something completely different. Some people want to go back to the sound they had there, for various reasons of their own they may think “yeah … that’s when I was at my most creative when I had that limited technology.” And there might be all kinds of reason why people might want to go back there, but for me that’s not happening at the moment.
STEREOGUM: You mention that you love being on tour, will you be doing that for most of the foreseeable future?
GARY NUMAN: Yeah, we’ve got a lot of touring ahead. I’ve also got a film score to do. I’m actually in the studio today. I have to do a few more songs for the Splinter sessions — I need another two or three to have exclusives for people, that kind of thing. But toward the end of the week I start on a film score I’ve been asked to do for an animated film, which will be a very gentle, no pressure kind of first step into writing music for films … which is something I’d like to do more of in the future. Then we do a fair bit of touring towards the end of this year and then I’d like get to work on the next album. We will be touring Splinter throughout next year as well, but I really want to get on with the new album. I’d really like to have that ready within 12 to 15 months. It’s been 7 years since the last one and 5 years before that. It’s just pathetic. Isn’t that the most pathetic output? I know there were reasons for it, but it should never happen again. I used to churn out an album a year for about the first 15 years of my career! That’s the way to do it. I’m not sure I could ever do it at that rate again, but I certainly think that within a year and half I should have another album out, early 2015? On that note, I should probably get on with it.
Check out a premiere of “I Am Dust,” a new track from Splinter.
Gary Numan’s Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind) will be released worldwide on 10/14 via Mortal Records.