Gary Numan on inspiration, money and staying hungry
Gary Numan (due Friday, April 4, at The Gothic Theatre) is most widely remembered for his 1980 hit song "Cars." That song was merely the most popular in an influential career that had a direct impact on artists as diverse as Prince, Beck, Lady Gaga and, of course, Nine Inch Nails, with whom Numan has both toured and collaborated. Anyone who has seen the man perform on recent tours knows he doesn't skimp, with music that runs the gamut of electronic-based pop and rock music but always with a core of vibrant emotional vulnerability and openness. It is that quality that has allowed Numan as an artist to take in influences from his peers as well as those that identify his work as a foundational inspiration. Thoughtful and surprisingly candid, Numan revealed himself in our conversation to be the observant person you might assume him to be.
Westword: As an artist you've clearly evolved rather than rest on your laurels and had a massive impact on other artists. Along the way have some of the newer artists also influenced you in any way?
Gary Numan: Yeah, definitely. I honestly think that anyone that creates themselves tends to be a bit like a sponge. You soak up everything around you. Whether it's listening to music or watching a movie or a TV show or an ad or even conversations you have or reading books. You're just sucking stuff in all the time. Then I think what happens is that that kind of mixes with the ideas in your own head. It's like a constant melting pot of things so I think it would be impossible not to be influenced by so many things all the time.
I see it like sparks and you're just waiting for one of those sparks to ignite something in their own way and off you go. Then there's more ideas. It's as if each little spark opens the door for someone else. I am definitely influenced massively by pretty much everything I see and hear around me. I know it happens all the time. Even things like artwork. I remember, many years ago, we were on tour in Germany and there was a series of road signs that had symbols on them and I used it on an album cover four or five years later. Everything goes in all of the time.
During the course of your career you've experienced fairly early popular success then a long period where the public wasn't as clued into your music and recently a bit of s resurgence. What sustained you or kept you going all that time?
For me it comes down to where you like music or not. A lot of people do this because they want to be famous and they want to be rich. It's kind of a means to an end. When things don't go so well, they go somewhere else and look elsewhere for that fame and fortune. I really wanted to be famous and I really wanted to be successful and I wanted to play as big a places as possible. So I had that same ambition but underneath all of that I actually really love making music.
When things go well, it's fantastic. When things don't go so well then you just come back to loving music again and wanting to make it. It's not as though you think, "My path to fame and fortune isn't that one, I'll try something else." To me fame and fortune is just like a cherry on top of a cake. It's that last little bit. The cake is everything. Being in a band making music and being able to go into studios -- I live my life as a professional musician. Sometimes with a lot of money, sometimes with very little money. It really depends on how things are going. But I never want to do anything else and putting ambition to one side I was quite happy my entire life being in a band and making music without ever really having any sort of major success because it's still the thing I want to do more than anything else.
I just think that for so many people that's not true. They don't really care about the cake, they just want to go straight for the cherry. I think that's why so many people come and go. They see it as a quick ticket to big money and lots of girls or whatever people want. It doesn't necessarily have a long life in making music itself. I'm a very creative person so it's almost a necessary outlet. I don't just write songs. You talk about your life. It's self therapy, in a way, to get you through various things. Certainly with the new album, the Splinter album, I had bout of depression for quite some time, which is what the album is about, mostly. Being able to write about that was a very important part of me coming through it. And coming out of damaged, in a way, with those scars to show for it. If it hadn't really loved music I wouldn't have been able to write songs and it might have been far more damaging than it turned out to be. I walked it on a little bit but it really is that I have a genuine love of music whether I'm successful or not.
You've worked with numerous other artists over the years. Do they mostly approach you or are there any with which you've been taken and initiated the collaboration yourself?
No, everyone approaches me. That's not because I'm arrogant in any way at all. It's quite the opposite. I have very little self-confidence, strangely enough, though I've been doing this all my life. I'm happy working in my own little bubble where I'm my own worst judge and jury. When it comes to working with other people I'm actually very, very nervous and I'm very passive. When people come to me I'll think about it and sometimes I'll do it and sometimes I don't think I'm the right person. But pretty much every collaboration I've done is someone coming to me simply because I'm not confident enough to put myself forward. I would never dare say, "Hey! Do you want to work with me?" I could never do that. Even if I would love to work with somebody I could never put myself forward. I'm just too shy and lacking in confidence.
Are there new artists you particularly enjoy?
Well, I'm a big fan of Trent Reznor and what the Nine Inch Nails thing is all about. We did a couple of shows with Nine Inch Nails in Orlando last year and that was amazing. We've done some shows before but I those were particularly good. I thought the light show for the last big tour Nine Inch Nails was the most amazing thing I've ever seen. Absolutely stunning. From a live point of view I thought that was amazing.
Musically, there's quite a few things that I like but there's nothing I'm absolutely blown back by. That's partly my own fault. I think I've been busy with Splinter and I haven't been able to get out to as many shows as I would normally or listen to stuff in the way I normally do. I've not been as involved in other music as I would normally be. I'm slightly out of touch, actually, that's the truth of it.
What about Trent's music that you like?
What got me into Trent's music initially was that I was fascinated by the amount of [power] that it had potentially and the variety of sounds that you can come up with. You could do so many things with it. I think Trent took that to a completely different level and I found it very impressive over the years. He's very clever on many different. He tried his hand at a film score and got an Oscar the first time out. It's very impressive, his understanding of sound and the way you can put things together and use different instrumentation in ways you wouldn't expect. I just love the power and the weight of what he does.
In a way Hesitation Marks is a slight change of direction for them. It wasn't the big, heavy thing I was expecting. Which surprised me but then again that's another one of the skills that he's got. You can never be sure where he's going to go next. And that keeps it interesting, I think. Obviously for him and also for the fans that stay with him.
You're touring with Big Black Delta and Roman Remains. Did you ask them to be on the tour?
They were brought to my attention maybe nine months ago now. Both great bands. They work very well with us. It's a very, very good line-up. Probably one of the best line-ups I've ever been out with. The crowd had really positive reactions to both bands every night. What they do compliments what I do and it's also very different. I'm a really big fan of both bands and the more I see them each day, the more I get to know the songs, the more I appreciate what they do on stage.
Early on in some of your songwriting science fiction was an influence on some of the themes of your music. Would you say that's the case today?
There is an element of science fantasy rather than science fiction on the new album. This is from a book I'm writing myself. For a long time I've had this ambition to write novels. In a way that's kind of how I see myself in ten or fifteen years' time or more, if I can live long enough. I see myself writing stories when I'm older, once the music thing is finished. There's two songs on Splinter--one called "We're the Unforgiven" and another one called "I Am Dust"--taken from ideas from a book that I'm writing.
Science fantasy means it can have demons and magic and that kind of stuff. I'm very into that. I'm actually quite frightened that I'm not going to be any good at it. So rather than just getting on with my book and getting it done I keep just writing notes and endless ideas down and I never really write the book. I think that's because I'm scared to start in case I'm crap. Then it would be a massive disappointment to me. I kind of keep just backing away from the whole thing.
We did an album in 2011, me and my friend Ade [Fenton], called Dead Son Rising and most of the lyrics from that are ideas from the books. If I'm not careful I'm going to put the whole book out as music and never write the bloody thing so I need to start. But the science fiction part of what I did was 'round about 1979 I did an album called Replicas and there was an album after that called The Pleasure Principle, which "Cars" came from. Replicas was a science fiction album and The Pleasure Principle had a couple of songs on it that were leftovers from those ideas. Since then I've kind of avoided it really. More recently, because of my own story and my own book I'm trying to write, I've started to creep back into it a little bit. But science fantasy not science fiction.
Who were some of your favorite science fiction writers back then?
Philip K. Dick was my favorite, I think. Then the usual people. Isaac Asimov was a big one. A man called Fred Saberhagen had a series of books called Berserker. I loved them to bits, they were amazing. J.G. Ballard, a little bit. I read a few of his things.
What is your favorite Philip K. Dick stuff?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the one that became Blade Runner. That was my favorite by far. Philip K. Dick was an amazing writer but he had a tendency to be fragmented. The Androids book actually seemed to have a cohesive story I could follow from one end to the other. A lot of them didn't seem to have them really. You'd just think, "God, where is it going now" because it would go off on this bizarre tangent.
If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is https://twitter.com/simianthinker>@simianthinker.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.