From the late 1970s through the mid’80s, British electro-pop pioneer Gary Numan was at the forefront of synthesized music. With his grasp of emerging technologies, his distinctive voice and hooky tracks like “Cars” and “Are Friends Electric?” (the latter recorded with his early band the Tubeway Army), Numan was able to tap into the minimalist vibe that Kraftwerk had introduced and take it to another level entirely.
He was a revelation — enthralling and confusing in equal measure. For five or six years, he was the robotic but oddly accessible guy on TV in his native Britain and beyond. And then it all started to fall apart. Sales suffered as he explored a harder-edged sound, leading him to try to salvage his career by making radio-friendly music. That was a huge disaster.
“I had a really dodgy period, mid-’80s to mid-’90s,” Numan says. “I was increasingly unhappy with what I was doing. The career had started really well, and I’d done well everywhere around the world, and then it started to fall apart, and rather than write the songs I really wanted to write, as I had been doing before, I started to listen to advice on what I should and shouldn’t be doing — A&R people and all sorts of different people — and I lost my way for quite a while. In 1992, I was pretty much dead and buried. I didn’t have a contract, and there were no obvious signs I was ever going to get another one. I did an album in ’92 called Machine and Soul, which is a pile of shit, if I’m honest. I had to come back from that a bit, but I did.”
In the 1990s, Numan was no longer the poster boy for innovative music and electronica — far from it. Techno, raves and all manner of EDM were in full flow by then, as was industrial music. Computers had changed the way music was produced in the studio, and Numan was all but a dinosaur. But then he started to dig himself out of that fossil-encrusted hole.
His wife, Gemma O’Neill, introduced him to a whole lot of new music, and some of those bands, such as Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails and Fear Factory, started covering Numan’s tunes. And in 2000, he put out an album called Pure that sealed his magnificent return to form.
“Over a few years, it just seemed like everyone was either covering my songs or talking about me in one way or another,” Numan says. “That definitely helped. It introduces you to a new audience, gives you credibility that I didn’t have before — it makes a massive difference, and that coincided with the fact that my songwriting was improving. My songwriting from the mid-’90s onwards, certainly from Pure onwards, stepped up a gear, and that was lucky. because that’s when people started looking at me again.”
He’s really never looked back. Pure was an intense, dark album that beefed up Numan’s sound, incorporating elements of those same industrial rock bands that were citing him as an influence. It’s heavy and apocalyptic, though the classic Numan melodies are still there. That’s a theme that Numan has carried forward, from 2006’s excellent Jagged to 2013’s Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind), and right up to this year’s tremendous Savage (Songs From a Broken World).
“I think I’ve definitely gotten better,” Numan says. “I’m very happy with the last few albums. I’ve been very comfortable with where I am from a songwriting point of view for quite a while.
It’s notable that Numan was pretty much releasing an album every year during the ’80s. Nowadays, there’s four to six years between records. He puts that down to a combination of the changes in the industry and having a family.
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“When I first started, I used to just churn them out at the end of each year and then tour them, but my tours were smaller,” he says. “I don’t think I toured America for, like, sixteen years at one point. That’s not the case anymore. The touring now is quite extensive and goes on for a year and a half – maybe two years from when the album comes out. I can’t write when I’m touring, so that adds to the gap between albums. The kids definitely have a major effect on that as well. That plays a big part if I’m honest — I love my family, and I do like to spend as much time with them as possible. The other thing is, if you are away a lot touring, then when you get back, you really just want to be with them for a few months. It all just drags out.”
Numan arrives in Denver this week on the Savage tour, and as is the norm for him, the set will focus heavily on the new record. Some old favorites will get played, but the sound is beefed up to fit in with the later-era material. Numan is an artist who doesn’t enjoy nostalgia, though he will tip a respectful hat to his past.
“We’re doing six or seven songs from Savage every night,” he says. “We do about half a dozen songs from the early days — things like ‘Cars,’ ‘Are Friends Electric?’ and early songs that I think are the ones that most suit being reworked in this heavier, industrial kind of style. That keeps the older fans happy, and there’s good reason for doing that. There are quite a few songs from Splinter which did really well. But that’s it. It’s pretty much the two ends of my catalogue. I really want to focus on what I’m doing now, because that’s where my heart is. I probably don’t do as much older stuff as some people would want, but I don’t care, to be honest.”
Gary Numan plays with Me Not You and DJ Slave1, 8 p.m. Monday, December 18, Gothic Theatre, 3263 South Broadway, Englewood, 303-789-9206.