Given his innovative, experimental beginnings, it’s pleasing to hear that Gary Numan is still making music in much the same way. While his latest, more ‘darkwave’ material might not be as pop chart accessible, Gary’s never been one to rely on simply regurgitating a winning formula, choosing instead to continue conjuring new soundscapes, and preferring to focus on these when playing live. So, it seems that his new tour, which stops off at Motion in September and sees him play a set comprising tracks from classic albums Replicas, The Pleasure Principle and Teleken, is a rare chance indeed for die-hard fans…
TBM: So what can we expect from the Bristol show?
GN: I’ll be playing old songs from the start of my career, which is very unusual for me. It’s three albums mainly, which were all number one back then. I don’t play many songs from the past when I tour normally, and that does cause a fair bit of annoyance to some of the fans, so this is my way of making up for that. When the new album comes out in 2017 it will be back to touring as normal so this isn’t something I’ll do very often. It’s fun though, in very short stages like this, but retro is not really my favourite thing.
Apart from the tour, what are you working on now?
As well as the new album that’s underway, a novel, an update to my autobiography, some collaboration tracks, a documentary film and a live DVD/album/photo book from my 2014 Hammersmith show, coming out soon. I also have a DVD version of a television documentary that’s just come out, a three album box set of live albums from last year’s London shows and a few other little things. I manage myself these days as well and that takes up way too much time, so I need to look into that…
Tell us about the new album…
It’s a long way from being finished but it will be dark, heavy and a long way away from radio-friendly easy listening. My stuff has been getting progressively heavier and darker since the mid Nineties. I’m very happy with where I now find myself musically, but that’s quite different from the songs we’ll be playing at the September shows. They are a much earlier version of electronic music.
You’re often credited for spearheading and pioneering electronica (congrats on the Moog Innovation Award!) – but who were your own influences?
Thanks, I was really proud to get the Moog Award. I found a synth in the corner of a studio I was using in 1978. I hadn’t heard any electronic music that had inspired me to get involved up to that point, although I had heard a few things I’d liked. Trying out that synth changed everything for me, but I had no one guide me to it, no influences that had led me there. I just started to do my own thing with it, with no guidelines or parameters to stick to. It was all very experimental and very exciting. Soon after that I was number one and everything changed, of course. The one man that I did discover, that I really looked up to back then, was John Foxx, from the original version of Ultravox. He was doing things that really set the standard for me. Very clever, very creative.
How do you feel technology has changed music over more recent years?
My interest in electronic music is all about sound. Noises. Finding great noises and then trying to create a musical world in which they can live. You can drag a piece of concrete across a metal drain for example, record the sound it makes, take it to the studio and then manipulate it into something incredible. But it’s not music as such. So you then have to build a musical environment where that mad sound makes sense, and is usable. That’s what electronic music is about to me. Creating noise, finding a way of making it musical.
The technology gives us the tools to manipulate sound, to create sounds, to layer them, in ways that were very difficult to do when I started. Soft synths these days are incredible, absolutely incredible. They make the world of sound design a really fun and exciting place to work in. But, I don’t know if it’s changed music or just made it easier to do things we were doing before. It could take me all day to build a sample using tape many years ago, and it was a mixture of trial, error and luck that got it to run in time with the track. These days all that is done with a click of a button. So the method is better, but I really don’t know if the music is different because of it, or the many other examples of technology making things easier. I know I love it though.
What kind of equipment do you use now?
The studio is a Pro Tools room with software mostly from Spectrasonics and Native Instruments. Hardware is very little these days. I have an Access Virus, a Moog Voyager, a Roland JD-XA and an old Quadrasynth that I still love, but that’s about it. Guitars and basses, obviously. Live, we run Logic in the background on the laptop and then many of the same synths. One keyboard player uses Main Stage from Logic for his set up which works well.
I try to keep the live set up as simple as possible. Reliability is everything when you’re touring. Modern synths you would expect to be more robust and reliable than those we used back in the early days, but that’s not entirely true unfortunately. We still have problems keeping everything running but I think touring is hard on gear. Set up and broken down every day, high temperature environments on stage and then often loaded into freezing cold, damp trucks. The thermal cycling alone takes its toll I’m sure, plus the banging around they get from load in crews. It’s a lot to ask from sensitive and complex equipment I think.
“I really enjoy the dark, heavy electronic music that I’ve been making for the last few albums… Massive grooves, huge anthemic choruses, it’s very filmic in a way. A lot of my stuff sounds like a punchy film trailer.”
What do you listen to at home?
I don’t really. I’m not a big fan of listening to music. I never listen to radio, never listen in the car. I find it annoying actually. The world is so full of noise I like quiet, when I can find it.
What do you do with your spare time these days? Do you still fly?
I was an aerobatic display pilot for many years and almost everyone I knew in that world was killed in one crash or another, so I stopped flying when the children came along. It seemed too dangerous a hobby to indulge in when you have young children. I really miss it though. I don’t get a lot of spare time to be honest and, when I do, these days it tends to be doing something that the children like. I need to find something new, something exciting that we can all share in. I swam with sharks recently in Bora Bora – that was pretty cool and one of my three kids loved doing that. I need to find something I can share with the other two next.
You’ve experimented with a lot of sounds and genres, are there any you’d still like to try out?
I think I’ve found the area I’m most happy in. I really enjoy the dark, heavy electronic music that I’ve been making for the last few albums. It’s very exciting in the studio and even more exciting to get out on stage with it. You can feel it, through the floor, you can feel the stage shaking and it feels amazing. Massive grooves, huge anthemic choruses, it’s very filmic in a way. A lot of my stuff sounds like a punchy film trailer. That’s where I am now and I’m not sure I’ll move away. But you never know.
Your music has been sampled in plenty of pop songs in more recent years, what’s been your favourite?
Yes, there’ve been too many to count now, not just pop either but pretty much every genre out there, so it’s hard to keep up with. Snoop Dogg just cleared one of my songs for a new track he’s working on. I think my favorite still has to be the Nine Inch Nails version of my song Metal. That will take some beating I think.
And your favourite collaboration? Is there anyone you’d really like to work with in the next few years?
I’m very passive with that actually. I just get on with my own thing and if an offer drops through the door, so to speak, I’ll think about it. I do a lot of collaboration work with new bands, strangely enough. I like to listen to what new ideas people are coming up with. I did do a track with Jean Michel Jarre recently – that was a real honour.