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

Categories: Q&A
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Courtesy of the Artist
Gary Numan

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.

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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.

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