Gary Numan, singer songwriter, musician and record producer chats with Kevin Cooper about the financing of his latest album through Pledge Music, his autobiography Praying To The Aliens, becoming an Air Display Pilot Evaluator and his forthcoming tour of the UK
Gary Numan, born Gary Anthony James Webb is an English singer, songwriter, musician and record producer. He joined the Air Training Corps as a teenager and then he briefly did various jobs including fork lift truck driver, air conditioning ventilator fitter, and clerk in an accounts department. When he was 15 years old, his father bought him a Gibson Les Paul guitar, which he regards as his most treasured possession. Since then he has played in various bands, including Mean Street and The Lasers, before forming Tubeway Army with his uncle Jess Lidyard, and Paul Gardiner.
He released two albums with Tubeway Army before releasing his debut solo album The Pleasure Principle in 1979. Most widely known for his chart-topping hits Are Friends Electric? and Cars, Numan achieved his peak of mainstream popularity in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, but maintains a loyal cult following.
Picking the name Numan from an advert in the Yellow Pages who were advertising a plumber named A. Neumann, his career consists of a signature sound around heavy synthesizer hooks fed through guitar effects pedals. Numan is considered a pioneer of commercial electronic music.
Whilst on holiday with his family in Bora Bora, he tore himself away to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Mr Numan good morning it’s Kevin Cooper. How are you today?
Good morning Kevin, I’m on holiday in Bora Bora with my wife and children so today is a good day.
Firstly let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me and just how is life treating you?
It pulls and pushes a lot at the moment. I finished a really good tour in May only to get a message that my Mum was in hospital. She died on June 7th so that was a huge shock and upset. Outside of that things are good actually so I’m in a slightly surreal state of mind at the moment. I miss my Mum; I’m worried about my Dad, and then I look out the window here and it’s as close to paradise as you can imagine. It’s all a bit weird to be honest.
Does life in California suit you?
It does, but you can’t help but think about home and miss things. People, mainly I suppose but, as time goes by, more than just people. It was a big thing for me to leave. I read a lot of rubbish about my reasons for doing so, as if it was done flippantly, but it really wasn’t. It took years to reach the decision that leaving was the best thing, not just for me but for my family as a whole, and it really was hard to actually do it.
You have made me feel very old today. I was checking exactly when the first time that I saw you was and it was here in Nottingham at The Royal Concert Hall back in 1983 during your Warriors Tour.
(Laughter) thanks for coming along (laughter)
You are going back out on tour here in the UK in September. Are you looking forward to it?
Always. Touring is the best bit about being in a band. As each one finishes you can guarantee I’m already planning the next one.
You will be playing Rock City on 21st. What do you think of the venue?
It’s a great venue. The roof is a little too low so we always have trouble fitting in the light show but I love it just the same. You will always get a somewhat unique version of the light show in Rock City, and sometimes it works even better.
What can we expect from the gig?
We’re playing songs from three old albums; Replicas, The Pleasure Principle and Telekon. These were my first three chart albums in the UK, all number one albums, and the three that shaped my career. I played these three in September/October 2015 in Los Angeles, London, Manchester and Cork and that was supposed to be the end of it. But, people outside of those cities, in North America and the UK (and lots of other places actually) started to grumble so I played a regional tour in North America in May and added these UK shows. When these are finished that will be more than enough retro for a while (laughter). It’s not something I do very often and I really want to get the new album finished and start touring that next year.
In 2013 you released your last album Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind). Were you pleased with how well it was received?
I was amazed actually. The reviews were the best I’ve ever had and I really didn’t expect such a strong reaction. It’s a very heavy album; not easy listening at all, and so to get that reaction, with music so uncompromising, was a great feeling. It did better than any album I’ve made since 1981 as well so I couldn’t have been happier.
I see that in order for you to finance your new album you have invited fans to pledge and they have really rallied to the cause. When I last checked you had reached 224% of required pledges. That must make you feel proud of your fans out there?
It’s not for financing actually. Luckily I’m more than able to finance my own albums. I have my own studio, my own label, and I’m completely independent. The reason for Pledge was that I wanted fans to be involved in the process from day one. In a slightly childish way it has often bothered me that fans buy the shrink wrapped finished article without ever knowing the trials and tribulations that went into the making of it. Making an album is a huge rollercoaster ride of amazing highs and desperate lows. I wanted people to witness that ride. Already it’s worked in ways I hadn’t imagined.
My Mother passing away for example. I haven’t been near the Pledge campaign for a month or two now; I’ve been dealing with my Mum and the shock and sadness of that, but when I go back that experience will be a part of the album. It has to be. They will see changes; they will see the album evolve because of that passing, and many other things, good and bad, in a way they would never have been aware of before. When they get the finished thing, in its shrink-wrap, they will be aware of everything that went into the making of it, and that, I hope, will make us closer and be a more interesting listening experience for them. That’s the reason for the Pledge Campaign.
Their response to the campaign has been amazing. I had no idea it would do what it’s done, and it’s still going strong. So yes, very proud of the fans who have supported the campaign. It’s a huge leap of faith to buy something before it’s even begun.
At what stage are you at with the album?
Much further behind than I’d hoped at this stage, for obvious reasons. I’m back in the UK with my Dad in a few days so I won’t be back on it until August. Then I stop again for the tour in September and so won’t get back onto it fully until early October. From then on though I have nothing on the horizon that will interfere so things should speed up considerably.
Do you have a release date as yet?
No, I need to get a lot further along with the writing and recording before I could hazard a guess at a release date. I’m hoping for early next year.
What can you tell me about the new album?
It will be heavy, dark, absolutely not radio friendly, and not easy listening. Apart from that, not much to say about it at the moment. Splinter did really well so the new one has a lot to live up to. I’d be telling lies if I said I wasn’t feeling the pressure of that.
When you first formed Tubeway Army in 1978 did you ever think that you would still be in the music business some 38 years later?
No, I didn’t think about life after the age of 30 much at all. It seemed so far away. I thought that, even if I had a career at all, it would all be over long before I was 30.
In the early days how much influence did Midge Ure and Billy Curry have on your development as an artist?
No offence to Midge Ure, but he has had zero influence on me. I was an Ultravox fan but not when Midge was in it. I loved the first Ultravox, when John Foxx was in it, long before Midge Ure joined and Ultravox became a successful pop band. When John Foxx was the driving force it was incredibly inventive, way ahead of its time, and I used John’s creativity as a yardstick for what I was trying to do. Billy Curry was one of the keyboard players in my first touring band. A great player. I’m glad he found success with the new version of Ultravox.
At what point in your career did you feel the most musically satisfied?
With Splinter, in 2013, the most; although I can’t honestly say I’ve ever really felt musically satisfied. Each album is an attempt to improve on the one before; to make up for the mistakes you made. As each one is released you begin to worry about the next, and it is a real worry. You want to do better, move forward, not repeat yourself, and not get stuck in stylistic traps. People talk about having a ‘signature style’ as though it’s a good thing. I don’t see it as a good thing. I don’t want a ‘signature style’, I want to move forward, always; leave the past behind and find new things, new sounds, and new styles.
Was it always going to be a career in music or was your dad buying you a Gibson Les Paul guitar at 15 years old the turning point?
No, I wanted to be a pilot for much of my early childhood, then I wanted to be a racing driver. Music came along as puberty hit and the favour of girls started to become important. When we had career talks at school I could never tell the advisor what I wanted to do; I could only explain the type of life I wanted. I wanted every day different from the one before, to be my own boss, constantly challenging, big rewards, big risks, always exciting, lots of travel, something creative, and loud and glamorous. I wanted those things, and I wasn’t entirely bothered as a teenager about what I did to get them (laughter). Any job that gave me those things would do. It very luckily turned out that I grew to love making music above all other careers, and that gave me most of the lifestyle things I was looking for.
You released your autobiography Praying To The Aliens in 1997. Was that something that you felt that you needed to do?
I didn’t need to but I’d been plagued by bad and inaccurate press coverage for most of my career up until the mid-90s. It was nice to be able to write down what really happened, what I really felt, why I really did the things I did, and said the things I said. I wanted to put the record straight, as far as I saw it anyway. Autobiographies are not always the ego massaging self-indulgence that some people seem to see them as. They are often the only answer a person has to a lot of hostile bad mouthing. Luckily for me my relationship with the press is, for the most part, very good these days but I’m still feeling the urge to bring the autobiography up to date with a second volume.
You have recently co-written Here For You with Jean-Michel Jarre for his Electronica 2 album. What was it like working with him?
He’s a very lovely man, very clever and a genuine legend, so it was a real honour to be asked to be one of the artists on the album. He really is one of the most likeable people I’ve ever met and is, obviously, a true pioneer of electronic music. To be included in his list of important electronic artists to collaborate with was very flattering. He works you hard though. He knows exactly what he wants out of you (laughter).
When you read people such as Dave Grohl, Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson saying that you have been a massive influence on their careers, that must make you satisfied and perhaps even proud?
It’s very cool yes. I’ve been covered or sampled by so many people now I’ve actually lost count; many of them seriously high calibre artists, so it is very flattering and does give my low confidence a bit of a boost at times. Strangely though, despite all that, I am very insecure about what I do. I’m riddled by self-doubt. Part of the reason for the Pledge Campaign was to let people see just how insecure I am. Not in a self-pitying way, but in a way that might better explain the music I make, and why it takes me so long these days.
Are you still flying?
Not at the moment. I pulled out of aerobatic flying displays when the children came along. Pretty much everyone I knew that did it was killed during my years as a display pilot so it seemed too risky a hobby when I became a father. Plus, children have better things to do than watch Dad fly off every weekend, and I wanted to be with them, and with Gemma, so I finally had important things to do with my life other than fly upside down close to the ground. I do miss it though. There is nothing quite like the thrill of display flying.
Who did you listen to when you were growing up?
T-Rex, Bowie, Mott The Hoople, Lou Reed, etc, etc. Just like several million other people. I wasn’t in to anything particularly unusual or outrageous, just the pop stars of the day.
What was the first record you ever bought?
The first one I ever bought with my own money was a Hank Williams Junior country album for my Mum. The first music I ever bought for me was a Monkees album, although I’m not sure which one. Some friends and I used to call ourselves The Monkee Juniors and mime to Monkees records in neighbour’s houses for money.
Who did you first see playing live in concert?
I went to a Nazareth concert at the Rainbow, Finsbury Park in London. The first band I ever saw live were the support band Silverhead. The singer Michael Des Barres was amazing. He went on to front Power Station for a while with some of the Duran Duran people I think. The bass player, Nigel Harrison, went on to be part of Blondie for many years. I remember during the Nazareth set that during one particular song the guitar player would hit a certain note; make it feedback, and I would fall over, like a switch had turned me off. It happened three times during that one song; the same note, and the same outcome. I’ve always assumed it was a frequency that doesn’t work for me, but it’s never happened since. It was the weirdest thing.
Who has been your biggest musical inspiration?
No-one has been the biggest, but I’ve had very many people inspire me. It’s a constant thing. Every day you hear things you like, not just music, but sounds. Not always by musicians, but from anywhere. And not always sounds. You can see something you love, read something, or touch something. It’s all out there. The world is crammed full of inspiration, you just need to be open to it.
What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
Well, being number one is pretty hard to beat so that can go to the top of the ‘obvious answer’ list. But, outside of that, getting the various awards for Inspiration and Innovation from Mojo, Q and Moog recently have been pretty special. Seeing Splinter get back into the UK chart was something I wasn’t sure I would ever see again, so that was also very special. Still having a career after doing it for so many years is something I’m proud of, and do not take for granted at all. Playing at Wembley, having my songs covered by most of the bands I love at one time or another is right up there, and listening to the genius Mike Garson play one of my songs during a Nine Inch Nails show was an eye watering moment for me.
I love my life; I love making music, despite all the doubt and worries that come with it, I love touring and I love seeing a new finished album for the first time, I love almost everything about my life as a songwriter/musician, so it’s hard to pick a favourite moment. Listening to your children singing one of your songs; watching them leaping about on the side of the stage, seeing their mouths drop open when the crowds start chanting my name, well these are all highlights that have come in more recent years that I’d never even considered as a younger man. It’s impossible to choose just one.
Do you have any favourite experiences of Nottingham?
Well, Ade Fenton, until recently, had his studio in Nottingham so I have spent a lot of time there. Ade produced my last three albums so half of Splinter was made in Nottingham, half of the Jagged album before it, and the Dead Son Rising album, were all made in Nottingham. Arguably, much of the best music I’ve ever made has been made in Nottingham so yes, lots of happy memories and good experiences. The gigs have always been great as well.
What single ambition have you still to achieve?
Musically speaking, none really, other than increasing my longevity. I wanted to be a successful musician; wanted to be an influential songwriter, but I also wanted to be an air display pilot and I did that. I also wanted to be happily married and have a family obviously, and I have that. The one major thing that I haven’t done, that I still dream of doing, is to write a novel. Lots of them actually, but one will do as a tick off the list for that ambition. I hope to have that tick within the next year or two, but it really is hard to find the time to work on that.
What would you say is you single biggest achievement?
Becoming an air display pilot, in fact becoming an Air Display Pilot Evaluator for the Civil Aviation Authority. Flying aerobatics, in close formation, in old World War Two airplanes, very close to the ground, is not a skill easily gained, and certainly not something that just anyone can do. I was enormously proud of being part of a relatively small group of people who did that.
What would you say has been your single most embarrassing moment?
I can’t think of anything that’s been horrendously embarrassing to be honest. All the usual teenage fumbling’s and early finishes with girls of course, but nothing that’s haunted me throughout my life. I’ve done reasonably well at all the things that are important to me, and I really don’t give a shit about anything that isn’t important to me, so a lot of things that might have been embarrassing to some have just slid off me without leaving a mark. I’ve only ever fallen over on stage once or twice in all the years I’ve been touring, and that’s not a big deal, so nothing really embarrassing to talk about I’m afraid (laughter).
On that note let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me and I am looking forward to seeing you here in Nottingham at Rock City. Bye for now.
Thanks Kevin, it’s been a pleasure.