Interview: Gary Numan

(Written for Audio Addict, November 2011)

When listening to his latest album, anybody who knows Gary Numan solely for his early Seventies and early-Eighties hits, such as Are ‘Friends’ Electric and Cars, might be in for a shock. They could be forgiven for thinking that there was a packing error at the printing plant. Released in September, it bears the macabre title Dead Son Rising.

“It’s not a pop record or a happy sunny day kind of record. I don’t ever really do that.”

Despite having the same distinctive voice, his music has changed dramatically over the years, from the beeps and chirps of synthpop in the late 70s, to an electronic industrial concoction today. While the changes have taken place over the course of over thirty years, it was not a smooth process. “When I very first started in the late 70s, I made records because I like them and I kind of got my fingers crossed and hoped that other people liked them too.”

Reflecting on his hit singles in 1979 and massive success at the time, Gary feels that his style now is where he belongs. “I was very lucky many years ago when I wrote things that got into the chart but I do think that it was almost by accident because I’m not good at writing pop music. Never have been really. I don’t think I’ll ever gonna write pop music. It’s a decision I’ve got to live with, but it means that I love what I do and I’m proud of it when I look back”

However, it was this early success that would spark a downfall; a change of mindset as he was under pressure to follow his number ones with more. “I became quite successful but then it started to slip away quite badly. At that point, I started listening to what other people were saying, and I lost that confidence.”

These matters would go from bad to worse. Gary has some harsh words about some of his music at the time, hitting such a low point that he was ready to turn his back on the industry entirely. “I put out a really shit album in 1992 called Machine and Soul which I’ll regret for the rest of my life. I realised that what I’d been doing wasn’t the right way to do it. I took a bit of time out and really thought through everything. Even whether I wanted to leave the music business.”

“A really shit album.”

Since these twists in his career, things have become much smoother. He is now back in his comfort zone, and feeling freer. He may not be topping the charts, but he seems to care less than ever. “I don’t think commercially at all. I think it’s why the albums these days are so heavy. There’s no way they’ll get on the radio. There’s no way they’ll get on the TV. It’s too heavy for that.” However, despite his way of life changing, now married with three children, it seems that something vital hasn’t changed. His image. As ever, he hides behind what seems to be an entire bottle of eyeliner.

Even though Gary has stepped a long way back from commercialism, he has still been involved with popular acts of today. After a phone call from musician Trent Reznor, he joined Nine Inch Nails onstage in London in 2009, to perform some of his own songs with the band. “I went along to that and when I got there he wanted to do a couple of songs, which I actually thought was a mistake to be honest. I said to him at the time, ‘I don’t think your fans are gonna be interested in having someone else singing. I think they’ll hate it.’ I was fucking terrified, but it was brilliant’’. His surprise appearance in London received a glowing reception, and he was called back for Nine Inch Nails’ final shows in the USA. “I loved every moment of it.”

August saw the release of American experimental rock trio Battles’ latest single My Machines, which Gary lent his vocals to. He explained the troubles involved in the creation of that one song and its video, a process that involved two visits to the USA. “They got in touch a while back, saying that they would be interested in collaboration. I started to check them out a little bit and I met up with them in Boston towards the end of last year… I went back to America to do the video for it, which again was really good. One of the more interesting videos I’ve ever been involved in.”

Complicating matters further still, the recording of his vocal thousands of miles away from the band was difficult and slow. “they sent me the track that they wanted me to work on, so I did the vocal for it and sent it back and it wasn’t really what they wanted. So I had another go.”

Having delved into darker territory in recent years, it seems that he has no plan to stop until hitting absolute blackness, as he explained that more was on its way next year: “The one I’m working on now which I’m trying to get out in the middle of next year. It’s very heavy, very aggressive and very dark. There are elements of Dead Son Rising in that, but it’s much further along that particular road.”

Be afraid.

Gary Numan’s latest album Dead Son Rising is out now.

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