I recently saw Gary Numan at The Live Rooms, Chester, the opening night of Gary’s abridged club tour – it was also somewhat of a return visit having last witnessed Gary Numan live a short distance, though many years previously at the soulless Deeside Ice Rink. Following the gig I took the chance to chat to Gary about how he feels about his place in the rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame, the processes involved in his writing and Gary’s plans for the future.
Louder Than War : I saw your gig at The Live Rooms, Chester (Louder Than War review) last week – the first of the intimate club dates’… fantastic show, really enjoyed it; watching I got the feeling that you seemed to really enjoy performing?
Gary Numan: Touring has been at the top of my ‘Things I Love To Do’ list for many years. I love the lifestyle that comes with being on the road. I love the travelling, seeing new places, new things, meeting new people. And then, each night, you get to stand on stage and sing your songs to people that, mostly anyway, love what you do. I don’t say very much when I’m on stage but I hope my enjoyment is obvious to the audience.
You certainly looked pleased after the Chester gig! I understand you specifically chose to play a series of small ‘off the beaten track’ venues in towns and cities like Chester – what was the thought process behind this?
It was always the plan to play two British tours with the ‘Splinter’ album. My original idea was to revisit the major cities but, when I thought about it, the idea of taking the tour out to the more out of the way places seemed a better idea. I wanted to take the tour to people that don’t live in major cities rather than keep expecting them to travel in to see me. I did it before, many years ago, and it worked really well, as it has done this time I’m pleased to say.
I particularly enjoyed the fact that it was literally just you and the band; no props – no electric cars!! I mention that having last seen you back in 1980…was it difficult to play in such an exposed manner?
I’ve been playing without all those things for a very long time so I’m well used to it.! The first UK Splinter tour had a big production, but the show we took to Europe was very stripped down, as it was in both Australia and New Zealand come to that. I put together a show that matches the level I’m at in whatever country I’m playing but, in all honesty, I’m a long way from those rather large and spectacular world tours that I did at the beginning. The show I’m playing at the Hammersmith Apollo in November (Tickets) will have the biggest production I’ve had since 1981 so it’s good to be getting back to that.
My colleague Paul Scott-Bates reviewed ‘Splinter’ and rightly described it as “a triumph” – watching you perform it I was hugely impressed at just how well it sits within your catalogue, without in any way being formulaic; what’s the song writing process you go through?
It’s quite simple really. Everything starts with a piano. I will sit and work out the melodies, arrangements and structure on the piano before employing any of the technology. That all comes later. The first and most important thing to get right is the melody itself, everything else is built around that. Without a good melody all that technology is just polishing a turd. But, having got that sorted, it’s a case of building layer upon layer of sounds and parts that work with and complement that original melody. The lyrics are the very last thing as I find that the feel of the music, the mood, the atmosphere that comes from playing the track, guides you into a lyric better than anything else. I have no idea how people can start with a lyric and build a song up that way. Doesn’t work for me.
I’m guessing you write to satisfy yourself; you don’t appear to write material with an eye on the charts etc…
I tried writing songs with an eye on the charts and I was shit at it so, these days (and for the last twenty years), I just write what I love and then hope for the best. I want to be successful, I want to sell lots of albums and tickets, but I want to succeed doing something I really love, with music I’m really proud of, not because I managed to second guess the next trend and write something accordingly.
My music is very heavy these days, not suitable for radio, so I’m very aware that I’m making things hard for myself as it’s not easy to get my kind of music heard by the public. But, that’s an acceptable problem for me because I get a huge amount of satisfaction with every small step forward I take, knowing that it’s been hard won.
I agree your overall sound has become much heavier; lyrically your material has certainly developed a darker tone, often drawing upon your own personal experiences – do you write in this style to ‘release demons/exorcise ghosts’ or is it simply a case of write what you know about?
Both actually. It’s true that writing about your own experiences is to speak about things you are intimately familiar with, so a good source to begin with. But I definitely feel that writing about personal things, especially if those things are quite heavy and dark experiences (as they usually are with me), is a very useful way of getting those negative emotions out. In much the same way as someone would talk to a therapist or a very close friend I find that writing about such things helps to empty my head of all the negative things that lurk inside. With Splinter many of the songs are my way of dealing with the after effects of depression and I genuinely feel that, because I could do that, I’ve come out of it unscarred, arguably as a nicer person than I was before.
So what motivates you to keep going, strong work ethic, finances or just a continuing desire to create?
Again, all of the above. I like to work, to be busy, so that’s a definite part of it. I have a need to create, partly perhaps because of the things mentioned in the previous answer, I need to get all that negative stuff out, and I seem to have a lot of negative stuff from time to time. Financially I absolutely need to keep doing it. I have three young children so I can’t imagine a time when I won’t need to work. When it comes to money they can really suck it up!
Watching you on stage you clearly keep yourself in shape; I don’t recall any media reports of you spiralling into a typical drink and drug void – what keeps you focussed?
I don’t do much at all to keep in shape I’m ashamed to say. About two months ago I started to plank every day, like a press up but without moving, and that’s the most exercise I’ve done in my entire life. My nature is obsessive but, luckily, not addictive. I have formidable will power coupled with a healthy dose of vanity so that seems to be enough to keep me on track as far as fitness and focus are concerned.
Though you have experienced some dark times; financial issues, depression – was your music a route through these experiences? I’m guessing ‘Jagged’ focussed on some of these issues.
In many ways my music has been the way I’ve steered my life through everything, or at least a documented account of it. It has been an extraordinary life in so many ways and although not all of it has been fun, I would hesitate to change any of it if such a thing was ever made possible. I have seen some incredible things, had some extreme experiences, met some amazing people, with good and bad examples of all of those things. Things to be proud of on one side and ashamed of on the other, but everything makes you the person you become and I have no problems with who I am today. ‘Jagged’ definitely looked at the darker side of those experiences though.
Would it be correct to suggest that ‘Splinter’ seems to have focused more on your regrets – it’s a deeply personal and revealing body of work…
Not so much regrets as effects. I was diagnosed with depression in 2008 and spent the next few years dealing with that and working through the cure for it, something almost as unsettling as the illness itself strangely enough. Splinter, or much of it, looks at the effects that illness had on my life and the relationships woven into it. The song ‘Lost’ for example is about the near disaster of me thinking about leaving my marriage as we were getting on so badly. My fault of course but I was, as the song says, lost in a strange world and it took a few years to get through that.
On a lighter note; over the years you have been cited by many many artists as an influence – the range of styles you have apparently influenced is frankly bewildering; how does if feel being a musical pioneer?
It feels good, very satisfying. I’m blown away by how many different types of artists, from a wide range of genres, talk about me as being influential in some way. It’s something I’m enormously proud of. It’s also had a very positive effect on my credibility, and that level of credibility is so hard to find, so I’m not only proud but very grateful to all those people that have said such kind things.
Which if any of these bands have asked to work with you, the most obvious tie-up would be to collaborate with Trent Reznor…
I have worked with some of them already over the last few years. I’ve been a guest on stage with Trent and Nine Inch Nails a number of times and we have talked about studio work together but that has yet to happen. I’m quite passive about such things to be honest, I don’t push for them, but that’s more to do with my lack of confidence. I’m riddled with self doubt unfortunately, no matter how many cool things are said about me. Underneath I’m the same introverted person I’ve always been.
Have you found that fans of these grateful artists are now listening to you, buying up skip-fulls of your back catalogue?
Yes, it’s certainly made a difference. I notice it most at gigs where the number of new people coming to the shows is obvious, and the energy and attitude that they bring with them is also making a difference. The crowds these days are more interactive than they used to be, more involved, noisier. It’s made touring a lot more fun and exciting.
So, which bands/artists are currently exciting you?
I really love Roman Remains who have toured with me a lot recently. I also love a band called Officers who have a new album out soon and another called The Losers who are doing some great stuff at the moment.
Have you ever been approached to join the 80s ‘Rewind Festival’ circuit – personally I’m glad that either you haven’t or if you had you turned them down?
I have been approached but I have zero interest in nostalgia so it was an easy decision to say no. I mean no offence to the bands that go that route but it just isn’t for me. It feels to me, by doing that type of tour, that you own up to the fact that you have nothing new to offer. With Splinter I have had the best album reviews I’ve ever had, by far, and this is with a style of music that’s extremely heavy, aggressive and dark. You don’t need to live in the past if you can still write songs and are still focussed on doing something new, if you still want to keep moving forward. Nostalgia is just another way of admitting defeat.
Having (thankfully) rejected ‘Rewind’ – what’s next for Gary Numan, is there a further album in the near future? I heard rumours a new album might be released in early 2015.
I have a small amount of live work left, ending with the show at Hammersmith Apollo in London in November, before the Splinter campaign is finished. After that, I start to write the new album which is penciled in for a spring 2016 release. Most of 2015 will be spent writing and recording that new album but I also have a number of other projects to get done. A new autobiography, a novel (possibly wishful thinking but it’s part of the plan), more film score work and collaborations.
Yeah, I heard you were working on a film score, is this an area you would be keen to delve deeper into?
Actually, I’ve just finished the first one for an animated film called ‘From Inside’. I co-wrote that one with Ade Fenton but there are more lining up now so that side of things is going well. The From Inside film and soundtrack album comes out in October I believe.
Film scores are an area that I am very interested in pursuing. I feel it’s very important for me to have options available to me as the career develops. I probably won’t be able to tour forever so I need some other things that I can turn to. What I’m doing at the moment is planting seeds for those future opportunities, so that they can begin to grow now, ready for when I might need them in the future.
Gary has just released a new single ‘I Am Dust’ (Mortal Records) 7th July, it’s the opening track from ‘Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind) – grinding, apocalyptic electro that surrenders to a gigantic chorus; the digital release features a demo version plus two remixes including one by Roman Remains.
Gary Numan’s Website is here: numan.co.uk.