Gary Steel chats with a remarkably human-like android.
I could never understand why so many people hated Gary Numan. In 1979, the year that both of his classic albums Replicas and The Pleasure Principle virtually created the idea of synth-pop in the public consciousness, Numan’s music matched the zeitgeist perfectly.
Only with the more recent revelation that Numan has Asperger’s did it click: the themes of alienation so integral to Numan’s most famous recordings are exactly what you might expect from an Asperger’s sufferer. The condition makes it difficult, if not impossible, to sense a feeling of connection with others, and in Numan’s case, lead him to write songs that were literally ahead of their time in their narcissistic self-loathing. It wasn’t until ‘90s groups like Nine Inch Nails and Tool came along that this kind of self-love/self-hatred paradox became common in rock music. When Numan was making his most popular tracks, themes of alienation were common, but they were politically conscious, and often social commentary, not inward-looking and obsessive.
But it wasn’t really Numan’s alienation that appealed to me as a callow youth. There was something vulnerable about this young chap, and unlike Bowie, who he emulated to some degree, Numan clearly had bad skin and somehow just oozed lower-middle-class suburbia. I could relate to that.
But more importantly, he made music that sounded good loud, a simplistic but effective mesh of rock drums and bass, mixed with glacial sheets of synthesiser, which was much more appealing to me than guitars.
When Gary Numan played at the now defunct Majestic Theatre in Wellington’s Willis St in 1980, he couldn’t have realised just how “alternative” the Capital’s punk culture was. Though Numan himself had cloaked his music in punk clichés until his accidental discovery of synthesisers, the artifice of heavy makeup and robot presentation was anathema to the art terrorists who comprised “the Terrace scene”. A young woman named Sam, who infamously sang for a group called Life In The Fridge Exists, took great exception to Numan. Sam loved provocation, and her group’s exploits could fill a small book. Suffice to say, Sam and her cronies appeared in the front row of Numan’s gig, cat-calling, yelling “wanker” and gobbing. One of Sam’s big snotty gobs got Numan full in the face, and I remember it rolling down his face, and the look of sheer terror the poor young fellow had at that precise moment. [Sam went on to a group called Fog, and apparently died of an overdose in the 1990s, while Numan’s career nosedived after those two great hit albums, leaving him in a career doldrums that went on for decades].
I was shocked when Numan turned out to be a personable and funny interview subject. He’s clearly changed over the years (haven’t we all?) but it seemed inconceivable to me that this was the same Numan of ‘Me I Disconnect From You’.
Witchdoctor – I guess you wouldn’t remember much about your first trip down here?
Numan – I do remember quite a bit about it actually, because it was quite eventful for one reason or another, some of it good, some of it not so good for various reasons. It was one of the more memorable trips. I’d been in New Zealand for about an hour, come out of the airport, went to the hotel and this little club, and got chased out of the club by skinheads. I’d been in New Zealand for about one hour, and I was being chased up the road by skinheads. I couldn’t believe it. It was the worst start to a tour to be honest [Laughs].
Witchdoctor – Was that in Auckland or Wellington?
Numan – I can’t remember now to be honest.
Witchdoctor – I was writing about music for the Evening Post in Wellington and saw your concert there, and I remember there was quite a bit of aggravation from skinheads. Someone spat at you and got you full in the face…
Numan – [Chuckles]
Witchdoctor – A huge gob, and I wrote about it in my review and your Dad rang me the next day to thank me for the nice review.
Numan – Oh really, well thank you again.
Witchdoctor – I believe he was your manager at the time.
Numan – It was very much a family affair for quite awhile. My brother was in the band. It’s not like that now, it hasn’t been for quite some time. But it was very much in the early years, it was very much a family affair. I was a little bit paranoid, and didn’t really trust anyone, and I wanted to keep it with people I cared about and who would have my best interests really. And there was quite a lot of hostility round at the time, when it all kicked off, quite a lot of resistance to that kind of music, especially from the Press, especially in Britain, they were a little bit mean. So I tended to keep people around me that I cared about and trusted. After awhile you get over all of that. When that sort of thing first happened, it’s quite a shock to the system really, you’ve gone from nobody knowing you at all to suddenly everyone knows who you are. It takes awhile to adapt to that, some people never do. It certainly took me awhile. And while you’re going through that you tend to lean on people close to you.
Witchdoctor – Yeah I imagine it must have been a huge shock. I remember at the time my friends were huge fans, but there was a lot of negative press and nasty things said about you at the time that we couldn’t understand.
Numan – There was quite a lot of it actually, but I know from my experience from here, which I was obviously more familiar with on a day to day basis, but there were people who had a certain amount of ignorance about electronic music, but also people genuinely didn’t like it, and I completely understand that. There were a lot of people who really didn’t think it was proper music. People very entrenched in that guitar bass drums ‘this is rock music and it’s always going to be rock music and that’s the end of it’. Then along come these sort of… diddly noises, the stuff that I was doing, and some people just didn’t get it, and didn’t like it. And I think that what made it worse was that it went to Number 1 here, before anyone knew who I was. It was Number 1 for two weeks before the record was even playlisted on radio. I think it caught a lot of people by surprise. It was one of those rare occasions where the public was into something long before the Press had even told them it existed. And I think that kind of annoyed people. There were lots of things going on. I’ve got Asperger’s Syndrome, which was much worse when I was younger. I had the most brilliant knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, and putting my foot in it. So I think a lot of the problems that I had, some of it I can take the blame for it fairly and squarely on my own shoulders, but I have no axe to grind about those times, I don’t look back and think everyone was horrible, poor little misunderstood thing, I was as much a part of the problem as the ignorance that surrounded it. When you’re the first person to do something – I wasn’t the first person to do it, but I was the first person to have some success with it; electronic music, in this country, anyway. But I definitely wasn’t the first to be doing it. There were definitely others before me, but they just hadn’t had the luck that I did. But when you are the first person you take a lot of the brunt of any kind of anxious feeling, it’s going to fall squarely on your shoulders. Because you’re the one standing at the top of the pile, briefly. And then after awhile people start to get a bit more used to it, and other bands come along that they like a bit more than what I was doing, and slowly but surely electronic music becomes commonplace, and the hostility sort of fades away. There are pros and cons of being one of the first people to do it, because you get the glory that comes with it, but you get the shit as well.
Witchdoctor – I guess a lot of the appeal at the time was the alienation that you got across in the music so very well. Did you really feel like that at the time, and was that part of what you describe as a mild Asperger’s?
Numan – I was a little bit immature anyway, I was still behaving like a teenager, I was 21. So that’s always a problem. Teenagers are just a problem. They look at the world as if they’re the only person in it sometimes, and it’s all about how misunderstood they are, and desperately trying to make their mark, and overreacting to so many things. I’ve got Asperger’s anyway, which in some situations can make things so much worse, because you don’t interact well at the best of times. On top of that [being a young person] you find you suddenly find that you’ve got this problem as a personality trait going on, and you’re famous, and there’s this hostility because you’re a little bit quirky, and some people don’t know how to deal with it. So it is a recipe for disaster when you think about it [laughs]. There were so many reasons I don’t have any ill feelings with anybody about what went on, I really don’t. If anything I’m extremely grateful that I’m still here, still doing it, and still able to. There were a lot of things that were received in a quite negative way in the early days, and those things are now seen in a very different light. It’s all come back really, in a way that’s a lot more positive than it was the first time round.
Witchdoctor – Well, you certainly seem to have come out all right, including having a good family and kids and all that kind of stuff.
Numan – Having the children has been – it’s the first time I’ve felt properly grown up. It’s really strange, sometimes it feels like it all happened a week ago, it’s such a big thing to have gone through, and other times it feels like it’s been going on for a thousand years. I think it just depends on what mood you wake up in really. It’s been a very, very up and down career. It started brilliantly, couldn’t have had a better start, and then it went absolutely downhill for about 12 years. Each year was a bit worse than the year before. I couldn’t believe it, things just kept getting worse and worse and worse. And then round about ’92 it bottomed out, and from then on it’s been the other way round… each year has been a little bit better. My songwriting has improved enormously from the lull that I was in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. I enjoy it now more than ever, I have a level of credibility and respect now that I certainly didn’t have when I started, and obviously as a person I’m very much older. And quite different in many respects, from how I was when I started. I would have to say that the highs and lows have been an important part of changing me I suppose. The last few years I’ve enjoyed more than any other time I’ve been doing it. Right up to now. I love the music I’m making, I’m very happy with it, I enjoy touring with an absolute passion, being out with a band playing live. I’ve been doing it so long, you get a level of confidence. You get used to it, it becomes a way of life. And I love it, I really love it. So the fact that the career was kind of just inching forward, each month goes by… it’s a lovely position to be in, I have to say. I just wish I could stop time, because I’m getting older, and I know the end is a lot closer now than it was when I started. So I am aware of that, and I feel this need to keep trying.
Witchdoctor – And knowing that is part of what makes you enjoy it more really.
Numan – It is a part of it, yeah, it brings an excitement of its own. I have to say that when you read things – people do a lot of cover versions of my stuff now. People talk about me being innovative… it’s a massively confidence-boosting thing, because strangely enough I have never been very confident about what I’ve done. Every album I’ve done there have always been people that I’ve admired who I have used as a measure to put myself against, and I have never done an album as good as the people I admire. I’ve always felt lesser than anyone around at any given time, so to hear people saying this stuff, being very complimentary, it’s an important boost for me, because if anything I’ve always suffered from a lack of confidence throughout my entire career. I’ve never really felt as if I was made to do this. I’ve always wanted to do it, and it’s always been one of the most important things to me, but I’ve never felt I was actually made for it. I’ve had to make myself… So it’s brilliant, I’ve been very fortunate, and it’s [the compliments] have been good for the career, because it introduces people who didn’t know who you were. When someone says something nice, they check you out, and I think that’s been a big factor in my career slowly rising.
Witchdoctor – You’re talking to some extent about the support of people like Trent Reznor?
Numan – Yes, absolutely, yes, a good example of it.
Witchdoctor – It must have been a blast performing with those guys, and just feeling that you had that support and admiration.
Numan – It was amazing to be honest, and the more it went on, each night… well I did the big show here in London, that was amazing, 20,000 people or something and I was terrified, I couldn’t imagine that people were going to put up with me singing my songs. I said to Trent, ‘they’re going to hate that – who would want to go and watch Nine Inch Nails and find me singing ‘Cars’? But it was brilliant, and then we went to America and did the same thing there, and each night he introduced me and talked about how important The Pleasure Principle album was to him. In fact it was part of the reason I decided to do The Pleasure Principle thing in the first place, was because Trent made me look at it again. I’d never really thought that much about it. Did the album, then the next one, then the next one… life keeps on moving. I didn’t think much about it, I certainly didn’t think it was anything special. And then he said that, and at the same time Basement Jaxx did a song from it, or took samples from it. There just seemed to be such an activity – people using it in adverts and so on. There was so much that I thought when it comes to being the 30th anniversary I can either ignore it, because I don’t like nostalgia, or I can celebrate it. But if it hadn’t been for the activity around it I would probably have just ignored it, retrospective reviews of it… and it just made me feel different about it. So I very cautiously put a few dates together in England and that all went very well, and then America wanted it, and that was just going to be two shows, and that ended up being… it just kept going. It’s been fun, but I have to say when the main shows are finished, and New Zealand will be the last one, that will be it for awhile because I’ve done more than enough retro, I think, and like I say I’m not that interested in doing old stuff. I’ve got loads of new stuff. My interest has always been what I’m doing tomorrow.
Witchdoctor – Do you find it hard to get into the role of playing those old songs?
Numan – It’s a bit tricky because lyrically… I was 20, the Asperger’s thing and it was all just kicking off, and you’re just such a different person. Writing songs at 20 – I was 53 yesterday.
Witchdoctor – You were 53 yesterday?
Numan – Yes [laughs] It’s difficult to project the songs in the way that you would have done when you first wrote them because you don’t feel that way anymore, you don’t think that way, and you don’t see the world in the same way at all. Nonetheless, they are the songs you wrote as part of your career, so you give them the best you can, so the way I’ve done the whole Pleasure Principle thing is rather than standing there with the mic trying to do all that teenage angst business, I play keyboards. I’m playing on every song rather than just walking around singing. So I don’t have to try and project it in the same way I did in the ‘80s, it’s an easy way of getting round the problem.
Witchdoctor – Do you play any of the more recent songs at the end of the set?
Numan – Oh yeah, The Pleasure Principle is a vinyl album, you’ve only got the 45 minutes in total, that’s only the first half of the show. We start with the Pleasure Principle stuff, and go right through the album, and after about 45 minutes it’s all done, so we’ve still got another 45 minutes to do. We do mainly new stuff, a lot of stuff from the last three or four albums, and a few old songs – ‘Down In The Park’, ‘Are Friends Electric’, some of the songs that aren’t from The Pleasure Principle, we still do those. But I think the second half has only got three old songs in it, and apart from that it’s all new songs. In some respects it’s a way of showing people ‘this is what I was doing near the beginning, and this is what it’s evolved into’. For me it stops it being purely retro for one thing, and it shows what I’m doing now. And also the performance is very different; in the second half the keyboard is gone, and I’m now able to walk up and down and project the new songs the way they’re supposed to be. It’s almost like bookmarking a career. This is the beginning, and this is where we are so far. And you can see the evolution from one era into another. Again that makes this whole retro thing a lot more comfortable I suppose.
Witchdoctor – Are you still inspired by electronic music? I know through your career you’ve had a lot of different phases. And could you talk a little bit about what it was about electronic music that turned you onto it in the first place?
Numan – My first introduction to it was a total accident. I went to a studio to make a punk album. I signed as a punk band in ’78, to Beggars Banquet. I went to the studio to make my first album, which should have been really a collection of the stuff I was doing live at the time. The punk stuff. But I get to the studio and in the corner is a mini-Moog, a synthesiser that had been left behind by the hire company. They hadn’t come to collect it and it was there from the band that was in there before. They forgot about it, and it was there for the whole day. The studio manager let me use it and it was just AMAZING. I didn’t know much about them and had never seen a real one before, so I just turned it on, twiddled the knobs and dials, and it just made all these noises, and I’d never heard anything like it. It was amazing, absolutely amazing. So I very hastily in the time I had it grafted on a very amateurish electronic layer, on top of these punk songs, and told the record company ‘this is what I want to do, I don’t want to do punk anymore’. And they were REALLY unhappy. It wasn’t what they wanted at all. But luckily, in a strange twist of fate, they didn’t have any more money, they were a very small record company at the time, and they didn’t have any money to send me back in to do what they wanted me to do, so they put it out and the reviews weren’t too bad, and it sold reasonably well for an unknown band. So at that point they said ‘okay’ and I just continued doing that sort of music. And the next album was called Replicas and it went to Number 1. It all came good really quickly. It’s just the variation of sound. When you just use guitar bass and drums suddenly you’ve got this machine that can do so much more than that. It was really exciting, it appealed to the technical side of me I suppose, because I’ve never been a particularly good musician, it just gave me access to things that I didn’t know existed, so it was a eureka moment.
Witchdoctor – One last fan-type question. About Mick Karn, the Dance album in particular seems to be a favourite with a lot of hardcore fans. What was your reaction to his recent passing, and do you have any affection for those album that had fretless bass on them?
Numan – Yeah I do actually. Working with Mick was great, he was a brilliant player, absolutely brilliant. He was so off the wall. Every time he played something it wasn’t what I expected. It was better than I expected. And it really helped me to shape the musical direction that I had a vague idea about but… not just his bass playing but his sax playing as well. Weird sax playing, absolutely perfect for what I was trying to do at the time. The whole passing away thing is really shocking. Not just Mick Karn actually but James Freud died as well, because I’d been in touch with James… I hadn’t spoken to James in about 30 years, then got in touch a few months before, and I’d arranged to see him in Los Angeles when we were playing there in November, and about 10 minutes before I go onstage I get an email from Australia saying James has died. And then shortly after that Mick Karn died. It’s, it’s, it’s really weird. You remember, you hung out with these people a lot, and you know them, and you made albums together, and they sort of bond to you quite a bit. It’s just such a sad thing. Still I don’t quite know how to deal with that kind of thing. It’s one of those emotional things where my Asperger’s kicks in and I flounder, in how to react… it’s a weird thing.
Witchdoctor – Yeah it’s a bit unfair really when the Rolling Stones are still kicking around.
Numan – [laughs]. Yes! Wha… wha… a bit harsh but I know what you mean! I tell you it’s very weird when people that you were mates with when you were young – and you still feel the same, I know I’m older but you don’t feel any different. And all of a sudden people that you were mates with and doing the same thing that you were doing, they start to die. It’s a really weird feeling. It makes me uneasy really. It makes you very sad in the first place, and it makes you kind of uneasy somehow.
Witchdoctor – I guess it’s all life – makes you aware of how precious life is.
Numan – Yeah.
Witchdoctor – Well look Gary, thanks so much for talking to me, it’s been a pleasure. And we’ll be looking forward to your performance in May.
Numan – Yeah I am too, it’s a big regret that it’s been such a ridiculously long gap since I was there before, but the career just nosedived, after that it just went downhill. I’ve enjoyed it, but it’s definitely been a difficult 30 years. It’s not been the career that’s been mapped out for me. It certainly didn’t go the way I thought it would by any stretch of the imagination. The first 12 months were okay, and everything after that has been a never-ending series of surprises and battles to keep it all moving. But it has been worth it, and I’m loving it more than ever.
* Gary Numan performs The Pleasure Principle, Saturday May 21, ASB Theatre, Auckland