Gary Numan, 2008
Those who thought that having children might make English musician Gary Numan lighten up can think again. His material this decade is some of the darkest and heaviest of his rollercoaster career, and, he says, shows no sign of changing.
If anything, having children has affirmed the fear and gloom of his 30-year-long cannon.
Numan, a pioneer of electronic music, knows something about gloom. Not only was his quest for fatherhood a well-documented battle, but his career was subject to a long period in the musical wilderness.
As a founding member of Tubeway Army, he broke into the charts in 1979 with the hits Cars and Are Friends Electric?, showing clear influence from the likes of science fiction writers JG Ballard and Philip K Dick, and the Gothic cyberpunk of the film Blade Runner.
He toured Australia in 1980, with albums hitting the charts in Europe and the USA.
“The whole period then was very exciting and in some ways quite overwhelming,” he says from his home in England. “You’re an absolute unknown and then, in days almost, everyone knows who you are and you’re going overseas to play to thousands of people. It’s an awful lot to take in, especially when you’re young and you’re a solo act.
“To have so many great things happen to me so quickly, a lot of it just washed over me. I was a little bit bewildered by the whole thing. By the time it had all calmed down, by the time I’d grown up a bit and was more able to handle it, most of it was gone. It was really exciting but it was very quick and I think in many ways I handled it badly and I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should’ve done.”
From the mid-80s, changing musical tastes meant Numan’s star was on the wane, to the point that he was without a label in and in dire financial straits by the early ’90s.
“I had just turned 21 when the first single, the first album, became successful. I didn’t think much about anything, not just a musical career that I didn’t expect to last long anyway, but just life itself. As for the music, I thought if I could get a few years out of it, two or three, five if I was lucky, I would’ve done okay. The thing that’s surprising most of all, is that when it started to fade away in the mid-80s, was how badly I wanted it. I honestly thought I’d go on to something else, it never struck me as a life-changing thing. The more I got into the musical thing I realised how much I loved it and how fantastic a thing it was to be doing. When it started to slide, I started panicking. My music went off in the mid-80s and early ’90s, I was just writing anything to get me back on the road. That middle period (between about 1985’s The Fury and 1992’s Machine and Soul) is one that I’m really quite ashamed of.”
His fightback began around 1992, when he met the woman who was to become his wife, Gemma, a fan club member, and she helped put him back on track.
“I’d never been confident about my singing, I’d never been confident about my guitar playing or my keyboard playing, and I became less and less confident about my songwriting. So what I did was, I’d bring in really good guitar players, and really good singers, and surround myself with really great musicians and think that was the answer. What Gemma explained to me, was that what I didn’t understand was that it was the way I sang that people liked, and I should be proud of that and not ashamed of it and try to hide it. When I used to mix albums I used to mix the vocals quite low. She’d say, ‘you might not be the best guitar player in the world but you play it in a certain way and that’s what people like’. It took me a long time to accept that she was right. I’m still not deeply confident about my voice and my guitar playing but I accept that it’s what I have. I went back to writing songs with that kind of attitude.
“Another thing that was important that she helped trigger was that I accepted my career was finished and went back to writing songs as a hobby. I didn’t have a deal, I had no expectations of getting one. I wrote an album called Sacrifice and it was the first time I was in the studio for many, many years and playing everything myself and just did everything I wanted to do without any thought of contracts or radio play or A&R men and that kind of thing. The album came out much heavier than anything I’d done for a long, long time and I really enjoyed it. That was a bit of a moment.
“And that’s kind of where I’ve stayed.”
At the same time as Numan, who turned 50 this year, was rediscovering his love of music, credit from the likes of Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and covers by Basement Jaxx and others, backed by a solid set of industrial-strength albums, were changing people’s perspective of his musical talent. Numan also guested on songs for Fear Factory, Junkie XL and Afrika Bambaataa, amongst others.
Numan grabbed critical attention with 1997’s Exile album and got rave reviews for 2000’s Pure and 2006’s Jagged (released on his own label). The albums mixed industrial stylings with Numan’s characteristically moody electro-pop, inspiring futurepop and darkwave bands. Lyrically, Numan, an avowed atheist, explored matters of religion.
He has released a remix double-album of Jagged, Jagged Edge, with a new album, Splinter, and Resurrection, an album of remixes and offcuts from Exile, Pure and Jagged to come.
“The stuff I’m writing now isn’t radio friendly but I’m really happy doing what I’m doing,” he says. “I like the music I’m making, I’ve made three albums since Sacrifice, each one getting heavier and darker than the one before, and they’ve become progressively less commercial. From a career point, it’s a ridiculous thing to be doing but I really enjoy it.”
While Numan says he no longer reads the science-fiction that so informed his early, cyberpunk-tinged work (one of his favourite writers these days is surrealist Steve Erickson), his dystopian perspective has not changed. Not even the arrival of three children since 2003 has cracked his gothic viewpoint. The first, Raven, came about through IVF following a string of failed pregnancies.
“A lot of people over here, when the first baby came along, expected the music would become quite soft and awash with loving the children and that kind of thing.
“But I’ve always had a fairly pessimistic view about human nature. As soon as children came along, it seemed to me that the world really was a dangerous place. You’ve got this tiny little thing and you’ve got to try to guide them through life with all the dangers that it’s got. You see a suitcase on the ground with no one around it, it might have a bomb in it – that shouldn’t be a part of normal life.
“You try to steer them through that without making them terrified about going out the door.
“The writing’s just become even darker, fatherhood hasn’t made it fluffy clouds and bunny rabbits at all.”