Gary Numan - Human After All
Electro pioneer Gary Numan found fame in the ’80s only to see his stocks plummet and then rise again for a new synth-pop generation. 3D’s Steve Tauschke speaks with the Future Shock legend.
Gary Numan, the reluctant new wave hero and so-called Godfather of Electronica, found stardom almost by default, stumbling inadvertently into new musical territory in the late ’70s while still a teenager.
“It really was an accident,” says a shy yet forthcoming Numan on the phone from London. “I initially went in to make a punk album having no interest or understanding of electronic music at all – and not liking much of the stuff I’d heard. But there was synthesiser in the studio which they let me have a go of. I didn’t know how to set it up obviously so I just pressed a key and it had this great bass sound that really shook me – it blew me away! I’d never heard anything that powerful and that deep in all my life.
“I was converted from that moment on, I really was. So I went back to the record company and instead of making a punk album we made a pseudo-punk electronic album and we replaced a lot of the ‘chunka chunka’ guitars with synthesiser and it really was kind of a hybrid thing.”
Pinching his stage name from London’s Yellow Pages (“it was Neumann Kitchen Appliances, but I took out the ‘e’ and an ‘n’”) and inspired by early John Foxx-era Ultravox, Numan (born Gary Webb) recorded the Moog-driven metallic pop album The Pleasure Principle in two weeks, absorbing electronic influences into a standard post-punk set up of bass, drums and guitar. “The way to electronic music is when it becomes an addition rather than the only thing you’ve got,” he says.
In the wake of a handful of early releases with his group Tubeway Army, Numan released The Pleasure Principle under his own name in 1979 and watched as his sonic transmutation of man and machine rocketed to number one on the UK charts, matching the success earlier that year of Tubeway’s Replicas album and its single Are Friends Electric- Soon to follow was his best-known song Cars, written in half an hour on a cheap bass guitar in his mum’s dining room in Hammersmith. “I sat it on my knee and the very first notes I played were ‘do, do, do, doop’ and I thought ‘oh that’s cool!’ Quickest song I ever wrote!”
A huge dancefloor hit, the song is actually a paean to Numan’s social anxiety.
“I’ve always had a bit of a problem with people and I don’t mean individually,” he says, “I just find them intimidating especially when there’s a lot of them. I’m quite reclusive in that way I suppose and so when I’d go anywhere, as soon as I got in my car I felt safe.
“It’s like having a little tank that can take you away from any trouble and it can take you home where you’re safe. I still kind of have that feeling to a degree but I’m nowhere near as bad.”
The track brought Numan international fame, buckets of money and an army of devotees, dubbed Numanoids. For a time, the reluctant hero enjoyed his newfound wealth; he bought a Ferrari, a Corvette and an aeroplane – “at one point I had three!”
Under the public glare, his proud parents became protective. “If ever I got a bad review my mum would write their name down in a little book so she could remember them.”
And despite his riches, Numan tried to keep a level head. “I’ve never been one of those star trippy kind of people,” he says. “I’ve never felt like I was particularly clever or talented, even from day one I just thought I’d been really lucky. I mean becoming a pop star is such a massive dream for so many people. You just can’t imagine how it would be and then when it does happen – and fairly quickly in my case – it’s actually overwhelming.
“Everything is so new and the way people talk to you, you know, you would talk to a girl in the street and she would just cry and wouldn’t be able to speak and two weeks before that she didn’t even know who you were!”
By the end of the ’80s however, the fame and royalties began to dry up – Numan’s career nose-dived.
“I was pretty much dead and buried everywhere,” he says “I didn’t think I’d get another [record] contract again, I couldn’t sell any albums, I wasn’t selling any tickets to gigs – it all seemed to be finished. But although I was sad about it I never felt bitter or that people were letting me down.”
In 1994 two albums revived his career; his own comeback set Sacrifice and the hugely successful Nine Inch Nails album The Downward Spiral that picked up on Numan’s nihilistic sound and put electronic music back on the mainstream map. Suddenly, everyone from Marilyn Manson to Basement Jaxx to Fear Factory began sampling and name-checking Numan.
“All these big bands in their various genres would talk about me as being an influence on them,” he says. “And apart from being very flattering, it put me in touch with a new generation of people. Suddenly you become a cool person to cover or sample.
“The fact that my stuff has been sampled from hardcore hip hop on one side right through to your industrial and metal and rock through to dance and pop music, it’s something I’m massively proud of.”
Working on a new album Splinter for release this year, renewed interest in Numan brings him to Australia this month for the first time since 1980.
“I really had given up any hope of ever coming back,” says the 50-year-old father of three. “I’ve not had any record success, a lot of my albums haven’t even come out over there, just on import and this isn’t part of any tour, like I’m not doing New Zealand or Japan, and I’ve got no new album I’m promoting. I’m just coming to let people know I’m still alive.”
WHO: Gary Numan
WHERE: Plays Enmore Theatre
WHEN: Thursday 5 March