Gary Numan Interview
by Alexander Laurence
Gary Numan is known as the first superstar in the field of electronic music. He was born Gary Webb in Hammersmith in 1958. He had the hit singles "Are Friends Electric?" and "Cars" in 1979. His nineteen albums over the past thirty years include Replicas (1979), The Pleasure Principle (1979), Telekon (1980). I saw him play during the Pure (2000) tour. The most recent one is Jagged (2006). Gary Numan has been productive during the past thirty years releasing interesting and varied albums. His influence is not only in the world of electronic music, but artists as diverse as Trent Reznor to the TV show The Mighty Boosh. He has always been a futurist and a person with fresh ideas. He is more concerned with his new music, than being part of some retro movement. He has been touring America, playing The Pleasure Principle in its entirety. His album was released thirty years ago. But Gary Numan is also interested in presenting to the world new songs. I got to speak to him during this tour and ask him some burning questions that had been in my mind for ages.
1. The last time people in Los Angeles saw you perform was over a year ago with Nine Inch Nails. How did that come about and what was that experience like?
When Nine Inch Nails came to London earlier in the year I was a guest for their London show. After that, Trent invited me to guest again at the final Los Angeles shows. It was an amazing experience. I'm a huge fan of the band, so it was a real honor for me to be on stage with them. Just to listen to Nine Inch Nails playing some of my songs would have been something to be proud of, but to share the stage and be singing with them was very cool. I had the best time.
2. Many people are interested in the early days with Tubeway Army. What was Tubeway Army like exactly and how did that band transform into the Gary Numan Band?
Tubeway Army was a three-piece punk band that I put together for the specific purpose of securing a record deal. I wasn't overly interested in punk, certainly not as a long-term career direction. As soon as I moved into electronic music, I wanted to drop the band name and any punk identity that it had, so that the new direction that I was taking was clear and separate from what I had done before. The record company was reluctant to drop the name and so my first two albums went out as Tubeway Army. After my first big single got to #1 in the U.K., I had enough clout with the label to finally drop the name and go on as an official solo act.
3. It seems like many British bands, from Ultravox to Suede, were influenced by JG Ballard, especially the books Crash, and High Rise. Was Ballard a popular author back then, and when did you read him?
With a lot of people yes. I only read one Ballard book at the time, which I think was called The Tactics Of Mistake, but I might have remembered that wrong. My biggest influences from literature were Philip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs.
4. When you decided to tour an album, what made you pick The Pleasure Principle in America over Replicas? Is it possible to tour both albums at the same time?
I'm not keen on anything retro or nostalgic at all, so it was only because it's been 30 years since The Pleasure Principle was released that I decided to tour it here in America. Thirty years is a major milestone for an album to reach, especially if, as in the case of The Pleasure Principle, it's still a very active album. I get more requests for covers and samples from the album now than it has ever had in the past, so it's still very much alive. It seemed to me that I could either ignore the anniversary or celebrate it. After working with Nine Inch Nails last year and listening to Trent Reznor talking about how important the album had been to him in the early days of NIN, I realized that I should be proud if it, whereas in the past I had tended to bury it under the carpet. The decision to tour the album was helped considerably by Trent’s enthusiasm for it. I'm not sure he's aware of that.
5. On the show “Synth Britannia,” the fellow from OMD made a statement something like "the press was unfair to Gary Numan because he wasn't working class and he was too popular too quickly..." , etc. What do you think of that perception?
I certainly had a hard time with the press, but I was very much from a working class background, not that I care about that one way or the other to be honest. If you are born working class then you have no choice in the matter, so it's not something to be proud of or ashamed of. What's important is the contribution you make in your chosen profession, not where you come from. I was the first major “pop” star, for want of a better expression, in the U.K. after the punk explosion had happened and I did not carry on the punk “anti-everything” stance. I admitted to wanting fame and to wanting success, and that went down very badly at the time. Plus, the music was very new and different and there was a great deal of ill feeling amongst the music media at the time towards anything that wasn't guitar based. That's why I went on to make The Pleasure Principle without any guitars at all. I was trying to prove a point.
6. I think that punk rock was a celebration of anti-heroes, which was a reaction to 1970’s rock stars. Once punk became a studied pose, you came along and shocked people. Later Adam Ant and Billy Idol came along like punk never happened, and they weren't as heavily criticized. What do you think of that idea?
It's the downside of being the first. When you are at the very beginning of something, as I was with electronic music, you take a lot of knocks. When you open a door for the first time and poke your head around the corner, you get all the rubbish flying at you. After a while, things coming through that door are no longer shocking or surprising and the rubbish calms down. I have no bad feelings about that time at all. I get a lot of praise and respect these days for being one of the pioneers of electronic music, so it was worth putting up with all the shit that came with it.
7. You had a song "Down In The Park" that was included in URGH: A Musical War. When you see that DVD today, the song is omitted. Why is that?
I don't know. I've never actually watched the film, so I don't know that much about it. Who knows what goes on behind the scenes? I'm usually only thinking about what I'm doing next. I have a terrible lack of interest in what I did yesterday. That's why this Pleasure Principle tour is such a rare thing for me to do.
8. How did improvisation come into play during the recording of The Pleasure Principle?
It didn't very much. I had worked out pretty much everything before we went in for the final recordings. We had spent some time in a demo studio working out the extra parts and programming sounds and beats so that our time in the main studio, which was stupidly expensive, was kept within budget.
9. You were supposed to play Coachella, but were unable to play the show because the airports had closed. What were you doing during that week?
Most of the time, we were all sitting around either at home or in hotels near to the airport. They were giving updates every 3 or 6 hours and so you had the feeling that it would all be over quite soon. It was incredibly frustrating. Playing at Coachella was very important to me and I couldn't believe that a bloody volcano eruption in Iceland was spoiling it. Hopefully we can go there and play in the future.
10. What do you think of The Mighty Boosh?
I love it. I was a fan from the very beginning. Noel Fielding came to see us play at the Sonisphere Festival in the U.K. this summer and he is always good fun to be around. If they ever decide to make a Boosh film, I would jump at the chance to guest in it.
Gary Numan will be performing The Pleasure Principle and other songs at the El Rey on Wednesday and Thursday, November 3rd and 4th.