MOUTHY ISSUE ONE
interview by Ian C Stewart
Gary Numan is seen as a one-hit wonder in the US (1979's "Cars") but at home in the UK he's maintained a high profile with numerous hit singles, albums and tours to his credit. His influence on the pop world continues with "Cars" currently being used in Mitsubishi commercials here in the US and with his songs being sampled by Basement Jaxx for their song "Where's Your Head At" and of course Sugababes' #1 UK hit "Freak Like Me," which sampled "Are 'Friends' Electric" outright. Not that Gary minds, of course. His influence on alternative rock band and artists like Foo Fighters, Marilyn Manson, Beck and Smashing Pumpkins is also well known. Unlike many of his new wave contemporaries, Numan has not become artistically complacent, content with merely playing his greatest hits on nostalgic package tours. He's one of the few artists to retain a high profile while pushing forward creatively.
"I'm told that there had been something like a hundred plus covers of my stuff in recent years so I obviously haven't heard all there are. I loved those by Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, Foo Fighters, Fear Factory, Pop Will Eat Itself and many, many more. I really don't have a favorite. To my mind, to have another artist or band even want to cover one of my songs is an incredible honor. I'm genuinely flattered by it and respect and thank all of them for taking the time and effort to do it."
Numan's own listening habits tend toward darkness but he's not jaded about music. "I like anything heavy and menacing and not much else. The chart is painful most of the time, much as it always has been, and there are some amazing bands who have yet to achieve great things. I don't think it's that different. Like it was ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty five years ago, you have to look a little harder for the really groundbreaking and exciting stuff but it is there. I love the music scene now. I think there are some incredible people around. Just push the xxxx to one side and look a bit harder and you'll find it. I just hate this tendency that some bands have, and record labels, to look backwards for new ideas. I hate nostalgia with a vengeance. 80s revivals my arse. I'm so not interested it's difficult to find adequate words."
After being affiliated with several labels, the current situation is working out "very well. I'm allowed to make the music I want without any interference whatsoever and that's a very rare situation to be in. They have already got one single into the UK chart which is more than anyone else has done for my records for about ten years or more. My album sales have improved and they are just so full of ideas. I'm very impressed and very confident. I started my career with a small independent label, went on to majors who I found were, often, not as easy to work with and a tad depressing. Artful Records, the label I'm with now, goes through Universal so I seem to have the best of both worlds."
There will be an official Numan DVD. "A DVD of one of my old 1984 shows has been put out by some company but we had nothing to do with it and don't think it's particularly well done. We have filmed some things with a view to releasing our own DVD but I want it to be perfect and so I'm very reluctant to hand it over to a third party company to put together. The only problem with that approach is that I still don't have the time to get on with it myself. Next year hopefully."
He has carried on making videos for songs, despite MTV and VH-1 in the US not really showing music videos at the moment. "MTV and VH-1 are not the only outlet for videos nor the only reason for making them. In the UK now we have several interactive video channels on satellite TV and they show videos twenty four hours a day without any annoying VJs, presenters or non-music programming. It's also possible to add videos to CDs now so that fans can watch them at home on their computer. I think that's a very cool thing to offer fans."
Speaking of computers, with all the music-making software around these days, has it become too easy for any schmuck with a soundcard and an hour to kill to make music? "I don't believe that it should be anything other than easy to make music. Software does not write the song that will be on everyone's lips. It might make it easier for people to record things but, if what they record is a great tune then why worry? Software, most music technology, is simply giving people an even better opportunity to make music. If what they make is xxx, no one has to sign it, release it or buy it. If it gives someone with a great ear for songwriting, but not enough money for time in a quality studio, the chance to record at home, with similar quality to that expensive studio, well I think that's fantastic. I can't write a note of music on paper. I have no idea what any given chord shape is on a piano. Ask me to play a G7th chord and I'll give you a blank look. But I can write songs nonetheless, and produce albums. I do it from feel, by trial and error, and it works very well for me, much as it does for thousands of other people I would imagine. I love software in music. It's given a lot more people a lot more opportunity to succeed doing something they love. Don't forget just how much dire and hideous music there was before people started using software to make it."
As for the internet, "it has helped to put me in touch with people around the world that were unaware that I was still alive. It has helped change many things for me and my career. I love it. I don't go surfing or spend much time on it but I love it just the same. I do the NuWorld website myself, with the exception of the code for the shopping section which was beyond me. Everything else, all text, graphics and layout I do from home. I know it could be a little more fancy but you have to compromise between time available to learn new internet associated technology and what it may or may not add to the sites usefulness. I think the site is a reasonably successful compromise at the moment but I do look at improvement possibilities from time to time. I would like to revamp it for the release of the new album next year."
Despite the guitars becoming more and more prominent in his music, Numan still primarily writes with keyboards. "A simple piano sound is usually the starting point for most things. With that you can build up structure and melody. Everything else can come later. With film music and adverts, a melody isn't always necessary so sometimes you can start with drum grooves, loops, whatever. When I'm doing that I often start with the sampler and build up layers of sound without even a hint of melody creeping into it. It really depends on what you're trying to achieve." And for drum sounds, "I use samplers. I will be using some live drumming on the next album though. Actually, Pure, my last album, had some real drumming on it."
The lyrics on Pure are fairly confrontational, raising many questions about Christianity as a whole. Backlash from certain quarters was inevitable. "I got a constant stream of negative reaction but nothing that became a worry. It just confirmed my feelings, and concerns, about all things fanatical, like blind faith. Some of them have no room in their hearts for reasonable and thoughtful argument. Some see any alternative opinion as a threat and an insult. Some cannot live by their own beliefs and values such as tolerance, understanding and forgiveness. It was all very revealing."
The autobiography Praying to the Aliens came out in 1997 and addressed these feelings in a little more detail. The entire book was incredibly revealing, from the expected groupie encounters to aviation near-mishaps to hair transplants. Did Numan ever feel like he was revealing too much of himself in the book? "Lots left out but mainly because I just forgot lots of things rather than trying to keep stuff secret. I didn't intend to write it at that time. A biography was being written about me but the publishers decided that an autobiography would be more interesting and asked me if I was interested. To be quite honest I was flattered to think that anyone would be interested at all and so said yes without really thinking about it. If I had given it more thought I would have waited. The career wasn't doing too well when I wrote it, the first version in particular. Since then things have gone much better and so, if I was to have written it now, it would have a more positive ending. My original text was also massively reworked by the publishers and so much of what is written isn't the way I put things at all and some of it is very misleading. As soon as I can, contractually, I'll bring it up to date, add the things I'd forgotten at the time, and re-release it in my own words."
One of the stories involved touching David Bowie's head in the early days of punk. He had occasion to repeat the act in the intervening years "once or twice but my enthusiasm to do such a thing had vanished entirely." Pity.
No stranger to the road, Numan's favorite place to play live is close to home. "I get the biggest crowds in the UK so that has a certain comfort level. I love touring North America but I've also had some great times in Europe so it's difficult to pick a favorite place. I can't really. I just love touring. I love everything about it. The shows obviously, the travelling, the various and unplanned moments of chaos that make it such an amazing thing to be involved in, meeting new people. It doesn't really matter to me where it is. Just put me on a tour bus with the band, anywhere in the world, and I'm happy. It doesn't seem to be that different from one country to another. The people that turn up, in general, seem to react much the same. It's just the numbers that vary."
Obsessive fans. AKA Numanoids. Are they a pain in the ass? "That depends. 99.9% of them are great and I'm grateful and lucky to have them. But, once in a while, you get a few problems. Wherever you have people, in any walk of life, you will get, sooner or later, a bit of temporary strangeness creeping in. In all honesty though I get more trouble from the pig of a man who works in my local post office. Fans are the lifeblood of people like me. They are the most important thing and they should be cared for and looked after. I don't understand the poor attitude that some musicians have towards their fans. It's as if they don't understand how their lives would be without fans. It's ignorant and stupid."
Former Numan bassist Pino Palladino was tapped by the Who to replace John Entwistle last October, which didn't seem to surprise Gary himself. "I didn't know he had but he's a great player so I'm sure he can add something to the Who. If he's allowed to, of course."
2003 is shaping up to be another busy year. "I've started writing songs for the new album which is due for release in mid 2003. I'm also collaborating on an album called Hybrid, which is essentially an album of remixes (not dance remixes) done by other artists and producers. I'm resinging most of the vocals and adding some musical parts here and there. I'm working with Afrika Bambaataa and Leftfield on his cover version of my "Metal" song, which was also covered by Nine Inch nails recently. I've just finished a song cowritten with Andy Gray and I'm just about to finish another co-write with a band called Rico, possibly for a future single (Rico vs Numan). To start with I have to get the new album finished by next spring or soon after. Then it will be touring that album extensively in as many countries as I can get to. Then I'll have to wait and see where I find myself."
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