Gary Numan: Fueled by fears, pressed by success, warmed by L.A.
Lina Lecaro on
In the Buzz Bands LA interview, pioneering electronic artist Gary Numan says his new album “Savage (Songs From A Broken World),” originally conceived as a novel, might not have happened if not for Donald Trump. “It’s a perilous time in the world,” he says.
Gary Numan might be thought of as a one-hit wonder by the casual pop music fan thanks to mega-hit “Cars,” or maybe a two-hitter if you count “Are Friends Electric?,” but anyone with passable knowledge of electronic music recognizes him as one of the most influential artists of the past four decades. His output, particularly his early work, and music with Tubeway Army, has not only aged shockingly well when it comes to its atmospheric sound and seductively inventive use of synths, but also in terms of thematic vision. Numan’s older material was bleak yet bodacious, portraying a world that was both dystopian and fearful, detached and fantastical … kind of the subtext for the new wave movement itself.
It’s no wonder ’80s acts under the new wave, new romantic and goth umbrella are getting more love than ever right now; the underlying gloom feels right for the times and the Moog-y moods and techno-textures have become almost de rigueur in modern dance music. Numan has evolved a lot as an artist since his influential masterpieces “Replicas,” “The Pleasure Principle” and “Telekon,” but what hasn’t changed: He resists resting on his laurels as a songwriter and instrumentalist, and he still has a way with his foreboding and cautionary lyrical disposition.
In a phone call last week with the artist, who now lives in Los Angeles, we talked about how his fears continue to fuel his work and how they were the basis for his 21st album, “Savage (Songs From A Broken World),” released in September.
“I’d been trying to write this novel for quite some time about global warming and the apocalyptic future in its wake,” Numan says. “I started to write the book long before the Paris Agreement (of 2015) was signed. Then the election kicked in and Donald Trump appeared and I started to listen to some of the things he was saying. I thought they were very ignorant and ill-informed. I was surprised and quite frightened by that.”
Though Numan, 59, says he planned only to use his novel as a starting point for the record, the fragility of the planet under the leadership of a climate-change denier like Trump (who ultimately withdrew the U.S. from the Paris agreement earlier this year) put the issue at the forefront.
“What started out as two songs ended up becoming an entire album and concept,” he says. “This is one possibility of what might happen. I don’t think I’d have done it this way if Donald Trump hadn’t been around.”
“Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind),” the 2013 album that preceded his latest, was a more personal release ( “I was going through a depression,” he says) and it was his most successful recording in 30 years. “It was huge step up from where I’d been. The reviews were genuinely good. It’s one of the best albums I’ve ever made. … I’d say one of the top three,” he proclaims. “But then, of course, you have to write another one. The better something does, the more pressure you feel.” He cites the song “Bed of Thorns” as his expression of that pressure; it’s also the only “Savage” track not related to global warming.
While the new material translates seamlessly with the old, similar in cautionary tone and use of sonic textures, Numan says he never repeats himself when it comes to production and studio technique.
“I don’t hang on to technology. … Pretty much anything that I used before I won’t use again,” he says. “This album is all the latest technology and virtual instrumentation, with only a few hardware synths, all done on a computer. It’s a bit weird because the Billboard charts just excluded me from the electronic music chart. ‘Savage’ is the most electronic album I’ve made, including ‘The Pleasure Principle,’ which is the one that supposedly kick-started the whole genre in the first place.”
||| Watch: The video for “My Name Is Ruin,” directed by Chris Corner of IAMX
Both “Splinter” and “Savage” were released during what many have deemed Numan’s “comeback phase” — when he left England for Southern California. As depicted in the 2016 documentary “Android in La La Land,” Numan and his charming family (wife Gemma and three daughters) found a fresh start and new inspiration in Los Angeles. “Splinter” deals with the artist’s struggle to recapture his fan base and the fears and anxiety that came with that quest, which were substantial. Though Numan has had the music world elite cover, sample and cite him as a major influence in recent years, how to translate that into a contemporary triumph and enduring professional success has been daunting.
A refresher on the heap of homage Numan has received over the years: Trent Reznor, of course, collaborated with and had him open his 2009 farewell tour, while his protégée Marilyn Manson covered “Down in the Park” off of “Replicas” even earlier as the B-side to the 1994 single “Lunchbox.” Fear Factory covered “Cars” on their third album “Obsolete” (and even featured Numan in the video), while Jack White and Alison Mosshart covered “Are Friends Electric?” on a single with the Dead Weather in 2009. Basement Jaxx sampled Numan’s “M.E.” off of “The Pleasure Principle” on their biggest hit, 2001’s “Where’s Your Head At?” and more recently, Foo Fighters have been covering “Down in the Park” live.
The rocker and DJ shout-outs have surely helped expose him to a whole new set of listeners, but living in L.A. (and the documentary) probably helped his career, too. Numan says he and his family are definitely happier living here.
“I’m British, obviously, and I come from a very rainy country,” he explains. “The climate here is so appealing to someone like me, and there is a lifestyle here that you can enjoy because of it, which is much more outdoorsy. When you get to a certain age, being able to get more out of every day becomes so much more important.”
Numan’s obvious contentment with life these days might not be expressed topically due to his concerns about the planet at large (“It’s a perilous time in the world,” he says), but it has manifested in his stage persona and performance style. As noted in an LA Weekly review a couple of years ago, he no longer casts the robotic, alien-like persona longtime followers may remember. His voice still has a unique, almost multi-dimensional, droid-ish quality, but his demeanor on stage is far more expressive, even when he’s doing nihilistic early material. The urgency and emotion he brings to his performance now works in a whole new context.
I was incredibly self-conscious and self-aware. I didn’t know how to move. I still can’t dance.
“The differences are enormous between the way I was on stage when I started and now,” he acknowledges. “I was incredibly self-conscious and self-aware. I didn’t know how to move. I still can’t dance. … But when you’ve been doing something for a very long time, you lose a certain level of inhibition.
“I used to think so much about what the song was about. But now it’s completely the opposite … it’s more through the body. The way that you move is entirely fluid. You’re almost unaware of the people watching you. I absolutely love it. The enjoyment is completely different and it’s so much more exciting and more rewarding than it ever was.”
Numan says the current live show leans very much towards the new album and its predecessor, but that a third of the set features favorites from the first couple albums that older fans want to hear. “The stuff I did in between I’m not so keen in on,” he admits. “I don’t think my songwriting was as good, but I really like what I’ve done the last 15 years and I what did in the beginning, so I concentrate on those two ends.”
||| Live: Gary Numan plays tonight at the Teragram Ballroom (sold out), Friday at the Observatory (tickets) and Saturday back at the Teragram Ballroom (tickets).
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