Gary Numan :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview


Gary Numan was 20 years old when Tubeway Army’s self-titled record dropped in 1978 and launched a career that became very successful, very quickly. Over the past 35 years, Numan’s influence on the shape of electronic music has only grown, casting a heavy shadow over 80s and 90s synth and industrial music. Carrying into the 90s and 00s with a sound influenced by and channeling his industrial descendents, Numan’s latest album, Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind) is due out on October 15th. We recently caught up with Numan by phone, from his new home in Los Angeles, about the seven years it took to bring the album to fruition, working with Nine Inch Nails’ Robin Finck on the new album, the brutal honesty of fans and the simple joys of banging a lead pipe.

Aquarium Drunkard: I don’t expect you to remember this, but I met you once years ago. I went to your show at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire right after 9/11. I hung around outside with a bunch of people I didn’t know. You signed a picture vinyl single of “Are Friends Electric?” for me. You were very nice for someone who had just performed a big concert and two hours of people trying to talk to you.

Gary Numan: I used to do that all the time. I used to always go out and meet fans afterward, sometimes for a few hours, but then there were two incidents – one time a fan suddenly turned nasty and beat me up. And another time, this gang of people were walking by and again I nearly got beaten up. So I had to stop doing it. But I used to really enjoy it. It was the only time I really got to meet fans and get genuine face-to-face feedback. I used to love it and would do it for hours. But I had to stop doing that.

AD: The new album, Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind) is your first new studio recording since 2006’s Jagged, but in doing some research, I read an interview with you from 2010 where you said you had expected Splinter to be out in about a year. So can you walk me through what the process has been for getting this album out? It seems like it took a bit longer than you expected.

GN: Oh, yeah, it’s been ridiculous. Well, like you said, Jagged came out in 2006. As that album came out, my wife and I had just had our second child. And then soon after that we had our third. My wife had [post-partum depression] following the second and carrying through to the third and carried on for a year or two after that, so she was having all kind of problems. I also had problems. I didn’t adapt to being a parent the way I thought I would. I really love the children, I’m absolutely devoted to them, but I really missed the life I had before. I crossed the 50 year-old barrier and that brought up all kinds of things I wasn’t expecting. I had a mid-life crisis. I don’t mean I was wanting to have sex with young girls – nothing like that. Just obsessed with being old and dying and I got really paranoid about my health. I just became really pathetic for awhile. I was depressed and on medication and she was on medication, so we were not really good for each other in a time when we needed each other most. Our marriage went rocky for a while and that was horrifying and depressing. So in short, it was a very difficult period that went on for a few years unfortunately.

While that was going on, the last thing I thought I wanted to do was start an album. They’re big projects. You know, I’ve found the more albums I’ve made, the harder they get for some reason. They don’t get easier. They’re a very emotional sort of roller coaster ride when you’re making them. You have good days and a lot of bad days. I suffer from a lack of confidence anyway. It’s very difficult for me to stop from plunging down. So the thought of getting into that when you’re already depressed seemed like a really stupid thing to do. Also, depression takes away any sort of get-up-and-go that you’ve got. You just feel very lethargic. Life is all a bit too much. It’s very embarrassing, I guess, but that’s what happens. I didn’t think it was a wise thing to do. I didn’t feel like doing it really. Then, three or four years went past and I thought ‘this is fucking crazy. This is what you do for a living. You’ve got to do something.’ And so I started forcing myself to get back into it.

And I was right. I’d have a week or two and write three or four songs. And then there’d be another few months gap. Then I’d have another try and there’d be another gap. And it wasn’t really until 2012 that I really got back into it properly. I think I had to find that magic line between being a dad and a family person and having a career and finding the time to work without the distraction of children and family. And it just took me way too long to get my shit together and get back into it, having gone through the depression thing. So 2012 was good. I started to write much better, did a lot of good stuff there. All the stuff I’d written before, pulled stuff in and started to finish them.

Then I moved [to Los Angeles] in October and just loved it. It was like a new life. I’m very excited, very happy to be here. Within a month or so of getting here I had a studio put in and got straight on it. I wrote maybe half the album since I’ve been here, which is pretty quick. Turned it around and we had it finished around April or May. That’s why it’s taken so long. It didn’t take me seven years to make it – just took me five or six to get my ass in gear because of all the other shit that happened. And when it came to actually writing the songs, putting the lyrics to the songs, the second half of it anyway, I was writing about all the bad stuff that had happened. So it’s ended up being pretty dark and heavy even though I’m actually pretty happy. Life is pretty cool at the minute. I had all those experiences before. I have the tendency when I’m writing that, if my imagination, the craziest part of me, is going to be triggered, you can guarantee it’s going to be something horrible that happens that triggers it. If I go out and have a good day, I’m not going to write a song about it. It’s just an unfortunate truth. That’s why it’s darker, why it’s heavier – why the lyrical subjects are a bit moody, I guess, because all that shit happened.

AD: I compare that with another musician I spoke with a few years ago where he was in a place where his life was going really well. He was so used to writing about the darker side of things that he said he had to sort of un-learn a lot of what he had taught himself about writing and teach himself a whole new vocabulary. And it’s certainly not fortunate that you went through all of that, but it did give you that block of inspiration.

GN: Absolutely. I would never want to go through all that again ever. But as a food for creativity, absolutely fantastic. There was so much emotion going on and so many things happening that helped me write the song. Brilliant. It’s sounds stupid saying that, but it’s great food for the job, really.

AD: The name Splinter has been around for awhile. But with the long process it took to bring the album together, was that name ever questioned? There’s clearly some sort of theme through the album with the inspirations for how you’ve been writing, but did you ever consider scrapping that idea in terms of how the album worked out?

GN: Oh, yeah. You know, it was never meant to be called Splinter. It was always a working title. And then the longer it went on – even up to five or six months ago, I was saying ‘I’m going to call it something different.’ But then I sat down and thought about it. You know, it’s been seven years. How can I possibly call it anything else? If I don’t call it that now, people won’t know what the fuck it is. They’ll go ‘well, what happened to Splinter?’ ‘Well, this is it, it’s just called..’ ‘But I thought..’ No, it was just going to be too confusing. But I did think it needed a subtitle. Which is why the (Songs from a Broken Mind) was added to it. And that’s more relevant. Because the songs are about a time when I was broken. I really do feel that I was in a bit of a poor space back then. And as almost all of the songs relate to that period, I needed to do something that would make it all make sense. Splinter, strangely enough, when you’re talking about a broken mind, makes sense. It was an accident. But the working title pulled everything together. ‘Songs from a Broken Mind’ makes it all make sense in a way that ‘Splinter’ by itself wouldn’t.

AD: Can you tell me a little bit about your recording process in general and on this record? In the press material of course it talks about you working with Robin Finck of Nine Inch Nails on this album, but how does it work in general?

GN: Yeah, it’s fairly simple. I write everything at home on a piano or a piano sound on the synth. I flesh it all out until you have a reasonably well-produced song and then I send it to the producer, Ade Fenton, who lives in England. He then works on it and sends his additions back and then [laughs] we just start arguing really. We argue for the next six months about what the fuck we’re doing really. There’s a guitar player named Steve Harris from England who I’ve used before. Great player. There’s another guitar player named Tim Muddiman who also does some bass on it. But apart from me and Ade, they’re the two main musicians who have been on it. This time, because I know Robin really well – I’ve been hanging out with Robin a lot since I’ve moved here – the suggestion to have Robin play on it was just fantastic. I think he’s such an amazing player and such a cool person to know and be friends with. I love Robin. To have him on the record is just great. And the stuff that he did – he’s such a great player and so inventive. It’s such a great addition to the record to have him on there. I’m a huge Nine Inch Nails fan anyway, so having Robin on there is cool for that reason, but he’s such a cool bloke. He’s kind of our closest friend here, too, so it’s good to have him on there for that reason.

AD: In one of the interviews I read, you said that early in your career you felt like you were just stumbling along in terms of figuring out what you were doing, and part of the reason you took that break from touring in the early 80s was that you wanted to get better as a songwriter. But those first four albums of yours, especially, have ended up being so influential on people in a lot of ways. Is it possible that you give the ‘naive’ musical version of yourself too little credit and that there is a lot to be said for sort of feeling your way through things rather than knowing exactly what you want – that there are benefits to both in a sense?

GN: Yeah, I do in a sense. I talk a lot about that I kind of stumbled along from one happy accident to another. But I think, in truth, it’s actually more controlled than that. You create a framework within which you can allow accidents to happen. That’s probably a more accurate way of describing how I go about things. I will come up with a sound and I’ll get into the machines and I’ll start to manipulate the sounds. And it’s true to say that I’m not massively proficient – I don’t know exactly what these things are going to do. I do stumble along a bit and just wait to see if something great is going to come out the other end if I move that fader or move that fader or turn that dial. Some of them I know what they do, some I don’t. And I don’t always know how well they interact, as well as some others do. So it’s a situation of setting up for an accident to happen. There are certain things you can do to make that happen, but at the end of it, you’ve gotta have something that you want. So sometimes I probably overdo the accidental bumbling fool a bit much, but in the end, it is part of it.

AD: Do you ever go back with your older material and listen to it with an idea of what you would do differently if you did it again? And is there any particular album you think you’d really love to re-do given the chance?

GN: I don’t think about it too much from an entire album point of view. But when we play old songs live, we often rework them. It’s a tricky thing to get right. Fans really want to hear songs the way they’re used to them on the record. There’s been many times I’ve stood on stage playing a new version of an old song thinking ‘oh, this is great. There’s a new lease on life for this. This sounds amazing.’ And people go: ‘Uh. Well, you fucking ruined that, didn’t you?’ And I think, really? I thought it was great! They don’t have that same feeling, that creative thing where they want to make it better. They want to hear it the way it was, they want to hear the one from the record they bought, the one they loved. So it’s a difficult thing to do. So I try to find a balance. I try to rework them so they sound more powerful, but the melodies are the same, the arrangements are the same and enough of the original is still there. You’re kind of trying to find that balance. You try to make older things sound like they belong with newer stuff, but similar enough so fans aren’t disappointed when they hear it. So sometimes you get it right, sometimes not. It varies from person to person through the audience. I used to go out in the audience after shows and people would line up at the tour bus and we’d chat for hours. I used to quite enjoy that because of the brutal honesty from people – sometimes overly brutal. I would think there’s got to be a nicer way of saying that. But it’s very useful for getting a grassroots opinion for what you’re doing that works and what doesn’t. And it’s up to you whether you’re guided by that or not, but it’s always good to know the truth about what your fans are thinking.

AD: You know, when I saw you back in 2001, I loved your old records but hadn’t heard the new ones. So I went in wanting to hear old stuff, but knowing that you were going to play mostly newer things. But with the older stuff that you did play, I thought it fit really well with the newer music and it actually helped me have a more open ear for your newer material after that.

GN: Oh, so it worked for you? That’s interesting. That’s what you hope is going to happen. Maybe that is still a way to go. I know with the tour we’re about to do, we’ve been talking a fair bit about the need to reinvigorate the older songs again. The versions we’ve been doing, we’ve done for awhile. And while they’re not the same as the originals, the British fans have gotten to know them now and they know them as much as the originals. So we’ve been looking at reinventing them in a style that compliments the Splinter album. Or, the other option is, do we go back to doing them exactly like they were on the original. Some songs lend themselves to being reworked and others we struggle with.

AD: With the new album, there were bits that I heard that reminded me of my personal favorite album of yours, Telekon. Not whole songs, but just small bits, so I wonder if that doesn’t maybe point a way toward how you could redo those older songs.

GN: Ade Fenton is a fan. He’s been a fan since day one. He used to dress like me. He’s embarrassed to admit that now, but he used to wear the same clothes and that type of thing. So he’s a massive fan and he’s got a huge, detailed knowledge from a fan’s perspective about what I used to do – far better than my own. Often when you’re doing it yourself, you’re far less aware of the things that you do and the sounds that you do than a fan is. It’s a weird thing to understand. My wife says I have what she calls a ‘Gary Numan walk’ and a ‘Gary Numan face.’ I’ve got no idea what she’s talking about. So there are things you do naturally that you’re just not aware of. So because Ade is producing the stuff, I think some of that stuff is more down to him than me. He puts those sounds in that maybe he thinks ‘well, this is kind of a classic Gary Numan sound.’ And I’m not recognizing that it’s that reminiscent of something I’ve done before, because I’m just not that tuned into it. I do have a suspicion that that’s Ade’s contribution to it – which is merging, if you like, certain influences from the past into the new stuff in a way that is quite subtle, but certain people are picking up on it.

AD: When you’ve been creating music for more than 30 years, what continues to excite you in the creative process? What are your goals when you sit down to create music? Are there still things you’re reaching to do? Have they changed over the years or are they the same?

GN: It’s pretty simple, actually. I still genuinely believe I can write better songs than I’ve written. And that’s what I’m trying to do. It’s the same challenge I had than when I first started. I listen back to every album I’ve ever made and all I can hear is what’s wrong with it. I just keep thinking I can do better than that. I can write a better chorus. I can come up with a better riff. I can come up with better sounds. I can write better lyrics. And whether I succeed or not is open to judgment, but I think I can and that’s what I’m always trying to do. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. But that’s the ambition and that’s the excitement of it. And I find it more exciting, and arguably even more challenging, now than I ever did before. And it’s great. Obviously, there’s a love for just doing it at all. There’s that challenge to be better than you were before.

There’s that experimental style where you try to come up with new sounds and textures you use in the songs. It sounds silly, but I spend a lot of time outside kind of banging on things and dragging things across the floor and then manipulating that and trying to turn it into sounds. I’ve probably hit more things since I’ve been here than I’ve done anything else. I found a metal pipe with a bit of concrete stuck in the bottom of it and [laughs] I was dragging that all over California recording it. I dragged it across a metal drain cover that had a corrugated surface to it. And what a fucking great sound that was when you spent a bit of time with it on the computer. I get really giggly and childish when I come up with something great. I run in and tell my wife, ‘oh, you’ve got to come hear this! It sounds amazing!’ So I’ve never lost that kind of childlike enthusiasm for it. There were periods where I dipped, to be truthful, but it’s still there, it’s still in me. With this album in particular, I’ve really enjoyed making it. For all of its darkness and unpleasant subjects, it’s actually been a really enjoyable thing to make. I’ve been really excited by it and it’s a great process. Once I got into it and it started to flow, it was really good, really exciting. words/ j neas

5 thoughts on “Gary Numan :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

  1. I love that, at the bottom of this page, the “you might like” section suggests the Grateful Dead and Dylan! Yowza! how many Numan fans go directly to the Dead? Besides me, of course.
    Great interview!! Thanks!

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