GARY NUMAN: NOT EVERYTHING IS ABOUT ME
Before samplers and computer software, Gary Numan came out in eyeliner and white make-up (to cover his zits) and ran a synth through a guitar pedal. And although he wasn’t the first morose Brit to dance in front of a camera, he got noticed. His 1979 solo album, The Pleasure Principle, has been sampled by everyone from Wu-Tang to the Foo Fighters and Nine Inch Nails. Over the last five years, he’s made more noises than he knows what to do with, and he’s finally ready to write another song. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
Do you see yourself as a hip-hop pioneer?
No. I don’t see myself as a pioneer at all of anything really. When I first started doing electronic music in 1978 and ’79, I thought—when I first stumbled across a synthesizer—that I was the only one doing it. But quickly I discovered there were plenty others doing it for two or three years. I get a lot of credit now as the pioneer. In truth, I was just the one that was lucky enough to have the first hit single—the first big electronic record. I’m proud to have been a part of the early electronic scene. I was there during the beginning. I wasn’t making the best music. There were people around doing interesting stuff with synths. Some of the credit is undeserved. It should be shared among a greater number of people. True, my music has been used in hip-hop and Nine Inch Nails—Pleasure Principle in particular has been important to them. But I don’t sit in my house thinking I’m a pioneer.
Does the abundance of technology create dispensable music?
When I made Pleasure Principle you had a synthesizer—maybe two—in the studio and only a certain amount of time to rent them. I didn’t own one until my fourth album. You twiddled a little and tried to make it sound good in a short time-scale. You didn’t have a lot of time to experiment really. That’s not the best way to work perhaps but it did have a certain excitement and immediacy. Now you can sit in a studio and try different snare drums for two weeks. There are so many ways to manipulate things—primarily software—these days. It’s amazing. You can have several years between albums because you spend forever trying this and that. Quite often you don’t even decide. Eventually you just have to commit. But you know there’s an even better sound lurking in the machine somewhere if you can find it. Using technology today requires discipline—X amount of hours—so you don’t spend the rest of your life in the studio not making songs. … If you’re not careful, which is what happened to me, you don’t realize that though you are working you are not finishing anything. You’ve got 1,001 noises and no one can listen to that! I have been in a five-year learning explosion—trying to get on top of technology. The more I try, the more stuff comes out. It’s like I’m stuck in a lab and it’s completely unnecessary. If you come up with one great sound, use it. Collect those sounds and put them into a song. I was brilliant at this the first twenty years. The last ten years I have become aimless really. It has taken this change in circumstances to pull me back in and now it’s good. I have all this stuff. It’s fun again and productive. There’s proper finished music—not just an endless amount of bleeps and drum grooves. I feel like I’m back in the groove again.
I kept having conversations with people about when was the last time I wrote a song, mixed it and put it on a CD. It’s been about five years since I finished a song. I have hours of noises and ideas—loads of it but nothing I finished. If you’re aimless, you have to sort yourself out and make a decision. You suddenly realize how long it’s been, and how much time you’ve wasted. Five years between albums is simply too long. It’s not enough to keep momentum from a career point of view. I’m a bit embarrassed about it. I feel very embarrassed. I want to get this Pleasure Principle celebration finished and get back and finish Splinter.
You’ve known the album title for a few years now. Is that a conceptual choice? It seems you often go with these one-word titles.
For me, one word—that’s like my approach to music. I am not a fan of blistering guitar solos. I am often happy to hit one note. One note can give you that feeling of menace or whatever you need. It can give you that turn. One-word titles are like a lyrical version of what I do musically. I am simple. You don’t have to be a virtuoso to make my music.
Do you think simplicity is the key to electronic music?
I think that quite often. A very gifted musician who also writes songs in my opinion tends to write songs as vehicles for their musicianship. They are a guitar player, they have a guitar solo. It will be very guitar-dominated. It’s an excuse to show how good they are as a guitarist or keyboard player if they write from a point-of-view demonstrating their gift. I don’t have those skills. I don’t think I’m a very good player or even sing very well. I’m not trying to show off any skill. I just like writing songs. Because of that, they tend to be simple melody-based things. Pleasure Principle is almost stark in some respects. I often thought my stuff was simple because I have no talent.
Melody and structure are gifts as well. A bad song with a good singer stays bad, but a good song with a bad singer can be great.
Maybe you’re right. My whole career I felt lucky. I never felt talented. I was lucky to have the first single—to stumble on to a synth—but I’ve always been trying to reach the level of the people that I admire. For me, every album is an attempt to do better than I did before. If what I do has talent, it’s not something I recognize. Lots of people can write tunes. I wish I was more gifted as a musician, but then perhaps I wouldn’t write the way I do. I get a lot of pleasure listening to great players but I never really wanted it enough I guess to spend the time to become one. Sometimes, when you have limitations as a player it allows you to focus on different areas when it comes to songwriting. That’s the driving force of my songwriting. I have to write a certain way because there are certain avenues I can’t go down. That nonetheless gives you a style or signature approach of your own. That’s not to be sneezed at, but I never felt particularly proud of it.
There must be a reason you’ve dedicated half your life to making music.
I guess so. The songwriting part of it—I don’t know. It’s a need. It’s difficult to explain. If I have an issue with something or somebody or life in general—if I write it out I get the same benefit as someone who might go to an analyst or shrink. They talk about their problems and get to the bottom of it. Songwriting has a certain function not all the time because sometimes you are at ease—but for me mostly it’s about trying to understand why and what you feel. It’s different from talking. The process of writing a song makes you think of what you want to say and how. Sculpting a song and putting it together has always been an important part of getting to know me. Oh, I don’t mean that—it sounds pretentious! But it’s a way to understand your feelings—what you feel and why—and fine-tune them and make them make sense and be honest with how you feel. When you’ve done that, those anxieties are gone until something comes to replace them. I am a silent person. Aside from this present conversation, I don’t really talk about things too much with other people. I keep things bottled in and closed up. I have a small circle of friends. Songwriting is how I get through life, which is why there is so much introspection—lots of ‘I’s and ‘me’s. It’s deeply personal.
Isn’t it strange to share so much of yourself with thousands or millions of people?
It isn’t actually. It doesn’t feel too strange. In the course of writing a song, it becomes more about a character. Not everything is about me. It kind of scatters around, but singing certain songs that are deeply felt—it isn’t strange. It feels like the right thing to be doing.
GARY NUMAN WITH MOTOR ON WED., NOV. 3, AND WITH BATTLE CIRCUS ON THUR., NOV. 4, AT THE EL REY, 5515 WILSHIRE BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 8 PM. $35. ALL AGES. GOLDENVOICE.COM. VISIT GARY NUMAN AT NUMAN.CO.UK.