We recently took the chance to speak to electro-pioneer, Gary Numan, about his punk origins, his first time with a synthesiser, changing opinions about his work and his lasting influence on new music.
Your career has spanned over 3 decades, how does it feel to now be considered an electronic music pioneer?
It sits well with me actually. I’m not entirely sure I deserve it but it’s a cool thing to be considered a pioneer of what is, arguably, the last major revolution in music. Electronic music brought with it a new way of thinking about music, about sound itself in many ways, and it has created over the years some incredible things. I’m very proud to be seen as a key player in that.
Can you tell us a bit about the story and context behind the 'Replicas' album?
Replicas, which was released in 1979, started out as a series of short stories based very loosely on how I thought London might develop in the following 50 years. It was very science fiction based obviously but it was never intended to claim any kind of insight into what was likely to happen, just what could happen as an extreme. It has left me with a reputation for making science fiction albums throughout my career but, in truth, out of the twenty or so I've made, Replicas was the only Sci Fi album amongst them. The stories told of a time when the running of the city had been handed over to a computer of sorts, although far advanced than anything we have now of course. A self reliant, thinking, adaptive machine. The machine realised that the only real problem with the peaceful harmony of the city was the people themselves, so it began to devise ways of killing them without creating any suspicions or uproar until such a time as people would be too scarce to do anything about it. I never did finish the stories. They were converted into the lyrics of songs for the Replicas album, then I got famous and so a new career exploded and I lost interest in finishing them.
When Tubeway Army first emerged, you were doing something very different from the punk scene at the time, what prompted this?
Strangely enough I started Tubeway Army as a punk band. We made two singles as a three piece, guitar bass drums line up, and then we went into the studio to record our debut album, which was essentially all the punk songs we played in our live set. It was at that point that I saw my first synth, just sitting there in the studio control room. As the band unloaded the gear I started playing around with the synth, fell in love with it, and so hastily began to convert, then and there, all my punk songs into electro punk versions. Afterwards I wrote a few more, went back to the studio and recorded them, and that was the album we took to the record company who were far from happy. They sent us in as their pop/punk crossover band I think, and what came back was something entirely different. We had a huge row, coming nearly to blows at one point, but eventually, thanks to Martin Mills who ran the label, they decided to go with it and that started everything for me.
Have you found opinion on your work has changed over time?
I think 'ahead of my time' is a kind way of saying that a lot of the reviews back then were scathing to say the least. It’s been quite remarkable to see how things and opinions have changed over the years. I have seen publications that hated those early records when they first came out, and me along with them, now talk about them as these ground breaking innovative masterpieces, and me as this legendary pioneering influence on modern music. It’s quite amazing actually. One of the great advantages of being around so long I guess. I’m able to be a witness to my own career renaissance.
What have been your biggest influences throughout your career? You recently spoke to the BFI about how sci-fi has inspired you…
Sci Fi has actually been a very small influence. I haven’t read a Sci Fi book in well over thirty years, although I do still enjoy Sci Fi at the cinema and on the TV. Without trying to avoid the question in any way I have to say that I’m influenced by pretty much everything. Every single day I will see something, read something, hear something, experience something that finds its way back to the music. I am constantly recording sounds, making notes, taking photos, sending myself reminders of things that I have come across that day, every day. People you meet, conversations you have, books you read, music you hear, films you watch, shows you enjoy, all of it gives me something, a spark if you will, which ignites my imagination. This must be true of any creative person I would have thought.
New bands often cite you as an influence, have you noticed any new bands or artists that you think are doing something interesting?
Many, new and old. Recently I’ve worked with several of them as well. Bands like Officers, The Losers, Roman Remains, Big Black Delta, Battles and many more. I’m not saying any of those bands are influenced by me, I have no idea about that, but they are all doing interesting things.
With the rise of youtube and Spotify, music has become more accessible than ever. Have you noticed a younger generation discovering your back catalog?
I have but I would hesitate to give the credit for that entirely to YouTube and Spotify. It’s true that the last eighteen months of touring have seen a fantastic influx of new fans, most of them younger, but there could be many reasons for that beyond YouTube and Spotify. For someone to even check you out on YouTube or Spotify they first have to hear about you and become interested. What causes that? I’m lucky in that I get mentioned a lot as influential by many big artists and that surely helps generate interest and credibility. I’ve toured my arse off with the new Splinter album, all over the world, so that has also helped I think. Splinter has had the best reviews of my entire career, by far, so that obviously helps to create interest. It’s a lot of things all working together. But, when that interest is created, for someone to then be able to go to YouTube and Spotify to see what the fuss is about, well that’s a very useful resource.
Be it on an advert or as a sample, your music can appear in unlikely places. Where is the strangest place you have heard your music pop up?
I heard it once being played on kettle drums in a street somewhere thousands of miles from home. Didn’t expect that. I remember the first time I ever heard it being played somewhere other than the radio though. It was 1979 and I was walking along a side street in London and I heard one of my songs drifting out of an upstairs window. I looked up and I could see the outline of a woman doing her ironing, with a few dance moves added here and there, with my song playing. That blew me away. I stood outside her window like a creepy stalker until it was finished just watching her shadow dancing to my music. It was a very surreal moment.
Finally, what is next for you?
I’ve just done my first film score for a film called From Inside so I hope to do more of that. I start my new album in January, I’m also involved with a number of collaboration projects with some US based artists, most likely one of those will be an album as well. I’m writing a high fantasy novel, making a documentary, writing the second book of my autobiography, possibly getting into writing music for games but we shall see if that works out and then more touring of course at some point. I also have a plan to write children's stories and get more involved in clothing ranges but that is a way off yet. I also have an idea for pet coffins that I’m trying to get underway.
Find out more about Gary Numan and his current projects at www.numan.co.uk