If there is one man who has put the synthesizer on the map within popular music, it is GARY NUMAN.
Under the moniker of TUBEWAY ARMY, his memorable appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’ in May 1979 with ‘Are Friends Electric?’ became many a music fan’s entry point into electronic music. The huge international hit ‘Cars’ swiftly followed and with it, worldwide fame and fortune. The outstanding legacy of those two songs has put Numan is an awkward position, particularly in the UK where mainstream media only want to feature and talk about those two songs.
But by the same token in the last 20 years or so, ‘Cars’ in particular has been particularly lucrative, having been used in commercials for Carling, American Express, Nissan and Churchill. This has allowed Numan to pursue his own distinctive and heavier path with albums such as ‘Exile’ and the critically acclaimed ‘Pure’.
In a career of over 35 years with well documented highs and lows, it is Numan’s highs that have established him as a highly influential music figure. Covers of his songs by heavyweights such as NINE INCH NAILS, FOO FIGHTERS and MARILYN MANSON have been indicators of the high regard by which the former Gary Webb is held. But is it not just the murkier world of alternative rock that has acknowledged its debt to Numan. Even in the dance and pop world where tales of dystopia and icy alienation are not easily embraced, samples of ‘Are Friends Electric?’, ‘Cars’ and ‘M.E.’ have respectively formed the basis of massive hit singles by SUGABABES, ARMAND VAN HELDEN and BASEMENT JAXX.
GARY NUMAN’s new album ‘Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind)’ is the follow-up to 2004’s ‘Jagged’. Although 2011 saw the release of the out takes collection ‘Dead Son Rising’, ‘Splinter’ is Numan’s first full length album project for seven years.
Produced by Ade Fenton and mastered by Matt Colton, the album features amongst its guest musicians guitarist Robin Finck, best known for his work with NINE INCH NAILS.
It sees a reinvigorated Numan in dynamic form, experimenting with classical orchestration on ‘The Calling’ and a more vulnerable but soulful vocal style on ‘Lost’ that will be a fresh surprise to anyone remotely interested in his work.
Dark dubdrops and spaces provide the much needed variation from previous works while sitting alongside are blistering anthemic synth assisted rockers like ‘Who Are You?’ and ‘Love Hurt Bleed’. With the opening gambit of ‘I Am Dust’ as a formidable statement of intent and the beautifully dramatic ‘My Last Day’ as its closer, ‘Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind)’ is possibly Numan’s most significant work since 2000’s ‘Pure’.
GARY NUMAN kindly took time out to chat to The Electricity Club from his new home in LA where he was in good spirits despite his wife Gemma’s illness at the time…
It’s f***ing ridiculous isn’t it? *laughs*
It hasn’t taken 7 years to make; it’s just been 7 years since the last one! Half of it was written in the last 8 months since I moved to LA. A bit was in the 6 months before the move but the bulk of it was written in the last year and a half plus there were some of it that came from various half hearted attempts at the start… I’d probably got about 30-35 songs in the course of that 7 years but never got stuck into it until the last year or so.
There are many reasons for that; shortly after ‘Jagged’ we had a baby which was really cool; but then we had another unexpectedly and then another shortly after! So our life went from being fairly free, easy and hedonistic to suddenly having a family where your life’s not your own anymore! I, in particular didn’t adapt to the family thing very well at all!
I really love the children but the life that came with them I did not love at all… I really missed my old life. I’d turned 50 and was having a mid-life crisis; I got really panicky about dying and getting illnesses, weird paranoia, crying in the streets when I saw old people… I properly weirded myself out! So I went on anti-depressants, Gemma had post-natal depression from the second baby right through to our third so she had a terrible time. We both struggled with the responsibility of parenting and its fears, so we were both at our worst when we needed to be strong for each other. We started to have problems and it was horrible!
The last thing I wanted to do was start another album. I do them quite challenging I have to say. I find each one more difficult than the one before… the emotional rollercoaster that you go on!
They’re massively important to your life and to your future so it’s very easy to become overly self-critical and to have confidence issues. If I have a bad day in the studio, it has a terrible effect on me and it’s hard to keep positive. And that has a knock-on effect on your family. So you grate on each other again.
Luckily, we worked all through that and we’ve come out of it stronger than ever. I‘ve adapted to family life and it’s brilliant, I love it… we are honestly stronger than ever. We loved each other and got through it. I started working on the album more seriously but by now I had the children and they were massively distracting. I didn’t want to miss anything and so I spent far too much time being a dad. So when I got used to be a dad, I spent far too much time doing that rather than being a songwriter!
But then, the album started to go really well and I found because of all the sh*t we’d gone through, I had a huge amount of things to write about. So songs like ‘Lost’ and ‘The Calling’, they’re not the happiest of tunes to be really honest, but it all came from a very difficult time! Food for creativity! *laughs*
I actually did get a lot of confidence from ‘Dead Son Rising’ because that had its own problems; Ade bullied me into finishing that! *laughs*
It’s entirely to Ade’s credit that album ever happened because he was trying to do that while this sh*t was going on. At one point I said “I don’t like it” and I turned my back on it for a year and a half!
I only rediscovered it by accident when we were on holiday; Gemma was playing a track in another room and I didn’t recognise it… I thought it sounded great!
So I went running to her and said “What’s that? It’s brilliant! If I’d written that stuff, I’d be writing albums” and she went “…it is you, YOU F***ING IDIOT!” – she said it was the ‘Dead Son Rising’ stuff that I didn’t like! I didn’t even recognise it and I went “I was wrong then because that’s really good!” *laughs*
So I rang Ade up and apologised about being so stupid so that we could finish the album. I suddenly did a whole load of work and got it done. I ended up being really proud of it. It got great reviews and the fans liked it. But I still didn’t throw myself wholeheartedly into ‘Splinter’ as it still felt like a huge project but that was the turning point. And when I came to LA, I built a new home studio and my work ethic was like I was 21 again. I was in there every day churning stuff out. The children were forbidden from even knocking on the door… as soon as I turned a machine on, a red light went on outside so they knew! I hadn’t been that efficient before!
Had ‘The Fall’, which was on ‘Dead Son Rising’, originally been intended for ‘Splinter’?
No, that was a demo from ‘Jagged’ or ‘Pure’. ‘Dead Son Rising’ had started out as a collection of stuff I hadn’t released. It ended up being mainly new songs funnily enough but that was the way it worked out. Often you will write a song but decide not to put it on an album, not because it’s a bad song but it doesn’t quite suit that album. So you put it on a shelf and normally, you forget all about it. It was only a few years ago that I started keeping stuff I didn’t use, I used to erase everything!
Ade was round my house and asked whether I had any unreleased stuff. We went to the studio and found about 14-15 songs that we thought were good that were of a similar vein we could use. So when I got back from holiday, I wrote some new stuff so it ended up an album of more new songs but ‘The Fall’ and ‘When The Sky Bleeds He Will Come’ were definitely old ones.
I think that’s true. It’s far more varied than ‘Jagged’ and ‘Pure’, more variation in tempo, it doesn’t hammer on about God the way the last few have done! I learnt a lot from ‘Dead Son Rising’ because my original idea was really bad.
I was just going to make 12 songs, everyone of them was going to be a huge anthemic singalong epic… aural assault, brain damage, all that kind of thing! Then when ‘Dead Son Rising’ came out, that was very varied and I thought that was actually much more interesting from a songwriting point of view. A lot of the fan and media reaction commented on the fact that it was varied compared to what I’d done before.
So when I started to work on ‘Splinter’ in earnest, that became a requirement that we wouldn’t do this one-dimensional idea I’d envisaged. We did the opposite and made it more varied. We were careful about what songs we chose to make sure that we had that. I honestly think it’s a much better album to the one before it, a much more interesting listening experience than if I’d have stuck with my original idea… which was a sh*t idea! *laughs*
‘I Am Dust’ is a terrific opener that is a lot more electronic than some were expecting? Some have reflected it’s thematically close to ‘We Are Glass’…
We definitely moved away from guitars but they’re still on it; Robin Finck’s on it for a start, he’s one of the best guitar players in the world. But it’s an emphasis thing. On the previous albums, it’s shifted very much towards guitars being very prominent but this one is very much on electronic music… some songs don’t have any guitars on at all! It’s still the same mixture of instrumentation as before but the emphasis is different.
I don’t think I play guitar on any songs at all on ‘Splinter’… I may have done on the demos but not on the finished versions. It was a conscious decision right from the outset to make a more electronic album. But we still wanted it to be heavy and that industrial rock vibe running through it.
Arabic overtones come into the atmospheres of your work quite a bit now like on the ‘Splinter’ title track?
I’ve actually wanted to make an Arabian kind of album, that sort of vibe, for a long time but never actually done it. What I have done with ‘Splinter’ is sprinkled it over top of some of the songs. I really love it, some of the instrumentation in particular, the structures and the melody flows are beautiful, very atmospheric and emotional. And I do think it translates quite well to the sort of thing I do, I think it works. I just haven’t had the courage yet to go into it wholeheartedly, I’m still cowardly tinkering round the edges of it. But on this album, it’s more than I’ve done before but it’s still very much just a flavour like a gentle herb drizzled across the top.
That’s interesting that you mention beauty, because it’s not necessarily been a term used to describe your work…
…but there’s always been melody; if you strip out all of the heaviness, quite often what you’re left with is quite pretty melodies. I really noticed that on the ‘Jagged’ album. During the sessions, we would strip the songs back down to piano and the melodies were quite pretty.
But it’s the way we produce them that makes them heavy. You could take them in a very different way and have a beautiful album. I think a lot of that is true on ‘Splinter’.
If you listen to the song ‘Lost’, we deliberately haven’t produced that… it’s stayed sparse and naked; essentially it’s just a piano and a vocal all the way through it. The quality of the melody on that really shows because it’s undisguised. I think it’s the thing I’m best at from the melody point of view… it’s my only string point! I’m not a particularly good musician truth be told and Ade is by far a better producer than I’ve ever been. But melody is probably the one thing that I can do.
The vocal on ‘Lost’ intrigued me because it’s kind of… soulful?
Me and Ade had so many arguments about this! *laughs*
Ade decided and I reluctantly agreed to put the vocal on with virtually no effects on it whatsoever. When I used to make albums up to ‘Jagged’, I put a lot of effect on my voice because I’ve never been confident about it. I didn’t think it was very good and I would put double tracking on it, delays, reverbs… I would just swamp the f***er!
Ade and Gemma had been saying for ages that I should let the voice come out on its own and louder in the mix. So we have done it and it’s very reduced effects, one or two delays and gentle reverb. There’s no ADT, no harmonising which was my in-the-pocket effect for whatever I did… that’s all gone! And so to my ears, it’s horribly naked and I’m really uncomfortable about it! *laughs*
‘Love Hurt Bleed’ is a good hybrid of guitars and electronics, a real highlight… did you change the ‘Splinter’ songs much from having played them live?
Not a lot, they were pretty well worked out but they are different. ‘Love Hurt Bleed’ has been played live for a couple of years now, it’s almost like an old song. It is different on the record but in detail really rather than anything dramatic.
The structure is as it was, although we’ve made it more powerful than what we were able to do live funnily enough. We played ‘I Am Dust’ live and that might be a little bit different on the album with the main groove.
I’ve been compiling all of the demos and I noticed some of them were quite different, others were just more polished. But as songs, they were very much the same.
The way I work is I write them here and I work them up to a reasonably finished level, but knowing Ade is going to change everything! I give him a quality direction as to what I’m aiming for. He then works on them, sends them back and we have an argument. We change things, we argue again and we end up with what we end up with.
You joked in the ‘Splinter’ trailer about having a song at 150BPM. Do you find you have a natural aversion to faster tempos now?
Yes, I do! I think it’s impossible to convey any kind of atmosphere at that sort of speed! It’s just going to be a mental dance track and that’s it! The thing on the trailer that I was joking about was my drummer has been having a go at me for ages that I couldn’t write a song at 150BPM. I said “I can, I just don’t want to”! So we had a £50 bet on it! So there is one that’s 150 but it’s actually at half tempo, it’s running at 75… you can write everything at double time and halve it when you record. So technically, he owes me £50! But he’s not having it because he goes “it’s not really is it? It says 150 on the machine but it isn’t!” *laughs*
Which one was that?
I can’t remember! It might be ‘Love Hurt Bleed’! *laughs*
‘Who Are You?’ will be popular with those who like your uptempo anthemic songs like ‘Listen To My Voice’, what’s that one about?
I wrote that for a film; when I moved to LA, I was asked by a company to write the end credit song. It came out really well and I thought it would be good to have it on the album because it would help their film and the album but I don’t think that will work now due to the scheduling. So lyrically, it’s to do with the subject matter of the film which about a musician who has a schizophrenic personality. He’s actually a murderer but is also very charming so it’s about that.
In a sense, it doesn’t sit quite as comfortably within ‘Splinter’ for that reason but it works well. It sounds like it belongs there and gave the album another big uptempo track which it needed. I think the balance of the album is right; without that song, there would have been too many slower, doom steady kind of things so it gave it the right balance.
Do you know the title of the film?
I don’t actually, it had a working title but they’re not calling it that and they haven’t told me what they’re releasing under yet but we might know soon.
Your friend JOHN FOXX still plays with vintage analogue kit while you’re happy with using the latest gear. What’s your favourite piece of equipment at the moment whether virtual or hardware, and where do you see music technology heading?
I’m very software based. There’s a company called Native Instruments who do some great stuff.
There’s another called Spectrasonics who make the backbone of what I do, they’ve got a bit of software called Omnisphere which is phenomenal but everyone’s got it unfortunately.
So you have to be careful that you don’t use sounds everybody else has heard, you got to try and manipulate them into something new or else you will just become a preset jockey as so many people are!
It’s difficult to avoid it really because some of the sounds are just so amazing! Much as I understand other people wanting to go back to old equipment, I absolutely do not share it.
I have no interest in it really… it might be because I’ve been around a long time, but I feel I got all the good sounds out of that equipment when I had it the first time.
And if I go back to it, it’s going to sound reminiscent… if I could come up with different sounds, they’re still coming from the same place, they going to have that buzzy analogue sound to them. And much as I love it, I feel like I’ve used it and for me, it will sound as if I’ve gone backwards… people will be going “ooooh great, that sounds like ‘The Pleasure Principle’”! I don’t want people to say that!
My interest in electronic music has always been to try and find sounds that I’ve not heard before. That’s always been the thing that’s most exciting and fun about it. So going back to old equipment will sound like variations of things I have done before, it doesn’t hold any real interest but each to their own. If other people find that inspiring and of interest, then that’s great.
I look forward to what Spectrasonics are going to do next. I get really deep into the technology for new sounds. When I was making this album, I was finding all kinds of software. I got loads of stuff from a company called, and it’s a terrible name, Best Service! What a sh*t name for a company but brilliant software! A lot of the Arabian stuff that you mentioned came from them. Mark Of The Unicorn did a fantastic bit of software with Arabian stuff too.
That is still being rebuilt! I got an email a few months ago from the guy who’s repairing it with a photo and it looked perfect.
He said he was waiting for some more parts which are quite hard to find and… I’ve heard nothing from him since! *laughs*
I had another Minimoog before that which I had rebuilt but the one that I found in my garage when I was moving to emigrate to the US, that was in a terrible state! F***ing hell, I couldn’t believe it! You’re hacking away at a bush and there’s a synthesizer underneath it! *laughs*
Is that going to end up in a museum, or are you possibly going to use it?
I was going to sell it because I’ve got no love for them whatsoever. But I’m beginning to build some kind of affection for that little one because it’s had such a horrible life… it’s toured with me around the world and been on my albums, and then I’ve abandoned it in a loft and a bush grows on top of it. That’s harsh! And now it’s hopefully all lovely and working again… whether I ever use it again, I doubt very much but I think I will keep it. I might actually mount it on the wall and just have it there, I think it deserves to be kept. Or I might even donate it to the Hard Rock Café or someone like that who might want it for a display item. But I’ll probably sell the other one…
I was interested in asking why with the excellent ‘A Prayer For The Unborn’ remix Andy Gray did back in 2001, you hadn’t pursued that more blippy but dark electronic direction as it appeared to suit you?
Yeah, I do like it… and that’s the version we always do live. I’ve not played the original version of that since Andy did his version. He did an amazing version of ‘Dead Sun Rising’ as well. He’s just brilliant, he’s a f***ing genius. In the future, I would definitely want to make a full album with Andy Gray and it would be more that way. We’ve done a couple of songs together and I love them both.
Sometimes, it’s about your own ambitions and what you want to do. Me and Ade go in a certain direction which I love and that is what I want at the moment, I’ve been pretty clear about where I want to go. It could be that we will go in different directions, I don’t know. With Andy, I would go into it with a slightly more open mind and see where it takes us.
Your US tour includes two dates opening for NINE INCH NAILS. Is the possibility of you and Trent Reznor writing and recording together getting closer to becoming a reality?
It’s something that we’ve mentioned in the past a few times. Before, being in England was always a bit of an issue because you can’t just drop in when you have a free hour. Trent works constantly, I’ve never known anybody with a work ethic like it! It should be much easier now, I’m only 20 minutes away from him.
But now the whole NINE INCH NAILS thing is up and running again and he’s mega busy with that. I’ve seen two of the shows already and it’s amazing. He sent me the album a few weeks back and it’s really cool. He’s just really good at what he does isn’t he? It’s always going to be good.
So I hope to, that would be something I’d be really excited about doing at some point in the future, but somewhat intimidated… it’s the only outstanding one for me. We’re mates and we live near each other, so it would seem to be something that is likely to happen at some point in the future but we’ll see… it’s been 10 years since we first talked about it so it’s obviously not going to happen anytime soon! *laughs*
You were spotted at DEPECHE MODE’s first London date on the ‘Delta Machine’ tour. How does it feel to know you and DM have both made such a worldwide impact from your Synth Britannia beginnings?
Yeah… their career’s done rather well compared to mine I would say! They’re doing football stadiums in every country on the planet and I’m not! I’m not jealous! Not envious at all about what’s happened to them! *roars of laughter*
Alan Wilder is a really good mate of mine, I regret that he’s not in the band anymore.
I love DEPECHE MODE but my favourite period is ‘Songs Of Faith & Devotion’ where they went darker, heavier and frightening almost!
I think Alan has to take the lion share of the credit for that because I know he shaped that whole sound on ‘Black Celebration’, ‘Violator’, ‘Songs Of Faith & Devotion’ etc. For me, it got more and more interesting, and was really inspiring.
‘Songs Of Faith & Devotion’ was a key album in my music becoming much heavier back in 1994 and having the long career that I have had. In the early 90s, my career was pretty much dead and buried. But then I made ‘Sacrifice’ which resurrected me and off I went again. ‘Songs Of Faith & Devotion’ has a real big hand to play in that album so I’ve got a huge gratitude to Alan Wilder. He probably more than anyone was instrumental in saving my career. I wrote the songs, but I don’t know I would have done if I hadn’t had heard ‘Songs Of Faith & Devotion’. It just made me think differently and it made me want to make a different kind of music. It was massively important and that’s just the truth of it.
Have you and Alan Wilder ever discussed working together?
We never have actually but that would be great! He’s another one who’s an absolute genius. I love all of his RECOIL stuff and moan at him a lot that he should work more and get a singer! *laughs*
The work that he does is fantastic and maybe that’s something I should pursue because I love him, we get on really well… yeah… you’ve got some good ideas!
The move to the States appears to have relaxed you, you’ve even been tweeting photos of your holiday and dog Wilbur…
It hasn’t changed my songwriting at all, I still write the same sort of things as I did before.
I do love Britain, but moving here was very difficult decision to make. I have to say having done it, and there and many things I do miss like friends and family, it’s amazing here.
And 20 minutes drive away is the ocean, Malibu or Hollywood. I’ve had breakfast in Hollywood and you can park outside a restaurant… it’s not like England where there’s one parking space for every 2000 cars and if you do find one, you have to pay £10 a minute! Here, there’s valet parking for $2 for the day! Brilliant!
The weather is beautiful, you can live a very outdoor life because it doesn’t rain. It’s pretty here because they’re got irrigation and there’s greenery. There’s so much to do and so much entertainment here. It’s a culture unashamedly geared to having a good time. In England, you’re kind of made guilty for having a boat. It’s so different here and they seem to enjoy life and living in way I’ve not experienced anywhere else.
There is far less cynicism, less aggression. The British view of America is guns and violence, and although that is here, it’s very much located in certain areas. Where I live is peaceful and calm. I’ve not seen a fight since I’ve been here and I’ve been here 9-10 months now. I guarantee I could get off the plane in England and see that within an hour anywhere, any time of the day!
You gonna see a little drunk f***er or some thug in the street shouting or spitting! It’s kind of part of our culture and for all the talk of guns and violence in the US, it is not part of your day-to-day life. I’ve not been out for one single moment with the children where I tried to shoo them away or take them to one side or move on, not at all! Yet, it happened regularly in England, even in my little local village. So from that point of view, it really is better.
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to GARY NUMAN
Special thanks to Duncan Clark at 9PR
‘Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind)’ is released on 14th October by Mortal Records / Cooking Vinyl as a CD, deluxe CD and double vinyl
Atlanta Masquerade (25th October), Asheville Mountain Oasis Festival (26th October), Washington Black Cat (27th October), Brooklyn Music Hall of Williamsburg (29th October), Sunrise BB&T Center (October 30 – with NINE INCH NAILS), Orlando Amway Center (31st October – with NINE INCH NAILS), Bristol 02 Academy (7th November), Dublin Button Factory (8th November), Sheffield 02 Academy (11th November), Newcastle 02 Academy (12th November), Glasgow 02 ABC (13th November), Manchester Academy (14th November) Oxford 02 Academy (15th November), London Roundhouse (16th November), Brighton The Dome (18th November), Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall (19th November)
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
Album artwork photography by LaRoache Brothers at Woolhouse Studios
Other photos as credited or from Gary Numan’s Official Facebook page
17th October 2013