Synth legend Gary Numan visits Preston next week for an intimate gig at 53 Degrees. MALCOLM WYATT caught the ex-Tubeway Army main-man at home in Los Angeles before he set off...
Preston’s 53 Degrees may be on borrowed time, but the seemingly ill-fated venue has several prestigious shows to come. And one that jumps off the listings is Tuesday, July 1’s Gary Numan appearance.
The London-born electronica icon burst on to the scene in 1979, his other-wordly demeanour mesmerising a generation of Top of the Pops viewers on breakthrough Tubeway Army hit Are Friends Electric?
His fame was assured by the time Cars topped the UK charts later that year, and the albums Replicas, The Pleasure Principle and Telekon all reached No.1.
Numan’s fame ebbed, but a cult following kept him afloat as his mega-finances dwindled, and a major re-awakening followed in recent times.
The strength of his latest album, Splinter, is a case in point, suggesting a performer back on his game, released to critical and artistic acclaim last year.
Now, Numan is set for an ‘intimate club tour’ of the UK alongside festival appearances in Dublin and Knebworth Park.
The tour takes in a number of towns and cities Numan has not played in a long time, getting back to his roots.
Few of us will forget our first listen to Are Friends Electric? and witnessing Tubeway Army’s screen debut 35 years ago – including Numan.
“Pretty much everything that happened in 1979 was startling to me. It was just one thing after another; like a tornado, everything spinning by so fast you could barely register what it was before it was gone and replaced by something else. It felt exciting but dangerous, the pressure was enormous and I was entirely out of my depth the entire time to be honest.”
Did that original Top of the Pops appearance leave us with the wrong impression?
“I don’t think you can ever know what somebody is like by watching them perform, no more than you can know an actor by watching them act. It’s a performance; a mixture of natural character heavily mixed with many other things. Most of the famous people I’ve met have not been the way you’d imagine from watching their performances.”
You’ve flirted with images over the years. Is that a David Bowie and glam influence?
“Not as far as I’m concerned, far from it. My use of image was to portray a character in the song. The lyrics to Are Friends Electric? and from the album Replicas were based on a collection of short stories I’d been writing. Lots of people have used image over the years – Kiss, Bowie, the list is massive. Some do it to create a spectacle, some to enhance the meaning behind the music.
“That was my path; I thought the image would help with the meaning behind the music; as the music evolved over the years the need for an image faded somewhat.”
Numan’s father bought him his first Les Paul guitar, and set him on his way. Does he look at his parents’ sacrifices in a different light now, as a proud dad himself?
“There was an amazing level of support at home. I owe my parents a phenomenal debt of gratitude. I’ve always known that, always said so, never forgotten.
“I have the same feelings towards my own children.
“Everything I do is to try to make their life better, to make their future happy and secure. I have a very different life these days because of the children and the things you give up for them. To see them happy is the reason I get up in the morning. Having children seems to bring an automatic switch from a self-serving lifestyle to one where my desires are very near the bottom of the list.”
Numan moved away from his punk roots on discovering synthesisers, ‘the defining moment of my entire life’. But while his career soon took off, his shyness never went away, with friendships hard to make.
“I don’t really keep in touch with anyone very well. I’m a terrible friend in that regard, riddled with all social anxiety issues. Luckily for me, my wife is the opposite, very sociable. She works constantly to stay in touch with everyone.”
Are your friends largely within the industry?
“Most are. We do have friends who are parents from the school our children go to, but most are music people. Not many people outside the business really understand the life. It’s easier to talk to people that do.”
Who do you listen to?
“I don’t listen to music much at all. That’s one thing I tend to leave at the studio door. I go to see bands fairly often and tour a lot so seem to be around music all the time. At home, though, I like to keep away from it.
“I don’t listen to radio, don’t listen in the car, very rarely watch music TV and don’t play music in the house. It annoys my wife and children as they really love listening to it, so I bought them all iPods. Listening to music stops me thinking, it gets in the way.”
Did the fans who stood by you help sharpen your focus when the sales stopped?
“My sales went from about one million in the UK to about 3,000 at one point, so only a tiny few stayed with me. I’m very grateful to those, but had to rebuild almost from the ground up since the low point of 1992.
“That drive and desire was my focus. Since 1994 each year has been a little better than the one before, so things continue to improve. I’ll never forget how close it came to being over though.”
In time came the re-appraisals, with critical acclaim for a more industrial sound and key artists citing him as influential. Did that make him want to shout ‘told you so!’?
“I never thought I was anything special, so when the initial success came and the press were extremely hostile I just thought they didn’t like my music and had no argument with that; I have no axe to grind.
“I’m glad those same albums are now talked about as ‘classics’, influential and innovative. That makes me feel good.
“I’ve a level of respect and credibility I couldn’t have dreamed of back then. My new albums, Splinter in particular, have had the best reviews I’ve ever had.
“I’m very proud of Splinter and the reaction has been incredible, all over the world. Seeing it reach out not only to existing fans but a new generation has been very exciting.”
Are you still excited by synthesisers and effects? Might there be a time when you go out on the road with just an acoustic guitar and a harmonica – Numan Unplugged?
“I’m still totally obsessed about creating sounds. Doesn’t need to be a synth, anything that makes a good noise can be recorded and manipulated and turned into music. I still work with the very latest technology, and love that. But there are other ways of playing live, online for example, that might lend themselves to a more unplugged type of performance.”
Away from the studio, flying has always been a passion. Are you still a regular flier?
“Since the children came along I’ve pulled out. I was an aerobatic display pilot, flying World War Two combat aeroplanes at air shows all over Europe.
“I taught that for a while and, for a couple of years, was an evaluator for the Civil Aviation Authority in the UK. Unfortunately it’s quite a dangerous thing to do, most of my friends were killed in various accidents over the years.
“I tried normal light aircraft for a while but it seemed so tame after the air display world so didn’t hold my interest. I do miss it though and hope to get back into some kind of flying activity in the future.”
Are you ever likely to return to England?
“For work and to visit friends and family, but to live, I doubt it. My life here is very different. I wake up to blue skies and beautiful sunshine every day, surrounded by stunning mountains.
“I’m a 20-minute drive from Hollywood, 30 minutes from the ocean via rugged canyons, can ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon, should I want to.
“Recently I sat at an outdoor restaurant by the Pacific, watching whales swim by. Amazing. The people are very friendly and helpful, the service is unbeatable and my wife Gemma and the children have never been happier.”
Is there a plan to update your autobiography, Playing to the Aliens? How did you find that process? Your songs suggest the imagination to successfully write fiction, too.
“The writing was easy, I’ve no problem with that, be it stories or lyrics. My problem is memory, which is shockingly bad. I’m now working on part two, which I hope to have published sometime in 2015.
“I’ve been working on a novel some time. A high-fantasy epic, so I’m diving in at the deep end.
“I’ll be working on that over the next year and will see what I come up with.
“I’ve a strong desire to move into writing as time goes by. If I find I’m no good – which is highly likely – I’ll have to abandon a dream I’ve worked on many years.”
So what’s next?
“I’ve just finished a score for a film called From Inside, an animated nightmare about a pregnant girl’s journey after civilisation has been destroyed.
“Once this year’s touring is over I’ll get on with the follow-up to Splinter, but other film offers are coming in so I need to plan my time carefully.
“I’ve also been asked to write music for a new TV series, so have lots of things to juggle and consider in the coming months.”
Is this more intimate leg of the tour a big step for such an introvert?
“I’m used to gigs of all sizes. On the US tour they ranged from 8,000 to 800. I’m quite shy as a person but I’m anything but when I’m on stage. The stage performance is very aggressive, not the slightest bit introverted, apart from the fact I don’t really talk.
“I might say ‘hello’ at the start and ‘thank you’ at the end if I’m in a particularly talkative mood, but that’s about it. Having done the previous tour with the big production, playing the smaller places opened up an opportunity to tour the album in a different way.”
And what advice might the 56-year-old Gary Numan give to 16-year-old Gary Webb (his original name), about to make his way in the wider world?
“Try to enjoy the moment more and stop missing out because you’re worrying too much about what comes next. That has always been my failing.”
Gary Numan, 53 Degrees, Tuesday July 1:
Tickets: £26, 14+. Doors: 7pm