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Interview: Gary Numan

Gary Numan
29 June 2021

Gary Numan has been releasing albums for four decades, but his daring electronic music has always seemed futuristic. He started his career with the London-based band Tubeway Army, who released two acclaimed albums, Tubeway Army (1978) and Replicas (1979). Their final single, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?,” established them as electronic/New Wave pioneers. Before 1979 was done, Numan released his solo debut album, The Pleasure Principal. His first single from that album, “Cars,” became an international smash hit, and it remains his signature song to this day. Numan has remained prolific ever since: he released his 18th studio album, Intruder, in May. During a Zoom call from his Los Angeles home, Numan seems affable despite discussing his dystopian vision for this new album.

You first announced this album in 2019, but your lyrics make it seem like you had some kind of premonition about how bleak 2020 was going to become…

GARY NUMAN: COVID, I had no idea that that was around the corner. The album is all about if the Earth could speak, what would it say? How does it feel? Is it hurt, disillusion, disappointed, angry? Is it going to fight back? Is it already fighting back? Has it been fighting back for some time and we’ve only just noticed it? All of those ideas were going through my head. So there was already the concept in some of the songs that the Earth was trying to get rid of us, saw us as the enemy, an infestation on the planet that needs to be eradicated. So I was already writing that sort of stuff, and then COVID came along and it was just kind of a horrible coincidence. It tied into exactly what I’d been writing. It wasn’t a huge leap of my imagination to think, “Well, I wonder if the Earth has self-created that? I wonder if that is the Earth trying to get rid of us?” I genuinely do think that human beings are a rare mistake of nature. I think nature, as a system, is inherently cruel – everything kills everything else. Everything eats everything else. It’s a pretty harsh way of solving problems, isn’t it, to just have things get eaten? But it does work very harmoniously, in a very brutal way. And it did for millennia until we came along. Nature hasn’t invented anything else that has the capacity to do the damage that we do. We’re just like this horrible aberration. We are the problem. And that’s what Intruder is kind of saying: we are a scourge, to use an old-fashioned word.

But it seems like there’s always a sense of hope to your work, too, isn’t there?

GARY NUMAN: I agree with you, usually there’s a certain amount of optimism. But with Intruder, there really isn’t, because I don’t feel particularly hopeful. It’s bizarre to be living at a time, when the end of the world isn’t just science fiction nonsense. It’s an actual possibility. Almost a likelihood. And if you write songs, then you write songs about it, that’s what you do. I’m not an expert. I’m not a scientist. I’m not an eco-warrior. But just as an ordinary citizen that writes songs for a living, I’m obviously very concerned about it, so I think writing songs about it and talking about it is a very, very worthwhile thing to be doing at the moment.

Where does this tendency to write this type of lyrics come from?

GARY NUMAN: I’ve always been interested in the near future, strangely enough. How it relates to the human condition. How people will change or evolve. Or how technology will affect people – what people will become because of it.

Your music has also seemed very futuristic, too. How have you always stayed on the vanguard like that?

GARY NUMAN: I think it’s easy for me, in a way, because it’s electronic music, essentially. The core of it is electronic, even though it has guitar and drums and so on. That’s a technology that is constantly evolving. So you’re in a very fortunate position as an electronic artist, because the industry that makes the equipment is constantly reinventing itself and coming up with new things and new techniques. We are the beneficiaries of that. So every time you make a new album, there’s probably going to be a new bit of kit that’s amazing and does all kinds of cool things. Providing you’re willing to engage with that new technology and make the most of it, then in a way, it’s difficult not to keep moving forward and keep trying new things. It’s surprising to me, actually, how many electronic acts there are they actually don’t do that. They’ve found these few sounds and these particular synthesizers, and they stay with them forever. It’s not for me but I’m not dismissing it. I always thought that people got into electronic music, as a musician, because their interest would be looking for something new, and looking for new sounds. Why else would you come into it? That’s what I thought, anyway. I was obviously wrong because plenty of people come into it and are happy to use the equipment and sounds that have been around for twenty or thirty or forty years, even.

What made you decide to become a musician?

GARY NUMAN: I was a big T. Rex / Marc Bolan fan when I was a kid. I remember watching him, I think he had a white Rolls-Royce, and it just looked glamorous and exciting and I just thought, “That’s the sort of life I want. I don’t want to work in an office. Don’t want to have that much to do with people, to be honest. Not close up.” And I was always writing poetry and stories. So that was always my nature. And I always found writing to be a good way to get tensions out. I used to sit in my bedroom when I was a teenager and we lived on a main road that went into London, and every day there was a traffic jam going in and then a traffic jam coming out in the evening. And I would look at these people, and everybody looked miserable. That’s not a life. That’s not what I wanted. So I chose something different, and then tried as hard I could to make that happen.

What do you think it is that enabled you to have such longevity with your career?

GARY NUMAN: I think luck obviously plays a huge part. Some people seem to have a few good songs in them – one or two really good albums, and then they kind of run out of ideas. That seems to be fairly common. I’ve been lucky in that I don’t seem to have an end to the ideas. I’m just full all the time of thinking about what to do next. In a way, that nature where you’re sort of driven, that’s very useful for a career like this. But now I’m beginning to wonder whether I’ve got it right, actually. I really am. You get to a certain age, you start looking back and wondering about things that you actually took for granted before. Now I wonder if I could have enjoyed the moment more? I’ve spent my whole life working and planning, and maybe I should have just stopped for a bit. I think I might have missed out on a much happier karma, a more gentle sort of life. I don’t know what else I would have done, really. I’m unsure now.

This pandemic seems to have made a lot of people stop and reevaluate life.

GARY NUMAN: I think that’s very true, actually. That might be my cabin fever talking!

Good thing you’re going to be able to tour again fairly soon!

GARY NUMAN: I love touring. I really do. And I’ve really missed it, actually. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love touring, so I knew that I would miss it if we weren’t allowed to tour for a while, but it’s been much, much, harder than I expected. You don’t realize how big a part of your life it is until it’s taken away for a year. This is the longest, since I got my first [record] contract, that I’ve not played, and that was 43 years [ago]. So yeah, I’m really missing it. I promise you, we’re pushing as hard as possible to get back as quickly as we can. The whole thing about being on stage and seeing the reaction and just feeling it. The volume and the weight of the music. When you feel it through the floor. It’s just a really amazing thing to be able to be a part of that event and to be standing there, knowing that this is your music and these people are all reacting to it. And you remember, often, the moment when you sat down at the piano and first wrote that tune that you’re now singing at this gig, and thousands of people are going mad. It means something and it’s special.

U.S. Tour Dates:

September 17, 2021 Fri – Los Angeles – The Fonda
September 18, 2021 Sat – San Diego – The Observatory North Park
September 19, 2021 Sun – Pioneertown – Pappy & Harriet’s
September 20, 2021 Mon – Phoenix – The Crescent Ballroom
September 22, 2021 Wed – San Antonio – Paper Tiger
September 23, 2021 Thu – Austin – Emo’s
September 24, 2021 Fri – Dallas – Granada Theater
September 25, 2021 Sat – Houston – Numbers
September 27, 2021 Mon – Nashville – Basement East
September 28, 2021 Tue – Atlanta – Variety Playhouse
September 29, 2021 Wed – Carrboro – Cat’s Cradle
September 30, 2021 Thu – DC – 9:30 Club
October 1, 2021 Fri – Buffalo – Town Ballroom
October 2, 2021 Sat – New York – Brooklyn Steel
October 4, 2021 Mon – Boston – Paradise
October 5, 2021 Tue – New Haven – College Street
October 6, 2021 Wed – Philadelphia – Union Transfer
October 8, 2021 Fri – Toronto – Phoenix Concert Theatre
October 9, 2021 Sat – Detroit – Majestic Theatre
October 10, 2021 Sun – Chicago – Park West
October 11, 2021 Mon – Milwaukee – The Rave
October 12, 2021 Tue – Minneapolis – First Avenue
October 14, 2021 Thu – Denver – Gothic Theatre
October 15, 2021 Fri – Salt Lake City – Metro Music Hall
October 16, 2021 Sat – Boise – Knitting Factory
October 17, 2021 Sun – Portland – Revolution Hall
October 18, 2021 Mon – Vancouver – Commodore Ballroom
October 19, 2021 Tue – Seattle – Neptune
October 21, 2021 Thu – Sacramento – Ace Of Spades
October 22, 2021 Fri – San Francisco – The Fillmore
October 23, 2021 Sat – Santa Ana – The Observatory

U.K./European Tour Dates:

APRIL 2022
28th – UK, Cardiff, The Great Hall
30th – UK, Bristol, O2 Academy

MAY 2022
1st – UK, Brighton, Centre
2nd – UK, Birmingham, O2 Institute
5th – UK, Bournemouth, O2 Academy
6th – UK, Plymouth, Pavilions
7th – UK, London, The SSE Arena, Wembley
9th – UK, Edinburgh, Corn Exchange
10th – UK, Glasgow, O2 Academy
11th – UK, Newcastle, O2 City Hall
12th – UK, Leeds, O2 Academy
14th – UK, Northampton, Royal & Derngate
15th – UK, Norwich, UEA
16th – UK, Nottingham, Rock City
18th – UK, Manchester, Albert Hall
20th – UK, Sheffield, O2 Academy
21st – UK, Belfast, Ulster Hall
24th – Ireland, Dublin, Olympia Theatre
26th – The Netherlands, Amsterdam, Melkweg
27th – Denmark, Aarhus, Train
29th – Denmark, Copenhagen, Amager Bio
30th – Norway, Oslo, John Dee
31st – Sweden, Malmo, Kulturbolaget

JUNE 2022
2nd – Germany, Berlin, Columbiahalle
7th – France, Paris, Le Cabaret Sauvage
10th – Spain, Madrid, Sala But
11th – Spain, Barcelona, Razzmatazz Room 2
13th – Belgium, Brussels, Ancienne Belgique