Interview: Gary Numan
On the forthcoming tour, you’ll be playing your 1979 Replicas album in its entirety. What was the inspiration for this?
This year is the thirtieth anniversary of my first single coming out, and so it’s my thirtieth anniversary of being professional. I’m also fifty years old in March, so I’ve got two fairly major anniversaries. I wanted to do something special, rather than just letting it slide by and being scared of getting old.
There’s a reason that I’ve been here for thirty years. I don’t want it to sound corny, so I apologise upfront for this, but it is the fans who have given me the life that I’ve had, and I am genuinely grateful. I wanted to celebrate that with the people that have given me these thirty years.
Replicas was my second album, and it’s the one that Are ‘Friends’ Electric came from and went to Number One. So it’s the album that effectively gave me the career. It’s also one of only two albums that I’ve never toured, so there are songs on there that I’ve never played live.
As a rule, I’m hostile towards nostalgia. I don’t like bands that live on past glories. But for this particular year, for this particular tour, I’m going to swallow humble pie a little bit, because it does seem to be the right thing to do.
I’m doing another tour later in the year, which will be more conventional, with new stuff and so on. But for this one, I just wanted to say thank you to everybody, and that I’m glad I’m still here.
There’s an artistic integrity there as well, I think. If you take on a whole album, then it will inspire people to re-familiarise themselves with it before the show. So there will be more concentration in the room. People will be paying more attention, because they know what to expect.
There’s a difficult balance to be drawn, when you do these old songs live. You can do them the way people remember, or you can add some kind of extra shine, which will bring them forward slightly and make them work that much better in a live situation. But if you go too far down that route, you stop the songs from being what people have come to listen to. That’s what I’m working on at the moment, at the pre-rehearsal stage.
When I wrote these songs, it was in a little 16-track studio. We only had two synthesisers in the room, and it was all done pretty much on a shoestring. So it will be nice to try to make something more of them, without changing their nature.
So you’re fleshing things out, but without returning to that more synth-based sound, as you’ve brought in stronger rock-based elements over the years.
Interestingly enough, there are a number of songs on Replicas which are just guitar, bass and drums. It’s not quite as electronic as history talks about. Are ‘Friends’ Electric has got guitars all over it.
When I first discovered synthesisers, I didn’t want to replace guitar, bass and drums. All I wanted to do was add another layer of sound. People that were getting into electronic music then – the Kraftwerk type people – threw themselves into it absolutely. It seemed to become a point of honour.
It was really anti-guitar for a while, wasn’t it?
It suddenly went anti-everything that was there before. It had to be electronic, or else it wasn’t pure. I didn’t give a shit about that. I’ve never been an electronic purist.
It sometimes feels weird that I have that reputation, with people talking about me robot dancing. I’ve never fucking robot danced in my life! I couldn’t do it if I tried! An awful lot of things get thrown back at me, as though I started this and I started that, and I really didn’t.
A lot of Replicas deals with alienation in an increasingly mechanised, authoritarian world, and so there’s something prophetic about it. People thought we were heading towards some kind of technological Utopia, but you were pointing a finger at all that, and suggesting that it may not be quite so Utopian. Do the themes still feel relevant today?
They do, actually. Things have evolved differently to what was suggested, but the underlying fears are still quite relevant to the way we see technology now. There is this feeling that we are becoming increasingly separated, with more and more automation.
A silly example is a car. When you turn it on, you’re not directly connected to it. You press a button, you ask it things, and it won’t let you go above a certain speed, no matter what you’re doing. And with aeroplanes, there’s this fly-by-wire business: you’re not flying an aeroplane directly, but you’re asking the computer to do something for you. So now there is a thinking electronic brain between a human and the machine itself. It’s all a bit weird.
Sat nav, cruise control, hands-free mobile, all of that…?
But it’s when it gets slightly beyond that: when it’s not you that decides to put the cruise on, but it’s the computer in your BMW 70 series or whatever, that says: “No, that’s fast enough. And it’s raining, so I’m going to slow you down.”
You know: bollocks! Don’t start driving the car for me! It’s that kind of separation of interaction which is a worry, and I think it’s that sort of thing that – in a very naïve and childish way – Replicas was looking at, but turned into a sci-fi story.
Do you still identify with the state of mind that produced those songs, or does it all feel a little bit juvenile?
It was written when I was nineteen going on twenty, so I had all that “no-one understands me” teenage angst, and all of that self-pity that teenagers seem to be so full of at times, sometimes justifiably. I think that side of me has long gone. But apart from that, my fear of crowded places, and of interacting with people, and all of those insecurities and worries, are still with me. They’ve been with me my whole life, and much of that is in Replicas.
It was written when I had travelled far less, and when I knew less about the world. So I think there is a more childish element to it. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was childish, but obviously a much younger man wrote it.
Replicas catapulted you very suddenly to huge success. While you were recording it, did you have any inkling that it could go on to be that successful?
No, none at all. My ambition at the time was simply to be able to headline The Marquee club in London. I thought that would have been a big step forward.
The first single was Down In The Park, which is now considered one of my best songs, but at the time, it did absolutely nothing. Are ‘Friends’ Electric was five and a quarter minutes long, you couldn’t dance to it, it had no discernible sing-along chorus, and it had none of the classic trademarks of a hit single whatsoever. And it was being released on a tiny independent label that had no money. So there was no reason to expect it to do anything other than knock me up a few levels in the small clubs that I was already playing.
How did you deal with that sudden success? Was it enjoyable, traumatic, or a mixture of both?
I would say 70% traumatic, 30% enjoyable. There were fantastic moments, but the pressure and the hostility that came with them was completely unexpected, and I would have to admit that I took it very badly.
There was certainly hostility from the press, who never even gave you a honeymoon period. Have you any perspective on why you didn’t find favour with the self-appointed taste-makers of the day?
I was probably the first big pop star of the post-punk period, so politically I was persona non grata. Even though punk created huge amounts of stars and heroes, its ethos was anti-star, anti-celebrity, anti-establishment. It was completely hypocritical, but that was the vibe.
I think I got a huge backlash, because I said: “This is fantastic! I’ve always wanted this!” I had an unfortunate way of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong people, and I had nobody to blame but myself. I was insensitive to the feelings of the time. But even if I had the sensitivity, I’m not sure that I would have done things differently, because I’ve never really been that bothered about telling lies.
From very early on, you attracted an exceptionally loyal bunch of supporters. Sometimes it felt as if there was a line to be crossed. Either people ignored you, or else they were fiercely loyal. It placed you on your own, as opposed to being part of a scene. Why do you think that happened?
When there is a huge amount of press hostility, it hardens what loyalty there is, and roots it into the ground. The more hostile the press became, the more loyal those fans that stayed with me became.
With a lot of artists, the majority of people don’t care one way or the other. Some people love them, some people don’t, but most don’t really care. I didn’t seem to have that. Most people had a bloody opinion, one way or another!
Now that’s a good thing, in many respects. If you want to be famous, and you want to be create a stir – which I did, as a young man – that is what you need. But it was a lot more difficult to live with than I expected.
In the past few years, you have enjoyed a considerable rehabilitation, particularly amongst a younger generation. A number of hit singles have sampled you – Armand Van Helden, The Sugababes, Basement Jaxx – and your influence is now acknowledged. There must be a great satisfaction in that.
It’s still going on now. Groove Armada have just done Are ‘Friends’ Electric, so there’s no signs of it letting up yet. It really is incredibly flattering.
I’ve had Number One singles and Number One albums, and I am hugely proud of that. But if I’m really honest, I would have to say that having people that I admire covering my songs has probably given me more satisfaction than anything else.
Becoming Number One is really difficult to do, and I don’t take anything way from that at all, but there is undoubtedly an element of luck attached. But other people covering your songs is a totally artistic decision, based on the quality of that song. So from a song-writing point of view, that’s just phenomenal.