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Gary Numan

Gary Numan

Monday 9th May, 2011 10:15AM

Groundbreaking electronic artist Gary Numan is celebrating the 30th anniversary of his seminal album, The Pleasure Principle. As part of this revelry, he is returning to New Zealand for the first time in 31 years and UTR caught up with him to discuss how it feels to revisit an album three decades later, whether he knew the album was going to have the impact it has and what made him write such music in the first place.

You’re coming to New Zealand this month, are you looking forward to it?

Yes, it’s been 31 years since I was there last, so it’s very cool. I’m very very pleased to have the opportunity to come and do it again but I’m also very aware that a lot of time has passed and I don’t know what to expect really. So I’m very pleased that I’m coming I just not really confident, I have to say, I really don’t know how it’s going to go.

Is it crazy to think The Pleasure Principle came out over three decades ago?

It’s funny, actually. Sometimes it feels like it was yesterday and sometimes it feels like it was 130 years ago. So much has happened since I wrote that album that I feel like such a different person to what I was when I wrote it. It’s a little bit weird going back to it after such a long time and I have to say that I’m not really a fan of looking back into the past, I’m much more of a fan about what I’m doing tomorrow than yesterday.
When the 30th anniversary came along I didn’t want to make a big deal about it but I didn’t want to ignore it either, so I thought I’d just do one show in England and all the hardcore fans can come along to that. Then that sold out really quickly so it became four shows and then at that point the record company got interested and they wanted to do a special anniversary issue of the album with all these extra tracks they’d found in the archives, and so it turned into a much bigger tour. And then the Americans – it was quite a big album over there when we toured it there – got interested. So what started as a single gig has grown into this much bigger thing that I never planned.
I’ve enjoyed it more than I thought I would, because I’ve always found anything to do with nostalgia is sort of taking a few steps backwards, and I’m really not that interested in playing old songs so for me to do this is quite a big thing. Having said that it’s been really interesting to play the music I wrote when I was a boy.
The Pleasure Principle is what the tour is about, so what we’re doing is playing that album for the first 45 minutes but then we’ve got another 45 minutes or more which tends to be new stuff, and quite often we’ll do two or four songs that aren’t even released yet. For me it’s quite interesting to be playing things that are right from the beginning and things that are so new they haven’t been heard, all in one show. It’s a nice way of showing people something I’m proud of from when I started but also how it’s evolved into what we do now.

How does it feel to have an album that is still musically relevant three decades after it was released?

For a long long time I didn’t think much about it at all. Obviously when I made it I was keen to make it sound as good as I could and then out it went. Some people in the press liked it but most people didn’t – it generally got pretty bad reviews, especially in the UK. The press didn’t really go for it here, so it took a long time before people started to view it the way they do now.
A really interesting thing happened a while ago where the NME Magazine did a retrospective review of it and said how important it was and how innovative it was – all these really complimentary things – but when it came out they absolutely slagged it into the ground, they hated it. Since I’ve gone back and re-visisted it again, I do feel proud of it in a way that I never was before. I think when it first came out it was quite a quirky unusual record for the time and I appreciate it more now than I did then. It just sounded like a record that I’d made rather than anything that was particularly unusual or different so I’ve grown proud of it and I appreciate it now more that it was quite an unusual record for the time.

The sound that you were creating was ground-breaking. Were you aware it was going to be as influential as it was?

No, not at all really. You’re in a studio, you’ve got a certain amount of time – you only had a few days back then – and you’re in there and you’re just trying to do the best you can; you’re certainly not thinking about the impact it’s going to have. It’s very rare that any kind of album is going to have any kind of long term affect anyway, and I certainly didn’t think that any of mine would. You don’t have any of those ambitions, so when people start to talk about the album being important or essential, it makes you all the more proud because you had no idea when you made it that people would think this.
You don’t expect people to remember an album a year after you’ve made it. There are so many people making so many albums you just kind of expect it to get lost in the sheer volume of the things that are released. Over here there are dozens and dozens of bands becoming successful and people who were successful last year fade away. That’s what you expect to happen, you made an album it does well, if you’re very lucky it does very well, and you know, after that there will be new people taking your place. SO it’s weirdly fantastically satisfying to find that people are still enjoying the Pleasure Principle and still thinking about it. If anything it has a better reputation now than it has ever had.


What was pushing you to explore these synthesized sounds at the time?

It was a very happy accident. I was in a band called Tubeway Army and we were a three-piece punk band. We went into a studio to make a record and we had three days to go and make it, which was the punk songs we were playing live. I went to the studio, never having seen a synthesizer before, and round the corner was a thing called a Minimoog which was quite a famous synthesizer. It was supposed to be collected by a hire company because somebody had rented it the day before and they’d forgotten about it. They never turned up so I started using it all day for this first day and I just loved it; I didn’t know much about them but I was having fun working it out and thought these amazing noises were coming out of this thing. I just thought it was the best thing I had ever heard.
I went to the record company and told them I’d found this synthesizer thing which was amazing and this was what I wanted to use for the future and so all those punk songs are going to be electronic punk songs, and I don’t want to be in a band anymore, I want to be a solo artist. I thought I had found something really special! The record company were really unhappy to be honest, they didn’t get it at all, they wanted a punk band and that’s it. Luckily for me they didn’t have any money so they couldn’t afford to send me back into the studio because I’d blown the budget. So they released it and it did a lot better than they expected, so they let me go back into the studio and make another album. So I went back into the studio and made another album. And then we had a single from this album that went to number one, so I went from having never seen a synthesizer before to becoming the ‘number one expert on synthesizers’ in the UK. I had a number one electronic album and people were talking about me being an electronic expert and all that, and I’d only spent about eight hours with a synthesizer because I couldn’t afford to buy one. I had the one that was left behind in the studio that first day, and we could only afford to rent one again for one more day when I made the second album, so I didn’t know much about it at all. In those early days people would ask me questions about synthesizers and programming and I didn’t know what they were talking about, and yet I was supposed to be a champion of this sound.


You said you came from a punk background originally. Were you socially or politically motivated?

No, it was much more selfish than that. I never thought I should push my opinions onto anyone else so my song writing has always been very selfish. Much of what I write, especially when I was younger was as much to do with analysis and sorting out of my own problems. I’m not good at talking to people about my problems, so I write everything down, and eventually I became a songwriter so I would write songs about this and it was a way of sorting myself out and dealing with whatever problems I had at the time. It’s not quite like that anymore but it’s still similar and it’s still along those kind of lines.
I’d like to say I had all these political opinions but I can’t honestly say that it was just me, analysing things. I’ve got a form of Aspergers Syndrome so I’m not good at communicating with people and I’m not particularly good at interacting at all, I’ve got all kind of problems. Aspergers is a form of autism, and I was much worse when I was younger – I had real problems with it – so all of my song writing revolved around my difficulty and how I saw the world and how I related to people around me. That was the driving force behind everything when I was young.

How do you think you’ve changed as a musician, and how has your approach to writing music changed in the intervening years?

To be honest it hasn’t changed a great deal. Obviously I’ve been doing it for a long time, and it’s easy to become comfortable and to fall into a routine; to go about life the same way. That’s something that I’m aware of but it’s a difficult thing to be aware of and break out of. I recently went into the studio to write an I came out of it and talked to my wife about it and I said “It’s just shit!” I was really down on myself, because I’m writing exactly the same way as I did before and I need to find a different way to write.
It’s that thing, you’ve got your equipment, you’ve got your studio and you sit down and it’s almost impossible to break out of the routine; the way you turn the equipment on, the sound you go to first. You write in certain ways because they lend themselves to a certain style of playing, and you’ve got to recognize you’re doing that and break out of it and force yourself to approach it from a different angle. You have to do that constantly. You’re constantly having to re-learn the process that you have when writing songs, and that’s the only way you can achieve exciting results.

You’ve been in the industry for a long time, and witnessed the way in which the music industry has changed? How do you feel about it? How do you feel about the new media platform?

I love it. I think it’s all going in the direction I wish it had gone in thirty years before. The way the business is set up is you’ve got your major record labels working hand in hand with the major retail chains and it’s very very difficult for anybody to become part of that as an independent artist. So it was really hard for anybody to have any outlet – it was just impossible to compete. The retail stores would insist they’d buy two albums but you’d give them five and you just couldn’t compete with this.
Then the internet comes along and people can get their work out there. I find, at the moment – it’s not perfect by any means – it’s very exciting that power is being taken away from the great big companies. There are all kind of interesting ways of releasing albums and interesting structures people are coming up with and I don’t know, to me I love it, it’s very very exciting and I’m right in the middle of it. I’m a big fan of cottage industry and people doing it themselves and as technology evolves it’s giving us tools to let us do it ourselves rather than relying on big companies with a bunch of people sitting around a table somewhere making decisions for you, which are in their interests rather than yours most of the time. I’ve been right through the major labels and through independents, I’ve had my own labels and I’ve seen it from all sides and I think now is undoubtedly the most exciting time to be in the music industry.

- Courtney Sanders