Gary Numan hesitates to wallow in the success of 1979’s dystopian synth-scape, The Pleasure Principle (and his one U.S. hit, “Cars”), or even take much credit for its impact upon electronic music, new-wave pop, and beyond. And that’s not the paranoid, steely persona associated with those days talking. These days, for example, Numan says he’s so “passive” in his dealings with admirer and potential collaborator Trent Reznor that he worries his modesty will be taken the wrong way.
As he prepares a tour of the U.S., during which he’ll play Pleasure Principle in its entirety to mark its 30th anniversary, it’s clear he’s struggled with the album’s legacy. “I’ve learned to be proud of it,” Numan says, “but for many, many years I wasn’t at all. It’s almost like rediscovering it myself.” During the shows, he’ll also perform more recent material from 2006’s industrial-rock-leaning Jagged, and from a new album he’s still working on. Numan spoke with The A.V. Club from his home in the South of England about why he prefers an earlier album to The Pleasure Principle, as he downplayed the influence of his decision to turn his punk band Tubeway Army into an electronic act.
The A.V. Club: Since you’re about to tour behind your most praised album, what do you think is your least-appreciated work?
Gary Numan: Well, it depends what country you’re in. Let me think. Of the early stuff, I think in terms of America, the one before Pleasure Principle’s called Replicas, which did really well here in Europe. I don’t think it did anything at all in America. Arguably, it’s a more interesting album than Pleasure Principle, to me.
AVC: What makes you say that?
GN: My feelings about it are probably colored by my memories of writing it. Because here, Replicas was my second album, and it was my first one I had written having already gotten into electronic music. When I wrote [Tubeway Army’s self-titled album], it was done as a three-piece punk band. I wrote the [Tubeway Army] songs on guitar, and then I found a synthesizer in the studio. They were still actually punk songs with electronic taped on top. With the Replicas album, a lot of those songs were written on a keyboard, on a piano, and they were intended to be electronic songs, and so it felt more like my first genuine electronic album. The first one was almost an accident, an experiment on the fly. Replicas just had a really good vibe at the time. I remember as I was writing it being really happy with it. There’s some songs on there I’m particularly proud of. I’ve stayed pleased with them right on until today. Which isn’t untrue of Pleasure Principle, but there’s one extra element. I have that accomplishment or pride attached to it.
AVC: That’s an interesting link between electronic music and punk—this idea of just picking up an instrument and trying it.
GN: Yeah, it’s hard to put it into words really. The early electronic thing—when I found a synthesizer and started to use it, I was terrified that somebody else was gonna come out with it. I didn’t know about Human League, and I didn’t know about Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. There were all these people that were doing electronic music, were right on the cutting edge of it, but we were all kind of doing it in isolation, so it wasn’t a movement as such. There were lots of little sub-movements going around, but ignorant of each other. I was panicking. I found the synthesizer and was doing that thing—changed from a punk band to an electronic act. The record company didn’t want to release the first album. As far as I was concerned, this electronic music was gonna be massive. I was terrified that someone was gonna put out an album before I did. I really wanted to get the album out as quickly as possible. And then, I found out that I wasn’t the first at all. I was one of the last. Ultravox, I subsequently found out, were already on their third album before I’d even put out my first. I thought, “Christ, there’s me thinking I’m cutting-edge and really the man of the moment,” and I wasn’t at all. I was late as always. I was lucky enough to get the first big single. Quite often now, I get quite a lot of credit for this whole electronic thing. It’s really largely undeserved, I think. I was there, and I was one of them, but the fact that I had the first big electronic single is entirely down to luck. There were a number of people all doing very interesting, quirky things at the time.
AVC: How does the experience of finding new synth sounds through software compare with the early analog days for you?
GN: Compared to how we did it in ’79, ’80? I prefer it now, because the amount of choice, the quality of the sound, the degree to which you can manipulate them, is just amazing. If you’re interested in sounds—it sounds a bit of a glib thing to say, but I’m actually more interested in sounds than I am in music. I’m quite happy to sit there, pressing one note, and see how it turns and what happens to it, rather than hearing a thousand-notes-per-second guitar solo. Having said that, sometimes there is so much choice that, by the time you’ve found the thing you want, it’s kind of lost its excitement a little bit. Whereas in the old days, you would just sit down with a Minimoog, or a Polymoog, or whatever the machine was you had in front of you, and you had a very limited amount of time, because there wasn’t much money. You only had that synthesizer rented for the day; you had a few songs to record in that day. You really had to be quick. You couldn’t be getting all anal about this sound or that sound. I had no idea what these things did. I remember the Minimoog had, like, “emphasis” and “contour,” and I had no idea what they did. No idea at all. And people are talking about me as being sort of this “godfather of electronica.” I still don’t have much of an idea of what these things actually do.
AVC: As you prepared to play Pleasure Principle live again, did you try to replicate the sounds on the album, or were you tempted to try different approaches?
GN: Because it’s Pleasure Principle, and because it’s the 30th anniversary of the album—and also because recently there’s been a number of people who’ve talked about the album in a sort of complimentary way, it’s important to them and so on—I actually feel, this might sound a bit pretentious, but almost an opportunity to do it as it was. It’d be relatively simple to tweak [the songs], re-work them to make them much bigger, more powerful, with more things going on. But I think for this one, because it is meant to be a sort of celebration of the album as it was, I’ve decided that we’ll do the songs as they were. Because Pleasure Principle is actually quite a short album, we’ll do that for the first half. And then we immediately just move into new and very recent stuff. I get the opportunity to play the much bigger, more anthemic stuff that I’m doing now. It gives you a kind of A-and-B comparison. If it was all retro, I’d be struggling a bit. I have a definite chip on my shoulder about nostalgia. I don’t really get off on it at all. For me to do a retro-type tour is something I do really rarely.
AVC: When you’re performing it, do you think people expect you to bring out the icy, alien persona they associate with that album, or do you feel comfortable just loosening up?
GN: The thing about Pleasure Principle stuff is that I’m playing keyboards on every track. I’m kind of tied to the keyboard anyway, so I can’t be leaping around too much doing the little rockstar stuff the way I did with the recent stuff. Or, the way that I did when I did Pleasure Principle the first time; I just sang everything and didn’t play keyboards at all. I tried doing that in rehearsals [for this tour], just showing people what the parts were. And I found out, “I’m actually really quite enjoying this, so I think I’ll play all of this one,” and then I ended up playing all of another one. When we toured it here [in England] last November, we did it pretty much the same as we’re going to do this time, and I really enjoyed the playing side of it. It’s been a long time since I’ve done any sort of regular keyboard work onstage.
AVC: Will the new songs be similar to Jagged, or are you trying something different?
GN: I was really happy with Jagged, and the one before it, Pure. I really like where I am musically. I like playing those songs live. But I do think I could get much better. I do think they could be more aggressive, more anthemic. I don’t particularly want to move away from it.
AVC: Is there anything musically that you’d like to try doing that you haven’t yet?
GN: Not really. I’ve sort of meandered from when I started up until now. Because I like where I am, I don’t feel any pressure to do something completely different. Finding a sort of music that you really love and that you’re really into, I feel justified in hanging around in it for a while until I get that out of my system. I talked with Trent Reznor last year about doing something together. I’m not particularly good at collaborating. Historically, I don’t really have the confidence for it. I’ve done a little bit over the years. There’s a single coming out here with a band called South Central, from Brighton. The Trent Reznor thing obviously would be great. I’m a huge Nine Inch Nails fan to begin with. It’s not gotten much further than saying, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to do that?” The thing with Trent is, he just works all the time. He’s got such an amazing professional work ethic. I have a tendency to, because he’s really successful and busy, to take a passive approach to it. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m trying to jump on his shoulders and ride the Trent Reznor connection. I think sometimes I go so passive that I give the impression I’m not really interested. I go too far. I’m hoping on the tour we’ll meet up and perhaps further that idea a bit more.
AVC: Have any younger acts inspired you recently?
GN: One of the support bands for Nine Inch Nails, called Health. I did a festival in Spain a few months back, and they were there and just did the most brilliant set. They’re just such a breath of fresh air. Quite often, you go into festivals and you’re just listening to the flavor of the moment, and two or three other bands that are trying to sound like the flavor of the moment, and it all gets a little bit repetitive. It’s just fascinating—to come across somebody like that is priceless. The vast majority of music doesn’t really touch you in that way at all. It’s such a novel way they’ve got of putting their sound together. I’ve got nothing but praise for them.
AVC: Do you think you could do this tour at all if you hadn’t recovered some enthusiasm for the album?
GN: No, I think it’d be a bit hard. If you were going out and doing songs that you would be embarrassed by, it would definitely feel like a step backwards. Like I said, I’m not a really big nostalgia fan. Quite likely, once this Pleasure Principle stuff is finished, then I won’t do it again, because what other anniversary is there going to be? Forty years? It’s a brief foray into nostalgia, which is probably why I’m so keen to get on the new stuff when I come back. That’s where my heart is, really.
AVC: That seems like a healthy balance.
GN: Yeah, I think so. I had such a chip on my shoulder about living on past glory. Literally, in America I’ve only got one glory, anyway. Over here, where it’s been a little bit different, I still have this real hang-up about people who just go out and play the hits from their first few years of their career. I don’t like that sort of way of thinking, and it’s not what I’m interested in. Even if the old song was a No.1 single, I’m always more excited about the new stuff.