The artist: Gary Numan, an electronic music pioneer who burst out of the UK punk and new-wave scenes in the late ’70s, first as the frontman for Tubeway Army, and then as a solo artist, best known for the international hit “Cars.” Numan’s latest album, Dead Son Rising, is a mix of grinding techno and atmospheric dirges, backing lyrics that depict a post-apocalyptic world.
Tubeway Army, “That’s Too Bad” (1978 single)
Gary Numan: I was very aware at that time that the whole punk-rock thing here in the U.K. was exploding and that every opportunity was going to punk bands if you wanted to get a contract. It seemed as if there were new record labels springing up on every street corner in every big city in the country. It wasn’t really the sort of music I wanted to be doing, certainly not long-term, but for the moment it was good fun and really exciting, even if I mostly saw punk just as an opportunity. I wrote “That’s Too Bad” and a few other songs at that time with the express intention of trying to get a record contract. That’s all I wanted. It wasn’t as though that’s what I was really into. I wasn’t making any kind of a statement. I just wanted a record contract, and I wanted to write something that was punky but arguably crossing over into something more melodic. Something you could sing along to a little bit. A pop/punk crossover, that was the angle I was coming from. So I did that song and two others, took them to a few record companies and eventually ended up at Beggars Banquet, who signed me up. I did one more punk song after that, and then I got into electronic and changed directions completely.
Tubeway Army, “Down In The Park” (from 1979’s Replicas)
GN: My mom and dad bought me a really old upright piano from a pub because I had written everything on guitar up until then, while still living at home, actually. I hadn’t gone anywhere yet, but obviously I was deep into it and I had my record contract now and I was trying to forge ahead. So they bought me this upright piano and I started to write songs on it. “Down In The Park” was one. Now, I’ve never had any tuition on piano or keyboards, so I’m not very good. [Laughs.] It was kind of trial and error, really. I would try and do something, play it wrong, try it again, try it again, so I could get on top of it. “Down In The Park” was one of those. Very early. Very, very simple. Sort of the bottom end of an open four-chord pattern, with a slightly more intricate chorus going into it. The chorus, to be honest, sometimes gets quite difficult to play, especially when you’re not a very good keyboard player, like me. It was one of the very first songs that I ever wrote on the keyboard, with the intention of it being an electronic song. Most of the things I’d written, even the electronic songs, started out on guitar and I’d converted them when I got to the studio. But “Down In The Park” might have been the first full song I ever wrote on the piano.
The A.V. Club: A lot of people who grew up in that era probably remember you in the concert film Urgh! A Music War, singing that song while gliding around the stage in a little chair.
GN: [Laughs] Yeah. The visual side of it I think is still important, but in those days you went about it in a different way. The stage shows, the gimmickry of it, really.
Tubeway Army, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” (from 1979’s Replicas)
GN: “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” was two songs: the verse part and the talking part. Two different songs I couldn’t finish. One day I was playing the main verse part of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and after a few minutes I got frustrated, as normal, then started to play the other song, and realized they went together. That’s how it happened, completely by accident. It was two songs that I couldn’t finish, and I didn’t know where to take them. In fact, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” used to go slightly differently than the way it was recorded, and that’s because when I was playing it back one day before I recorded it, I hit a wrong note, because again, I’m not a very good keyboard player. [Laughs.] I thought, “Oh, that sounds better!” So I kept the wrong note and you got [sings melody]. It used to be slightly more gentle and lilting, and then I hit a bum note and a few months after that I had a No. 1 single. It’s weird the way things work out: Two songs that I couldn’t finish, not a great deal of songwriting talent, then I played something badly which I kept, and a few months later I’m selling a million. Sometimes life just falls at your feet.
AVC: We interviewed Thomas Dolby a few years ago and he said that one of the things he found difficult about the British pop scene in the early ’80s was the sense of competitiveness. When he would appear on a TV show with other acts from that era, nobody talked to each other and everyone seemed to look down on everyone else. He said when he came to America, he was surprised by how helpful and friendly other musicians were. Did you find that to be true?
GN: I did, actually. For the first year or two after I’d made it, whenever somebody else came along and had some success on the charts, I used to send them a telegram. It would be an email now, but in those days, I’d send everybody telegrams saying, “Congratulations, blah-blah-blah,” reaching out, really to be friends, because I was aware that the press was very hostile in those days. When you first have success, it can be a bit daunting, because there’s quite a lot of things happening that you don’t expect, and it’s a strange experience. Particularly with the electronic bands, I was trying to create a family sort of feeling, that we were all in this together. And they kind of threw it in my face, really, at every turn. People just did not want to be friendly. It was a quite negative sort of thing. Everyone seemed to be so desperate to establish themselves as being different or original that they didn’t want to have any kind of relationship with any other band or any other artist. It was all very competitive and vaguely aggressive.
I remember going on those TV shows, and some people were okay, but there were plenty of people who would not talk to you at all. They’d just be blank to you. You’d say hello to someone, and they’d just walk the other way. I didn’t understand it. I’ve never understood that. You’re all doing this because you love music, and you’re all lucky enough that you’ve done reasonably well at it, if you’re on a TV show or you’re in the charts. Surely you should be enjoying this. What’s all this aggression and hostility for? God, there’s enough people in the world that we can all earn a living. It’s not like there’s only 50,000 people buying albums and if I’ve got them all no one else will. What a stupid attitude. I’ve never understood it. I don’t know, really. After a while I stopped trying, really. I have made it a point that I don’t slag people off. If I’m asked an opinion on something, I always try and make it positive. I don’t see the point in all that negative stuff, I really don’t. We love doing this, we’re lucky enough to be able to do it. There’s no need for all that shit, absolutely no need for it.
“Cars” (from 1979’s The Pleasure Principle)
AVC: After having a hit with “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” were you looking for more of that kind of chart success?
GN: I wasn’t writing anything as part of a plan then. “Cars” is actually a bit of a quirky one. When I wrote “Cars,” I don’t think “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” had happened for me. It was due to come out, but it hadn’t had any success yet. I was learning how to play bass guitar, so I went to London and I bought a very cheap bass guitar called a Shergold Modulator and I took it home to my parents’ house because that’s where the piano was. The very first thing I played was the four notes from “Cars.” I thought, “Oh, that sounds cool,” so I played that few more times. I wondered what I should do with that, so I dropped it down to D and played the other bit. There’s only two bits in “Cars,” really, simple as fuck. So I played the other bit, and in about 10 minutes I had the song sorted, those two main parts and the other bits. It’s really, really simple. I think about half an hour after that I had the lyrics done. It was just a really quick, throwaway kind of song that I put together while I was teaching myself how to play bass guitar. I went to the studio and when I was recording it I came up with the idea for the big high string line, and that really is the song in the nutshell. You’ve got the two basslines, the string line, and the vocal. Rarely a more simple song ever written.
“She’s Got Claws” (from 1981’s Dance)
AVC: That song and album were such a big change in style for you.
GN: Yeah, not so easy, that one. I remember I decided I’d pull out of touring for a bit, and musically I wanted to try to branch out into different areas, because I was really worried about my songwriting stagnating. I was trying to listen to different things, and hanging out with different musicians, Mick Karn being one of them, a really good fretless bass player. I was just trying to broaden the music as much as possible. In some respects it was a sensible thing to do. On the other hand, when you do that, you’re kind of forcing yourself away from what you do naturally, and I’m not sure that’s good. I have mixed feelings about quite a lot of those “middle years” albums. But the “She’s Got Claws” thing was simply me just trying to experiment with different kinds of rhythms, different kinds of fills, different instrumentation. And putting saxophones in it, which I’m really not sure I should ever have done. [Laughs.] Just that, really, trying to expand my songwriting, to learn more about different instrumentation and how it can be added to electronic music and sound like it belongs there.
“Dead Sun Rising” (from 2011’s Dead Son Rising)
GN: For the last few years I’ve been trying to put notes and ideas together for a novel that I’d like to write. I’m very into science-fantasy, that kind of swordfights and magic and technology thing. I doubt if I’ll ever get to write this book, but what I do is I write endless notes and little ideas, and some of them I use for songs. “Dead Sun Rising” is one of those. The idea is that the world is finished; everyone is dead. There are a few embryos being kept alive partly by magic and by the ghosts of the last few humans to die. These embryos are the last chance that we have of getting the human race up and running again. They are being assaulted by various forces, some demonic and some not, and these ghosts are tying to protect them to make up for the fact that they fucked it all up in the first place and caused all this to happen. That’s a very, very brief summary of what the song is trying to be. It’s spoken from the point of view of the ghost trying to protect these little embryos.
AVC: Do you find that there’s much crossover between fans of your music and fans of science-fiction and science-fantasy?
GN: Not too much, actually. I did an album a long time ago called Replicas, which was entirely science-fiction driven, or science-fantasy. Since then it’s been a song here, a song there. It’s not really a constant theme. I’ve written far more about my problems with religion, with God and all that. On this particular album, Dead Son Rising, I think there are three songs, actually, that have to do with science-fantasy, and that’s the most I had done for decades. I normally devote entire albums to the whole God thing. In fact, with this particular album, my management got on my case and said, “No more about God.” [Laughs.] “We’re absolutely sick of it. You’ve done that to death, man. You’ve got to move on to something else.” Which I totally accept. I have become a bit overly focused on one particular thing. So it was interesting to me to write about relationships and some things that have gone wrong in the past, things I don’t normally talk about. And the science-fantasy part is a little bit more than I would usually do. I don’t think I would want to write a large amount of songs about that. It really is something I want to work on for the book. That’s part of what I’m doing it for. Sometimes the ideas come along and lend themselves quite nicely to a song.
AVC: Given the variety of styles you’ve worked in in the past, why the aggressive, overpowering sound for this particular record?
GN: I enjoy that the most, I guess. That’s the simplest answer. I’m not good at happy, lightweight kind of music. I’m not really good at pop music. “Cars” is probably the only true pop song I ever wrote. I wish I could write more, but I’m not very good at it. When I stand onstage the thing that’s most exciting is this heavier, more aggressive stuff. You’re onstage and you hit the big chords and the whole room shakes and you can feel the power of it coming out of the P.A. It’s exhilarating. I really don’t enjoy any other kind of music when I’m onstage. I don’t do that much old stuff, really, and virtually nothing from my “middle years.” It doesn’t have that same sort of power for me.
For quite a few years, the thing I’ve found most exciting by far is to write and to play onstage. Whenever I write a song, I visualize it. I try to put where the lights would be, what the projection of it would be, how you would move around to a particular song. I see very much the live side of it being the end result of the songwriting side of it. It’s all part of one big process and I’m tied into that, tied into the whole idea of when you stand onstage and you’re singing this song, will it be exciting? Will it be powerful? And if it’s not, I tend not to get involved. And there’s a problem with that, obviously, in that your stuff will start to sound very same-y, and that’s something I need to be careful of. But because I am tied into this feeling of wanting things to be aggressive and powerful as much as possible when I’m touring, that’s the excitement and the fun part for me. I am aware that it’s a potential danger, but I don’t want to get out of it.