Thursday, May 26, 2011

Gary Numan - Australian tour interview 2011

'The moment I gave up, things started to get better.' - Gary Numan

It's early on a Friday morning in Sussex, south-east of London. What do you think local resident Gary Numan could be up to? Is he cowering in his car with all the doors locked, obsessively picking at his black nail polish, contemplating a doomed future while moping that his only companions are machines? Not even close.

"I just dropped the kids off at school, so it's a bit of an early start for me today, actually," he says, sounding like a cheery suburban family man. "They all go to the same place, which is handy. It's a Steiner school, one of those hippie sort of places. The oldest one goes to school proper and the two younger ones go to kindergarten."

His daughters' names are Raven, Persia and Echo. Thank goodness some things fit with the eccentric electro-goth Numan stereotype.

At 53, Numan has been lionised as a pop star, pilloried as a money-hungry Tory, mocked by the critics, kicked on his rapid slide down the popularity ladder, ignored during his years of obscurity and then reassessed as a pioneer in his field.

His trip from synth-pop lost boy to electronic elder statesman has had some strange twists, from multiple hair transplants to aerial acrobatics to marrying one of his fans. And as Numan is one of the most polite aliens you could hope to meet, he is willing to talk about it all at length. (With that said, even though Numan gladly went into the gory details of his transplants, I won't relay the information as you may be reading this over breakfast.)

After flirting with punk, Gary Webb splashed down into the pop scene in 1979 like a synthesiser-wielding android. He had changed his surname to Numan, applied thick black eye make-up and written songs about alienation, paranoia and a modern world where being human was a dangerous occupation. He debuted under the Tubeway Army moniker, released the Replicas album and had a No. 1 British hit with Are "Friends" Electric?, an irresistibly creepy song with a chilly synth melody behind Numan's detached vocal about plug-in companions. The lead single from the follow-up album, The Pleasure Principle, released under the Numan name, was Cars and it became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic and in Australia, turning Numan into a star who amassed a multimillion-dollar fortune.

At the time, he was 21 and living with his parents. His mother ran his fan club and his father, a bus driver for British Airways at Heathrow Airport, was his manager. They hadn't had an easy time with their son. He had been expelled from a couple of schools, had behavioural problems, was sent to a child psychologist and put on Valium and Nardil for a year when he was 16.

Although it has not been clinically diagnosed, Numan is sure he has Asperger's syndrome.

"I always found it very difficult to make friends and I was very awkward in social situations," he says. "I had trouble communicating and I seemed to offend people without meaning to. I just accepted that this was the way things were. I have no problem talking to you now but if I was to meet you outside of the interview situation, you'd find me very odd. I wouldn't know what to say and I'd get tongue-tied."

Numan channelled all this into his robotic stage persona. His interviews at the time were skin-crawlingly awkward. However, a particularly stilted exchange with the always-stilted Ian "Molly" Meldrum on ABC TV's Countdown in 1979 revealed a young man with his finger on the pulse. Numan said his music was different because the synthesisers were not just being used for background colour, they drove the songs and he noted that "the people who take command of the visual side of their music will take prominence".

These comments proved prescient, coming just before synth-pop took over the charts and two years before MTV made its debut.

Still, the critics were merciless. British music writer Charles Shaar Murray described him as "embodying all of David Bowie's faults and none of his virtues". Numan was too busy enjoying the spoils of success to care, speeding around London in his white Corvette (a present from his record label) and stirring up controversy by saying he loved making money and that he supported the then British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Then, in 1981, he announced his retirement from live performance after a series of shows at Wembley Arena. The retirement didn't last long and, unfortunately for him, neither did the success.

What went wrong?

"I think ... I think ..." he says, before trailing off and then laughing. "I think it's actually a big job trying to summarise exactly what went wrong. From the mid-'80s onwards, the quality of my songwriting definitely dropped and became quite one-dimensional. I started to panic and I started writing music to try to save my career.

"I wasn't writing for the people who liked Gary Numan any more. It was entirely my fault. It was a real lack of moral fibre. I should have stayed true to what I wanted to do.

"Once you've been No. 1 and you've had all the trappings of success that come with it, no matter how briefly, once that slips away, you think you've blown it and you'll try anything to get it back."

His rapid descent, in both his own mind and public opinion, coincided with him indulging a new passion that saw him take to the skies. Numan became a display pilot, performing aerial acrobatics in World War II combat planes at European air shows. The music press had a field day in 1981 when his attempt to fly around the world was interrupted by a forced landing in India that found him under suspicion of spying and smuggling. Much as when Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon's yacht capsized four years later, it was seen as an example of a spoilt pop star with too much money and not enough sense.

By the late '80s, the only people who still believed in Numan were his obsessive fans, known as Numanoids. One of them was Gemma O'Neill, who was only 11 when Cars was a hit. As a 14-year-old, she cheerfully told a school careers counsellor that the only job she was interested in was that of Gary Numan's wife.
She fulfilled that ambition in 1997 and Numan credits her with lifting his career out of a tailspin.

"By 1992, I'd bottomed out so badly that I thought, 'F--- it, that's the end of that,"' he says. "Gemma told me I should write songs for the love of it again. I didn't have a record deal and I didn't think I'd ever have one again, so I went into my home studio by myself and made an album called Sacrifice. The moment I gave up, things started to get better. It was a very big lesson for me."

He admits the music he writes now is darker, heavier and not nearly as radio-friendly as his early work. He's fine with that. Besides, something started happening about 15 years ago.

People such as Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson and Dave Grohl began citing him as an influence. Others started sampling his past work and having hits, including Basement Jaxx's Where's Your Head At? and the Sugababes's Freak Like Me. The surreal English TV comedy show The Mighty Boosh dropped so many references to Numan that he made a cameo appearance. Does all of this make him feel justified?

"I don't know if justified is the word, because I never thought I was anything special," he says. "In the early days, I was a big Ultravox fan and I don't think any of my albums were ever as good as Systems of Romance. Later on, I looked up to Depeche Mode's Songs of Faith and Devotion as something to aim for but I never came close.

"But I was thrilled when I started to read about people saying I had an influence on them, especially someone like Trent Reznor, because I really respect Nine Inch Nails. As for The Mighty Boosh, I was a genuinely huge fan and they're lovely people. I'd say 90 per cent of younger people who know who I am have come via [it].

"All of these things made a massive difference to my career and my confidence. When it started happening, I'd had many bad years and I didn't have the highest level of credibility. It boosted the way I felt about myself. I was very grateful for it. I still am."

Gary Numan plays The Pleasure Principle album and other songs from his career at the Enmore Theatre on May 13.

Numan behaviour (side-bar)

- David Bowie has reportedly said, "Gary Numan has written some of the finest things in British pop," but in the early '80s he had him thrown off the set of a British TV show. "I used to get into fights at school protecting his name," Numan says. "Then, all of a sudden, this bloke I'd adored for years was throwing me out of a building ... It really upset me."

- The Mighty Boosh's Noel Fielding, whose character Vince Noir is a Numan fanatic: "He's a proper pop star - the look, his weird voice, the songs. I like the fact that he's got a pilot's licence."

- Numan was a guest on Nine Inch Nails's 2009 farewell tour, singing his songs Cars and Metal. Says Trent Reznor: "After hearing Gary Numan's Cars, I knew I wanted to make music with synthesisers. Numan's early albums painted an emotional place that wasn't pleasant to be at. It seemed like creepy science fiction."

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