Godfather of electronic music Gary Numan talks highs and lows ahead of Norwich gig
PUBLISHED: 15:20 23 September 2016 | UPDATED: 17:14 17 November 2016
Gary Numan, the Godfather of electronic music, plays at the LCR in Norwich tonight. Here he talks about the highs and lows of his life and career with our entertainment reporter Wayne Savage.
Android in La La Land, which screened at Suffolk’s Latitude Festival last month, was supposed to follow the ups and downs of Gary Numan starting a new life in America, his “unique and amazing” relationship with wife Gemma and offer an in-depth look at making Splinter, his first album in quite some time. At least that was the plan.
“I thought it would be a really cool thing to have a record of such a key period of my life. If I’m honest, I don’t really like the end result, which is a shame; a real disappointment. I don’t think it tells any of those three stories very well or very accurately. People seem to like it though.”
Numan doesn’t hold back during our chat, which ranges from the pain of just having lost his mum, living with Asperger’s and the sorry state of world politics to topping the charts and how his life changed when he met Gemma.
I’d expect nothing less from somebody whose advice to today’s wannabe musicians is to never let anybody sway you from making the music you want to make, ignore the world of people ill-equipped to advise you and do what you want as long as nobody gets hurt in the process.
He knows what he is talking about. Not that he planned to become the Godfather of electronic music.
“When I discovered the synth, quite by chance in a corner of a little demo studio I went to in 1978, I did immediately see it could change everything and I wanted to be a part of that revolution. The luck part of it was that I got into it just as the world was ready to hear it. Right place, right time.”
Numan became one of the world’s biggest artists thanks to hits like Are Friends Electric? and Cars. Nobody had heard or seen anyone like him. His look was supposedly down to the Top of the Pops crew slapping loads of white make-up on his face to cover spots and eyeliner to bring out his eyes.
“I’ve told that story before, too often, and it’s not really true. The album out then was called Replicas and it came from a series of short sci-fi stories I was writing at the time. The visual style I adopted was to look like one of the characters from the stories so it was actually carefully thought out.”
The android label stuck, something he perhaps puts down to him also not dancing around on stage. Numan considers himself very down to Earth, very wellgrounded. Whatever was happening on on-stage never continued when the show was over.
“I’m actually quite giggly, not that serious at all. The on-stage me back then was a character from the songs I was singing. Music, album cover, image, stage persona, all parts of the same project. A few years after that it was all very different. These days what I do on-stage, and in the
studio, is beyond recognition to what I was doing back then.”
He can’t honestly say how much he inspired bands like The Human League and Depeche Mode who followed in his footsteps to great success. He’s never seen the achievements of others as something to be jealous of.
“My career has been very up and down at times, from number one to nowhere and everywhere in-between but I’ve done okay and have no complaints. I love doing what I do, I love my life. I’m not crippled by jealousy of those who are doing better and I don’t feel smug when I look at people who are not doing as well. We all love music and we’re all living our lives doing something we love. That should be enough for anyone.”
Those early days were exciting, frightening, overwhelming. To be number one, to be selling out huge venues was everything he’d ever dreamed of.
“It’s hard to believe it’s actually happening. But it comes with a whole world of other s**t that isn’t enjoyable at all. You have to adapt, life will never be the same again and you have to learn how to live this new life that’s suddenly appeared. Once you get a grip of it it’s not a problem and the benefits far outweigh the downside.”
Never big-headed, never having a drug or drink problem and always treating everybody with patience and respect, Numan feels he came through it all unscathed. But he did struggle with it in other ways those first few years.
“It’s a very weird life, or can be; and when you are thrust into it at a very young age it’s pretty overwhelming. You have people fainting when they meet you, women offering you sexual favours you’d never even heard of. On the other hand you’re constantly threatened, I lost count of the amount of death threats. You’re written about in a very hostile and insulting way; a thousand-and-one things, good and bad, you’re completely unprepared for.
“Plus, the pressure is enormous. You are now big business and the demands and expectations put upon you are huge. You now have a massive amount to lose if you make a wrong move and you don’t really know what you’re doing. You’re surrounded by conflicting advice, bullied and intimidated, insulted
and ridiculed by total strangers in the street. It was nothing like I expected. If you can get through all that you will find the good parts – and there are many and they’re fantastic. I found the first few years very, very difficult, but every year since then has been great.”
Numan puts that down to Gemma, a fan of his growing up, whom he married in 1997. He even credits her with him being diagnosed with Asperger’s.
He was sent to a child psychologist by his school when he was about 14. Unable to help he was referred to St Thomas’ child psychiatry unit in London where it was suggested he had the developmental disorder, characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication as well as restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests.
Put on Nardil and Valium for the next year to keep him calm, he was expelled from the school anyway and it all seemed to fade away. Not the problem, but doing something about it.
“Gemma has a brother who was diagnosed Asperger’s so she’s very familiar with it. When we got together she recognised it in me. I did some research and, sure enough, I’m deep in the range. I’ve always seen it as a useful thing. It gives me an incredible amount of focus, I’m able to use the obsessive tendencies it brings to my advantage, I can detach emotionally when needed.
“The only downside is I’m very awkward and clumsy socially and even that can be learned behaviour for the most part. I spent much of my childhood thinking I was unlikeable and that was why I couldn’t keep friends. Finding out about Asperger’s gave me a reason for me always struggling with friendships and that made me feel much better about myself.”
Numan couldn’t live without Gemma. He wouldn’t want to.
“I’m just a shell of what I can be when she’s not around. I even miss her when she goes to the shops. We’ve been together 24 years and it’s still exciting, still fun everyday, still very happy. My only regret is not being with her for the years I lived before we met. So she’s been very important in helping me handle the ups and downs.”
There have been plenty over the years. He admits he’s at a pretty low point when we speak.
“My mum passing has to be the lowest by far, but losing our first baby is right up there. The depression a few years ago was really bad, I hadn’t appreciated just how life-changing something like that can be until it happened to me.
“High points are many. Getting to number one, playing in arenas, getting married, my three children – these are not in order of importance I hasten to add – becoming an air display pilot, getting my helicopter licence, flying around the world in my own airplane, swimming with sharks, it just goes on and on. I’ve had an amazing life, very full and with luck I have a lot more still to enjoy before I start slowing down or a horrendous disease brings it all to an end.”
There are things he would change. His short-lived retirement from touring in the 1980s, for example.
Going from completely unknown to one of the biggest acts in the world almost over night, Numan says he had no management or guidance. He was very young, writing and producing everything; plus Asperger’s adds its own quirks to everything. The pressure was relentless and he just wanted to run away and try to get a grip on everything that had happened.
“In my young mind I blamed much of it on touring as that took me out of the studio and into the spotlight. I thought by stopping I would buy some time, some breathing space, to get myself together. It was actually a very sensible thing to do. I did two world tours in just over one year, stopped touring for two years and then started again when I felt I was better equipped to deal with everything. Although that decision damaged my career enormously I still think it was the right thing to do.
“I wouldn’t have announced I was retiring from the stage. I would still have done it, but very quietly. Just taken the time I need and then merged back in. I made a big deal of it and so alienated most of my fans. I gave the impression I was rejecting all of that love and support and it hurt my career very badly.”
Numan was also an outspoken supporter of the Conservative Party and Margaret Thatcher, something he later expressed regret over.
Having not lived in the UK for four years he says he’s not in any position to give an opinion on the Brexit result or British politics, adding from what he gathers both sides of the debate poured out a huge amount of “outright lies or twisted statistics” to back up their arguments.
“The people were badly informed on almost every level. What an awful situation in which to make such an important decision. I thought much of the campaigning was shameful. From here in Los Angeles British politics appear to be in a rather bad way. But look at America. We have Donald Trump to deal with.”
He’s enjoying the current tour which unusually sees him playing songs from the start of his career; namely from Replicas, The Pleasure Principle and Telekon.
“I don’t play many songs from the past when I tour normally and that does cause a fair bit of annoyance to some of the fans, so this is my way of making up for that. When the new album comes out in 2017 it will be back to touring as normal so this isn’t something I’ll do very often. It’s fun though, in very short stages like this, but retro is not really my favourite thing.”
Numan’s glad to say he rarely gets nervous these days. Performing his entire adult life, it’s as natural to him as eating dinner. So no pre-show rituals or habits?
“Nothing at all. It always make me laugh to see those clips of people praying or standing in little circles thanking God or some other s**t. You’re just singing songs to people that – hopefully – like them. Just get on stage, do what you do, have fun, get off. It’s really very simple.”
He’s that rarest of things. A cool dad. At the moment. He thinks.
“It took them a long time to even realize what I did for a living was unusual. Virtually all our friends are in music so for a long time they assumed that’s just what dads did. I remember how horrified Raven was, my eldest, when she first discovered some people actually work in offices. She was genuinely shocked.
“She’s disappointed I don’t play arenas any more, she seems to see that as the necessary level to be at. I can’t say I disagree to be honest. The other two, Persia and Echo, don’t care about that. They all enjoy it and feel proud when people come up to us when we’re out and about. They love standing on the side of the stage and watching the crowds.
“They’re always very proud when I get an award or they read something nice about me, especially if things are said by someone they like. Nice comments by pop stars they look up to carry a lot of weight for my coolness level with the kids.”
Gary Numan plays Norwich’s LCR tonight.