Gary Numan shot to fame in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with synth classics, including Are Friends Electric and Cars. Bringing an aggressive punk feel to a traditionally ice cool genre made him a genuine trailblazer and one of the most exciting artists of the period. In more recent years, as well as working on his own projects, Numan has collaborated with the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Battles. He talks to us about how he writes songs, what to expect from his next album and why the Musicians Union tried to ban him.
HI GARY, IT’S A PLEASURE. WHAT’S YOUR HISTORY WITH ROLAND? If I remember rightly, I used a Roland synth on Are Friends Electric. I can’t remember the exact synth, but it was the studio’s own synth and I was very impressed. They’d drilled a hole through it and chained it to the wall so no one would steal it. We used it on a few tracks on the album. After that, in the ‘80s, I had a trade deal with Roland. They supplied me with synths so I had the JP series and lots of racks. I still have the rack to this day – the Roland flight case is the only case I’ve got that still works. Roland should go into making flight cases – it’s the most robust one I’ve ever owned.
YOU MENTIONED ONCE THAT YOU COULDN’T AFFORD SYNTHS? That’s right. I had two number one singles and two number one albums before I owned my own synthesizer.
WHAT DID YOU LIKE ABOUT SYNTHESIZERS? I’ve never been a good player – I never had much interest in technique and scales. I was always more interested in sound itself. A fun day for me wouldn’t be playing scales; I would be walking around with a microphone hitting things and recording it and putting them through effects. I come from a non-musical way of thinking. I got so into synths from the first moment I saw them. It gave me that ability to mess about with sound without bothering with that stuff I didn’t enjoy. I still can’t play. I’m 54 and I’ve been doing it all my life but I still couldn’t play you G chord. I could tell you what the G note is…
DOES THAT MAKE A DIFFERENCE WHEN YOU WRITE? Every song I’ve ever written I do by starting to play something and seeing what sounds good and what doesn’t. I’m a stumbling forward kind of songwriter. Most people sit down and know “I’m going play a B Chord”. They know what works. That’s clever but I’ve never had that knowledge. I’m a barbarian when it comes to songwriting! I’ll play a note and figure it out as I stumble forward.
THAT’S QUITE INSPIRING…I’m living proof that you can do it without all that stuff. There’s a school of thought that by being skilful in music theory it takes away a certain amount of experimentation. I was told by a music professor friend of mine that Are Friends Electric, my first number one single, would have not have passed GCSE music. In classical circles it was considered an unattractive sequence of notes. I remember at the time being shocked. A song that sold a million copies would have failed me my O levels! Also at college, I was learning music, writing, reading and playing, and very early on we were told to write a four-part piece for 16 bars. I wrote it as best I could. Teacher played it and said: “You can’t have that, you can’t have those notes in that format.” I said: “It sounds fine though doesn’t it.” He said: “That’s not the point.” I couldn’t understand the logic of it – who would call that an education? I think it doesn’t matter where your dots and lines fall – if when you play it it sounds OK, then it IS OK. I stopped going to college and eventually I got expelled but I just thought it was ridiculous.
HAS THIS AFFECTED YOUR OUTLOOK ON MUSIC? I’m a fan of new people because they don’t have any of that knowledge. Their ignorance allows them to do things people wouldn’t try. Sometimes it’s shit but sometimes it’s not! That’s experimentation. When I was first successful the Musicians’ Union tried to ban me for the first two years of my career because it said I was putting proper musicians out of work.
I’M SURE THEY’RE LISTENING BACK AND CRINGING! YOU WERE AN OUTSIDER THOUGH AND IN THE ‘70S YOU WERE PRETTY PUNK INFLUENCED. WHAT PUNK BANDS DID YOU LISTEN TO? I wasn’t really a punk fan. I liked the Sex Pistols – they were unique. Compared to the rest of the punk movement, they were slower. The other bands couldn’t really play and it was a bit fast. I was a T-Rex fan – I bought a Gibson Les Paul because Marc Bolan had one. It’s been destroyed three times and I’ve always had it rebuilt! I love it – it’s been on every record I’ve ever made. Synths are tools you use to get as much out of them as you can, but for some reason there is a more physical relationship with a guitar. I don’t know why but every mark on it, I know where it happened. It feels a real part of me. It’s the only thing I would never sell.
SO TELL US ABOUT NINE INCH NAILS – YOU’VE COLLABORATED WITH THEM A FEW TIMES – WHAT IS IT ABOUT THEM THAT INSPIRES YOU?
I think they’ve done really interesting things with sounds and structure – the way Trent [Reznor] puts his music together, I think it’s so clever. He’s a genius. On the production side too – the way he layers the songs and the aggression in them is phenomenal. The way he uses guitars is so different to anyone else who uses them. He’s very good at hearing sound and knowing where and how to use it in a track. I don’t know anyone else who does that as well – or as consistently.
WHAT ABOUT THE LIVE SHOWS? The last show I saw them at, in LA, they played for three hours. It was relentless. There was more energy coming off the stage than I’ve ever seen. He works with great people. They’re all great players. The thing that surprised me most was that for all their rock ‘n’ roll rebelliousness (none of the drink and drugs were fake) they were the most welcoming and respectful people. They really made us feel welcome, and they really looked after and cared about the fans. Just a super-professional thing to be involved with.
TALKING OF PEOPLE WHO INSPIRE YOU – WHO WOULD YOU MOST LIKE TO WORK WITH?
Marc Bolan would have been my main one… But the person I have most admired in the last 15 years is Trent Reznor. I hope to work with him on new stuff. I’m moving to America so maybe that’ll be a lot easier. When we did the shows he said it’d be good [to work together again]. But I live here with three kids and he lives in LA with his kids. But we’ll be almost neighbours soon. I do a lot of collaborations now…
I LOVED WHAT YOU DID WITH BATTLES… [MY MACHINES]
Yeah, that was good and the video was great.
WITH THE ESCALATORS? Yeah, that guy was a stunt guy – he fell down that escalator 100 times. I left at 3am and he’d already been doing it a lot, but then they kept doing it all night.
YOU’VE BEEN WORKING ON YOUR NEXT ALBUM, SPLINTER. HOW’S IT COMING ALONG?
About half way there I’d say. I know it’s going to seem massively late because I first started talking about it two or three years ago. I really did think it was close to being finished… but then I started again. I’m happy with this version.
WHAT CAN PEOPLE EXPECT FROM THE SONGS? It’s the same sort of stuff I’ve been doing for the last four or five albums. It’s heavy; it’s as aggressive as possible. My intention with Splinter was to make every song a huge anthemic monster, but then I brought the Dead Son Rising album out , which isn’t really like that. It’s got some gentle and light songs on it. And the reaction to it was really brilliant; I really enjoyed writing it too. So I changed my mind about Splinter. I thought a whole album of anthems might be a bit boring.
This article is from issue 3 of PowerOn, Roland’s music magazine for the iPad and iPhone. PowerOn is available from the App Store and includes the latest gear, artist interviews and articles about recording technique and the business of music. Find out more about PowerOn on the App Store.