“I kind of get a lot of credit for something which maybe doesn’t really deserve as much…” says Gary Numan of his reputation as the “Godfather of electronic music”. However, given that everyone from Trent Reznor and Basement Jaxx to Prince and Kanye West have cited him as an influence, GQ.com admires his modesty. Looking much younger than his 53 years beneath a shock of jet black hair, the self-effacing synth pioneer has this year released his 16th studio album, Dead Son Rising, appeared on the new Battles album and is currently preparing for ATP’s “Nightmare Before Christmas” festival and a UK tour. Over drinks in a musty London pub, Numan tells GQ.com about fantasy, technology and taking his style cues from ghosts.
GQ.com: How important is technology to the way you make music?
Gary Numan: I’m completely tied to it – that’s the way my brain works. I’ve got Asperger’s syndrome and I’m not a very good people person, so I’ve always been more comfortable around machinery. Not in a weird way – I don’t want to marry my car or anything stupid like that! Also it’s easy to be innovative if you’re an electronic musician, because you’re given tools that enables you to something new almost by default. In 1978 when we first started doing electronic music people were saying “Oh, it’s so new!” or “How inventive!” and I was thinking: “It’s not really, I’m just playing it with a synth.” All of those songs were actually written on a guitar.
What about the impact technology has had on the music industry?
I see quite a lot of people doom-mongering about music, but I think it’s the most amazing time to be in a band. It’s almost become a free-for-all. There was a very entrenched way that it had to be done: you had to do a demo, get a record deal and get with the right label. It’s not like that anymore. Bands are becoming their own labels, their own cottage industries and they now own their own stuff. I never got the point of record companies owning everything. I had to pay to make my own album, for them to own it -what a bizarre situation that was! Some of the big record companies are still desperately trying to hold onto it. They now want a percentage of your merchandise, a percentage of your tour income – they can go fuck themselves! I’m not having any of that!
Who were your main musical influences?
Ultravox were the blueprint for what I wanted to do but I stumbled across them by accident. When I went to record my first album, which should have been a punk album, there was a synthesiser in the control room. I’d never seen one before but they let me have a go on it and I loved it to bits. I went back to the label with an electro-punk album which they were really unhappy with! I thought I was the first one to make this sort of music, but then I went out and discovered that Ultravox were on their third album [Systems of Romance]! So much for being at the forefront of it…
Can you recommend a good book?
Considering that I use a lot of technology to make my music, I quite like having an idea source that has a non-technology base. I would recommend Steven Erikson’s science fantasy books about the Malazan Empire. He co-created this world with Ian Esslemont and it’s absolutely epic in its scope. You’re dropped into the middle of the story with all these weird religions and cultures interacting in a way that is never explained. Each book is massive – I read them every night and they’re amazing!
What was the first band you really loved?
When I was 11 I became a massive fan of The Monkees. We had a so-called “band” of kids on my street and we’d go along to people’s houses and mime to Monkees records. We’d jokingly call it a “show”: put an album on, dance and mime away, get some pocket money and then f*** off…
Was that how you got started as a performer?
It’s all very well doing it at your friend’s houses, but later on when I was in my punk band I was terrified. For days before any gig in a little Mickey Mouse pub in front of a dozen people you just couldn’t talk to me. My Dad took me to one side and asked me how I was ever going to be able to enjoy it. That’s when I started coming up with images and alter-egos. When I had my first bit of success I was very into the make-up and the clothes. That was my way of dealing with it, by creating a persona. It was a front that was cold, and arrogant and seemed to be untouched by anything.
Did anyone in particular influence your style?
I do remember being in a club and a man walked by me who from behind had this almost-Nazi look. All black, with a sand-brown belt which would normally have a pistol attached to it. It just looked really striking. I wasn’t really inspired by other celebrities. I’d been brought up as a David Bowie fan, so the use of image seemed natural to me. Bowie’s a lovely looking man, and I never thought I could compete with that!
What inspired the double-breasted suit on the cover of The Pleasure Principle?
It’s a complete rip-off of a Rene Magritte painting of the same name! It’s the same suit, same pose, same table, but where he had a rock, I had a little glowing pyramid and because I’ve got an ego I put my face on it! [laughs] Part of the reason the painting resonated with me so much was because of something that happened when I was about 16. A friend and I were getting off the tube and were one of the last people coming off the platform at Piccadilly Circus. The man in front had a long grey coat on and a grey hat, like a fedora. He looked like he was from the Forties. We got to the top of one particular escalator and he went round to the left. My friend and I were just chatting to each other, following the flow of people and not really looking where we were going. We followed this man round only to find that there was no left and it was a brick wall! Presumably at one point there’d been a tunnel there but it had been filled in decades ago. We’d seen a ghost or whatever you want to call it. Freaked us out completely. That stayed with me and in the early years that man appeared in a lot of my images. On the Replicas cover I’m looking out of a window and he’s standing outside. On the covers of Dance and I, Assassin I’m completely dressed as him. Quite a lot of my style, especially when I got into double-breasted suits, was based on this man I’d seen. It had a massive effect on my life.
How did you feel when you first heard the Numan sampling Sugababes track “Freak Like Me”?
It was a triple whammy for me. I was on holiday in Mexico, so I was having quite a cool time anyway, and I got a phone call telling me that Sugababes had gone to number one and then another telling me that we’d gone to number one in the Kerrang chart with a new song called “Rip”. Two number ones, in different genres, while I was in the swimming pool in Mexico! One of the best days of my life.
How do you feel about playing your old songs live?
It’s a tricky one. I’m not a big fan of retro and nostalgia. Like any kind of artist you’re always passionate about what you’re doing now, and what you’re doing next. The songs that you’re writing reflect what you want to be singing about. At the same time, you do have a sort of duty to play the older stuff for people who bought it and remember it and still want to hear it.
Where’s the strangest place you’ve heard your music?
I was making the demos for “Cars” and The Pleasure Principle just as “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” was going to number one. I came out of the demo studio, at the back of the Strand, and as I was walking along the street I heard “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” coming out of a flat window. That was the first time I ever heard my music being played by someone else. It was a silhouette of a woman with her curtains drawn doing the ironing. I thought: “If she only knew I was stood outside her window looking at her!” [laughs] How stalkerish would that be?
How does it feel to be cited as an influence by bands like Nine Inch Nails?
When I get compliments from people like that I’m blown away, because I don’t see myself that way. Every time I’m in the studio, I’m struggling. I don’t go in there and think “I’m a legend! I’ve influenced all these people!” The fact that I wrote a big song thirty years ago means absolutely nothing today. That pressure to reinvent yourself keeps you grounded.
Originally published by British GQ.