“I had this huge chip on my shoulder… People were incredibly hostile. My confidence was a mess. I was an ‘80s icon’ for 15 years and that drove me mad”: Whatever you think of Gary Numan’s work, it’s progressive - and even he can live with it now

Gary Numan
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In 2015 Gary Numan won that year’s Innovation In Sound Award. The following year, after accepting a Moog Innovation Award, he spoke to Prog about the years it took him to accept his work had made an impact on the music world – and insisted he wasn’t anyone particularly special.

What are prog musicians if not sonic pioneers? In which case, Gary Numan is definitely prog. In fact, he received an Innovator In Sound award to confirm his credentials: pushing the boundaries, experimenting with new technology, ploughing his own furrow – these are all in his DNA.

As for those credentials, they have become weightier with the passage of time. When he emerged in the late 70s, he was dismissed as a synth-pop lightweight, a fraud in face paint. Since then, he and his peers – including his hero John Foxx – have improved their standing with the prog fraternity.

Numan has become something of a name to drop, if not among prog musicians then certainly for well-respected rock heavyweights: Marilyn Manson, Trent Reznor, Beck, Queens Of The Stone Age and Dave Grohl have all cited the importance of his work in left-field electronica with a menacing sci-fi edge, his lashings of noir and textured atmospherics conjuring up a dark, dystopian future world.

“He was innovative and refreshing with his synth-driven music,” says Fish On Friday keyboard player Frank Van Bogaert. “He also has an attitude that’s almost like rock’n’roll, but without guitars. Numan sure has influenced my career!”

It doesn’t take long, in a conversation with the man himself, before the talk takes a turn for the prog. There was his team-up in 1983 with Bill Nelson, for instance, a collaboration he sought because he was a huge fan in his teens of Be-Bop Deluxe.

“They were my first ever gig,” Numan recalls on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, where he has lived for the past few years with his wife and three young daughters. “They were brilliant – I loved every single song they played.” Unfortunately, the pairing didn’t work out – “We didn’t see eye to eye,” he says – but he remains a fan.

The same goes for Queen, whom Numan saw in concert as a teenager at the Rainbow in London. He remembers the band “rescuing” him a few years later during one of their gigs in Japan, where he was stranded after travelling there with the group Japan – another art-rock/synth-pop outfit from the early 80s with prog tendencies.

“I was in Tokyo and things had got a bit weird,” he relates, his accent more cockney than Californian. “I got dumped so I went to see Queen at the Budokan. Anyway, I was sitting in the balcony and there was quite a lot of fuss around me and I couldn’t work out what it was until security came and got me – it was me causing the fuss!

”So they took me backstage and the band adopted me like this little waif and stray. It was really cute. I sat and had sushi with Freddie and the band. Problem was, I didn’t like sushi, so they went and ordered me McDonalds instead! They were amazing. I still think Freddie is the best frontman in the history of music.”

Numan subsequently worked with Roger Taylor (on the former’s 1981 album, Dance). More recently, he made a cameo on the new album by Jean-Michel Jarre. “It sounds like Jean-Michel Jarre with me singing,” he offers drily of his track on the second instalment of the French keyboards whiz’s Electronica project. 

“I love him,” Numan adds of Jarre, whom he considers “one of the loveliest and most charming people I’ve ever met” – and not just because he’s been to his house several times, played with his kids and wrestled on the floor with his 200lb English Mastiff. “I get such a lot of lovely things said about me being a pioneer – but fuck me, Jean was doing it years before me. That’s a pioneer. He was out on his own for such a long time, creating his own sound.”

Numan could easily be talking about himself. He’s just delighted that after years of abuse – of being a so-called surrogate Bowie, a keyboard dilettante with a fetish for leather and android froideur – he’s now taken seriously, and across a wide variety of genres. He’s being interviewed today by Prog, but if such journals existed, it could easily be Goth, Electronica, New Wave, Post-Punk or Industrial magazines asking the questions.

“Yeah,” he says, and you can hear his face forming a satisfied smile through the phone line. “One of the things that’s cool that’s happened to me over the last 20 years or so is not so much that I’m recognised as influential, which is lovely anyway, but the fact that it’s across so many genres. I get more actual satisfaction out of that than ever having been No.1 [with 1979’s Are “Friends” Electric? and Cars]. There’s a big element of luck and fortuitous timing with that. But other people covering your songs or acknowledging your music, that means a lot more to me.”

For so long, Numan rejected his back catalogue. Now, he is more accepting – proud, even – of his past. That explains why, a day after this interview, he’s coming to London to perform three of his key early albums live over three nights: Replicas (1979), The Pleasure Principle (1979) and Telekon (1980).

“I didn’t realise they had such an impact,” he says. “I had this huge chip on my shoulder about the old stuff and I spent most of my life trying to distance myself from it so I could bring attention to my newer stuff. It’s only recently that I’ve become aware of their impact.”

Numan considers his 1992 album Machine + Soul his nadir – “It was rubbish,” he says bluntly – while 1994’s Sacrifice is widely regarded as the moment of his artistic rebirth. It has officially been okay to like Numan for over 20 years now, whereas his initial period of success – when he was arguably the biggest pop star in Britain – was relatively brief.

“Yeah, I was massive for about a year, then it started to go downhill and carried on relentlessly until about 1992-93 when it bottomed out and everything was shit,” he says of his career trajectory.

He shudders when he recalls that one of his singles from that time, Absolution, sold fewer copies than one of his early punk singles – 1978’s That’s Too Bad, with Tubeway Army – when he was, as he puts it, “a complete unknown”. Shifting 3,000 copies compared to That’s Too Bad’s 4,000, it’s miserable fare indeed compared to the million units Are “Friends” Electric? sold.

“I pretty much lost everything at that point – it had all gone,” he laments. “I couldn’t give away tickets, whereas before I’d done three or four nights at Wembley [Arena, 1981]. I was finished.”

It was then – with no label and huge debts that he estimates at around £600,000 – that he decided to pursue music more “as a hobby”, without worrying about chart success and radio play. The music he began making – to please himself and no one else – was suddenly darker and heavier. He’d rediscovered his mojo.

Every album of the last two decades has sold better than its predecessor, and critics – usually the bane of his life – have been glowing in their praise: 2013’s Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind) was widely hailed as his best album to date. “I felt as though I’d finally come out of the shadow that my early success had created,” he says.

It’s ironic but true: there are early-80s outfits who were far more credible than Numan back then who have since succumbed to the cheesy retro/nostalgia circuit, whereas he has kept well away from anything that might posit him as a relic, even as the wolves were circling his door. He’s just happy that a photograph of him in a magazine these days would more likely be captioned ‘industrial legend’ than ‘80s icon’.

“It said ‘80s icon’ for 15 years and that drove me mad,” he says of his dog days. “It painted me as someone from a bygone era and I didn’t feel like that.”

The music he has made since 1994 – especially Sacrifice (1994), Pure (2000) and Splinter – has established Numan as a going, contemporary concern, reinvented as a sort of UK analogue to Reznor/Manson. His heavily textured atmospherica has even gained the approval of prog-heads.

“I’m lucky,” he admits, looking forward to going back into the studio. “I’ve had a very long career with a lot of ups and downs, and yet here I am at 57, just about to start my 21st album, and I’m probably in a stronger position that I’ve been almost since day one. So I have absolutely nothing to grumble about at all.”

It hasn’t been a problem-free journey. He was diagnosed not long ago with Asperger’s Syndrome, and that brought with it a whole set of difficulties. Circa 2009, he began to suffer with terrible depression. And he has always been wracked with self-doubt.

“Look, I know I’m not a very good singer, I can’t play guitar very well, I’m not a virtuoso musician,” he says. “But I’m lucky in that I’ve got something about me that’s slightly different and some people like it. But as far as being better than anyone else, absolutely not.

“I’ve got a kind of mental dysmorphia,” he adds of his inability to believe the positive hype and only focus on the negative. It has, perversely, been his “driving force” over the years, pushing him on to prove his worth. So did his insecurity never allow him to enjoy fame and acclaim back in the day?

“No – in fact, it was far worse then than it is now,” he winces, recalling the slings and arrows of outrageous critical opprobrium hurled his way when he was writing, performing and producing his own records, and even managing himself, while still in his early 20s.

“Everyone was pretty fucking horrible. I was aware the records were selling well, but I was also aware that pretty much everyone else seemed to hate me. I might have sold a million albums, but that meant 59 million people in the country didn’t buy them! People were incredibly hostile. My confidence was a mess.”

How about now? Should Numan fans be concerned that living in sun-kissed Los Angeles in a nice big house, he’s going to get happy? Where will that leave the dark artist of lore?

“Well, luckily I’m not actually that bothered by surroundings,” he replies. “The place in my head that I write from is uniquely dark. It sits in a little corner of my brain, festering away regardless of whether I’m living in sun-kissed paradise or wherever.”

He explains that Splinter was written largely in a period of depression, one that almost ended his marriage. “It didn’t matter that I’d been sitting in the sunshine when I wrote it,” he says. “It came out of my memory and my experiences.”

It was his wife’s own postnatal depression that exacerbated his deteriorating mental state – that, and a sort of midlife crisis. “I started worrying about getting old, dying and illness and all sorts of shit. It built up and I went over the edge. I was like that for three or four years.”

He was in “a zombie state” for a while as he took heavy medication, and even the threat of his wife leaving and an intervention by friends couldn’t snap him out of his ambition-free funk. Eventually, recording Splinter dragged him back to his regular state, which can perhaps be best summed up as ‘anhedonia’: a condition that means an inability to experience pleasure.

Numan is candid and forthright, not to mention brutally honest with himself about his feelings; strange things to say, perhaps, about someone once lampooned for being a shallow, hollow man-machine.

“I remember [NME journalist] Paul Morley slagging me off because all my songs were ‘I’ and ‘Me’ – but they are!” he laughs. “That’s what I write about. Like Telekon, that was me talking almost exclusively about what it’s like to become famous: it made me paranoid as fuck!

“I never thought my music was cold and unemotional,” he adds. “That seemed to me a slightly ignorant reaction to electronic music being regarded as cold and emotionless. Maybe because I didn’t smile much.”

Prog imagines he’s smiling now.

Paul Lester

Paul Lester is the editor of Record Collector. He began freelancing for Melody Maker in the late 80s, and was later made Features Editor. He was a member of the team that launched Uncut Magazine, where he became Deputy Editor. In 2006 he went freelance again and has written for The Guardian, The Times, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, Classic Rock, Q and the Jewish Chronicle. He has also written books on Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Bjork, The Verve, Gang Of Four, Wire, Lady Gaga, Robbie Williams, the Spice Girls, and Pink.