A few months ago I attended a stunning Gary Numan concert at the Roundhouse in London. The man is hungry – that much is obvious from the quality of the performance and his stage presence. The anthems pound the audience mercilessly, and during the new ballad “Lost,” Numan’s simplest and most naked song ever, he found himself choked with tears.
British-born Gary Numan was the first electronic pop star. He burst into the public consciousness at the end of the 1970s with his song “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” from the album “Replicas,” when he was still a member of the band Tubeway Army. Shortly afterward came another hit, “Cars” – a single from “The Pleasure Principle,” the first album to be released under his name.
Unlike many 1980s stars, who disappeared and then came back, Numan, 55, never stopped recording and releasing albums. After the early albums and then “Telekon” (1980) made him a superstar, he gradually backslid from the potent synthpop that set him apart and effectively anticipated and created the 1980s. From being a leader, he became a hanger-on, lost his identity and self-confidence, listened to what the record companies told him and started to imitate the abysmal funk of the second half of the 1980s. His 1992 album “Machine + Soul,” which included two Prince covers, crashed with a distinctly unpleasant funky-soul thud, selling only a few thousand copies. Numan is the first to say, and in great detail, that it was the worst thing he’s ever done.
The turning point came when Numan decided to stop trying to succeed and, instead, started concentrating anew on what he loved. As an individual who was always inquisitive about the present and the future, it didn’t take him long to connect to the industrial sound of the clubs of the 1990s and update himself.
In a phone call to Haaretz ahead of his performance here this week, Numan talks about his renewed passion for live shows and making new recordings, and about the balance that needs to be struck between the past and the present.
Why was “Lost” so emotional for you to play?
“‘Lost’ is a song I wrote for my wife Gemma when our marriage was about to fall apart, and it saved the marriage,” he says. “I can’t sing it without remembering everything that happened. Even if she hides backstage, I know she’s there. You know, I didn’t always like to perform, but for many years it’s been the thing I like doing most. I’m sorry it took me seven years between my last album, ‘Jagged,’ and the new one, ‘Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind).’ It was a mistake to wait so long.”
Why the gap, then?
“I was in a state of depression for a year or two, and I lived on psychiatric drugs for two or three more years. My wife almost died from her pregnancy along with the baby. I got into a deep conflict with my parents, whom I’d been close to all my life, and didn’t talk to them for about two years. It was a chain of traumatic events that just wiped me out. It reached a state where our marriage was about to collapse, and finally my wife and a few friends held an intervention for me. Looking back on that whole period was a huge emotional reservoir from which the new album emerged.”
Along with the new material, you’ve done tours in the past few years that were based exclusively on your old albums.
“Yes, and I hated every minute. There are hits I have to perform, but beyond that I choose old songs that I feel have a spirit that’s connected to the new material and can be adapted accordingly, such as ‘Metal’ and ‘Films.’ Some songs are always going to sound dated, and I avoid them.
“But what unites the oldest and the newest material is that I didn’t care what people would think when I wrote it. The focus was on creating exactly what I wanted, and that’s a total focus. But because I fell so hard in the past by listening to others and trying to curry favor, I am absolutely keeping an eye on myself now. If I’m writing a song and catch myself thinking for a second, ‘Hey, that’ll sound good on the radio,’ I delete it straightaway.”
There’s the famous story about how you went into a studio in the 1970s where there happened to be a Minimoog synthesizer that happened to be tuned to that famous massive sound – and the rest is history. I know that since then you’ve updated your equipment dozens of times, but I could swear I still recognize that same sound in some places.
“I always loved a powerful, massive sound. There is still a part of me that is standing behind that Minimoog and going ecstatic. So, yes, it’s still there.”
When I was a young boy, I bought a copy of your album “Replicas” when it first came out, but you’re only coming here now. Where were you all this time?
“There are a lot of places I haven’t performed in, and it’s shocking and embarrassing. For years I didn’t even appear in Ireland – and my wife is Irish! I haven’t performed in South America or in Eastern Europe. But that’s mostly because in the 1980s I didn’t like touring and I didn’t really like doing shows. My approach was provincial; I focused on England. In the past few years it’s as though I am starting anew and getting to places I’ve never been to. But I apologize.”