Gary Numan Wants to Declare War on Nostalgia
"All these comeback tours we're seeing from has-been 80s and 90s artists—it's ridiculous. It makes me want to take out a bazooka and destroy it all. I'll fight this until I'm 100 if I have to."
All photos by William Lacalmontie for Noisey
This article originally appeared on Noisey France.
It's not easy to stay credible in industrial music or synth rock when you increasingly resemble a biomechanical Nicolas Sirkis lookalike. Not easy, yet not impossible either – as Gary Numan proves every day. Rejecting any trace of nostalgia, wickedly battered by life, obsessed by the need to advance and by eternal youth, the legendary Londoner now returns with Savage: Songs From A Broken World, his post-apocalyptic 21st album. The work confirms that this 59-year-old eternal kid will keep going as long as Lady Synth grants him life, and on his recent trip to Paris, we took the opportunity to meet with the Benjamin Button of electronic music.
Noisey: Your new album depicts a post-apocalyptic world. What made you want to write about that? Mad Max ? Cormac McCarthy's The Road?
Gary Numan: I haven't read The Road, but you must be the third person who's mentioned it to me this week. I guess I'm going to have to read it. They made a film of it with Viggo Mortensen, didn't they? I actually saw that, but it's not what inspired me. Not Mad Max, either, though I love it. I'd been trying to write a novel for quite some time, almost seven years – a novel that takes place in a post-apocalyptic future. I hadn't yet decided at what point the apocalypse would happen, but that's another matter. I wanted a story about people returning to a tribal state in a barren world. I started thinking not long ago that a global apocalypse would be an appropriate response to what the world has become. I only had this idea pretty recently, maybe 2015. I was really bugged by this book; I'd been working on it for years.
Do you think you'll ever finish it?
I have no idea. I only write occasionally – when I'm not making music or taking care of the kids. It was the same for this new album. In the beginning, it only had one or two pieces. It was impossible to know what it would be about or where it would go.
You've been in music for more than forty years – it must be super difficult to reinvent yourself at this stage.
Of course. But everything I'm writing is very personal. If I don't experience anything, I don't have anything to write about. I write about things that happened to me or are happening to me now. My wife and I lost children to miscarriages; then our baby died. The events of my life, even these dark ones, inform my work. But with this new album, it was a very particular situation. My life was really nice. I had moved to Los Angeles; the kids were happy; everything was going well with Gemma, my wife. Everything was truly good; my last album had succeeded like never before. It had been well received by both the critics and the audience; we'd sold a bunch. Of course, it was far from millions, but for me, it wasn't half bad. So when I began to write Savage: Songs From A Broken World, I had no problems…
Is that why you went off to write a novel?
Yes. Just to try and jumpstart some inspiration, because my life wasn't giving me much. That's what made me want to write an album about a post-apocalyptic world. And – icing on the cake! – it was at that point that Trump entered the political arena, saying ridiculous things, reeling off loads of insanities. My story began to come into focus.
On that point, what is this album about? I'm not sure I took in everything that's there.
It all takes place in a destroyed world. It’s been destroyed by one lone man, who's stupid but so powerful that he has the ability to ruin the entire world. People are too afraid to stop him. All this I dreamed up thanks to Trump – or more like no thanks to him. The album ended up revolving around this concept of a future ruined by one single man. Everything came from my novel. Well, apart from one piece, "Bed of Thorns," which I wrote at the outset. It talks about the pressure I felt in doing this album because the previous one, Splinter, had done so well. I was pretty concerned; I thought that with my previous album I had attained the peak of my comeback and I'd never do better.
On that note, how would you explain the success of your previous album?
It got very good reviews. I think my songwriting had improved a lot, too. In the late 80s/early 90s, I didn't really know how to write a good song. My songwriting wasn't famous back then. I had gotten a bit lost in trying to recover the lustre of my glory days. I was trying to do songs in the style of the ones I did when I was starting, but that didn't work. I ended up making a bunch of shit. Or in any case I wasn't writing what I wanted; I wasn't into it the way I needed to be. In 1994, I released the album Sacrifice. That was when I realised I wanted to start over again; that I liked this. It was also the point at which I found a new musical direction. With Splinter, my producer and I attained an even higher level. And then there's always an element of luck as well – the alignment of the planets. Being in the right place at the right time. I'm sure it's partly thanks to all that the album succeeded. People have done covers from it; the press paid it great attention.
You referred to your "glory days." Do you think you came too early on the electronic scene, and too late to industrial music?
For sure. What I hope is that I'm finally in the right place at the right time today! Of course, I received lots of notice as a pioneer of electronic music. But notice won’t put food on the table. And what's more, I'm not a pioneer of electronic music! Take Jean-Michel Jarre, for example. He was there years before me. Years! Now that's a pioneer, a man who did something completely different from what had come before, and not just from a conceptual or design point of view. What he was doing was radical. Even if I'm often presented as a pioneer, I don't feel it in my soul. I don't feel worthy of it. Jarre is one, though. When I was starting out I made pretty unusual music, but more by accident than anything. I didn’t know how to write a song, and I hadn't completely mastered the electronic material that I had. So I was experimenting, trying things out. And maybe by pure luck, I ended up doing something pretty original.
Today, you've completely mastered your material. Is it still fun and exciting to make your music?
Maybe not exactly, but I'm much prouder of my current pieces than those I did with my group Tubeway Army, for example. People constantly want to take me back to that period since it's supposed to have been my best, and that bugs me. I never look back. If the best of me came out 40 years ago, what's the point in continuing? Why try to distill a creative life into one single moment? That kind of idea is so typical of journalists. This constant looking back probably kept me from having more success at any given point. How could anyone think that you belong to a finished era and that what you do today no longer matters? That would mean you gave your best at age 20. And after that, what – nothing? That's ridiculous. In the US, things work that way; in England, a little less. I'm fighting these preconceived notions.
Having had the success you've had, this sort of thing must be terribly annoying to you.
During my career, I've refused to do any number of TV shows. Radio ones too, and press interviews. Because those people only wanted to lead me down a path of nostalgia. All they wanted was to discuss memories of the good old days – and they didn't want to talk at all about my new disc. It's bullshit! Every time I saw a journalist it was the same old thing. What they never get is, yesterday doesn't interest me. When something is 30 or 40 years in the past, I don't give a shit about it. What I care about is what I'm doing now, and what excites me is what I could be doing tomorrow.
What I like best is doing things I’ve never done before, and another thing that excites me is new technology – finding ways of using it to produce new sounds. Not in an experimental sense, but with the will to go forward, to evolve. I'm not a big experimenter, there are people much more talented than I am in this respect. I just want to go forward, so when all people want to do is take me back to 1979 I can get pretty nasty [ Laughs]. And frankly, there would be nothing glorious in coasting on the legacy of a few pieces that you did 40 years ago. Talk about pathetic.
So you never wanted to capitalize on your legacy by taking advantage of retromania?
Frankly, all these comeback tours we're seeing from has-been 80s and 90s artists – it's ridiculous. It makes me want to take out a bazooka and destroy it all. I'd never participate in that kind of thing. When you do, it's basically admitting you have nothing new to give. And even if that were the case, I'd never accept it. I'll fight this until I'm 100 if I have to. One time I agreed to replay one of my albums from start to finish, because it was a really special occasion. But I would never wander any further into nostalgia.
Financially, it could have been great for you to carry on with your hit "Cars" from 1979.
Sure, but I'd have been ashamed of myself. Instead I did the exact opposite, distancing myself more and more from "Cars." Sometimes, that meant making decisions that were pretty hard. I refused a bunch of things that would have brought me lots of money. The thing is, when you have a big success early in your career, you're basically upholstering the inside of your coffin without even realising it. And all the people around you – your manager, your label, they all want their piece of the pie. So they try to hammer more nails in the coffin, to make you keep doing the same thing. Even the fans are like that: "You know, Gary, we really love 'Cars' and your old stuff." Frankly, guys... it's frustrating for me to hear that. It's really hard to win the battle against nostalgia. My last album, this new album, they're rejects from my early days, from the people who always want to take me back to that time. With this new album, I think I've done what I meant to do. It was number 2 in England. Gary Numan, number 2! For me, it was huge. It was a confirmation that the radical choices I'd been making for 30 years were good, that the sacrifices I'd made had finally paid off.
The evolution of technology must have had an influence on your work and the way you go about it.
Of course. Today, I don't work at all on analogue synthesisers anymore. Only on the computer. I use dozens of software programs. For example, I love Omnisphere, a virtual hybrid synthesiser put out by Spectrasonics. The new model is fascinating. I'm not really interested by old analog synthesisers. Probably because I grew up with them, so I don't have any nostalgia for them. In truth, I don't give a shit about what produces the sound; all that interests me is if the sound is good or not. Analog, digital, computers, who cares? You could even mix them all together as far as I'm concerned. What counts is the result. I've spent a lot of time with a crappy tape recorder, walking along in cities, listening, capturing noises and sounds. About a year ago I was in the metro in London, and I noticed that each time it slowed, the sound was just mind-blowing, like an animal recoiling. I recorded the sound several times because I had trouble getting a recording where people weren't talking through it. But I finally got it.
Do you think that electronic musicians nowadays take that same approach?
The problem is, a lot of people come to electronic music because they're more interested by the machine that produces the sound than the sound itself. "Do you have a mini-Moog? Do you have such and such obscure thing?" It's such snobbism. Who gives a shit about any of that? I'm not a geek vintage fan. All I need is a studio, a computer, and my rotten tape recorder. I'm not on the Internet all day consulting obscure fanzines run by synthesiser nuts. I have no reason to go onto Synthopia or Sovietchild. Maybe I should?
Your new album sometimes recalls the sound of Nine Inch Nails. What's been your relationship with Trent Reznor?
We've collaborated on concerts, but never in the studio. He brings up the idea sometimes. He did awhile back, at any rate. In 2009, when they were doing their farewell concerts, we met up in Los Angeles. Trent talked about collaborating, but the idea was that whatever we did together couldn't look anything like either NIN or Gary Numan. It had to be unique. We still haven't done it though. I know him really well; we're very good friends. He lives not 20 minutes from my house in Los Angeles, so we see each other frequently. He's a guy who does nothing but work. Always. Perpetually. He's always doing something, producing songs and pieces, whether for Nine Inch Nails or for films. He's an incredibly busy guy. Whereas me, I'm pretty passive, I'm not pushing for us to do a track together. That's not my style – it'd be more the style of someone trying to profit from his fame. If it's going to happen one day, it'll happen.