Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson are a couple of examples of musicians I love and admire, and a common denominator is they share an influence, New Wave Pioneer and Industrial Godfather, Gary Numan. Since 1976 with Tubeway Army and then solo from 1979, Numan topped the charts and has since maintained a cult following through to his latest fantastic album released in 2017, “Savage (Songs from a Broken World)”. In the four decades that have passed since he burst onto the charts, he has changed the popular musical landscape.
His most enduring solo hit “Cars” accompanied by his iconic pale, eyeliner wearing, sleek, android glam look still encapsulates the eighties for me, and he has not only continued to produce ground breaking sounds, but has collaborated with and been sampled by many hit makers, cementing his influence on modern music. Where Brian Eno pioneered the use of synthesised and electronic sounds with Roxy Music in the early seventies, and can be seen as more of a technical wizard than a musician, Numan has taken the baton and brought it to the masses, creating his own level of musical greatness. Needless to say, being in the same room as him had never crossed my mind.
The Southbank Centre, the scene of so much excitement at last year’s Meltdown Festival, seemed a most appropriate venue. Numan wasn’t touring his album, but on a ‘Conversation’ tour where he would be reflecting on his entire incredible career. Nestling into the theatre I noticed a woman sitting next to me had his signature tattooed along her forearm, such is the devotion he inspires in fans. The atmosphere inside the Queen Elizabeth Hall was reverent.
Numan took to the stage, dressed like a casual metal head, with collaborator and friend Steve Malins; a journalist who wrote an autobiography with Numan. The applause was warm and long lasting. They started the evening by talking us through the props that decorated the surrounding space. Costumes worn on stage while on tour, the bass guitar upon which he wrote “Cars”, another guitar that has appeared on every one of his albums and the piece de resistance – his actual prop car.
Numan’s manner was a little nervous but Malins was great at starting off the conversation with asking how he felt when he found out his latest album had entered the charts at number 2 after years of not really featuring. It was disarming to see someone classed as a legend express such humility and speak of crying like a baby after receiving the news.
Malins artfully facilitated the conversation back to Numan’s youth and he was very open about his happy childhood, being an angry teenager, getting expelled from various schools until finally being diagnosed with Aspergers and given treatment. Numan struggled to remember many facts from his earlier musical days, but did recall specifics from his childhood like going to see a consistently snotty psychiatrist with an overflowing bin of tissues which discouraged him from opening up at all. He also spoke about his habits of tapping his fingers in certain sequences which can still occur when he feels uncomfortable, as well as counting while he’s driving. I could relate as I recalled a compulsion to count stairs when I was younger, and any odd numbered staircases where only used when necessary.
Something I didn’t know about Numan was he is also a pilot and used to perform, as well as teach, display flying. While spectacular, this pass time is incredibly dangerous. He spoke about his own hairy experiences and the lack of margin of error involved in stunts. As a result, sadly, he has lost many friends to the endeavour. He also spoke of another frightening flying incident when he attempted to pilot around the world. He was over the Pacific Ocean in the pitch black of night and both engines of his plane failed. Luckily that was rectified, but since he became a father his death defying antics have waned.
Numan also spoke about how his announcement in 1981 that he was going to retire from touring was a “profound mistake”. After his early overnight success he was struggling to cope with fame and celebrity and wasn’t enjoying it. The pressure to put out more and better quality material was building and he thought that if he gave up touring he could concentrate on this aspect. While he agreed that retreating may have saved his sanity, the move severely damaged his career. He recalled looking out at an empty Wembley Arena after the fans had left and realising he’d made a terrible mistake.
He spoke of being a virtual recluse and sinking into obscurity at the dawn of the nineties, unable to write anything of quality and being dropped by record labels, which he says all turned around when he met his wife Gemma. She helps him experience the world, since he struggles with one to one interactions due to his Aspergers, he can rely on her in social engagements to help him until he feels comfortable, meaning he can engage in the outside world. He spoke candidly about the fertility struggles he and Gemma experienced and the emotional toll this took.
He also mentioned being diagnosed with depression and his rocky treatment journey, in which upon finding a medication that worked at eradicating his symptoms, discovered it did the same to his drive and he stopped caring. Now off that medication he said he was in a much better and balanced place. He mentioned the importance of music as a therapeutic expression, and having gone through this dark period, he was able to pour the experience into the 2013 album “Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind)”.
For Numan every song has meaning and is well considered. He is not frivolous with his lyrics and the emotion he applies to his songs, which he admitted does make the creative process harder. It’s this honest expression, I think, that has kept his fans loyal through the decades. He speaks to and for us all.
Stating he can be criticised for being ‘overly humble’, one can tell he meant it when he referred to himself as “an anorak” on more than one occasion. He also credited his huge initial fame to chance. He recalled going into the studio to record his first album as a punk record, seeing a synthesiser in the corner and giving it a try insisting he knows he’s “not a musician at all”. He claims to only play a guitar well enough to write a song but the rest was down to luck.
Discussing his upcoming ventures, Numan confirmed he would be returning to his home in the USA to start work on a new album. He is also working on a film score and hoping to help two of his three daughters (one of whom sings on “My Name Is Ruin”, a track on the “Savage” album) who wish to record their own songs. Excitingly he did mention plans to return to the UK for a career retrospective tour towards the end of this year which would be incredible.
While he is resistant to aging and feels every birthday only brings him closer to death, he’s not ready to give up yet. Saying that after a certain point, continuing would make him feel silly and the increased risk of injury would worry him, he thought he had at least two more albums and big tours left in him. Feeling more stable and happier within himself means he loves touring now and would be sad to give it up.
Questions from the audience took the conversation in fascinating and random directions. He recalled trying to climb into his prop car the day before to find he couldn’t quite fit so he must have grown in the last three decades. The car itself actually sat in his dad’s front lawn under a tarp for much of this time (including the wheelchair on which the body is mounted) unbeknownst to him. It was now being refurbed to which Numan scoffed: “No idea why”.
He also recalled accidentally setting his house on fire as a child giving us the hilarious and detailed story involving battleships, a magnifying glass and accelerant which all went horribly wrong. Luckily it was only curtains that were damaged and his concocted story of what happened was believed until he admitted the truth to his father only recently.
A question requesting a new autobiography chronicling the last twenty years was also warmly received. Numan said he would love it since there has been so much positivity in his life during this time and it would be good to share that.
One can tell that Numan is in a good place, and he insists he will continue as long as he can get away with it. It was wonderful to hear him speak, fondly, openly and emotionally about his experiences. The thought of that stern faced young man wasn’t far in my mind, but his ever present humour proved it was just the Numan persona. It felt a true privilege to have spent time with Gary Webb of Hammersmith, but I’m very excited at the opportunity to see the powerhouse that is Gary Numan electronic legend perform at the end of the year. What a treat that would be.