“I’ve sort of come full circle a little bit in the way I feel about ‘Cars.’ It’s still my least favorite song to do in a set.”
(Photos: Drew Wilson and David Harris)
Gary Numan may want you to forget about “Cars.” The electronic music pioneer has been putting out albums steadily since the late ‘70s, including this year’s highly-acclaimed new album Savage (Songs from a Broken World). We caught up with Numan before his Portland show to talk about his new album, buying houses, aging and making setlists. Over 35 highly personal minutes, Numan was a kind and engaging subject. I’m pleased to present the Spectrum Culture interview with Gary Numan.
You said that a lot of your new record, Savage, has to do with global warming.
More the fallout of it. The album looks at many, many generations from now should we not control the temperature. It’s not scientifically worked out. It’s not meant to be a prophecy. I don’t think it’s going to happen. I’ve been trying to write this novel about it and I have not done very well. I have not got very far with it. I have a big, bucket-load of ideas but not much progress in terms of a story. When it came time to write the album, I just started to borrow ideas from that. Coincidentally, when I first starting writing these songs about this global warming idea, Donald Trump started his campaign. He started saying really mad things about global warming and about it being a Chinese hoax. He talked about pulling out of the Paris Accord, which I thought was a really surprising thing to do really. I think he was just going to undo anything Obama had done.
At first, it was like, “How can you say that?” 99.9% of the scientific community says it’s real and it’s happening and that you got to do this stuff now, how can you think differently? He probably doesn’t. He thinks, “Obama did it, so I’m going to fucking undo it.” I didn’t realize it then. It was early on in his bid. Up ‘til then, to me, it was this science fiction story ambition that I wanted to write a book. That’s all it was really. Come Trump, it suddenly felt relevant. Bar one song, it all pretty much looks at different aspects of what life might be like then. It’s not actually telling a story. It’s a series of snapshots of what people were going through. Not even their lives and how difficult it is. It’s all about how they deal with the things they had to do to stay alive and the guilt that comes with it. Religion makes a small resurgence. In the book it would be much more. There’s one song called “My Name is Ruin” which has a vague narrative to it. It’s really just little snapshots.
The frightening thing is that your early work dealt with technology and how it dehumanizes. A lot of that has come true. I’m a little worried that your vision for global warming may come true as well.
(laughs) Yeah, I don’t think so. I really don’t. The reason is, apart from Trump and some of the people around him, the rest of the world seems to be pretty clear on what needs to be done. Even fucking Syria tried to join in! Who would have thought? Pretty much the entire world agrees. I can’t remember a time in history when the entire world has actually agreed on something. So it’s a remarkable moment in a way that you have this consensus and there’s a willingness to do something about it. I know what the Paris Accord sets out isn’t the fix; it’s the beginning of the fix. You walk on from there and go to the next level and then the next level and eventually you control it.
Interestingly for me, when I started to work on the idea for the book because it looked like the Paris Accord was going to be wrapped up and sorted out, it almost seemed like global warming had become yesterday’s news. It was being dealt with. It was no longer the big worry or imminent catastrophe. Then Trump comes along and undoes it a little bit. He’s only got a few years, however.
You think he’s going to make it the full four years?
I’m not sure. Who would have thought he could have survived any number of the things that he survived so far? You know, from fucking pussy-groping all the way through.
Yes, we had Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose go down. People are going down right and left. Why not him?
Yeah, how is that possible? Maybe that will get him. I cannot understand how he can say the things he’s done and there are so many women coming out and saying he’s done exactly the same things all these other people have done that are being fired from far less important jobs than being fucking president. He still rabbits on about Clinton, Mister, as if he did this terrible thing. He’s done far worse than that. It’s the weirdest moment in politics. I’m not even political. The weird thing that is going on with Trump is how many people that are essentially non-political, like me, have found themselves sucked into this weird political moment. I can’t believe it’s happening.
Back to “My Name is Ruin,” that’s a really great video. Where was it shot?
This place called 29 Palms, not far from Los Angeles. It’s near Joshua Tree.
What is the draw in Los Angeles for British rock stars such as you, Morrissey and Tim Booth to pick up and move there?
As an Englishman, climate. I lived there before, very briefly, for about six or seven months in 1981 or 1982. I loved it and always intended to go back but then the career started to nosedive and I got taken in a different direction really. When I turned 50, I got really bothered about age and getting old. Realizing you’ve got less days left than you had up until now. It was a bit of a moment really.
The two of us just turned 40 recently.
Ah, children. It’s a funny thing. For a while, you feel as if you just sailed through it and it’s not a big deal. I never had the mid-life crisis thing where you start sleeping with 18-year-old girls and all of that. Buying sports cars and all that shit.
You lucked out because it would have come back to haunt you now with all these people coming out about this stuff.
(laughs) Thank God for that, yeah! I didn’t get that. I got this morbid, overwhelming fear of getting old and getting sick. Of generally falling apart and collapsing. It was really strong and it really bothered me for a bit. I started getting really bad anxiety attacks and then I was diagnosed with depression, which is a bit weird. I was on these pills for a few years that helped me through that. While all this was going on, one of the things I realized is that it became ever more important to me that I live life as fully as possible. I’m not going to die tomorrow, but I am a lot closer to the end than I am to the beginning and to make that problem even worse is that time seems to go so much quicker as you get older. I feel like it’s going to race by as death comes racing towards me.
So I wanted to live life fully and when you live in England you just cannot do that. I got so sick and tired of sitting indoors, looking out at the rain and thinking, “There’s another day wasted.” Or things you plan to do, it fucking rains and it gets canceled. It’s cold and it’s damp.
What part were you living in?
Just south of London. If you live in Britain, I probably lived in the nicest bit of it. The southeast corner. It’s great. Where I lived was amazing. I had this really nice house with seven and a half acres of beautiful land, ancient woodland with a stream going through it. Fucking gorgeous. Most of the time it was a mud bath. You couldn’t go out in it. You’d sink. What was the point of having it? On a nice day in the summer probably not a prettier place in the world to live. But it’s like that so rarely it’s frustrating. I just thought, “I’m done with it.” Gemma, my wife, has wanted to live in America forever. From the day we met, there was gentle pressure to think about moving, think about moving. In a way, that made me dig my heels in a little bit, which is childish. But I did a little bit.
Well, we had a bit of a drama trying to buy the house. But the paperwork thing is correct. We bought it and then they sent around one of these notary publics to sign the paperwork. You don’t read any of it. It was hundreds of bits of paper. I had to sign one to acknowledge the fact that I was aware that I had to pay back the mortgage. (laughs) So signing the mortgage isn’t enough. You gotta sign something that says I’m aware that I just signed that that said I gotta pay it back. It just got more and more fucking ridiculous. These people earn their money just in carrying the paper work around. It was madness.
Buying our house was funny. I was looking at a certain price range that I could afford, which seemed sensible to me. We found some nice things around. We found a school we wanted the kids to go to first, a Waldorf-Steiner school. They went there in Britain and we wanted to keep that going out here. So we found a school and drew a circle around it. We were going to live within that. I used Zillow to look for houses. Gemma got involved and started putting in stupid figures. I said, “What’s the point of that? You’re going to find something really nice because you put in silly money. But we can’t afford it. Everything we can afford will now look less. That’s such a silly thing to do.” But she did it anyway. Sure enough, she found this amazing house. I said, “There ya go. I can’t afford it. What’s the point of doing that? Another one I liked now looks a bit shit.”
“Well, let’s just go and have a look at it.”
“I’m not going in. All right, if you want to be fucking demoralizing. We can go and park alongside it and have a look at the house and then we’d be depressed.” Which is what we did. Unbeknownst to me, she arranged for the estate agent to be there. I said, “Oh look, there is someone else having a look at it.” And she said, “No, I arranged to see someone.” So I said, “All right then, we’ll have a look.” So they open it all up with the gates and in we go. I whispered to her as we were walking to the door, “Whatever you do, be calm. Because it’s probably going to be lovely.” It was amazing, this place. “Just be fucking calm. Because there is no way we can afford it, but we might put in a really stupid offer and you never know. Be cool.” We opened the door and she just screamed and she ran off. It’s a big house. For the next 10 or 15 minutes all I could hear when she entered each room was, “Waah! Look at this!” Oh my God! Let’s crawl out a window. Putting in a silly offer and them thinking we might not want it. My strategy just went right out the window.
So we put in a stupid offer. They pretty much laughed at us. Then it fell through with the people buying it and we put in another silly offer again and that fell through. They said the people buying that time were cash buyers so we really were done for. We went back to Britain. On this particular day we went out to this place called Rochester Castle which was just like rubbing salt in the wound really since the house we wanted looked like a castle. That morning we got a phone call saying the escrow period is finished and that house is gone. You gotta move on. So we went out to a castle, like I said wasn’t the best thing to have done. Got home that night. Me and her had a massive row about something else. I stomped off to bed all grumpy and being dramatic. I get into bed and my Zillow thing flags up: Status Changed for this house. I just thought it was going to say “Sold.” I’m not even going to look at it. I’m depressed enough as it is. I’m not very happy. I’m going to ignore it. After 30 minutes I couldn’t sleep. She was downstairs watching tele. I thought, “I’ll look at it. Fuck it.” The status had changed back to available. That can’t be right. The agent said this very morning that it’s gone.
I went to down to Gemma and said, “Look, it’s probably a mistake but it’s saying it’s for sale again. Just ring them. Maybe something happened.” Sure enough, the people that were buying it claimed that they were cash buyers but they weren’t. They spent the entire escrow period trying to get the money together, but they couldn’t. In the end of it, it all fell through. By now, the people selling it were sick to death of it. They had a few people now that fucked them about. But we had always been there. We were always putting in the same sort of silly offer but we were consistent. So we did it again. In fact, we bumped it down a bit more (laughs). Tried it again. This time, they accepted it. Then I had to admit, “Well, actually we don’t have a green card yet.” So I bribed them. I said, “I’ll give you $50,000 now if you give us a couple of months to sort this out.” I asked for three. They said, “No, you have two.” We were surely going to get our green card. We just hadn’t had our final interview yet and we don’t know when it’s going to be because they haven’t given us a date. They gave us the two months and with one week left we got our clearance for a green card and got the house.
Back to the new album, when you look at the cover you are dressed as a character with a certain look, almost like a sand person from Star Wars. If you look at the Splinter cover you are dressed as the Jack the Ripper-type, with a top hat. How much involvement do you have in the character you portray or the look that you have?
Everything. It’s only me, really. Splinter was about depression and the battle to get through it and how you kind of extricate yourself from it. Not just depression itself, but the cure. The cure is almost as dangerous as the illness in that it sucks you into a feeling of couldn’t care less. This might be completely wrong, I can’t speak for anyone else who has had it, but I have always been really moody my whole life. I’m often not in synch with reality. Something great will happen and I will be down in the dumps. Something shitty happens and I couldn’t give a fuck. Not only was I up and down constantly, but I had quite extreme changes from one hour to the next. I found that massively wearying and difficult. I’ve got Asperger’s as well, so I’ve got this whole fucking thing going on. When I got diagnosed with the depression they put you on these pills and it levels you out or reduces the peaks a bit. I found that massively seductive. I’ve never been not moody. So just to not really care was amazing. I loved it. I didn’t want to come out of it. I didn’t want to stop taking the tablets. It made everything all right.
The trouble is, Gemma says, the more I was on them, the more like Forrest Gump I became. In a really insulting way she means that. Just less and less ambitious. I had no ambition whatsoever. I didn’t write a song for two years. Didn’t care. Just absolutely not bothered about anything. She said it made me really unattractive. It was that that got me eventually: vanity. She said she didn’t fancy me anymore. That was the only thing that really shook me up. Up until then mates were doing interventions. “You fucking got to get it together. You’re not working. You’re not doing anything. You don’t care about anything.” Not horribly don’t care. I just think everything is all right. Kids just broken a leg. “Ah, she’ll be fine.” That didn’t happen actually, but that sort of thing. So I come out of it. During the end of that, I decided to write again. I was coming off the pills, so you got your instincts back. I started to write, cataloging the end of it but I still have awareness and memories of what it is like deep in it. It was really useful. I think it really helped actually. I think to write about it was massively helpful in terms of coming to terms with it and understanding what had happened.
If you write, you want to write things very clearly. You want it to be accurate. You want it to generally express what it was like and what you felt. So you think really deeply about it. You write something down and you think, “That doesn’t quite put it the way it was.” So you think about it a lot more and you write again. You fine tune it and you fine tune it until it says what you want it to say. By doing that you’ve really, really thought about it. To me, that’s just like sitting in front of the therapist and him making you talk about it. It’s only thinking it through and talking out loud so you can understand it. I think it was really useful.
Is the character on the cover the embodiment of depression?
Yeah, sorry (laughs). What a fucking tangent! That’s it, exactly. With the new one, it’s the same thing. I tried to find something that would represent a number of things. First of all, and most simply, what would you be likely to wear if you lived in a desert-like future where everything was extremely hostile and violent. The camouflaging element of it, the sand color of it, is important because it’s extremely violent and people want to be unnoticed. They want to merge because they are going to attack someone or be attacked. The clothes, I decided, I wanted to have a vaguely Arabian but military feel to it.
There is definitely some Arabian or Middle Eastern sounds on the album as well.
Yeah, that’s why the font of the front has an Arabian sort of look to it, but it’s actually English. The reason for Arabian melodies and instrumentation is because within the book the Eastern and Western cultures have essentially merged. Partly canceled each other out, partly merged. You know when you put milk in coffee and you stir it, it becomes something in between. A bit like that. The beginning of the book doesn’t translate to exactly to the album. There is no religion. Religion is completely gone. I haven’t fully worked out yet how that is going to happen. There isn’t any. It possibly comes from how devastated everything is. At some point, it begins to resurface and something is found. This ancient thing is found. The people who find it start to live by the words that they read. They then begin to feel important because they found it and therefore they must have been chosen. So they start to spread. Everyone should be living like this. They begin to elevate themselves. But they are brutal and cruel. They take children, which is what “My Name is Ruin” is about.
That song features your daughter on vocals.
Yeah, I’m the ruin. Ruin is a person. Ruin is a father who gets attacked by these religious fanatics, the righteous lot. They kill the wife, leave him for dead, take the child. He sets out then to try and find her. It’s one of the sub-stories that runs through the main story. In the course of trying to track her down and find her, over several years, he becomes so vicious and brutal himself that when he eventually finds her, he realizes he is not the man who should be a father anyway. It’s another dilemma he has to go through when he finds her. In the video, she’s the daughter. That’s why she’s got the cross on her face, she is captured by these religious people.
Recently I saw both Depeche Mode and Morrissey in concert and I loved both shows. Both were promoting new albums. I have a friend who was complaining about the setlists. He just wanted to hear the old stuff. How do you feel about fans who want you to stick to material from The Pleasure Principle and Replicas and not move on and play new stuff?
It’s up to them. People gotta enjoy music the way they want to enjoy it. If they don’t hear anything beyond, for me it would be the The Pleasure Principle or whatever it is for Depeche Mode, that is interesting to them then that’s up to them. But for them to expect us to stay rooted in that is ridiculous. If you are essentially creative by nature, then you won’t want to stay doing the same things you’ve done before. You will want to move forward. I think for me especially it applies in that I pretty much got into the electronic side of things from the beginning. I’m clearly trying to do something different. Not massively experimental or earth-shattering, but different.
Adding layers to music to move it forward a little bit. Adding new sounds you may not have heard before a little bit. So if you’ve gone into and that’s pretty much what you’re known for why would anyone expect you to just stop? To make a couple of albums and just stop. To churn out the same album again and again. You’ve already made a statement. I’m not interested in what I did before. I’m interested in doing something different, as new as possible. As new as my limitations will allow me to do.
That desire stays with you. Then when you do another album you want to do that again and then you want to do that again. Sometimes you do a good job of it, and sometimes it sucks. But the intention is there to always keep moving forward. It frustrates me that people get grumpy with me because I’ve done that. But you knew that from the beginning. You should respect that.
You know, I don’t mind people being stuck in the past but I massively resent them expecting me to stick there with them. Fuck off. Absolutely no interest at all. I’m genuinely not. Some bands do it and it’s shameful really. This thing, living on past glories, it’s not cool. It’s not cool at all. If you have some success with something then don’t live on that for the next 20, 30, 40 years. I can’t undo “Cars.” I wrote it. I can’t undo it. I’ve learned more recently to be proud of it. But for a long, long time I tried to distance myself from that fucking song. It felt like it overshadowed everything else and I didn’t think it was the best thing that I had done. All the time I was trying to shine a light on the new stuff it felt like it was dimming the bulb somewhat. You are kind of overshadowed by this fucking thing.
In 2009, I did a thing with Nine Inch Nails in London. I was a guest. Trent did a big introduction for me to these people. He was talking about The Pleasure Principle as being particularly influential. When he was trying to get Nine Inch Nails together, the direction he was trying to forge for it. He talked about the album as being crucial. He said all this stuff and I’m just off-stage waiting to go on and I’m listening to this and it made me think differently about it. I just thought if someone like him thinks that was important, then I’ve been pretty stupid. I’ve been childish. It isn’t the best stuff I’ve ever done but I should be proud of what it did. And I should be proud of the influence it’s had over people who are very clever in their own right. Geniuses, in their own right. I should be proud of that. I’ve sort of come full circle a little bit in the way I feel about “Cars.” It’s still my least favorite song to do in a set.
Isn’t it exciting for you to premiere new songs from a new album?
I think people expect you to get a bit jaded by it over the years. I’ve made 20-odd albums.
It has been almost four decades now of music, right?
(laughs) Yeah, fucking hell. Forty years in February since I signed my first contract. I got more pleasure out of Savage coming out and doing really well in Britain in the chart than I can remember. I can’t remember being that proud of something and that excited when it did well. I cried like a baby when I got the chart position. I properly cried like a baby. It absolutely meant the world to me. I’m really proud of what I’m doing, taking it on-stage and seeing people react to it.
I’m really excited to hear the new songs tonight. It comes from such a place of privilege for a fan to expect a band to just play “Cars” or play “Enjoy the Silence” or whatever the hits are. You’re pretty generous in your setlist. It’s a good mix of old material and new.
I think about 1/3 of it is earlier songs, partly because I feel like I ought to. That’s a bit weak, really, but I think there’s a compromise to be drawn between being aware of your past and appreciating the fans that put you there and the things that they want and where your heart actually is. Which is the new stuff for most of us, I think. There is this sort of line to draw. I think to be aware of your past and to begrudgingly become proud of it is okay but if you’re a slave to it, then that’s not cool. In my setlist, if I knew there were two or three songs they were waiting for and then could take or leave the rest of it, I would be fucking devastated. I would really probably struggle to keep going if that was the truth. I think for people that are more nostalgic, that is their truth. They may put their new songs in their set, but they know that no one cares, and they strategically place their big hits so that it keeps it moving. The biggest one at the end, probably. (Laughs) I do that! But it isn’t that for me. Thank God. I have all of the new stuff placed directly next to an old classic. Now, that’s not playing it safe. That’s trying to prove a point. I’ve got “Ruin” before “Cars.” I’ve got “Metal” next to “Ghost Nation.” Every big one from the old days, I’ve got a new song right next to it. Just trying to make a point.