Gary Numan

The synth-pop icon chats about the writing of his new album and how his low self esteem has come to define his sound...

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 6 Nov 2013
  • min read
Quintessential eighties pop icon Gary Numan first cut his teeth when a synthesiser would set you back two months’ pay and drum machines only had ‘samba’, ‘mambo’ and ‘polka’ presets.

In 1979 he recorded Are Friends Electric with his band Tubeway Army on a shoestring, creating one of British pop’s finest moments and influencing a generation of musicians from Juan Atkins to Kanye West.

The track was swiftly followed by Cars, Gary’s international number one single that went on to define electronic music as a popular commercial entity.

Over the last 35 years, his discography has grown to include an impressive 20 studio albums, while his influence on electronica and industrial music has gone from strength to strength.

For his latest album Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind), Gary worked with Nine Inch Nails’ Robin Finck. It was released last month and went straight in at number 20 – his highest charting album since 1983’s Warriors.

We recently caught up with him on the phone from his new home in Los Angeles to chat about the seven years it took to bring the album to fruition, how he overcame depression and why his low self esteem has come to define his sound.

How are you finding LA?
I love it. I’m looking out and its sunny, blue skies, no clouds, palm trees. You know... lovely. Honest to god, it sounds like a silly reason to move anywhere but the weather was a big consideration. I’m getting much older now – 55 – and you become aware that you’ve got less years left than you’ve already had. It really started to affect me. I got sick to death of sitting indoors looking out at the rain thinking there was another day of my life just wasted.

Yes, there are things you miss – a lot of my friends are there, family… I still think that England on a beautiful summer’s afternoon, sitting out and having a pub lunch, is hard to beat. I used to live in Sussex, which was very pretty. There are certain things I do miss, but it doesn’t happen very often, I’ve got to say.

It’s been around seven years since your last album – did you have a break from songwriting in that time?
It didn’t take seven years to make, to be honest. After the last one was released our second baby was on her way. When the babies came along I really wanted to spend the first year of their lives at home with them – I didn’t want to miss anything. So I thought I’d take a year out with the first baby, but then the second one came along pretty soon after and then another one.

And then I found that both me and my wife had problems with it. My wife had bad post-natal depression after the second one. She still had it when she got pregnant with the third one so it went on for several years. I had a similar thing unfortunately. After the third one came along I really went downhill. I felt really guilty because being a parent is meant to be special and although I really did love being a parent I missed my old life.

This coincided with turning 50 and I had a real midlife crisis over that as well. I didn’t want to shag women or anything like that, it was more that I was feeling old and worrying about dying. I really struggled with it. I was on anti-depressants for a couple of years. When all that was going on the last thing I felt like doing was starting another album. I find them quite difficult. They are mountains to climb.

They’re very big projects and for me, emotionally. I get massive confidence problems and I’m on edge the whole time I’m making them. I’m terrified I’m going to run out of ideas – I’m frightened of everything. You have a good day and two bad ones – you’re just constantly working on yourself so you don’t lose confidence and go under. As soon as you lose confidence, everything you do sounds like shit.

It’s really difficult, and I’ve found every album I’ve made is harder than the one before now. So with all that other shit going on, starting on another album was the last thing I wanted to do but I knew I had to. I kept having little goes at it and I’d start writing three or four things and not be too sure and then I’d back out of it again. When I moved here all of that was gone. We sorted ourselves out. Then I started to work a bit more seriously.

How has your songwriting routine changed now that you’re a father?
I used to spend from morning until night into the studio but I found when I had kids, I’d only have an hour here and there, in between dropping them off to school or whatever, to go into the studio. The days were very fragmented and broken up.

It wasn’t until just over a year ago – in the six months or so before moving here – that I started working on the album properly. I gathered up all the bits that I’d done over those few years and was surprised to find I did actually have quite a lot of stuff, which was encouraging. I used all of the emotional problems we’d had as food, moved here and set up a studio really quickly. It felt like a new life with a new work ethic – I really loved it. I love music and I threw myself back into it. I probably wrote half the album in the eight or nine months I first lived here.

You said that writing each album has been consecutively more painful than the last. What keeps you going back to it each time?
It’s hard to explain without sounding a little bit pretentious. There’s a song on the album called Lost, which is a good example of why it’s a need for me. When me and my wife were going through our difficult period I came close to leaving, which was a big mistake. It all seemed a bit much and I thought I was going to run away from it.

One particular morning when it was at its peak I went to the studio and decided I was going to write down how I felt about it all. Because, for me, writing songs has always been therapeutic. In the course of writing a song you have to think very deeply about how you feel to make sure you get it all down correctly and project what’s inside. I did that with this particular song and it really made me think about how different life would be without her.

It took a few hours to write and the album version is pretty much the demo version with just piano and vocal. After that song I went back inside and changed everything. It was the beginning of us getting back on our feet again. Writing has done that many times over the years. It’s not true of every song but it’s therapeutic – it’s not a job, it’s something that I need to do.

In the early days I did the performing side because I had to. But I found it really difficult and I wasn’t a natural showman. I’m not a particularly great singer or guitarist or keyboard player. I’m never going to be a great musician or a great vocalist so for that reason alone I’ve always seen myself as a songwriter first and everything else a distant second. When it comes to touring, I’ve been doing it for 30 years and you can’t do something for that long without gaining confidence and getting good at it. So now I love it more than anything. It’s a just a fucking fun life!

What do you hope for your new album Splinter?
I can be childish and say, ‘I hope it goes to number one in every single country - that would be amaaaaazing!’ But more realistically, I’m aware there are still countries that I don’t do well in at all. I would like to see this album build me up again. And I would like to be able to tour in more places than I do.

You recently worked with Battles. Are there any other newer bands you’re keen to collaborate with?
I don’t really bend over backwards to collaborate with anyone really, things just come along that you’re either interested in or not. When the Battles thing came along I was really interested in what they did. I watched one of their performances on the Jools Holland show and I loved it. I thought they were a really cool band and I wanted to get involved.

Another one I did recently was with a band called Officers, who I was introduced to by Eddy Temple Morris, the Xfm DJ. He sent me their album and I thought it was amazing. We did a single together called Petals last year and they also did a remix of one of my songs. They toured with me twice last year – I love them – the music they do and the people they are.

Does your low self esteem affect what you do and who you work with?
Well that’s the thing – I’m not very confident so I tend to shy away from a lot of things that come along. I’m not massively confident about me and what I bring to things so I tend to look for things that might suit fairly carefully.

Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind) was released on 14 October by Cooking Vinyl.

Gary embarks on a UK tour tomorrow, taking in the following dates in November:
7 Bristol, 02 Academy
8 Dublin, Button Factory
10 Nottingham, Rock City
11 Sheffield, 02 Academy
12 Newcastle, 02 Academy
13 Glasgow, 02 ABC
14 Manchester, Academy
15 Oxford, 02 Academy
16 London, Roundhouse
18 Brighton, The Dome
19 Wolverhampton, Wulfrun Hall

Above images (not record covers): LaRoache Brothers (Woolhouse Studios)