Brave New World—An Interview with Gary Numan

A belated happy 60th birthday to Gary Numan!

Our colleague Phil Blackmarquis caught up with Gary Numan for an interview at the Trix in Antwerp, before his gig there that night. They talked about the new album, inspirations, Trent Reznor, John Foxx and how the main riff of Are Friends Electric? was discovered by mistake…

Your new album, Savage (Songs from a Broken World) is doing very well, I heard?

Yeah! When it came out, it went to No. 2 in the British charts, which for me was a massive improvement. It was the first time I’d been that high on the charts since…. a long time ago. Actually since 1980.

Why not No. 1 ?

Because of the Foo Fighters…

It could have been worse than that! (laughs)

It was a great moment, a fantastic achievement.

Splinter, your previous album, was about a “broken mind” and Savage is about a “broken world”: is there a connection between the two ?

Not really. When I did Splinter I was just coming out of a deep depression which lasted three years. So I had a lot of material to write about with what I’d been th—rough. It was lovely to be back writing again and to have something substantial to write about. With « Savage », it was different. No problems, everything was good, my family was happy, « Splinter » had done well, living in America…

In a castle… (laughs)

Yeah, a little castle. So, at the beginning, I struggled a bit to find something strong to write about. So, I borrowed some idea’s from a book I’ve been writing for a long time now. It’s about a future world that’s been devastated by global warming. And as I started to write about that, Donald Trump arrived and started saying all these stupid things and it felt like the good that had been done for some time in terms of consciousness was going to be undone because of this powerful but stupid man. It made me want to write more about it. It felt like the right time and it made sense to develop my story into songs. And the title, Savage (Songs from a Broken World), came from one of my children, Persia…

Persia is the one who is singing on your album ?

Yes. When I told her that Savage was about a devastated, future world, she suggested the title Songs from a Broken World to make the link with Splinter. It connects the two in a way, but in truth, there is no connection… (laughs)

You said, in several interviews, that musically, you’ve been influenced by Nine Inch Nails in your last albums. Was it still so in Savage ?

Not so in Savage. I think I’ve become used to the heavier electronic thing. With Savage, we definitely moved into a different area.

Which is your favourite NIN song?

It’s difficult to choose but it must be “Closer”. There ‘s such a long list to choose from. “The Wretched” is also a favourite. “Head Like A Hole” has the best chorus ever written.

And don’t you think there is an inspiration chain between you and Trent Reznor? He said he was influenced by you and then, later, you were inspired by him.

I like Trent a lot. Especially now since we are neighbours in L.A. We were friends before but now it’s even easier when you live close to each other. And it’s mainly thanks to the children. When it’s the birthday of one of his children, he and Mariqueen always throw a party and invite us in their house.

Don’t you think there’s also a similar inspiration chain between you and John Foxx ? You said a few times that John Foxx and Ultravox! influenced you at the beginning and I believe that John Foxx was, in return, influenced by you when he did “Underpass” when solo.

The thing about influences is that it goes way beyong simply music. Musical things that you hear and that have an effect on you are only a tiny part of all that influences you as a writer. It comes from all sorts of things : a book, a TV show, a picture, a conversation. They are all sparks and they ignite your own imagination. Sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes, not, when these influences come from. Everyone who is creative does it. Trent does it and I’m sure John Foxx does it as well. We’re ‘sponge-like’, in a way. We’re absorbing things all the time. We listen to each other of course, but we also absorb a lot of other things and they help us to move forward all the time.

It’s like eating a lot of things and then digesting them to finally produce something new ?

Yes. Trent, I’m sure, is listening all the time. He’s looking around all the time at everything, and he’s taking a huge amount of creative information in and then he processes it to create something. Sometimes, you hear something that you like and then forget about it and one year later, it comes back in your work and you think it’s your own idea. It’s scary. I did one song, a long time ago. I liked it a lot and then my wife came and said :  That’s Siouxsie and the Banshees!  So, I’d been rewriting a Siouxsie song! (laughs)

That’s what makes plagiarism cases so complicated.

I had one plagiarism case very early in my career, in 1978 or 1979. My publishing company said that some artist had copied me. But the other party did an investigation, brought in all these experts and they traced the music, my music, back to the 14th century, to something that monks used to sing ! (laughs) So, you see, we think we are writing original material all the time but in fact we’re not.

And there’s also the fact that all idea’s are sort of floating around above our heads…

My theory is that when you’re a child, you learn music, chords, melodies, etc by listening to them, so whenever you start writing songs on your own, you can’t honestly say they’re original. You’ve been influenced since you were born. Originality is a lie, really. It’s always a variation of something you heard before, to which you add your own element.

Let’s take “Are Friends Electric ?”: Do you remember how you composed it and how the spark came?

I remember it was actually two songs I was working on. The verse part was one song and I had another song which was softer. I just couldn’t finish either of the songs. One day, I was playing the verse song and got frustrated as always and started playing the other one immediately and realized they went together, provided some adjustments. And then one day, while I was playing the instrumental part, I played it wrong at one moment and the two notes stood out and I thought it sounded better like this. So, in fact, the signature hook of the song was an accident, and came from bad playing… (laughs)

And the lyrics were inspired by Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, I think ?

It was inspired by a series of science-fiction stories I was trying to write. Partly Philip K. Dick, partly a few news items at the time. And the name of my band, Tubeway Army, came from an article I had read about a gang in London, which used to attack people in the underground. All this became short stories about how to make civilization better. In my story, government gives power to a huge computer to run everything. Then the computer realizes that the only thing that makes civilization ‘uncivilized’ is people. So, it starts getting rid of people, in a sneaky way, surreptitiously. Tests are organized to evaluate people’s intelligence and those who fail are allegedly sent to a training center but in fact they never come back. Then some people realize what is going on and go underground, etc. It’s a nice story but I never finished it. Instead, I turned it into an album and got famous… (laughs).

When you look at the experiments being made now with A.I., it’s funny to see they end up like in your story : they say they want to get rid of mankind…

Yes… We are the problem, we are the virus.. (laughs)

I’ve always thought that if mankind was really 100% from earth, it wouldn’t destroy earth…

Yeah, we do feel like alien organisms.

If you had to choose your favourite song from your discography in the years 1979-1985, what would you choose ?

The two songs I still play now, which are not the big singles, are “Down In The Park” and “Metal”.

“Down in The Park” was heavily covered.

Yes: Marilyn Manson covered it. The Foo Fighters as well. They’re always there! (laughs)

And from your recent albums ?

There’s a song called “A Prayer for the Unborn”, from my album Pure. We had a baby that died, so it means a lot to me. And from Savage, I would select “Ghost Nation”

Savage (Songs from a Broken World) is out now.

*Featured photo by Jude Edginton