Pioneer. Icon. Inspiration. These are words often used when speaking about Gary Numan, not just in the world of electronic music, but also by the industrial rock movement. He has sold over 10 million records, and in May 2021, he releases his 18th solo studio album, “Intruder”. We spoke to Gary from his California home, via Zoom, about the new album, how humans might be an infestation upon the Earth, and getting arrested in India.
Text & photographs: Anne-Marie Forker
– Hi Gary!
– Hello! How are you? I’m sorry I’m late!
– No problem.
– Are you the lady that does the photographs?
– I am, yes! Thanks for remembering.
– Ahhhhhhh, hello! Your photographs are amazing. Really good. I love your pictures actually.
– Thank you so much. One photograph made it into your autobiography. I took one of you and your daughter at the Royal Albert Hall. Superb gig. Another world.
– So far in my life, in terms of standing on stage and appreciating where you are in your life – that was probably the best gig ever for me. There was a moment during that gig – it’s not just that there are a lot of people – it’s the struggle that you’ve gone through to get to that point. In 1992/93 I was finished and my career was in a terrible state. I had hardly any fans left and I was not writing good stuff. It was awful. Money, relationships, all awful. It looked as if my career was over and pretty close to hopeless. Then I met Gemma and everything turned around. So the Royal Albert Hall, from 1992, was a slow, jagged but gentle rise. To stand in that venue, and know that the album had done well, the show had sold out quickly, I had the orchestra, it was just awesome. In the true sense of the word, not the American way, just awesome.
– Only the cream of the crop get to play there. Other than the album, how has lockdown been treating you?
– For the first 4 or 5 months, I barely noticed. I knew it was going on of course, as I was watching the news to see what latest thing Trump had done.
– I don’t miss that. The anxiety that guy caused!
– Ohhhh, don’t! You know what? I’ve never been that interested in politics or the news. I’d watch it once in a while to see what was going on. With Trump, I would watch it every morning, just to find out what weird shit he’d done that day. Several hours, every day! And then the pandemic started. What’s he going to do? Since Biden came in, I think I’ve watched the news twice! There’s a grown up there now. It might not be perfect but the world is not going to end.
– He knows how to get his ratings, for all the wrong reasons. So when the pandemic started, you were working on the album?
– Yes, so I’d have breakfast, and then work on the album, come back down at night and say hello, watch some rubbish on TV to unwind and then go to bed. Nothing much changed. And repeat. For months. I’d see a little more of the kids as they couldn’t go to school. Not long after the pandemic started, I wrote an autobiography, which was supposed to be written by someone else, which had a strict deadline. Then suddenly my album deadline was an issue, as the book took up album time. I had 8-9 weeks to write the album, then suddenly I only had 10 days, and I still had 2 songs to write! So I started working at weekends, which is usually family time. I just didn’t notice that life had changed until the album was finished, and then it hit me. End of June. I really felt the difference in the world. Then I wanted to go to the cinema, the beach, the restaurants. I couldn’t. Everything had changed.
– Congratulations on the new album. It’s truly bleak and beautiful. What’s the meaning behind the album’s title – “Intruder”?
– Same as ‘Savage’. ‘Savage’ was about people. What would humanity become after The Apocalypse. When you find yourself in a desolate world and the awful things people would do in order to survive. Our natural state is violent. Civilisation is something that has been created by the meek to protect themselves from the cruel. I genuinely believe that. I think we create laws to protect ourselves from bullies because we are not able to do it individually. Take away laws, and people revert to their natural state of greed. Intruder is also people, but for a very different reason. It’s the Earth speaking. If the Earth was able to express the way it feels, what would it say? It would hurt, emotionally as well as physically. Betrayed. Angry. Will it fight back? Is it already fighting back? About three quarters of the album was already done before the pandemic. So when the pandemic came along, it was like a bizarre coincidence, that I already had the Earth attacking us. I had already seen a documentary that said viruses were a mechanism to control infestations. So you think, is humanity one of nature’s rare mistakes? Are we like a cancer? Was that meant to happen? Should we be here? I don’t think so. All this time nature has given us what we need to survive and prosper as welcome guests, but now there is so many of us, so much greed and lack of care and concern, that we are no longer welcome guests, but an infestation. What does nature do with an infestation? It had a way of getting rid of it. Numbers are kept at an acceptable level. It’s a fucking horrible system!
– I don’t think a God that was worth anything would create a system like that.
– What kind of God creates a system where to keep numbers at an acceptable level, a creature has to eat another creature? Why not just make it harder for them to have children? Why do you have to eat them, or kill them? It’s so evil. If there is a God, he’s a fucker! I wrote an album many years ago called “Exile” that considered that I might be wrong, and that God might be real, and what it would mean if God was real. This is God given. You think this is cool? I don’t. One in ten Dads abuse their kids. What the fuck! Anyway, “Intruder” is The Earth saying “enough is enough and you need to be gone”.
– The song ‘The Gift’ is about COVID?
– Yes. That’s very tongue-in-cheek and sarcastic. It says “take your breath away”. The “Saints and Liars” song touches on religion. The ease at which so many people will accept a God, who will run their lives, and yet they will still be greedy, superior, horrible fucking people. Trump showed this to me – people are so willing to believe the ridiculous or the unthinkable, but so unwilling to believe the obvious and scientifically proven. So there is a contradiction between religion and climate on Earth. “Saints and Liars” is the Earth pointing that out. “I Am Screaming” is the Earth saying “Can you not hear me? I’m screaming at you?”. I do back to religion regularly. I do it too much.
– Your daughter wrote a poem, that has something to do with the album?
– Echo wrote a poem called ‘Earth’ when she was 11. This was at a time when I was trying to think of what direction to take the album. I knew it would be about climate change, but I didn’t want it to be obvious, so not about rainforests and ice melting. I didn’t want it to be a scientific journal set to music. Echo wrote this poem about The Earth talking to the other planets about being hurt and upset. So I stole her idea and expanded it a little bit. The first thing you see on the gatefold artwork of the album is her poem. Another daughter, Persia, co-wrote the song “Black Sun”, and Persia and Raven sing on about 7 or 8 songs. It’s a family affair.
– Were they excited about being on the album? Most teenagers think their Dads are uncool.
– You ask them if them if they’d like to sing on the album. You’d think they’d be pretty excited about that, but they say “What, now?! I want to go watch YouTube.” Okay, so when you’re finished YouTube, will you come sing? “Ohhhh, okay.” Fuck off! You should be running up there!
– [Laughs] The album is full of interesting electronic sounds, which you are constantly pushing forward. When you’re writing a song, do you construct those sounds first, then think about lyrics and a melody, or vice versa?
– Nine times out of ten, I sit and the piano and come up with the tunes and structures, and then I had the noises and layers. Lyrics are the last thing. I feel the music guides the lyric. I sit in my room and put the music on repeat, and see what images come to mind from the music. Menace, tension, beauty. Not a lot of beauty in my stuff! Then you start to create a picture. A desolate landscape with a mountain. Whatever it might be. A feeling. A sense of fear. There was one called ‘Here in the Black’ that was a description of depression. Something that is inside you, but is looking for you. Almost hunting for you. It’s like a child but not screaming and helpless, it is cruel. It’s the music that puts you in that place that allows the words to come more easily. Sometimes lyrics are shoe-horned into music that doesn’t suit them. A one word syllable suddenly has 4 syllables. “Walking down the stree-eee-eee-eeet”. Street was the wrong word mate, admit it!! Always tune and melody first. But the sounds are hugely important. Using synthesizers is a large part of what I do, but the sounds on it are often not synth sounds. It’s noises. You have to make them musical, with how you use them. That ability to shape sound is what attracted me to electronic music. Lots of things make great noises. You can walk around outside and hear them. The wind whispering through a tree. My cat make a fucking weird noise the other day, like the cat version of a wolf [makes the noise].
– [Laughs] You could play with and distort that a lot on a synth! Scott Walker once had pig meat punched in the studio, to mimic the sound of corpses being punched.
– That’s what you’re looking for. The Underground train in London. The noise it makes when the train is slowing down, it makes a particularly noise, on The Picadilly Line. Almost like it’s in pain. That’s the sort of noise I find exciting. You can sometimes be a little too arty with it. You know “Oh the curtains have to be hanging a certain way in order for me to create”. Then you’re not fucking creative! You should be able to just sit there and think of something. You don’t need all these mechanisms in place before your genius suddenly appears. There will of course be inspirations, which are different. When I was younger, it was almost necessary for me to be in a bad mood, in order to write something. You wrote the tension out of you. But it’s not like that now. I’m pretty happy and have been for a long time. I’ve been with Gemma for almost 30 years, kids are happy and healthy, money worries are gone. If I had to be miserable now to write, I wouldn’t. Just because you’re happy, doesn’t mean there are things you can’t worry about. I’ve been thinking about the next album. We might already be at war with the planet. Maybe the next album should be slightly futuristic, or maybe it will be more personal about worries about the children.
– You’ve won the Ivor Novello ‘Inspiration’ award, and have influenced so many artists, including Nine Inch Nails. You won the Ivor Novello ‘Inspiration’ award. I was wondering, who has inspired you?
– It’s a preconception that I would be influenced by other music, but the truth is I rarely listen to it. I can’t remember the last time I sat down and listened to an album. I would listen to film music, bit of music from a TV show. It’s often from things like books, conversations, life. It comes from anywhere and it’s always coming in. Like a sponge soaking up the world around you, and then you squeeze it and ideas come out. The ideas must be your own. Inspiration used correctly is like that. Not copying a riff or stealing something. I’ve accidentally done it. I was working on a song and thought it had a great chorus. I played it to Gemma and she said “That’s Susie and The Banshees”! What?! So embarrassing. Gemma has been playing it. I would have bet my life that I’d just created it. You have to be careful. When the kids are writing songs, Gemma will Shazam it to check if they’d heard it before. Now I have to do that!
– Glad it was caught before it was published!
– That would have been crippling!
– What advice would you give to the young Gary Numan, if you could, knowing what you do now?
– I would tell him to relax a bit and not be so stressed about everything. Try to be grounded, not arrogant, special, always be grateful and realise you are lucky. Even being born with the ability to write songs is lucky. I was so worried about that sort of thing and determined not to be changed by it, but it’s inevitable. I’ve never thought anything I did was remarkable, but it does change you. It’s a measure of your character as to how things change you. Mostly we are changed or shaped by adversity and take good things in our stride. Bad news, heart breaks, tragedy – these things have a deep and long lasting effect and shape us more than other things. How you deal with those, shapes your character. The life I’ve led is extraordinary. If you can come through that and still be a decent person, that says a lot. If you can look in the mirror and say you’re alright, that’s something to be proud of.
– “One day you’ll play the Royal Albert Hall”!
– Next one is Wembley! That will be my first time back at an arena since 1981. That will be the completion of my long climb back. It’s really important to me.
– Did you see much of Norway when you were here?
– I don’t have time for sightseeing, as much as I’d like to. I have to work and promote the album. Sometimes I get a little frustrated, as I have to work, and the band goes to the bar. Not sightseeing, but the bar! You’ve got all day, and you go to the bar, when you have an opportunity to see the world! I don’t get it. I love them all to bits and they can do what they want, but I would love to be sightseeing. I’m like Grandad in the corner being grumpy.
– Will you come back to Norway on the European tour?
– Definitely. The whole Scandinavian thing opened up for me with Savage. I’d like to go to South America more also.
– I’ve heard of Indian tours opening up…
– I got arrested in India! Not in too much of a hurry to go back there.
– What happened?!
– I got arrested on suspicion of smuggling and spying. 1981. I was on a world tour.
– That must have been scary.
– I was under house arrest for four days, while they checked us out. It’s funny now but it was really frightening at the time.
– I bet. Perhaps focus on Wembley instead! Congratulations again on the new album, thanks for your time and see you next time!
– You’re very welcome. See you! Bye bye.
Først publisert i Norway Rock Magazine #3/2021