One question I've persisted in asking “my people,” those I have interviewed lo' these long, dark years is “What's the most exciting thing you've done in the last week.” It’s not a game-changer. You won’t find, lose or create your religion over it and I have not gotten any letters from James Newton a la Inside the Actor’s Studio declaring war or admiration; however, in-the-main, excitement seems to equal happiness for many.
I watch the children laughing, stroking a donkey or whatever, and none of my past life seems to matter quite so much.
Greg Ackerman, the world-famous Belgium architect told me, “I threw up in a Navajo medicine hut.” Said with a smile, he is a happy man.
Richard Simmons, the ample-bosomed fitness guru and closeted extreme sports junkie admitted to hurling himself off El Capitan peak in Yosemite with a parachute and a picture of his mother. ONLY those things. Only. Illegal action, but happy.
Bronto Bisonheart, the Icelandic deathmetal overlord much in the news as of late for sending people into visionary trances with a proprietary power cord called “Risastór Stóðhestur©” [Giant Stallion] responded: “That I’m not knowing for you now, Markus. For is busy week, busy week. You know that word? Busy? Ya?” I do know it. Unhappy.
Keep in mind excitement does not necessarily equal adrenaline. One could be feeding donkeys in a petting zoo with one’s daughter and be experiencing excitement of the first order. Which brings us to Mr. Gary Numan. The brit who was one of the first to greet electronic music when it landed on planet Earth in the late ’70s. And he is happy. His serotonin levels are no longer beefed by stuntman-style hobbies, but hearth and home.
It’s an anomaly for a group or individual to endure a decade in the world of popular rock. It’s a hard-humping bitch that is only getting harder. More so two decades. Three? Those who make three decades are significant exceptions to the rule and if you jump from rock to evaluate the shelf-life of those running in the electronic world, well those who make 30 years are less common than a well-spoken Oprah. Our man is one such. Both tragedy and failure have passed Numan over, and as I joined him I spotted his aura from across the parking lot. ’Twas the strobing calm and deep, velvet purple of one at peace with his place both in history and the present.
Adolfo, my midget manservant, and I were meeting him in the Venice California branch of Whole Foods—the all-natural, all-organic, questionably priced supermarket if open arms and mumus which offsets its holistic benevolence with a staff of hard-hitting, English-as-a-second-language, jackboot-wearing, mace-wielding riot-ready security tuffs whom I have personally seen stop a truly blind woman and accuse her of shoplifting. I felt the setting a clear and simple metaphor for what lurks behind the American mask. These days. Numan, being from England, is no stranger to security cameras and loose trudgeons—I knew he would be at home. Relaxed, slouched in the saddle and ready to give up a secret or two. Secrets regarding one of the great American mysteries: How to survive, flourish, win friends and not die young as a musician.
[Curtain rises] Numan, von Pfeiffer and Adolfo are at the salad bar.
Markus von Pfeiffer: So, at this point Gary, I’m required to ask what interests you. In the larger sense.
Gary. Numan: I like machinery. More accurately, I like the challenge of controlling machinery. I was an air display pilot for years; flying formation aerobatics in World War Two airplanes and that was very exciting. Quite dangerous. Once my first child came along I pulled out of display flying but I miss it very much. I assume you’re interested in turn-offs too? Shopping with my wife at one make-up or perfume stand after another is about as close to a waking nightmare as I can think of. Add to that waiting for what seems a lifetime while she tries on every single item of clothing in a shop, just to see if it fits.*
*A raised eyebrow from Adolfo here. Slight panic. Numan had detected my “Playboy Centerfold Question Spread©” all too easily. I decided to switch to our good cop, bad cop shtick—at 3”7’ you may doubt Adolfo for the bad cop? Although he does not verbalize, with his superlative double-breasted hound’s tooth three piece, Jaxon brand bowler hat, moustache cut and waxed a la souvarov, he is striking. Today he has with him an ice axe—the type used in climbing mountains. Ostensibly he has it along to use in lieu of a cane, although he shows no limp. As good cop I am smiling, even while talking I am smiling, smiling. Adolfo is needling cherry tomatoes with the business end of his stick.
A typical day. Walk us through it, please.
When I'm not touring my days are quiet and predictable. I have children, so life revolves around them and their schedule. School is the central core of our day-to-day life. If I was my younger self looking in I would say it was boring, and a little frustrating at times. But family. Family makes up for the lack of airplanes, fast cars and parties in other ways. Or so I tell myself. Frequently.
Before the children, life was fast and exciting and I lived and loved every minute of it. These days I make sure that their lives are as good as they can possibly be, that they have everything they could want. Love, time and care being top of the list, but closely followed by toys. I miss my life before at times—but I wouldn't change a thing about my life today.
I genuinely believe that you are only as good as your next album, so I feel an almost obsessive desire to keep on pushing forward. To keep doing things that justify what respect my previous work has given me.
So these days it’s less musicians, producers and technicians, wizards and saints of the creative community, and more the Numans with whom you spend your days.
My wife Gemma and our children: Raven, who is eight, Persia six and Echo four. I work from home when I'm in the studio, I rehearse the band at home and I run my companies from home, so I'm around all the time. We see a lot of each other. I miss my wife when she goes to the shops for an hour. I look forward to the children coming home from school, I love the school holidays when they are home all the time. I don't want to be with anyone else.
I doubt the soundtrack to all of this is ABBA, the Osmonds, the von Trapp Family Singers or something equally wholesome. What is sweet Persia cutting her six-year old teeth on?
Nine Inch Nails are always at the top of the list. I like anything that's hard and aggressive, but certain music resonates very strongly. Resner has always done that for me.
In the music world titles are handed out with a pronounced lack of solemnity. X is somehow the King or Queen of Rock, Y the Godfather of Soul, Z the Prince of Pop… ad infinitum. But you and I know, Gary, it is always and far more complicated. One can trace the careers of both “popular” electronic music and Gary Numan and end up at the same address of origin. But to extend the metaphor, weak as it is, there were other inhabitants of that fair house, weren’t there Gary? To say who should wear the crown is, as the French say, impossible. But who was the first? That does carry weight when dealing with a genre of art which is so exploratory and novel in nature. If we agree to leave early experimentalists out of the discussion simply to simplify then we look to Kraftwerk doing their thing in the early ’70s. In close temporal proximity, but in the UK, we have your group Tubeway Army; also, the Human League, Art of Noise and Trevor Horn, Eno, Spandau Ballet, Japanese synthpoppers YMO and the Swiss technicians, Yello. And in the early ‘80s? A Flock of Seagulls. But I cannot discuss them without becoming emotional. More importantly at that point House music had begun and makes much of this argument of production and groups somehow less important. I’m getting to this point, hell, I might as well come out and say it: People have called you the Godfather of Electronic—NME has done so very recently in their 6/10 review of DSR. I give the review itself a 2/10. Flakey and mincing. I’m not saying anyone else besides NME is wrong in calling you that—NME is simply always wrong, but it is a tricky judgment to make as the electronic explosion was so wide-spread and synchronic. If Adolfo and I were able to ballot everyone who actually put finger to Moog or Roland between 1970 and 1983 we might gather a consensus; but whether as a member of Mean Street, the Lasers, Tubeway Army or under the moniker as Gary Webb, Valerian or Gary Numan it is impossible to argue that you were not there, participating and doing things which garnered the respect even now wraps and curls, flowered laurels around your name whenever it doth pass the lips of mortals.
Has that whole thing been a weight on your shoulders or a fire under your ass? The gift that turned out to be a curse, or the curse which ended up a gift?
It's good without a doubt. It's a level of credibility and respect that is hard to get and something I'm enormously proud of. But, I genuinely believe that you are only as good as your next album, so I feel an almost obsessive desire to keep on pushing forward. To keep doing things that justify what respect my previous work has given me. It's something that I feel a strong need to keep on justifying.
So it’s a gift?
Gift or curse, curse or gift?
Gift, I suppose.*
*At this point I mime checking a long series of boxes on my clipboard, just to let him know that I mean business and the gift, curse thing is significant. Which it isn’t.
Are you going to be touring the US? Not to be preemptive, but in decades, years or months? And as far as “next” albums, when can we expect the next Gary Numan LP?
Well the Dead Son Rising album is just coming out so I have some work to do with that for a while, but I'm also working on another one called Splinter which I will have out in 2012. My intention is to tour the DSR album in the UK just for now, briefly, and then get Splinter finished as quickly as possible. The main touring schedule will start once it’s out and will continue for about 18 months or so after that release. It‘s likely to be a tour that promotes both LPs we’ll take it to as many countries as possible—but especially the United States.
Do you exchange Christmas cards with any members of the Lasers or Tubeway Army? Can you offer any updates?
Not really. Tubeway Army, as far as I'm concerned, was Paul Gardiner on bass and my uncle Jess on drums. Paul died a long time ago and Jess I haven't seen each other for a couple of years, but I believe he's okay.
What were the big studios in London when you started out? What sort of hardware would you bring in with you to record?
When I started out I had no money and I was with a tiny record label that also had no money. We went to the cheapest studios in England and the only thing we took with us were our guitars. We would rent a synth or two for a day, two if I was lucky, and all the synth parts had to be created and recorded within that time. There is a reason those early records sound a bit sparse, we had no time to flesh them out, no budget for studio time or equipment. When I got to number 1, and people started calling me the mastermind of electronic music and a range of other titles, supposedly highlighting my technical prowess, my total time with a synth could be measured in hours. I knew virtually nothing about them at all and I just blagged my way through techy interviews. People would ask me questions about gear and I didn't have a clue what they were talking about.
*Here, we broke for a moment. I received a rub-down from Adolfo, Gary signed a few chests. We re-convened with taught purpose, refreshed and invigorated by the anticipated contemplation of our own existence, its textures and the multitudinous interstices though which we hoped to sail together towards a brighter day and a world in which all our dreams, both fevered and lucid, would be realized with the sort of vulgar-yet-sublime clarity which wins friends and influences people.
Stay tuned for Part Two of our conversation with Gary Numan the past and present. A possible knighthood, working with Trent Reznor, action films and the best place to find a wife. In the world.