In anticipation of the show, the Scene talked to Numan via email about the legacy of his signature hit, struggling with depression, the musical inspiration that’s seen him through, the aggressive nature of his must-see stage show and more. See the full interview after the jump.
It seems your career has thrived — both commercially and creatively — more in the past decade-and-a-half than it did in the ’90s. Why do you suppose that is? Is it perhaps a matter of your influence on artists from Nine Inch Nails to LCD Soundsystem? Is it a testament to how well records like Replicas and The Pleasure Principle have aged? Or is it a matter of becoming more active and inspired to create?
I think it’s a mixture of some of those things but not the more active part. Certainly the amount of mentions from other artists that talk about me being influential has been a great help in building my credibility to a new level, and attracting new interesting and new followers of course. Songs from the older albums continue to be sampled, covered and used heavily in ads and other places so are still very active and, luckily, just don’t seem to date. As far as me being more active though, I would have to say that, sadly — and it’s entirely my own fault — I have not been as active as I should have, and that has hurt me a lot. In 2008 I was diagnosed with depression and wrote virtually nothing for nearly four years. My career and marriage and life in general suffered very badly through that period. Splinter is my first proper studio album, bar one side project called Dead Son Rising, for seven years. That’s an almost fatally long time to be away. I’m lucky that the reaction to Splinter has been incredibly d]strong and positive. It’s one of the reasons I’m now touring so heavily. I need to make up for my absence.
In the ‘90s I think you were often unfairly classified as a one-hit wonder, but have now seemed to have overcome that. Do you feel like your legacy is more greatly appreciated now, especially among younger generations? Do such things even concern or affect you?
I definitely think the legacy is more widely recognised and accepted now. To be honest though, it’s not something I think about too much. I genuinely believe that we are only as good as our latest album, and we absolutely should not rely on past glories to keep our careers alive. If you stop offering anything worthwhile, then step aside and make way for new blood. I don’t believe that’s happened to me though, and that’s why the reaction to the new album has been so satisfying. As for the one-hit wonder thing, I have no problem with that. In the US it’s a simple true fact: I’ve only had one decent chart single. Elsewhere in the world of course the story is very different, but I’m happy to face the truth wherever I happen to be.
Was “Cars” a blessing for you or was it an albatross? Have you come to terms with it now?
It’s been a blessing and an albatross, but I have now come to terms with it. For many years I tried to distance myself from it, but one day I realised that most songwriters would give their right arm to have written something that successful. "Cars" is a very famous and successful song globally, and continues to be widely used and covered today, so I began to feel I was being very childish in the way I thought about it. I should be proud to have written it, and I am now. I don’t think it’s the best song I’ve ever written, by far, but it’s arguably one of the more famous songs around, and long lasting, so I’m comfortable with it now.
You have more than 20 albums. Is there one in particular, if you had to chose, that you think deserves more appreciation?
Not really. I think the new one, Splinter, is the best one I’ve made, and that’s getting a fair amount of attention so I have nothing to grumble about.
How have you managed to stay creative with music and motivated to make music in this era? Also, what kind of things — whether they be other artists or life situations — inspire your music these days?
I’ve never found it difficult to stay creative. In fact, I find it hard to understand how people that have been creative lose that desire or ability. I have always thought it was something you were born with, and therefore something that is as much a part of you as the color of your eyes, or the tone of your voice. As for inspiration, it evolves. For Splinter I took most of it by writing about the last few years of my life, mixed with some ideas from a science-fantasy novel I’ve been trying to write for some time. In 2008 I was diagnosed with depression and was put on medication for that for about three years. I stopped writing, my career was fading away, my marriage began to crumble a little, and I was just lost, first with the depression itself and then with the pills they give you to fight the depression. In a way the cure is almost as hard to beat as the illness itself. That experience gave me all the material I needed for Splinter.
Where do you look to conjure the darkness on songs like “Where I Can Never Be” or “Love, Hurt, Bleed”? Are the lyrics autobiographical?
Some more than others. The song "Lost" is about the time when I nearly split up with my wife, and how that would feel if it actually happened. In a way writing that song saved our marriage. The song "Here in the Black" is about the depression itself; "I Am Dust" and "We’re the Unforgiven" are ideas from the novel, as is "Love Hurt Bleed." Splinter is about my belief in God, or lack of it I should say. I honestly believe that my creative process comes from a dark little corner in my mind.
Listening to Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind), I’m reminded of your classic sound, as well as the sound of artists you’ve influenced, like Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. Are you inspired to have your music feel, in a sense, like its part of a sonic conversation with your contemporaries and followers?
I don’t set out to do that. I do feel that any creative person is sponge-like. We soak things up, breathe things in. We are very receptive to the ideas floating around us, be they TV, film, music, conversations, pictures, whatever, and I believe we absorb this stuff and mix and merge it with ideas of our own and then send it all back out again. I’m often referred to these days as a pioneer, as influential and innovative. In truth though, I don’t really think any of us are truly original. We are all variations and remixes, reworkings if you like, of things we pick up along the way. What separates those of us that are considered influential, from those considered derivative, must be the way we blend all the ideas and how ’new’ our output seems.
Also, what was it like touring with NIN this year?
Fantastic. I love the band, and they are now friends, so it’s an exciting thing to be a part of. It’s great to be working at that level, in those huge venues.
There is a clear, consistent through-line on Splinter, with the songs existing in their own aesthetic world and building off of each other. Going into the record, what were you aiming to create?
I wanted an album that was rich with emotional content, at times, but was also hugely powerful and relentless at others. A wide dynamic range with some songs coming across like an unstoppable train, with others sounding broken and fragile. The album, as I said, is largely about my depression and so it had to get across the very mixed and highly changeable emotional states you drift through. Angry to sad, thoughtful to arrogant. I really was broken for a number of years and the album, or at least certain parts of it, needed to get that across.
Do you consciously go for similar sonic textures of your signature albums? Is it a matter of trying to build on, expand and modernize that territory by revisiting some of those textures, or is it simply a matter of that being where your ear goes naturally?
No, I don’t aim for that at all, in fact I try to avoid it. I try to avoid any kind of reference to anything I’ve done before. I think Ade Fenton (the album producer) has more to do with sneaking those things in than me. It’s actually quite difficult for me in a way as I’m probably less aware of what my signature sounds are than someone listening to my songs. I hear people say things like, "That sounds very Gary Numan," and I can’t hear what they’re referring to. I’m too close to it all I guess. A number of reviews have mentioned this when talking about Splinter but it was certainly nothing to do with me. Ade is a big fan of my early albums and I know he tries to sneak in a few things here and there that hint at those albums. He also knows that if I spot any I’ll take them out so it seems I must have missed a few.
Did reworking old songs on Dead Son Rising make you rediscover some of your previous approaches and ideas?
Not that I’m aware of. The vast majority of music that ended up on Dead Son Rising was new anyway. Although the idea behind the album started out as reworking old songs, by the time we were finished nearly all of those early demo’s were abandoned and we had, mostly, new songs. The really useful things about Dead Son Rising, from my point of view, was that it got me writing again. I hadn’t written a new song for nearly four years until Dead Son Rising. And it was Ade that kept working on it and kept pushing me to get involved again. He can take much of the credit for getting me writing songs again.
What kind of modern sounds, recording techniques, etc., have you integrated into records like Splinter and Dead Son Rising?
We use a variety of plug-in technology but the main software comes from a company in the US called Spectrasonics and another from Germany called Native Instruments. Ade uses a recording system called Logic and I use one called Pro Tools. That’s a fairly massive simplification of what went in to making the album. As far as techniques are concerned I don’t think either of us do anything particularly startling or unusual. I just write songs and Ade makes then sound as good as possible. We have much the same equipment as most people have these days, even beginners working in their bedroom can afford most of the equipment we use so it’s just down to what we do with it.
What are your shows like on this tour? What can we expect to see here in Nashville?
The show is relentlessly powerful and aggressive, with the notable exception of one song half way through, where we all take a big breath before kicking off again. We have a great light package for the venues we are playing, the band has been playing this set for a while now, we’ve toured Splinter in ten countries already, so we’re very tight. We play a lot from Splinter obviously, but we also play songs from older albums such as The Pleasure Principle, Replicas and Telekon. It’s very full-on. Anyone expecting plinky-plonk synth-pop will be horrified as it’s somewhat ferocious these days. There is no hint of nostalgia, even the older songs are reworked to sit alongside the Splinter songs, so that they belong in this age. I think it’s important that people understand that if they are going to come among.