HE was a technology geek long before the arrival of the internet. Mark Butler speaks to Gary Numan about 30 years in the business.
He’s the Godfather of British electronic music, and a man cited by many of today’s biggest synth-pop and dance acts as an idol and inspiration. But Gary Numan might never have become the influential artist he did had it not been for the tardiness of a couple of delivery men back in 1978.
“We went into the studio to record my first album, which had been written as a pure punk offering, and in the corner of the control room there was a Minimoog synthesizer,” he recalls. “Some guys were meant to pick it up that morning, but they never arrived and it was there the whole day.
“I’m very geeky and techie as a person, and it really appealed to me. I asked if I could have a go. The first key I pressed let out this huge, monstrous bass growl and I just thought, ‘That’s it’. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard. It was a Eureka moment.” That same day Numan began converting his songs into electro-punk, and although this radical departure did not immediately please his record label (“I nearly had a fight with one of the directors”), within a year Numan had scored two monster hits with Are Friends Electric? and Cars.
More than 30 years on Numan remains an iconic figure, one who has ridden out a rollercoaster career and emerged stronger for the experience. His new album Dead Son Rising is his 20th, and the collaboration with producer Ade Fenton shows off classic Numan sounds imbued with a slick, modern edge, not least on Nine Inch Nails-esque track The Fall.
“I moved around a bit more musically than I normally would, and as a result it’s more varied and a bit more experimental,” explains Numan. “I’ve gone to areas I wouldn’t normally go.” The star is speaking from his home in East Sussex, where he lives with his wife Gemma and their three children. It’s first thing in the morning when we talk, and he’s been busy preparing for a family weekend break, but he dismisses any thought of irritability with a knowing joke.
“I went through a long period where no one wanted to talk to me, so now I’m very grateful for the opportunity.” Numan is referring to an extended chunk of his career throughout the 80s where he largely slipped off the mainstream radar. In truth, he simply didn’t cope with the fame and fortune thrust upon him.
Growing up in the London suburbs, the young Numan – then Gary Webb – developed a fascination with the eccentric personas and distinctive musical styles of artists such as David Bowie and Marc Bolan, and began writing songs at the age of 15.
He was an awkward young man, diagnosed since as having a form of Asperger’s syndrome, and when he broke through with his early hit singles, the music press didn’t know what to make of him. Many branded his odd, android-like stage persona – born largely out of shyness and awkwardness – as aloof and pretentious.
“It was an awful lot to take on,” says Numan. “The success happened very suddenly and I had no time to adjust to it. It really didn’t help that I was a very immature 21-year-old. I don’t interact well on a social level anyway, and when you drop worldwide fame on top of that it’s quite tough. I never got big-headed – if anything I was slightly embarrassed and ill at ease – but I did say and do some stupid things.”
In the early 90s, at the same time as commercial success became more and more elusive, Numan was arrested in India on suspicion of spying. Dramatically announcing his retirement from live performing, he became increasingly isolated and reclusive, paranoid even – ready with a harpoon gun to confront intruders in his home, and splashing out on combat rifles during a six-month stay in Hollywood.
However, when acts as diverse as Marilyn Manson, the Nine Inch Nails, Blur and Pulp began to cite Numan as a key influence, covering his tracks and introducing his music to a whole new audience, he was soon riding the wave of a full-scale revival. Since then, Numan has enjoyed renewed critical and commercial success.
These days, the 53-year-old songwriter seems a world away from the troubled, confused young man he once was. In conversation Numan is mellow, polite and quietly entertaining, liberally peppering his answers with amusing anecdotes, though he does claim to be “better with interviews than social situations”.
“I don’t think I’m the greatest musician, but I’m very passionate about what I do and that’s helped me struggle through. A lot of bands have done covers of my songs and that’s helped a whole new generation find my music. I feel very fortunate about that.”
Many of today’s acts, from industrial master Trent Reznor to dubstep DJs and pop stars like Little Boots, cite Numan as a key influence. He seems genuinely touched when reminded of that fact.
“It’s an incredible feeling. It makes me hugely proud, I have to say. The fact that such a wide range of people from different genres say I am an influence is particularly cool. It’s a surprise, and the most extraordinary thing.”
* Gary Numan plays Leeds O2 Academy on Monday September 19. For tickets call 0113 389 1555, www.o2acdemyleeds.co.uk