Whether fronting Tubeway Army, pioneering early synth punk, or pursuing dark industrial rock, Gary Numan has long been at the forefront of electronic music. His name is often praised by certified geniuses such as Trent Reznor and Prince Rogers Nelson, in addition to contemporary trendsetters like Yeezy and Gaga.
This week, he returns with Splinter, his first album in seven years and his most engaging in over a decade. Recently, Consequence of Sound caught up with Numan to discuss the emotional and personal hurdles he had to overcome before completing it, his desire to continuously innovate, and his problems with nostalgia.
If you’re interested in catching Numan live, he’s one of several exclusive artists that make up the lineup to this year’s inaugural Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit that takes place October 25-27th in Asheville, NC. Grab tickets here.
Splinter seems to sonically capture Tubeway Army Gary Numan as much as the harder, darker Numan heard on albums like Pure and Sacrifice, but [you] do it in such a way that there’s a consistency between all the songs. And, you never cower to that retro template that’s happening today. Was there a guiding concept or theme behind this album?
Not really. I have a real problem with nostalgia and retro. My whole reason for being in electronic music in the first place was that it seemed to be a very forward-looking genre of music, and I’m going back to the late ’70s here now. And I’ve always thought of it that way. I mean, there’s a peculiarity now in that it’s been around long enough as a genre that it has its own nostalgia and its own sort of retro feel to it. So, you listen to a lot of new bands today who are electronic, and it sounds to me very much as it did 35 years ago. And I find that really peculiar.
As I say, my reasons for being in it and my love for it is because it always seemed to me to be about what we do next, what new sounds [are coming], because it’s very technology driven. New software will come along, or hardware, whatever. Mainly software, actually, these days. And all these new possibilities, and new types of sounds, and new ways of manipulating sounds particularly are constantly being improved and increased. So, we have a huge arsenal of things that allow us to move forward. And while I am not claiming, at all, to be experimental, there are people far more interesting [in being] experimental than I will ever be. Nonetheless, there’s an ambition with each album to try to come up with sounds that you have not come up with before, and for me, I think that’s a cool thing. And, I think it stops me looking backwards too much.
I’ve read interviews, actually, with other bands, who have said that they’ve gone back to their early days, in terms of technology, to try to kind of re-explore the things that they did then. And while I think, “Well, that’s okay for you,” I don’t really understand it, to be honest. I honestly feel that the stuff that I did in the early days, I’m pretty happy with that and I think I got some good stuff out of the technology. But I have no desire to go back to it and use that technology again. I feel like I’ve done it. I’ve been through there and I’ve used it, and I’m more interested in what’s coming tomorrow, really. I just think, for me, it’s the path that I don’t think would suit the way I think and the sort of things that I’m looking for.
That’s all it is, really. I’m not going to put anyone down for doing that at all, because each to their own. You should come up with good music at the end of it, and that’s all that really matters I suppose. But for me, it’s about trying to come up with something I’ve never done before, preferably with equipment I have not used before, and sounds I’ve not heard before.
If you think about it, you’re only 55 years old, but you’ve recorded in five separate decades. Is that what you credit, the fact that you just never want [to look back], you’re always moving forward?
Yeah, to be honest. My whole nature in terms of being creative is about what will I do next. It’s not about what I did yesterday. It’s not about re-living the past or certainly not living on any kind of past glories that you might have had. I honestly believe that thing, “You’re only as good as your next album or your last album.” I really believe that. To me, there’s a constant desire to want to push forward with each album. To be brutally honest, I think I’ve failed dismally at that three times. I don’t think that I’ve been particularly successful at doing it, but it’s always been the aim with each album. With each one, you set out to have the desire to come up with another 500 sounds I’ve never used before and hopefully no one else has ever heard before.
Unfortunately, humans being what we are, you do have your favorites, so you do have your kind of go-to sounds, certainly when it comes to writing anyway, and that constant sort of thing, “Nah, I’ve definitely used that, I must not use that again.” And there’s all this stuff and there’s this new technology coming in, but they’re presets, [so] probably a load of other people are going to have it, so I can’t use that. And it’s a very conscious decision to try to come up with something that you’ve not heard before. I don’t quite stick to it 100% literally, so again, I let myself down a little bit.
But, generally speaking, it’s about trying to find new things and not repeat what you’ve done before. My voice has a certain sound to it and I can’t get away from that. And, I think my songwriting has a particular kind of style, very melody-driven for one thing. And I think that also shapes what you do. There’s no getting away from the sound of your voice, or the limitations of it particularly. There are certain things that I just can’t sing. Much as I would love to have a particular sort of vocal thing going on in the track, I wouldn’t be able to do it. You work within your limits and you’re as ambitious as you think you can be.
The jazz musician Glenn Miller was famously said to be in search of a sound that he had in his head, but could never figure out what it was. Then he discovered by accident that it was a clarinet. You’ve had many projects. Tubeway Army was said to have begun when you found a Mini-Moog synthesizer left behind in a studio, Beserker and songs like “My Dying Machine” were created after discovering the PPG Wave, and Warriors featured you using the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5. Have you ever found yourself in pursuit of a specific sound and these instruments were your way of trying to get there?
Actually, no, to be honest. For me it’s always been a case of, you look around, and you stay up with technology, and you stay in touch with technology. Then it often comes to using what you have. And, quite often, the sounds don’t come from technology as such. It would be a case of walking around with a recorder and banging things, and hitting things, and dragging chairs across the floor, and seeing what kind of cool noise it makes, and then manipulating that. They’re all things that make noises. I’ve got a huge library at home of me sitting there simply saying words in various stages of whispering. You know, you could say a word of a gentle whisper or a harsher whisper, or whatever. Linking all that together, and then you run that through the machines, and it comes back amazing, actually.
You have little periods of doing different things. We used to have a studio, a place called Shepperton, in England, and I spent about a week walking around with a recorder, with a metal stick, hitting different things. Hitting walls, hitting fire escapes, hitting tables, hitting anything. I would record all these different strikes at different intensities, and I would go back to the studio, and I would put them in the machines and start to mess about with them, and see what you could do with them. Layer effects on them, reverse it, merge them, all kinds of stuff. And then, the next day I would go out and do it again and find different things to hit. It’s amazing what you can come up with. Whether that’s considered music or not, I’m not entirely sure, but I think with electronic music it’s as much about the sounds themselves as it is about the melodies of something that you write.
I think, for me, it was a really valued thing to do. And if, at the end of that, you only come up with three or four sounds that end up on the album, well, fair enough. You know, they’re three or four really cool sounds that presumably no one else has ever got. And it makes it worthwhile. In fact, I didn’t do that very much with Splinter, which is a pain actually. I should have. With Splinter, I think I relied a little bit more on software. It makes me feel like I’m getting lazy.