There aren’t many peo­ple who can claim to be true pi­o­neers of elec­tronic mu­sic. This, how­ever, is cer­tainly one of them…

Computer Music - - Contents -

After set­ting the tone for gen­er­a­tions of elec­tronic mu­si­cians, the king of syn­th­pop comes face to face with cm

It’s fair to say that Gary Nu­man doesn’t write many ‘up­beat’ tunes. The elec­tronic leg­end’s break­through al­bum, 1979’s Repli­cas, de­picted a cold, dark world of iso­la­tion and un­happy an­droids. Fol­low-up al­bums fea­tured para­noia, athe­ism and yet more iso­la­tion. While record­ing 2013’s Splin­ter (Songs from a Bro­ken Mind), Nu­man was plagued by de­pres­sion and wrote about the ef­fect it was hav­ing on his fam­ily.

“Thank­fully, I beat the de­pres­sion,” says the smil­ing 58-year-old, ad­just­ing him­self on a comfy arm­chair in a West Lon­don ho­tel. “And I have to say that life is great. I’m en­joy­ing liv­ing in LA [ he moved there in 2012]. I’ve got a won­der­ful fam­ily. Splin­ter had some great re­views and I’ve re­cently signed a record deal with BMG, who are re­ally ex­cited about the new al­bum.”

Ah, the new al­bum. Pre­sum­ably, with life look­ing rather groovy, the songs feel a bit… lighter?

Let me stop you there. Nu­man’s 22nd al­bum is called Sav­age (Songs from a Bro­ken World). Track ti­tles in­clude Pray For The Pain You Serve and My Name Is Ruin.

“Peo­ple write about what af­fects them, and this al­bum is about global warm­ing. Ini­tially, some of the ideas came from a novel I’m writ­ing about a post­global warm­ing world. That’s why I de­cided to film the video for My Name Is Ruin in the Cal­i­for­nian desert. I was try­ing to say, ‘Look, this is what we’ll be left with. A waste­land… and tem­per­a­tures of 46 de­grees’.

“I don’t nor­mally get up on my soap­box about stuff,

but this is some­thing that af­fects us all. Es­pe­cially with Don­ald Trump in the White House! If the politi­cians don’t wake up, this re­ally will be a bro­ken world.

“Ha ha! But yes, even though life is be­ing kind to me at the mo­ment, I still strug­gle to write happy songs.”

Gary Nu­man’s un­hap­pi­ness has served him well, fu­elling his mu­si­cal imag­i­na­tion for al­most 40 years. En­cour­aged by the anger and en­ergy of punk, the teenage Nu­man picked up a gui­tar and formed a band, but very quickly dis­cov­ered some­thing far more in­ter­est­ing than a Gib­son Les Paul: a Min­i­moog.

Barely a year later, he’d in­tro­duced elec­tronic mu­sic to the masses with tracks like Are ‘Friends’

Elec­tric?, Cars, and a trio of Num­ber One al­bums. The mu­sic press hated him and his bloody syn­the­sis­ers, but Nu­man has been namechecked by ev­ery­one from Liam Howlett and Trent Reznor to Beck and Da­mon Al­barn. In this, our 250th is­sue, Com­puter Mu­sic salutes the elec­tronic ge­nius that is Gary Nu­man.

: Be­fore you got your hands on that Min­i­moog, did you have any in­ter­est in elec­tronic mu­sic? Had you been lis­ten­ing to Bowie, Roxy Mu­sic, Kraftwerk and the like?

Gary Nu­man: “I did have a cou­ple of Kraftwerk al­bums, but it all sounded a bit too me­chan­i­cal for me. Bowie’s Low al­bum was the first time that I’d re­ally been struck by the power of elec­tronic mu­sic… tracks like Warszawa. There’s a grand, al­most clas­si­cal melan­cho­lia to those songs. That at­mos­phere hinted at some­thing I was search­ing for, and I found it far more in­ter­est­ing than any of the punk stuff that was hap­pen­ing in the late 70s.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but I sup­pose I was try­ing to com­bine that elec­tronic thing with the spik­i­ness of punk. And, as luck would have it, there was a Min­i­moog in the stu­dio where I was work­ing on an al­bum of punky, gui­tar-based songs. I plugged it in and played a note. My God, what a won­der­ful sound!

“We’re now in an era where ev­ery­one is fa­mil­iar with the syn­the­siser, but back in 1977 and 78, they were still some­thing of a rar­ity. Al­most like a nov­elty in­stru­ment that peo­ple used for mak­ing funny noises. To ac­tu­ally have one in my hands and to be able to feel the power of that sound was… well, it changed my life.

“My first thought was, ‘What if I trans­fer my ba­sic gui­tar riffs to the Min­i­moog?’ In­stead of go­ing, ‘chug-chug’ with barre chords, I played ‘dum-dum’ on the Moog. It sounded fuck­ing bril­liant! Com­pletely by ac­ci­dent, I found what I was look­ing for.”

: The main riff for Are ‘Friends’ Elec­tric? or Cars could have been played on a gui­tar, but it just wouldn’t have sounded the same.

GN: “Ex­actly! There was this sense of me­nace and drama that seemed to be built into a synth… a sim­ple riff be­came much more than just a col­lec­tion of notes. And that was perfect for me, be­cause I wasn’t a par­tic­u­larly good mu­si­cian.

“Even though punk was hap­pen­ing, there was still this idea that ‘song­writ­ing’ was some­thing special. You had loads of mu­si­cians who were writ­ing stuff with all th­ese tricky chords and mil­lion-note so­los, but with a synth, you didn’t need to do any of that. I re­mem­ber be­ing in­ter­viewed in those early days and say­ing some­thing like, ‘Why play a mil­lion notes when one note will do?’ With the Moog, you could lit­er­ally take a sin­gle note and it could be an ever-chang­ing, un­fold­ing mas­ter­piece.

“Is there an­other in­stru­ment that will do that? Of course, if you put a gui­tar in the hands of a mas­ter mu­si­cian, he can do that, but the beauty of a synth is that any­body can play it and any­one can make an in­ter­est­ing sound with it. The knobs and slid­ers are right there in front of you… it’s al­most dar­ing you to have a go.”

: De­spite the suc­cess and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary sound, the press didn’t take kindly to you, did they?

GN: “I was young, and I’ll admit that I did have a big mouth, but I don’t think I did or said any­thing that de­served that level of… they just seemed to en­joy hav­ing a pop at me. They had a go at me for look­ing mis­er­able on Top of the Pops. I was ner­vous! I wore makeup cos I had acne!

“And they were al­ways hav­ing a go at the mu­sic. When things were go­ing well, that didn’t bother me so much, but most artists have a cy­cle of pop­u­lar­ity and when my sales be­gan to de­cline, they re­ally started tak­ing the piss. Is it a crime to try dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions and dif­fer­ent mu­si­cal themes?

“That con­stant crit­i­cism re­ally knocked me back. Ob­vi­ously, it didn’t help that, once we hit the 90s, my ca­reer was go­ing down the toi­let. It was a hor­ri­ble time; a down­ward spi­ral. Mu­si­cally, I was in a hole. There was a pe­riod of about two years where I never kept any­thing that I worked on. My con­fi­dence was so bro­ken that I al­most thought it was go­ing to fin­ish me off. I won­dered if I was ever go­ing to be able to write any­thing that peo­ple would want to hear. As far as I was con­cerned, the ca­reer was over.

“Luck­ily, that co­in­cided with a pe­riod of… let’s call in reap­praisal. Sud­denly, you had peo­ple like Trent Reznor say­ing nice things, peo­ple started be­ing a bit kinder, and I felt I could stick my head above the para­pet.

“The strange thing is that I’ve never re­ally fully re­cov­ered from that two-year de­pres­sion and panic. As soon as one al­bum’s fin­ished, I start pan­ick­ing about the next one. I start wor­ry­ing if my ca­reer’s go­ing to be OK. Will I ever write an­other de­cent song?”

: Even after 22 al­bums?

GN: “The thing about be­ing a song­writer is that it’s one of those dis­pos­able tal­ents. It’s a fairly com­mon abil­ity. Look around you and look on the in­ter­net; song­writ­ers are ten a penny. And a lot of them are great, great song­writ­ers who will never get a chance to bring their mu­sic to a wider pub­lic. The only thing that dis­tin­guishes me from them is luck. Luck that I found that Moog. Thank god it wasn’t a clar­inet that some­body had left in the stu­dio!”

: If only out of a sense of loy­alty, is there still a Moog in the stu­dio?

“We’re now in an era where ev­ery­one is fa­mil­iar with the sythe­siser, but back in 1977 and 78, they were still a rar­ity”

GN: “There is! In fact, there are two. Moog very kindly sent me a Voy­ager and Min­i­moog D, which did get used on the al­bum. I have got the soft­ware ver­sions, but, c’mon, if the real is thing avail­able, you’re go­ing to use it.

“That’s pretty much it when it comes to hard­ware. Ev­ery­thing else is in the box. Why would you lug around all that hard­ware when you’ve got an al­most lim­it­less col­lec­tion of fan­tas­tic-sound­ing synths that you can load on to a com­puter?

“That move from tra­di­tional stu­dio to on-board was a com­plete god­send for me. There was no way that I could have sur­vived mak­ing al­bums in a ‘stu­dio’, be­cause it sim­ply be­came too ex­pen­sive. With Pro Tools and a com­puter, I can make an al­bum any­where.

“Not only that, but I’ve also learned a whole host of pro­duc­tion and mix­ing skills that I would never have learned in the old days, be­cause there was al­ways some­body there to do it for you. Usu­ally some­body who was be­ing paid out of the money you hadn’t yet earned from sell­ing the al­bum that you were work­ing on.”

: What’s the setup in LA?

GN: “I live in an area that’s res­i­den­tial use only, which means I can’t build a full record­ing stu­dio. The com­pro­mise is a large vo­cal booth in an out­house. It came as a flat-pack, with a cou­ple of blokes who set it up in an af­ter­noon. That’s my work­ing space. All the pre-pro­duc­tion, vo­cal record­ing and demo-ing is done there, but then it gets set to [ long-term col­lab­o­ra­tor] Ade Orange. That’s when we start putting to­gether the fin­ished ver­sion.” : Are there cer­tain plug­ins that you know will give you a ‘Nu­man’ sound?

GN: “If I could, I would cre­ate a whole new pal­ette of sounds ev­ery time I made an al­bum, but, in re­al­ity, there are a few ‘stock’ plug­ins that keep find­ing their way onto al­bums.” : You’ve been very vo­cal about your love of Om­ni­sphere.

GN: “The king of all plug­ins, with­out a doubt. 1 was pretty bloody amaz­ing, but 2 takes it into an­other world. What a phe­nom­e­nal ar­ray of sounds, and what a phe­nom­e­nal ar­ray of start­ing points – pull up any pre­set and you’ll be in­spired. But then you’ve got the ma­nip­u­la­tion, too. Eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble, in­cred­i­bly in­tu­itive ways to change and shape the sound. If you don’t find what you’re after in the pre­sets, you will be able to cre­ate it fairly quickly.

“Any­body who knows my mu­sic will know that I use a lot of pads and at­mos­pheres. But the

prob­lem with pads and at­mos­pheres is that they can all start to sound a bit samey. With Om­ni­sphere, you don’t seem to get that. Each sound you choose and add will al­ways give you that some­thing a bit dif­fer­ent.

“I use it a lot on ev­ery­thing I do, but I know that I’m only scratch­ing the sur­face of what it’s ca­pa­ble of. A truly beau­ti­ful piece of soft­ware.”

: So, you like it, then?

GN: “Ha ha! I like any­thing that Spec­tra­son­ics do. Great com­pany who know what mu­si­cians want. Tril­ian; ev­ery­thing you need for the bot­tom end. Na­tive In­stru­ments, too. I’ve got a suite of their stuff on the com­puter. Some Korg plug­ins; Ethno 2, when I need to get eth­nic.

“I’m still a fan of old-fash­ioned found sounds, too. I have a stereo recorder that I carry around with me when I’m ready to start mak­ing an al­bum, record­ing bits and pieces from a nor­mal day: traf­fic, peo­ple, the sound of the desert. They can re­ally help to cre­ate at­mos­phere be­cause… well, they are, tech­ni­cally, ‘at­mos­pheres’.” : Ear­lier this year, you were awarded the Ivor Novello In­spi­ra­tion Award in recog­ni­tion, they said, of your in­flu­ence as an elec­tronic pi­o­neer. In the al­most-40 years you’ve been re­leas­ing mu­sic, has the ac­tual process of song­writ­ing changed much? GN: “Ob­vi­ously, there’s a lot more to play with in the stu­dio, but my start­ing point has al­ways been the piano. When I was kid, my par­ents knew I liked key­boards, so they bought me this knack­ered old up­right piano. That’s what I started writ­ing songs on, and that’s what all the early al­bums were writ­ten on. I later re­alised that it was slightly out of tune, which prob­a­bly helped me cre­ate some­thing a bit… dif­fer­ent.

“Th­ese days, it’s a piano pre­set from the com­puter, but that’s where I work out melodies and chord struc­ture. After that, it goes into the com­puter and gets fleshed out with a few pads and loops, I add my gob­blede­gook vo­cals, write lyrics to the gob­blede­gook, and there’s a demo. If things are go­ing well, the demo ver­sion takes about a week, but you can usu­ally tell on day one whether the idea is go­ing any­where.

“Of course, that’s the point where my mind starts rac­ing and I think, ‘ That’s it. I’ve lost it!’ I lit­er­ally have to start talk­ing my­self out of the panic. ‘C’mon, Gary. Things will be OK. This is just an off day. Pull your­self to­gether’.

“If any­body ever recorded it, they’d think I’d gone mad.”

“Of course, that’s the point where my mind starts rac­ing and I think, “That’s it. I’ve lost it!’”

One elec­tronic mu­sic icon gets hands-on with an­other elec­tronic mu­sic icon

The track­ball seems to be mak­ing a come­back, but fu­tur­ist Nu­man never stopped us­ing his in the first place

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