From Cars to ob­scu­rity and back: Gary Nu­man tells Tony-Clay­ton Lea about be­ing more than just an ’80s man,

Famed for two huge hits in the wake of punk, Gary Nu­man was a huge star in the early ’80s. But as the decade pro­gressed, the gravy train went off the rails. Liv­ing in LA, he tells Tony Clay­ton-Lea how for­tune has turned back in his favour

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

Enough of the dark and sin­is­ter over­lord of goth-techno noise! Enough of the stony-faced and dystopian world­view! Enough of be­ing viewed through a lens that is smudged by the fin­ger­prints of Beelze­bub him­self! We’ll have you know right now that 56-year-old, Lon­don-born Gary Nu­man (birth name Gary Webb) is sit­ting back in his San Fer­nando Val­ley home en­joy­ing the sun.

“Yes, the weather here to­day is lovely, but then it al­ways is. Ev­ery day – sunny blue skies, palm trees, the ocean. It’s like wak­ing up ev­ery day on the most per­fect hol­i­day you can imag­ine.”

These days, life and the liv­ing of it is be­yond su­perla­tives for Nu­man, who in con­ver­sa­tion is a far less per­turbed per­son than his cre­ative and on­stage per­sona would have you be­lieve. In many ways, his cur­rent suc­cess runs par­al­lel to the first flush of fine-din­ing liv­ing he ex­pe­ri­enced over 30 years ago.

Back in the late 1970s, in a band called Tube­way Army, he en­joyed mas­sive suc­cess with one of the defin­ing songs of his ca­reer – Are ‘Friends’ Elec­tric? Shortly af­ter – and re­leased un­der his own stage name – came the sec­ond ca­reer-defin­ing song, Cars, and the al­bum The Plea­sure Prin­ci­ple.

For a brief pe­riod of time, Nu­man could do no wrong.

“My first few years as a pop star – it would have been be­tween the ages of 22-24 – were just amaz­ing, pretty much ev­ery­thing you could ever dream of.”

Al­most as soon as he got used to the stretch limos and other pe­riph­eral at­trac­tions that come with be­ing a chart-top­per on both sides of the At­lantic, the gravy train hopped off the tracks and stub­bornly re­fused to get back on again.

Nu­man glumly ad­mits that his once highly promis­ing ca­reer con­tin­ued to slide ever-down­wards un­til the early 1990s.

“For a good part of the ’80s, I wasn’t sell­ing any al­bums or con­cert tick­ets; I was mas­sively in debt – about £600,000 – and my house was in dan­ger of be­ing re­pos­sessed; I didn’t have a record con­tract. I had no earn­ings po­ten­tial what­so­ever.

“At that point, apart from stupid op­ti­mism, I re­ally thought I was dead and buried as an artist.

“But ev­ery year from around 1993 has got slightly bet­ter than the year be­fore. And ev­ery one of them just seems like a mir­a­cle to me.”

Nu­man has ex­pe­ri­enced a fas­ci­nat­ing and frus­trat­ing topsy-turvy ca­reer. Loved by sullen post-punk kids in the late 1970s and early 1980s (in­clud­ing, in Amer­ica, the likes of Trent Reznor and Brian Warner, who would sub­se­quently morph into Mar­i­lyn Man­son), his mu­sic could never be termed pop, its dis­torted, brood­ing metal­lic edge in cer­tain ways re­flect­ing Nu­man’s (then un­di­ag­nosed) Asperger syn­drome.

“In my late teens and early 20s, I was much worse as a per­son, as I had prob­lems so­cial­is­ing with people.

“I was very moody, and dif­fi­cult, in gen­eral, to be around. I didn’t un­der­stand people at all, and I thought they were odd and strange, not the other way around.

“That said, I was also quite fa­mous at a very young age, and that can be tricky to deal with – try­ing to keep your feet on the ground, to stay un­af­fected by it.

“When you have that go­ing on, and with the Asperger’s, it’s quite a recipe for screw­ing you up.

“I’m sure I was bounc­ing off the walls a lit­tle bit at times, but I tried re­ally hard not to be.”

Did he have any no­tions of con­tin­ued suc­cess past his 20s?

“Not at all. When Are ‘Friends’ Elec­tric? struck gold, I was 21, and at that point I was silly enough to not think be­yond the age of 30 – which seemed like a life­time away.

“So I had no plans what­so­ever for my life be­yond 30, and then as it got closer and closer, with my ca­reer very much go­ing down the tubes, I was just con­cen­trat­ing on the present.”

Nu­man wanted to be a pop star, he em­pha­sises, and he wanted to make good mu­sic, but as a suc­cess­ful chart-hog­ging act, he didn’t see mu­sic as a life­time choice.

“I never thought I’d be mak­ing mu­sic into my 50s. I didn’t think I’d have the op­tion to or, frankly, that it would hold my in­ter­est. That it has held, if not gripped, my in­ter­est is a con­stant sur­prise to me.”

Does he have ret­ro­spec­tive ideas as to why the first sec­tion of his ca­reer stalled so rapidly?

It’s re­ally as sim­ple as this, ad­mits Nu­man: he just wasn’t a good pop star. And the sort of mu­sic that he made 30-odd years ago – which was, ar­guably, very much be­fore its time – was not, he adds, par­tic­u­larly good pop mu­sic.

“I was very lucky that Are ‘Friends’ Elec­tric? went to num­ber one, be­cause that was by no means a typ­i­cal pop song. It was quirky, per­haps, with the right amount of dif­fer­ence at the right time.

“I wrote Cars af­ter that – which was pos­si­bly the only real pop song I’ve writ­ten – and then? Not much, re­ally.

“The other thing was the amount of neg­a­tive press I got at the time – it re­ally couldn’t have been more hos­tile. That didn’t help, but then from the early ’80s, BBC Ra­dio 1 stopped play­ing my records. That was prob­a­bly the big­gest is­sue – talk about cut­ting me off at the knees.

“So, yes, I know I didn’t re­ally write the right kind of pop songs, but I can’t say I had a lot of help from the me­dia and ra­dio.

“It took quite a long while for that to change.”

He says, with no small sense of re­lief, that for the past five or so years he is qui­etly con­fi­dent that he’s “ac­tu­ally achiev­ing what I set out to over 30 years ago. It’s taken a long time, hasn’t it?”

And what about the ca­sual ob­server who might in­cor­rectly de­fine him as the goth-cum-ghoul­ish mu­si­cian with only two hit songs un­der his spiky belt – it’s un­fair, isn’t it?

“Oh, I’ve long gone past feel­ing that,” he laughs.

“If Are ‘Friends’ Elec­tric? and Cars are the two songs most recog­nised by the most amount of people, then what can I do about it?

“It’s my job, re­ally, to let people know that there is more to me as a mu­si­cian and song­writer than those two songs. If I haven’t done that – and, let’s be hon­est, to most people I prob­a­bly haven’t! – then that’s my fault.”

It’s worth not­ing, mind, that over the past 15 years there has been a no­tice­able shift in Nu­man be­ing known for just two songs.

Some people might not be able to name any songs off the past few al­bums – or even his most re­cent record, Splin­ter (Songs from a

Bro­ken Mind), his most suc­cess­ful in over 20 years – but at least, he says with an ob­vi­ous hint of hu­mour, “they know I’m still around, still mak­ing al­bums, still tour­ing.

“And in Amer­ica, a few songs off Splin­ter are get­ting more air­play than Cars, which is the first time that’s hap­pened since 1979!”

At which point, we leave Nu­man to once again bask in the LA sun. Does he ever, we won­der, get a bit bored by the con­stant sun­shine? He is from Lon­don, af­ter all – does he not miss a soft spray of rain now and again?

“Con­tin­u­ous sun­shine bor­ing? Rain? Are you mad?”

Gary Nu­man per­forms at Body & Soul, Ballinlough Cas­tle, Co West­meath, over the weekend of June 21st-22nd. For more, see bodyand­soul.ie

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