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
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