Filed under: Interview
“Releasing an album is like throwing your child to a pack of wolves. That’s how it feels to me anyway. You’re happily working on this little project at home then suddenly you put yourself at the mercy of other people and what they are going to say about it; what they are going to say about me. And not just journalists either; the fans themselves are every bit as harsh, if not the most cutting critics of what I do. They’re pretty evil, some of them.”
Sitting in an (enclosed) roof top bar on a cold London winter’s day, Gary Numan laughs as he chats about his new album Jagged, a record he admits to feeling uncharacteristically confident about, even more so than for his critically acclaimed last one Pure.
“One of the reasons that Jagged took five years to make is that the reviews I got for the last one, were for me, unusually good, which was quite a novel experience,” he continues, “I’d never had an album that had more good reviews than bad reviews before and I enjoyed it so much that I didn’t want it to end.”
Despite his relentless self-deprecation and engaging demeanor, Numan is an artist who’s polarized people from the earliest days of his career, when as the world’s first synthesiser star, he topped British charts with Are Friends Electric? Following up with his multi-million selling global hit Cars, he rapidly became a symbol of early 80s glitz, taking time out ‘to enjoy the rags-to-riches trappings of money Ferraris, sponsored racing cars and, of course, his own aircraft’ as his biographer put it, as well as sniping from the media, who were quick to brand his singularity ‘pretentious’ and ‘bombastic’.
25 years later, he’s now widely recognised as one of electronic music’s earliest figureheads, influencing many future key producers from hip hop pioneer Afrika Bambattaa to techno innovators Derrick May and Juan Atkins, while in his own world, he retains a fanatical audience of diehard fans, including the ‘evil’ ones he’s just mentioned. And though he’s satisfied about Jagged to feel confident enough to tease his detractors, his fragility and sensitivity is clear, as he’s the first to admit.
“There have been times when it’s been very, very difficult to write and that lack of confidence has been such a burden that I have gone through maybe a year and not kept a single thing that I wrote, just erased everything,” he says.
” I’d get depressed and erase whatever I’d been working on, then get more depressed, which made it even more difficult. This downward spiral of self-doubt is a very real danger when you work primarily on your own, which I do, mainly.”
“I feel much more comfortable with the way I’m perceived now, with this recent tag people seemed to have labeled me with of being considered influential. That’s done a lot for me, it’s made me feel much better about myself and what I’m doing, and I didn’t have any of that confidence before. I still couldn’t honestly say that I’m brimming with confidence; I don’t think I ever will be, because I have a very self doubting personality.”
The key difference this time round is his link up with Ade Fenton, the Nottingham based British techno star and proud former Numanoid, who’s produced Gary’s new album almost in its entirety.
“The whole process with Ade was excellent, he is such a good person to work with that even on the rare occasions when I thought a track had gone in the wrong direction, he’d say ‘fair enough, we’ll have another go’. With Ade it was just easy, there was no attitude, no ego problems,” says Gary.
“I’m sure he was under a lot of pressure, because he’d never produced an album before and he’s been a fan in the past, which means there’s an extra certain pressure attached. I was sympathetic to all of that, but nonetheless, I needed the record to be exactly how I wanted it. Though on some tracks he did things that were way beyond what I expected which was brilliant- absolutely brilliant. We developed a great working relationship which allowed us to work really quickly and end up with an album I’m really happy with.”
Interview by Jonty Skrufff (Skrufff.com)
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff):I read you were working on the album for several years then Ade came along and you suddenly finished it in 3 months, what happened to suddenly move incredibly quickly?
Gary Numan: “I started working with a couple of other producers I’d previously collaborated with but they had other projects going on, the sound we were developing and it started to seem likely that I’d miss the next deadline. Everything was dragging on and on. I’d been working with Ade a little on his own solo album and watched him develop these tiny fledgling ideas into very powerful pieces of music and I ended up being increasingly impressed so I just took a gamble. I said to him ‘here’s a song, have a go on it, see what you can come up with and we’ll take it from there. I really liked what he did and the more we worked on it, the better it got, so we ended up going back to some of the earlier songs and reworking them. There’s no disrespect intended to any of the other producers at all, because I hadn’t given anybody any directions as I was still trying to find its sound myself, but it was only when Ade came along that I suddenly thought ‘this is it; this is where I want it to be going with it’. So that helped with the subsequent writing, to be able to start tuning into this particular sound and direction.
Skrufff : How did that affect the tunes you’d already done with the others?
Gary : It was obvious almost from day one that the Ade Fenton versions were not going to work with the previous versions, so instead of just getting him to help me finish it, we actually went back and did the whole album again, so round about August/September, we effectively started on a brand new album which had to be finished by December. So it went from something that had taken years and years of being a very lazy, off and on sort of approach, to suddenly needing to do everything immediately. I had a big catalogue of songs that I’d been working on that I was supposedly going to be using for the album but instead of going back to those songs I was so quickly and easily that I just carried on trying out new stuff.
Skrufff : Do you feel with your creative flow in writing terms is fairly constant?
Gary : No, there are other periods when it’s been really difficult and it’s been torturous, it’s closely connected with your self confidence though at the moment, it’s not like that. Instead when I sit down in the morning to write a song, I’m almost certain that by the end of the day I’ll have a good one. I’ve hardly ever felt like that before, even when I was young and it was all new and exciting. I’m not trying to say that I’m going to write a song that’s really good and everyone is going to like it, rather that I’m going to write a song that I like, and that’s the first step in the battle.
Skrufff : The songs seem to me to connect with the Gary Numan vibe of the early 80s…
Gary : Ade says that too. I fully understand that it’s there, too many people have said it for it not to be true, there’s some connection people are making between the earlier stuff that I did and this album. No-one is saying it sounds like it, but there is a thread in this one that can be traced back those early ones. I absolutely do not see it myself; I cannot see it at all. That’s probably because I’m so close to what I do, I’m so immersed in it all that I’m not able to step outside and see similarities. Maybe it’s the attitude, it could easily be that, because when I made those early albums I was loving every minute of it. I desperately wanted to be doing it and loved the fact that I was in a band and that I was making records and in the music business though I still had the same problems with confidence and self-doubt. I feel like that again now. I am writing quickly and I’m enjoying the process of doing it, but it might be that there’s something that comes from that attitude which somehow comes out in the music, which I don’t see, but other people do.
Skrufff : Do you still read all the reviews?
Gary : No, I don’t read anything, unless it’s sent to me from the day before saying ‘this is a good one’. I just get depressed otherwise. I think I’ve got quite a good ability to bounce back from disappointments, but part of that is knowing how to avoid as much disappointment as possible.
Skrufff : You famously got arrested for espionage in India at the peak of your pop fame in 1981, what was that whole experience like, were you formally detained?
Gary : Never officially, though my co-pilot and I were unofficially put under house arrest. We were kept in this building that might have once been a hotel, but at this point it was full of Russian families who I think were working and living there, so it was a little bit ragged. We were flying around the world in a little airplane as an adventure, me and my friend,. . . actually he wasn’t really my friend, we didn’t even get on that well, but he was a professional pilot so I was doing the trip with him, because I didn’t have the skills or the qualifications to do it alone. We were flying from India to Thailand and we had engine problems going over the Indian Ocean and we had to turn back and land at this little military / civilian airbase in the middle of nowhere, So it was all very frightening and scary then we landed and were relieved to be there on the ground and that’s when all the shit started; all these soldiers surrounded us asking ‘Why are you here?’
Skrufff : Did they know who you are?
Gary : They said to us ‘What are you doing?’ and I told them ‘we’re having an adventure’. I also explained ‘I’m a singer and I get media exposure by doing it, when I land at different places, people will talk to me about it and it’s a different way of selling albums. People talk to me about the trip and I’ll mention the fact that I’ve also got an album coming out and it will be an interesting way of promoting an album rather than just going out and doing gigs’. I didn’t really enjoy doing gigs very much at that point, although I do now. The officer in charge said to me ‘Well, if you are an English celebrity, where are all your press cuttings?’ It’s not as if you carry them around with you in a big folder under your arm, is it? I said ‘Ring someone in England and ask them if they have heard of Gary Numan. Probably most of them will have, even if they are not a fan’.
Skrufff : Sounds like you were confident at that stage…
Gary : I started out being slightly belligerent with them, to be honest, because I didn’t understand my situation and I just thought he was being awkward. They were being very aggressive so I was being a bit arsey (awkward) back, but they had guns, where they kept pointed at us and we ended up being held there for four days. And every night at two in the morning, pretty much like clockwork, they’d come flying into the room, pounding down the door with their guns out screaming ‘what are you doing here? Why are you here?’ They didn’t believe a word we were saying.
Skrufff : Did you try and contact the British Embassy at all?
Gary : I was allowed one phone call and I rang up the British Consulate in Delhi where I spoke to woman whose name is Mrs McGregor, I’ll never forget it. I explained to her what was happening and she said ‘We are too far away, there’s nothing I can do about it’. Then hung up. I couldn’t believe it – she just hung up on me. The power of the Empire comes to your defense! I looked at my passport and it said on the cover ‘The holder of this is entitled to pretty much do what he likes’ and I thought ‘Well, Bollocks’. I was gutted. I had this romantic illusion of Britain leaping to my aid and getting me out of trouble, when instead I was absolutely abandoned in the middle of nowhere with an aggressive armed customs and immigration department. It started out being a pain in the arse but very, very quickly became really quite frightening. I wasn’t cocky at all then; as soon as I realized that I was only a little bloke, completely out of my depth.
Skrufff : How did you escape in the end?
Gary : They let us go into the town once a day, under armed guard, with a Land Rover in front and behind, and us two in the middle, all the soldiers kitted out with guns, to use the telex machine. There was literally just one telex machine in the town. I can’t remember the exact details but one day they allowed me to make another call and the international operator happened to eavesdrop on my conversation. As I was talking on the phone to whoever it was I’d called, this girl suddenly interrupted and said ‘Don’t put the phone down, this is the exchange, is there anyone else you want to talk to while you are making your one phone call?’ So she put me through to my dad, and I told him what was going on. This girl was absolutely brilliant, a fantastic girl, she really helped us out a lot. My dad then rang up the newspapers and The Daily Star was the one that got the most behind me. They started a campaign saying ‘We are going to rescue Gary Numan from India’ and they flew out there. When that all started the Foreign Office got involved and all of a sudden the Indians couldn’t do enough for me and they let us go. Before that, they’d confiscated our passports and I was really frightened. They were very aggressive to start with, then by the end of it they were the nicest people you’d hope to meet.
Skrufff : What do you think of the Conservative’s new leader David Cameron, would you vote Tory now?
Gary : No, no, still no, not based on the Conservative party’s leadership change at all. I’d always been very anti Michael Howard, but I actually ended up building up a slight respect for him towards the end which I hadn’t expected to do. I know I’ve got this reputation of being a full-on Tory and it just isn’t true at all. I certainly didn’t vote for them in the last election and I didn’t vote for them in the one before that either. In fact I didn’t vote at all at the last one to be really truthful. I couldn’t decide who was the biggest liar. I’m very, very disappointed with Tony Blair, but I see nothing in anybody else which is worthy of giving a try either. I’m finding the whole situation to be a little bit depressing. There isn’t anyone that I believe in who I think his desire to do good is stronger than his ambition to become prime minister or minister. It’s a little bit worrying really, but I’m really not a political animal so I’m probably not the best person to ask. The rare occasions that I do look in and see what’s going on, I find nothing to fill me with a lot of hope that there are good people out there that really want the best for you and your country.
End of the interview
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