Synth-pop’s man in black talks to us about the NIN collaboration, music so frightening it can give you a heart attack and why The Pleasure Principle is like Wall-E . . .
Between the end of 1978 and the end of 1979 Gary Numan had a busier twelve month period than most. Numan (née Valerian née plain old Gary Webb) had scored a record deal with Beggars Banquet to record a punk album as the enigmatic frontman of Tubeway Army. However, a chance encounter with a Mini Moog in a practice room in the early days of his career set him spiralling off into a year of intense synth pop creativity. He recorded Tubeway Army’s self-titled debut (essentially a dry-run for the far superior Replicas but still containing some flashes of brilliance such as ‘Jo The Waiter’ and ‘Everyday I Die’) and moved immediately onto the follow up.
Replicas would go on to be lambasted critically by nearly everyone bar John Peel; not that it mattered to the budding synth star as he was back in the studio recording his third album of the 12 month period by the time it hit the shops. Perhaps this would go some way to explaining why his first solo album Pleasure Principle was such an assured statement. Most of the material was written by the time ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’ became the first bona fide smash hit of the synth pop era. It was easy for him to transfer his own youthful feelings of alienation and deeper seated issues with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome into a cold near future world view populated by robot prostitutes, rape machines and other characters born from an obsession with Philip K Dick and William Burroughs. His own inability to deal with the pressures of fame and ridicule by the press hadn’t affected his song writing yet, as it would go on to do in the late 80s and early 90s.
When it was released, Pleasure Principle didn’t have the same cohesive narrative arch as its predecessor but it was incredibly new sounding. Gone were all traces of punk and along with it the guitars. Instead of bowing down to his Musician’s Union critics and amping up the rock factor, he removed it altogether. Although a live drummer and bassist (as well as violin and viola playing courtesy of Ultravox’s Billy Currie) fleshed out the sound, there was no denying how synthesizer heavy the new sound was. Numan had found some weird space equidistant between pop and the experimental. Songs like 'Metal' and 'Films' had tremendous hooks but in terms of structure were closer to what leftfield art school bands like Cabaret Voltaire and the then unknown Human League (Mark I) were attempting. Choruses were banished. All that remained were massive booming Moog riffs. With the guitars stripped away it was also easier to divine that the introspective and seemingly ill-at-ease pop star had an unusually soulful voice; which was perhaps more apparent on the electro ballad, and single 'Complex'.
And of course the album had the colossal single 'Cars', which would prove to be his second number one of the year but also go on to be an evergreen pop statement. When speaking to DiS, Numan, an extremely pleasant, verging on uncomfortably humble, guy, reveals that he has recently cleared three samples of the track for use this year, one a straight cover by a chart dance act. It would be tempting to say that the song’s fortunes have been revitalized by his recent appearances in the UK and in California on stage as part of Nine Inch Nail’s farewell tour, and while you can’t discount this, the song has never really gone away. It has been reworked or covered by Armand Van Helden, Afrika Bambaataa, Fear Factory, Marilyn Manson and Chicane. And that’s before you look at other tracks he recorded in the very same period such as ‘M.E.’ (Basement Jaxx ‘Where’s Your Head At’), 'Films' (Ghostface Killah), 'Metal' (NIN), 'Are “Friends” Electric?' (Sugababes) . . .
DiS: It’s hard not wonder really what drove this immense burst of creativity...
Gary Numan: “If you count the first Tubeway Army album that came out at the end of 1978, then in a 12 month period I actually put three albums out. And all of them had singles and B-sides that weren’t on the albums, so that was maybe 40 songs. But I was absolutely loving every second of it and actually had a record contract and had found a kind of music that I was passionate about, so I just wanted to get into the studio as much as possible and make as much music as possible. I felt like I was learning and getting better. Not just on synthesizers but in new studio techniques. So it was a very incredibly exciting times. I felt like I had to push on as well because I knew there were other people doing electronic music and now that the gates were open I knew that there was going to be an influx of people doing things like me if you like. I just really wanted to push on and consolidate my position but I was enjoying every minute of it. So I didn’t think it was a hardship because I loved doing it. The whole synthesizer thing was totally new. When my first album came out, I think I’d only spent three days in total with a synthesizer. I didn’t even own one of my own until I was making Pleasure Principle. So I would only use them on the days when we were in the studio. There just seemed to be a massive amount to learn and it was all really exciting.
DiS: So, the first time you used a synth was totally by coincidence wasn’t it?
GN: Yeah, it was in a studio in Cambridge which was doing really good deals at the time. And I went in there to record my punk album because I’d been signed to Beggars Banquet as a three piece punk band and a mini MOOG had been left in the corner, waiting to be collected by a hire company who never turned up. So luckily I had a whole day using it without having to pay for it. And it had been left on what is now that really famous, low end, MOOG sound. And it changed my life really. Luckily for me, because if it had have been set up to make some shitty ‘neooow’ noise . . .
DiS: If it had have been set up to make a noise like a wasp farting in a margarine tub, you might not be where you are today . . .
GN: [laughing] It is easy to make those kind of noises on some of them, yes! But it had been left on the other sound and there and then I switched from what I was doing. Which I didn’t really have any heart in anyway. I wanted to use the punk thing as a stepping stone but I didn’t know what to. I didn’t know what I was looking for until the synthesizer hoved into view and I changed direction in one fell swoop. It was a huge moment looking back.
DiS: You moved on from Tubeway Army to being Gary Numan with a slightly different group of people playing with you. Was this because it was decided more of the focus should be on you? What was the thinking behind it?
GN: It was quite different to that. When I did the first Tubeway Army album in 1978 I said that I wanted to go solo after that because the music was no longer about this punk thing. It wasn’t something I wanted to persevere with. Electronic music was this new thing though. It seemed like a totally new start. I wanted to make a clean break. Beggars Banquet didn’t want to do that though. They felt they had invested a certain amount of money into Tubeway Army becoming a bit better known than they had. I just didn’t agree with this. Up until that point we’d sold a few thousand singles and a few hundred albums. There was no band name to persevere with but that was it really. It wasn’t until I had the number one that I suddenly had any kind of power really. So I said ‘Now I want to go on my own. I write everything, I produce everything. It’s effectively my band.’ And at that point, to be honest, I could get what I wanted. It looked bad. It looked like I’d had a little bit of success and I’d decided to go solo but it wasn’t like that at all.
DiS: And also ringing in the changes was the lack of guitars. Was this also down to the fact that you could ‘feel’ pop music moving more in the direction of synth pop away from a punkier sound?
GN: I knew there were other people doing it. So there were people who were already doing it who were going to be coming through people like Human League, Ultravox and OMD and also there were going to be newer bands doing it for the first time because it was now this massive, successful new music kind of thing. But the real reason for the lack of guitars was to do with a reaction to what the press had been saying. They had been really hostile up until that point saying that it wasn’t proper music blah blah blah. So at the time I was trying to prove a point; that you could have an album without guitars and still have it sound powerful. I actually think that I did really badly. I don’t think it sounds like it should have done.
DiS: You think it’s a thin sounding record!?
GN: A little bit, yeah. I don’t think it sounds big. I don’t think it sounds powerful. It’s certainly lightly produced. I’m not against it but in proving that an album could be powerful without guitars I don’t think it worked. I think I did a really bad job on it . . .
DiS: No, no, no. I’m not having this. The punchiness of ‘Metal’, the dark gothic rock of ‘Films’, the epic bombast of ‘M.E.’ Well, obviously I disagree . . .
DiS: I guess another thing that is surprising about the second disc of this new edition is how close to the finished product the demos sound.
GN: I’ve not actually listened to it! I’m having to think back to when I recorded the bloody things. It’s probably because the instrumentation is relatively minimal. You’ve got bass and drums and then some relatively minimal keyboard lines and some fairly basic top lines. So it’s not difficult music. So perhaps really I should have made more of the demos and expanded on them more but at the time that felt like it was the right thing to do. These days, because you record as you go, the demo will become the finished thing, you work on exactly the same track from start to finish.
DiS: Another interesting thing about the second disc is that it has all of the B-sides to ‘Cars’ and ‘Complex’ on them. Now, when I was in school I can remember distinctly someone saying that the song ‘Asylum’ was so terrifying that if you listened to it on your own in the dark, you would have a heart attack and die.
DiS: And then I was talking to some people about this at my friend’s wedding and apparently they had the same story at their schools as well! Were you aware of this?
GN: I wasn’t aware of it until recently. Until literally about last Wednesday or Thursday someone told me something similar about their school about kids thinking they’d have a heart attack if they listened to it in the dark, but that’s such a great story isn’t it!
DiS: Well, I listened to 'Asylum' just before and I didn’t have a heart attack. I was on my own but to be fair it was the middle of the afternoon. While ‘Replicas’ wasn’t exactly a concept album, it did have a narrative arc of sorts and concerned this Philip K Dick, dystopian future vision of robot prostitutes and the like. Was there an underlying story to Pleasure Principle, because it feels more fractured.
GN: It’s a little bit less complete. Pleasure Principle was more along the same thing, I think. It wasn’t quite so consistent. There was a song called ‘M.E.’ which was about the last intelligent machine on earth after all the people have gone waiting for its power source to run down . . . A bit like Wall-E really! [laughing] So it’s the last machine alive doing its thing but while being aware of death. And there were one or two others but it wasn’t the sci-fi themed album that ‘Replicas’ was for sure.
DiS: On tracks like ‘M.E.’ and ‘Metal’ which concerns a machine wanting to learn how to be more like a human and “pull the wires from the wall”. Were these metaphors for alienation or loneliness that you felt yourself?
GN: Yeah, I think, so. ‘M.E.’ not so much but ‘Metal’ . . . that was typically me really. I was just out of my teens . . . Full of angst . . . the world doesn’t understand me . . . poor little me, kind of thing! Much of it was transposed on to machinery.
DiS: Why in God’s name didn’t you release ‘Metal’ as a second single? You made a promo video for it after all . . .
GN: The film that goes with ‘Metal’ was actually done by a TV programme but they did it like a promo. It was Tyne Tees television and they recorded it in a big electricity generating plant up north. But . . . yeah . . . I have a 30 year long track record of picking the wrong single. I’ve picked some absolutely stupid and ridiculous singles. I don’t think that ‘Complex’ was a bad choice for what it was but I think ‘Metal’ would have been a much better single. I think most of the fans agreed with that as well. I just wanted to move away from the more hard electronic . . . well, we’d just had ‘Cars’, which was quite a hard, driving song and I just wanted to show people a different side to what I could do. So perhaps my artistic brain was in full gear when perhaps my commercial brain should have been engaged. I chose ‘Complex’ and I think it’s a nice song but perhaps not the best one I could have picked.
DiS: It’s almost impossible to chart all the different covers, samples and interpolations of the stuff you did in ’79. What’s probably your favourite?
GN: I’m biased because I’m a massive Nine Inch Nails fan and they did a cover of ‘Metal’ and I thought that was brilliant. We did a version of that together at the O2 and on some of the dates in the US as well at their final four shows in Los Angeles as well and I got a really good feeling from doing that. It was a great memory for me and a great experience seeing it live, so that would be my favourite. There are so many that have blown me away. The Basement Jaxx song ‘Where’s Your Head At?’ is based on a sample of ‘M.E.’ You know, ‘Cars’ is being used on the next single by Chicane and I think in the last two weeks there have been something like three or four clearances of samples from ‘Cars’ and I’m really proud that thirty years later people are still interested in that song. I should say that I really like the Sugababes song ‘Freak Like Me’ as well.
DiS: I believe you might be working with Trent again on a collaborative project?
GN: It’s possible, yeah. It’s all a bit vague because he’s got all kinds of things going on with his private life. I guess when the Pleasure Principle thing is over and the dust has settled then we’ll talk again and we get into next year and start putting something together but yeah, he’s suggested we do something together. In fact he suggested it once before many years ago but we never got it together but hopefully this time. Especially now that he’s not touring hopefully he’ll have more time to devote to such a project.
DiS: Can you see yourself going down the bracing heavy industrial route or more taking an experimental, technological based project?
GN: Not sure. Not sure. One part of me would like to go down the industrial route because together I think we could do something that would be really quite cool. On the other hand it would be really good to work with someone who is that talented so we could do something far more experimental. I just think it would be really cool thing to do. He’s told me that he really wants to try something new so perhaps it would be best not to do a version of something we’ve already done.
DiS: What’s on the new music horizon then?
GN: We’ve got a great big batch of songs written at the moment. They’re not finished but they are written. We’ve got another four to six weeks of intensive writing done soon, so I can get two album’s worth of stuff done. Stuff that I’m happy with. So that next year I could put out two new albums and singles because I don’t really put out singles much anymore. I want to become slightly more dynamic and put out singles, albums, big tours, bang, bang bang! And hopefully some collaborations as well. I just want to have an onslaught of stuff. In the last ten years I’ve made two, possibly three albums. It’s been really, really slow and I want to do some new stuff. No more old stuff. All the anniversaries are finished now. The next anniversary will be the 40th anniversary of Pleasure Principle and I won’t be doing it then. Probably.