An interview with synth pop pioneer Gary Numan
By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 2000
The following interview with synthpop legend Gary Numan was conducted in 2000, as he was releasing the album “Pure.”
What effect has the evolution of electronic musical technology had on your approach to music?
Gary Numan : “I think when it comes to songwriting, I really hasn’t had much of an effect at all. For starting blocks of the songs I write, I usually sit down at the piano and come up with melody and basic arrangements. It’s what you can do with it afterwards that is fundamentally different. The amount of technology is quite incredible, really. It requires a great deal of discipline, because you can spend a week finding the right snare drum, because you just can. I must have a library of 1000 or 2000 snare drums; it’s just ridiculous, really. And of course everyone one that you chose, you can tweak in a million and one different ways. So the possibility to search for the perfect sound is just incredible, really.”
How do you deal with that?
Gary Numan : “I’m not actually very good at it, that’s why it takes me so long to make records now. I don’t have a lot of confidence, anyway, so when I’m working in the studio I’m riddled with self-doubt. So I tend of keep looking and looking and looking. It’s been three years since the last album, and not all of it was spent on the studio, but even so, I used to do like 2 albums a year at one point. And now just takes forever. It’s not like there’s a shortage of ideas, quite the opposite; it’s just that it takes so long to feel like you’ve really explored each aspect of it. I’ve really got to look at that, because I’m not sure at the end of the day if anyone notices. You go through all your software effects and your hardware effects, and mess with it and put together a thousand combinations to get the sound that you’re looking for. And in reality, it’s not that much different that the one you came up with on attempt number 10. I can’t get it out of my head that there might be a better one just around the corner.”
Do you ever end up with things that take you by surprise?
Gary Numan : “I can set up a sequence, set up all the MIDI channels, and then completely re-patch it in a random way and just see what sounds it’s triggering off. And then some of those will work sometimes. But again, it takes time to set that up and it takes time to do it. One or two of them will work, but you’ll say ‘I can probably get that a bit better!’ I’m just getting ready to start the next cd now and I’m really thinking hard about ways to be more efficient about it, to try to make the best record in under a year. The problem with having the big gap between albums is that it’s impossible to keep the momentum going. I came to America in 98 to do that tour, and then I started the next record and now I’m here again. That’s a 3-year gap, and I have to be more efficient. I have to give myself a day, and whatever sound I come up with at the end of that day, the bass, the drums, the guitar, whatever, that’s the one. Because if you haven’t come up with a good sound after a day or searching, you’re probably not going to find it anyway. It’s been a recent realization for me, I’ve just got to sort myself out and be more efficient.”
Do you try to keep up with the latest gear?
Gary Numan : “I don’t read magazines all the time and keep up with everything. I do it in stages. Only when I’m going to start an album. I’m doing it now; I’ve got a bunch of tech magazines and am bringing myself up to speed on what’s available and what it can do. Then I will make the decisions of what, if anything, I will get. I’ll go out and get some new gear, if I think it’s worthwhile and then start again. On the last album, I went from using 2-inch analog tape, 24 track, to multitrack hard disc recording, 48 track. I went to a digital desk. That was going on as I was making the album, I got an Akai S5000, that was about it.”
Is there anything in particular that you’re looking for?
Gary Numan : For a long time, I think, the synthesizer technology has become more capable, they have more voices, more parts, the onboard effects got more usable. But the actual sounds that have been coming out have kind of stagnated, I feel, from what they are capable of. There hasn’t been a lot of development in the sound side of it. And that didn’t interest me very much. So I’m looking about now to see if that’s changed. I hope its has.”
So you’re totally self-sufficient with your home studio?
Gary Numan : “It’s just in the my garden, used to be an old shed, no windows, no doors, complete derelict. My dad and I renovated it, put a new roof in, and windows. And that took about 6 months, another reason for the three year gap.”
How long have you had a home studio set-up?
Gary Numan : “I think about 12 or 13 years. Before that, I had a commercial studio that I owned, it wasn’t a home studio, but it was mine and I rented out to other people. Today, the technology is so good and relatively cheap, compared to what it was. You can make a record today of incredible quality, with the gear you’ve got sitting in your bedroom at home.”
Back when you started, did you feel limited at all by the available technology?
Gary Numan : “At the time, no. In 1978 when I started doing electronic music, the technology at the time seemed incredible. You didn’t feel limited by it. It’s only when you look back now, and compare it to what you can do now. I wasn’t sitting there thinking, if only we had this, if only we had that. Except for sampling. We were trying to do the same thing that you can do with samplers now, before samplers where available. We would go out and record things, on cassette recorders, wandering around the studio parking lot, banging things, slamming doors, to get sounds. Then we would take it into the studio and make up actual tape loops. It was a fiddly way to do it, but it worked. We thought ‘wouldn’t it be great if we had a machine where we could just click a button’, and then the samplers came along. But apart from that, everything else was an enjoyable surprise, because I wasn’t particularly missing it.”
Have you made a conscious effort to update your material when you play it live now?
Gary Numan : “I’ve updated pretty much everything I’ve done, I don’t do many things live the way they were recorded. I think ‘Cars’ is the one song that I’ve really struggled with to make more contemporary. The original ‘Cars’ still sounds, to me, pretty much as through it could come out today. Apart from a few minor tweaks, with that song I can’t think of what to do with it.”
Did you have any idea that would end up as your most famous song?
Gary Numan : “No, when I wrote it my intention was just to write a whole load of throwaway pop stuff for that album. I didn’t have any guitars on that album, and I just wanted to make one disposable pop album for the fun of it. The one before, called ‘Replicants,’ had ‘Down In The Park,’ which was very heavy, a bit more serious. So I just wanted to do pop music, and thought ‘Cars’ was here today, gone tomorrow. I don’t know what happened with that, the fact that it’s done so well over the years – I never quite figured it out, really. It was the quickest song I ever wrote. I wrote it on bass guitar, I didn’t even write it on the keyboard, and it took about 10 minutes, the tune and the lyrics. The keyboard part came later, I mean the main melody and arrangement of the song and lyrics. It was about 10 minutes, beginning to end. I bought a bass guitar because I couldn’t really play bass and wanted to learn it properly so I could do slightly more funky songs. Never did get good at it, I was a rubbish bass player. But I went out, bought the bass guitar, came home, and the very first thing I played when I got it out of the case, hadn’t even plugged it in, was the first bit of ‘Cars’, Then I came up with other little bits, and each one was right. That’s the only time that’s ever happened.”
So you’ve tried to update “Cars”?
Gary Numan : “I did try to update it, I just couldn’t get it any better. The version we’re doing now is another attempt to update it, but it doesn’t sound any better. But there are other things going on, so for us it is a bit more interesting, there’s something new about it. But I don’t think it’s any better, other songs have been made better by updating them. I have done it a lot. There have been a few occasions where I have not played it live, but it’s not worth it. I get such shit from people. And it’s only fair really, it’s one of the biggest songs I’ve had, and people expect it. They pay money for a ticket, and they come along expecting it to hear some things.”
What was it like working with Fear Factory on their cover of “Cars”?
Gary Numan : “Oh, it was great. It was really good. I love them. The whole ‘Cars’ thing for me … I’m starting to get paranoid about it, this old 80’s tag sort of haunts you a little bit. In some ways, it can get in the way of newer stuff. So when the Fear Factory thing came along, I was really worried about it. As a policy, I avoid anything to do with the 80’s like the plague. In England, I don’t do any TV shows, or anything to do with the 80’s. When those retro tours happened a few years ago, with Culture Club and that lot, I got asked but it was not for me. So when the Fear Factory thing came along, I really wanted to do it because I like them and I thought it would be interesting. But I was really worried about people thinking ‘well here comes Gary Numan with the one song he’s written’ type of thing. It was a bit of a worry. But on the other hand, there was a chance that it could introduce me to a new generation of people who didn’t know my history. And that can be useful, because my music’s got a lot heavier and darker anyway, so it could be a good way of introducing myself to them. So that’s why I decided to do it. But I didn’t really know them as people, so when I got to Vancouver and met them, they were great. Brilliant, really easy to work with. They didn’t have a bad word to say about anyone, they loved music, had praise for other people and what they were doing. And I love that. English people, in my experience, can get a little bitter. In England, if you talk to someone about music, they list the people they don’t like. It’s depressing, surely you love music to get into music in the first place. It must be the island mentality, that makes you really aggressively protective of your own thing, and makes you want to fight everyone. But Fear Factory weren’t like that, and it was the best. And I learned a lot, they gave me name of bands I’d never even heard of.. After that I checked all these people out, and it really helped. When it came time to make this album, listening to new stuff had a big effect on me. It improved my song writing a lot. It changed my feelings about working with other people as well, I had always been weary of it.”
Photo by Michelle Pedone