Although Gary Numan has never been one to dwell on antiquities of the past, the idea of performing his breakthrough album The Pleasure Principle was simply too tempting to resist. Now in it’s 30th Anniversary, the album that spawned the hit single Cars will be performed in its entirety on Numan’s upcoming American tour. In this interview, we discuss with Numan about this tremendously influential work, how Cars virtually changed his life, including an appearance where he performed the hit song on a vintage episode of Saturday Night Live. We also spoke about his recent projects, as well as Numan’s thoughts on religion and his previous support of the English conservative party. It is an honor to present to you the Highwire Daze interview with the enigmatic Gary Numan…
What are your first impressions when you realize that The Pleasure Principle was released 30 years ago?
(Laughs) It makes me feel old, more than anything. The memories of actually making it and what was going on at the time are still surprisingly fresh, considering how long it’s been. These sort of big anniversaries – they kind of creep up on you a little bit. You get busy with your life and your career and all the various things that come at you. You’re just working away and working away – and then all of sudden somebody says, “Do you realize that it was 30 years ago that that album came out?” I think what happened over here – the NME (the music paper) did a really lovely piece on it actually – saying what an influential album it had been. It was a really, really nice thing to read. And I suddenly thought, “30 years! It’s seems like yesterday! It really does!”
Since your music has changed dramatically since The Pleasure Principle, how do you feel about revisiting these old songs again? And did you have to relearn any of them?
Yeah, I had to pretty much relearn about three quarters of it! We do some of the songs live now. Obviously we do Cars from time to time because it was a big single. Nine Inch Nails did a cover version of Metal, so that was like a new lease on life in recent times. We do maybe three or four songs from it at various times when we play live. But the majority of it I haven’t listened to or played from since ’79, when I actually wrote it. So I have to pretty much refresh myself with the whole thing – where the sounds came from and what the parts were. But it was really good. I’m not really a big fan of retro or nostalgia at all. If a do a tour now, we do 20 odd songs in a show, and maybe 4-5 of those perhaps would be old songs. I don’t really like going back and revisiting the past too much. Although there are obviously some key things that the fans would expect. There’s an obligation to some songs, but generally speaking, I don’t get involved in these “Here and Now” tours and those kind of things. So going back and doing Pleasure Principle in its entirety is not something I would be interested in – it’s just that it is 30 years and it’s such a major milestone – to have an album that is 30 years old but to still actually be doing this for a living – this is still what I do. It’s kind of a cool thing in a way. And because in the last year or two there’s such a lot of positive comment about the album – it doesn’t feel like such a backwards step as it would have been a while back. And we did it last year in Britain in November / December and it was actually more fun than I had expected. I think because I was playing keyboards in pretty much every song – and I don’t really play keyboards live at all now – I do guitar a bit and maybe I’m just at the front singing. So actually to do really an hour of just standing in the front playing keyboards – it was good – I really enjoyed it! I got a lot more out of it than I was expecting to. And the thing that was really cool about it, was the first 50 minutes or so of the show was that album, and then the very next song we did after Pleasure Principle was a brand new song that we had been working on. And it felt like to me that I was book marking. I was enjoying the fact that I had made Pleasure Principle – what it’s done and what it means to some people – and then making a bit of a statement about where we’ve gone since then. It didn’t have an entirely retro feel to it, which I think I would have been a bit more bothered with that.
Of course your biggest hit single Cars is on that album. How do you feel about that particular song 30 years later?
I written I think 350-400 – I’ve written a lot of songs over the years that have come out on CD. I think that only two of those had ever been written on a bass guitar. One of them was an album track in the mid 80’s somewhere – and the other one was Cars – it was the first song I’d ever write on a bass guitar. So it strikes me as peculiar in a way – the biggest song that I’ve ever written through all of my electronic and technology reputation – I actually write my biggest song on a bass guitar. I’ve always had a slightly smile in the corner of my face about it. To me, it’s good. It’s one of those things – there have been times where I’ve been a bit sick of it and in the show it was like a big bird just pecking away at you. And other times – and certainly more recently – I’ve grown to appreciate it. It’s become such a well-known song in so many places. I actually feel grateful now and I appreciate it. There’s an awful lot of people who would love to be in a position to have written a song that has become that well known – and has lasted so long I think as well. I’ve grown to become proud of it in a way that I never was for the first 10-15 years of its life. It kind of seemed to get in the way actually for the first 10-15 years.
What was the experience like performing Cars on Saturday Night Live?
(Laughs) Terrifying actually! You’re really aware that it’s such a big, big opportunity and it was such a cool program! I don’t know how it fairs these days, but certainly then it was just an epic program that everyone wanted to do. So to get on it in the first place was a real honor – but with that honor comes a huge pressure because you realize just how important it is. But everyone there was very cool – everyone was very kind to us. There was a kindness and acceptance from the people there – who were all sort of huge stars in their own right. I was very grateful for that. Everyone put us at ease and was very kind to us. But the reaction to it was almost immediate. We did that show and it went out – and the next day we were on the bus and we were driving somewhere – and we stopped at a truck stop and everybody knew who you were. Right before that, nobody knew me. I could have jumped up and down in the middle of the street screaming my head off, and nobody would have taken any notice whatsoever. The next day, as soon you got off the bus, everyone knew who you were. It changed a lot of things literally overnight. It was a very good, positive experience from beginning to end.
How do you feel about the song showing up on The Simpsons and South Park, and are you a fan of either of those shows?
Yeah! You know, it seems silly to sort of hold them up as the pinnacles of your success – but they really are kind of the coolest things you could get. Another one that a lot of people don’t get is William Shatner has apparently done a version of Cars. Now I’m a trekkie – and to have the Captain of the Enterprise doing one your songs – you have Captain Kirk doing one of your songs – and being on South Park, being on The Simpsons – that’s it! It doesn’t get any better than that.
How did you feel about Fear Factory’s version of Cars and how did that all come about?
I love it. When I worked with them on their version and when I finished it, we made our own version much heavier and a little bit faster. In fact, to this day, we probably do a cover version of Fear Factory’s cover version because I really like what they did with it. It’s pretty much true to the original – it’s just much bigger – much more powerful. And when they played it live, it was absolutely awesome. It came about – a friend of mine was a journalist – he was doing an interview with them. And they got talking about me – and I think then they even said they were interested in doing it – I’m not exactly sure. But it was from that meeting that they got in touch with me via my friend. They were great actually. They flew us out to Vancouver and we did the track and they were very cool people to hang out with. And then awhile later, they flew me back over to work on the video – which was again a really cool experience. I really enjoyed it! And I’ve kind of stayed in touch with them, at least off and on ever since. I don’t know what the lineup is at the moment – I know it’s changed a lot. I used to see Burton off and on – and then I think there were some problems with the band and I didn’t see him. But again, a really good, positive experience. It showed me that Cars could be a much heavier song than I had ever thought possible.
What do you think of Afrika Bambaataa’s cover of Metal and the hip-hop scene in general?
I struggle a bit with hip-hop, but I’m a real admirer of Bambaataa, so again, for me, it was an honor. For him to take that track and do his thing with it – it’s just the fact that he wanted to be involved with it at all – I was very proud of it. I remain very proud of it. I find it really interesting that people from completely different genres of music and completely different backgrounds will take something of mine and then turn it into something new. Nine Inch Nails did a version of that song as well, which was just absolutely amazing! I did that with them recently – last year when they did those final shows. When you’ve got Nine Inch Nails doing a version of a song – and you’ve got Africa Bambaataa doing a version of the same song – the fact that you’re having an affect on people from different areas in a songwriting point of view makes me feel very proud. I enjoyed both experiences actually. Bambaataa is very, very interesting and really cool. And obviously I’m a massive Trent Reznor fan anyway, so it’s been good. The thing I’ve been most proud of for all that’s been going on recently is the diverse range of people that have done cover versions of my stuff – and have taken samples and used them for basic tracks – you know, Foo Fighters and Marilyn Manson and Fear Factory – and then pop with your Sugababes and so on. It’s been a very, very wide range of genres that have looked into my stuff and I think from a songwriter’s point of view, I really get proud of that. I’ve really not taken it for granted at all – I still get really excited when I hear that someone is going to do a cover version or sample my songs – I’m still like a little boy in a sweets shop. I’m so flattered by it and I feel so honored. Because a lot of these other people are very, very clever people in their own right – very skilled songwriters and so on. So for them to talk about one of my songs as being influential – I think it’s such a cool thing and I’m excited about it when it happens now as I was 15 – 20 years ago.
Tell me about the new album Splinter, and is there any story or concept behind the title?
When I first started to write about it, it was going to be an extension of the previous album. I kind of looked back on the history of all the various people I’ve met over the years being damaged in some way. I’ve obviously been doing this for a very long time, and in the course of that, you do get to know people that aren’t entirely together – that’s putting it kindly really. And so I wrote an album about that. And the idea with Splinter was to take that even further and go even darker into not just other people, but to certain things that I’ve been through myself. As I’m writing it, it’s kind of not going down that path at the moment. It’s actually lost any sort of thing I was hoping to have for it at the moment, but I’m still working on it and I’m still writing, so it depends. I’m going to put it back another few months to see how it develops.
It looks like it’s not going to come out 2010 then…
We’re looking now into 2011. It’s entirely my fault. I tried to work on two albums at the same time. There’s another album we’ve been working on called Dead Son Rising. I made a mistake basically. I shouldn’t have been working on two albums side by side, because all it’s really done is slowed them both down. We’ve done quite a lot of live work as well, so it’s been really fragmented studio time and it’s not the best way to do it. You really need to get in there and shut yourself away and just get on with it. And I’ve been doing three or four days here and then been away for a week and it’s been so fragmented. You think I’d know better really – I’ve been doing it for so long! So I learned a valuable lesson – that if you are going to do an album – just do one not two. And if you are going to do one, don’t do anything else. Get in the studio, shut the door, lock the world out and get on with it. You cannot do it in little bits and pieces. It takes time for your mind to focus on ideas and develop them. It doesn’t happen in bits and pieces. The American Tour is just around the corner really, so I’ve got maybe a month now and then we’re off again. I’ve just been very silly about the way I’ve gone about it. I tried to do something different and it just completely backfired.
Tell me a little about Dead Son Rising…
It’s another album I was working on. I had a few songs from the last album right before that I really liked but didn’t put on the album for various reasons. And I wanted to finish those off. And then there were various amounts of new things I had written in the meantime. Even when you’re working on a new sound and learning a new technology, quite often the easiest way to learn it is just to write a song and see what comes through. And so I’ve got lots of that sort of thing, which tend to just sit on the shelf really and never really see the light of day. So I thought it would be really cool to take all those things and put them all together – finish them off and write some new stuff for it as well. About an hours worth of music – and have that ready as an album at the same time that I’d have Splinter ready. So Dead Son Rising was this other project – some new stuff and some previously written stuff. The idea was to try and get two albums out fairly close together because the last two albums had quite long gaps between them. It’s not very ideal for bands and it lacks momentum. The idea was to have these two albums released together and try to build up some momentum and a bit of excitement. One album would come out – and then three or four months later another album would come out and there would be lots of touring. Just try to divide the whole thing up a bit and give it some momentum and pace. But as I said, I absolutely shot myself in the foot with that and I’ve made it worse than ever.
Are you an active member of the conservative party, and what do you think about Margaret Thatcher in retrospect?
I’m not actually. The last election that we had over here, I didn’t even vote. I’ve become disenchanted with the whole British process at the moment. I don’t know if you’re familiar with what’s been going on over here, but there’s been huge scandal after scandal to do with expenses – and every party is involved in it. And it just feels corrupt and abused from top to bottom. After a while, you begin to feel that whomever you vote for – you’re simply voting for the person that’s the most convincing liar. And it’s a very negative sort of feeling – and it’s quite widespread. I know a number of my friends who in the past were quite active in one party or another. Disenchantment is kind of just running through all of us. It’s pretty much why we’ve got a hung Parliament and a coalition at the moment – there’s just no real clear path to follow. No one to really believe in. There was a lot of tactical voting going on, which made it an even bigger disaster than it should have been. But no, I’m no longer a great conservative supporter, but nor am I a great supporter of anybody else at the minute. And looking back on the Thatcher years, I would have to say a lot of it was mistaken – and I think that a lot of my enthusiasm for it was misplaced.
On some of your previous albums, some people have actually mistaken your work for all-out Satanism. What do you think of those comments?
I think it’s probably an extreme reaction. That’s a long way from where I have my own views. I am Atheist – I don’t believe at all. And that’s a long way from being Satanist. I struggle with the whole concept of God. In fact, only last night the Rich Dawkins film was on called The God Delusion. It’s just that I find the concept of religion and that one could do whatever you’d like just in the name of religion– I find that a truly terrifying thing. And that’s really been my problem with it. If people find comfort from having faith, then I have no problem with that. When it’s done in a passive way and it just simply helps people to get through life or to deal with grief and so on – or even to give them meaning. I don’t believe in it but I have no problem with it. It’s when it goes beyond that – “My God’s better than your God” or “My way of believing in it is better than your way of believing in it.” I find it frightening – when atrocities are carried out in the name of an all-loving God, then something’s wrong, and it’s frightening, and I don’t understand that degree of fanaticism at all. And I don’t understand how it could get to that – when you have such a strong belief in something which is meant to be benevolent and kind – how that could so easily become destructive and kill people. It’s beyond me! It’s a subject that I could talk about for weeks! But as far as Satanism is concerned, not at all. Most of the lyrics I’ve done tend to either be about the fact that I don’t believe in it at all or there was one album that I wrote where the theme of it was “If I’m wrong and if God is real, then I would actually find that even more terrifying because of what happens and so on.” That was an album called Exile.
Which Gary Numan album would you never want to play in its entirety?
The one called Machine and Soul. I’ve never wanted to play any of it. (Much laughter)
Aw come on – you wouldn’t want to play U Got The Look again?
(Much laughter) Nah, I could live without that.
Do you know if Prince ever heard your version of his song?
God, I hope not!
Okay cool! And last question – do you have any messages for your fans out here in the Los Angeles area?
Yeah, very much so. First of all, Los Angeles has always been one of the stronger areas for me. I am genuinely grateful and I love being there. Me and my wife are actually talking to immigration lawyers now – we’re hoping to move the whole family to Los Angeles as soon as possible. We love it there – have never had a bad time there – and are very much hoping to live there if the authorities will let me in…
Gary Numan will be performing two dates at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles on November 3rd and 4th, where he will perform The Pleasure Prinicple in its entirety!!!
(Interview by Kenneth Morton)
Gary Numan Official Website