Gary Numan with Trouble Lights
Blue Moose Tap House — Nov. 5 at 9 p.m.
Gary Numan, the electronic music innovator who left his mark on pop music with the hit “Cars,” heads to the Blue Moose Tap House Nov. 5.
Though Numan fell out of favor with the mainstream record-buying public after the early 1980s, he continued to take his music forward, incorporating jazz influences and later honing a darker, industrial aesthetic. Since the 1990s, when musicians like Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson began citing his music as a major influence, Numan has earned considerable esteem for the various directions he has taken electronic music in and his continuing contributions to the genre.
Little Village caught up with Numan by email to discuss his career and influence, the musical value of synthesizers and what drives him to keep making music.
Little Village: Your original success was in the context of punk music in the late 1970s. You’ve survived and continued to make new music when a lot of the artists from that time are gone now. Who do you miss from those days, creatively or personally?
Gary Numan:[I] didn’t have any success with my punk band, unfortunately, but it did get a record deal with Beggars Banquet in the UK and, soon after, I discovered synths and electronic music. That was when the success came. I miss that innocence, I think. The days of sitting home in your bedroom dreaming about having a life in a band, making albums, touring the world. When it was all still just a dream.
I have all those things now, and I enjoy every aspect of it, but I still envy young people that have yet to make their mark somehow. Seeing your dreams become a reality is very special. Life stretches out ahead of you, full of promise and hope. I miss that feeling.
Since the beginning of your career you’ve explored themes from science fiction, and your sound was perceived as futuristic. Now that we’re living in the future, how does it feel?
I did one album that had a sci-fi theme, back in 1979, but that was about it (give or take one or two other songs), and I’ve made about twenty albums so I’m really not the sci-fi geek that people think. The futuristic label came from the fact that I was using synths and making electronic music at a time when it was very new.
I love life now, I love the technologies we enjoy, the rate at which new and amazing things are being created. It’s exciting.
You’ve been cited as an influence by everyone from Marilyn Manson to the Belleville Three of the original Detroit techno scene. Of the music that claims your influence, is there any you enjoy in particular?
I very rarely listen to music. I don’t listen to radio, don’t play albums at home, don’t listen in the car. I do go to gigs fairly often, but, generally speaking, I don’t have that much to do with music when I’m not in the studio actually making it.
You have a particular fame among synthesizer enthusiasts. Can you share with us what machines and techniques you use currently for live performance?
A fame that’s entirely undeserved I’m ashamed to say. I have no great expertise when it comes to synths. I don’t care how they work, whether they’re digital or analogue, any of that tech stuff that so many people can talk about for hours. I don’t care about any of it. All I care about is, “Can I get a good sound out of this?”
Nothing else matters when it comes to sound design. I’ve made some incredible sounds by scraping concrete across a metal drain cover. Synths are just one way of creating sounds, and it’s sounds that interest me. Synths are like screw drivers, hammers, they do a job.
I hear people talk about them with a sense of awe, or romance, like legendary machines from a bygone era. They just make noise. The skill is shaping that noise into something musical. I guess that’s close to heresy for a synth fan.
You’ve said things in interviews about being on the autism spectrum, something David Byrne has said as well. How do you think that has influenced your creative life?
It’s given me a very particular perspective on life I guess. I don’t always see things quite the way other people do, or process them in the same way. How it shapes the way I create music is impossible to say but I do know that, emotionally, I feel things quite differently and that has to come out in the writing somehow.
I’m glad I have it. I have always seen it as a positive thing. It has helped me brush aside many things that might have crushed a person without it. I have obsessive tendencies which, in some respects, is exactly what you need to survive a long career in the music business. I can shut out the world if I need to.
Though you’re known for pioneering a ‘robotic synth pop sound,’ your own voice is an instantly recognizable instrument. Does this seem ironic?
I think the only true “pop” song I ever wrote was “Cars” and, strangely enough, I wrote that on a bass guitar. But I still wouldn’t label that as synth pop. Most of my music, before “Cars” and afterwards, especially over the last twenty years, has been heavy, dark and often quite aggressive. It’s a million miles away from synth pop. I’m known for pioneering electronic music which is a very different thing.
The voice is a double-edged sword. It is distinctive which is good on one hand, but a disaster on the other. If you like it, great. If not, then I’m in trouble because it’s the only one I have. Can’t change it.
What contemporary music, if any, excites you? Are there any lesser-known musicians you recommend fans of your music seek out?
Three bands spring to mind: Officers, The Losers and Roman Remains are all great bands that I’ve worked with recently. I just heard the London Grammar album as well, loving that.
Your songs have been covered by many other musicians (e.g. Robert Palmer’s cover of “I Dream of Wires”) — do you have favorite cover versions?
My favourite is the Nine Inch Nails cover of “Metal” but there have been so many now it’s hard to remember them all. The Foo Fighters did a great cover of my “Down In The Park” song as well.
What motivates you to continue to write, produce and perform music?
The desire to do better. The desire to create sounds that no one has heard before. Writing songs enables me to release feelings that would be unhealthy if kept bottled up, I think. It’s a need more than anything, but I do love creating music. I love being in a band, touring the world. Standing on a stage with the volume shaking the floor, people reaching out to you and cheering. Nothing like it.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I have three young children, so my life is totally wrapped up in them whenever I’m not working. I used to fly World War II aeroplanes at air shows all over Europe but most of my friends were killed in various crashes so, when the children came along, I decided I should find another hobby. I’m still looking.
Have you ever set foot in the state of Iowa before?
I honestly can’t remember. But, as I can barely remember where I was yesterday, that’s not surprising. I’m looking forward to it though, whether it’s the first time or not. I love travelling, it’s one of the things about touring that many people grumble about but I love it.