MUSIK SANS FRONTIERES
Numan Press Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment

INNOCENCE BLEEDING



Gary Numan talks about fans, fame and the long road back.
by Vincent Abbate

Copyright © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


 Patrick MerckNo one of any worth will be influenced by Gary Numan.

For about a decade, the critic who wrote those words in 1981 appeared to have assessed a musical legacy correctly. While punk was spawning new wave in the late 70s, Gary Numan had been at the front of the pack, landing three straight number one albums in the U.K. But by the mid-80s, he was all but forgotten. In the US, where his "Cars" had reached the top ten, he was regarded as a one-hit wonder. The synthy-poppy-funky records he released in the years following were available as imports or not at all. "I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth for about fifteen years," Gary admitted recently, hours prior to kicking off a ten-concert tour of continental Europe. Having fumbled with commercial success, his subsequent scrambles to recover it led to a music that was "increasingly misdirected. I had no idea what I should be doing, what I should sound like. I'd lost the plot completely."

Then, something unexpected happened. Leading-edge 90s rockers like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson began name-checking Gary Numan at interviews. Juiced-up samples of his songs turned up in the music of the ravers. Kool G Rap rhymed to "Cars"; Fear Factory covered it. In fact, entire CDs full of new interpretations of "Are Friends Electric?," "We Are Glass," and other early Numan classics appeared. While yet to achieve anything near his previous level of chart success (Numan had sold 10 million records by the time he was 25), he and his legion of famous admirers have at very least gone a long way in proving his critics wrong. Fact is, he never did lose relevance to his most diehard fans, the Numanoids. And recently, as his sound has taken a darker, edgier turn, the electronic pioneer has found his way into a fresh crop of young, scarred hearts. "I kind of feel like I'm peaking at 42," he says today.

So is he smiling? Privately, maybe. Every now and then, he'll even sneak a grin onstage. But more than that would unravel the image Gary has created for himself since the Sacrifice album put him back on the map in 1994: that of a haunted man railing at a cruel and deceitful God. A creator who, at best, never existed, and who at worst is the sadistic lord over a game in which humans are pawns. "I'll drive a stake through the back of your heart, oh lord/I'll pull down your temples and burn every word, father," sings the angry voice in "The Angel Wars," a song thematically typical of Numan's recent work.

It's fair to point out that Numan often approaches songwriting like a novelist does a book or a film director a film; automatically equating the singer with the tortured anti-heroes in his songs would be like confusing Hitchcock with Norman Bates. And Numan's appeal (or lack thereof, some would say) has always been at least partially about image: like Madonna or the Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie who inspired him early on, he has adopted a new persona with each of his nearly two dozen albums. There was the sci-fi punker who fronted Tubeway Army; the 1930s gangster film dandy off the cover of Dance; the leather-clad Warrior; the blue-haired, masked Berserker. Along the way, he quoted musically and visually from sources as diverse as Mad Max, authors William Burroughs and Philip K. Dick and the Dick-inspired film Blade Runner. For the cover of his brand new release, Pure, the artist donned a cassock and hung himself upon an invisible cross in a mock crucifixion. A move that now has him turning up in goth magazines alongside Cradle of Filth and The 69 Eyes.

But, this is Gary Numan we're talking about. The smallish man I find backstage, pulling two chairs up to a portable radiator for the interview, is Gary Webb. He is not wearing eye-liner. (Though his fingernails do bear a slick coat of black polish.) Born in West London in 1959 and a star by the age of 21, Gary (now twice that age) is a man keenly aware of his limitations as a singer, musician, and human being. A friendly and forthright, yet sensitive artist who retreated from his early stardom because he couldn't come to grips with it.

"One day you're sitting at home and nobody knows you. The next day you're in a toilet with Brian Ferry standing next to you waiting to do a TV show. 'Oh, hello!' It's such a huge change, and people kind of expect you to take it in your stride, as though it's just another day. And it isn't. It's everything you ever dreamed of. More than you ever dreamed of. And only half as good." Young man Numan, the target of death threats and the unflagging flogging of the media, found he needed shelter from his sudden fame. But a prematurely announced "retirement" from live performance in 1981 dug him a commercial hole he is still climbing out of. "It was a very sensible thing to do, I think, to get out of touring. But what I did wrong was announce it. I should have just done it quietly, then ease back in when I was on my feet."

 Patrick Merck

By the time he felt roadworthy once more, Beggars Banquet's parent company, WEA, believed Gary's best days were behind him. He walked away and formed his own label, Numa, hoping it would lead to overseas distribution deals. These never materialized. His releases routinely reached the Top 100 at home, allowing him to resume touring within Britain. But major national or international hits eluded him. Numan, who claims he's usually stubborn about his work, began listening to outside advice. "You go such a long period with no success and eventually you think, I wonder if what they've been saying is right. I wonder if I should do a dance track or if I should do a cover. As soon as you do that, you're gone, because you've lost your own sense of purpose. From that moment on, everything you do is diluted with outside opinion. And that's what happened to me."

By his own account, he bottomed out with 1992's Machine & Soul (which included one very unlikely Prince cover), then received helpful advice from Gemma O'Neill, who later became his wife. "I've always been really aware that I'm not a good guitar player and I'm not a good singer and I'm not a good keyboard player. I'm very aware of that. And so I've always tried to cover my records up with other people who are good players. She said, that's silly, because the way I play, whether Gary Numan likes it or not, other people do. So instead of being ashamed of it, be proud of it." While working on the music which would later surface on Sacrifice, Numan realized she was right. "What I'd done was progressively take out the Gary Numan, and put in loads of really great players, but take out the bit that people had perhaps liked in the first place. (...) On the Sacrifice album, 99.9% of it was all me. There's one guitar solo that isn't and one backing vocal which, I think, is three words."

Since the release of Sacrifice, Numan has landed a deal with Eagle Records, released two more albums (1997's Exile and his current release), and taken a road band on tours in the US, UK and continental Europe. At least part of his resurrection has resulted from coming out from behind a bank of synthesizers, strapping on a Gibson Les Paul and fronting a young, muscular rock unit; it's a powerful image of Numan as human. Gary refers to his last three releases as his "heavy albums" and Pure is the most metal-oriented yet. It was a sound he turned on to while touring in support of Exile. "I was going out into all these clubs and hearing all this stuff, and I was massively inspired by all these things I was hearing. Deftones and Trent [Reznor] and all this new music. It was great." Upon returning home, he retreated into his garden shed (it houses a 48-track digital recording studio) with a clear vision of what his next record should sound like. "I wrote more songs than in any other period of my life, and each one was an attempt to get the sound I heard in my head onto tape. Or hard disc, as it is now. And I couldn't do it. (...) It just went on and on. I was getting really depressed. I was ill for a while. I stopped sleeping, I was getting haggard. It was a nightmare!"

Around this time, Gary met two people who would help him get over the hump: Rob Holliday and Steve Monti, sometime members of the influential industrial band Curve and currently half of another project called Sulpher. The duo agreed to add instrument and programming tracks to the mix and wound up with co-producing credits on the album. Interestingly, the musicians collaborated without ever getting together in the real sense. Gary would send them his unfinished recordings on ADAT, "and they had like two weeks to do stuff with it." What Holliday and Monti did fit snugly into Numan's aural plan, and after roughly two years of solid work on the album, Pure was finished. It's typically somber, but sizzles and crackles more than anything Numan has ever done. "The reviews have been really good. That's a massive relief." And unusual, given his relationship with the music press, particularly in his homeland. Asked if he thinks that, twenty years ago, British journalists were keen to shoot him down because he'd been successful at such a tender age, he smirks. "Yeah. But they carried on shooting when I was down."

As Numan's critical reputation has improved, so has his visibility increased, thanks in part to a whole network of media the artist has constructed around himself. These include a fan club magazine, Alien, three separate UK phone services and the visually dazzling NuWorld website. As our talk turns to his active involvement in creating his Internet face, Gary is quick to point out that the site, while giving fans the chance to send questions via e-mail, offers no live one-on-one interaction. "I've found the more fanatical element of the fans to be a little bit too much. Advising me on what songs to write, what songs to sing, what mixes to do and just a little bit beyond what I think is acceptable. When you have comments about 'why was your hair sweaty at the end of your show?' ... you know, complaining about it ... it's all gone a little bit stupid."

Anyone visiting the NuWorld site can read detailed responses by Tony Webb (Gary's father and manager) to fan complaints about the quality of tour T-shirts or that Gary had the nerve to wear the same outfit at four consecutive shows. Apparently, the crazies Numan talks about having fled did not vanish with his disappearance from concert stages in 1981. The artist still feels hounded by them. For the first time during a casual half-hour chat, I catch a glimpse of the temper Numan wrote about in his autobiography. "It's less what they say than the fact that they've got the bloody cheek to say it. They'll say: well I've been your fan for ages and you haven't done anything good since 1980. How can you be a fan! If you're not a fan, go away and hassle somebody else." When pressed, he qualifies caustic statements like these with claims that ninety-nine percent of his fans are "brilliant". But moments later, his blood is boiling again. "I'm doing this web site, putting a huge amount of time into it, kind of as a favor. So don't start telling me what I've got to do with it. I don't come around to your house and tell you what carpets to have or what clothes to wear to work. So fuck off!"

Maybe the screaming Gary Numan does on his new record comes from having to swallow the stuff thrown at him by the one percent of fans he dreads. It would be interesting to ask whether some of the ghosts that haunt him in his songs are these fans. Or if indeed they are the "they" he sings of in Pure's "Walking With Shadows": "All they want is your heart and soul/they want your tears to fall."

It would be interesting to know. But the interviews are tightly scheduled this evening. Television is waiting outside.

* * *
There are more Numanoids among us than you might think. The NuWorld website (www.numan.co.uk) offers links to "The Sleep Room", "Dead Heaven", the "World Wide Webb" and 38 other fan sites. Gary Numan's next U.S. tour is tentatively planned for March 2001.
* * *
Thanks to all of you who helped make this first year of Musik Sans Frontieres possible. Please check out our archives, where you'll find all our past feature stories. And don't forget to support the artists themselves by at least occasionally BUYING (as opposed to borrowing or stealing) their music!


Gary Numan's website, NuWorld is at:

www.numan.co.uk

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vincent@3ampublishing.com


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