It’s a Friday night in North London in late 2015. There’s a venue in the area named The Forum. It’s open for business, however the turn on the stage is winding up for the night. The instruments are silent, the band standing slightly relaxed, but slightly on edge as there’s at least one more song to perform. The singer clings to his microphone stand and surveys the 2000-plus people that are stood before him. All of the songs played in this venue tonight have been drawn from a period of time that ended a long time ago: 1979-80. All of the songs played tonight created a household name. All of the songs played tonight mean so much to the individuals that stand before the artist.
“I know I don’t play these songs very often, but they are quite good, aren’t they?”
The 2000-plus audience howl their appreciation. “Thank you for coming and thank you for still being there after all this time. I didn’t realise how hard it’s been for most of you over the years. But I do now and I’m very, very grateful.”
This is GARY NUMAN, a musician, artist and songwriter with a devoted fanbase that has strengthened and hardened down the years. Now, finally, his peers are recognising that consistency coupled with a belligerent desire to plough his own furrow has meant that, nearly 40 years after his first release, Numan has earned the right to be seen as influential. Very influential.
Fronting a punk band, Tubeway Army, Gary Numan nascently organised his songs into three-chord noises. He picked up the basic record deal from a fledgling punk label, Beggars Banquet, and on arriving at Spaceward Studios in Cambridge in late 1978 was astonished to find the previous client had left a synthesiser in the studio. Switched on and programmed. The teenager cautiously pressed a key and, without knowing, became one of the biggest electronic music artists ever.
Numan sits at his desk in his home studio in sunny California. He relocated with his young family around five years ago and is currently relaxing before the second half of his Savage tour begins in Scandinavia and then marches into the UK with a sold-out show at Liverpool O2 Academy (tickets are still available at Preston Guild Hall, if you fancy a small road trip).
So, with that introduction and an imminent return to the North West in the offing, is Numan approaching his work in a different way now than he did, say, 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago?
“I don’t think so,” he tells me. “I’m essentially an electronic music artist so the technology you use is constantly changing and you have to adapt to that and learn new things with every album. But, with that requirement understood, it doesn’t really change that much at a basic level. We may record straight to a hard drive instead of a tape recorder but the process is very similar: the detail changes but the underlying function is much the same. You [still] have to write a tune, record it, make it better with production, mix it and then put it on a format that people can listen to.”
Numan’s music has seen artists such as Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, Dave Grohl, Beck, Marilyn Manson, Billy Corgan cover and eulogise about the importance of his work. Heck, even Bowie and Prince have commented on certain areas of his work. Even with a heavier, industrial music style, has his approach to songwriting changed today from the very early days of being, ostensibly, punk?
“Not a great deal. I sit at a piano and come up with tunes. What happens after that has changed enormously of course but the basic job of coming up with a tune and structure is much the same now as it’s always been.”
“I would suggest don’t try to write your version of something you’ve heard elsewhere,” he continues. “Don’t accept the first thing you come up with, everything can be better. Make melody the heart of every song you write.”
Gary Numan performing at Liverpool Olympia (John Johnson)
Advice that has been forged through a learning curve that has seen Numan’s album sales veer between the fantastical and the less so. Yet, for every bump in the road, the journey has seemed less arduous as the above statement has carried his expertise into a new generation. A generation that haven’t hurled him into the nostalgia machine. Numan’s recent studio album Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind), released in 2013, has arguably some of his best and most complex songwriting of the last 30 years.
“The bumpier the ride, the more proud you feel to survive and have worked your way through the more difficult moments. I’ve been about as big as you can be, and I’ve also seen sales and interest so low it appeared to be all over, more than once. Coping with success is fairly easy, coping with losing it not so much. The important thing, the thing that kept me completely sane and grounded throughout the highs and the lows, is that it’s always been a hobby for me as much as a career. Sometimes a hobby that paid well, sometimes one that didn’t pay at all, but I’ve always loved doing it. For me, success is the icing on the cake, the cherry on top, the cake itself is just being a professional musician, being in a band and all that entails and that’s actually enough. If you simply enjoy being a part of this, successful or not, then any extra success that comes your way is just a special treat once in a while.”
After the trials and tribulations of the last 40 years, being grounded has meant there is a relaxed beauty about how Numan develops his work. His answers are thoughtful and, for anyone who has crossed his path, unnervingly honest. Embracing his fanbase, talking candidly about his back catalogue and attitudes towards him and his music has seen a gigantic shift from the loathed to the loved. Something that, during his career, was absolutely unthinkable. The Ivor Novello awards in 2017 saw Gary Numan finally get to stand up and be counted. Sharing an evening of awards dished out to Anne Dudley, Skepta, Bill Withers, Nitin Sawhney et al, he received one of the coveted little trophies. “I’ve been doing this a long time and that was probably my proudest moment,” he admits.
Rising through the tastemaker violence of the music industry to achieve global success, invoking the chagrin of those that seek to starmake, Numan has remained. The Ivor Novello Inspiration Award is years of regeneration finally putting a stamp on an industry that has mocked and ridiculed his work. To see Numan lauded and respected in this way is almost payback for some of the vitriol that he has undertaken to get to this point.
Does he have any idea, I wonder, why he has retained his popularity in our city? “I don’t know. I’m very grateful for it though,” he confesses. “Liverpool is definitely one of those places that makes playing live such an exciting thing to do. There is an unbridled enthusiasm you don’t always get in some other places. The Exhibition Centre show was the biggest crowd I’d played to in Liverpool in decades so that was very exciting. It was the first show playing songs from the new Savage album, the first time that my 11-year-old daughter ever performed, so it was quite a night!”
Can you recall a really good show in Liverpool?
“I’ve played there so many times but I think my favourite was at the Olympia a few years ago in 2016. I just loved the building and the crowd seemed particularly up for it.”
Liverpool has always embraced artists with creativity and resilience. After 19 studio albums, two number ones and a UK albums chart placing of number two for Savage, Gary Numan has left an indelible mark on an industry that never quite understood what he was trying to do. That mark is firmly etched on those that chose to embrace and buy into the otherworldly pop noises from 1979. It is now 2018 and Gary Numan is still crafting his art, and finally being recognised for it. Here in Liverpool and across the globe.
Gary Numan plays O2 Academy on 24th March