2:32pm Thursday 8th April 2010
By Rachel Wakefield
What does it feel like to reach cult status in music and be given the moniker Godfather of Electronica? Ask Gary Numan. “On the one hand, it’s flattering and I’m proud that people look to me as influential,“ he comments. “On the other hand, it sets you up as being there, seen it, done it and finish. I’m not, I still have the desire to make music and I’m still obsessed with that ambition.“
Despite his doubts, it was Gary’s bold use of synthesisers in contemporary pop which influenced and laid the foundations for music that led us down the path of keyboard nirvana before Depeche Mode. Before The Cure. Before Duran Duran. Often times cited as an influence for artists ranging from pop to dance, to electronica to industrial, Gary created a sound that was years ahead of its time. In fact, his classic Cars is considered a modern rock staple from 1979, and it still receives regular airplay.
In addition to influencing music, Gary is one of the most covered and remixed artists of the past three decades. The roll-call of musicians who have performed or sampled his songs is virtually a who’s who of British and American music from the past 20 years. Just the tip of the iceburg includes: Damon Albarn (Blur), Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), Marilyn Manson, Basement Jaxx, The Sugababes and Little Boots.
“I’m glad of the recognition,“ replies Gary, “but I don’t feel it’s entirely justified. I’ve been lucky.“ However, he rather poetically emphasises he has never been “a leaf floating down the river of life“, there were a lot of circumstances which have helped add to the 52-year-old’s success.
“It was The Monkees that influenced me at first. That was long before I started writing songs. It sort of got me thinking that the whole band thing was fun. When I started to write songs and I was looking around, T Rex was my big favourite. Then along came punk and every record company were signing bands. I got signed to Beggars Banquet label as a three-piece, guitar-bass-drums punk band called Tubeway Army.“ And, it was going into cosy confines of the home-built studio, Spaceward in Cambridge, to make a punk record that Gary literally stumbled across a synthesiser - which hadn't been picked up by the hire company - and he had a go.
"It was a Minimoog and it just had an amazing sound, which made the whole room shake.. I just loved it. Just one key did something ten times more powerful than anything I'd ever heard. I had 12 hours to change my guitar-based songs before the hire company came to take it away. I was like a boy in a toy-shop.
"When I went back to the record company with the electronic album, they weren’t too keen to start with but they didn’t have enough money to send me back to the studio, so in the punk spirit they kind of had to go with it – they had no choice."
Fortunately, the gamble between the studio, the record company and him paid off and within six months Gary had a number one single and a number one album.
"By today's standard, it was rubbish," harshly critques Gary on his work Tubeway Army, "but back then it was new and fantastic.
"The whole art of exploring electronic music is to create sounds and layers," explains Gary. "Music for me starts by just tinkering on the piano and tunes come to me, just like that.The hardest part is picking the one that goes in the direction I want it to go with the sounds I've created on the synthesiser. When I began, synthesisers didn't have preset buttons or filters, you had to create sounds through trial and error and that's how I still do it today. "
He makes it sounds simple, which of course it isn't. "It’s like you’re constantly at school," quips Gary. "You’re constantly learning. The technology is changing and the music is changing. You’re constantly needing to reinvent stuff and come up with something new. It’s a tricky thing to do, and the longer your career goes on, the trickier it becomes."
Ask him about which synthesiser he rates or if he's kept any for sentimentality reason and he surprisingly answers: "Synthesisers come and go. I don't have any affection for them. They're just tools of the trade, like a hammer for a builder. The only instrument I'd be devestated to lose is my guitar. My parents bought it for me when I was 12. It's a Gibson Les Paul in a cherry wood sunburst finish. The varnish on the back has gone to the bare wood and various belts and buckles of mine have gouged out the back... war wounds I call it."
Just like his guitar, Gary has kept going, prolifically putting his music out there for eager fans, even when his music wasn't so popular with the mainstream.
"It was luck that got me onto Top of the Pops," continues Gary, about the height of his popularity. "I think the producer had two bands to choose from: Simple Minds or Tubeway Army. He chose mine, because the name sounded right.
"But this and more at the time gave me a false feeling of confidence," he continues. "I felt I had a sixth sense to everything I did; because, at first, everything I did turned to gold. I realised later on that life has given me a huge dollup of luck. And you've got to recognise luck when it falls in your lap."
This "huge dollup" of modest will probably only endear him to his millions of fans, known as Numanoids, across the world.
"Becoming famous is just the icing on the cake," says Gary. "I have had no end of bad reviews by the popular press who just don't get my music. At first, it used to make me angry but I never turned it on myself with drugs or drink, I used the fire of that anger to drive me forward musically. That's why I've never felt special, just lucky that my fans get it. "
Gary’s music is complex: at times melodic, dark and haunting, and moody. His mournful vocal style has a singular and immediately recognisable tone, and his lyrics run the gamut from science fiction to religious overtones to despair and misery.
"People tell me that they find comfort in my lyrics," explains Gary. "A lot of my songs reflect strong emotions of feeling like an outsider. When I was a teenager I felt like I was an unlikeable person. I felt alienated. It wasn't until 2000 when I was properly diagnosed with Asperger that all these feelings started to make sense."
However, now after 30 years in the music business, life seems to be sweeter for Gary. His wife is the former fan club manager, Gemma, he has three beautiful girls all under six. "They are an easy distraction away from work," lovingly states Gary.
He has also teamed up with Ade Fenton, a well-known techno DJ, "Ade is a cool, creative soul mate," acknowledges Gary. The pair are currently writing a new album Splinter, due out later this year.
"I've still got to prove myself," adds Gary. "Even though I'm much older, I'm still ambitious, although it's a more tempered, obssessive dedication these days."
Gary Numan at Scala, Pentonville Road, Kings Cross, N1 9NL on Tuesday, April 13, telephone 020 7833 2022. Gary is also performing a DJ set with Ade Fenton at The Playground, 93 Feet East, 150 Brick Lane, London E1 6QL on Saturday, May 8.
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