Sadly, many people may only know Gary Numan for “Cars,” his surprising, off-the-wall hit from 1979. Yet Numan’s four decade long career belies any classification as a one-hit wonder. Indeed, some of Numan’s best music came immediately before and after he made “Cars.” Taken together, Numan’s catalog makes him one of the most influential figures in electronic music.
Speaking via email while on tour in Europe and in anticipation of performing at Webster Hall Saturday, Numan spoke to us about almost dying while doing the worst job he ever had and the amazing continued popularity of “Cars.”
See also: Six Types of Music Nerds We Tolerate
How do you feel about being cited as a pioneer of electronic music?
It feels great. I don’t really feel like a pioneer, but it’s nice to read just the same. I’m very lucky in that so many people talk about me as being a pioneer, or influential, that it really has helped to generate new interest in me and my music. It’s given me a level of credibility that I couldn’t have dreamed of when I first started.
Before you became a musician, what was the worst job you had?
I had a job fitting air conditioning systems into office buildings that were being built in London. I was once trapped and almost crushed by a huge central shaft that broke away during installation and rolled onto me. It had been snowing and raining heavily and I was almost drowned as it was holding me under about 12 inches of water in the bottom of the building.
“The Pleasure Principle” featured no guitars, but the synthesizers were fed through guitar effects pedals. Why use this technique?
I only did that on some of the parts, in the main the synths were put through anything and everything I could find, guitar pedals being just one. I was obsessed with finding new sounds and with manipulating sound in whatever way I could. In that sense I was made for electronic music as, for me, it’s always been about sound and sound design.
When you wrote “Cars,” did you have any inkling that you had something commercially viable?
Not really, not when I first wrote it anyway. But, I had a Number 1 single in the UK with another song before I recorded Cars and so, by the time I did record it, I was riding a huge wave of popularity. At that point it was more of a certainty that Cars would do quite well. Even then though, I had no idea that it would still be around and popular 35 years later. In many ways Cars is as popular now as it ever was. It’s used on ads constantly, it’s covered by people several times a year and it just continues to resonate with people.
My favorite album of yours is Telekon. Why did you decide to reintroduce guitars? Does that album hold a special place for you?
I only stopped using guitars on The Pleasure Principle to prove a point to the critics of electronic music in those early days. There was a lot of hostility from the UK music press when I became successful and electronic music was widely put down as being unmusical and artificial. The vibe seemed to be that it wasn’t real music if it didn’t have guitars on it. I made The Pleasure Principle without guitars to prove that you didn’t need guitars. The fact is though, I really like them and once I’d made that point I brought them back in.
You then retired briefly in 1981. Why did you decide to retire and why come back to music?
My success was very sudden and very extreme, especially in the UK and Europe, and even in the US very briefly. I was overwhelmed by it and I just wanted to get my feet back on the ground. I tended to blame a lot of the problems I was having on touring and so I decided to pull out of touring and concentrate on studio work, songwriting. It was widely reported at the time that I was retiring from music although that was never true. I just wanted to take a step back, catch my breath, and then come back into it but at my own pace. That’s pretty much what I did but when I came back 90% of the fan base had moved on and so things didn’t work out quite the way I planned.
With Dance and each album after, you seemed to be trying out different musical personas, almost searching for a new image. Was that the case?
For a while, I did that until 1992 when I realized that I had been going about it in entirely the wrong way, on many levels. At that point I thought my career was finished and I went back to doing it, as I thought, for a hobby. That change of attitude brought about a new way of thinking about music, and the music I made after that was very different. Much heavier, much darker, and it started to do well again, and so I had something of a renaissance. That continues right up to today.
In the 90’s, you did some film scoring. How was that different from your solo work? Are you interested in scoring more films?
Writing for film is a very different process to writing conventional albums. You are no longer tied to tempo for one thing. I recently moved from the UK to Los Angeles and part of the reason for doing that was to get more involved in film scoring and writing for TV. I’m just finishing off the first score that I’ve been asked to work on since moving here, for an animated film called From Inside. It’s been a great and very interesting experience and I would definitely like to explore that further.
Considering your new album Splinter, how has your songwriting changed the most since the days of Tubeway Army?
In many ways it hasn’t changed much at all. I still sit at a piano and write the basic melody and arrangement. Once that’s done I turn to the technology and begin to flesh out the song. It’s at that point that the changes begin to tell as we now turn to computers and plug ins. The power to manipulate sound these days is quite incredible.