Gary Numan: ‘The Eighties are no longer an albatross around my neck’

Gary Numan

Gary Numan - Credit: Archant

After years of shunning his back catalogue, the electro pioneer is finally celebrating the records that made his name with three shows at the Forum, he tells Alex Bellotti.

Los Angeles may conjure images of kale smoothies and Hummer-packed superhighways, but for Gary Numan, the city has provided a perfect base for family life. Having moved there from East Sussex with his wife and three children in 2012, he extols its natural virtues, recounting car journeys stopped to gaze at whale shoals playing off cliff-glazed coastlines, and treks through Sequoia National Park watching bears disappear behind its famous giant trees.

“At the moment it feels like a long holiday, but over the last year I’ve started to miss more and more things about home,” says the Hammersmith-born musician. Perhaps this is part of the reason why, on October 21, 22 and 23, he will be returning to London for a series of special celebratory shows at the Kentish Town Forum.

On each night, Numan will be playing one of the three early albums that made his name – Replicas (1979), The Pleasure Principle (1979) and Telekon (1980) – in their entirety, alongside rarely-played tracks from his debut record, Tubeway Army, from 1978.

The past hasn’t always been so easy to revisit. As the 57-year-old admits, he has even been “a bit of an arse” about his back catalogue, often refusing to talk about the explosive ‘80s success which saw him blaze a path for electronic music with hits such as Cars and Are ‘Friends’ Electric?


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The reaction to his last record, 2013’s Splinter, however, has changed things. Following rave reviews and a top 20 chart position, he is now able to assess his earliest recordings from a fresh perspective.

“The problem with me is that I’ve wanted to move away from this ‘80s thing for a long time,” says Numan, “but then Splinter did so well that I finally felt I’d moved on; established myself as an ongoing act that’s still relevant, not an ‘80s act still lingering.

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“That made me feel differently and suddenly, I was able to look at my back catalogue and see it not as this albatross hanging round my neck, but as something to be proud of. Because those songs shaped who I became, and that’s ended up with Splinter and who I am now.”

It’s hard to overstate Numan’s impact on the music industry. His early career started with the group Tubeway Army; originally a punk band, they shot to fame when the then 21-year-old songwriter took their original guitar melodies and fed them through electronic synthesisers – ushering in a style of synth-pop that has influenced everyone from David Bowie to Prince and Lady Gaga.

“I honestly thought it was going to be massive and I was desperate to be there at the beginning,” he says now of that pioneering sound.

If Numan had such foresight musically, however, the fame which saw him shoot from obscurity to number one in a matter of weeks came as more of a shock.

“Nothing prepares you for that unfortunately. You spend a lot of the time looking at the people who are your heroes – for me it was Marc Bolan, David Bowie and all kinds of people around at the time – and you’d look at what they were doing with their careers, what they said in interviews; you’d read everything they said, buy everything they put out, and you felt you knew what was involved. But you absolutely had no idea what was coming.

“I know my band was called Tubeway Army but it was actually me. I did everything – I did all the interviews, I wrote all the songs, and I did all the production and lyrics. So what pressure there is, it falls squarely on your shoulders.

“I didn’t have any management at the time, and the record company I was with had never had any success, so it was all new to them and there was no advice or guidance from anyone. And I’m f***ing autistic – I’ve got Asperger’s – so throw that into the mix as well and it’s a bit of a tricky situation.”

Numan’s diagnosis with autism has only come about in recent years, and it has clearly caused him to re-evaluate the earlier periods of his life.

Having moved schools several times, he recalls suffering from “all sorts of problems”. At 15, he was sent to a psychiatrist and was given medication for a year to regulate his mood.

It was around this period that he began to write music, and he stresses the important therapeutic role the process has played across his whole life.

“I found it very difficult to make friends – and very difficult to keep them actually – and so you begin to think of yourself as being inherently unlikeable and you don’t understand, so you write that down. Then I got famous, so there’s a whole world of s*** when that comes along. You write about that, how weird it all is and how it affects you – it’s just a way to express what’s inside of you.

“When you have this Asperger’s thing and you’re not particularly good at communicating on a one-to-one basis, I think song-writing becomes the vehicle for getting this stuff out. If you don’t do that, because you don’t really talk, it all stays inside.”

Despite the ups and downs of his breakthrough years, Numan is now positive about both his past and future. Beyond this set of shows, he has a new record due for release next year, and further plans include a new autobiography, two documentaries and even a long-mooted novel.

The success of Splinter, it seems, has been instrumental in his renewed focus as a musician. A father to three young daughters, he now even hopes they will follow in his footsteps.

“My life has been amazing – it still is,” he says. “Anything has its ups and downs. I’m sure you could work in McDonalds or Tesco’s, in more conventional jobs, and have similar good days and bad days – I don’t think that has anything to do with it really. The thing about doing this for a career is that it’s just the most amazing way to live your life.

“For all the weird stuff and unpleasant stuff that happens, there’s a whole world of really cool things too. I’ve said before that if I had my time again I’d do it differently, but I’m not too sure I would now.”

Gary Numan plays the Kentish Town Forum on October 21, 22 and 23. Visit numan.co.uk

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