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Gary Numan: Being a pioneer is a lot of pressure

There are few living artists who command as much respect as Gary Numan. One of the godfathers of electronica, his work has inspired countless individuals across art and music. His 1979 debut album, The Pleasure Principle, captured the attention of an entire generation, the eerie synth of tracks including breakthrough hit Cars, paired with his robotic, sexless voice still standing strong as a snapshot of the era. He spoke to Kara Simsek about the two Back To The Phuture shows he has planned for early April, one with Ultravox’s John Foxx, one of his personal heroes. (Oh and btw, you can win tickets to either/both show on PlanetNotion: for London go here; for Manchester, go here)

Notion: When you first started having hits in the late 70s the technology available to you was totally different to what is around now, yet you created a sound which even today manages to retain a futuristic essence. What tehnologies are available now that you wish had been about then?
Gary Numan: Pretty much everything, be it within music or elsewhere. The sounds we have available now are stunning, the way in which we can manipulate those sounds is amazing, quality recording systems all housed inside a computer, and on it goes. On stage things have advanced just as much with LED panels and computer controlled projection and so much more. Everyday life has been greatly improved, in my opinion, by the coming of the internet. I could go on at length about things I wished we had then and I struggle to think of anything that we have now that wouldn’t have been useful thirty years ago.

Notion: What do you consider your career highlight?
Gary Numan: That depends on whether you measure highlights interms of success or artistic satisfaction. In terms of success 1979 was pretty good in that I had a double number one, a single and album at number one at the same time, twice in that year. Doesn’t get much beter than that. Artistically the Jagged album in 2006 was the one I’m most proud of, and also had the best reviews I’ve ever had.

Notion: You’re a pioneer of electronic music. How does it feel to have such an influence over so many artists from a huge spectrum of genres?
Gary Numan: I feel very proud that things I’ve done have had such a positive effect on so many other bands and individuals. Having somebody cover one of your songs or sample parts of one is a real honour and I still get a thrill out of it. Even though it happens a lot I still can’t say that I’m used to it, it still puts a smile on my face. On the other hand, being seen as a pioneer puts a certain amount of pressure on everything new that you put out, but that’s fair enough. Anyone considered to be a pioneer has to keep working at it, it would be criminal to just sit back and live on past glories. Anyone of a pioneering nature wants to keep on moving forward, it’s the most important part about what you do, even after thirty years. To keep coming up with new sounds and new ideas is still vital for me. I’m slowly learning to take some pride in my history these days, my back catalogue, but it will always be secondary to what I’m working on today and tomorrow. I’m not really that interested in what I did before, no matter whether it was successful or not, I’m only really interested in what I’m doing next.

Notion: You let the Sugababes sample ‘Are Friends Electric’ [2002's Freak Like Me] – who else in the present day would you like to collaborate with?
Gary Numan: I have three collaborations coming out in the very near future that I’m extremely proud of. A track called ‘Crawl’ that I did with South Central, another track called ‘Pleasure In Heaven’ with Motor and the most recent is a song called ‘My Machines’ with Battles. I am quite choosy about working on collaborations so it’s not something I rush into but I’m very pleased with those three coming out now.

Notion: Who do you regard as your peers?
Gary Numan: When I was younger I was a big T-Rex and Bowie fan but, when I moved into electronic music, it was John Foxx and his work with early Ultravox that I found most exciting. It played an important part in my own direction at that time. It was the merging of electronic music with a conventional mix of guitar, bass and drums that I was interested in putting together. John Foxx and Ultravox were on their third album when I was still making my first. They were the standard that I tried to reach, not that I ever made it.

Notion: What present day artists do you regard as pioneering and avant-garde as you?
Gary Numan: I think Trent Reznor and Nine Inch nails have been one of the most important bands in the world for a very long time. Consistently ground breaking it has been a very impressive achievement. Of the new bands I would point towards Battles as being particularly unique and interesting plus a band called Health.

Notion: What can people expect from the Manchester and London shows?
Gary Numan: We have a great line up of bands both from the pioneering end of the spectrum right up to the most recent and exciting new bands, DJ’s between bands that themselves have played an important part in the development of electronic music. For my own part in it all we will play a live set that includes many songs that I have not played live before, plus a number of brand new songs that people have never heard at all, and we’ve put together the biggest light show that I’ve had in thirty years so, for me, it’s going to be an incredibly exciting weekend.

Notion: You and John Foxx have known each other for years. What’s it like being on the road together today?
Gary Numan: I’m very excited to be part of the Back To The Phuture show in London with John Foxx. John was a very important person to me when I made my early moves into electronic music and It’s going to be a great evening for me. I spent a lot of my time in the late 70′s travelling to see Ultravox play, and to watch and listen to John Foxx in particular. I thought he was amazing. Equally, Alan Wilder played a pivotal role for me in the early 90′s. Alan’s work with Depeche Mode, specifically the ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’ album, encouraged me to completely change my musical direction from 1994 onwards. The fact that my career today is alive and well has much to do with Alan and so, again, it’s very exciting for me to be sharing the Manchester ‘Back To The Phuture’ show with Alan’s Recoil project. With Recol in Manchester, and John Foxx in London. I’m able to share a stage with two of the most important influences in my life.

Notion: Do you prefer performing live or working in the studio?
Gary Numan: I much prefer playing live to anything else. Studio work has it’s moments but it can’t compare with the thrill of walking on to a stage, with everybody cheering, the lights kicking in, the music loud and powerful. I love touring now more than ever.

Notion: What’s your biggest professional regret?
Gary Numan: I made a big thing about retiring from live work in 1981 because the pressure of it all was getting to me quite badly. Taking a break was a sensible thing to do but making a big ‘retirement’ announcement was a major mistake. I actually meant it at the time but, a year or so later, when I had calmed down a bit and changed my mind, things had fallen away from me quite badly and it took me about another two decades to get the career back on its feet.

Notion: What’s the craziest thing a ‘Numanoid’ [Gary's version of a Belieber] ever gave you or did to you?
Gary Numan: One of them married me. I can’t think of anything more extreme than that. Although Gemma had been a fan since she was very young I didn’t have my first serious conversation with her until 1991, when I heard that her Mum was dying of Cancer. Some months later, in 1992, I heard that her Mum had died so I rang her up and asked her if she wanted to travel to a radio show with me. She gave me a bit of an inquisition to start with as she didn’t believe it was me. Soon after that i started to see her more seriously and we were married in 1997. Now we have three little girls, Raven, Persia and Echo, so she has given me everything I could ever have dreamed of.

Notion: Do you still enjoy flying?
Gary Numan: I haven’t flown for quite some time now. We had our first child in 2003 and that changed a lot of things, spare time being one of them. We have three now so if I wake up on a saturday morning and it’s a nice day for flying, the children will probably want to go to the beach or do something else. It would be selfish to make them sit down at an airfield all day while I had my fun so I stopped going. I do hope to get back into it though when they are a bit older.

Notion: Your classic sound is really sci-fi. Do you believe in extra-terrestrial life and have you ever had an encounter with a UFO?
Gary Numan: I do believe that extra terrestrials exist and I have definitely seen something I couldn’t explain but that’s a far cry from seeing a little alien standing there face to face. I don’t want to see one, I don’t think it would be a good experience. In fact I would be terrified if aliens came to Earth and made themselves known.

Notion: What’s your opinion on the 2012 doomsday theories?
Gary Numan: I’m not losing any sleep over it to be honest. I do not believe in prophecy.

Let’s hope you’re right!

Back To The Phuture

Academy 1, Manchester: Friday 1st April
Gary Numan live / Recoil live / Motor live  / Mark Jones DJ set

The Troxy, London: Saturday 2nd April
Gary Numan live / John Foxx live / Motor live / Mark Jones DJ set

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