- 21 May 21
A deep dive with the synth-pop legend covering his climate changed- themed new album 'Intruder', Blade Runner, and A-list fans Bowie, Prince and Trent Reznor.
This week sees electro-pop pioneer Gary Numan return with the dark and menacing Intruder, which explores the dark future that awaits us in the event of climate change catastrophe. As with much of Numan’s recent work, it’s a brooding affair that teases out its dystopian themes amidst a murky backdrop of icy industrial rhythms, alongside a noticeable Middle Eastern flavour.
Of course, Numan has been cautioning about our possible future downfall since the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when he produced a brace of hits – the cyber-noir anthem ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ and the JG Ballard-goes-pop effort ‘Cars’ – that are among the acknowledged masterpieces of the English pop canon.
Despite losing his way somewhat in the early ‘90s, those immortal tunes and a series of groundbreaking albums secured the Londoner a devoted cult following and a sizeable cohort of A-list fans, including David Bowie, Prince, Trent Reznor and Beck.
In person, the singer is an engaging conversationalist, with an infectious laugh. Now 63, he’s not lost one iota of his blokey London accent, despite having lived in LA for much of the last decade. I missed a call from him prior to our interview, meaning that amongst messages from family members and co-workers, I – somewhat surreally – have a voicemail from Gary Numan.
“I think I swore,” he says apologetically, down the line from London. I tell him I’m going to keep the voicemail. “You’ll have to bleep it!” he laughs.
And with that’s, it’s down – in the park – to business...
PAUL NOLAN: With the dystopian tenor of the times, have we been living in a Gary Numan-type world over the past year?
GARY NUMAN: When it comes to dystopian music, I’ll admit that’s pretty much what a do. I think often what you’re trying to do is show a possible outcome of where we are now. So it’s not necessarily doom and gloom, it’s more a whisper in your ear. Watch that, because this is the direction it could be going.
The last one, Savage, looked at what we might need to become should the climate apocalypse happen. The brutality that would come because of that would make the world we live in now seem tame and beautiful. What I tried to do with Intruder was to give voice to the planet.
Climate change is the central theme.
I didn’t it want to it to be a scientific journal set to music – the oceans have risen three inches, then the chorus. I didn’t want anything as hamfisted as that. I really didn’t know how to go about it, and I’m not trying to be a champion for the environment. And I’m absolutely not saying I have anything important or unique to say.
I am essentially just an ordinary citizen with the same concerns other people have – or perhaps don’t have – about climate change, and I just happen to write songs for a living. At the moment, this is the thing that’s concerning me the most, and so this is what I’m choosing to write about. It’s done in a slightly selfish way really – this is just me talking about my issues.
There is a very foreboding atmosphere on the album.
The idea that nature as a system would identify us a problem, as an infestation perhaps – it seems very likely to me. And therefore I thought, ‘There must be a mechanism within nature that when it identifies a problem, it would have some process for dealing with that.’ Maybe Covid is that – maybe that’s the earth trying to cull us down to numbers that are less destructive, or get rid of us altogether.
But then I thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t new, maybe this has been going on for hundreds of years – the planet might have identified us as a problem way back, we just haven’t been aware of it.’ I’ve been talking about this a lot obviously, because I’ve been promoting the album for some time now, but nature makes very few mistakes it seems to me. It’s brutal, isn’t it? It’s a cruel system.
It certainly is.
It’s fucking horrible. It’s partly why I’m an atheist, because I can’t imagine a god would have created something that terrible. But it is what is, and it works incredibly well. It’s beautifully, but brutally, harmonious in the way it works –until you put people in it. You put people in it and it all goes to shit.
Mass extinctions, global warming, holes in the ozone...oh my god. So it makes me think that with us, nature made a mistake. I think it reached a little too far in its desire to create ever more perfect creatures. It made us too curious, too ingenious, too intelligent perhaps. And it gave us tools, machinery – and that surely has to be seen as a mistake as far as the planet’s concerned. So I wonder if nature hasn’t realised it’s mistake and is now trying to do something about it, which brings us right back to where we are now.
When you were writing songs like ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’, were you fearfully anticipating where we might end up in the 21st century?
Yeah, very much. When I did the Replicas album, it actually started out as a series of short stories. Those stories were trying to talk about a future where mankind turned to technology as a way of overcoming the deficiencies of man: corruption, greed – all of these things which tend to be the downfall of society.
How do you avoid that? On the album, one of the answers is artificial intelligence, which was talked about then but not really developed. So they develop this AI that would in theory not be corruptible.
It would be immune to the frailties of man. And when the machines went online, the first thing they decided was that the only obstacle to the running of society was people. That’s pretty much what I’m saying with Intruder, except this time it’s nature that’s decided people are the problem. A lot of my writing over the years has been concerned with what we will become.
‘Cars’ is very reminiscent of JG Ballard’s novel Crash – was he one of the authors you were reading back then?
I do have a JG Ballard book, one called The Atrocity Exhibition if I remember correctly. I wasn’t a massive Ballard fan, I was more into Philip K Dick – he was my favourite. And Asimov obviously, I loved all the robot stuff. Then there was an author called Fred Saberhagen, who did some brilliant stories about these warrior machines. I thought they were amazing – god they should make that a TV series.
I wrote an album based on that series of books once, called Berserker. Actually, if I read them now, they might not be great, but when I was 14 or 15, they seemed brilliant. I was into all that sort of thing, and then my interest in science fiction really quickly changed. I wasn’t really interested in spaceships, ray guns and aliens, that faded pretty quickly.
I became almost exclusively interested in what we would become in the near future, in 50 to 100 years. That found its way into my writing, definitely. As far as what I read, that changed again. All I’ve read for that last 25 to 30 years is what they call fantasy. I think it’s called science fantasy – they lump it with science fiction but it’s not. There is no technology in it, it’s all swords and ancient weapons, and there’s magic. I love all that.
Blade Runner, of course, is based on the Philip K Dick novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? But you did ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ before Blade Runner came out..
I guess I was inspired by the same source material really. There’s a character in one of the stories I was writing called a Mac Man, which was a robot frame wrapped in cloned human skin. The only way you could tell them apart was the eyes – the eyes were more like a goat’s eyes. I’m not sure where that came from, I don’t think that was in the Androids book, I don’t remember.
But then a few years later The Terminator comes out, and that was pretty much what I was talking about. I don’t think I invented any of that, I’m pretty sure it all came from Philip K Dick, he’s the genius behind all these visions.
What was your initial impression of Blade Runner?
I loved it. I do remember it very well – I actually saw it for the first time in Los Angeles, I was visiting for something. I just thought it was brilliant. Everything I imagined in the book was onscreen: the look of it, the feel of it. The wet streets, everything… I thought the film was a brilliant interpretation of the book.
I remember seeing an interview with you a few years back where you said it made you think of your grandparents. One of the most powerful ideas in the film is that when a person dies, all of their memories go too.
I think so, that’s the ‘time to die’ speech. I wrote a song after that called ‘Time To Die’ – shamelessly ripping it off! (laughs). I remember some years ago there was a TV presenter, I can’t remember his name at the moment, and I read an article about him. What he had done, he had gone round to his elderly parents with a camcorder, set it up in the corner so they’d forget about it, and then he just started chatting to them about their lives.
A greet idea.
He knew that soon enough they would be gone, and all those memories would be gone with them. He made it his mission to save them and I thought that was such a beautiful thing to do. Because when your parents and grandparents go, all of that experience and joy and heartbreak – all of things that made them what they were – kind of goes with them. It’s a shame we can’t record that somehow.
I fully intended to do much the same thing with my own grandparents, and I never got round to it. Then they died, and now my mum’s gone. I still haven’t done it and it’s a massive regret for me. I did with my grandad once, when I was quite young, early teens I think.
How did it go?
He was in the war and he never spoke about it ever. He came to the house one evening. As he was about to leave, I asked him one question about the war, and he answered it. He just carried on talking – it was the only time in all the years I knew him that he ever actually spoke about the war. He went on for hours, right into the early hours of the morning, just telling all these unbelievable stories.
And always with that British sense of humour, seeing the funny side of the most awful things; what he and his friends went through was just awful. I think, ‘God, if I could have recorded that, it would have been a gift to generations to come.’
David Bowie was very complimentary to you in later years. But is it true he once had you thrown off The Kenny Everett Christmas Show?
That was funny! (laughs). The thing about that is, I was disappointed at the time because I was a massive fan. He was a huge hero to me and the chance of being able to say hello to him was unbelievable. (Laughs) So when I got thrown out I was really disappointed. It was like, ‘Oh, really? Fuckin’ hell!’
But first of all, it was a good thing, in that it made me realise that he’s just human. All these people that you look up to, they’re actually human – they have good days and bad days, and worries and insecurities of their own. It was just unlucky for me that I happened to bump into Bowie on one of those days.
But I’ve met many other people over the years who did know him, and they all have nothing but good things to say about him. I completely understand that I just happened to meet him at the wrong time, and that was unfortunate for me. But I have no bad feelings about it whatsoever.
And the fact that he went on to say that lovely stuff about my music more than made amends. How many people have been praised by David Bowie? So I’m absolutely alright with it.
I believe Prince was very complimentary about you too. What did he actually say?
I don’t know all of it, but in the quote they used in my bio, he said two things. He said, ‘People are still trying to figure out what a genius Gary Numan is.’ Well, that’s pretty cool. And he said something like, ‘Replicas never left my turntable for a year after it came out.’ That was pretty nice, wasn’t it? A lovely thing to say.
Trent Reznor is also an admirer and covered ‘Metal’ at one point.
The first time I met him he bought ‘Metal’ with him! It just went on from there and I got to know him really well. He’s a good friend now. When I moved to America, Trent was one of the people who wrote my endorsement letters.
Oh, it’s great man, I had some good people on that. I had Trent, Dave Navarro, Alan Wilder from Depeche Mode, Alan Moulder – the Grammy-winning producer who’s a good friend of mine.
This is one of the most historic documents in the history of American diplomacy!
(Laughs) You say that, but my dad came round a couple of days ago – he’d been digging through his cupboards and he found some of my old school reports. He said, ‘You need to see these.’ I was like, ‘Fucking hell!’ I got expelled eventually, so they’re obviously going to be a bit bad, but I had no idea how awful I was – I was trouble.
One of these teachers said, ‘He demonstrates absolutely no intention of learning anything about this subject.’ Oh, burn! I was terrible. So I can hold up Trent’s document with one hand, but I can hold up something else with the other!
He won a second Oscar recently.
He’s incredibly creative and he’s just a really good man. There’s so much he does behind the scenes to do with friends and helping people that you don’t really know about; he never talks about it.
When we first moved to America, he was fantastic. We were invited over to his house, we were introduced to all of his friends – he gave us a social circle within the first week of being there. He’s very thoughtful. Then when the last album came out, he had me go out with Nine Inch Nails for two or three shows, and that really helps. He’s great, I love him.
Intruder is out now. Gary Numan plays the Ulster Hall, Belfast on May 21 and the Olympia, Dublin on May 24, 2022.