Andy Jones kicks back with synth pioneer Gary Numan as this insightful interview continues…
Gary details how he wants the new, as-yet untitled, album to sound.
“The idea is to do it myself and I’ve done that plenty of times before, but that would make it sound very different from the last one, too. I know that Splinter did really, really well, but I think this one needs to move a little way away from it, not radically different – I don’t want to do a country and western album! In fact, if I wrote up a list of where I want the new album to be, Splinter would probably fit that list as well.”
“I still want it to be heavy, I still want it to be dark, I still want it to be aggressive in places; very electronic – more so than guitar-y. As I say, all of this could apply to Splinter but I know that when I did the demos for Splinter, some of those ended up being quite different, in a good way – I’m not saying there was anything wrong with it; I think Ade [Fenton] did a great job with it, but they are different”
“So I’m thinking I could have easily done the versions I’d done and it would have been a slightly different-sounding album. It would have been more basic, that’s for sure! Ade is brilliant at refining things and his attention to detail is very impressive but it does change it, it gives it a different feel. He is, I guess, more like an audio craftsman, and I’m like a heavy-handed plumber!”
At the time of the interview, Gary had what he described as “Mickey Mouse bits and pieces – maybe nine or 10 things on the go…” Since the interview, progress has been made with one or two snippets, released via the PledgeMusic page. The original release date of October would mean finishing the album at least three months prior.
“I’d ideally have to have it ready by mid June, and I’m supposed to be gigging throughout May!” Gary knows that many of these problems will be shared with the fans – it’s all part of the PledgeMusic experience after all…
“Yeah, I wanted them to know the grief I’m having, but it was meant to be the grief I’m having about making an album, not about life outside of it! In a sense, it is part of the process, but it’s not typical. I wanted them to see the process, the songwriting, the good days when it goes well, and the bad days. I want you to see me being upset because I can’t think of anything, and stomping around, as it is part of it. So I guess these extra pressures that are coming in are part of the album, but it isn’t what I intended.”
So now having tried this route, would he recommend PledgeMusic to other bands? “Any band that wants to do something like this I would recommend Pledge 100 per cent, as they have been brilliant. But it isn’t going to sell the number of albums I want, so that ultimately involves some kind of other distribution – but it will be from a position of more security after the Pledge campaign.
I don’t know about the next album. I’ll be touring this one for all of 2017 and ‘18 so I don’t have to look at the next album until then. As we’re living in an age where there are new technologies almost every week, there might be something new… or it might all have gone back to vinyl and cassette again by then!” Turn the page for Numan in the studio…
The success of Splinter has been double-edged. On the one hand, it’s meant more sync work than ever, with tracks from the album used on TV and in film, but it’s also led to many more offers of work, almost too many…
“I’ve been doing loads of collaborations and doing vocals for games. I did a single with the Vowws, a track with John Foxx, a track with a Mexican band called Titan, and I’m doing a separate album with a good mate of mine, Andy Gray, which is a collaboration – he’s been doing the music and I add the vocals and lyrics.
We’ve done a few things together. He’s done loads of remixes [including live favourite, Prayer For The Unborn] for me and a track called Ancients, which is pretty much where the songwriting thing together started. We did one called For You after and we’re now working on a load more stuff, but he’s crazy busy, a little workaholic!
“The sync on Splinter was amazing,” Gary continues. “My sync history has tended to be one of Cars. That track gets used on everything and it does really well. I’m aware of that. But I had more syncs on Splinter than any other album that I have done, combined. It was phenomenal. You can do alright on album sales, but it’s nothing like it was.
But the Pledge campaign has been an eye-opening exercise in another way of doing it, an amazing experience so far. It’s still done better in terms of everything else, and the Pledge people themselves are amazing.”
Cars Was Written on a Bass Guitar
Cars is possibly the most famous Numan song, an iconic synth tune that was surely written on, well, a keyboard of some kind? Nope. It was written on bass guitar, one that has been leaning against a wall outside the studio during the interview.
“That one guitar, more than anything, has changed my entire life,” says Gary. “In my life I have written, I don’t know, maybe 300 or 400 songs out on record, but only two of them on a bass and one of them was Cars.
I went to London in the morning and bought this bass, came home, took it out of its case and the very first thing I played was ‘da do do do’ [main riff of Cars] and I thought ‘that sounds alright’ and I had the whole song done including lyrics in about half an hour. The quickest song I ever wrote, Cars, and only one of two done on bass. I haven’t really looked after the guitar, it’s a bit rusty!”
Numan in the Studio
Gary has his own studio, which he uses to produce complete albums as well as remixes and collaborations – of which he has many lined up as we interview him. After our main chat, we step out to this studio to discover a comprehensive software set-up, a Moog and the bass that he wrote Cars on…
Numan’s studio is a self-contained unit, formerly a guest house in his garden. He had it converted while his main house was being worked on, but had to work within several constraints, financial and otherwise…
MusicTech: Tell us how the studio came about?
Gary Numan: “I was going to get it fully converted into a studio, but I was getting nervous that it would not be affordable, so I started looking at alternatives. I came across the VocalBooth website one day and realised that they made bigger rooms, not just vocal booths and I talked to them about helping with the conversion. I gave them the sizes and we came up with this – it’s essentially a vocal booth, dumped inside a bigger room!
“All the sound-proofing is in there, there’s nothing outside at all. Another problem with getting the building converted was that I needed planning permission and in this zone [in LA], we weren’t allowed an audio studio, so I was nervous about that, but this doesn’t need any planning permission as it’s a removable structure – it comes as a flatpack kit! It turned up in the morning and by that evening, it was built – it’s great.
We have one of the busiest airports in the world just down the road, but you don’t hear a thing inside it, and I’m pretty deaf so I play at an ear-splitting volume, but you can stand outside and not hear anything at all. So I can sing in here and know that no one’s listening outside!”
MT: In recent years, we’ve witnessed the return of the analogue synth with new models from the likes of Moog, Sequential, Oberheim, companies who provided you with your synths originally…
GN: “Well, I’m watching it, but I’m still deeply immersed in software. Omnisphere 2 is the best thing ever invented – more useful than the wheel! It’s an amazing bit of kit, so I think software is still very much the heart of it for me.
I’ve got a Moog Voyager XL, but you’ll see it leaning up against the side of the studio as I’ve not actually plugged it in yet. It’s a good bit of kit, though. I’ve also got a couple of Roland bits coming. I don’t have the names yet, but it’s a big red thing – the JD-XA…”
MT: We noticed that part of the PledgeMusic offers were some of your old synths, which were quickly snapped up. So do you have any classics left?
GN: “I have two Moogs, actually. One is in the Hard Rock Cafe in one of their display cases and one is back in England. I didn’t buy any Moogs until I was working on The Pleasure Principle album. For the two albums before that, I didn’t have my own synths, I didn’t have any money, I used to rent them. But I ended up buying eight or nine Minimoogs and four Polymoogs!”
MT: Because of your long association with synthesisers, you’d have expected synth companies to be offering you gear all the time. Not so, it’d seem?
GN: “No, no one has offered before now, which is weird considering how I seem to be well known for electronic music. In fact, I think that Moog was the first in 36 years. I’m not good at dropping hints with them [gear companies], though!
I’ve got a mate back in England who isn’t particularly well known, hasn’t sold any records to speak of, and he has a sponsorship deal where he actually gets a wage! And he has gear coming out of his arse! I had another mate who was the same and he had a garage full of gear. He’d say, ‘just ask the companies, blag it’, but I said ‘I can’t!’”
MT: Synth-wise, on top of the Voyager, there’s an Access Virus, and an Alesis QuadraSynth which you say you use mainly for its piano sound…
GN: “Not a lot of people liked that when it came out, but I thought it was great. I’ve got another one back in England, I think, but I’ve lost it, I need to find out where I left it.”
MT: So the rest of the studio is a software-driven affair, with just one or two choice pieces of gear?
GN: “I have no outboard gear to speak of. I use Pro Tools. I used to have an HD3 system with the expansion chassis which was noisy and horrible and I didn’t like it. So when I finished Splinter, I went over to this system which is the native one and was told it would be every bit as good as the HD3.
I didn’t really research it and I should have – it’s useless, it runs at a really low speed. But that’s pretty much it. I’m very much Native, Omnisphere. I have most of Native’s stuff – Kontakt, Damage. The Spectrasonics stuff is at the core of what I’ve got.
“I’ve got [Unity Audio] Rock speakers and Tannoys I’ve had something like 30 years or more. They’re Tannoy Little Golds, the ones to have back then; really, really cool speakers. The good thing about the Rocks is that you can take them right down to low levels without losing the bottom end. Most main speakers, as soon as you go back on the power, the bass starts to disappear, but they don’t. As a reference speaker, they’re great. You can listen to things quietly, but still true.”
MT: Finally, what about beats nowadays – do you have any preferences?
GN: “I’ve not had an actual drum machine for 30 years, but the new Roland TR drum machines that I’ve tried are great. All that key triggering you can get with one sound; there’s some pretty good stuff that can come out of it, so I’m really looking forward to getting into it.
“Ade [Fenton, one time collaborator] was a bit of a programmer for drums, which I often found was a waste of time! So I don’t know what I’m going to do with that now – I guess it depends if Andy [Gray] is involved and if I end up working with someone over here. I like the idea of having a real drummer, but I also love the rhythmic complexity and power of combining loops. Maybe one song with one thing, one with another, we’ll see…”
“You just hear so many stories about what a horrible experience it can be, but there are many successful ones, like Junkie XL. I’ve only just found out that he’s out here and his name is on everything now; he’s really, really cracked it, so I’m trying to find a way of hooking up with him.
“But when I came out here, the reason was to sow the seeds to my future with film music. It was something I thought would be a natural progression that I’d do when I had to to do it, and by coming out here I would build my knowledge, experience and skills up at it and get known to be competent at it. I would get to know people and over five or six years, I’d get to know people and build up a meaningful portfolio to do with film music.
But then I thought, ‘I don’t really want to do it, actually’, I just want to make another album, do another tour and all of that. It is a bit childish, actually, because it is a very sensible idea and is something I should be doing…
…Getting Back into the Top 20 With Splinter
“Well, you can’t put much faith in the charts. It’s easier to get in the charts than it was. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way, but you just need a good pre-sale – then it’s possible to get a chart hit, especially if you’re lucky and time it on a week when not a lot of other people put albums out.
So it looks great, but if you sit back and tell yourself: ‘Oh, look at me, I just had a Top 20 album,’ you’re kidding yourself. I shouldn’t be too down on it, though, because it genuinely did do much better than anything else I’ve done for a very long time.
“I was nervous about it. I’d only done a UK-only album, Dead Son Rising before that was meant to be a side project with me and Ade but ended up as a full album. So it had been about seven or eight years since my previous album, which is the kiss of death, usually, to be away that long.
But I liked it, I was really proud of it as a record and I thought we’d done a good job with it. I was really happy with my songwriting and when I got down to do it, it was coming easily and I had very few of those horrid days where nothing works and you get down on yourself – which have all been on this one so far!”
… Not Being Retro
“I use to be fiercely ‘anti’ it. The problem was for me is obviously that I made it really big early on and I had this massive success and nothing else I did since then ever came close, even though I’ve had a long career. So you had this shadow, if you like, which isn’t the right way of looking at it, but you had this huge success that feels like it casts a shadow over everything else you do.
“Nothing else is ever as successful, people refer back to it all the time, when there’s a photo of you in a magazine it says ‘80s pop star’, and you begin to resent the very thing that put you where you are and you try and distance yourself from it and just want to be known for new stuff, and it becomes an obsession, and it’s been like that for almost my entire career.”
“Ever since Cars in 1979, I’ve been trying to come out of the shadow that they created, I feel, and trying to establish the fact that I am still around and still going and not an 80s pop star. So it became a massive thing for me… I was turning down things, big things. There was a long period when I was desperate for promotion. I couldn’t give myself away for a while.”
“The albums weren’t selling, the gigs weren’t selling and I was really in trouble, but even then, I knew that if I started doing anything retro because it was there as an option, the long-term effect of that would be catastrophic, because once you become a retro act you are fucked. I didn’t want it anyway, and I didn’t want to be seen that way and I thought from a career point of view it would be very counter-productive.”
“There were things like The Big Breakfast – a huge programme – where they wanted me to go on there and do a duet of Are Friends Electric? with Zoe Ball. And I was like, ‘No, I won’t be doing that, thanks’, but it was a big thing to turn down in terms of being out in front of people and reminding people that you’re still alive, which is what everyone around me was saying: ‘People will remember you!’ But I didn’t want to be remembered, that was the problem! So you start turning down this and that and I went through two or three years where I said no to almost everything that came in, because it was so retro-orientated.”
Gary Numan: Android in La La Land is a fantastic new documentary film following Gary as he transitions from living in the UK to LA, and documents the creation of Splinter. The film premieres has it’s UK Premiere at EIFF on 19 June, is Closing the EEFF on 3 July and will be released in UK & Irish cinemas from 26th August. Read more about the film here