Having recently released his twenty-second studio album, Savage (Songs from a Broken World), Gary Numan is no stranger to the recording process. Produced by Ade Fenton (see his interview this issue), it is a soaring, epic, electronic dark groove record, with the unique lyrics and vocals that Numan is known for. His career began in the late 1970s, with the band Tubeway Army, and a chance run-in with a synthesizer spawned classic albums like Replicas, Telekon, and The Pleasure Principle (featuring the hit "Cars"). His unique, sometimes sci-fi-themed, intellectual, textural synth-pop numbers are unforgettable. In the 1980s he went on to make interesting, sequenced pop albums, and in the mid-1990s his sound morphed into rocking, spatially heavy, industrial tones, with releases such as Pure, Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind), and Jagged. Numan's popularity is on a resurgence these days, and his cinematic approach is fresh and inventive as ever.
Was it at your first studio session with Tubeway Army, when you saw a synth in the corner that would ultimately change the way your music would sound?
Yeah, pretty much. We were signed as a punk band in 1978. We were just that – a little three-piece with guitar, bass, and drums. I didn't really want to do that; but I noticed because of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and the whole punk explosion, that there were a lot of labels being set up that catered specifically to punk at the time. I didn't really know what I wanted to do beyond that. I signed with Beggars Banquet [Music Ltd]. When it came time to go make our debut album, it essentially would have been a 45-minute live set. We got to Spaceward [Studios], in Cambridge in the eastern part of England. I'd done one session there already, so I did know the man there, Mike Kemp. I went in to say hello and introduce ourselves, and that's when I saw a synthesizer for the first time. He had a [Moog] Minimoog in the corner of the control room; I'd never seen one before. I'd never been massively interested in electronic music. I liked a bit of Kraftwerk. I liked what [Brian] Eno [Tape Op #85] did with [David] Bowie – the Low album. But I was still very much guitar driven. When I saw the synthesizer at Spaceward for that first time, I was fascinated by it in a nerdy way; but I didn't have any expectations from it at all. He said, "Have a go." He turned it on; I didn't know how to set it up so I just accepted whatever sound it had. I pressed a key and it blew me away. This hugely powerful, growly sound came out of it. The control room shook with the weight of the sound. I'd never heard anything like it. I just thought, "Fuck me! That's unbelievable!" I'd only ever heard prog rock or Kraftwerk-y, bleepy music. I'd never heard anything that had any real power to it. The boys had finished unloading the van into the recording studio, and Mike was out there setting up microphones. He'd left me alone with the synthesizer in the control room, and by the time that was done I was absolutely converted. I was already trying to figure out how I could convert my guitar-based rhythms into electronic grooves; all very basic and very amateurish. Over the next three days I turned that entire album [Tubeway Army] into a pseudo-electronic guitar album, and that's what I took back to the record company. That's how it started for me. That moment effectively changed my entire life.
You produced those early albums yourself?
Yeah, most of the early ones.
What was that like recording to tape?
My first two albums were done on 16-track, 2-inch. I was fascinated with the whole thing; outboard gear and what compressors did. I didn't understand any of it. "You've got to put some compression on that." "What does that mean?" I had no idea what people were talking about. I was learning as much as I could, as quickly as I could. I was really fascinated by the way that you could manipulate sound. There was a whole world opening up to me that I was relatively unaware of. My whole interest in music up until then hadn't been technical at all – it was just tunes and melodies. Because I moved into electronic music pretty much from day one, I think it added an interest in the technical side of it that hadn't been there before. Although I produced all those earlier records myself, I never felt that I was particularly good at it. It was more about being uncomfortable sharing it with other people. I don't mean in a control freaky way, but I've got Asperger's [syndrome], so I don't always interact particularly well with other people. It's not intentional, and I don't mean to be rude or awkward in any way; but if someone does something...