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 I don't like, I'm not very good at the diplomacy that's needed to move that position forward. I'd just say, "No, I think that's shit," because that's what I think and what I mean. I'm not good at blurring the edges, and I was much worse then. I learned as I've gone through life how to be more tactful; but back then I was raw, pure Asperger's. Everything was black, and if it wasn't black, it was white. It's not the best way to get things out of people around you. I was a dictatorship, I'm afraid. I can't work in a band. I can't work within a group of people all chipping in ideas. I know exactly what I want. I'm going to unintentionally upset everybody because I don't know how to be diplomatic. It was difficult a lot of the time. I got a reputation of being arrogant, and a bit of a control freak, but I never was. I was misunderstood.
Yeah. But you're making decisions, and that can be a good thing.
Rightly or wrongly there was a very clear direction, that's for sure. Even with this new record, and with the 20-odd albums I've made, I still essentially work alone. I collaborate now in a much better way than I've been able to do before, but I'm still at a distance. I work on songs in my studio at home, and produce them up to a certain point to give them a clear direction. Then they go off to Ade Fenton, who produces with me now. He has a clear direction for what I've already recorded, and then he does his thing. He works alone in his studio, because he's not that much different from me, funnily enough. He likes to work alone. Then he'll send me back what he's done, and we may have a little argument or two. It depends on where it's gone. Although we work together, we work in isolation – if that makes any sense. We don't ever sit down beside each other in a room and discuss things until it gets to the very last part, roundabout the mix time where we'll make the decision of whether "that needs to be there or not," but we've already agreed that all the sounds and parts need to be there. It's just fine-tuning at the very, very end of it. That's the only part where we actually sit down together. I can't ever imagine that being any different. I've been doing it so long, it's never going to change. I've always worked better on my own, in terms of the studio.
What gear do you have in your home studio?
Not much, actually. I think I'm probably going to be something of a disappointment to a lot of people. In terms of hardware, I have an old Alesis QuadraSynth keyboard, a Moog Voyager which I didn't actually use on the record, a Minimoog, which I didn't use on the record either, a Roland keyboard I didn't use, and an Access [Music] Virus I did use, a little bit. The bulk of the album is all software [synthesizers]. [Spectrasonics] Omnisphere is the main one, with some Native Instruments as well.
Do you track with [Avid] Pro Tools?
Yeah. Ade uses [Apple] Logic in his studio, and I use Pro Tools in mine. We exchange audio files and MIDI files. When I send songs to Ade, I send him all the audio. I send him a complete list of what the MIDI is: a MIDI file with the breakdown of what every single sound is, because we do share Omnisphere. Our software packages are fairly synced, so everything that I've got, he's got. He's able to recreate the song very quickly in his studio, and see what's going on. He can start to do his particular magic on it from that point. The fact that I'm Pro Tools and he's Logic is not a problem at all.
What vocal mic do you like to use?
It's called a Saturn, by Sontronics, a British company. I was using an [Shure] SM58 for years. I did loads of albums with an SM58. Ade was always giving me shit about it, saying that I've got to get a better mic. I got the Saturn, and it's made a big difference. Sometimes the things I do are so amateurish that I'm an embarrassment to myself.
When did you first start a home studio?
I bought into a studio. I did an album called Telekon in 1980, and I recorded that in a place called Rock City [Studios], which was a studio inside the Shepperton Studio Centre complex in England. I really loved it. There were a couple of rooms, a nice big office, storage for the tape, and all kinds of useful things for me. I bought a share of it, and in a year or two I'd bought the whole thing. We actually ran it for quite a few years as a commercial studio, and I would leave my gear there. Sting used it, and all kinds of people used it as well for a while. Then we found it very difficult to operate as a commercial studio, because someone from a record company would ring up and say, "Oh, have you got the latest SSL-whatever?" Before you could say, "No, but we've got something just as good," they'd put the phone down. We became a victim of ignorance. People would want the latest flavor of the month; a half a million-dollar desk. We'd have to spend ridiculous amounts of money just to be the flavor of the month. People are ringing up asking about studios who know nothing about studios. I sold it and decided to set up one at home. I had a pretty nice one for a little while, but then I ran out of money. From the late '80s through the early '90s, I'd completely run out of money. I sold everything. They tried to repossess my house. I was in a terrible state money-wise, and my career was finished. I had one of those 12-track [AKAI] 1214s. That's all I had. I had to sell most of my furniture just to survive. I did an album called Exile on that little 12-track Akai studio. It came out pretty good, actually!
I never heard much of your later '80s and '90s work back then, but what got me back in was the album Pure, in 2000. It had an interesting texture.
I did that when I was still running Logic and [iZ Technology] RADAR. I was running two RADAR systems linked together to get 48-track recordings. I had a Soundtracs desk for a bit, and then I ended up having these two Mackie desks that I could link together. Lots of disparate bits that weren't really meant to work together. Pure was done on that. [Steve] Monti and Rob Holliday, from a band called Sulpher, produced it with me. Rob Holliday is a guitar player with Prodigy; he also played with Marilyn Manson, and toured with me for a while – fantastic player. Monti is the studio brains and the drummer behind that as well. They did the production on Pure in a very similar way to Ade Fenton. I'd get the songs ready and produced up to a decent level, and then I'd put them onto ADAT and send that tape off to them. They would download the songs into their own system, add to it, put it back onto another ADAT, and send it back to me. I love what they did. It took me into a much heavier version of what I'd done before, which is a direction I was trying to go in anyway, but they really understood that industrial feel. I loved it. Pure is one of my favorite records.
Who else have you worked with in the past?
Engineering-wise, the man I did a lot with was Nick Smith. He died a few years ago in a fairly unusual way; I never did find out what exactly happened. Nick did a lot of albums with me, and he taught me a lot about mixing, stereo picture, and so on. When the PPG Wave [synthesizer] system came out many years ago , it was incredibly difficult to make it do what you wanted to do, and there were some guys known as The Wave Team.
I saw a PPG, with that screen that looked like an airplane radar.
Yeah, a 1960's version of what the future was going to look like! It was called Waveterm. The keyboard was like a 2.2 or 2.3 PPG, and then there was that really old-fashioned looking screen with little green lettering. It was so terrible, but it made some amazing noises. You could spend all day trying to get it to do one sound, but the thing that it did was actually worth it. That's why software now, like Omnisphere, is so incredible. I can churn out hundreds and hundreds of amazing sounds every day, every bit as good as what the PPG would do, and then go back to it the next day and they're still there. If you went to the PPG the day after, everything was gone – it didn't remember anything! So Mike Smith and Ian Herron were known as The Wave Team, and they worked with me on a couple of albums. Since then, Ade Fenton has probably had the biggest contribution to my musical career of anyone, in terms of studio work. His contribution to what I've done on the last four albums has been incredibly significant. I rely on him to polish and develop the ideas that I come up with.
How have digital audio workstations affected your ideas and songwriting?
It does make a difference. The way that you can manipulate, post-songwriting, is phenomenal. In terms of actual songwriting, I don't get into the technology until the song is written. Some people might find the technology more useful in the songwriting period, because they probably throw a lot more ideas into the computer and start to cut them up and move them around. I'm still quite old-fashioned. I'll sit down and work on a song all day, with just me and the piano, until I've got a song exactly the way that I want it to be; structure and melodies. In that sense, a tape recorder, or a tape recorder style, is perfectly adequate. A while back, I remember thinking that the technology had got to a point where it was becoming a burden rather than an advantage, simply because we're spoiled for choice. I could spend days, and days, and days going through ten thousand snare drums. It gave me the ability, without any discipline, to really crawl up my own ass; just constantly experimenting and never really progressing. I don't think that way anymore. I can remember long before sampling was what it is now, we would go out with this old tape recorder and walk around the studios at Shepperton's complex, trying to find interesting things to record. Creating noises by dragging pieces of metal across the street, or banging and kicking it. We would come back to the studio with these noises, record them onto the 1/4-inch machine, and then work out the tempo of the song. We'd then figure out how long the tape needed to be for those noises to become a loop that was in sync with the music. We'd have seven or eight feet of tape come off the machine; there was a man in the corner with a pencil trying to keep it taut, and then he'd bring it back into the machine again. We did some amazing things with that, and we could get incredible grooves going. But trying to sync that by pressing the button at the same time on that [deck] and the 2-inch machine – to try to get the groove in sync – was all frustratingly time-consuming. But when I got it to work, I really did feel as if I'd created something. Two or three days of work went into that one little groove, which now you can get by just going "click" in Omnisphere. You can say, "I reckon that will work a little bit better two or three BPM faster." You wouldn't have dreamed of doing that before – it'd be three days of work just trying to change the tempo. The thing I love about technology now is that I can have an idea and very quickly, long before the idea has faded from my imagination, I can find out whether it works or not. Back then, you really could spend hours, if not days, to see if an idea worked, only to find out that it didn't work at all. I think the onslaught of technology that's coming our way, with a certain amount of discipline, is incredibly useful. I think it's making music more interesting, or it could be.
You still do some field recordings and incorporate found sounds into your new music?
Yeah, I do. I think it's important. I'd feel a bit ashamed of myself if I just relied on Omnisphere. I think the whole Spectrasonics team has done amazing work; I'm a massive fan of what they do. But I would still feel as if I was taking shortcuts if I just relied on that. I really like going out with my little recorders. I often take them with me when I'm traveling. I am listening all the time. It's not always really weird, mad, crazy sounds. I rarely go on the underground trains in Britain, because of Uber and so on, but one particular day we did. I noticed that as the train was slowing down to each station, it made this amazing sound. It's like a wounded animal howling, but deep. It's an amazing sound. I went back to my hotel, got the recorder, and went back on the train. It took me a while to get a good recording of it. As you're walking around, driving, flying, or whatever you're doing, there are constantly interesting little sounds popping up. I do try, with each new album, to build up a vocabulary of these noises that I find a musical use for. In effect, that's the challenge. I really enjoy that side of it. I've often said that I'm not massively musical. I don't think I'm a particularly good player. I don't think I'm a good guitar player. I know I'm not a good keyboard player. I can play well enough to write songs, but musical virtuosity is definitely not my thing. I am interested in noises, sounds, and finding ways of making those sounds musical. I got that when I first discovered synthesizers, trying to discover noises that could become musical. I've never lost that. It's very much become a part of what I do.
You've been using PledgeMusic for the development of Savage, showing people rough, in-progress tracks, as well as little video clips and such. Was that a vulnerable thing to do?
Yeah, most of it actually. When I make music I don't really want people to hear songs until they're finished. It'll be improved along the way. But, in a way, that's pretty much what PledgeMusic is about: wanting people to see how a song develops from the very first, basic idea, and then what Ade does. It's not just sitting down, writing some songs, and it's all very easy. I wanted people to witness all that, but actually letting these go out when I know they're not right, I found that quite difficult and I was very uncomfortable. Whenever I sent something out I would do a lot of fluffing around, trying to explain that it will be changed, and making lots of excuses. Yet, despite all of my lengthy explanations, I'd still get people writing back saying, "Well, that needs to be changed, doesn't it?" But it's good, and I'm glad I did that. The whole idea for PledgeMusic is that it wasn't about funding. I've got my own studio, and it doesn't really cost me very much money to make records. It was about trying to find a way of involving fans in what I do. A long time ago, 25 years ago or more, I used to have a fan club that we ran in Britain. Every month we'd have competitions and the winners would get to do something with me during the day, just so that I wasn't this distant figure. Then the internet came along and it made contact in some degrees easier, in that you could actually speak directly to people, have your social networks, and so on. We started to do meet-and-greets at the gigs, and we started to allow people to come to rehearsals so that they could see that side of it. With the PledgeMusic campaign, I wanted to do a similar thing but with the actual making of the albums themselves. I didn't want people in the studio, because that would be intrusive, but I wanted people to have an idea about what it's like to make an album. It's an extension of the same thing that I've been trying to do with fans for five years or more. I thought that if people were more aware of what went into making a record, and the thought processes behind the songs themselves and the changes you make, that they would actually enjoy the finished album more than if they just heard it cold.
Right. You've released many live videos and live records. Do you have much input into that?
No, to be honest. I've used lots of different sorts of people over the years. I've tended to use the same film company for a while now, run by Paul M. Green. He's very good. Ade has mixed a lot of it, but not all of it. I've probably done too many live releases. I just don't want these tours and shows to go by and not have some record of it.
Have you got any plans of what you want to experiment with on the next album?
What I've done with Savage was to incorporate elements of Middle Eastern melody and instrumentation, melody in particular, as little flavourings to try to illustrate – in the context of the album – how Eastern and Western cultures had merged. Sort of like a science fantasy, futuristic, post-global warming look at the world. I added lots of little elements of that throughout the Savage record. I'd really like to do that more fully. I don't really know yet if that will ever happen, or even how to go about it. We've got some shows booked in November where we intend to have an orchestra play Savage behind the band. That'll be good. I think so much of it is very filmic and has an epic feel to it.
Absolutely. I love the epic sound that you've been building up with for the past few records.
Thank you. I think if we could get the orchestral idea together, that would be amazing. Some of the album before [Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind)] does. There's even a song I did called "Down in the Park" from 1979. It's very similar, in some respects, to what I'm doing now. It lends itself very much to an orchestral arrangement behind it. But when this tour is done, my aim after that is not musical at all – it's to finish the book that all of this comes from. Savage is a musical version of this novel I've been trying to write forever. That could be the final part of this whole Savage period. That's going to be probably two years from now, and who knows what new technology is going to be, and what other things will come along to inspire or encourage me to change directions slightly. I'm keeping an open mind to that. My real passion at the moment is to see if I can become a novelist. We'll see. There's a very good chance that I won't be any good at it. That'd be disappointing, but at least that would help me shape my direction after this. Knowing what you can't do is as useful, in some respects, as knowing what you can do.