It's been 31 years since Gary Numan unleashed "Cars," the massive hit that helped usher in a decade of forward-thinking synth-pop — not to mention many more excellent New Wave hair bands like Flock of Seagulls. Numan hasn't come close to matching the success of that track but his influence is still evident today: LCD Soundsystem have kept Numan's love of chintzy synthesizers alive in indie rock, Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor is an avowed admirer and everyone from the Dead Weather to Weezer have covered his songs. Next month, Numan's music is returning as a deluxe vinyl reissue box set titled 1978-1979, which compiles his work with his first band Tubeway Army up through his breakthrough solo album The Pleasure Principle, plus rarities and demos. Numan is also gearing up to tour the U.S. on a rare outing this October. Rolling Stone caught up with the electro-pop pioneer to talk about accidentally discovering synthesizers, his upcoming tour and possibly working with Reznor.
Listening to the reissues, it's amazing to hear how fresh and current these songs still sound.
I suppose in some area of music there's a tendency to go for simple production and that's why it sounds more contemporary than it should. Some of these songs were all done on a 16 track — the production was unbelievably simple and basic. When you do a particularly grandiose style, that can date songs. It's like a hairstyle. In a peculiar way, these songs stand up to the test of time because they are very, very, very basic.
Was that your intent?
Well, it was for financial reasons, really. And a lack of talent [laughs]. I really did these songs as good as I could at the time and I had very little experience with synthesizers. We would rent them for one or two days at the time and everything had to be done as quickly as possible, because the studios were expensive. I think that gave my music a sense of urgency and excitement, which, in some respects, was arguably a good thing. If you didn't get the first take, you got grumpy. And you can hear mistakes — there's mistakes all over it. There was no time to get it perfect but it felt exciting and I really enjoyed it.
What kind of mistakes can you hear?
I don't want to draw attention to them [laughs]. Rhythmically, the rate at which the tempos speed up and slow down, it's just horrible. Oh dear! You can try and pretend that it was just feeling, but that's rubbish really.
How does it feel to know Trent Reznor has cited you as an influence and bands like the Dead Weather and Weezer cover your songs?
I guess it's a natural progression. There's a tendency in music to look back for inspiration, which I've always found strange. Everything's reviving all the time.
Have you talked with Reznor about recording together?
When I played some shows with him [in 2009], we talked about it then. It kind of never happened. We went out to dinner and he said it would be great to do something. I would love to. It would be a real cool thing. I'm just leaving it to him to initiate the project. I wouldn't want to look as if I'm desperate to make it happen. I wouldn't ever want him to think I'm using him as a springboard. But from a musical point of view, I would love to see what we'd come up with together. I don't know what to do. I'm like, "Should I e-mail him? Would it seem like I'm being pushy?"
What was the music scene like in England when Tubeway Army released its debut?
We'd been through the punk thing, the Sex Pistols and the Clash. That was massive, but it was on its way out. Then along came me and my old three piece. We were a punky-pop band. I had spiky blond hair, sort of, and I was just trying to get a contract, with songs that were melodic and not angry [like punk]!
The Moog synthesizer was so integral to your sound, especially on songs like "Cars." How'd you come across it?
I remember it clearly. I had been sent to a studio by [my label] Beggars to record my first album. It was going to be a punk album and we were going to play the songs live. But as soon as I walked into the control room, there was a mini Moog. I had never seen one before. I just thought it was the coolest looking thing, just fantastic. Quite, quite small.
Apparently, a company was going to come pick it up but the man said I could try it out until they came to collect it but they never turned up! I had this thing for the whole day and it was the most amazing experience. Very luckily, it had been left on that sound which had become famous: a huge big bottom bass roar. It was just huge. I didn't know how to set it up. All I did was press a key and the room shook! And I just thought, "Fuck me! That's the most amazing thing I'd ever heard! The power!" Imagine, if the sound had been something that went ping!, I would've thought, "This is rubbish" and none of this success would've ever happened to me. So much of this was luck.
You originally wrote songs with a more punk-bent but revised them to be more electronic. How did your label feel about your creative shift?
They were really upset. Really unhappy, actually. There were two [executives] and we squared off with each other and got into a fight. I was so passionate about [my music]. In that day, I was absolutely convinced that [synthesizers in music] was the future. Within a day of seeing [the Moog synthesizer], I was panicking that someone else would stumble across it. I couldn't believe it. I was sort of counting the days before someone would release music [performed with a Moog]. What saved me was the record company didn't have enough money to re-record the songs. How lucky is that! So they released it and it actually got surprisingly good reviews and, at that point, they thought there was something in it.
Your first breakout single was "Are 'Friends' Electric." Do you remember the first time you heard it in public?
Yeah, I was walking along the road and I heard it playing out of this apartment window. It was really surreal. There was this woman, she had her blinds down and she was ironing. I could see her shadow. I remember thinking, "How fucking weird is this? She's ironing to my song!" I have no idea what she looked like. She could've been 16 or 106.
Why did you put the word friends in the title in quotes?
It meant friends but not in terms of, like, you know, a mate. I meant these types of friends to be a clone with human skin, but underneath it's a machine that can be anything you want: a sexual plaything, someone who makes you laugh, someone who is into your bizarre sexual practice.
How did you come up with the synthesizer hook for "Cars"?
I have only written two songs on bass guitar and the first one was "Cars." I had just been to London to buy a bass and when I got home the first thing I played was that intro riff. I thought, "Hey, that's not bad!" In 10 minutes, I had the whole song. The quickest one I ever wrote. And the most famous one I'd ever written. More people should learn from\ that.
What's in store for your upcoming tour of the U.S.?
From a stage show point of view, I'm massively handicapped on a budget. But that's just the realities. But it'll be cool musically. We're going to do a lot of Pleasure Principle stuff and a few other old ones and some new stuff. I'm not a massive fan of nostalgia but the last time we played, it was really good. I loved it. It reminded me that I used to love playing all this shit.