Electronic music maven or one-hit wonder? For forty-two-year-old Gary Numan, this is a question he’s been struggling to provide an answer to since 1979, when “Cars,” a chilly, synthesizer-driven pop song with a robotic dance beat, topped the U.S. charts and established the young musician as an “overnight sensation.” But while Numan languishes in one-hit-wonderland in the U.S., he continues to sell records steadily in Europe, having amassed more than two-dozen hits. Even more important however has been his influence on the vast flow of synth-pop acts during the early part of the Eighties as well as the current generation of industrial-strength rockers who have praised him as a visionary. At a 1998 Los Angeles performance, Numan was joined onstage by ultra-fan Marilyn Manson, while a year later, electro-metal overlords Fear Factory showed their appreciation by transforming “Cars” into an intense piece of death-metal disco. Even Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails has made it a point to continually spout off about Numan’s importance in contemporary music. On his new album Pure, Numan struggles to get his own groove back, and the result is an aurally intoxicating work of ominous electronic overload that — upon last inspection — has nothing to do with the Eighties.
At the time “Cars” became a hit in 1979, that style of music hadn’t gripped the American pop charts yet. What was the record industry’s reaction to your ahead-of-its-time sound?
It was considered to be a very “quirky” sort of music. There were some people who really saw it going places and other people who thought it’s never going to translate and that it’s never going to be accepted in America.
As strange as it may seem now, you originally started out doing punky, guitar rock with your band Tubeway Army. Didn’t you “discover” the synthesizer by accident?
Yeah, it’s funny, but up until “Are Friends Electric,” I didn’t even have a synthesizer of my own. When I went into the studio to make the first album, whoever had been there before had a Mini Moog synthesizer and it was packed away in the corner after the band had gone. I had a go at it, and it sounded amazing, a massive sound. After that I became very successful for awhile, and I’ll never forget about that little piece of luck.
What current music are you impressed with?
A number of things actually, but it tends to be the industrial side of rock. I love the Deftones and Marilyn Manson, but Nine Inch Nails are probably my favorite band. I think some of the stuff that Trent’s done has been awesome. The only place that I find any kind of attempt at innovation is in that genre of music.
Wasn’t most of Pure created through the use of samples?
Most of it was, but they’re all self-made samples. Pretty much every sound on Pure was painstakingly created in my own studio with my own people. I think the sampler is one of the most underutilized pieces of equipment we have. It’s potential is enormous, but it’s massively abused. When you say you’ve made an album primarily using samples, people turn their nose up at you because they have this preconceived idea that you’ve ripped it off from someone else.
This record is much heavier than previous Gary Numan releases.
The last three albums that I’ve made have been much heavier records, and I think the new one is the best of the three because I’ve learned how to use the technology as I’ve gone along. Even so, it’s put me in that genre, that industrial/electro-rock corner of the music business, and I’m very happy to be there because I love the other people who are in it and I’m a fan.
For many people, your reputation is defined by “Cars.”
“Cars” has been in the charts in four different decades. In fact, I just recently got an award for it for the amount of radio play it had in America in 1999. I’m very aware that with my new record I have a good opportunity to re-establish myself as a viable contemporary act for the year 2000, rather than be seen as an Eighties’ throwback. When Fear Factory covered “Cars,” I was really happy about that because they’re such a massively heavy band. It all of a sudden put me in touch with a new audience with a new version to people who hadn’t even heard of Gary Numan and didn’t even know it wasn’t a new song. But even that had a danger, in that people who did remember would maybe say “Oh, ‘Cars’ again,” but you kind of have to take these opportunities that come along and measure the advantage of them as opposed to the danger of them.
So, obviously you’re not a fan of this big Eighties revival that’s happening right now?
This business about living on past glories is absolutely disgusting to me. I don’t want to have anything to do ever with the Eighties, because I’m paranoid about being associated with the Eighties all the time. The funny thing is, there wasn’t anything good about it. It’s not as if there was something really good that’s been lost and they’re trying to get it back — it’s shit. Personally, I couldn’t wait for the Eighties to be gone. For me, the Eighties was just a dismal series of progressive failures one after another. My career, for example, started out brilliantly and just went down the f—–g toilet. I think there are one or two good things that popped out of the Eighties, but that’s about it.
Don’t you feel that the early part of that decade seemed to be a thriving time for electronic pop music?
You know what happened? The whole electronic revolution sort of kicked in, and then after a very short space of time the status quo kind of came back and radio went back to playing their safe middle-of-the-road stuff. It was almost as if innovation and pop charts suddenly collided for a brief moment in time and then went their separate ways again.
Now more than ever, there seems to be a number of bands who are obsessed with Eighties synth-style music.
I think people that are hanging onto electronic music as some kind of nostalgia trip are grossly mistaken in that sort of direction, but there are other people who are trying to incorporate it into what’s going on now and looking ahead to where it’s going and trying to do something with it, which I believe is the next step. That, I find exciting, but there are a lot of people who just cough it up. Perhaps this attempt at an Eighties revival is to blame. Anyone who’s looking back at that style of music as a template for writing music in the year 2000 I think is making a big mistake.