Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars?
Gary Numan’s Gettin’ All Hot and Bothered
When Gary Numan worked his way into the collective public consciousness in 1979 with his worldwide smash single “Cars,” he presented an icy, detached, robotic and ever dour persona. The real Gary Numan is nothing at all like that image: he’s funny, animated and disarmingly candid (“I’ve got Asperger’s,” he admits. “I’m brutally honest because I don’t know any other way”).
Though “Cars” (from his third album, The Pleasure Principle) would represent his commercial peak, Numan would go on to record and release a highly regarded string of albums. His music touches upon many styles: industrial, electronica, metal, goth, new wave and more. After years spent below the radar of mass pop culture, Numan has roared back with arguably the best work of his career. The songs on Savage: Songs from a Broken World are set against the bleak backdrop of a dystopian, apocalyptic world. Released in September, Savage soared to the #2 spot on the UK album charts, and fared moderately well on the U.S. charts.
On the eve of the North American leg of his current worldwide tour, Numan sat down for a conversation, discussing global issues, his creative process, Savage, and why he still plays “Cars.” Numan also explained why – despite having recently expressed interest in doing so – he’s not getting into soundtrack work after all.
Savage has a thematic undercurrent, specifically the aftermath of ecological disaster. Which came first, that concept or the individual songs?
“Well, the whole thing sort of evolved in bits and pieces, really. I was working on a novel for several years now; it’s embarrassing, actually, how long it’s been taking me to work on it. When I started to make the album, I started to lift ideas from the novel, but in truth, the novel is only a collection of fairly chaotic ideas. So the whole global warming aspect of it is something that was sort of developing in the middle part of 2015, really. I had the idea for this future world: it’d be like a desert, and the reason for that being a global warming apocalypse. And that wasn’t at the beginning of the novel; it was more towards the end of it. So then that started to become an important part of the story with the book.
“All that coincided with Donald Trump appearing on the political scene, talking about global warming being a hoax and that kind of thing. That suddenly made that idea within my story a lot more important and a lot more relevant.”
Do you think that the album is ultimately better because of Trump appearing on the global landscape, or do you think Savage would’ve been the album it was even if he hadn’t come on the scene?
“Well, I’m not sure the album would’ve been entirely devoted to the global warming idea without him. So, in that sense, I think his arrival on the scene did make a difference. My original idea to borrow ideas from the book was really just to get me going, because I didn’t really have anything in mind that I wanted to write about specifically. But having done that and having got those first two or three songs sort of ticking along, and then him appearing, and then me realizing the connection between those two things … it did make a difference, actually, and it became a lot more important.
“Before that, it was just a science/fantasy story that I’d been stealing ideas from. It suddenly became a lot more important to me, and it had a relevancy, at least the way I saw things. When the Paris Accords were signed, it seemed to me as if the world had come together. The global warming problem was being taken very seriously, and the world was doing something about it. It was very much at the beginning of doing something about it, but nonetheless, something was being done.
“In my mind, global warming and the whole climate problem had become yesterday’s news. You know, it was a problem that was being dealt with, and now we could move onto other things. It felt as if we’d taken two or three steps back from the abyss. But with Trump, it seemed as if we were suddenly right on the cliff-edge again, you know, looking into this big, big problem, and so it suddenly all changed for me with Trump. It was important to write about it.
“I don’t mean ‘important’ in that anyone’s gonna take any notice of what I’m saying, but for me, it became something I really wanted to write about. That, as opposed to just something before that was simply to get me going, to get the creative juices flowing. It became much more than that very, very quickly.”
Historically, in times of pessimism, many artists and audiences sort of make a decision to head in an escapist direction, to get away from the ongoing barrage of unsettling images and events. Clearly with Savage, you’ve gone in the opposite direction. Is that just something in your nature?
“It’s not in my nature, actually. If I’m honest, I’m one of those people that sees music as an escape from everyday problems. And I’ve not been political at all, musically. So, with Savage, it is quite a departure for me to sort of try to get involved in some small way, and all I’m trying to do with Savage – and I really don’t see it as any huge statement or anything important at all – is making an album of songs for people to listen to and enjoy.
“Focusing on climate change is just my small part in making people continue to talk about it, continue to see it as a problem. It’s worrying. You know, I read only about 20 minutes ago that Syria has now joined the Paris Accords. So, when Trump brought America out of it, America will be the only country in the entire planet that’s not signed up. You know, that’s shocking, absolutely shocking. It’s a talking point and I think it needs to remain a talking point until wiser heads take charge in America again.”
Are you ultimately optimistic or pessimistic about humanity’s future?
“I’m optimistic, actually. Again, to go back to the Paris Accords, I think that is a remarkable achievement to have the entire world – bar one [nation] – sign up for something where they were putting our planet before national interest. I think it was an epic moment in human history, and I think that should give everyone a great deal of faith in our ability to see sense, even though it might be at the eleventh hour, and to start to do the right things about it.
“But it needs tremendously skilled and forward-thinking leadership to do that, and I think with Trump we don’t have that. I do believe that there are plenty of other people waiting in the wings who will hopefully take over. The thing that is most disappointing is how spineless the people around him seem to be; that’s the thing that really is shaking me. As an outsider looking in – I’m British, so I can’t vote here or anything – I see someone who clearly has no experience to step up to something like this and take on the role of president, and yet I don’t see anyone around him that has any kind of strength, or courage, or moral backbone whatsoever to just say something. Well, there are a couple, but yet they’re all saying it as they’re leaving, so it’s not particularly courageous at all, really. You know, we can all be brave as we’re walking out doors and there’s no consequences to take.
“But I am optimistic. I do believe there are the people that think differently, and hopefully when Trump’s had his moment, those people will step in and things will be on a more intelligent level again.”
With each project that you take on, do you endeavor to avoid covering the same ground?
“It’s pretty organic, actually. I do think I dwell on some things more than I would like to. I drift back into writing about religion probably more than I should. When I sat to write Savage, I did know that I didn’t want to do a load more songs about depression, which is what the last one [Splinter: Songs from a Broken Mind, from 2013] was about. There was a conscious decision there to not repeat myself, but I don’t remember ever sitting down and thinking, ‘I have to do something completely different.’ You know, not repeating yourself is slightly different to your conscious decision to having to keep finding different things.
“The only requirement is, ‘Don’t write about what you wrote about on the last album.’ But beyond that, you know, wait and see what happens. Life seems to be very full. There’s been a lot of things going on in the world, and there’s an awful lot of things going on in my life personally with my children and so on. There seems to be no end of things that concern me.”
Even though your music has always transcended synthesizer-based electronica, you received the Moog Innovation Award in 2016. To what degree would you describe your current music as technology-oriented?
“Technically, it’s extremely technology-driven, but at its heart it’s very organic. Pretty much every song that I write is simply me sitting down with a piano and working up melodies and structure and so on. So, if you take away all of the production of this album, and just come back to that original piano and vocal, then you’ve got an extremely organic core.
“But then you begin to work in that, you begin to build these through, and then the technology really comes into play. So, I do think Savage is essentially a technologically-driven record in terms of sound and so on, but at its heart there’s a human being trying to come up with simple tunes.”
Your keen melodic sense is a hallmark of your writing. You write hooks even when you’re creating a dark and foreboding musical landscape. When writing, do you place a high value on melody?
“The melody is everything, everything. That’s all there is, really. I would say 95% of that is worked out first on the piano, and then when I did the vocal for it, I’d then move around that piano-written vocal to give it more expression. No matter what kind of music you do, every single note has to be the right note in the right place at the right time, obviously. Musically speaking, melody is the key to everything. It’s the one building block everything else sits upon.”
A few years ago, you were quoted as being interested in soundtrack work. Have you made any moves in that direction?
“I did, actually. When I came to Los Angeles at the end of 2012, I was fully intending to throw myself into film music, pursuing that as the next stage of the career. I did one film with Ade Fenton; he produces my stuff as well. We did an animated film called From Inside, and I really did enjoy it. We had a really easy time with it as well. The director, the producer and all the people that were involved in it – people who can potentially make your life a misery – were all very, very lovely.
“But I’ve got a number of really good friends here that are very successful composers and do an awful lot of work in film, and I listen to them. There were so many stories of having nightmare sessions where people would come in and want to change everything that they’d done, and they would make those changes, and then go to another meeting, and then they’d change their mind again. It just sounded horrendous!
“What I’m trying to do as I get older is to try to make my life more enjoyable, and less stressful, and to be able to do more and more what I want to do, rather than what I have to do or am made to do. And so I just thought, ‘You know what? I don’t think this film thing is for me at all, actually,’ I don’t want to be directed. I don’t want to be told what I have to write or to change things that I think are perfectly suitable, and I certainly don’t want to be in the middle of an argument where one producer is arguing with another producer, and I’m kind of the person that everyone’s blaming. I think I would struggle a little bit, and I think I would find it a pressure and a worry. And that’s the very thing I’m trying to get away from. You know, I want my life to get easier, not harder.
“The other thing is, I really love making albums. And I love touring. I’m very aware that I’m getting older; the end of my career is probably a lot closer than the beginning. So, I think that my feelings about getting into film music were almost like a knee-jerk reaction of, ‘I need to find something else that I can move into, because this is going to end fairly soon.’
“But I’ve thought about it a lot – really, really deeply – since coming here, and I just don’t think that [soundtrack work] is the right thing for me. I want to do as much as I can to keep the career that I have going for as long as possible. I don’t want to stop touring; I want to keep on doing that – so long as I am able – for many, many years yet. And I don’t want to stop making my own albums. I don’t want this transition from what I’m doing into film music. I just decided it’s not for me.”
Your two most recent albums have similar titles, both with a subtitle. Is there a connection between them?
“There isn’t any at all, apart from the way that I’ve learned titling. I wish there was! I wish I had a really clever answer there: ‘Oh, this is the connection.’ But no, there really isn’t one. The subtitle [‘Songs from a Broken World’] was just a glib answer to a vague question that someone in my family posed.”
So they’re not parts One and Two of a trilogy?
“[Laughs] No, no, no. But who knows? Who knows what’s coming next?”
Do you get a sense that at your live shows that there’s a subset of people who show up expecting two hours of variations on “Cars”?
“I think most people know what they’re in for now. You know, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s been very, very clear for a very long time that I’m not a nostalgia act.
“Every once in awhile I will go out and play one of the old albums; I’m very true to it. That’s something that I realized over the years is a fairly important thing to do. There are a number of people that support me now that prefer that early period. And I won’t say, ‘No, I’m not having anything to do with that.’
“The way I’ve ended up approaching this is that on this tour, about 1/3 of the set will come from the early years. You know, songs like ‘Cars,’ obviously. And the rest of it I’m very much focusing on the new album or more recent stuff.
“So, the thrust of it is very much where I am now, with as small a nod back as I can get away with to what came before. I do understand that for some people that’s a bit disappointing, but I think for the majority it’s great, and I think it works really well. That’s why I’m still around.
“I used to get a great deal of problems whenever I toured. People would be complaining, ‘Oh, you don’t do the old stuff. You didn’t do this song, you didn’t do that song.’ And I would be, ‘Well, here’s where I am now; here’s what I want to be doing now.’ But I think there’s a degree of arrogance if you totally ignore what the people who support you want. Savage is much better than anything I’ve done over 35 years. So, clearly there are new people coming here. You have to try to find a way of structuring what you do to satisfy everybody without compromising what you actually want to do yourself, of course.”
Both albums have earned you your best critical notices – and biggest sales – in years. Do you think that popular taste has just come around to line up with what you’re doing?
“It might be that; I’m not sure. With Savage, I think that my songwriting has definitely improved … not that there was anything wrong with it before that. But the melodies and the choruses that I’m coming up with now are just a bit stronger than they were before. I think Ade Fenton, who’s producing the records, has risen his game to a new level. So, I think both of us are at a very, very high point in our careers at the moment, and luckily, we’re working together at a time when we’re both probably doing the best work that we’ve done. That definitely helps.
“I’m probably writing the best songs now, or as good as anything I’ve ever written before. And that’s a pretty good position to be in when you’ve made 20 or 21 albums, or whatever it is.”