Gary Numan: Pushing the right buttons

By Scott Kara

Gary Numan talks to Scott Kara about the happy accidents of his musical experiments and combining nostalgia with his new work.

Gary Numan downed his guitars and harnessed the power of the Moog to create synthesised rock. Photo / Supplied
Gary Numan downed his guitars and harnessed the power of the Moog to create synthesised rock. Photo / Supplied

Gary Numan is happy to admit much of his music career over the course of 30-or-so years has been a little dodgy. Or, in his words, "it went really really shit for a long time".

"It started really well at the beginning - and then I just lost it," he laughs. But there's no denying he has had moments of innovative brilliance, especially on 1979's synth-pop masterpiece The Pleasure Principle, which he will play live in its entirety at Auckland's ASB Theatre in May.

With songs like the catchy spectral mega-hit Cars and the robotic butt-shaking of Metal, Numan influenced everyone from Ultravox, Human League, and Depeche Mode in the 80s, through to bands like Nine Inch Nails and Basement Jaxx, and modern synth-obsessed acts such as Hot Chip, Crystal Castles, and our own Naked and Famous.

He had started heading into the electronic and synth-pop realm with his band Tubeway Army, most notably on 1979's Replicas and the meandering pulse of No.

1 single Are Friends Electric.

But on The Pleasure Principle the 21-year-old former punk from West London downed his guitars, abandoned traditional song structures, and harnessed the power of the Moog to create a rock album with synthesisers.

Numan - who confesses to a love for simple melodies and an obsession with sound and how music technology works - also says the creation of the album was driven by the media-bashing Replicas took. Though the album had reached No 1 in Britain it was branded "not proper music, played by pushing buttons".

"But it had guitars all over, and it's still my favourite instrument by the way, so it [Pleasure Principle] was a reaction to what the press were saying," he says bluntly.

"I thought, 'I'm going to make a point and make an album that has no guitars on it whatsoever', just to prove you can make a conventional contemporary album with no guitars on it."

And that was about as much of a plan as he had because a lot of the album was created by experimenting and happy accidents.

"I was young, and I didn't really know much about songwriting and recording, and I think sometimes when you are inexperienced - or ignorant perhaps would be a better way to put it - you do things that are unusual because you don't know how it should be done.

"It's not because you're particularly clever. It never occurred to me that not having a vocal chorus wasn't the way people normally do it - but Cars sounded just fine to me," he chuckles.

Considering Numan's introverted and self-conscious past, the musician - who is also a renowned stunt plane pilot and cult star of TV show The Mighty Boosh - is not what you'd expect. He's chatty, honest, and funny.

He's looking forward to getting back to New Zealand after 31 years and roars with laughter when asked what's easier to learn to drive - a 1979 Moog synthesiser or a Pitt Special stunt plane?

"Oh, the Moog ... because they're very easy to get a sound out of, although getting a sound you particularly want, one that's in your head, is a little more difficult."

Funnily enough, it took Numan 30 years to fully realise the impact The Pleasure Principle had on the musical landscape - and he has Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails to thank for it.

Numan played some shows with the American synth-industrial band in 2009 and at every concert Reznor would tell the crowd about the influence The Pleasure Principle had on the formation and direction of NIN.

"I started thinking if someone like that had those sort of opinions about the album then maybe I should listen to it again myself. People do seem to love it. People talk about it being influential, which is lovely, and so I thought, 'Maybe I should just shut up and enjoy it'," he deadpans.

"If it hadn't had been for Nine Inch Nails," he continues, "I don't think I would have got the kick up the arse I needed to re-evaluate it because I never really thought that much about it at the time because we got on with the next album, and the one after that, and the one after that."

He went on to release an album every year for six years after The Pleasure Principle.

These days he says there is very rarely a week goes by when he doesn't have to clear a cover version or a sample from a song off the album.

In the course of playing it over the past few years he has started to appreciate how "quirky" it is.

"It's a weird little album and actually, in its day it must've been a bit odd. And I appreciate it now more than when I wrote it."

Initially Numan had intended doing one show to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the album "but then it grew and grew".

"I'd rather stick a needle in me eye than do nostalgia. But what's kind of cool about [the shows] for me is that The Pleasure Principle is a short album, being an old vinyl thing, so the first half of the show we do is all Pleasure Principle and then the second part of the show we fill up with what we're doing now."

And what Numan has been doing lately is a tougher, more darker sounding industrial style of music, which he started dabbling in on 1994's Sacrifice.

"So from that point of view it's slightly more comfortable for me that I'm not just going to do something that is old - and hopefully it works in a way that you celebrate one part of what you do and introduce people to the later part of what you're doing."

LOWDOWN

Who: Gary Numan

Where & when: ASB Theatre, Auckland, May 21

Playing: The Pleasure Principle from 1979 in its entirety.

See also: As the Tubeway Army - Tubeway Army (1978), Replicas (1979). As Gary Numan - The Pleasure Principle (1979); Telekon (1980); Berserker (1984); Strange Charm (1986); Sacrifice (1994)

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