There certainly aren’t many artists currently operating at present who’ve seen as many musical scenes change and shift around them over the past four decades as Gary Numan. Since emerging as the frontman for Tubeway Army back in 1976, he’s been affiliated with punk, synth-pop, electro-funk, electroclash and industrial, whilst retaining a global fanbase of ‘Numanoids’ that have loyally supported him and continue to follow his later developments, the packed venues that greeted his 2013 Australian tour providing compelling proof of his continuing appeal.
While he’s still likely to be known to many people best for his eighties synth-pop tracks like ‘Cars’ and ‘Are Friends Electric?’, 1994’s ‘Sacrifice’ album saw him adding a heavier electronic edge and industrial rock overtones to his work, a stylistic progression that he’s continued to follow on more recent albums such as 2000’s ‘Pure’ and 2006’s ‘Jagged.’ Numan’s most recent album, 2013’s ‘Splinter (Scenes From A Broken Mind)’ not only saw him receiving some of his strongest critical acclaim in recent years, it also provided his first entry into the UK Top 20 for 30 years.
Three years on from its release, Numan’s upcoming as yet untitled 21st album sees him opting for a considerably different approach than he’s taken in the past, with its supporting Pledgemusic campaign offering fans the opportunity to follow each stage of the record’s creative process, from start to finish. Chris Downton caught up with Gary Numan to find out more about the upcoming album.
CD: Has becoming an independent artist been something that you’ve been working towards for a long time? When did you first decide that doing a crowdfunded album might be a way to make that happen?
GN: I set up my first label Numa Records in 1984, so being ‘independent’ is something I’ve been for most of my career. I briefly went back to conventional labels for a while in the late eighties for an album or two, and then another brief dabble with a label in the mid to late nineties, but I’ve now been independent for the last twenty years without interruption. I’ve had my own publishing company since 1980, my own studio, in one shape or another, since 1980 as well, so I’m well used to looking after myself.
Although the new album is currently running as part of a pledge campaign, it’s not crowd funded as such, it’s actually a glorified presale. Luckily I’m in a position financially where I don’t need crowd funding, but I did want to find an alternative way to release albums. The conventional distribution/label services route, although it has its merits, doesn’t need to be employed until further along in the process and that’s really what I’m trying to do. There are, or can be, a lot of layers in-between the artist and fan, each one taking a cut for services you may not need as much as you think you do, and the more of those you can peel away, the closer you are to the fans, the more involved they with the album you’re making and the more sense it makes financially.
If, by sharing the experience of making an album with your fans, you are able to give them an added level of contact and excitement, an interesting insight into what’s involved from beginning to end, and strip away some of those unnecessary layers in the process, then we both win. Me and the fans. That’s part of the attraction of being independent, that greater control you have over how you go about things, and that closer connection you can build with the fans.
CD: What’s the biggest thing that you won’t miss about dealing with record labels?
GN: The compromises. The having to accept a certain person’s ridiculous point of view because, if you didn’t, your marketing and promotion budget would vanish. I lost count of the times I was labelled uncooperative because I wouldn’t bend to some stupid idea. Stupid in my opinion of course. Creatively void of merit but, of course, it may have sold a lot more albums so I’m not saying my way was best. As an artist though you want to succeed on your own terms, not at any cost.
I don’t want to make albums I’m not proud of in a desperate bid for greater success. I found working with labels to be soul destroying, except Beggars Banquet in the very beginning, they were great. Labels seem to have a lack of genuine long term commitment and the constant interference in the creative process used to drive me mad. It’s why I first tried going my own way back in the ’84. I might have just been unlucky of course. Perhaps most of them are great and my opinion is unfair. I doubt it though.
CD: Do you think that knowing so many people are closely watching will influence the way that you approach the making of the album? Do you think that it will make you work differently?
GN: I don’t know in the long run, It’s still quite early in the process. It is an added pressure though, that’s for sure, far more than I was expecting, and it’s definitely slowing the process down a little. The need to update people regularly, with video clips and explanations of what’s gone on, break up the flow a little. I wanted people to see how things unfold. For example, how an idea might seem good to start with but doesn’t work once the song starts to build. why lyrics evolve, why things are thrown out, changed, the ups and downs of it, the emotional stress, the good days , the horrible days, all of it. But when it comes down to it, I’m really struggling to let stuff be heard that I know isn’t very good and normally would just be removed and never heard by anyone.
It’s really awkward letting stuff go out that you know won’t make it to the finished album because it’s not good enough. The work put into every album, in my experience, is 90% thrown away and 10% kept. You search and fail, search and fail, until you find that thing that really works. It is a tortuous process and it is very emotionally demanding for someone like me that suffers with confidence. It’s very easy to let your fears get the better of you and once that happens absolutely nothing seems good enough and it’s a nightmare trying to be objective. Been there many times. Hate it. But this is the process, this is the very thing that I’ve promised the fans I will show them, so I’m having to do it.
CD: What sorts of updates will you be doing for people who sign up for the pledge access pass? Will you be doing any live streaming from the studio as well?
GN: Well live streaming doesn’t really work for the simple reason that studio work is largely very boring as a spectator sport. I can spend several hours just listening to hundreds of different snare drums. Bang, bang bang, for hours. Minute changes to EQ or an effect that only an anally retentive artist will even notice. It’s very rarely (that you’re) standing there giving the performance of your life. I think watching someone in the studio is incredibly boring for 99% of the time and pretty cool for the other 1%, but you never know when that 1% is going to happen.
It’s mostly sitting in front of a screen making tiny movements with a mouse that make tiny changes to a sound. I set up a GoPro camera often and just let it run. If I’m lucky it will catch something vaguely interesting and I will put that out as an update. Or, I will play something back that I think will be a good demonstrator of how things come together, or why something didn’t work, and I will talk and explain the clip. But, it’s still very much in the embryonic stage and I’m trying to think of better ways of doing it all the time.
CD: Looking at your pledgemusic page, I notice that you’ve already raised over twice the amount you were aiming for. Have you been surprised by the response you’ve gotten from supporters? (mind you, Numanoids are renowned for their loyalty)
GN: It’s been incredible actually. As an alternative way of working a new album it’s already been an incredible success so everything that happens to the album, when it’s finished, is just extra icing on the cake. It’s worked on many levels though, I think the majority of the fans have really understood what I”m trying to do and got involved in a very positive way. You will always get a few moaners of course, but that’s just people.
Perhaps a few people didn’t truly get what it was going to be like but most seem to really enjoy it. At the last count it was on about 208% and it’s still going, so I’ve been genuinely blown away by the level of support and interest that the fans have shown to the campaign. I hope that, as the album develops, that interest will really start to see some genuine reward for the fans and that they continue to feel that it’s a good project to be involved in.
CD: Obviously with the album release scheduled for release in October 2016 it’s early days, but have you got any definite ideas at this point in terms of directions that you’d like to explore on this next record?
GN: Other than I want it to be heavy, electronic, dark, brooding and occasionally aggressive, no.
CD: Do you generally choose an overarching conceptual theme for your albums before you start writing tracks, or does this tend to reveal itself along the way?
GN: Often they reveal themselves along the way, but not always. The last album, ‘Splinter’ was essentially about my fight with depression and the damage it did to my life and relationships, so it had a very definite subject to write about from day one. Two albums before that, one called ‘Jagged’, was a look back at all the various bizarre people I’ve met and the things I did either because of them or the circumstances that surrounded them. That was a dark fucking album but I’ve had an interesting life and some parts of it have been stranger, and more shameful, than other parts, but they’re good experiences to write about. The new one will definitely be an evolving one. I have nothing in mind at the moment that I’m keen to talk about, so it will come as things develop.
CD: Do you write tracks with your band, or is it a case of working on track ideas on your own and then presenting them to them?
GN: I work alone for the most part. I write alone and mostly record alone. If I work with a producer it will still be in isolation, them in their studio, me in mine, and we will communicate by phone or email. I find it very hard working alongside people. I’m very uncomfortable trying to be creative with other people around, especially in the early stages. It gets a little bit easier once the songs are taking shape but it’s never something I’m truly comfortable with.
CD: You relocated along with your family to Los Angeles fairly recently; in what ways has this had an influence upon your music and day to day life?
GN: Day to day life is very different because Los Angeles has an amazingly warm, sunny climate so you live a very outdoor life compared to the UK. Musically though it’s had no impact whatsoever. I write from a particular part of my brain I think, a dark little corner. I don’t write about good days or happy moments, at all. As such, it makes no difference whether I’m sitting in the sun or the rain because the only things that come out are dark.
CD: Finally (I have to ask) – a while ago you were talking about the possibility of collaborating with Trent Reznor (another LA resident) in the future; is this still happening? After seeing you guys performing together at the 2009 shows, I’d love to see that happen.
GN: I really don’t know. We see each other a lot more now obviously as he only lives about twenty minutes away from me but we haven’t talked about working together for quite some time. I’m up for it at some point obviously but we’re both really busy, both married with three children now, which changes a lot of things in your life, so we’ll see.
Find out more about Gary Numan’s Pledge campaign here.