Touring in support of Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind) (Machine Music USA, 2013), Gary Numan’s latest has met with glowing acclaim and grateful fans. Speaking with me on the tour’s second night, the always-innovative Numan told me about Splinter’s welcome, nostalgia for vintage gadgetry, and depression. For more on the man who’s managed to influence everything you and your mom like, visit garynuman.com, then go hug your mother.
You’re a few shows into the U.S. Splinter tour and just finished your European dates. You had a really quick turn between the two.
Yeah. We got back Wednesday evening and had kind of a resting day on Thursday while the kids were at school anyway. We hope to fly them out to New York when we play there a couple of days, but they are at school; the school kind of has to agree to all this. It’s a bit tricky. I mean, I love touring, but it is the only downside now. I really do miss the children and these longer tours, they’re very difficult. I try to limit to two weeks at the most, but at the moment with this album there’s such a lot of positive feeling about it, it just feels like I should put in the extra effort. So we’re doing a lot more touring than I’d normally do but it’s great. It’s a good problem to have in a way.
Tell me about the album’s reception.
The overall feedback, from the reviews side of it, has been really good. There’ve been a number of people that have talked about it being one of the best things I’ve ever done. Very, very positive. I don’t normally look at feedback from fans because, quite often, it can be fairly egregious and hostile, strangely enough. People you think support you most, they turn out to be the most vicious. But, I think with this one, I was looking at all the feedback and it was just brilliant. It was really heartwarming. It made me feel very confident about it.
In the UK, it went into the Top 20, which was the first Top 20 album I’ve made in about 30 years. Now, I’m sure not everyone likes it. It would be ridiculous to think that but overall it’s everything I could’ve hoped for, and more really.
That’s so good to hear, especially since I read you worked through some things before developing the album.
I was diagnosed with depression in, I think, in 2008. I’d been in some trouble before that. I think in 2008 it was when I turned 50, and that hit me in a way that I didn’t expect. I didn’t recognize it at first. And my wife had postpartum depression after our second baby so she was in trouble and wasn’t quite the same person. So that had a big effect on our relationship, then I went down. I’ve always been very close to my own parents, my own family, and we fell out. A bad experience for about two or three years, just as all this other stuff was happening. But I think it was just too many things at once at a particularly vulnerable age, really. I just went down. I didn’t realize for a while until eventually I was behaving very erratically and even I realized that something was wrong.
Anyway, got the diagnosis of depression. They put you on medication for that and I was probably on that four years. In that time either because of the depression or because of the cure for it—which is almost as bad in a way—I didn’t write anything. I had no drive. With the depression I had no drive and I was just down and kind of no energy and then the cure puts you in a feeling of couldn’t care less about anything. So you don’t have any drive for that reason either! You go from one thing to the other but what’s the end result of it? You’re not working. You don’t care. I had people around me saying, “Your career is fading away. You’re going out playing live but you’re doing the same old songs. The audience isn’t interested. You haven’t put out a new record (at that point) in about five years. You’re just…you’re losing everything.” But I just didn’t care because of the pills. That’s how they make you feel.
Eventually I got a grip on myself and started to come back. It took a while but as I started to come back, I started to write a little bit. I did a side-project album called Dead Sun Rising and that kind of brought me back. As soon as that was done, I started to work on Splinter. What I chose to write about was the previous four or five years. The only problem with describing it that way is I think it gives the impression that the album is going to be quite down, quite a miserable experience. But it really isn’t. It’s very aggressive and in a way kind of optimistic. I think that’s because I wrote about it when I was getting better, or when I was better. It’s that angle, looking back at something. It’s not a happy record. It’s not uplifting. It’s not like R.E.M. or “Shiny Happy People.” But it’s not depre—I’m trying, I’m trying to salvage here! (Laughs) I’m worried about giving the wrong impression! You know, it’s alright! It’s not going to make you miserable!
I think, like you said, what matters is that you wrote the album looking back on your depression. Hindsight, right? What about your evolution as a musician and how your image has changed since the early ’80s?
The actual, on-stage side of things has just evolved naturally. I haven’t really thought that much about it. I think as I’ve done it more I’ve grown more confident and lost all the anxiety that came with it when I was younger. I think it’s just evolved into what it is now, which is just a much more demonstrative, aggressive on-stage performance. A totally different thing than it was when I first started, when I didn’t move around much and was fairly static on stage.
Musically, my interest in music and life in general, I’m much more interested in what tomorrow’s going to bring than what I did yesterday and so on. Musically I’m still totally absorbed in new technology, and I’m very much looking forward all the time. Trying to use sounds I’ve never used before, trying to use equipment or techniques that I’ve not tried before. I’m not going to claim that I’m experimental or anything noble but I do have a very forward-looking attitude to life in general and finding new avenues of expression. I think that helps.
I work in a genre of music that is very technology-driven. There is a strange thing at the moment that I’ve noticed. There’s a lot of people coming into it now; electronic music is very, very popular. There’s a number of people coming into it that seem to be looking backwards. I’ve noticed it in the last year or so. It seems that electronic music has been around long enough now that it’s actually got its own nostalgia, its own history. People are coming into it and are able to look back 30, 35 years or more and romanticize about old equipment that I’ve long-since abandoned, as if they are almost like the Holy Grail of these things. And I just think, “I can remember. I stopped using them for a reason!” (Laughs) They were OK, but much better stuff came along. And I don’t have that romantic feel about it because I guess I was there and I lived it. I feel electronic music is a very forward-looking genre. I always thought about what can we do next? What can we do that we haven’t done before? That’s what attracted me partly.
So I find it interesting that people are coming in that don’t have that attitude. Initially I thought, “How can you be interested in this type of music and yet be interested in what it did before? It’s already been done.” I didn’t get it. I’m sort of beginning to understand it slightly now because it really is a generation thing, I think. But I don’t get it and I never will. My interest is in what tomorrow’s going to bring me or what I’m going to do tomorrow. I have no interest in yesterday. Done. Gone. We can learn from it perhaps but it’s just done.
So now, with the live set, I try to find a balance between acknowledging people that have been there for a while and songs that people have covered—like Nine Inch Nails did “Metal”, Marilyn Manson did a song called “Down In The Park.” I incorporate those songs into the set because they have some relevance to what I’m doing now, songs that I’m sort of credited with. But mainly we’re doing nine songs from the new album and then a spattering of some old songs in between. Obviously the very beginning was exciting. That’s when it all happened. There was “Cars” and other songs around that time. My life changed dramatically and I ended up doing this for a living. I’ll be doing this forever and that’s because of those songs. So I have very fond feelings of that period, but from the musical point of view I certainly don’t think it was my best. I don’t think I’m there yet.
When I read a review that says that Splinter is one of the best things, if not the best thing I’ve ever done, that makes me feel that I’m not being stupid. I’m not sitting here like a dreamy-eyed idiot thinking that my best days are still to come. I think with most people, that’s probably true. They have their moment and everything’s great and they spend the rest of their lives just kind of living on that and doing the best they can until they die. It’s kind of how most careers end early. I think in a way I’m really, really lucky that that’s not happened to me. I’m doing stuff now that’s getting a massive, good, and positive response. I think it’s reaching a new generation of people. It’s all very encouraging. I’ve got a long way to go before I can say that it’s anything like what it was with “Cars” when that came out. To be around such a long time and to have such an up and down career, and to have spent most of that career making music which is not particularly radio-friendly, with more than half of it done as an independent? I think I’ve had a life. I do realize there’s a long, long way to go yet.
All of that and to be so influential. Doesn’t your far reach speak to your talent and all you’ve accomplished?
Yeah, that’s been amazing. There have been so many people. I found out about two more this morning. I didn’t even know that apparently Paul McCartney did something related to what I’d been doing. I didn’t even know that happened many years ago. And Lindsey Buckingham apparently based some of his stuff on my stuff. I only found out about those this morning. It’s almost, for me, a daily thing. It really is amazing because I’ve never been really confident. I’m not. I’m not a confident person. I find it particularly lovely and satisfying when I hear these things. Even though there’s been quite a lot of it over the last few years, it still hasn’t changed the way I see myself. I don’t see myself as a big, influential figure. I’m not totally stupid. I kind of realize that that’s beginning to become the way I’m seen now, but I don’t see myself that way. And I don’t want to.
Every time I go into the studio, I’m stricken with worry and doubt and I work really hard to try and make things as good as possible. I don’t think that everything I do is magical or golden. I’m often really worried about what I’m doing and I put it out really cautiously and wait for people to talk shit about it. I kind of like that. It drives you on. It drives you to work harder. I have a terrible feeling that if you did think you were something special, you wouldn’t work hard. You’d just think, “Oh, I did that, therefore it must be great.” That’s a terrible way to think. Clearly for me that’s never going to happen. I have as much self-doubt now as I did when I first started. (Laughs) Maybe more.
Gary Numan will play at Webster Hall in NYC on March 22 and The Trocadero in Philly on March 23. His new album, Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind), is available now. For more information, go to garynuman.com.