“I’ve had times when I’ve allowed myself to get bullied and I’ve been frightened by failure,” Gary Numan said about the trajectory of a music career that included a pioneering role in the use of electronic instrumentation emerging from the late 1970s British underground rock scene.
Numan talks to us over the phone from Europe as he puts in his final rehearsals leading up to his milestone 1,000th live performance scheduled to take place in London just before appearing at Reno to start of his American tour. He described a sometimes dark road that brought him here, and how it may not have happened at all.
First a member of Tubeway Army before heading off completely solo, Numan experimented with using electronics in the creation of early computerized melodies. His 1979 record, ”The Pleasure Principle,” contained the song “Cars” which continues to be played on radio and widely used in film and commercials.
At age 19, Numan signed his first record deal. “At that point I really didn’t think much beyond 30, it just seemed so far away. It seemed so many years in the future that the possibility that I even had a career that lasted 10 years or so, it just seemed so unlikely.”
Numan created a string of early records with Tubeway Army as well as solo that experimented with androgynous disconnectedness and a foundation of electronic music that predated and played a role in the rise of synth pop and new wave.
Gary Numan’s popularity grew, with “Cars” topping the charts in several countries and entering the Top 10 in the United States. Though like many other musical and cultural trailblazers, Numan found himself the subject of a wave of negative media. His creatively artistic and independent approach to music gave him a bit of an outsider status, and his sales lagged behind those of flashier and more trendy new romantic groups who favored image and marketability.
“The early part of my career I was very happy with. I knew what I wanted and I was pulling in my own direction. And then there’s this middle period and it all went horribly wrong.”
Numan recognizes now that he caved to commercial pressures. It was the era of MTV, where the most pop friendly, not to mention least musically challenging and risk-taking performers shot to the top.
“My career was pretty much finished. And there was all this advice coming in and I thought I could listen to it. I made some shockingly bad albums in those middle years and I’ll be the first to admit it.”
It was during this period that Numan met Gemma O’Neil, his future wife. From a musical standpoint, Numan credits Gemma with bringing him back to a fiercely creative mindset.
“She was able to help me look at what I’d done before and to see what I was missing and what I was doing wrong,” he said of those floundering years. “I have to give it to Gemma for having the patience to keep talking to me about why I was doing it, and help me recover that creativity that I had when I started that I really lost in those middle years. If I hadn’t met her, I don’t think I would’ve come through it.”
Gary Numan’s 2021 album, “The Intruder,” continues with a streak of recordings that the singer has been excited about. It’s a concept album about the earth rebelling against a cancerous human race. Numan still integrates new electronic instrumentation into his music.
“I remember a few years ago I was the most boring husband in the world. I’d have a pile of manuals beside the bed and I tried to read through them every night just to keep aware of what was coming. That’s not good for a long marriage,” he laughed.
Numan will be the first to admit that he becomes fascinated and obsessed with certain interests, then moves on to the next, and so on. Though he also says that while still keeping a keen ear toward new musical technologies, he’s much more selective about what he adds to his stable of instruments these days.
Numan and Gemma have three daughters – two of whoe are currently in the rehearsal space next door while they prepare their own performance which they give as their father’s opening act at his 1,000th concert. Now, at age 65, Gary Numan is happy that his career made it past those tumultuous years where he compromised his art for stabs at commercialism. It’s a past that shapes the philosophy he takes with his daughters’ musical interests.
“I’ve come to just enjoy the fact that I’m still doing something that I love. I’ve been saying to my children for years now if it’s just about being successful or being famous then you’re kinda missing the point.”
At this point, Gary Numan has been releasing music for nearly 45 years, having come full circle back to that feeling he had in the 1970s when his goal was to push musical boundaries and create sounds outside of what others are releasing. Following a career that he had not foreseen lasting even 10 years, Numan at this point has sold over 10 million records and won the prestigious Ivor Novello Inspiration Award for his songwriting. Though he says that some of the accolades he values the most are from voices such as Trent Reznor and Dave Grohl – artists who are known for pushing what is possible with sound and sonics – who have spoken at length about Numan’s influence on them.
Despite all of this, Newman still carries his ‘outsider’ status.
“It’s something I’ve accepted,” he says of his place apart from the mega popular acts, but instead one that has made the pursuit and creation of new sounds integral to his recordings. He gives a chuckle as he talks of his personal artistic renaissance following his attempts at commercial projects which left him unhappy. “To talk about the last 30 years, you realize how long you’ve been doing it. But those last 30 years have been positive – much better than the five or 10 that came before them.”
Gary Numan is again finding happiness in creating music. As far as success, he says that’s all just a nice afterthought. “If some success comes along, that’s great. Enjoy that. And if it lasts for a few years, then enjoy it for a while. But that mustn’t be the reason you do it.”
It’s something he tries to impart on his other source of happiness – his family. His two oldest daughters who will be performing at his 1,000th show both contributed vocals to his most recent album, while the concept of the album itself took form after a poem that his youngest daughter wrote.
“I’m there to support them in whatever they want to do,” he says about his daughters. “It doesn’t have to be music, it can be anything.”
Gary Numan is commonly cited as one of the originators of British first wave synthpop, though those electronic songs have very often held icy and dystopian melodies. On April 20, Gary Numan will perform his 1,001st concert in Reno at the Grand Sierra Resort onstage inside the Grand Theatre, performing with synth industrial band Ministry. This date will be the first of the pair’s 15 date U.S. tour that will end with Ministry’s performance at the Sick New World hard rock festival in Las Vegas.
When: Thursday, April 20
Where: Grand Sierra Resort and Casino – onstage inside the Grand Theatre