Just Can't Stop
'Are Friends Electric?' and 'Cars' will go down in the musical history books as classics of their genre but the writer of those hits, Gary Numan, has yet to match his early successes. Mark Jenkins met up with him during sessions for a forthcoming album at Rock City studios, Shepperton, only to discover that the Numan of today is finding it tough to get airplay for his recent work...
Despite a recent chart single, I Can't Stop, Gary Numan feels a need to re-assess the future.
It's a year of decision for Gary Numan. In fact some pretty far-reaching decisions were due to be taken the very day we visited, and Numan was undeniably on edge. Running a career in music, a 24-track studio, a record label and a light aircraft all at the same time can't be easy, and recent developments have dictated a major change of direction. As ever, Numan was keen to point out the tensions which exist between the different parts of the music business, and in particular between the radio stations and the record companies...
"It's a time of change because we're moving out of the studio at the end of the year", he explained. "The lease has expired, and we could get it extended, but don't really want to. The idea at the moment is to build a new mobile studio but to continue to use it mainly for the acts on Numa Records."
We should explain at this point that Gary's decision to buy into a studio and form his own label after leaving Beggar's Banquet, rather than looking for a major deal, has been a crucial one. Numa Records has been working for around two years now on several acts, including the hi-tech band Ho Ho Kam, horror film actress-turned-singer Caroline Munro, Steve Braun, and Gary's brother John Webb. With their own 24-track Rock City studios located on part of the Shepperton film lot, the label is self-sufficient in terms of recording time, but success has still been slow to come...
"I see the record company as a long-term way of staying in the business, but we've very little money at the moment. Since we don't use the studio commercially, I'm the money for the label, and my last few singles haven't done too well. The other artists aren't getting any airplay at all, so it's got to the point where we can't even afford to mix the Ho Ho Kam album."
The problem as Gary sees it derives from BBC Radio 1's airplay policy. His last single I Can't Stop, his best for a long while, got an airing on Top Of The Pops and on Wogan, but Gary points out that it's the constant exposure given by radio which makes a successful single.
"We've had two plays on that single, and fewer on the last five singles put together than The Housemartins had on their first single. My father (Tony Webb is Gary's business manager) has been totting up the amount of airplay according to chart entry positions, and we've been the only company in that position not getting airplay. If your singles aren't successful in that position the TV companies don't invite you back because they're pissed off if you flop - we had a Top 30 single with This Is Love six weeks ago but it didn't get any airplay at all."
"We don't have money to spend on adverts in Smash Hits, and those aren't really what sell records anyway. That's just to massage the artist's ego, and when I was on a large label I wanted to see big ads like that too. But now I'm paying for them, they don't seem justified."
So marketing music is a major problem, and it seems that although local radio plays help, it's national radio which dictates ultimate success or failure.
"I'm currently finishing a new album for release in September, but until then, releasing singles is beginning to seem pointless. I'd like to do film soundtracks or jingles, but I haven't been made any offers and don't really have the contacts to get into that sort of thing. Russell Bell (the Numan band's bassist) just did the new Toyota Celica ad, and I'd like to do something like that."
While the Rock City studio is being disassembled, similar plans are being made for the record company.
"I'd like to do film soundtracks or jingles, but I haven't been made any offers and don't really have the contacts to get into that sort of thing."
"Our success seems to lie abroad. Ho Ho Kam were the third largest import in the US and very big in Italy at one stage, but just as that was happening the BPI ban on the free use of pop videos on TV came up and that set their career back a year! That was particularly stupid because none of the membership was consulted and the Musician's Union were really out of order in banning their members from playing on unpaid videos."
"What will happen now is that only the big acts will have their videos played, and the #500 fee is nothing to them. It just makes things difficult for small acts who are trying to break".
On the subject of videos, Numan turned in an interesting one for I Can't Stop.
"It was shot at Kadek who are sited next to us on the Shepperton film lot - they usually make ads and commercial films. We asked them to design a nightclub set for the first part of the video, then we hired Duxford airstrip (near Cambridge) for the flying sequences which were done with a minicam attached to the engine cowling of the plane and pointing into the cockpit. I had a trigger in one hand to start the camera shooting, but the first time I did the manoeuvre I forgot to start it until we were half way round! "
Also prominently featured in the video are a Greengate DS:3 sampling keyboard which Gary's brother uses for his own music, a spectacular young lady clad in leather who just happens to be Gary's girlfriend, and a lot of guitars - which we'll return to later. But another unusual aspect of the single and forthcoming album has been the schedule on which it's been produced.
"We've worked solidly from Monday to Friday on the album each week because we're composing most of it in the studio. By the end of the week you're ready for a break, and the weekends are when most of the air displays are on. I've got a Harvard plane in Japanese markings so I can take part in Pacific War dogfights, and it provides a great break from the music. I'm doing so many airshows now that the plane's almost become self-financing."
Those hard, week-long sessions haven't been entirely comfortable though...
"Composing in the studio isn't the best way to do it because there's no demo for a producer to flesh out. I'm working with The Wave Team - Mike Smith and Ian Herron - with Tim Summerhayes engineering, and it's a change from the way I've worked in the past, which usually meant just composing on the piano. There's a lot of guitar on the forthcoming album - I Can't Stop uses almost no synths, but there are other tracks which are 95% PPG Wave plus vocals."
"For miking vocals in the studio I like the Electro-Voice RE20 - they have a slightly warmer sound than the Neumanns."
"There is quite a lot of synth on the album though, including the Roland JX-8P, the Yamaha DX7, some Emulator sounds sampled into the PPG, and even a Synclavier which we had for a short time. It's a good machine, but it takes too long to get into and it's much too expensive. I'm interested in the idea of replacing the conventional studio with the 'tapeless studio', and if Synclavier get the long-term sampling onto hard disk working perfectly, you'll be able to do that even for the vocals. But the system best suits someone like Paul Hardcastle who's doing a lot of well-paid production work with it - my production work is done as a favour for the other bands on the label."
"If the Numa label had some financial backing we'd be doing three or four albums a year, but that's just not happening now. If we go ahead with the plan to put the studio in a mobile, we'd need a conventional 36-foot coach which we could strip, or alternatively a 40-foot container. I'm very keen on the idea of being able to clip a 16-track or a 24-track studio onto the back of the same truck! But I know the Manor Mobile was going to be in a container for foreign shipping until they saw how the things were handled at the docks!"
Numan's working methods are fairly well established by the time the song reaches the recording stage.
"The first thing that goes down on tape is the SMPTE code, which ensures we can sync things up even if we come back to it much later. Then we put down a good bass sound, some manual hooks, then decide what should be the verse and the chorus with everything synchronised through the SRC SMPTE Reading Clock."
"I did some work with Stewart Copeland's Fairlight and in some ways it's easier to use than the PPG. But I compared a bowed upright bass sample he had with the PPG equivalent and thought the PPG sounded a little better. If I was buying a system like that I'd just want the one that was easiest to use, although of course the Synclavier is in a class of its own in terms of quality."
Numan has been working with several other musicians on the forthcoming album, but hasn't had a particularly easy time composing the songs and says he is likely to go back to using a piano and drum machine to compose in the future.
"None of the songs on this new album have come easily. Running the business side of things takes a lot of the creative urge away, but we're pleased with what we have. Dick Morrissey is playing some sax, Martin Elliot is on bass and Tessa Niles (who sang on the previous Bill Sharpe/Numan hit single) is on vocals. Maybe I should work with more different people, but once you find musicians you can work with you tend to stick with them."
"Composing in the studio isn't the best way to do it because there's no demo for a producer to flesh out."
Numan has been using a wide variety of sound sources on the upcoming album including a lot of PPG Wave samples, various sounds held in the AMS digital delay, and a few unusual effects including an ashtray being hit by a pencil! But does he have his eye on any new instruments?
"I'd like to see the new Roland Super JX-10. We found the JX-8P very reliable on tour. Roland lent us five plus a load of effects gear and racks, and everything worked well and very quietly. Now I try to avoid buying gear because the updates come so quickly, and if you can do promotional deals like that you don't have to."
"The situation on software updates for the PPG has been pretty bad, for instance. Every time they came up with something new you found that they'd taken out something you needed to use! I'm quite impressed with the system but the Wave Team guys are more fussy. I'm not too bothered by the kind of keyboard I use - I started out on a MiniMoog and an ARP Odyssey and I don't use velocity and after-touch effects too much, so I'm not mad keen on the semi-weighted keyboard on the JX. On stage I still like to use the ARP Odyssey because it has the best window-shaking bottom end of any synth."
What about effects units? Rock City studios has an impressive rackfull plus a few additional effects precariously gaffa-taped to the top of the mixer through lack of space. Which of them will survive the move into a mobile environment?
"The new AMS units will still be there - the DMX 15-80S has a 1.6 second delay which is quite enough, and if we want to fly in longer samples like hook lines or multiple backing vocals, we do it from quarter-inch tape. Because the studio isn't being used commercially I don't feel we need 35 second digital delays and I have to be a bit frugal on the financial side. The AMS RMX16 reverb and the Lexicon will stay, although we don't really need all the compressors and noise gates we have. There's a Scamp rack, some Drawmers, Kepex gates, a Universal Audio Limiter and a few other things - I think the Drawmers are my favourites."
The AMS delay/reverb units represent the main additions to the effects set-up made by Gary when he took over Rock City, and he also moved the control room from a very small booth into a larger area along the opposite side of the studio which he'd also obtained. In fact, the studio is a maze of offices, store rooms and workshops, and it seems a shame to leave it unoccupied. Perhaps someone reading this would like to take over a 24-track facility?
"We're having to change the monitors at the moment because a crossover blew out in the JBLs and it's going to take two weeks to get a spare part. I don't think I monitor very loud so it wasn't my fault! But everyone else seems to think I like a lot of volume, and it's true that you can't get the excitement of a concert during a mix unless you crank it up a bit. We're going to try out some new Meyer Sound monitors which Tim Summerhayes (the engineer) has heard before, although we have one ballad on the new album which sounded better on the Acoustic Research AR18s than on the main monitors."
Rock City's desk is a well-used Trident TSM, which Tim Summerhayes will tell you "is the best rock-n-roll desk ever built. It's had so many cans of beer spilt into it that you have to empty it before the start of a session!" Gary adds that the desk's woodwork had 'Sham 69' and other phrases carved into it when he moved in, so a metal strip now lines the front of the desk. "You mustn't put your feet on it while you're mixing because it might buzz though", he adds.
"I still like to use the ARP Odyssey because it has the best window-shaking bottom end of any synth."
Gary doesn't claim to be a studio engineer, but can work the desk and is very enthusiastic about its EQ.
"I can't justify having an SSL desk in here when you can't hear the difference on the final product. Admittedly it might have taken us longer to do the album, but then we're not short of time. We've got enough pairs of hands and we can mix the tracks in sections if we want to. We may get a half-inch mod for one of the Studers or we may go to digital mastering, but we've just had a CD version of The Fury released from a quarter-inch master and it sounds fine. I think CDs are the future of music."
Looking back rather than forward, the main studio area of Rock City is equipped with a very nice Bosendorfer grand which unfortunately will have to be sold off. Gary also has a good selection of guitars and keyboards lying around, including a Linn LM-1 drum machine, Oberheim OBXa and the Wave Team's new Yamaha DX5.
"When I first got famous I bought gear for the whole band", Gary explained, "so now we have a lot of good guitars and things here".
The studio's also equipped with various microphones from AKG, Neumann, Shure and others, and Gary favours Beyer mics on stage although finding them less hardy than Shures.
"For vocals in the studio I like the Electro-Voice RE20 though - they have a slightly warmer sound than the Neumanns."
After looking round the studio floor we asked Gary how he saw the future.
"What we're thinking of doing now is licensing the Numa Records label through an American major such as MCA or EMI, so they can put some money behind it. It seems absurd that you have to go out of your own country to get money, but the Radio 1 problem has caused that. I think my attitude to making music has changed since I've had the label - not necessarily the music itself, just the approach. For instance, I don't have the piano tuned every day because most people's ears just aren't that sensitive. Once you've added effects, you can't hear slight de-tuning anyway, and on the bass guitar we're de-tuning it intentionally most of the time with the Eventide Harmonizer. De-tuning thickens things up."
"In the past I wasn't paying for all those things, except indirectly through deductions from royalties, but now everything counts. I've realised it isn't necessary to have certain things - I've got two good reverbs - the AMS and Lexicon - and I don't go changing them every day, although I'll certainly hire in additional equipment if necessary."
In terms of live work, Gary Numan would like to re-start performances when he's in a position to play both US and European tours, although he hasn't even had a record company in the US for three years. He's designing a new concert set now though. He concluded our interview by re-emphasising how important the weekend of our visit was going to be.
"We're making the final decisions both on the fate of the studio and whether to go for the US licensing deal this weekend. The next two months or so are going to be a busy time."
Numan sometimes seems a master of understatement...
[Stop Press: as this issue went to press, Gary Numan signed a 3 year distribution deal for his Numa label with Teldec Records in West Germany.]
Interview by Mark Jenkins