The Air and the Fury
Star of recording studio and airshow in conversation with Tim Goodyer. Is pop about to lose a hi-tech innovator, and display flying gain a star aviator?
Gary Numan, master of synth entertainment, victim of the mass media, and revivalist pilot extraordinaire, shares an hour or two with E&MM at his studio in Shepperton.
Nestling in the middle of the Shepperton film studio complex in West London, among the vast hangars where the ghosts of The Third Man and countless Bond films still linger, is a recording studio by the name of Rock City. It's been there a while now, but since the Shepperton authorities have decided the studio complex should be film-only, its long-term future is uncertain. Never mind. For the time being, Rock City is the home of Numa Records, the independent label set up by one Gary Numan after he fell out with his record company a couple of years back.
Numan is a man with a considerable history. When E&MM last featured him in December 1983, he'd just released his sixth album (Warriors) for Beggars' Banquet.
Since then, there have been two studio long-players released on Numa, Berserker in 1984, and The Fury last month.
In the public eye, it all began back in 1979, with Tubeway Army and the success of a catchy slice of electropop called 'Are Friends Electric?'. The single stayed at Number One for four weeks, much to Numan's personal surprise. His rise to fame was an unusually speedy one that did nothing to endear him to the weekly music press, whose criticism continues unrelenting.
Numan still feels strongly about it, six years on.
"Here am I
Like a target in the flesh"
"I made it so quickly, I suppose. One day I was just trying, and the next day I was it.'
If anything, Numan has ceased to be upset by what the critics scribble about him. What concerns him now is that those who work alongside him are likely to get dragged down with the boat whenever they work on a Numan album. Which isn't surprising, when you consider that the list of Numan's recent collaborators includes the likes of session singer Tessa Niles, bass-playing maestro Pino Palladino, and long-time jazz sax virtuoso Dick Morrissey.
'I resent the press that I get now because it takes these people down with me. I'm used to people having a go at me for one reason or another — though it's normally 'cos they just don't like me and they see the next album review as another opportunity to have a go at me. That's normally fairly obvious when you read the review, so I don't tend to worry too much about it. But these people are clever, and they don't deserve it. If working with me means you're going to get a hard time from the press, then that's really sad, and more than a little bit depressing.
'When a bloke like Dick Morrissey says "Nice tune", or Tessa Niles says she's really enjoyed a session, it means a lot. I can say to Dick: "I want a solo here, you can do what you like with it". So he does what he likes and then I might say: "Could you make it a little bit sadder?", and he plays it sadder. He's brilliant.
'It's inspiring, working with people like that. I can walk into the studio with the barest framework of a song, and Pino will add his bit and it's there — you've got a song. It takes years to get to know an instrument like that.'
Following the success of 'Are Friends Electric?' came the traditional string of hit singles and best-selling LPs which, along with a couple of sell-out tours, built Numan a phenomenal, still loyal, following. The critics remained unmoved.
"I don't need
This attention again"
Only when Numan announced his decision to quit touring — then subsequently went back on his word and returned to it — did the press sit up and take notice. Here was a classic rock star ploy if ever this Music Editor heard one. Yet listening to Numan speak now, it's obvious his aim was true.
'At the time it was a genuine move. I was sick of touring: I hated it and I didn't want to do it any more. The whole thing had got on top of me and I wanted out. I wanted to get back to how it was when I first started — I used to write at home on my piano, I could write what I wanted with no-one saying: "You gotta write this, you gotta have another number one, you gotta do a tour, you gotta do that". I was like a little boy who had run back to his mum. I didn't want any more of this business.
'It was genuine, and I didn't tour again for three years. Out of a four-year career, I don't call that an overnight decision to start playing again. I always thought I'd give it a couple of years, make a lot of money and get out. I saw people in there that were starting to enjoy it, but at that time, I didn't. I didn't like being on stage or touring, and I was nervous and embarrassed doing television.
'But I got to like it and you fall into a sort of trap. I started to enjoy being on stage and having people screaming at me. Once you're good at it you really start showing off, and then you're in trouble. I'm in trouble now — and I like it!
'But now I'm sensible enough to realise it won't last forever, and the saddest thing is that I'm better at it now than I ever was before.'
Yet in spite of getting more from music than he ever has before, Numan now has a second, equally important, love — aviation. This has provided the daily papers — as well as the music weeklies — with more ammunition than they could possibly have hoped for.
The most infamous flying incident involved Numan's arrest on suspicion of smuggling and spying during an attempt to fly around the world. The journey was a success the second time around, and this venture, along with several other scrapes with death in the cockpit, have had considerable influence on Numan's current outlook on life.
In conversation with Numan, it becomes difficult to separate the two apparently disparate issues, not least because the artist talks as freely as a pilot as the pilot does as an artist. The relationship between the two has provided inspiration for the musician and therapy for the aviator.
Numan explains. 'I find that I need both. If I wasn't able to fly I wouldn't be able to get away from the music business — and I need to get away from it regularly to keep my feet on the ground (sic) and remain objective about it. You can't make an important decision when the whole business is sitting on top of your shoulders like a bloody great millstone.
'But then you can only do display flying for so long before your nerves go. You know every time you go up and do a display that you're a little bit closer to the line than you need to be. If anything happens there's such a small margin for error, and then only for the experienced people who are very quick and skillful. So at the end of the season, although you love flying, you breathe a sigh of relief that you've got through another one, and you think maybe you've pushed your luck far enough this time.
'That's when it's nice to come back to the music business. You feel good, you feel like a man, you feel calm and intelligent and you feel as if you've achieved something, as opposed to anything you can do in the relatively protected world of music. People say that it's brave of someone to put out a particular single, but all he's going to do is dent his bank balance. That ain't brave.
'But both are challenges, both are rewarding, and I find that one feeds the other.'
Numan claims the most productive source of inspiration for lyrics is experience, and who better to have a wealth of experiences to draw on than the pilot of an ex-World War II North American Harvard?
"I'd been surrounded for hours
By the sound of thinking metal
And I knew something was wrong"
'I find it difficult to write when the world is ticking happily by. It's much easier to write about the seedier side of life, a struggle or a fight or a hardship.
'In an aeroplane you can often be in a situation where you're very, very frightened — when you know something's gone wrong but you don't know what it is. You can just feel that something isn't right, you've got an hour to go before you land and you know something's going to happen. It's a horrible fear: to be really scared, you need time to think about it.
'Anything that is a problem is easy to write about, so I tend to write a lot about the aeroplane accident.'
When Gary Numan writes a song, lyrical considerations are usually preceded by musical ones, with the latter often derived from more modest origins than you might assume after hearing some of his most inventive, most successful pieces such as 'Cars' or 'We Are Glass'.
'Quite often, the title will come first and that will give me an idea of the mood of the song. How that all comes about I really don't know. I sit down at the piano and just play, and sooner or later a song comes out of it. Sometimes I'll get an idea from an advert on television. I even got an idea off a lorry once. It was parked beside me, and the engine had a strange tickover which had a real good rhythm to it. I got home and sung the rhythm into my tape recorder until I got my LinnDrum out and programmed it into that. That's a bit unusual, but an idea can come from anywhere. It can be image, lights, music, lyrics. All you've got to do is have your mind and your ears open enough.'
Inevitably, things aren't always that straightforward. Numan confesses — as if it were some kind of sin — to occasionally succumbing to the temptation of composing around a synthesised sound, allowing it to play a sizeable part in the creation of a song. But does that really make him guilty of anything a classical pianist isn't? Maybe it just makes him more aware...
'A sound itself can be quite inspiring. Just finding a sound can give you two or three songs, because a certain sound can lead you to write something you hadn't thought of before.
'That happened a lot on The Fury. Sometimes I'd be in the studio with the basis of a song, and a sound would come out that would dictate entirely rewriting that particular song. Now, I don't know if that's pure songwriting or not, but no matter where it comes from, if you get a song that people like and enjoy, then that's all that should matter — though I believe there are purists who would say that sounds shouldn't dictate the song.'
Not that Numan worries overmuch about his songs anyway. It's refreshing, at a time when songwriters are becoming increasingly obsessed with their own egos, to find a musician who doesn't consider his own opinion important enough to be foisted on the record-buying public.
'I see the songs as a diary more than the spouting out of a message. I think that to have something you want to say, you have to be interested in peoples' opinions, and I'm not. I don't want to change them. I don't mean that in a cold way, I just don't see music as anything more than entertainment. I never have.'
"Look at me
I got the screams"
'It's show business, it's glamourous, it's meant to be glossy, and that's the front I've put on. I go on stage with all the lights, do my bit, and it's fun. I don't take it that seriously, but I do enjoy it very much. I don't think the "being famous" bit makes you important. I don't think it makes your opinions important and I don't think it means that, because people ask you a lot of questions, it necessarily means you know what you're talking about.
'The business thrives on characters. It needs them to maintain its image of being outrageous, to make it interesting for the young and less acceptable to the old.
'We need people like Boy George and Toyah. I love the way Duran Duran shoot their videos on yachts to show that glamour. That's why I got into it, for the glamour, for the money, for that sort of life. That was what I wanted, and anyone that doesn't is an idiot!'
Hmmm. Some things never change. Right from the start, Numan was more interested in being an entertainer than in being an artist.
Sadly, the press mistook his distinctive presentation and gloomy, hi-tech arrangements for an attempt at some sort of social comment on the coldness of our times. In reality, Numan only elevated synths above guitars because it seemed a good idea at the time, and still feels most of the ingredients in his chart-conquering recipe got into the cooking-pot more through luck than judgement.
'I put anyone's success down to luck — though not entirely so. You can write the greatest song in the world, but if nobody'll play it nobody's going to hear it, and where does that leave you? It leaves you sitting at home writing another great song, that's where it leaves you.
'But somebody can write a pretty average song, and if a DJ decides that he likes it and plays it to death, then you're in. People will like anything if they hear it enough — Christ, there are some things I hated, but if you hear them enough, sooner or later you go out and buy 'em!
'That's why radio is still the most important thing, and that's why, because they won't play my stuff now, I'm drowning. I'm dying. I'm standing on my own two feet, but I'm dying...
'I only found out about synthesisers by accident. It was when I found a MiniMoog left from the session before me in a studio. So I tried it to see what it sounded like, and it sounded great — that big, heavy MiniMoog sound that's so popular. It could have been that when I tried it, it would have made a silly noise and I'd have thought: "I don't like these very much". Then I'd never have touched them again! So it was luck that it was there, and it was luck that the sound that was set on it was one that I liked. Though slightly to my credit, I did see that there was an opportunity to capitalise on the situation.'
And capitalise he did. But one of punk's strengths was 'live' performance in the traditional guitar, bass and drums sense of the term, so a return to a keyboard sound brought with it visual problems that could have denied Numan the pop audience he sought.
"How I survived god only knows
I don't like the memory"
'I realised that the synthesiser wasn't a very visual instrument, and that if I was going to become successful using it, I had to present it in certain ways. So that was why I became very image-conscious. All those things, some thought-about and some lucky, came together for me. It was a very lucky combination.'
Lucky or not, once the synthesiser link had been made, Gary Numan's name became synonymous with it. In the light of this, it came as something of a surprise when, two years ago, he told E&MM of his reluctance to become involved with complex, higher-tech machinery.
'I used to be very anti-computer synths, which was very ignorant and very stupid. I used to think searching for a sound on an analogue synth made it one of the most human instruments of all. You had to search for the specific sound you wanted, not accept the sound it offered like a guitar or a piano. But when computer synths first came out, I thought: "Christ, it really is getting to be just like pressing buttons now". It was taking the human factor out of synthesisers.
'Then I stumbled across the Wave Team (Mike Smith and Ian Herron, a programming partnership) with their PPG, and I was impressed. I still don't think I was entirely wrong, because a lot of what you do is hit or miss and people don't particularly search for things, but computers do give you the opportunity to search deeper for a sound, should you chose to do so. But either way, interesting sounds come at the end of it, and the music should be better because of it.'
The Fury uses the combined talents of the Wave Team and their PPG Waveterm to realise its tight, highly-textured feel. But Numan delivers another surprise when he announces that the keyboard line-up for his recent tour (the umpteenth in the last three years) consisted simply of five Roland JX8Ps (four and a spare) plus two old ARP Odysseys for the sounds the Rolands couldn't manage. What accounts for this further modesty?
'The current advances in technology are incredible. The speed at which things change and improvements are made is beyond belief. It costs so much to update equipment like the PPG that you have to be able to guarantee a certain amount of use for it before it becomes a financial practicality. I didn't want to get involved in that particular rat race, so I found it easier to hire one in for studio work. Now I've got an arrangement with Roland that I can borrow stuff for the tours in return for a bit of promotion.
'I was thinking of hiring a couple of PPGs to take out but I decided on the JX8s, partly because they gave the sounds I wanted, and partly because I'm still a little bit anti-computer synths in that I'm not sure they'll stand up to the rigours of touring.
The trouble is that you put all your eggs in one basket. With my system, the instruments are less sophisticated, but they're sophisticated enough for me to get the sounds that I need.'
And on the age-old controversy between backing tapes and sequencing, Numan is typically objective.
'I use a bit of sequencing off-tape because, to me, there's no difference between that and a sequencer. Again the purists may kick up a fuss, but if you press a button and machines play a sequence, there's no difference whatsoever between them. You ain't playing it, and that's all there is to it. What does it matter what the retrieval system is?
'We don't hide our tapes when we play. They ensure the show goes on without making it any more or less human. I think it's entirely down to the performer and his audience: as long as they're both happy with the situation, then it's entertainment.'
Numan seems intent on continuing his career for as long as possible. For a man who's suffered at the hands of the press, risked his life in pursuit of his interests, and still come up with some sparkling, invigorating synth music, it'll be a shame when retirement finally beckons. But as he says:
"This could be
My last song
Everything must end some day"
(Lyrics published by Numan Music)
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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