Music

Gary Numan on Intruder alert

Electro-rock pioneer Gary Numan returns to Ireland this month for shows in Belfast and Dublin. Richard Purden chats to the London-born musician about the success of his current album Intruder, staging his most spectacular live shows ever and the highs and lows of over 40 years of creativity...

Gary Numan
Richard Purden

A SENSE of dealing with his past has given succour to electronic pioneer Gary Numan (64), currently riding the crest of a wave while on tour in support of his 18th studio album Intruder.

Later this month the London-born musician is Ireland-bound where he will perform a much-anticipated date at the Ulster Hall in Belfast, the biggest Northern Ireland show of his career, reflecting a notable cultural resurgence.

At the end of the 1970s, he accelerated to pop stardom, initially fronting Tubeway Army before going solo. David Bowie once suggested Numan had written "two of the finest songs in British chart history" with Are 'Friends' Electric? and Cars, which both topped the UK singles chart in 1979.

Despite his meteoric rise, Numan often faced a scornful and hyper-critical attitude in the music press.

"There was, to begin with," he explains thoughtfully, "I don't have bitterness, I accept that the music was quite new. Lots of people didn't take to it or didn't get it and could be passionately negative.

"If you're the person at the front-end, for a while that was me, you get a lot of stick. Over time that changed, the music became more accepted and part of the mainstream."

Despite being an electronic pioneer some of Numan's most iconic images are of him holding up a Gibson Les Paul guitar: while synths come and go, it has remained one of the constant instruments in his life since the age of 15.

Significantly he has inspired a range of musicians from different genres. Among them were Kurt Cobain and Prince – who suggested Replicas was one album on constant rotation during his formative years – while Trent Reznor described Numan as "a vital influence" on the sound of Nine Inch Nails.

"That did a huge amount for my recovery in how I was seen by the public and the media," suggests Numan. "It attracted interest from people that never listened to me before. With Trent, Bowie and Prince [referencing his music] people wonder what all the fuss is about and there is a pressure attached to those figures saying they are listening, you've got to prove yourself.

"It was lucky that this was the mid-90s. I'd done Sacrifice which was my best album in a long time. I was back on form in terms of songwriting."

After a run of dates at London's Wembley Arena in April 1981, Numan walked off stage having announced his retirement at the age of 23. He appeared to be calling it a day and struggled to recover his career after the announcement.

Forty-one years later, he will return to that stage during an extensive tour.

"I'm hoping I don't get freaked out by the whole thing, which is possible," admits Numan. "It's something that I've wanted to do since the last time. I remember walking off stage realising I'd made a terrible mistake.

"It's been a long journey getting back to something I threw away, much to my regret. This moment has become so important to me that it's almost overwhelming, it's almost a lifetime ago".

Those proposed final shows heralded the end of a significant cultural moment for Numan.

"It's been a four-decade dream to get back to this level," he adds.

"I don't want to mess up, we just had a breakdown in America and had to stop the show for 10 minutes, I'd hate for that to happen.

"I've spent more money and put a huge amount into it. This is the most spectacular stage show since Wembley and we are touring everywhere. This show is a way of saying 'thank you' to the fans who feel the new success as much as I do."

His hardcore fanbase of 'Numanoids' has added to its number whether it be old cohorts returning or a younger audience discovering the singer's work. Before becoming a musician he would often turn his attention to short-story writing - this other constant has been a vital mechanism in opening up imaginative worlds.

"I loved writing stories from when I was very little and that lends itself to writing songs," he says. "I've never finished a novel but it's a way of getting ideas out. Savage (Songs From A Broken World) started as a series of notes for a novel. I wanted to write about this figure during a post-climate change apocalypse and how that affected the human condition."

The 2017 album would reach number two on the charts providing Numan with his biggest hit album since 1982.

"It's a genuine point of frustration that I've never got close to finishing one of these novels," he adds. "I hope in the future I will have the time; that's how I see the latter part of my life, I'd like to finish a book and some of the ideas I've started over the years."

Numan suggests the same approach helped cultivate his seminal albums: "Replicas and The Pleasure Principle both started as short stories, also Sacrifice."

Numan's 'robot' aesthetic, influenced by Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? some years before Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, assisted the Numanoid personae illustrated on the Replicas sleeve. It's one of many covers that stopped record buyers in their tracks.

"I do all the artwork and start with vinyl. It's a more immersive experience and more in the way the artist intended," he explains.

"You are listening to a body of work that someone has worked on for two years of their life, within all that is the sleeve, all the interesting bits of information, where it was recorded, the musicians who played on it, lyrics, acknowledgements and what people looked like; a good sleeve does that anyway."

While Numan has yet to finish a novel, his autobiography (R)evolution was released during the 2020 lockdown. It's a refreshing change from the usual tales of sex and drugs.

"When you're 60-odd years old, you don't want to be talking about sleeping with women and what drugs you have or haven't taken."

He does write about coming close to death as a stunt pilot flying Second World War-era planes.

"Pretty much everyone I knew was killed, it was too reckless as a hobby. I've since sold the aeroplane, but it was my whole life for a while, more than music."

As a family man with three daughters, now based in LA, he explains his wife Gemma drew a line under Numan's former pastime and he attributes her involvement in re-discovering his love of music after some lean years.

"When I met my wife, life changed and I started to enjoy music again – thank God for that."

Gary Numan plays the Ulster Hall in Belfast on Saturday May 21 (ulsterhall.co.uk) and the Olympia in Dublin on Tuesday May 24 (3olympia.ie), garynuman.com.

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