Releasing an album is like throwing your child to a pack of wolves. Thats how it feels to me anyway. Youre happily working on this little project at home then suddenly you put yourself at the mercy of other people and what they are going to say about it; what they are going to say about me. And not just journalists either; the fans themselves are every bit as harsh, if not the most cutting critics of what I do. Theyre pretty evil, some of them.
Sitting in an (enclosed) roof top bar on a cold London winters day, Gary Numan laughs as he chats about his new album Jagged, a record he admits to feeling uncharacteristically confident about, even more so than for his critically acclaimed last one Pure.
One of the reasons that Jagged took five years to make is that the reviews I got for the last one, were for me, unusually good, which was quite a novel experience, he continues, Id never had an album that had more good reviews than bad reviews before and I enjoyed it so much that I didnt want it to end.
Despite his relentless self-deprecation and engaging demeanor, Numan is an artist whos polarized people from the earliest days of his career, when as the worlds first synthesiser star, he topped British charts with Are Friends Electric? Following up with his multi-million selling global hit Cars, he rapidly became a symbol of early 80s glitz, taking time out to enjoy the rags-to-riches trappings of money Ferraris, sponsored racing cars and, of course, his own aircraft as his biographer put it, as well as sniping from the media, who were quick to brand his singularity pretentious and bombastic.
25 years later, hes now widely recognised as one of electronic musics earliest figureheads, influencing many future key producers from hip hop pioneer Afrika Bambattaa to techno innovators Derrick May and Juan Atkins, while in his own world, he retains a fanatical audience of diehard fans, including the evil ones hes just mentioned. And though hes satisfied about Jagged to feel confident enough to tease his detractors, his fragility and sensitivity is clear, as hes the first to admit.
There have been times when its been very, very difficult to write and that lack of confidence has been such a burden that I have gone through maybe a year and not kept a single thing that I wrote, just erased everything, he says.
Id get depressed and erase whatever Id been working on, then get more depressed, which made it even more difficult. This downward spiral of self-doubt is a very real danger when you work primarily on your own, which I do, mainly.
I feel much more comfortable with the way Im perceived now, with this recent tag people seemed to have labeled me with of being considered influential. Thats done a lot for me, its made me feel much better about myself and what Im doing, and I didnt have any of that confidence before. I still couldnt honestly say that Im brimming with confidence; I dont think I ever will be, because I have a very self doubting personality.
The key difference this time round is his link up with Ade Fenton, the Nottingham based British techno star and proud former Numanoid, whos produced Garys new album almost in its entirety.
The whole process with Ade was excellent, he is such a good person to work with that even on the rare occasions when I thought a track had gone in the wrong direction, hed say fair enough, well have another go. With Ade it was just easy, there was no attitude, no ego problems, says Gary.
Im sure he was under a lot of pressure, because hed never produced an album before and hes been a fan in the past, which means theres an extra certain pressure attached. I was sympathetic to all of that, but nonetheless, I needed the record to be exactly how I wanted it. Though on some tracks he did things that were way beyond what I expected which was brilliant- absolutely brilliant. We developed a great working relationship which allowed us to work really quickly and end up with an album Im really happy with.
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff):I read you were working on the album for several years then Ade came along and you suddenly finished it in 3 months, what happened to suddenly move incredibly quickly?
Gary Numan: I started working with a couple of other producers Id previously collaborated with but they had other projects going on, the sound we were developing and it started to seem likely that Id miss the next deadline. Everything was dragging on and on. Id been working with Ade a little on his own solo album and watched him develop these tiny fledgling ideas into very powerful pieces of music and I ended up being increasingly impressed so I just took a gamble. I said to him heres a song, have a go on it, see what you can come up with and well take it from there.
I really liked what he did and the more we worked on it, the better it got, so we ended up going back to some of the earlier songs and reworking them. Theres no disrespect intended to any of the other producers at all, because I hadnt given anybody any directions as I was still trying to find its sound myself, but it was only when Ade came along that I suddenly thought this is it; this is where I want it to be going with it. So that helped with the subsequent writing, to be able to start tuning into this particular sound and direction.
Skrufff: How did that affect the tunes youd already done with the others?
Gary Numan: It was obvious almost from day one that the Ade Fenton versions were not going to work with the previous versions, so instead of just getting him to help me finish it, we actually went back and did the whole album again, so round about August/September, we effectively started on a brand new album which had to be finished by December. So it went from something that had taken years and years of being a very lazy, off and on sort of approach, to suddenly needing to do everything immediately. I had a big catalogue of songs that Id been working on that I was supposedly going to be using for the album but instead of going back to those songs I was so quickly and easily that I just carried on trying out new stuff.
Skrufff: Do you feel with your creative flow in writing terms is fairly constant?
Gay Numan: No, there are other periods when its been really difficult and its been torturous, its closely connected with your self confidence though at the moment, its not like that. Instead when I sit down in the morning to write a song, Im almost certain that by the end of the day Ill have a good one. Ive hardly ever felt like that before, even when I was young and it was all new and exciting. Im not trying to say that Im going to write a song thats really good and everyone is going to like it, rather that Im going to write a song that I like, and thats the first step in the battle.
Skrufff: The songs seem to me to connect with the Gary Numan vibe of the early 80s. . .
Gary Numan: Ade says that too. I fully understand that its there, too many people have said it for it not to be true, theres some connection people are making between the earlier stuff that I did and this album. No-one is saying it sounds like it, but there is a thread in this one that can be traced back those early ones. I absolutely do not see it myself; I cannot see it at all. Thats probably because Im so close to what I do, Im so immersed in it all that Im not able to step outside and see similarities. Maybe its the attitude, it could easily be that, because when I made those early albums I was loving every minute of it. I desperately wanted to be doing it and loved the fact that I was in a band and that I was making records and in the music business though I still had the same problems with confidence and self-doubt. I feel like that again now. I am writing quickly and Im enjoying the process of doing it, but it might be that theres something that comes from that attitude which somehow comes out in the music, which I dont see, but other people do.
Skrufff: Do you still read all the reviews?
Gary Numan: No, I dont read anything, unless its sent to me from the day before saying this is a good one. I just get depressed otherwise. I think Ive got quite a good ability to bounce back from disappointments, but part of that is knowing how to avoid as much disappointment as possible.
Skrufff: You famously got arrested for espionage in India at the peak of your pop fame in 1981, what was that whole experience like, were you formally detained?
Gary Numan: Never officially, though my co-pilot and I were unofficially put under house arrest. We were kept in this building that might have once been a hotel, but at this point it was full of Russian families who I think were working and living there, so it was a little bit ragged. We were flying around the world in a little airplane as an adventure, me and my friend,. . . actually he wasnt really my friend, we didnt even get on that well, but he was a professional pilot so I was doing the trip with him, because I didnt have the skills or the qualifications to do it alone. We were flying from India to Thailand and we had engine problems going over the Indian Ocean and we had to turn back and land at this little military / civilian airbase in the middle of nowhere, So it was all very frightening and scary then we landed and were relieved to be there on the ground and thats when all the shit started; all these soldiers surrounded us asking Why are you here?
Skrufff: Did they know who you are?
Gary Numan: They said to us What are you doing? and I told them were having an adventure. I also explained Im a singer and I get media exposure by doing it, when I land at different places, people will talk to me about it and its a different way of selling albums. People talk to me about the trip and Ill mention the fact that Ive also got an album coming out and it will be an interesting way of promoting an album rather than just going out and doing gigs. I I didnt really enjoy doing gigs very much at that point, although I do now. The officer in charge said to me Well, if you are an English celebrity, where are all your press cuttings? Its not as if you carry them around with you in a big folder under your arm, is it? I said Ring someone in England and ask them if they have heard of Gary Numan. Probably most of them will have, even if they are not a fan.
Skrufff: Sounds like you were confident at that stage. . .
Gary Numan: I started out being slightly belligerent with them, to be honest, because I didnt understand my situation and I just thought he was being awkward. They were being very aggressive so I was being a bit arsey (awkward) back, but they had guns, where they kept pointed at us and we ended up being held there for four days. And every night at two in the morning, pretty much like clockwork, theyd come flying into the room, pounding down the door with their guns out screaming what are you doing here? Why are you here? They didnt believe a word we were saying.
Skrufff: Did you try and contact the British Embassy at all?
Gary Numan: I was allowed one phone call and I rang up the British Consulate in Delhi where I spoke to woman whose name is Mrs McGregor, Ill never forget it. I explained to her what was happening and she said We are too far away, theres nothing I can do about it. Then hung up. I couldnt believe it she just hung up on me. The power of the Empire comes to your defense! I looked at my passport and it said on the cover The holder of this is entitled to pretty much do what he likes and I thought Well, Bollocks. I was gutted. I had this romantic illusion of Britain leaping to my aid and getting me out of trouble, when instead I was absolutely abandoned in the middle of nowhere with an aggressive armed customs and immigration department. It started out being a pain in the arse but very, very quickly became really quite frightening. I wasnt cocky at all then; as soon as I realized that I was only a little bloke, completely out of my depth.
Skrufff: How did you escape in the end?
Gary Numan: They let us go into the town once a day, under armed guard, with a Land Rover in front and behind, and us two in the middle, all the soldiers kitted out with guns, to use the telex machine. There was literally just one telex machine in the town. I cant remember the exact details but one day they allowed me to make another call and the international operator happened to eavesdrop on my conversation. As I was talking on the phone to whoever it was Id called, this girl suddenly interrupted and said Dont put the phone down, this is the exchange, is there anyone else you want to talk to while you are making your one phone call? So she put me through to my dad, and I told him what was going on. This girl was absolutely brilliant, a fantastic girl, she really helped us out a lot. My dad then rang up the newspapers and The Daily Star was the one that got the most behind me. They started a campaign saying We are going to rescue Gary Numan from India and they flew out there. When that all started the Foreign Office got involved and all of a sudden the Indians couldnt do enough for me and they let us go. Before that, theyd confiscated our passports and I was really frightened. They were very aggressive to start with, then by the end of it they were the nicest people youd hope to meet.
Skrufff: What do you think of the Conservatives new leader David Cameron, would you vote Tory now?
Gary Numan: No, no, still no, not based on the Conservative partys leadership change at all. Id always been very anti Michael Howard, but I actually ended up building up a slight respect for him towards the end which I hadnt expected to do. I know Ive got this reputation of being a full-on Tory and it just isnt true at all. I certainly didnt vote for them in the last election and I didnt vote for them in the one before that either. In fact I didnt vote at all at the last one to be really truthful. I couldnt decide who was the biggest liar. Im very, very disappointed with Tony Blair, but I see nothing in anybody else which is worthy of giving a try either. Im finding the whole situation to be a little bit depressing. There isnt anyone that I believe in who I think his desire to do good is stronger than his ambition to become prime minister or minister. Its a little bit worrying really, but Im really not a political animal so Im probably not the best person to ask. The rare occasions that I do look in and see whats going on, I find nothing to fill me with a lot of hope that there are good people out there that really want the best for you and your country.
Gary Numans new album Jagged is out now on Mortal Records.
Jonty Skruffff (Jonty Skrufff.com)