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Gary Numan on His Dark New Album, ‘Intruder’: “If the Earth Could Speak, How Would it Talk About the Way it Feels at the Moment?”
Gary Numan is a dark wave music progenitor who took the British music scene by storm in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.
During a three-year period, the London native notched three consecutive U.K. No. 1 albums — Replicas (with Tubeway Army), The Pleasure Principle and Telekon — plus the back-to-back pop chart topping songs “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and “Cars.” The latter tune also became a top 10 hit worldwide, including America.
Since then, the singer has racked up a dozen more top 20 singles at home, been cited as an influence on modern rock acts like Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson, and become a frequent sampling source by countless rappers and electronic acts.
We recently checked in with Numan, 63, while en route to his home in Los Angeles for a candid and thought-provoking phone interview focusing in part on his new album, Intruder.
Rock Cellar: Intruder is one of your more compelling studio albums since reinventing your sound and gravitating toward a more aggressive electronic rock direction. When you first started working on this release, did you have any goals in mind?
Gary Numan: Yes and no. There’s a bit of a road map, a placemark that I’ve been on for quite some time: This slightly heavier, industrial feel, but not hardcore, with a Middle Eastern influence here and there. I’ve been in that same world now for a while because I really enjoy it and I think it’s where I’m most at home. I like that sort of music and I think I’m pretty good at that sort of thing.
I made in album in ’97 called Exile, which is much the same thing that I’m doing now. I wrote that one because I didn’t hear anybody else doing it really. I wanted a heavier electronic doomy [sound]. Initially, I went in that direction more because I just wanted to hear that kind of music. I really loved it. I feel a bit guilty saying that I’ve been doing it ever since because that doesn’t sound very adventurous, but I have really. I stayed in that area.
Rock Cellar: Would it be fair to say that thematically, Intruder is a continuation of what you created on 2017’s Savage: Songs from a Broken World?
Gary Numan: [Intruder] has climate change in its reason for being. Savage looked at the human condition. My science fiction fantasy was about 100 years from the time of the great apocalypse. What would humanity become? How brutal and savage would it need to be to survive in such a hostile place where resources are scarce and people are desperate? But it has climate change as its core, obviously.
The new [album] is much more set in the now. It’s a very different approach. If the Earth could speak, how would the Earth talk about the way it feels at the moment? What would it say, given a voice about what we’re doing to it? So, it’s very much in the now — a different look at the same issue compared to what Savage was. But definitely connected.
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Rock Cellar: Didn’t the previous album’s lyrics stem from a novel you’d been working on?
Gary Numan: Savage started out as a book called “Ruin.” I just liberated ideas from that.
Rock Cellar: Although you began work on Intruder before the pandemic hit, some lyrics relate to what people have been going through since 2020.
Gary Numan: That’s just a tragic coincidence, I’m afraid. I had probably done about nine songs before the pandemic started. Intruder was well underway — it had a theme, subject matter and most of the content was there. Even the idea that the Earth is probably fighting back now against us was already there. It was part of the lyrics.
When COVID came along, it was this horrible coincidence. There was a global event that arguably could tie in directly with what the album was already saying. So, I wrote a song called “The Gift.” I think it was song 10 and directly about COVID — under the idea that it was a gift from the planet and done in a very sarcastic way.
It talks about, ‘Do you like the gift I sent to you? It will take your breath away.’ The idea of Earth and nature as a system — identifying human beings as an enemy or as an infestation on the planet and therefore having some kind of mechanism to react against that — doesn’t seem to be a far-fetched idea.
When I first started talking about this to people, I was talking about “The Gift” and what it meant. Initially, I was saying, ‘Maybe COVID is the first of many viruses to come. It becomes ever more refined and ever more deadly as it tries to eliminate us from the planet.’ Then I started to think, ‘It probably isn’t the first. It could be one of many along the way.’
We could unknowingly have been at war with the planet for 100 years or more. We just didn’t realize the Earth identified us as a problem a very long time ago and it’s been trying systematically to get rid of us.
Now we come up with fixes and cures and fighting what the Earth does. The Earth [creates] another one, then that gets us, and we fight back and there’s another one. It’s given me an idea for the next album. I’m really seriously thinking of the next one having more to do with this ongoing battle between humanity and the planet … We’re effectively trying to kill ourselves, if we don’t kill ourselves and not take the planet with us.
Rock Cellar: What we’re discussing ties into the recent virtual Leaders Summit on Climate convened by President Biden. What did you think about the various countries’ pledges to reduce their carbon emission output by certain target dates? Can we trust these world leaders?
Gary Numan: If you believe what the experts say we need to do, compared to what is being promised, it doesn’t really seem to be enough. The problem is we’ve heard all these lofty, encouraging promises before. Then you have the contradiction of new drilling licenses being given and brand new oil fields in same month that they’re saying, ‘We’re going to phase out fossil fuels.’ How are you going to do that if you allowed drilling billions more gallons of the stuff? There’s an awful lot of [lip service]. It’s very hard to genuinely believe there is that strength of commitment and things are going to be followed through.
Of course, there are so many obstacles in the way, especially in America. You’ve got an opposition party that by and large doesn’t really believe in climate change and considers it all a big fuss over nothing … It’s a very difficult thing to win.
I’m not an expert by any means, but my feelings are that all we can do in a very small way is add to the conversation. Do our best to keep this argument very much at the forefront. Bring enough pressure to convince enough people to be active, to vote in a way that sends out a signal that the people we have in power at the moment [should] do enough to slow it down.
Then the young generation, the kids of today, will become the leaders of tomorrow and have a planet left for them to actually work with.
Rock Cellar: One of the standout songs on Intruder is “When You Fall,” with its thunderous crunch sound, melodic synths weaving in and out and seemingly political lyrics. At one point, you sing about “only offering thoughts and prayers.” Did you have useless politicians in mind while writing it?
Gary Numan: That’s exactly what it was! [laughs] Isn’t that the first thing you see when there’s a mass shooting somewhere — ‘We offer our thoughts and prayers?’ Really, that’s gonna fucking help. Since I’ve been living in America — I’ve been here for eight years, I’m a citizen now and I feel justified in saying this — it becomes very frustrating whenever anything [bad] happens, the first thing that people do is offer their thoughts and prayers. I’m just so sick of hearing it.
As an atheist, it’s particularly frustrating to be seeing that. As if that does anything, rather than any actions.
Rock Cellar: “Now and Forever” is very enthralling. It has a dual meaning, relating to the Earth speaking and as a love letter to your wife Gemma. Most people don’t think of Gary Numan and romantic sentiments. Have there been other song examples like that in the past?
Gary Numan: Yeah, there’s another one called “Lost” [from 2013’s Splinter] … I fairly often bring her and the children into songs. With them, I worry that I do it in a slightly creepy way because I often talk about the children in the sense that when I die — I’m afraid that I’m morbidly concerned about getting old and dying, maybe it’s the age that I’m at — I often write songs to the children where I talk about being in the wind, a smile in their dreams. That notion of being a ghost that’s still looking after them.
Rock Cellar: Speaking of your daughters: Two of them sing background vocals on Intruder and one contributed to Savage as well. How did that come about? Were you so pleased with the job Persia did last time around that you said, ‘How about helping dear old Dad again?’
Gary Numan: It was exactly that. Many songs on the new record just needed that whispery, sort of haunting female ethereal singing voice on them. My oldest daughter Raven is also an amazing singer. She’s never really been given a vehicle before. I wanted to bring her in as well. Persia is a great singer. She’s got a gift … to have them both on it was just amazing for me.
They’re not there because I’m just trying to squeeze my kids onto the record. If they weren’t singing, I’d have to get somebody else in to do it. What they’re doing is really important to the songs they’re on. What they add is a genuine contribution to the record. I’m not just a doting father making [room for them]. They’re genuinely good and write songs.
Persia wrote a song that I’ve used on the album called “The Black Sun,” which is 90 percent hers. I helped her a little with the chorus musically. I did the vocal and the lyric for it. Everything else is hers. I don’t want to make it seem like I wrote a song, she whispered one word and I gave her a songwriting credit. No — she genuinely wrote the song that I took and put on the album. She’s very clever.
Raven, the oldest one, is far more prolific than Persia … I have a Patreon page. I put three or four bits of music on there that Raven’s working on at the moment. I’m so proud and impressed by what she does. I want people to hear it.
The whole Intruder idea came from a poem that my youngest daughter wrote. A couple years ago, when she was 11, she wrote a poem called ‘Earth’ about it speaking to the other planets in the solar system and explaining why it was sad, how horrible people were and what they were doing to it.
I just sort of stole that idea completely for Intruder. In one way or another, all the kids are on it. When the album comes out and you open the [LP] gatefold, the poem is there in full as part of the artwork. It’s great for me to have them involved in a genuine way contributing.
Rock Cellar: The music on Intruder and Savage almost has a cinematic quality. Do you and longtime producer/co-songwriter Ade Fenton ever think in visual terms while creating the musical soundscapes?
Gary Numan: What he does is absolutely amazing. The albums are so much better for his contributions to them. He’s brilliant.
Rock Cellar: You’ve collaborated with Ade for 15 years now. Do you find there’s an instinctual method between you both while writing songs?
Gary Numan: Yeah, it’s a great relationship and it’s gotten better over time. It’s a seamless thing now. We work quickly together. There’s no arguing. We understand each other. We give each other the freedom to explore and make changes and ultimately, we make decisions without causing any offense. But yes, cinematically, when I’m writing the stuff, I see the world I’m trying to create and describe. I see the moment. I know exactly the atmosphere and feeling that I want the music to give.
Everything is structured toward that. And I agree with you. I think Intruder, Savage and [even 2013’s] Splinter are like soundtrack albums without a film. Just the movie is missing from them. Toward the end of the Savage [promo] campaign, we did some shows in London with an orchestra. That was really amazing. The cinematic nature of them was amplified many times by having an orchestra at the back of the stage playing. For me, it was an amazing moment. I was so proud of the way everything sounded.
There was a big stage and a big video screen in the back with various films that had been made [for the tour]. The orchestra was soaring. I want to do it again. We’re talking and hoping to do something again toward the end of 2022 or early 2023.
Rock Cellar: I was intrigued by the first three songs on the new album where you utilized a unique Turkish instrument called the yaybahar. Can you tell me about the process of getting its inventor, Gorkem Sen, to play on it?
Gary Numan: I was actually very lucky. I was having a chat with a fan a few years ago. He was interested in the fact that I had a lot of Middle Eastern flavors in the music. I certainly have done more recently. We were talking about where the interest comes from, Middle Eastern melodies and instrumentation. He said, ‘Have you heard of a man called Gorkem Sen?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘You should check him out. He invented this instrument; it’s the only one of its kind in the world’… He gave me some YouTube links … I didn’t think much of it. No disrespect — I’m always being pointed in one direction or another by well-meaning people and it’s usually nonsense. But I did it anyway.
He was absolutely right; it was amazing. I checked him out. With the instrument, he stands upright to play. You can finger or bow it. It’s attached to long flexible strings that reverberate through drums like an organic synthesizer. It’s unbelievable what it does. Obviously, it’s the only one in the world. He’s the only person that can play it.
Ade got in contact with him and asked if he’d be involved. He was very cautious, [because) he wants to protect it. I had to write out a contract and agree to all sorts of restrictions. None of which was a problem because I just wanted him on the album. Once he was sure I wasn’t going to steal anything, he got involved, played on those three songs and I think it makes such a difference.
To have an instrument like that on your album, and it’s the only one in the world, that’s pretty cool. I’m really proud of it. The thing that also puts a smile on my face is I’m pretty much a guy that is [considered] electronic through and through. And yet the thing that I’m most excited about on the album is something that’s not electronic at all. In fact, I think the most amazing contribution on the album is [that instrument]. I get a perverse kind of pleasure out of that.
Rock Cellar: Synthesizers have played a big part of your music dating back to your early material. Do you still keep up with the latest technology or do you leave it to Ade to update you on everything coming out?
Gary Numan: A bit of both, really. If it’s sound creation things like synthesizers or drum machines, I’m reasonably up on that. My studio is very much state of the art. Actually, it’s boring to be honest. I don’t have any hardware in there at all apart from one giant 42-inch screen, which is a touch screen. All the software comes up on that. And one keyboard, which isn’t even a synthesizer. Just a keyboard that talks to the computer. That’s it. No hardware synthesizers, no outboard gear, no effects, no chorus or reverb units, no big racks with cables poking out.
Rock Cellar: Modern, but minimalist.
Gary Numan: Yeah. Yet it’s the most capable studio I’ve ever had. What it can actually do and what it can record — the quality it does it at is unbelievable. When it comes to compressors and limiters, the more technical side of things, I don’t have any interest. Ade does all of that. He’s interested in the hardware and has things made for him. He talks to manufacturers and boffins. He’s far more into the technical side than I am.
Rock Cellar: When you were working up the new album last year, California was in the midst of a stay-at-home order. After you finished up, were you surprised at what the outside world was like since you’d been hunkered down in the studio?
Gary Numan: I was, yeah. [laughs] You know what? I’ve spoken to lots of people about this over the last month or so. You’re the first person that realized what it would be like. That you would be busy, and you wouldn’t really notice while making a record. You’re right. That’s exactly what it was like.
Pre-pandemic, I would get up in the morning, go to the studio, come out in the evening, go to bed. Then the pandemic comes along and I’m doing exactly the same thing. I was aware of what was going on and I was very concerned about it, but it didn’t really have that much of an impact, if any, because I was really busy trying to get the album finished. I had a deadline coming up … toward the end, I spent seven weeks writing a book, which made the album schedule a little tight. I worked it out perfectly. I had two months to work on the last three songs.
I was having the book written by a ghost writer, but it didn’t work out, so I ended up writing the thing myself completely. That took up 7 ½ of the nine weeks I had left before the album deadline. When the book was done, it was pretty stressful because that had its own deadline.
I had 10 days left to write two new songs and finish the third one I’d already started. That was pretty intense. It was stressful. Also, within that 10 days, I had to make the video for “Intruder.” I lost three of those 10 days making the video. I only had seven days to write 2 ½ songs. Even more reason why I didn’t notice the pandemic until that was over. Then it really hit me how the world was.
Rock Cellar: You mentioned on social media how making that particular video was painful. You really had to suffer for your art.
Gary Numan: A bit. [laughs] The whole thing was done on one small platform with a camera constantly spinning around me. You’re trying to do a performance that maintains some sort of engagement with an audience for 4-5 minutes. You really can’t move. I found that challenging. I was worried about that before we did it — that I’d be able to do enough to keep people’s interest. It came out really well. That’s really due to Chris Corner [of IAMX] who made the video, the way he put it together, the film quality and the editing. He did an amazing job. Hanging in the harness at the end — that was really weird and uncomfortable. At the beginning of it, I’m crouched over. The clothes I had on, I actually couldn’t breathe when I was leaning forward, so I had to hold my breath for a minute or more while doing a scene where I’m rising up. Nothing stupidly unpleasant, but it was uncomfortable.
Rock Cellar: At any point, did you think, ‘Why didn’t I just do a lyric video and be done with it?’
Gary Numan: [Laughs] Chris Corner is a genius. If he says you got to hang upside down in a harness so it’s gonna look good, you just do it and get on with it.
Rock Cellar: The video for “Saints & Liars” is visually stunning as well. What was it like trudging through the Mojave Desert near Route 66 for that one?
Gary Numan: We did three days on that. The first day was brilliant. We got so much done. It was a really cool place to be. Strikingly barren in the middle of nowhere. It was perfect for what we were doing. An amazing landscape. The second day was mainly in a warehouse doing the internal stuff. The third day was a bit of a disaster.
One of the vehicles got stuck, so we couldn’t do a lot of the volcano shots we wanted. Then a massive storm came through. We were in the desert; it flooded. We nearly got trapped … Clothes and makeup got ruined. The weather killed us.
We got back to the camp, it was all flooded and we were trapped in this area. Chris got a call that one of his dogs attacked and killed another one of his dogs. He was upset. We eventually got out and went to Chris’ place. Me and Gemma were going to help him with the dogs … as we arrived, we got a call that one of our dogs back home in Los Angeles had attacked one of our other dogs and nearly killed it. What a horrendous coincidence that was!
We had to rush home because our dog was in the hospital. We didn’t know if it was going to live … We managed to get enough [footage]. Chris went back and got some other shots without me. He had his girlfriend dress in my outfit and walk around the side of the volcano. You don’t know it’s not me from a distance.
Rock Cellar: The new album will be available in a variety of formats, including double gold LP, picture disc, cassette and more. Is it important for you to give the fans a variety of buying options?
Gary Numan: Some people like CDs. Pretty much everybody likes vinyl. Cassettes have definitely got their fans who love that format. I don’t, for whatever reason. I think it makes the whole package exciting. People can go and choose what they want. It appeals to all your different fans and the desires they’ve got on how they want to listen to music and engage with it.
I love the fact that the fans are out there buying vinyl because I believe that’s still the best way to listen to music and to experience music. It’s the best way you can package music. I love vinyl. It’s probably because I’m old, but I still do.
— Gary Numan (@numanofficial) May 8, 2021
I think vinyl’s an amazing format. There’s almost a ritual to vinyl. Taking it out of the sleeve, putting it on the turntable, bringing the arm across, sitting back, and listening to an entire side, not skipping songs. Listening to it the way it was intended. I love it; I really do.
If the fans didn’t want them, you would see that very clearly. That it was not a popular decision. And certain formats that people were not interested in. But that isn’t what happens. I see that when we do the meet and greets when we’re touring. The different things that people bring to sign and their reasons for bringing them. Why they like this particular format and not that one. I’m kind of familiar with the way they think and see things. That’s why I’m sticking to the multiple formats. It really works.
Rock Cellar: Looking back to the early days of your career, success came quickly while you were still in your early 20s. There was a backlash from U.K. music critics and even some fellow musicians. How did you react?
Gary Numan: It was surprising. I didn’t expect that degree of hostility to be honest. I think there was an awful lot of misinformation being written about electronic music. I remember clearly reading ‘This means the death of the guitar’ and all sorts of stupid shit like that. I think a lot of people actually believed that.
The guitar was so firmly established as the instrument of modern music that I think a lot of people were nervous about something new coming along that might displace it. Of course, I never intended that. “Are ‘Friends’ Electric” has got guitar all over it. All I ever did was add electronic music to what there had been before. I just added another layer. So, I was never a threat to conventional lineups. Much as I love electronic music and was a champion of it, it wasn’t my intention to replace anything else.
I did a little bit, strangely enough, with The Pleasure Principle, my third album, when that came out. I didn’t have guitar on that one. Just bass guitar. That was really my childish knee-jerk reaction to some of that criticism. I’ve made something like 21 albums now. It’s only ever been that one album. It still had drums and violin on it. All sorts of conventional instruments. Just not guitar to prove a point. Which was silly really, because it fed into what those people were saying … there’s a degree of human nature that comes into it. If something is doing really well, but you don’t get it, you don’t like it, you don’t know what all the fuss is about, then you probably resent that music a little more than you otherwise would.
Normally you’d not listen to it and ignore it, you wouldn’t care. It’s not your cup of tea. But when it’s doing really well and everyone’s talking about it, it sort of annoys you a little bit. You feel a little disgruntled.
To a journalist, you might say that. You can put it into words. You can vent your frustrations. I think that’s where a lot of that hostility comes from. When you think about it, it was sort of genuine. They genuinely didn’t like it and didn’t get why people were buying my stuff. They genuinely didn’t think that I was offering anything worthwhile. So, they said so. I don’t look back on that with any sort of dissonance; I really don’t. I understand that people genuinely didn’t like it and that’s fair enough.
Rock Cellar: With the success of “Cars,” I always found it interesting that you had a major pop hit in America with a song that has something like a 2:30 instrumental outro with no vocals. Because of that, were you ever urged to do a radio edit by Atco Records?
Gary Numan: Not really. You’re right, all the singing happens in the first minute. It was not as awkward as when you’d have to do it on television to film it. I’m at the front singing it. That’s over fairly quickly. Then what do you do? Stand there with absolutely nothing to do. I can’t dance. Doing “Cars” on television was always a nightmare for me. I just didn’t know what to do. Two and a half minutes is like a lifetime when you’re doing television. You try to look interesting, and you can’t. You don’t move. You don’t dance. What do you know?
The funny thing about “Cars” to me was how I felt really awkward. I’d go to radio stations in America. They would play a Rush song, then they’d play “Cars,” then they’d play Foreigner or Boston. “Cars” sounded so out of place. If I’d have been more confident, I would’ve been more impressed by that. I’d been really proud of that: ‘Listen to me, I sound like the future!’ But I’m not confident.
I’ve never been that way. I thought, ‘Oh my God, my stuff sounds really weird and different. No one’s going to want this here.’ I felt really uncomfortable with the whole thing. And I regret that. I wish I’d have been more confident and reveled in the fact that what I did sounded massively different to everything else that was out there at the time.
I don’t have that level of confidence, unfortunately.
June 15, 2021
June 14, 2021