Gary Numan on inspiration, money and staying hungry
Gary Numan (due Friday, April 4, at The Gothic Theatre) is most widely remembered for his 1980 hit song "Cars." That song was merely the most popular in an influential career that had a direct impact on artists as diverse as Prince, Beck, Lady Gaga and, of course, Nine Inch Nails, with whom Numan has both toured and collaborated. Anyone who has seen the man perform on recent tours knows he doesn't skimp, with music that runs the gamut of electronic-based pop and rock music but always with a core of vibrant emotional vulnerability and openness. It is that quality that has allowed Numan as an artist to take in influences from his peers as well as those that identify his work as a foundational inspiration. Thoughtful and surprisingly candid, Numan revealed himself in our conversation to be the observant person you might assume him to be.
Westword: As an artist you've clearly evolved rather than rest on your laurels and had a massive impact on other artists. Along the way have some of the newer artists also influenced you in any way?
Gary Numan: Yeah, definitely. I honestly think that anyone that creates themselves tends to be a bit like a sponge. You soak up everything around you. Whether it's listening to music or watching a movie or a TV show or an ad or even conversations you have or reading books. You're just sucking stuff in all the time. Then I think what happens is that that kind of mixes with the ideas in your own head. It's like a constant melting pot of things so I think it would be impossible not to be influenced by so many things all the time.
I see it like sparks and you're just waiting for one of those sparks to ignite something in their own way and off you go. Then there's more ideas. It's as if each little spark opens the door for someone else. I am definitely influenced massively by pretty much everything I see and hear around me. I know it happens all the time. Even things like artwork. I remember, many years ago, we were on tour in Germany and there was a series of road signs that had symbols on them and I used it on an album cover four or five years later. Everything goes in all of the time.
During the course of your career you've experienced fairly early popular success then a long period where the public wasn't as clued into your music and recently a bit of s resurgence. What sustained you or kept you going all that time?
For me it comes down to where you like music or not. A lot of people do this because they want to be famous and they want to be rich. It's kind of a means to an end. When things don't go so well, they go somewhere else and look elsewhere for that fame and fortune. I really wanted to be famous and I really wanted to be successful and I wanted to play as big a places as possible. So I had that same ambition but underneath all of that I actually really love making music.
When things go well, it's fantastic. When things don't go so well then you just come back to loving music again and wanting to make it. It's not as though you think, "My path to fame and fortune isn't that one, I'll try something else." To me fame and fortune is just like a cherry on top of a cake. It's that last little bit. The cake is everything. Being in a band making music and being able to go into studios -- I live my life as a professional musician. Sometimes with a lot of money, sometimes with very little money. It really depends on how things are going. But I never want to do anything else and putting ambition to one side I was quite happy my entire life being in a band and making music without ever really having any sort of major success because it's still the thing I want to do more than anything else.
I just think that for so many people that's not true. They don't really care about the cake, they just want to go straight for the cherry. I think that's why so many people come and go. They see it as a quick ticket to big money and lots of girls or whatever people want. It doesn't necessarily have a long life in making music itself. I'm a very creative person so it's almost a necessary outlet. I don't just write songs. You talk about your life. It's self therapy, in a way, to get you through various things. Certainly with the new album, the Splinter album, I had bout of depression for quite some time, which is what the album is about, mostly. Being able to write about that was a very important part of me coming through it. And coming out of damaged, in a way, with those scars to show for it. If it hadn't really loved music I wouldn't have been able to write songs and it might have been far more damaging than it turned out to be. I walked it on a little bit but it really is that I have a genuine love of music whether I'm successful or not.
You've worked with numerous other artists over the years. Do they mostly approach you or are there any with which you've been taken and initiated the collaboration yourself?
No, everyone approaches me. That's not because I'm arrogant in any way at all. It's quite the opposite. I have very little self-confidence, strangely enough, though I've been doing this all my life. I'm happy working in my own little bubble where I'm my own worst judge and jury. When it comes to working with other people I'm actually very, very nervous and I'm very passive. When people come to me I'll think about it and sometimes I'll do it and sometimes I don't think I'm the right person. But pretty much every collaboration I've done is someone coming to me simply because I'm not confident enough to put myself forward. I would never dare say, "Hey! Do you want to work with me?" I could never do that. Even if I would love to work with somebody I could never put myself forward. I'm just too shy and lacking in confidence.