Gary Numan: from synth pop to industrial rock
By Tim Masters
Entertainment reporter, BBC News
In the summer of 1979, Gary Numan shot to stardom when Are 'Friends' Electric hit went to number one, followed a few weeks later by Cars.
Thirty years on - after a fluctuating career - the synth-pop supremo is still going strong - and is about to play at London's Lovebox festival.
"I sometimes wonder if I might be a bit of a disappointment to people," says Gary Numan, pulling up a black chair in a quiet corner of BBC Television Centre. "Because they are expecting all these 80s hits and what they get is a dark industrial wall of noise."
He cracks a joke about choosing the black chair. Numan has been cultivating a "dark" image over his past few albums, so it's no surprise that he's clad in black - right down to his nail varnish.
Gary Numan in a classic robotic pose on Top of the Pops in 1980
The heavy Numan sound of the 21st Century is far removed from the analogue synths of his early years - and even further from his dance-oriented albums of the 80s.
What is more surprising is how different Numan is off-stage to his brooding, posturing, pouting live persona.
Our half-hour interview ends amid much laughter (along with Numan's wife Gemma) about the difficulties of being a rock star with three young children.
But back to Lovebox. What can the crowds expect when Gary Numan takes the stage on Sunday?
"One of the regular problems I have with my own fans is that I don't really do that much old stuff. I like what I'm doing now and I like where I'm going," says Numan.
"It's a bit awkward - I go to festivals with the same attitude. If I'm doing 10 songs at Lovebox maybe three of them will be from the beginning, but the rest of it isn't. I see it as an opportunity to let people see what I'm doing, not what I've done."
Numan also sees festivals such as Lovebox as a means of bringing his music to a new audience, many of whom weren't even born when he was topping the charts.
He admits he feels a bit "threatened" by nostalgia for his 80s output.
"Maybe I over-do the 'not-80s' thing," says Numan. "It should be a part of my life that I've got some sort of pride in, but I've got this huge chip on my shoulder about 80s nostalgia - and it annoys fans sometimes."
The compromise that Numan has come up with is the classic album tour - he's just announced a string of dates to mark the 30th anniversary of his 1979 album The Pleasure Principle.
This was the first album released under Gary Numan's name, following on from Tubeway Army's Replicas in the same year.
The Pleasure Principle spawned some of Numan's best-known and most-sampled tracks such as Cars, M.E. and Metal.
The guitar-free Pleasure Principle was Numan's first solo album
Having already done classic album tours for Replicas (in 2008) and Telekon (2006), Numan says he finds them a liberating way of separating his old and new material.
"It's created a two-pronged approach," he enthuses. "Once in a while I do this historic route, and the rest of the time I'm free."
Numan's classic album tours are not unique. Other artists - such as The Human League - have taken the same approach. But it does seem to satisfy a certain demand.
"There does seem to be a kind of split," says Numan. "There are those people who are more entrenched in the early electronic years, and new people who have come to it because of people like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson."
So what was it like to be Gary Numan 30 years ago?
"It was fantastic," recalls Numan."There's a lot of pressure - you go from being nothing to massive overnight."
Does it feel like 30 years ago?
"Some days it feels longer, like an entire lifetime, like it was somebody else. At other times it feels like it happened yesterday. A lot's happened in between then and now."
Numan doesn't shy away from the low points of his career: "It's been very up and down - it went really well for a bit and then went really bad for a bit in the late 80s, early 90s - all kinds of problems with money... my career was in a terrible state.
RANDOM NUMAN FACTS
Real name: Gary Webb
Replicas (1979) - pictured - has a strong sci-fi influence
The single Cars has no chorus
Tribute album Random (1997) features covers by St Etienne, Damon Albarn & Matt Sharp and Dubstar
Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson quote Numan as a significant influence
Numan appeared as himself in an episode of The Mighty Boosh
"And then, in 1994, there was a change of direction in music and it started to pick up again. Now each year is getting better than the one before, with Lovebox being a sign of that."
He adds: "If you've been massive and it's all slid away you tend to get written off. It's quite difficult to overcome that, which is why I've got his problem with nostalgia."
Although Numan admits his music isn't radio-friendly, his songs have had some renaissance moments from other bands.
In 2002, Are 'Friends' Electric found its way to number one again in the shape of the Sugababes' Freak Like Me. Basement Jaxx sampled M.E. for Where's Your Head At, and Armand Van Helden mixed up Cars for dance hit Koochy.
At the moment, Numan is a busy man. He admits he's been "dragging [his] heels" over an album of songs that didn't make his last two albums - Dead Son Rising. He also aims to release an album of brand new material - Splinter - in Spring 2010.
Before that, there's the pressing issue of how to perform the songs on the Pleasure Principle anniversary tour.
"There were no guitars on Pleasure Principle - so a lot of people are asking 'are you going to do it like that?'
"I don't know - there's a lot to decide. I understand a lot of people who love that album would want to hear the songs as they were.
"From an artistic point of view I know I can do the same songs bigger and more powerful."
And finally we get onto the subject of his three young daughters. How does Gary Numan strike the balance as a family man and rock star?
"Badly! I've been talking to Gemma about renting or buying an industrial unit so I can get up in the morning and go to work - I think I'd be a lot more productive if I was somewhere else.
"They are lovely distractions but they are distractions - and I'm very easily distracted!"
Gary Numan plays the Lovebox festival, London, on 19 July. The Pleasure Principle (30th Anniversary Edition) CD will be released on 28 September. The Pleasure Principle Tour 2009 begins on 17 November.