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Q&A with synthesizer pioneer Gary Numan on composing and releasing new music

DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA — Gary Numan manages to be a rock star and anti-rock star at the same time. From practically inventing New Wave along with seminal acts like Television and Blondie, and catapulting the Moog synthesizer to the forefront of pop with singles like “Cars” in 1979, to his latest industrial-tinged album Splinter in 2013, he remains a tremendous force in today’s music scene. He’s fully in command on stage, and yet comes across in interviews as authentic, very intelligent, vulnerable, and personable.

We caught up with Numan while here at Moogfest 2016, where he performed live in a three-night residency. He also received the 2016 Moog Innovation award, joining past honorees Devo, Brian Eno, and Thomas Dolby, and was given a new Minimoog Model D. During our interview, we learned he shares a lot of the same concerns and anxieties about the music industry of the moment as the rest of us. He had plenty of incisive and entertaining commentary about the benefits of pledges for new albums versus crowdfunding, the process of composing music today, the joys of spending time with family, and the challenges of social media. Not to mention a bit about how he may want to write an original high-fantasy novel…

ExtremeTech: I love “I Am Dust” [from Splinter]. I was listening to that …

Gary Numan: Oh, thank you.

ET: … On repeat just now. Are you still working on a sequel to this [record]?

GN: Yeah, I started a pledge campaign actually. [It was] mistakenly thought of [as] being a crowd funding thing, and it’s not that at all. I’m very fortunate in that I don’t need the money for a start. And I’ve got my own studio so I can make albums really cheaply anyway. The point of the pledge thing is to … I’m trying to find alternative ways of… not making albums, because I do that on my own anyway, but of getting them to people.

There’s a number of things to do with pledge really… It struck me. I do meet ‘n greets now, a lot. Which I hadn’t done before. And talking to people, you begin to realize that they get this shrink wrapped sort of piece of perfection, you know, very carefully put together and artwork and music and the rest of it mastered and God knows what else. And they don’t actually really know what it took to make it. And I started to find it slightly frustrating that people just thought you sat on the street every couple of weeks, turned out some songs, record some bits on top, done.

GN: … Piece of piss, you know? Easy. And it’s not. It’s not at all. The songwriting side of it, relatively easy, yes, if you can do it. But the rest of it, the production, but most importantly the emotional struggle that you go through when you’re trying to think, you have a good day and a bad day and your confidence crumbles, and it’s this whole journey of trying to keep yourself up. I think it’s very easy, when you work alone, to get into a downward spiral of doubt and worry about what you’re doing. And it’s all these things, and all of the other stuff that can happen — gear breaking down and life, family, and other things that can get in the way and stop the process. And all of these things are relevant.

So [the point was] to involve people from the very beginning, from the first note up until they get the shrink-wrapped thing, so now they know. So there are regular updates, you know, good day I’m happy and here’s a bit of a new track, and a bad day I’m going through fucking shit, and I’m not happy, and it’s not going well at all, and I’m miserable. All of this, you know, and then how the lyrics develop, why lyrics change … why you would write something, and then a few weeks later you have completely rewritten the chorus because you changed your mind and it didn’t work. Why you might have a dozen different choruses for one song, because you just can’t make your mind up.

GN: Which is the one that suits the most? All of the thousand and one, million and one things that make the process what it is to get to the end result. That was the point of it, and that – that’s what I’m doing. So that’s the album I’m working on now, and that will be the follow up to Splinter, which had “I Am Dust” on it. And it’s relative – the campaign started in November, so in that sense it’s not early days. But I’ve not been able to get to it as much as I wanted to.

I started managing myself, which I’m still finding my way with that. Things are just a lot busier than I’d anticipated. And trying to write something in small chunks I’m actually finding much harder than I thought I would … When I used to make albums before, right up until I had kids really, you wake up in the morning, you go out to the studio, you’re there all day, you come in at night.

Gemma says I get what she calls “preoch” — she means preoccupied. I can barely speak; you know she says to me “How did it go?” And my head’s still out there, and you’re thinking and you go to sleep thinking, but you wake up thinking, and it’s all that you do. So you can be quite productive. Because you’re just turning through it.

ET: You’re just in it.

GN: Yeah. You still have the same up and down and bad days and good days, but you’re turning through it.

GN: Since children, [it’s a] very, very different thing. I think I’ve made two albums and my kid’s 12 now [laughs]. So uh …

ET: We have an 11-month-old, so we’re having those same conversations. My wife is a composer and singer/songwriter and-

GN: Yeah? It is tricky; it changes things.

ET: It definitely changes things.

GN: And you need to find a way of being able to, right … So from 10:00 till 2, album.

GN: And of course you can’t, you don’t go in at 10:00 and go “choo!” and all the ideas suddenly start flying. It takes a while to tune out the world, to tune into what you’re trying to do. And it’s a process, and it takes a bit of time. You can’t do it the way I’m doing it. Certainly not as efficiently. So it’s going slower than I wanted. Because I’m not getting enough time, and the time I am getting isn’t as productive as it could be, because it’s squeezed in between school drop off and kids coming home and all the various things.

I want to have a normal family life. I want to see my kids. I want to be there at breakfast; I want to see them when they come home from school and when they go to bed. You know, I want to have nothing but them at the weekends, all of us. We’re very family oriented.

ET: You come across as very authentic on Twitter and in your interviews. Which is great, I think. But at the same time, [it] does stop the [composing] process a little bit.

GN: It does. [Chuckles] It is a price to pay. Sure. But it’s important. It’s important to me, it’s not all about just making music, and that’s the be-all end-all. I make music because I love doing it, but also because it gives us a life. It’s going to give my kids the future that they need. They feed each other. You know, and the emotional side of children, faith in music, and that everything’s connected, because it’s all a part of the one life that I’m living. So anyway, that’s a very long answer. [Laughs] Yeah, I’m making another album.

ET: You kind of answered the thing I was about to ask you, which [is] how did [new] technology help you adapt to this by working in small pieces? But it’s not really so much the technology anymore. We all have unlimited storage, unlimited tracks… It seems like there are many more things –

GN: I think it does though. The iPad, for example. The iPad is a great tool for taking with you when you’re traveling. You can sit on the plane with an iPad, and you can work on songs and work on ideas and keep it going that way. That’s quite a few hours. It’s awkward in other areas because I’m not free. You know, you’ve gone somewhere, you’re with the kids … I went on doing these sorts of tours. The children were with us at Moogfest, but they’re not usually; they’re not for the rest of the tour. But things are often pretty hectic, especially on tour when you’re promoting an album. I’m not with this one; this is [a] retro thing.

GN: When you’re promoting an album, you’re doing as much primer as you can possibly get. You’re talking to everyone you can talk to. And you’ve got your meet and greets, your sound checks, your gigs, and then your post-gig meeting people and local reps … You know there’s teams of people around you that you’re meeting. And it’s kind of full on. Rarely you’ll have the chance to just go out and see something.

I read about people that write when they’re on tour. I have absolutely no idea how they do that. No idea at all. It can only be cause they’re in a band, and someone else is doing the work. [Laughs]

ET: You’re speaking exactly to what I run into, just getting interruptions when you’re trying to get into a head space. How do you just get into that space for that specific period of time, with all of this other stuff going on?

GN: Yeah, and you notice when you get there … Once you’re there, you know your ideas start to come, and the more they come, the more you can tune into it. The faster they come, before you know it, it’s all happening, and it’s great. That’s what I’m used to. That’s what you need to do this properly. It’s just all but impossible now, to do it that way. Unless I want it to be really hard-nosed about it, and just say, fuck it. I’m going out to the desert for a month, I’ll see ya —

GN: I’ll see ya in a month. Ya know, good luck, hope the schools goes well. I’m gonna miss all your plays and all your little performances you’re doing and the days that you’re horse riding. I’m not gonna watch any of that. I’m gone, cause I’m gonna make my album.

ET: I feel like we’ve seen those disasters on VH1, [that when] that happens, the [artist’s] family breaks apart. [Instead] you’re doing it in a wonderful way, but then that gets in the way of creativity.

GN: Yeah. But it’s, you know, I am doing it. It’s getting there, and the new songs are coming, but it is slower than I like. And certainly slower than the people that pledged, are expecting.

ET: I think it’s really compelling [that you] have that kind of connection with the people that are going to be tuning into your music. With the new record, they can see exactly what’s going on, in a way that you never knew any of this twenty years ago.

GN: Yeah, I hope so. I mean, there’s always an element of misery attached to these things, for me. But it just seems to be the way of the world at the moment. Now wherever you open things up to people, you have a thousand people, I think at the moment we got five thousand people that pledged to us. So it’s done really well. But within that, there’s about twenty that just bitch about everything.

GN: You know, and then the other four thousand nine hundred and eighty again, yeah you you say that. Like just believe it. Let the little twenty have their [moment], cause they moan about everything. So clearly it’s not even valued opinion, it’s just someone that likes moaning.

ET: The story of Twitter and social media right now.

ET: There are just some really poisonous voices. Not many of them, but there are enough that it leaks all over everything.

GN: Yeah. It’s a small person shouting in the corner that’s got a really big voice and upsets everybody. And when you actually listen, he’s not saying anything at all that’s worth listening to.

ET: Security would have thrown them out if they were in the room.

ET: But unfortunately there’s no way, no easy way, to throw them out online.

GN: Yeah. It’s such a shame. It’s such a shame that that is part of the world now. It’s a … I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve been talking to the people that pledge about it. I’ve met a number of people on the meet and greets on this particular tour, and as a subject it’s come up fairly often. Often enough that you can sense it’s annoying people. There are a lot of people that don’t read it, but a lot of people get really involved and very protective about me –

GN: And I tell them …

ET: But at the same time it perpetuates it, too, which …

GN: Yeah! Exactly! And, and, the people that write the negative stuff, that’s exactly what they want. It’s like trying to put out a fire by throwing fuel on it. You know it’s just … Let it glow in the corner and ignore it, and it will find that more frustrating, and it will go and annoy someone else. But it’s a frustrating aspect, because now the Internet has sort of given a voice to everyone, isn’t it?

ET: Yeah, even the ones you didn’t want to have the voice.

GN: Yeah. People don’t know what to do with it…

GN: But it’s so widespread. I was reading an article, only a few days ago actually … What was that about? Women, the abuse that women get in, broadcasters, women broadcasters – It started with that and then it went on into other things. There was a lady firefighter … 

ET: Oh I think I might have read this. Yeah.

GN: All to do with online bullying. Yeah people just …

ET: The people doing the bullying will deny their effect. You can totally see it when you look at what they say to women versus men in these cases.

ET: And they’ll deny it.

GN: Yeah. And it spreads beyond … I’m very cautious at the moment. My kids have grown up in an age where everything has to be on an iPod and an iPad, and we’re very, very protective about that. You know, that, they got an iPad, but they don’t have their own code. They can only turn it on when I say so. They’re only allowed to have so many minutes a day.

GN: They can’t have Safari. They can’t have all these things, they can’t browse. You know, it’s very carefully controlled. I don’t want them to be ignorant with technology, but I don’t want them to be exposed to all the shit that can come with the technology as well. So we’re very careful. But they hate me for it: “Why can’t I have it all day long?” Because. There are things that I know about. That you have to trust me …

ET: What projects you’re working on that are exciting to you right now?

GN: The pledge is the main one, that’s the top thing there. But I’ve been trying to write this book for a long time. I’m massively into, it was called science-fantasy for a long time. Not science-fiction, science-fantasy, which is no technology. The other end, you use swords and-

GN: Dragons and all that shit. I think they call it high-fantasy now.

ET: You’re talking to a super nerd, so I’m with you.

GN: So people like Joe Abercrombie and Steven Erikson, and people like this, The Gamal, I’m a big fan of. But I’ve been writing my own thing. There’s a romantic part with me, that sees me in a few years time with a gray beard probably and —

GN: Sitting up in my little house writing epic fantasy novels like that. And that’s how I see myself finishing. When I came here, part of the reason for coming to Los Angeles was, I thought, what I should be doing next is film music. That would be the thing to evolve into. I’m not sure it is anymore. I really want to do writing. And more then anything, the album tour career that I’ve had, I actually want that to last as long as possible. I don’t want it to finish. I don’t want to think about moving into something. So I’m gonna keep this going, until I can’t do it anymore. And then when I can’t do it anymore, I’ll just do books.

ET: I mean your fans love you for it [touring]. I mean, it’s wonderful.

GN: Yeah, but, the end’s coming. I’m getting old. You know it’s –

GN: I know it’s getting closer. So I was just, with the film score thing I was just trying to be sensible. Sow the seeds of where I’m going next. When I made the move, I’d done some work. I could be accepted. I could prove that I could do it. I did a film when I got here with a friend of mine. So I’ve got some small history in there.

I’m just not sure it’s for me really. I love the work, but I don’t like all the politics that comes with it. But with writing, you’re just at home. Writing.

ET: It is appealing. It’s less dangerous than the aerial acrobatics that I read that you had done at one point, too.

GN: Yeah. I did that for years. I was an aerobatic display [airplane pilot]. And I was an instructor for that, actually, for a long time. But when the children come along, it’s too dangerous. Everyone I knew was killed. I was one of the few people who survived it.

ET: I don’t even know how to respond to that.

ET: I can’t even imagine.

GN: Oh that’s all right. Everyone that does it knows it’s a hazard. You know you’re doing what you love. You hope it doesn’t happen, but you know it could.

Check out Gary Numan’s PledgeMusic page to learn more about and pre-order his new album now.

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