Ahead of his upcoming Australian tour, Wes Fahey had a chat with the lovely and incredibly humble Gary Numan about looking forward instead of backwards, working with members of Nine Inch Nails and the “honour” of standing in a cupboard on The Mighty Boosh.

It’s been a couple of years since you were here last, are you excited to be back in Australia?

Very much so. This time I have a new album, Splinter, which has had the best reviews I’ve ever had so it’s quite an optimistic and exciting time. We’ve already toured the album in a dozen countries around the world so it’s great to be back in Australia with something I’m so proud of.

Last time you were here you were playing The Pleasure Principle, your first album, in full. What was it like touring that material after 30 years?

It wasn’t quite as horrendous as I thought it would be, in fact I gained a new appreciation for how unusual a record it must have been when it was first released. I ended up being quite proud of it all over again. We toured it because it was around the 30th anniversary of when it went to Number 1 in the UK, and did very well the world over, and it’s generally considered to be a ground breaking album for electronic music so I wanted to celebrate that in someway. I had intended to just tour the UK with it but we ended up being asked to many more places. If I’m honest though, nostalgia doesn’t really hold much interest for me so, proud of the album or not, I was slightly uncomfortable with how big that tour became.

This tour obviously you’ll be focusing on the new album. Is that more exciting for you?

A thousand times at least. My entire attitude to life, and the musical side of it in particular, has always been to look forward. I’m far more interested in what I will do tomorrow than what I did yesterday, and infinitely more interested in what the future holds than looking back at things I did decades ago. If we have nothing new to offer then we don’t deserve to be here, standing on a stage in front of people. Electronic music allows you to push forward with each new album in a way that no other genre can offer. It’s technology driven, so it almost demands that every new album be full of not just new melodies arrangements, but the very sounds themselves, sounds that no-one has heard before.

Your sound has evolved on each new album and it’s come a long way since the early days, does that affect the live performance of your older songs?

Only that I need to rework them from time to time. They need to be rebuilt in such a way that they can sit in amongst the newer songs and not sound weak by comparison. So, I keep the melodies and structure much the same, and the vocal and major parts intact, but the rest is rebuilt in a more powerful way. I want everything to sound as though it could have come from a recent album in terms of layers and production but I don’t want to change them so much that people get annoyed because they don’t feel they’re listening to the song they remember. So, I carefully choose older songs that can be adapted to that, and I also look for songs that have some other modern relevance. Songs that have been covered or sampled by other artists for example. I have some songs in the set that have been covered by Foo Fighters, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, Fear Factory, Jack White and others so, in some ways, it’s about trying to make those connections with an audience that may have become interested in me through another band, or may not even realise that I wrote the song their favourite band recorded.

Throughout your career, the technology used to make music has changed significantly. Do you find technology is more of a help or a hindrance in the compositional process?

For songwriting itself I don’t use any technology, I still write everything on the piano. But, for everything that comes after that, it’s a huge help, a phenomenal help in fact. It does requiter a certain discipline I find as you literally can, for example, try out thousands of snare drums until you find just the right one and then try a thousand different microphone settings for that same drum and so on and so on. You have the ability to get unbelievably anal about every tiny little noise and I think you can lose sight of the track itself in this quest for micro perfection. I think you can lose the heart of the song if you go to deeply in that direction. Apart from that trap of self indulgence though, the technology is an amazingly useful thing.

Splinter has been one of your most successful albums, and definitely the most highly regarded in recent memory, but obviously it was borne from quite a dark place. How difficult was it to make this album while battling depression?

I think it’s come out the way it has because I wrote most of it as I was coming out of the depression, as I was getting better. In fact much of it was written as I was trying to escape from the cure strangely enough but that’s another matter. Writing the album at a time when I was no longer being crushed by the illness gives it a very different feel I think. I was able to write about the things that had gone on, the feelings, from a point some distance away. It’s almost optimistic in a way, it certainly isn’t the down and miserable experience that you would expect when you hear an album is about depression. I was able to look back on it as someone moving in to a much better place and I think that helped to change the tone of it from the dire mess it could have been. Not one review that I have seen talks about the album as being a down experience, quite the opposite actually, and I’m positive that’s because it was almost a celebration of getting through it, rather than a wallow through the dark memory of it.

Are you surprised by the response to the album?

Very. It has been the best received album of my entire career, by far, and for an album so dark and heavy, for something so clearly non commercial, that’s quite an achievement. Most people that have had long careers, as I have now, tend to bland out as they get older, shifting to a more middle of the road, safe, kind of sound, or they tread the nostalgia route and try to milk what’s left of the interest in them. I have done neither of those things. My music has just got heavier, darker and more aggressive. I do want to be successful though, this is not some self destructive road to musical suicide that I’m heading along, but I want to be successful with music that I love and that I’m passionate about. I don’t want to write any old shit because it might get me back on the radio or signed by a big label. I’m very happy with where I am musically and now I just want to keep working and try to build the fan base. I have as much ambition as ever, but I want to succeed on my own terms, with my own music. Splinter has been a fantastic next step on that journey.

Robin Finck of Nine Inch Nails played guitar on a few tracks as well, what was it like working with him?

Well, technically we didn’t really work together. Robin is one of my closest friends in Los Angeles and he offered one day, when he was at the house, to work on some of the tracks. I sent him the files and he recorded everything at his studio (he lives fairly close to me now) and a few weeks later he brought everything back and we went through it all in my studio. I just left him to do what he wanted. He’s an amazing player, very creative, and he turned out to be a fantastic recording engineer as well as the stuff he did was beautifully recorded. I’m very lucky in that my main guitar player, Steve Harris, is also an amazing player and Steve did some incredible things on the album as well. Although Splinter is, essentially, an electronic album, between Robin and Steve the guitar work on Splinter is the best I’ve ever had on a Gary Numan album.

You’ve got a very strong connection to Nine Inch Nails. You’ve performed on stage with them and there were rumours of a recording collaboration between you and Trent Reznor back in 2009. How did that relationship come about?

Trent came to see me when I played in the US many years ago. He had done a cover version of a song of mine called ‘Metal’ so he brought that along, which was amazing. This was when he was making The Fragile. Since then we stayed in touch and got to know each other a little better. Trent wrote the first testimonial for me when I was in the process of immigrating to America. In fact he’s done a number of things that have been very helpful to me at key moments so I feel grateful to him.

What happened with that collaboration?

Probably one of those things that will happen some day but who knows when? One thing’s for sure though, I now live about 20 minutes from his house so it will be much easier to grab some studio time, when we have some spare time to grab, than when I lived in England.

You’ve also done other collaborations as well, notably you guested on The Mighty Boosh. What was it like working with those guys?

It was good fun. I’m a big fan of the Boosh anyway so it was cool to be on the programme but everyone was really nice to work with. It was a very light hearted and friendly atmosphere and I thought it was really funny scene. I can’t act at all so luckily no acting skills were required.

gary numan mighty boosh

Do you think it’s important to be able to poke fun at yourself like that?

I’m not sure that it’s important to poke fun at yourself but it doest hurt. I do get slightly annoyed by those people in bands that seem to think they’re something special. As far as I’m concerned the world is full of people that can do amazing things. If, by some stroke of good fortune, you become successful, it doesn’t make you special, it makes you lucky. I am very lucky to be able to do what I do for a living. I am very aware that there are thousands of other people who can write good songs who just haven’t been as lucky as me and so have never had the opportunity, or the following, that allows them to travel the world playing their music. I’m grateful for my life, I don’t think I’m better than anyone else because of it. Standing in a cupboard on The Mighty Boosh was an honour. It was an honour to be asked, to be involved.

Last question, my friend demanded I ask it, do you fly much anymore?

Not at the moment. I was an aerobatic display pilot for many years but most of my friends were killed doing that so, when the children came along (I have three young girls) I decided that air display flying was too reckless a thing to do as a hobby. It was also too self indulgent. I would drive to the airfield Friday evening, and go home again Sunday night, every weekend, rain or shine. Children want to do different things to that. I do miss it though so I will probably get back into it at some point.

Gary Numan Australian Tour

Friday, May 23 –  The Studio, Auckland NZ
Sunday, May 25 – Astor Theatre, Perth WA
Tuesday, May 27 – Tivoli, Brisbane QLD
Thursday, May 29 – HQ, Adelaide SA
Friday, May 30 – Hi-Fi, Melbourne VIC
Saturday, May 31 – Metro Theatre, Sydney NSW

Tickets available from metropolistouring.com

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