How Gary Numan Keeps Rising Up After Setbacks, And How We Can Too…
By Michael Nova
Gary Anthony James Webb, more commonly known as Gary Numan, is somewhat of a legend in the Electronic music industry, having influenced such artists as Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, Kanye West, Prince, Foo Fighters and many more. He is widely considered one of the pioneers of industrial music.
He first gained prominence as lead singer of the new wave band Tubeway Army, and then as a solo artist releasing The Pleasure Principle in 1979. His number-one hit singles “Are “Friends” Electric?” and “Cars” are considered classics, and while Gary’s peak of popularity occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, his following remains strong more than 30 years later.
This is not your typical music artist interview. For fans of the artist, we hope this interview gives you deeper insight into Gary’s background and personal motivations, as we deeply discuss his innermost thoughts and recollections. For those unfamiliar with Gary’s story, we think this interview will be enlightening.
Ahead of his new album release coming next week, Gary graciously gave us a little bit of his time to discuss how he was able to overcome adversity in the music industry to become not only famous, but inspire so many other artists. Here’s our host, Michael Nova’s interview with Gary Numan…
to this interview by X: THC.
Gary, Let’s start at the beginning. Before you made it in music, you worked as a forklift driver, driving a courier and other odd jobs. What drew you to music and how did you get your start initially with the London band, Mean Street?
I was interested in music from when I was very small. In fact my interest in music has swayed back and forth with my love of aeroplanes for most of my life. We had a careers talk at school when I was about 15, and some things were said that made a career in aviation seem unlikely for me, so I decided to go for the music option.
From that moment on having a successful career in music became massively important to me, although aeroplanes were never too far away from my thoughts.
Mean Street was a group of friends, some from school, some not. We played three gigs while I was in it, each one with a different band name. It was an early lesson for me that you can’t run a band by committee. A band needs someone to take the lead, to drive it forward.
I found out I was no longer in Mean Street when I turned up for a rehearsal and found someone else singing and the band not talking to me. That came as a surprise as these were friends that I’d known for years. It was pretty upsetting to be honest but the sort of thing that once I’ve accepted it I can move on from pretty easily.
How were you able to get your first record deal for Tubeway Army with Beggars Banquet?
With my bass player Paul Gardiner we took our three track demo tape to every label we could find. We also had a friend take it to a few places as well. He was on the receiving end of the strongest rejection as I remember. The man he played it to took it out of the tape player, through it out of the door and said ‘Fuck off, and take that shitty tape with you’.
After a while we gave up with that tape and Paul found himself having a conversation in a Beggars Banquet record store. Beggars would buy second hand records and Paul needed some cash. The man Paul was talking to, Steve Webbon, worked in the store and told Paul that the owners had just started a small label and that he would give the tape to them. They liked it, and we were eventually signed in early ’78.
How did Philip K Dick’s work influence you as an artist?
I read a lot of his books and they definitely made an impression. The influence mostly popped up in lyrics in my very early stuff. Iwrote a song called I Dream Of Wires in 1980 for example that was very much based on Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, which became the film Blade Runner of course.
That film also was a great source of inspiration for a while, mainly in how to use sound design in music. Things that are not exactly musical as such, but can be used within music. Noises, speeches, things like that.
You’ve talked about how your struggles with Aspergers syndrome growing up and how you were given antidepressants and anxiolytics as a way to deal with the anger and extreme emotions you are feeling as a teenager, which led you to channeling your emotions into a “machine-like” persona. Do you find it ironic that the struggles you experienced in a way directly led to your success with this persona, and how you were able to turn a negative into a positive?
I don’t remember channeling my emotions into a machine like persona to be honest but perhaps that’s where my memory is not so good these days. Or perhaps I said that in the past and it was only partly true. I do remember that for a while around that time, while I was still at school,
I would decide what sort or personality I would have that day, and seemed quite capable of being somewhat different from one day to the next. It seemed as though none of those personalities were real though. I think I read a book called The Disembodied self, and another called I’m OK You’re OK around that time. I stopped doing personality swap after a while.
I eventually thought of myself as being inherently unlikeable for many years, without ever knowing why. It just seemed obvious to me that keeping friendships was all but impossible for me. I wanted to be different. I didn’t see being different as a bad thing. I have a feeling I enjoyed seeing myself as different because it made my apparent unlikeability acceptable. It stopped it from hurting my feelings I think.
The idea of being emotionally detached seemed like a good thing. To my younger self people seemed almost pre programmed to be hurtful and unreliable. I grew to love the reliability of machines. Machines can still let you down of course, but the one thing you can be sure of is they didn’t do it on purpose. That was very important to me.
I think the persona that I created around those early songs wasn’t too far removed from the real me actually. I’m not cold, not at all. I have often suggested that people like me feel far more than regular people, we just don’t appear to on the outside. I do feel things very deeply, but I can push it to one side. I can box it and keep moving until the time is better for dealing with it.
Also, most importantly, I don’t see any part of it as a negative. I don’t look at what happened to me and think that I turned a negative into a positive. It was always positive, just not quite the same type of positive as most people.
You’ve said that when you initially rose to fame in the early days that much of the attention you got was hostile, and you had to work your way through that. Was this due to the Aspergers and the perception of you as standoffish or why do you think they was so much hostile attention directed towards you?
Well that is something I’ll never really know. Electronic music was very new at the time and lots of people saw it as a threat to guitar dominance, not real music, a collection of noises that had no place in music. The Musicians Union tried to ban me for a while because they said ‘I was putting proper musicians out of work’. There was a lot of resistance to the emergence of electronic music back then.
It was huge though, and that just annoyed some people all the more of course. And there was I, at the forefront of all of it, with my Aspergers bluntness and unfiltered honesty. I was a magnet for every knife thrown it seemed and it hurt, for a moment. But, box it, push it to one side, keep moving forward. I found a way of turning all that hostility into fuel that fed the fore of my own ambition.
It drove me forwards with a passion and determination that just added to my own natural obsession to do what I wanted to do. Aspergers is a huge advantage in times like that. Arguably it can add to your problems a little but I have a feeling that the press were going to go for me anyway, with or without my lack of social skills. It became a steel bubble that I lived within.
I have considerable mental resilience I think to setbacks and challenges, to pressure, and I see that as an Aspergers trait. Without that I would have been crushed by events many times, especially back then.
How were you able to overcome that hostility?
I didn’t. I just went round it. Hostility is nothing more than the sea breaking upon the rocks if you don’t let it get to you.
After the great success you experienced in the late 70s and early 80s, you went through a period in which you constantly reinvented yourself trying to catch lightning in a bottle with that elusive “hit” record, but instead, sales of your records seemed to get worse and worse. You tried diversifying into business with a restaurant called Coffee Pot, Rock City studio and Numa Records, but those businesses didn’t work out, and you nearly went bankrupt in 1991. How were you able to gather the resilience to pull yourself out of that downward spiral?
I was massively in debt in ’92, to the tune of about $1 million. I think part of what makes me tick is that I am eternally optimistic. I always believed things would get better eventually. I did think my music career was pretty much over in ’92 though. I didn’t have a record deal, didn’t seem likely I’d ever get another one, nothing I’d done for a while had done well and it all looked pretty grim.
I met Gemma then, when things were at there worst. Gemma would become my wife a few years later and we’ve been together 25 years now. She helped me in so many ways, still does. She has a brother who is diagnosed Aspergers and so she was able to read me from day one. With great patience and understanding she began to make me look at myself, at the way I behaved, at the things that made me upset.
She helped me to learn what I was really like, which wasn’t that great to be honest, and she helped me to change. She was able to help my identify certain behaviors, and that enabled me to recognize them myself eventually and so avoid them. I was able to learn better ways of interacting, learn how not to unintentionally offend people.
I will never be a natural at social interaction, I still count how many seconds I’ve been making eye contact for example, but I’m very much better than I was. I have a wide circle of friends now, compared to the very few I had before I met Gemma.
She also introduced me to a vast amount of music that had escaped me completely. I began to fall in love with music all over again and I found a way of taking it back to being a hobby, the way it had been to me when I was a teenager. I had become so corrupted with the idea of success and recapturing it I’d lost sight of what it was I’d loved about making music in the first place.
Gemma helped me re-find that, and it was that rediscovered love for making music, and a new attitude about why I was doing it, that made all the difference. I was now doing it for the love of it, with no thoughts about commercialism or hits or radio plays.
She patiently encouraged me to go out more, to mix. I used her as a shield, as a buffer between me and humanity. If we were out and she went to the toilet I would panic until I saw her coming back, still do actually. It’s a relationship that gives me everything I lack naturally.
So Gemma helped inspire you to do the music that came out of your heart rather than trying to get a “hit”. By abandoning the idea of trying to be commercial, you were able to “find yourself” creatively, and the result of that led to success, which for me, as a fellow musician, is a beautiful thing.
Now discussing what happened previous to the release of your album Splinter, you struggled with depression for a long period, leading you to write the song, Lost. Can you share with us how the song came about and you were able to pull yourself out of this depression?
Gemma had Post Natal Depression after our second child Persia. 18 months after Persia we had Echo, who nearly died a few hours after being born and was in intensive care for about two weeks. After Echo the PND got worse and Gemma just became a different person. She was angry much of the time, seemed to blame me for everything.
I would suggest we went out for a break, maybe to the cinema, and she would react as if I’d asked her to cut her arms off. It was horrible. Eventually it was recognised for what it was, the tablets were helpful and she was pretty much coming out the other end of it when I started to go down. I was having anxiety attacks that were becoming more frequent and more severe and then I was diagnosed with depression.
So, it was a very difficult time, for both of us, for quite a few years. We had three children all under 4, we were both struggling with that, with the change of life, money was an issue again, we were both not the people we’d married and it began to build towards something regrettable.
I was close to leaving, and so was Gemma as it turned out. I had already written a song about the state of our relationship,when it was really bad, called ‘Everything Comes Down To This’. With ‘Lost’, having been thinking about leaving for some time at that point, I went out to the studio and just started to write down what it would be like without her.
I wanted it to be accurate, to be heartfelt, so I was very careful, and very thoughtful about every word. What it did though, far from being a song about why I was leaving, it reminded me about how incredible she was. I’d become so lost in all the arguing, only remembering what she’d said in our last screaming match, I’d forgotten all the good things, all the things that made her special.
To put it simply, I remembered who she really was. I wrote the song, went inside, said sorry for forgetting, sorry for everything, she said the same, and from that moment on it was fixed. It was instant. It was remarkable actually.
Getting through the depression wasn’t quite so easy. Having been moody my entire life I found the evenness that the anti-depression pills gave me extremely seductive. I had no desire to go back to those erratic moods again, moods entirely out of sync with life. I could get great news and be miserable as sin, or have terrible news and not really care, be quite upbeat and happy. Completely out of sync.
I hated the thought of going back to that so I stayed with the pills way too long. I think that’s the danger of antidepressants, they can be as dangerous in many ways as the illness itself. You lose the very thing that makes you who you are.
Eventually, thanks to Gemma once again, I saw sense and started to come off them, slowly but surely. Luckily for me I”ve come through it all in better shape than I ws before. I am still moody, although nowhere near as bad as I was, and my moods are now in sync with life which makes them far more easy to deal with. They make sense now, they didn’t before.
You’ve stated publicly that you are a resilient person that is eternally optimistic, so when you think about all the phrase, “fall down seven times, rise up eight” , looking back on the setbacks you’ve had, now that you’re back in full force with a new album and tour upcoming, what does that phrase mean to you? What might you even share with your children about overcoming setbacks and never giving up?
They do. Every up and down, and the way you deal with those ups and downs, shape what you become. If you are strong you become a better person for riding out those setbacks, learning from them, making things better. If you’re weak, you will be crushed and disfigured by them. You may become a harsh and bitter person, spiteful or pitiful. I like what I’ve become, far more than I ever liked what I used to be.
Finally, can you tell us about your new album, Savage, the pledge music campaign and the upcoming tour?
Savage is a theme album, the ideas taken from a book I’m writing, that looks at what life may be like in a post global warming Earth, many generations in the future. A cruel and savage world where Eastern and Western cultures have merged, more through the necessity of day to day survival than any better level of understanding and tolerance.
The world is essentially desert like, water is currency, and those that still survive have adapted to a more tribal way of life. It’s incredibly harsh and hostile, and people do terrible things just to make it to the next day.
Within the story a scrap of ancient text is found, a page from a bible almost turned to dust. The people that find it believe it was sent to them by God Himself, and they start to live according to the few words they discovered. Then they begin to spread the word, calling themselves The Righteous, and they are ruthless and brutal in their methods of ‘pursuading’ people to believe as they do. From that moment on, things really go downhill.
The Pledge Campaign was my attempt at giving the fans a window in to what it takes to make an album. I gave regular updates on progress, let them listen to songs as they went from basic piano tune, through early lyrics and first vocal ideas right up to finished full production tracks.
They saw the sleeve ideas when they were still scrappy drawings on paper, days when I was very down and anxious about things, days when things went well. Everything, from beginning to end. My hope is that it will make listening to the finished album a more complete and satisfying experience, and that they might have a better understanding of how hard it can be to create something of that nature.
The tour will run off and on for the next eighteen months and will visit many parts of the world. Touring is the best part of all the things we do as musicians. I love the travelling, the excitement of the shows each night, the comradeship with the bandmates and crew.
Gemma works with me on the tours so we are together luckily. The only down side is missing the children. That side of touring is very hard on all of us so we try to make sure that they can come out and travel with us as much as possible, to break up the time we’re away.
Thanks to Gary for sharing his story in such great detail. His story proves that if you have some type of mental or physical condition that to others may seem limiting can actually be beneficial if you learn to work with them in a way that serves you. Despite Gary’s Aspergers Syndrome, he has succeeded in music. Despite his monetary setbacks, he kept going. And despite a long period of depression, he recovered, stronger and more determined. This is exactly what we mean when we say, “fall down seven times, rise up eight.” Gary’s new album, Savage is out now.
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