It’s hard to believe it’s been more than three decades since the release of Gary Numan‘s The Pleasure Principle, the electronic-pop masterpiece that spawned massive hit single “Cars,” one of the defining tracks of the new-wave era. (The song has since been covered and sampled numerous times and been used in countless commercials, movies, TV shows, video games, etc.) To celebrate the highly influential album making in into the Billboard top 20 in 1980 and the recent multi-disc, 30th-anniversary reissue, Numan just kicked off a three-week U.S. tour that features him playing The Pleasure Principle in its entirety, along with songs from his entire career as well as tracks from forthcoming album Splinter. MAGNET caught up with the British music legend on the eve of the tour. Numan will also be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.
MAGNET: Did you have any idea after writing and recording “Cars” that you had just done something capable of changing your life so much? You have said you were attempting to write a hit, but did you realize the extent of what might happen? And what made you think a song with no chorus could even be a hit?
Numan: No, I had no idea that the song would do what it did, what it’s still doing, actually, as it gets sampled, covered and used constantly. “Cars” started out as a practice on a new bass guitar I’d just bought in London. I wanted to learn how to play bass and so bought the guitar, a Shergold Modulator, took it home, opened the case, and the first thing I played was the main bass line in “Cars.” It was instant. At that time I just thought it was a catchy bass line and even when all the other bits and pieces were added later I didn’t dream that it would become so well known. Not having a chorus was something I didn’t think about at all. The structure of many of my songs is a little unconventional; you just do what you think feels right at the time.
What was it like achieving some much success at such a young age, first with (Tubeway Army’s) “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” in the U.K. and then “Cars” worldwide? What impact did it have on how you have navigated through your career throughout the years?
It’s very exciting obviously, but I think it would be at any age. Having such a lot of success at a young age is not something I would recommend, especially if you are a solo act and not part of a band. A lot of pressure falls on your shoulders, a lot of changes happen pretty much overnight, and it’s hard to deal with. A lot of it is good, but a lot of it isn’t, and it can be very overwhelming. It’s very easy to slide down the wrong path.
What’s it like for you now to go back and perform The Pleasure Principle in its entirety? Did you uncover any surprises or things about the album that you had forgotten about or mis-remembered over the years? Were there any mistakes you wanted to correct?
It’s been good fun actually. We did a Pleasure Principle tour in the U.K. last year when it was the 30th anniversary of the album getting to the U.K. number-one spot, and it was a lot more enjoyable than I had expected. I’m not really a huge fan of nostalgia so I only play these old-albums tours very rarely and I wasn’t expecting to get much out of the PP tour, but I was surprised. The songs were a lot quirkier than I remembered, a lot more interesting to play, because they have such an odd structure. I also played keyboards on every song so I was very involved musically, not just singing, and that also made a big difference. On the rare occasions I’ve played old albums before I’ve always reworked everything to bring it up to date, but I’m not doing that with The Pleasure Principle. We are playing it exactly as it was on the album, so any mistakes made on the original are still there.
How many times did you have to go back and listen to the entire album to prepare for the tour? When was the last time you had listened to the LP prior to that?
The last time I listened to it in its entirety before the recent tour was 1979. To prepare for the tour we listened to it constantly, trying to get it to sound exactly as it should. We put in more rehearsal time for the PP shows than we have done for any of the other live work we’ve done in recent years.
“Cars” is one of those things that have transitioned in the public’s mind from song to pop-culture touchstone/reference. What’s that like for the person who is responsible for creating the art?
It’s a bit odd to be honest. I’m absolutely blown away that it’s happened, I think everyone that writes songs dreams of writing something that has that kind of long-term impact. But I can remember opening up that bass-guitar case and starting to write it; it was just a simple little bass line on a slightly out of tune, cheap, bass guitar. It makes me smile now to see what that has become. It’s very cool for me, and I’m very proud of it.
You have been cited as an influence from artists ranging from Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson to Basement Jaxx and Tricky to Beck and Afrika Bambaataa to Dr. Dre and GZA. Other than via samples of your songs, do you hear any of your music in other artists’ work? Who influences you? What music do you listen to these days?
You hear things occasionally and wonder whether they are aware of you because their music has a certain familiarity to things I have done. What is most noticeable though is that the really talented people, the Trent Reznors of this world, will talk about my influence on what they’ve done, but I cannot hear it. They use, or used, me as nothing more than a spark to fire their own imaginations, and these are the truly gifted artists that I have such a lot of respect for. I am hugely flattered and honoured to have been cited by so many people from so many different genres of music. It’s something I am enormously proud of, and I am also enormously grateful to those people who have been generous enough to talk about me in such complimentary ways. I have always been something of a sponge; I soak up my surroundings, be that imagery, sounds, feelings, whatever. I can’t help it, can’t turn it off. I listen to music relatively rarely, but inspiration comes from so many different areas that not listening to music that much isn’t a problem. But I always have time for NIN, Prodigy, Kidney Thieves, Snake River Conspiracy, Manson and so on. I DJ once in a while, so I’m always on the lookout for things I can add to the DJ set.
How have you adapted to a world of digital music and downloading and MySpace and Facebook and all that? How do you think The Pleasure Principle would have fared being released in today’s climate?
I’ve adapted easily. I find the constant and rapid evolution of technology to be very exciting, and I enjoy working out how each new step forward is going to be beneficial or whether I should steer clear of it. I love what’s golng on now; don’t think it’s all for the good, but it is genuinely fascinating to see something changing so much and so many brilliant people stepping up out of the shadows to show us new ways of thinking. As for The Pleasure Principle, I think it would have done OK in today’s climate, maybe even better that it did 30 years ago.
I read that you were diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. A neighbor of mine has it, so I have been able to observe what it’s like living with it on a daily basis. How are you doing with it? Does it keep you from doing anything you want to?
No, it doesn’t stop me from doing anything really. I’m totally rubbish at social interaction, but I have a wife who is gifted with interaction skills, so I just hide in her shadow and things go smoothly enough. Many of the traits of Asperger’s are actually very useful for a career in music. That obsessive, blinkered sense of direction, the slight emotional disconnection in certain areas, so many things when you think about it that make Asperger’s almost useful for this kind of life. Thanks to my wife Gemma I am much more at ease and aware of the Asperger side of me, and although it has its difficult moments, I find that I would rather have it than not.
Are you bringing your family on the road for this tour? Does having kids have a big influence on what you will and won’t do career-wise?
Gemma will be with me, as always, but not the children. It’s not the place for them at the moment as they are only young, being seven, five and three years old, and at school or nursery. I hope to bring them in the future when they are old enough to adapt to the lifestyle on the road, but it won’t be for quite a while. The only real difference is the length of the tours I’m willing to go out on. Before I was happy to go out and tour indefinitely, for months at a time. Now I try to limit them to just two weeks, with a big gap in between. I miss them, and I don’t think it’s good being away from them for too long, not for them or for me and Gemma. This PP tour at nearly three weeks will be the longest time we’ve ever been away from them, and I’m really worried about how that is going to work out.
Are you familiar with the song “A Hit” by Smog? You are name-checked in it (“I’ll never be a Bowie/I’ll never be an Eno/I’ll only ever be a Gary Numan”). Do you take it as a compliment or an insult?
Not sure. Depends on why he thinks what he thinks. If he shared my opinions it would be a compliment, but I have a sneaky suspicion he doesn’t.
Are you working on new music? What do you have planned beyond The Pleasure Principle tour?
Yes, working hard on new music now. The next album is called Splinter, and that will be out in the new year some time. Splinter is very much a bigger and better version of my last album, Jagged, very industrial, a big noise anthemic bulldozer. Looking forward to getting that out. We are also working on another album called Dead Son Rising, although this is becoming a vehicle that we make music for that gets used in different areas and never seems to get finished. We have tracks from DSR going into films, games and other places, so I’m beginning to wonder if the album itself will ever come out. We will play a few of the new songs on the Pleasure Principle tour.
—Eric T. Miller