Latest release: Splinter – Songs from a Broken Mind
Innovative songwriters with a recognisable signature vocal delivery who can also produce their own material whilst achieving global success do exist. However, those who create interesting new music over several decades and remain highly influential on other newer artists across various genres whilst still embarking on a touring cycle are rather rare. Gary Numan, whose hit songs still crop up regularly on numerous radio play lists is one such remarkable individual. Touring here at the end of this month in support of his recent album Splinter – Songs from a Broken Mind, Loud caught up with the fascinating and forthright Gary to discuss as much as we could cram into a twenty minute chat.
Listening to the latest album Splinter – Songs from a Broken Mind, it is noticeably quite dark. Do you feel it is a natural progression from your previous album Dead Son Rising?
In a way it is, yeah. I see it but it wasn’t intended to be a follow up. The Dead Son Rising album is more of a side project really after myself and Ade Fenton [Splinter mixer, co-producer, keyboardist and programmer] got together to do some co-writing. In many ways, that was the thing that kind of helped me get through out to the other side of the depression I was diagnosed with in 2008. I got kind of stuck in that and so I didn’t write a song for quite a few years. It was working on Dead Son Rising that pulled me out of that and got me working again. I went straight from that into Splinter. So in that sense, I guess it is a progression but the reality is that it is actually not. There were things from that were helpful with writing. I guess it was the first chapter of Splinter but to me they’re very different records even though there is a song writing continuation. I think of Dead Son Rising as the side project whereas Splinter is more the follow up to the Jagged album from many years before .
There are a lot production dynamics on it and you’ve mentioned having a very dark period. Did you have to relay that sort of overall vision to Ade as co-producer?
Yeah, I will write the song then spend a fair bit of time producing it up to a decent level. Then I can give it to Ade and he can do his thing with it. The reason I produce it to a fairly high level is to give him guidance and to let him know exactly the sort of thing that I intend for it such as being heavy or whatever it might be. The better produced I can make it, the more information he’s got with regards to my intention for it. It doesn’t mean that it is something he has to slavishly follow. In fact, quite often he has to take off everything that I did except the vocal and start again. Then we start to discuss it and if he goes off on a tangent I might bring it back in a little bit and we’ll argue about that. Sometimes he sticks to what I’m doing if we both agree on that being the way for that song to be. I don’t expect Ade to take what I give him and just repeat it with his sounds. I do expect him to listen to it and think about alternative versions or directions. Then you have to discuss if that is the right thing or not.
I would have thought you’d have had a very strong type of sound in mind to go with the melody when you create a song.
Yeah very much so and for a long time, most of the albums that I have made, I have produced myself. So I can deal with that sort of thing and am very up to speed with technology, software and the plug-ins that we use today. It is not as though I cannot do it from a technical point of view. It is just that when you find someone that you can work with who understands technology brilliantly and is also very creative, as a combination, you can come up with things that are better than you would do on your own. Also, sometimes it is good to have another ear to bounce ideas off back and forth or even to just get an opinion. Sometimes you can’t tell what is good or shit when you’re writing because you’ve just a little bit too close to it.
How would you say your early and classic material might sound if access to the technological advances available nowadays such as Pro-Tools were possible then?
I would think that the arrangements would be fairly similar but the actual amount of layers or production would be obviously quite different. During making the early stuff, we were very limited by the amount of tracks to use. I think the first two albums were done on a sixteen track tape machine and then we used a twenty four track machine for the third album. The first two albums or maybe even first three were done with rented gear as I didn’t own synthesisers. We only had it for a few days and it was really very quick and there wasn’t the time. We couldn’t afford the luxury of spending days on every song to build up lots of different layers. It is possible that even if back then we’d had a bigger budget to create those first three albums we probably could have sounded a bit bigger or fuller than they did. But with today’s technology they would just sound that much more polished. For production these days, when you are working with Pro-Tools and Logic, you can be talking about sixty different tracks and it gets a bit stupid to just keep on going with it. That is a great thing to make the tracks full, bigger and very well produced but there is a danger that you can go over the top and end up crawling up your own backside really. So you have to be careful that you’re not too stupid because the technology will allow you do it. When we play live we rework some older songs a bit so they sound more like the new stuff that we are doing. So, in a way we are actually doing that for some of the songs that we play and put the new technology on top of them.
Indeed. So, how has your older material changed over the years within the live set?
It does because when we’re doing the new album, it is sort of heavy, aggressive and dark. So when I do older songs, I don’t want them to sound like weak versions from three or four decades ago. We re-work them to try to make them sound more powerful and bigger or more aggressive. But, I don’t want them changed beyond recognition because I think that annoys people. People come to a gig to listen to a particular song and then if you change it so much, it just pisses them off. So we try to find that line between people and the song; the way that people remember it in terms of melody and arrangement and the major sounds or key sounds of it. Adding these other things around it is so that when you slot it into the set in between the newer songs, it doesn’t sound out of place, old fashioned or retro in any way. Everything then sounds modern as though it belongs together.
In that light, speaking of changing things, does doing film soundtracks [The Unborn, later released as Human] provide the best avenue for you to be more creative and to just go off and experiment?
That’s an interesting one. I have a studio at home so I can experiment. I could go up there for the next two weeks and do any old shit so am not limited in that sense. I don’t rent a studio so I don’t have to worry about paying rent somewhere or for musicians. I can just go up to my studio and do what I like to then choose what I want to release. I have only done one film score so it not as though I have much experience with it, but it is a very different discipline. You’re not tied to verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight and all of that kind of structure so it does allow you to go into a little bit more free form and do some kind of riffing. I did find it quite interesting and that allows you to do things that are not impossible to do on a normal album but can be a little bit more tricky to slot in. When I was Splinter, I knew that I wanted to get into film music and I had already starting having meetings with people to introduce myself as wanting that sort of thing. So when I played in Splinter, I put in markers that could show I could do string arranging and Arabic types of stuff. I wanted to be able to take that album to somebody at a film company and say, ‘check out that track or that track and you can see that I can do that to bring in that sort of thing’. Even though it is an album in it’s own right, I did kind of sneak a few things in there that are kind of added to my CV for film work.
You toured here recently in 2011 playing The Pleasure Principle album in full. Are there many songs to play from that album in the coming tour set list planned?
Well, we do about three songs from that album on this tour. We’re bringing a five piece band this time with one keyboard player as we had two keyboard players last time. It is a bit of a turnaround this time, actually. My usual keyboard player cannot do the tour because his fiancé is ill and having an operation so he has got to stay at home with her. My bass player cannot do it because he is producing an album for Pop Will Eat Itself. My drummer cannot do it because someone close has cancer and that has all gone horribly wrong so he has got to stay at home to sort that out. So, I have only got my guitar player and I have got my stand-by drummer, my stand-by keyboardist and my stand-by bassist. It is all a bit of a new and exciting thing for me, really.
I’m sure it’ll be good, all things considered and we’re looking forward to it. How do you alter the set list to make it interesting for yourself each time that you do tour?
This time it is easier as the emphasis is very much on the new album so that is a very new and exciting environment to me. I’ve not played those in anything like a time period to kind of get bored with them. Songs like ‘Cars’ or ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ are songs that I have been doing for say thirty five years. They can get a little bit boring so every once in a while you just rework the old songs so that they sound comfortable with the newer album. Theoretically, I do that anyway with the old stuff to make it more interesting to play since we do play those songs a lot. It is more interesting for the audience to listen to so they’ve got a slightly different version than what they may have heard before.
How do you feel about the old songs today then? Are they a millstone around your neck or do you enjoy them with the benefit of hindsight?
Well, I’ve had an off and on relationship with them. There are plenty of times were I have felt them to be a millstone around my neck. ‘Cars’, in particular has been very successful so I am not grumpy. It is a very cool thing. But, there are times when it can get frustrating. You’ll go to a radio station to talk about your new album and when you arrive, they introduce you by playing ‘Cars’ and then they say good bye to you by playing ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric’ but they don’t play anything from the new album. Now, that can be a bit annoying. There have been times when it seems that those songs have overshadowed other things that I have tried to do. But, not always and certainly, not as much now as it used to be. For a while, I wanted to distance myself from them quite a bit and I went through a period once of not playing ‘Cars’ live for about three years. I then realised that I was being childish and stupid. I think most song writers would bend over backwards to have written something that was that successful so I should be grateful and I am now. I’ve grown up a bit and stopped being childish. I am grateful, I do recognise that it is a cool thing to have written and is actually very successful. I am proud of it. But, I have played it thousands of times so it doesn’t have quite the same exciting spark when I play it live as some of the other songs but I certainly don’t begrudge playing it.
Speaking of that successful era and the many loyal fans that came out of it, where you aware of the reach of it to have even impacted on places like Australia at that time?
Ah, not really but in a way you are because your albums are selling and you’re being presented with gold discs. You’re doing lots of press and you know that the video is being shown so you know that the music is getting out there but you don’t really know whether anyone is just kind of being influenced by it or whether it is having any kind of effect outside of your fans buying it. For a long time, I was completely unaware of having any kind of influential effect. That has kind of happened or I noticed that now because in the last ten to fifteen years, so many people have been talking about it. Trent Reznor has talked about listening to my stuff as what got him into keyboards in the first place and thinking about getting Nine Inch Nails together. Many comments like that and people doing cover versions, sampling and all that sort of stuff. So, I became aware of it in the greater stages of my career. I was completely unaware of it back in the day.
What would be your favourite songs on Splinter that typify how you feel about it?
That’s a tricky one, actually. The title track, ‘Splinter’, I really love but one of the best songs to play live is called ‘Love Hurt Bleed’ and that is a huge track to play live. There is another one called ‘Everything Comes Down to This’ which has just got a massive groove running through it. I have made about twenty albums and have to say that of all those albums, Splinter is the only one I have ever made where I cannot find a weak song on it anywhere, from my point of view anyway. I am really proud of it. Most albums will have two or three songs that really stand out head and shoulders above the album. For me, with Splinter, I don’t have that. I am pretty much even with everything. But now there are certain songs that are really fun to do live because they are big and powerful.
Gary Numan is touring now:
25/5: Astor Theatre, Perth WA (+ Rooster Police)
27/5: Tivoli Theatre, Brisbane QLD (+ Bat Noveau)
29/5: HQ, Adelaide SA (+ Izera)
30/5: HiFi Bar, Melbourne VIC (+ The Red Paintings)
31/5: Metro Theatre, Sydney NSW (+ Buzzkill)