How the electronic pioneer made the best of metal,
concrete, voices, and handheld recorders to create the
dark theater of Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind)
“I HAVE Asberger's Syndrome, so I’m particularly
good at being focused and not listening to
people!” Gary Numan reveals while discussing
his 20th album, Splinter (Songs From A Broken
Mind) (Machine Music). “Some people see it
as a handicap, but for musicians Asberger is a
godsend; it gives you a sense of focus and drive
and determination. You need that kind of tunnel
vision to fight your way through all the sh*t and
negativity that can come at you.”
Scoring a Top Ten hit with “Cars” during
the feel-good, soft-rock 1970s, Gary Numan’s
music appeared like air-raid siren-synths with a
Krautrock beat. He hit gold again with the 1980
album Telekon, and again in 2002, with the single
“Rip.” Early on, the waif-thin, sallow British
singer was cajoled, criticized, and denounced,
but his synth-heavy music took root, eventually
influencing everyone from Nine Inch Nails (who
covered Numan’s “Cars” and “Metal”) to Prince
(who covered “Cars”). Numan’s music has been
sampled by J Dilla (“Trucks”), Basement Jaxx
(“Where’s Your Head At”), NIN (“Metal”), GZA
(“Life Is A Movie”), and Armand Van Helden
(“Koochy”), among others. Splinter . . . sheds
the industrial menace of prior Numan albums
to create an insular world of beautiful dread, a
place where a listener can play, then disappear to
never be seen again.
Numan co-produced Splinter . . . with
longtime collaborator and producer Ade Fenton;
the album also features guitar work from Nine
Inch Nails’ Robin Finck. Splinter (Songs From
A Broken Mind) was recorded in England and
completed at Numan’s home studio in Los
Angeles, following his move to the U.S. in 2012.
Splinter (Songs from A Broken Mind) is an
amazing-sounding record. At times the
synths sound more human than not; the
mood is cold, ominous, and menacing, yet
beautiful. Did you prefer older or newer
technology to record the album?
I have very little to do with old technology.
I’m almost ruthless with it. I still have the bass
guitar I wrote “Cars” on. But that aside, I see
synthesizers and electronics as screwdrivers,
wrenches, and hammers. I don’t have any great
passion for them. I get what I can out of them
with my limited abilities. If something newer
comes along I get excited about that and stop
using the other thing.
Which older synths are you using on Splinter?
The album is entirely software based. I don’t
have any of my old synths; I don’t collect
them. I have two older synths; one is an Alesis
Quadrasynth which I use as a controller
keyboard and then an Access Virus. That’s it
When we moved to L.A. from England last
October, as part of that move I was clearing
out my garage. We had a small upstairs loft
that was covered in creeping ivy. England is a
very wet place, and things grow easily. I was
hacking away at it to prepare the house, when
I found a Minimoog underneath the creeping
vine. I’ve had it repaired but I am afraid that
is the shameful way I have treated all my old
equipment. I had forgotten it was there and
it became covered in vine. This is a classic
synth! How disrespectful is that? So they come
and go. On the new album I used the latest
technology that I could find.
Not for you is the current rage of using vintage
analog synths. Is that because you used
them in the ’70s when they were new?
Yes, I was there when they were the latest thing.
I used them a lot then, and I think I got the best
out of them. I just don’t feel like going back to
that. If I did, I don’t think I would find them
particularly exciting; it would feel like a step
backward. It might be a chip on my shoulder
that I have about nostalgia and retro. I got into
electronic music because it was so forward
looking. It was all about creating sounds
and noise. It was a different approach to
making music. I was blown away by that
and I considered it to be a technology-driven
genre. So now I am looking at
new technology, new software, how to do
things differently. How can this be used
to manipulate sounds or to generate new
sounds? I still get excited about that.
Aside from the soft synths, what kinds of
sound sources are we hearing on the new
I spend a great deal of time walking around
with my hand recorder capturing banging
things and scraping things and recording
all kinds of noises. Then I put them into the
computer to manipulate them to see what
happens. That is still my fascination, recording
sounds and twisting sounds. It’s still high
on my list as the reason for making albums.
That is why I am into electronic music. Old
synthesizers have been around long enough
that they’ve created their own nostalgia.
Did you use any new pieces or plug-ins for
the new record?
My favorite is Spectrasonics Omnisphere.
During the course of recording, Native
Instruments brought out updates, including
the Rammfire plug-in [emulation software
based on Rammstein’s Richard Z. Kruspe
guitar rig], which is great for guitar parts. We
also used software from a German company
called Best Direct; they make the Arabian plugins
we used in the song “Splinter.”
Sometimes the odder sounds on the album
don’t recall synths at all, but insects, ghosts,
crying babies, monsters, gases, unidentified
humanoid organisms—all these clanging,
Sometimes I will whisper or talk into a
recorder then run that through various effects
in Pro Tools. At the house we had some work
done, and I found a long metal post with a bit
of concrete on the end. I dragged that around
on different surfaces and played it back and
recorded it at different speeds. I would drag it
fast or drag it slow, or drag it over a corrugated
drain cover. It would go ch-ch-ch-ch-chch-
gggg! I made hundreds of different little
samples of that.
One of the doors in the house has this really
fantastic horror-house creak to it; it groans. I
recorded that, detuned it and effected it in Pro
Tools using reverbs or reversing it; that created
a completely different character. So much of
it is accidental. I will play with the computer
and fiddle with knobs and wait to see what
happens. It’s a series of organized accidents,
stumbling from one thing to the next. I find
that really good fun. If I was more proficient,
if I knew exactly what I was doing, I wouldn’t
have as much fun. The uncertainty factor
How do you generally approach the songwriting
I start with melody and basic structure, usually
on piano. Once the melody and chords and
arrangement are set, then we add the noises.
Occasionally a sound or even a word will start
a song. But if I have a general practice, it’s to sit
down with a piano or a piano sound and come
up with the melody.
You suffered from depression from 2006
until recording this album. Does depression
fuel the creative process in any way?
As a source of subject matter, it does. One thing
about depression is, you don’t have any desire
to do anything. I didn’t write any music for
three years. I was locked in this horrible corner
where everything went inward. It was rubbish.
The album was written about that period, but
not during that period when it was horrible in
general. My wife and I had the most excellent
marriage, the envy of all our friends. Then
we lost a baby, and then had a baby (and two
more), and I got paranoid about turning 50 and
growing old and dying. I was struggling with
being a parent, so I went into a depression and
started having panic attacks, and my wife had
post-natal depression. It dragged on and on.
Then we came through it. I had a new studio
built, and half of the album was written within
six months of moving to L.A. And a couple
songs are from a science fiction graphic novel I
am writing; “My Last Day” came from that. The
rest were written recently.
You work in Pro Tools?
I do, but my producer, Ade Fenton, works in
Logic. We used Native Instruments Massive,
Reactor, but I struggled with that. We also use
Omnisphere. The danger with that software is,
it’s very popular and then you get sucked into
using things everybody knows. It’s difficult not
to do, but it’s fantastic software. So many things
really work straight out of the box, you have to
be careful of that. But as a rule we work hard to
make sure we are creating new sounds.
Your sounds are very human, or even alien!
“The Calling” has a beautiful string arrangement,
is that live or sampled?
Those are almost real strings. The strings
are programmed, but the programming is
phenomenal. I created the parts, then Ade
spent a great deal of time programming
the exact number of hand strokes needed
to recreate the exact sound. Strings sound
different when you draw back on a bow than
when you push the bow. It’s ridiculous, the
amount of detail he goes to. I can come up
with melodies all day long, but I don’t have
a lot of patience. I rely on accidents. I am
too impatient to figure out what every little
parameter does. I would rather drag something
across the ground and sample it.
Your vocals are very intimate sounding.
What is your process for tracking vocals?
It’s simple. In the past, Ade complained about
me using too many effects. I had been kicking
against that idea, but he kept sending all the
tracks back. I don’t have a lot of confidence
in my voice, but on this album the vocals are
very dry with very few effects—mostly a
little reverb and delay, but it’s essentially
the most naked vocals I have ever released.
But when I recorded them, I still did it
the way I always would, piling on the
effects. Then Ade would remove them. I
got a new microphone, a Sontronics Saturn
condenser. Its presence is ridiculous. I’ve
used everything over the years, Neumanns,
AKGs, the standard vocal mics. But after a
while I stopped paying attention; I even did
two albums with a Shure SM58 in the studio.
People punch you in the face for that, but
I put so many effects on it, it didn’t matter
how pure it was originally.
You record alone in your studio?
Yes. Everything goes through a Pro Tools
Control 24, phantom power at the back
and I’m done. On older records, I always
thought the vocals were too thin, so I would
harmonize them or disguise them, like
spraying a sh*tty old car or adding new tires.
I did that with my voice. And yet, Ade is
bullying me not to do that. “You should be
happy with it,” he said. It’s alright and I am
really glad we did it like that.
Your synth counter-melodies are very dire
and mournful sounding, the audio equivalent
of night torches at a Nuremburg Rally.
They’re ominous, as in “A Shadow Fall on
Me,” “Everything Comes Down To This,”
and “Love Hurt Bleed.”
That’s natural for me. I lean toward a certain
kind of sound. My music, except for “Cars,” has
always been heavy and somber. That leads you
to certain sounds and perhaps certain sounds
lead to a certain kind of melody or structure.
I will never write a happy song, I know that
for a fact. Somebody once called my music
“Doomsteady”—that’s quite cool!
But beautiful, all these subterranean, spectral
I will write the tune the first day. By the
afternoon I have all the melody and chords, and
the rest of the week I am adding noises, textures,
those little things that move the song forward.
Then Ade adds more layers or he might remove
all my stuff and rebuild the song based around a
vocal. I get that back and then we argue! He will
take the song into a different direction. But we
can be brutally honest with each other.
You have created a recognizable signature
sound. What advice can you give on developing
a signature sound?
It’s a very difficult thing to do. I literally
stumbled across a synth in the studio and that
changed my life. I didn’t have any interest
in electronic music before that. There were
so many people that tried to steer me away
from that sound. Musicians tried to stop
me. The record company tried to stop me,
the musician’s union tried to ban me. And
the press was hostile at first. But if you find
something that you genuinely believe in and
enjoy, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Do
it. Stick with it. So many people try to write
songs and tap into what’s happening in the
moment but they are already too late, they’re
already behind the bandwagon. If you really
want to do something special, find something
you love and stick with it. Don’t let anyone
swerve you away from it. I honestly thought
through large parts of my life that everyone
was wrong except me. I believed that no
matter how many people told me they thought
my music was rubbish. Asberger Syndrome
helped me cut through everything, and right or
wrong, and I followed my own path.
Ken Micallef is freelance writer and
photographer based in New York City. His work
has appeared in many publications, including
DownBeat, eMusic, and Modern Drummer.