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?
Numan onstage.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 for hardware.
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 record?
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, subterranean sounds.
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 creates excitement.
How do you generally approach the songwriting process?
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 sounds.
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.