Gary Numan talks about his latest release, "Savage (Songs from a Broken World)"

The new wave legend talks about songwriting, collaborative production, and coming to terms with his early hits
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Twenty-one-year-old Gary Numan couldn’t have been less prepared for overnight stardom after the release of his 1979 smash, “Cars,” which rocketed to Number One in his native U.K. and Canada, and broke the Top 10 in the United States. In less than three months, he went from performing in neighborhood pubs to playing London’s 12,500-seat Wembley Arena.

His debut solo album The Pleasure Principle—a synth-laden rock record with no guitars—hit Number One in the U.K. and led to a sold-out world tour. By 1981, the year MTV began broadcasting, his music videos were in constant rotation, making Gary Numan a household name and the pale androgynous face of ’80s electropop.

His phenomenal success was short-lived, however, with consistently disappointing record sales and critical reviews over the next three decades. Still, he held onto a sizable cadre of enthusiastic fans, including Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson, and Dave Grohl, who gratefully acknowledge his impact on their music. Even as his own career was waning, Numan continued to have an undeniable and sustained influence on electronic, industrial, and goth rock musicians.

In 2006, Numan began working with producer and multi-instrumentalist Ade Fenton, who sought to recapture some of the dark, brooding magic that marked his earlier work. Their partnership eventually gave rise to Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind), Numan’s 2013 album, which earned both critical praise and popular success. During the Splinter tour, EM magazine asked me to do a one-on-one onstage interview with Numan in a packed 500-seat theater as part of Asheville’s electronic music festival, Mountain Oasis. Everyone there found him to be humble, witty, and charming.

The week this issue of EM lands in the hands of most subscribers, BMG will release Numan’s 21st studio album, Savage (Songs from a Broken World). It began as a PledgeMusic campaign and was financed by fans who contributed to its completion. Following up on Splinter’s winning formula, Numan and Fenton co-produced Savage in their personal studios. In late July, as he was preparing for his tour in support of the album, I spoke with Numan about it.

How’s your day been so far?

It’s a good day, actually. We had our first rehearsal today, playing the new songs for the very first time, and it was absolutely brilliant. I’m pretty happy this evening.

How long did Savage take to record?

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I started the press campaign for it in November 2015. But between that and mid-2016, I think, I had only written two songs. I just had so much else going on, so I didn’t really start it. I think Ade came on board and started in October 2016. It was quite late in the day, and it had to be finished by the end of March. We missed that slightly by a few weeks, but that was the deadline. It should have been the end of March and we finished it in April.

I remember [telling] Ade that I’ve only got a couple of songs, so we really have an awful lot to do with this very, very close deadline. But when I went back to my early files, I had 20 different bits of music, but only two of them were finished. About three or four of those pieces ended up being finished songs on the album, as well.

How did you and Ade work together on its production?

The way it worked—very much the way Splinter worked—is I write everything at home in my little studio, and then I produce it up to a level that I think gives Ade all of the direction that he needs. He’ll get something with a finished vocal, with a finished lyric, so a pretty complete song really. I try to give him something that gives him a clear intent. He knows exactly what I’m trying to do with that song, and then he kind of runs with it.

[On some songs] he’ll completely undo everything I’ve done and start again from the ground up, but going in that same direction. Other songs, I absolutely want it a certain way, and I want him to come back with an enhanced version of that. [If there’s a problem] I try to be very specific on where I think it’s gone wrong and where I think it needs to come back to, and then maybe we can start again.

[In the past] we got into some quite heated arguments about what we thought was right or wrong, but none of that on this one. It was a really, really good process, no problems whatsoever. Maybe that’s because this is the fourth album that we’ve done together. We have a less confrontational way of discussing whatever problems there might be now compared to the past. He was fantastic, and he worked so quickly. That was also very impressive.

Did you write all the songs?

Oh, yeah. I write everything. On this album there’s one song that we did together. Ade sent me a groove idea that he had, which I then built a song around. It’s called “What God Intended.” I just thought that the groove that he’d done was important enough that without that initial groove, I probably wouldn’t have been able to build a song on top of it. I offered him a co-writing split on that one. But the lyrics are mine and everything else is all mine.

Where was Savage recorded?

I’ve got my own place at home in Los Angeles, and Ade now has a studio in Bath, in the west of England. He’s been there for a couple of years. It’s really, really pretty.

How do you work together being so far apart? How do you exchange song files?

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Mostly Dropbox now. I’ll be in my studio and get it ready for him. I put it into Dropbox and send him an email saying that I’ve done it. He then does what he’s going to do on it, and then a week or two later another version will appear in Dropbox that I can look at.

We had a third person, the man that mixed the album, Nathan Boddy. We were all connected to the same Dropbox folder. So, I put things into Dropbox, and Ade works on it and sends it back to me in my Dropbox. When we’re both happy with the song, Nathan gets involved, and he takes them to his place in East London. And then he would start doing the pre-mixing work and getting that side of it ready. While that was going on, I was working on the next song. We had this fantastic three-way team working on everything at any given time, and it worked really, really well. Dropbox was very useful.

What platform do you use for recording?

I’m Pro Tools, and Ade is Logic. That’s not really been a problem. The way we do it is I record everything to audio. I send Ade all of the audio parts, and I send him all of the MIDI files, as well, as a separate thing with a very detailed list of what the sounds are and when and where things happen. So, he’s able to completely re-create those songs in Logic without any problem at all.

As for actually exchanging files, once we get into the production stage, we’re only exchanging stereo masters. I’m listening to what he’s done as a stereo audio file, and I make my comments and adjustments—suggestions, anyway—based on that stereo file. Once it’s gone to him, we’re not actually sending individual parts back and forth anymore. We’re just working on the stereo master and making changes to that.

Are you using software synthesizers or hardware?

It’s 99 percent software. It’s mainly Omnisphere and all of the Native Instruments stuff.

Kontakt libraries?

Yeah. I think with Omnisphere and Native Instruments, you’ve pretty much got it covered. A little bit of Ethno 2, the Mark of the Unicorn software, was used on some of it, the one with Arabian backing vocals.

Is that where the backing vocals on “Bed of Thorns” came from?

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Yeah, the Arabian section on Ethno 2.

So that wasn’t a session singer?

No. I had some. I had my own daughter on “My Name Is Ruin.” And there are a couple where I did Arabian-style backing vocals. It came out really well, actually. I think there are two songs on there that use sampled Arabian vocals.

What music software do you know best?

I don’t think I’m particularly good at any of it. I’ve been using Pro Tools for quite a few years, and I really can’t honestly say that I know it very well. I’ve had Omnisphere for quite some time, and again, I can’t honestly say that I know that inside out. I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades with these software packages. I can get into them and get the sounds up.

I think for the first 10 years of my career, I tried to pretend I was good technically and I understood the machinery and everything I was using. The next 20 years, I didn’t think much about it at all. But for the last 10 years, I pretty much realized that technically I’m actually not very good at all. I’m really not. I think more than anything now, I realize that what I am is a songwriter. I write songs. That’s what I’m good at. So, I’ve learned to be comfortable with my own limitations.

I think Ade’s knowledge of software is far superior to mine, just to watch him work in the studio, the speed at which he gets around things and the speed at the way he fixes problems. It’s really impressive to me because I can’t do that, certainly not with the speed and the familiarity that he does it.

You said that most of the instruments were software synthesizers, so you did use some hardware, too?

I used my [Access] Virus [TI keyboard] again on a few of the tracks. There is one called “My Name Is Ruin,” another one called “When the World Comes Apart,” both big groove songs. Mostly, I prefer not to use synth sounds that I’ve used before. I think with things like Omnisphere, it’s just so easy to create new sounds. You can use their library and bring up something that works really well with the track. But then the ability you have with Omnisphere to manipulate a sound to adapt it and make it suit that particular song—it’s just fantastic. It’s such an impressive piece of software, and yet it’s so relatively easy to use.

So, you don’t use a lot of presets without changing them?

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Not really, no. Pretty much everything gets tweaked to some degree or another. There is one sound called Buzzard on Omnisphere, and I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Buzzord. And although we tweak it slightly, it has a fantastic sound. And it has different applications depending on what range you’re playing it, even down to how you want to use it within a melody, whether you stamp the melody out or you hold it. That sound has so many different characters within it. Whoever programmed that is just a genius at programming. [Spectrasonics founder Eric Persing is named in the patch description. Ed.] I must confess, that was on Splinter as well. Ade makes fun of me for it. He says it’s like my new best friend, Buzzord, but it really is special. It’s a fantastic sound.

What about the drums? Where do those sounds come from?

Initially I’m using [Spectrasonics Stylus] RMX on my own demos that I send over to Ade. RMX is good for just getting up and running. It gets you going. It’s like putting your car into first gear. Then you need to change it. So, then we go to things like [Heavyocity] Damage, the [Heavyocity] Mutations series—Mutations 1, 2, and so on. I think Damage is really powerful. But I know for a fact that when Ade gets it, Ade then dismantles quite a lot of the drum things that I give him, and he rebuilds it and puts a lot more programming finesse into it than I do.

He does the final drum programming?

Yeah, pretty much most of it. A lot of it uses the key things that I give him to begin with, and that will still be in place, or he’ll get rid of my thing altogether and just completely reprogram, and that’s what the final result will be.

Me and the drummer, Richard Beasley—we went out to Ade’s studio on Tuesday and spent a whole day there working on samples. We were lifting certain samples from the tracks so Richie could use them to trigger, so we could have the same sounds live when Richie plays them. We would just bring up the various tracks of the drum programming, and Richie would decide what he would sample and what he would play live. It’s the first time I’ve been able to listen just to the drum programming with everything taken out. Some of it was stunning. The quality of programming that Ade had done was really impressive, much better than Splinter. It’s so intricate.

He programmed all the drums on Splinter, too?

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Yeah, he did. Funnily enough, when he did Splinter, we actually argued about it quite a lot. I was less convinced on Splinter, in the early stages of it, anyway. I would send over these huge grooves and massive loops, and it had a particular vibe to it. Ade would kind of undo that and put things on that I felt were too light and didn’t have the energy and the drive that I felt the originals had had. So, we argued about that quite a lot. But ultimately, I think he was right, and I think that the changes that he made, made the album sound a lot more real, if that makes any sense.

He made it sound more human.

Yeah. And also, the drums weren’t quite as heavy as I was going for initially. Ultimately, I think it did work and it did make the songs better. It gave the rest of the music a little bit more room to breathe and allowed some of the other intricacies to be heard far more clearly than would have been possible with the big, heavy layers that I was initially putting on it.

When it came to Savage, I didn’t have the same sort of resistance to what he was doing that I did with Splinter, so it was immediately an easier process. I definitely think that his programming has taken it up a level from what he did with Splinter, and I really noticed that on Tuesday, especially. He’s just very, very clever. Fantastic, the intricacy of what he does, and yet everything works, both sonically and musically.

I noticed on the album the vocals are very clear. I can understand every word. What’s the usual chain of processors you use on your vocal tracks?

I’m pretty basic with that really. I have EQ on it, a little bit of compression, limiting. I think the credit for that goes to Ade. Ade really does put a great deal of work into the vocal. And I agree with you: I think the vocals on this album sound particularly clear. I’m certainly not singing any clearer than I was before. I sort of mumble away at the lyrics a little bit. But he does a fantastic job of cleaning everything up—sorting out the EQs.

Ade Fenton’s Production Rig for Savage
As I mentioned before, we used Nathan Boddy to do the mixing on this album. Nathan was involved in Splinter, but to a much lesser degree. With Savage, Ade really wanted Nathan to do all the mixing, because he began to realize that he was actually very, very clever in that area. So again, I think Ade did a good amount of work on the vocals to get them sounding the way they did, but then a lot of the credit also I think goes to Nathan.

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Have your feelings about your old songs changed over the years?

I was quite dismissive of my early stuff for a very long time. And then, over the last few years, I’ve come to appreciate that it’s kind of a cool thing. “Cars” has been very successful for a very long time. The problem is, and we probably spoke about this before, I’m pretty obsessed about where I’m going rather than where I’ve been. For a long time, I actually resented a lot of that early stuff—“Cars,” especially. And then it did start to dawn on me that, that really was childish and I should be very grateful.

Last year and the end of the year before, I went out and played those three albums again—The Pleasure Principle, Telekon, and Replicas—those early albums of mine. I was actually quite surprised at how unusual the songwriting was, in a good way. I was playing these songs expecting to be a little bit embarrassed and really only doing it to keep the fans happy. I came out of it, rather than being embarrassed about playing those songs live and wanting to get away from it, I was really quite proud of myself.

So now I’m able to integrate my older material in with the newer stuff in a way that I wasn’t really comfortable doing before. Now when I play live, there is a slightly better mix of old and new because of this experience I had last year and the year before.

You once told me you were afraid of getting old. Are you still afraid of getting old?

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I am, yeah.

But your music has gotten better.

[Laughs.] Well, it does seem to be with this album and Splinter. I’m very proud of where I am musically. I think Splinter was a problem for me because when it came out, it had such a good reception. There were so many lovely things said about it, and it got onto the chart in Britain. I think that was the first time I’ve been in a chart there for 30 years or something. So, it was a major improvement from what I’d been doing before. But as soon as you realize that, you immediately start to worry about the next one.

Savage, for me, has been a very worrying period. I have a feeling that’s why it took me so long to get going. I was actually frightened to really get on with it, because I couldn’t imagine how I could do anything that could compete with Splinter, because it had gone so well. Splinter just seemed to be something where it all just came together. Everything was at its best at just the right moment. I did not think that I could do anything that could compete with that.

But now I’m a lot more confident. I think Savage is a good record. I like everything about it. I think I’ve done as good as could be expected to follow up on an album like Splinter. I’m quietly pleased with myself.

Read more of our interview with Gary Numan here.