During the late '70s, America reveled in the corny adult pop of James Taylor, Carly Simon and Elton John. Into this soft-rock stranglehold came Gary Numan's 1979 hit “Cars.” The song described a sad teenager who only felt comfortable communicating with machines — an apt tune for a society whose failing technology was reflected in gas lines and poorly constructed automobiles. Numan's geek-from-Mars appearance coupled with his technology-addled, paranoid persona produced a robot-rocking hit that conquered the U.S. Top 40. Numan followed “Cars” with “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” seemingly establishing a new ideal for pop stardom. Suddenly, synth pop was all the rage. Numan imitators appeared, and his influence would also be felt in the spew of goth rock and industrial music to come. Twenty years later, Nine Inch Nails, Foo Fighters, Marilyn Manson and Smashing Pumpkins would cover Gary Numan songs, helping to rejuvenate a floundering career.
“I was bankrupt in 1991,” Numan says from his English countryside home on the eve of the release of Hybrid (Artful, 2003), a double CD of remixed and new material. “Only by begging and promising to pay someone who was going to take me to court did I survive. I owed a million dollars. I was selling nothing, and I was out of favor. It was absolutely grim. I never had a belief that my music had something special to say; I just loved making it. What else could I do?”
Even as his career evaporated, Numan made music on Moog Minimoog and Polymoog and Roland SH-2000 synths. His late-'80s albums were cut out almost as soon as they were issued, but Numan persisted. His '90s albums Human (Numa, 1995), Sacrifice (Numa, 1994) and Black Heart (Culture Press, 1998) found a new audience with club kids who respected Numan's pioneering sound and never-say-die attitude. As quickly as he hit bankruptcy and fell from grace, the newly hair-implanted Numan was back in black and cozying up to Moby and Trent Reznor.
“I abandoned all ideas of chart success,” Numan says. “That is when this huge weight lifted. My music became much heavier and darker. Sacrifice got good reviews, and I started selling out gigs. I picked up a lot of respect for not doing the nostalgia thing. I did something I was told was suicide, and I was much better off than when I was on a major label and failing. I figured I was finished anyway, so I had nothing to lose. I was poor and in trouble. But by giving up, my career was reinvigorated.”
Hybrid is a droning, industrial rock noisefest that is as black-hearted and despondent as anything by Nine Inch Nails, and it also sports a new orchestral version of “Cars” that almost betters the original. Old Numan tracks are remixed by Flood, Alan Moulder, Curve and Rico, and his newer tracks show the old man-machine can still deliver the goods.
Although Numan writes all of his music on an aged upright piano, slowly adding effects, synth sounds and big beats, he also works with modern gear: Emagic Logic Audio Platinum and Digidesign Pro Tools on an Apple Mac G4 with two iZ Technology RADAR 24 digital recorders and a Mackie d8b desk. His synths are both soft and hard: Korg Wavestation, Alesis QuadraSynth, Korg M1, Roland D50 LA, GEM S2 Turbo and a Korg electric piano. Yet in a surprising twist, Numan is wary of technology.
“Technology can't come up with a tune that will touch people and create memories that still mean something,” he says. “You can go to your laptop and make something very professional with no hiss, no clicks, but does it still sound great after 12 listens? Are you listening to production or to the tune itself? Production becomes dated very quickly. You have to start with a song and cautiously add technology to it.
“I want everything to be as rhythmic and huge-sounding as possible. I will make beats from hitting chairs with a metal ruler or dragging concrete or spinning wheels on cars and then hitting reverse. I will hit things with hammers: wood, trees, anything that has a big attack to it. You can always reverse it and spin it around, but it's hard to create attack with sound that doesn't have it originally. Hitting and scraping things is a good way to do it.”
After failure, resurrection and rebirth, Numan stays true to himself by using his imagination and being sensitive to atmosphere. “In a lot of what I do, there is a layer of atmosphere running through it,” he says. “I have been around a long time, and I have a good memory. But I don't have a plan; I just mess around for ages. It is trial and error. I am not a skilled manipulator of sound. I just twiddle.”