When I got Gary Numan on the phone in mid-September, the 52-year-old electronic-pop pioneer was on his first family vacation outside England. He and his wife were staying in a rented house in Kissimmee, Florida, with their three children, ages seven, five, and three, and the family was preparing for a trip to Disney World. The kids were already riled up—I could hear them in the background. "They're just horrible little things," Numan said, laughing. "They spend more time in trouble than they do having fun."
On October 17 Numan began his first American tour since 2006. He reissued his landmark 1979 album The Pleasure Principle last fall in a special 30th-anniversary edition, but a planned stateside trip in the spring was scuttled by the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull; these are makeup dates. It's an anniversary worth celebrating, though, even late: The Pleasure Principle challenged critics of the chilly new-wave style Numan had developed with his band Tubeway Army, abandoning guitars and pushing even further into a robotic, sterile, synth-driven sound. It's influenced artists as diverse as Trent Reznor and Afrika Bambaataa, and its best-known single, "Cars," has been covered by everyone from William Shatner to Fear Factory and made appearances in too many movies and TV shows to list here. Knowing Numan had crossed paths in the early 80s with Devo, I asked Gerald Casale for a celebrity testimonial. "The Pleasure Principle was the perfect marriage of Gary's unprecedented, uncompromising, synth-based art-pop and the popular zeitgeist at that point in time," he said. "Pleasure for sure, with no sacrificing of principles."
Numan has continued to release albums regularly for the past 30 years, and lately he's started using distorted guitars and aggressive rhythms that belong not to the late 70s but to a post-Nine Inch Nails world. He has two records in progress now, both of which he hopes will see the light of day next year: Dead Son Rising is a mix of new songs and material that didn't fit on his previous release, 2006's Jagged, and Splinter is all new. At Metro on Tuesday he'll play The Pleasure Principle in its entirety, then fill out the set with highlights from throughout his career.
What risks were involved with kicking guitar for The Pleasure Principle?
I was quite young and I just wanted to prove a point. I wanted to go into a studio because people were saying Tubeway Army and Replicas wasn't real music, that it was made by machines. I sort of got a little offended with that. So I wanted to make an album that didn't have guitars in it, just to prove that you could make an album that sounded well-rounded sonically—just to show that it could be done. The people around me at the time, the record company and so on, were actually quite helpful. I think the whole electronic thing at that point had really kind of exploded. The only regret I've got is I don't think that I should have been reacting to what people were saying. I should have just done exactly what I wanted to do. But nonetheless I'm still quite proud of it.
Either way it had a huge impact on a wave of British and American bands.
I never really got over my feeling when I was very, very young—I just felt like I was stumbling along. I'm not a particularly brilliant musician. I'm not a gifted player in any way at all. And one of the reasons I retired from live work for a while quite early on [in 1981, for about a year] was because I thought my songwriting needed to be better. I didn't think my songwriting was good enough for the amount of success that I'd had. And I've never really gotten over that sort of lack of self-confidence, really. I'm riddled with that to this day. So when I find that other people have said something complimentary about an album or a song—like when Trent Reznor did a cover version—I'm genuinely shocked and blown away with that.
You performed with Trent Reznor last year on Nine Inch Nails' Wave Goodbye Tour—at the London show, among others. Will you two work together at some point?
I've become very passive in the whole thing. My problem is I think sometimes I become so passive I give the impression that I'm not interested. And it's not that at all. It's just that I really don't want anyone to think that I'm trying to use them or take advantage of a particular situation. So I'll just kind of sit back and wait for the phone call, really. [Laughs.] But it would be great. The last few years we've talked about it. I'm sure it will happen. It's just he's such a workaholic, he doesn't stop. Makes me look bad.
But there'd be no Trent Reznor without Gary Numan.
Oh, I don't know about that. I'm such a huge admirer, I really am. Not just of the music, but his work ethic is phenomenal. And his dedication, determination. The focus of the man is just frightening, absolutely frightening.
How has fatherhood affected your writing and touring?
One of the beauties about working at home when you didn't have children is totally destroyed as soon as you do have children, because that proximity becomes a curse. I do most of my thinking when I'm out driving. I don't listen to music in the car. So I'd go in my car, drive around, and would always come back with some ideas. Of course now you go out anywhere, you've got three children in the car fighting and screaming. It's just the last place in the world you can do any thinking.
No wonder it's been several years since your last record.
My plan was to work on two albums side by side. Quite often when you write an album, there are a number of songs that just don't quite fit the direction that you wanted the album to have. What's happened is I've done a little bit on both, and nothing's really getting finished. So I've had to abandon the idea slightly, and all the emphasis now is on Splinter. Soon as that one is done, then I'll get back on Dead Son Rising. Hopefully next year I will have two albums out at some point, which will partly make up for the five years since my last one.
During your 1980 Pleasure Principle tour, your father managed you, your mother managed your wardrobe, your brother managed your press, and your uncle played with your band. How long did that family dynamic last?
In the very beginning, yeah, it was very close. I kept them around me like a security blanket, in a way. And as time went on I just grew up. I think the thing was, when this all just first started, I was quite young anyway—I had just turned 21. But I was a very, very immature 21. I didn't trust anyone; I was riddled with paranoia. But I think that had to do a lot with my mum and dad, actually. I think I kind of inherited some of their hang-ups. The idea of having family around me seemed very . . . safe. My dad actually stayed managing me up until about a year and a half ago, but it became less and less of a management role and more of almost like an accountant. My brother became an airline pilot for a European flight company. He still does that, actually.
You're a pilot too, of course. Do you still fly?
Not so much now, no. I was an aerobatic pilot—I used to do air shows all over Europe, in World War II aeroplanes. Quite dangerous. My own teammate, he was killed in a crash. So it was something that was actually majorly exciting to start with and I was very proud to be a part of. And by the time the children came along, I had been doing it for a long time and it became a little bit sad, actually. Most of the people I had known had been killed in one crash or another. And I suddenly thought, "Fuck me, this is really dangerous. And now I've got this little baby, I've got a wife that doesn't want me to go anywhere near an aeroplane." Just recently, in the last year or so, I've been slowly getting back into it again, flying again a little bit. But air-show flying—I don't think I will ever be able to do that again, because the children are very young, and it's just too dangerous a thing to do if you've got a family.
For many years now you've believed you may have Asperger's syndrome. As a musician who travels frequently—who has to deal with unfamiliar people and disruptions of routine on the road—how have you adjusted to that?
There are certain things about it which are actually quite useful for a musician. You decide where you want to go, and you just go. And there are very little things that stand in your way. We're not particularly good at communication, which appears to be a handicap in some respects. Like this, for example, the way that we're talking now. The thing about it seems to be that as long as we're talking about us, we're fine. [Laughs.] I can talk about me, and I don't really struggle. If I was to meet you out at a bar or backstage at a gig, there's a 50-50 chance I would be so tongue-tied and clumsy trying to communicate that you would think that I was just an idiot. Or perhaps that I was even a bit standoffish or arrogant. And that's in normal situations—that's not so good. But being focused and determined and so on, these are things that can actually work in your favor.
How do you feel about playing The Pleasure Principle in its entirety before an audience?
The thing about Pleasure Principle, most of the songs on there are relatively short. It's almost like playing an album of TV theme tunes, and two and a half minutes later it's finished—you start another one. So it's actually really good fun. I'm not a fan of retro at all, and I really don't like nostalgia, so I do this sort of old-album thing very rarely. There has to be a very good reason for doing it. We did Pleasure Principle at the end of last year in Britain. And it was good—it actually didn't sound as horribly old-fashioned and dated as I thought it might. I've got a bit of a chip on my shoulder about doing retro. It's pretty much one of the hang-ups of having been around it so long. It can kind of hang above you. It's taken me a while to get comfortable with that.