Star Apps: Gary Numan

Kicking off SXSW week, legendary electro artist Gary Numan chats about his upcoming SXSW appearances, his "Broken Mind," classic albums, sampling, sex with operating systems, and his favorite apps.

Gary Numan is well aware that most Americans know him only for his "Cars" single. It's his only US hit, charting at No. 9 back in 1980. But when people call the electro pioneer a one-hit wonder, it drives me crazy. If "Down in the Park," "Are 'Friends' Electric?" "Me! I Disconnect From You," and "You Are in My Vision" (with Tubeway Army), "I Die: You Die," and "We Take Mystery (To Bed)" didn't chart in the US, it's not for lack of merit. Technologically advanced and emotionally nuanced albums such as "Replicas" (1979), "The Pleasure Principle" (1979), and "Berserker" (1984) sound just as contemporary and topical as Numan's most recent album, "Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind)" (2013). It just took audiences a while to catch up, aided by more recent covers from proteges like Nine Inch Nails, Foo Fighters, and Jack White.

Gary Numan album cover
Numan says that Splinter looks back at a time when he felt broken. (Credit: Courtesy: BB Gun Press)

"Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind)" is gorgeous on every level. Considering the title, I wonder if you consider yourself psychologically splintered?
I was diagnosed with depression in 2008-2009 and spent the next few years fighting that. I didn't write a song for three years, maybe four, and my career was slowly fading away. The medication I was on was very good for stopping me feeling depressed but also put me in a state of "I don't give a f**k" about pretty much everything. Nothing bothered me; I was just floating through life in my own little bubble. My wife Gemma said I became a completely different person, and she wasn't too keen on the new one.

I eventually realized that I had to come back to the real world, and it was during this phase that I started to write a side project album called "Dead Son Rising" with my producer Ade Fenton, just before I started "Splinter," and it was that rather difficult experience which helped bring me back. I started "Splinter" straight after the "DSR" album. "Splinter" therefore looks back at those times when I did, genuinely, feel broken. That's where the title comes from.

In light of the song, "Who Are You," can you answer that question for us? Who is Gary Numan in one sentence?
I'm the Englishman that wrote the song "Cars." I have a feeling that whatever else happens in my life, that one sentence will always be the one that explains who I am for most people. Not that it really does, of course.

Check out the track "I Am Dust" from "Splinter":

What's it like behind the scenes on the "Splinter" tour?
Happy, friendly, and low pressure. My band are among my closest friends, so it's all about having as enjoyable a time as possible. We all get on really well despite us having quite different personalities. My wife Gemma always travels with us, and she is the glue and the energy that consistently binds us all together. Without her, friends or not, I'm not so sure it would all run quite as smoothly. We have no tantrums, no rock star bullshit. We all love doing what we do, so it's a nice environment to be in.

What do you plan on doing at SXSW?
As much as possible. My schedule is ridiculously busy, but I do hope that I will be able to check out some other bands while I'm there. I see SXSW as a huge opportunity for me and what I do. I don't want to waste it or mess it up.

In November, you'll be playing the Hammersmith Apollo. What does it mean to you to return there?
Hammersmith, London, is where I was born, so I suppose it's my home gig. I played there many times in the past but not for quite some time now. It feels almost triumphant to have rebuilt the career back to the point where I can play the Hammersmith Apollo again. It means a lot to me to be back there, if I'm honest. It's a legendary venue, one that I went to watch bands in all the time when I was a teenager. It always felt special to play there, but I think the November show will possibly feel the most special of all. It's been a long fight getting back there.

With the 35th anniversaries of "Replicas" and "The Pleasure Principle" and the 30th anniversary of "Berserker" this year, what in your opinion are the legacies of those albums?
I was happy with all those albums, and I certainly can't say that about all the albums I've made, unfortunately. "Replicas" started everything for me. It was my first UK No. 1 album, so it has a very special place in my heart and memory. "The Pleasure Principle" was also No. 1 in the UK and did pretty well all over the world. It's now mentioned often as being very influential, which is something I'm very proud of, obviously. "Berserker" didn't reach the same heights as the other two, but I was very happy with it just the same. It's probably my most unusual image on the cover.

As the artist who really revolutionized the love-starved android persona, how do you view the characters falling in love with their operating systems in the Oscar-winning movie "Her"? Is love becoming too electric?
Virtual sex is about as pointless a thing as I can imagine, but to each their own. I was genuinely alienated as a younger man -- I have Asperger syndrome -- but I never felt any romantic connections to machines. I have been happily married to an actual person for nearly 17 years and together for 22 years. I have an old-fashioned view of love that has no interest in cyberdating or whatever term is in use this month. I don't think things have changed that much for the vast majority of people. You still see someone, like the look of them or whatever, and want to be with them.

Gary Numan
Numan may have played the love-starved android, but that doesn\'t mean he\'s into OS sex. (Credit: Courtesy: BB Gun Press)

How did you discover that you have Asperger's?
When I was about 14, I was sent to a child psychiatrist at a hospital in London, as I was constantly in trouble at school. It was there that Asperger's was suggested. My mother seemed to take that as a reflection on her, which it wasn't, of course, and so we stopped going. I was put on Valium and Nardil for a year to keep me calm. It was many years later, when the Internet came along, that I started to self-test on various Web sites, and I came up consistently deep on the autism spectrum, but specifically in the Asperger's range. But I have never been officially diagnosed, which is one of the reasons I don't get involved in the various groups that ask me to speak. I would feel a fake without that genuine diagnosis.

"Berserker" was your first foray into PPG Wave synthesizer samples. Can you explain what digital samplers were like at that time and what made you go in that direction?
They were complicated, difficult to program, temperamental, and very expensive. But they could still do things more quickly than the techniques we had been using before. I would spend countless hours hitting things and recording strange and varied sounds from around the streets where I lived or worked, and then spend even more countless hours trying to build them into grooves and riffs. Things like the PPG, for all the problems it came with, made that a much easier process overall. Some of us were sampling long before samplers and machines like the PPG were invented. We just did it in a different way, but it felt like a huge step forward when those machines came along.

Flash back to Numan's 1979 "Pleasure Principle" tour:

Your classic songs have been covered and sampled by everyone. Which is your favorite?
There have been so many, it's genuinely hard to pick a favorite. Foo Fighters and Marilyn Manson both did great covers of my "Down in the Park" song, Jack White did a cool cover of "Are 'Friends' Electric?," Nine Inch Nails did "Metal," as did Afrika Bambaataa, strangely enough, Fear Factory did "Cars," and so on and so on. I think the number of cover versions is now up in the 70 or 80 or thereabouts. I guess I feel closest to the NIN version of "Metal," though, as I've gotten to know Trent Reznor a little in recent years and joined them on stage a few times.

Trent Reznor is a huge fan of yours. Will you two work together anytime soon?
I really don't know. I would like to, but I'm a very passive collaborator. I tend to wait to be asked, as I'm not the most confident person in the world. I'm not sure that's the right way to be with Trent, so it might be doomed to never happen. We have talked about it in the past, though, so you never know. Plus, we live fairly close to each other these days, which helps. I certainly admire what he does very much.

Are you enjoying living in southern California now?
I am indeed. I absolutely love living here. As an Englishman, the weather is obviously a big attraction, but California has so much more to offer than that. I would like to work more in film and TV music, so what better place to be than Los Angeles? My children love it here and are very happy; my wife Gemma has wanted to live here pretty much since she was an embryo, so she's very happy. I love the people, the friendliness, the attitude to life and work. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss a few things about England, but in all honesty I wish I'd moved years ago.

Switching gears, what are your top five, favorite mobile apps and why?
1. Real Racing 3 -- I'm a big car-racing fan, and I find this app about as close as you can get outside of a real car.
2. Control4 MyHome -- My house is controlled by a computer, and this app controls that. I can turn on lights, change TV channels, turn on air conditioners or heaters, check security cameras, pretty much anything, really -- from anywhere in the world. I can monitor what the kids are doing when I'm not there. It's a bit control-freaky, I know, but it still makes me giggle every time I use it.
3. BBC News -- Can't help but want to stay in touch with the goings-on back in the UK.
4. Kindle -- I read constantly, and the Kindle app makes it very easy to take books away with me without busting my baggage weight allowance.
5. Maps -- It's guided me to safety more times than I can count. I seem to have a knack for finding myself in places I don't want to be and needing help to get out.

Upcoming 2014 tour dates:

3/11 Granada Theater, Dallas, TX
3/13 Yahoo's Brazos Hall, Austin, TX
3/15 Elysium, Austin, TX
3/17 Mercy Lounge, Nashville, TN
3/19 Beachland Ballroom, Cleveland, OH
3/20 Altar Bar, Pittsburgh, PA
3/22 Webster Hall, New York, NY
3/23 The Trocadero, Philadelphia, PA
3/24 Paradise Rock Club, Boston, MA
3/25 Cafe Campus, Montreal, Canada
3/27 Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto, Canada
3/28 The Crofoot, Pontiac, MI
3/29 Metro, Chicago, IL
3/30 Mill City Nights, Minneapolis, MN
4/1 Turner Hall Ballroom, Milwaukee, WI
4/2 The Firebird, St. Louis, MO
4/4 Gothic Theatre, Englewood, CO
4/6 The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA

About Joshua Rotter

Joshua Rotter is a copy editor for and covers iOS.