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Interview | Artist By Jonathan Miller
Published July 1996

Gary Numan's music epitomises the electro‑pop era and undoubtedly helped boost synth sales in the early '80s. With the chart re‑entry of his classic hit single 'Cars', Numan is approaching his third decade in pop. Jonathan Miller receives a lesson in the art of survival...

I'll never forget that fateful evening in May 1979 when I tuned into BBC1's Top Of The Pops and witnessed a strange, bleached blond, young man in unusual black attire performing an equally strange song. Tubeway Army's soon‑to‑be number one hit single 'Are 'Friends' Electric?' was quite unlike anything I'd ever heard before and arguably opened the floodgates for the early '80s wave of synthesizer‑based acts to follow. Its sneering creator, Gary Numan, briefly became an icon for a generation of synthesizer fans.

The song in question's chart‑topping parent album, Replicas, recently made it onto CD for the first time in its own right with fully restored artwork — prompting Q magazine to observe, "Songs like 'Me! I Disconnect From You', 'Down In The Park' and the vanguard monster hit 'Are 'Friends' Electric?' not only helped the ungrateful Human League and Depeche Mode into the charts, but also established Numan as a highly‑skilled and intuitive pop musician." And deservedly so. In our age of commonplace six‑figure production budgets and their attendant lengthy block‑booking of state‑of‑the‑art recording studios, it's hard to believe that Replicas was recorded on 16‑track in just three days flat at Gooseberry Studios, in London's Chinatown, for a total cost of almost £500.

Despite now enjoying a hitherto unknown degree of rock acclaim amongst current chart bands — many of whom have covered his songs on record or stage, including Pulp, Beck, Hole, The Foo Fighters and Shampoo — it was a different story in 1979. Back then, Gary Numan was continually ridiculed by the press for no apparent reason other than being successful. Numan's record sales exceed a healthy 15 million units, whilst 1979's The Touring Principle — filmed during his first sell‑out UK tour — was the first commercially available full‑length music video, pipping Blondie to the post by a matter of weeks. Put simply, Gary was almost alone in seeing the opportunity for a 'star' of synthesizer‑based music — a smart move, as evidenced by the string of hits to follow, with over 35 chart singles and more than 20 chart albums to date. By chalking up two number one albums and two number one singles in a three month period of 1979, Numan became the UK's fastest‑rising star since The Beatles. So what went wrong?

Falling Star

In a nutshell, when Gary opted to 'retire' from the rigmarole of touring in 1981 with a series of visually spectacular, yet financially crippling, sell‑out shows at London's Wembley Arena, he immediately alienated his substantial overseas following in the process. BBC Radio One subsequently refused to playlist his music from 1983 to the present day, corresponding with his departure from Beggars Banquet to set up his own independent label, Numa Records. To all intents and purposes, Gary's rapid decline from millionaire 'superstar' status began here. However, contrary to popular belief, with a fanatically loyal following and buoyant fan club boasting 3,500 members, Numan is still making records, touring, and rapidly approaching his 20th professional year in the pop industry.

At his home‑based 24‑track recording studio, Outland, I finally met Gary — a quiet‑spoken, rather shy and reserved 38‑year‑old, quite unlike his flamboyant and occasionally menacing stage persona. Outland may seem a small studio for an artist of Gary Numan's stature, yet its ergonomic layout and use of natural daylight makes for a pleasant working environment, and perhaps goes some way towards explaining Gary's increased recorded output of late (more of which anon).

Setting up his own record label might be viewed as a way for Gary to attain greater control of his musical destiny, yet this was not the driving force behind the move: "At Beggars Banquet I just felt I was forever being promised things and not getting them. At one point a representative even said, 'We know we're guaranteed to sell 50,000 or 60,000 albums with you in this country and we're happy with that.' It wasn't a case of trying to make it bigger and build on it around the world. So when faced with that situation, you've got to move on, because it kind of indicates your relationship is pretty much finished.

"So that was the reason for setting up Numa — it wasn't so much for control. I thought, 'Hang on, if I'm selling that amount of albums, I'm going to be quids in if I have my own label.' But that soon turned to worms, because I didn't bank on getting no airplay."

State Of Independence

Back in 1986 Gary was still based in the infamous Shepperton film studio complex, at Rock City Studios, and in the process of expanding Numa Records as an independent concern with a roster of new artists, casting himself as producer. Unfortunately, things did not quite map out as planned. As Gary recalled with a hint of bitterness: "What I tried to find were artists that I thought were good, who had been turned down by everyone else, because that was exactly what happened to me. It's soul destroying when even the tiniest independents tell you to piss off. The intention with Numa was always to give someone a stepping stone. If they went on to do great things with a bigger label, then I would have their first album and get my money back. But it never worked out that way and overall it was a very unhappy experience.

"I now have a lot of sympathy for record labels who've had to work with people like me, who moaned about every little thing that went wrong! All of a sudden you realise that you're moaning at the small group of people who are actually trying to help you. Numa really did make me change my opinion and regret an awful lot of things that I'd said in the past about Beggars Banquet and WEA."

Politics Of Dancing

A brief flirtation with Miles Copeland's IRS label in the late '80s spawned a 100,000‑selling album in the United States — Gary's first foreign release in several years — before becoming yet another problematic period in his turbulent career. This came to a head over the continuously segued, crossfaded Outland album in 1990.

Faced with such lunacy, Numa Records was re‑activated in time for Gary's 15th studio album, Machine & Soul, in 1992. A solution appeared to be found with 1994's studio album, Sacrifice. This was a case of going back to basics and doing it all himself, as on Replicas where he played everything bar uncle Jess Lidyard's drums and bass.

I was very unaware of what had been going on technology‑wise in home recording...

Not only is Gary credited with all writing, performance and production duties on Sacrifice — the tiresome role of drumming currently being handled by an Akai S1000 sampler/Apple Macintosh Quadra 650 computer/Emagic Notator Logic sequencer combination — he's also formed the NuFederation artwork company to create his own record sleeves on the Mac, without the involvement of outside graphic artists. A true one‑man‑band effort, "Sacrifice was the best album I've done for a long time — perhaps the best ever. To write something like that after so many disappointments and setbacks was a great relief to me."

Learning Curve

Company conundrums aside, I asked Gary how developments in the field of music technology had enabled a progression from the appealing quirkiness of Replicas to the slick overtones of Sacrifice — albeit with a welcome return to his characteristically 'punky' guitar on tracks like 'Love And Napalm': "Because so much stuff is now electronic and in‑line, a great deal of the engineering skill is null and void. You don't need it to make a modern record, which must be a horrible position to be in for highly‑qualified and skilled engineers who aren't required anything like as much as they used to be. I give myself an engineering credit purely for egotistical reasons, but I'd never get a job as an engineer! If, like me, you predominantly use keyboards and samplers, you don't need to be one."

There is, of course, usually a downside to technology and I wondered if, in his current state of seclusion, Gary misses the spontaneous recording sessions as in days of yore: "If you look at the relative quality between Replicas and Sacrifice, then I couldn't honestly say I miss it. One of them sounds like a piece of shite made in the '70s and the other sounds like an album made with a lot of time and care spent on it.

"But the technology is getting in the way a little bit, for me. Not only is the technology itself complex and takes time to master, it now gets updated at such a ridiculous speed — you're constantly in a state of learning and I'm growing tired of that. I've left school and don't want to spend the rest of my life studying. When recording Outland, at one point I was reading 17 equipment manuals, just to make an album!

"I do understand that new technology is moving very quickly, but I think we should all be aware that we don't have to buy everything when it comes out. In the end, you're constantly torn between not being left behind and simply not having the time to learn it all. Bearing in mind that I now do everything myself, it's a problem because there's only so many hours in the working day."

How Do They Do That?

Whilst having always been credited as a producer on his records, it wasn't until he set up Outland in 1990 that Gary began to take a hands‑on approach to the recording process: "At Rock City I was involved in the mixes, but only by sitting there interfering with the engineer and irritating him by asking, 'Can I have a bit more reverb?'. Although I moved volume faders up and down, I didn't actually know what was going on.

"When Rock City's lease expired in 1987, my intention was to never have another recording studio for as long as I lived! It was a horrible experience that cost a lot of money.

"Owning my own studio, but never being that interested or involved in the actual running of it, I was very unaware of what had been going on technology‑wise in home recording and music in general. I didn't really get into sequencing until about two or three years after everybody else. One of the bands I signed to Numa were heavily into sequencing and I was thinking, 'That's good. How do you do that, then?'

"Eventually I decided I was badly out of touch and bought a Roland S10 sampler, a sequencer, and a little portastudio and started teaching myself how it all worked — even though I'd owned two professional studios at one point!"

The Professional Touch

A makeshift 24‑track system comprised of two Akai MG1214 "glorified portastudios" saw Gary over the interim period, following Rock City's demise. One B‑side was recorded on this setup with Shakatak's Bill Sharpe — with whom Gary had a couple of collaborative hit singles — before synchronisation problems sent him running into a commercial studio for the first time since 1979's The Pleasure Principle.

"In 1988 I went to a place called Black Barn to record the Metal Rhythm album and really enjoyed working in a proper studio environment again with proper machines. By now I was starting to take a lot of notice of what was going on — watching what the engineer was doing, looking at the gear and finding out what things cost. I was shocked at the cost of making an album in a commercial studio. It wasn't a problem, but I felt it was wasted to a degree and it started me thinking, 'I could do all this myself.'

"It's the same with EQ mastering at cutting rooms nowadays. They reckon it's a highly‑skilled thing that they're doing. It's a very expensive thing and some of the people doing it are highly‑skilled, but some of them are monkeys and they charge the same money. I might as well pay nobody and be a monkey myself, so that's what I'm doing.

In my opinion, the Oberheim OBXa was the best analogue synth of them all.

"Now I finish an album, put it into Sound Tools, and compress it or whatever. By comparing it to other CDs by Nine Inch Nails or Depeche Mode — something that has the same kind of sound to what I'm doing — I can listen to what my EQ is doing. If it sounds as bright and hard, and it's not waffling down the bottom end, then I'll go with it.

"Now I know this may not seem absolutely professional, but it works. The last album I put out that I EQ mastered myself was a live recording, called Dark Light, and I got an email message from an American bloke who thinks it sounds much brighter and clearer than the previous live album, which was done by so‑called professionals."

Driving Lessons

Gary Numan's name is inextricably linked to analogue synthesizers, thanks in part to the success of 'Cars', his second UK number one single, and its accompanying promotional video featuring Gary 'driving' over an endless landscape of Polymoogs! Never one to ride with fashion, however, Gary is somewhat scathing of the distinctive sounds which assisted his meteoric rise to fame — even in today's prevailing retro climate: "I remember people wanting to be punk rockers long after it was over — people who were too young to be one at the time — and there seems to be an element of this when looking back at old synthesizers. People want to use Moogs because they missed them first time around, but I was there and don't have any nostalgia for them whatsoever.

"The Polymoog had one good preset in it called 'Vox Humana', which is the high string sound heard on 'Cars', and with the Minimoog I was just trying to make it sound as powerful as two chugging guitars, since I wrote most of the early stuff on the guitar anyway. I think there have been much more creative things done with synthesizers since then, because nowadays they can do so much more.

"Having said that, in my opinion, the Oberheim OBXa was the best analogue synth of them all, but that was from later years. I'm probably going to get mine up‑and‑running again, but it's so huge and I don't know where I'm going to put it!"


Although Gary once cited the saxophone and guitar as his all‑time favourite instruments and not the synthesizer, a quick glance around his home studio revealed a more modern selection of digital instrumentation, including an Alesis Quadrasynth, GEM S2 and Korg Wavestation SR. His ageing collection of notoriously unreliable, yet currently in vogue, analogues now lie in cold storage, flightcased and forlorn in an outbuilding — not that the latest acquisitions have been entirely trouble‑free, a dire scenario with which no doubt many recording musicians can identify.

"I really do have a thing about manufacturers releasing gear before it's truly ready. It goes on a great deal and I think it's disgraceful! For example, Alesis recently brought out an update for the Quadrasynth and they're not supplying it free to people who supported them by buying the original instrument. We're like unpaid testers and they're updating it because there are faults that we owners have been complaining about.

"I understand that development cost sometimes comes into it, but often it's not even development — it's repairs! If you buy a new car which has to be recalled because the steering wheel keeps falling off, you wouldn't expect to pay for it to be fixed because it's a design flaw!

"I don't mind if it's adding functionality to what is essentially a very good machine that does all the things it was supposed to do when I bought it. If the manufacturer then says, 'We've done some work and we can now make it do XYZ as well' that would be like buying a turbocharger for your car — you bolt on another bit to make it go faster."

By now Gary was on a roll and next in the line of fire were Emagic: "I've got Logic 2.1 and it doesn't send out MIDI song position pointers. That's like a car that doesn't have a motor in it! At first I could only assume that there was a fault with mine, but I rang up a mate who's got it and his doesn't do it either. I can't believe this isn't a fault, and it's not like we're talking about version 1.0 here!

"I've learnt my lesson and now I'm going to wait until something's been out for at least a year before considering whether to buy it. I don't care whether the studio goes out of date or not, because it means that when I finally buy something it should work properly."

Premier Hits

My visit ended on a musical high with Gary playing some unfinished backing tracks from his forthcoming studio album, provisionally entitled Exile. Abetted by the multi‑layered sampled percussion loops that have become his latter day trademark, these were already sounding incredibly powerful in their infant state and a clear indication that Gary has indeed become a master of both his craft and tools with a unique brand of sinister and heavy music.

"I used a changeable mixture of drum loops taken from sample CDs, although they were all retuned from the original. For example, I would not use a loop for a 90 beats per minute song that was recorded at 90bpm, but rather one that was recorded at 120bpm and then slow it down. This changes the sound of the loop, making it the right tempo, but heavier in texture than the original 90bpm loop. I'm sure others would disagree with that, but it seems to work for me. I also added individual samples that I 'played' from the keyboard in real time, to put in fills and basic timing the way a real drummer would. Cymbals and hi‑hats were also 'played' individual samples in most cases. All of the drum sounds were heavily EQ'd in one way or another and everything went through my trusty AMS and Lexicon reverbs, usually on gated or non‑linear settings, but occasionally an artificial reverse reverb was used. That's all there was to it actually, but you must be careful when building up drum layers that you don't lose clarity in that never‑ending search for power."

With possible major recording and US licensing deals looming on the horizon, perhaps a Numan renaissance à la Human League is just around pop's fickle corner? The fact that 'Cars ('93 Sprint)' already features on the soundtrack album to 1994's box office movie Speed, whilst 'Cars ('Premier Mix)' is currently being used to front a UK nationwide Carling Premier television and cinema commercial on an eight month run, is undoubtedly serving to heighten his profile — as has the TV‑advertised follow‑up Gary Numan/Tubeway Army compilation album, The Premier Hits.

The irony of this classic song's fourth chart placement (respectably re‑entering at number 17, almost 17 years after the original) is not lost on Gary, who joked, "It's quite possible that my career is going to be saved by a lager commercial, and I don't even drink!"

On a more positive note, rumours are abounding in the music press over a planned Gary Numan tribute album featuring a diversity of 'fashionable' artists. Likewise, Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters cover of 'Down In The Park' on the X‑Files album should further assist in the kudos stakes. It would appear that Gary Numan's influence on the popular music scene is at last being recognised.

Are 'Friends' Electric

Musical success generally involves a winning combination of talent, luck and, in the case of Gary Numan, fate. His entire career essentially rests on one pivotal song — 'Are 'Friends' Electric?' — yet his modest conclusion that "it's nothing clever" took me by surprise.

It's actually composed of two entirely separate songs — the spoken sections were initially part of an uncompleted ballad and later added to the basis of 'Friends' simply because Gary was stuck for ideas to finish the song. This — coupled with an amorous chance encounter with a Minimoog, left over from a previous session at Cambridge's Spaceward Studios whilst demoing guitar‑based Tubeway Army songs — led to a million‑selling synthesizer classic.

That said, had it not been for renowned Radio One DJ John Peel's fortuitous suggestion of Tubeway Army filling a vacant Top Of The Pops slot on that fateful evening in May 1979, it may well have been a different story...

Numan On Techno Army

"As a songwriter, to have other musicians cover your songs is something of an honour. To have almost an entire album devoted to your work is extremely flattering. My original versions of these songs, recorded over the last 16 years or so, are somewhat different and so it has been fascinating to watch other musicians' interpretations of them come to life.

"Particularly over the last two years, my own music has taken a much darker, heavier direction and so it is highly unlikely that I personally would have reworked these songs in this style. For that reason alone, this album is somewhat disconnected from me but is, nonetheless, something that makes me enormously proud and I am grateful to Nick (Smith) and Miles (Seabrook) for putting it together."

Gazza's Gear


  • Aiwa Excelia DAT
  • Aiwa WX220 cassette deck x 2
  • Atari ST Mega 4 computer (with DAC 700Mb hard disk)
  • Digidesign Sound Tools
  • Otari MX80 multitrack
  • Quad 405 amplifier
  • Soundtracs Quartz desk
  • Tannoy Little Gold speakers


  • AMS DMX‑1580S digital delay
  • AMS RMX‑16 digital reverb
  • BBE Sonic Maximizer enhancer
  • Bel BD80S digital delay
  • BSS DPR402
  • Digitech Valve FX guitar preamp
  • Drawmer DS201 dual noise gate
  • Drawmer DL221 dual compressor/limiter
  • Lexicon PCM70 digital reverb
  • Nomad Axxeman guitar processor
  • Valley Micro FX noise reduction x 6


  • Akai S1000 sampler (with DAC R5000 hard drive)
  • Alesis Quadrasynth
  • GEM S2 synthesizer
  • Gibson Les Paul guitar
  • Korg M1REX module
  • Korg Wavestation SR module
  • Roland D550 module


  • Emagic Logic/Apple Macintosh Quadra 650
  • Opcode Studio 4 MIDI interface

"I've also got some bits and bobs in the shed, although I don't use any of it at the moment: a Minimoog; Oberheim OBXa; Yamaha baby grand; a couple of Roland Jazz Chorus guitar amps; and a few other things I can't remember. Most of it has been toured into a state of disrepair."

Brave Nuworld

In joining the so‑called 'information superhighway' at the tail end of 1995, it would appear that Gary Numan has become something of a jack of all trades. NuWORLD: The Official Gary Numan Internet Connection is entirely his own creation and incorporates aspects of the NuMIND database, Fan Club newsletters and his information telephone lines. Its nomination for a 'YELL! For The UK Best!' award is both a testament to Gary's natural artistic talent combined with the Apple Macintosh's ease of use and versatility — not bad going for a self‑confessed computer novice.

Gary is hopeful that this newfound technology will help alleviate his prevailing state of isolation and expand his present fan base beyond the boundaries of the UK. Regardless of your intentions, it's well worth a browse as an excellent example of a well executed World Wide Web site. Check it out on:

Forthcoming Attractions

Aside from Gary's forthcoming studio album, Exile, other projects in the offing from the Numan camp include Human, an instrumental album of short pieces dating from Gary's score for a low‑budget horror film called The Unborn; a dance album of remixed/reworked Numan tracks by a team called Techno Army, featuring Gary himself on vocals; an "unplugged‑style" acoustic album; an album of ballads culled from his lengthy recording career; plus his eighth live album and accompanying video recorded during the 1996 Premier tour.

A second recording company, Salvation Records, has additionally been set up for "other bits and pieces that I want to do, like future collaborations." Releases thus far include the Radial Pair video soundtrack and the fan club‑only Babylon CD series — essentially all of Gary's Numa B‑sides and remixes, previously only available on vinyl.

Gary will be playing at two UK festivals in August 1996, namely Chelmsford and Warrington on the 17th and 18th respectively. Pulp are the headline act with Numan fourth on the bill, behind Cast and Supergrass. The fact that Gary has never even been to a festival before, let alone performed at one, makes these events a particularly interesting proposition.