There's a certain cannon of events that have defined pop music during the past 50 years or so. The Beatles playing The Ed Sullivan Show. Bob Dylan plugging in at Newport. David Bowie creating Ziggy Stardust. And Gary Numan taking synth-based music to No. 1 on the Billboard Charts. Whereas it may have once seemed odd to see Numan's name alongside some of the biggest names in popular music, bear in mind we're living in the age of EDM, when Ableton Live has replaced the Les Paul as the axe of choice for kids getting into making music.
Indeed, everything changed after Numan's 1979 releases—first, the single "Are 'Friends' Electric" (recorded as the Tubeway Army), then his follow-up solo LP, The Pleasure Principle, with the mega-hit "Cars," which brought the synthesizer front and center in the pop paradigm, blowing the doors wide open for commercially viable music of the electronic ilk for bands such as Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Pet Shop Boys and, later, Nine Inch Nails.
Though at certain points in time, Numan's legend status appeared jeopardized by his blue-mustache period in the mid-'80s and as his subsequent forays into jazz/funk after synth-rock ran its course. Lately, he has re-emerged into relevancy thanks to collaborations with prog rockers Battles, endorsements from modern-day rock legends Prince and David Grohl, and, most notably, constant lauding from his BFF Trent Reznor, who has brought him out on the road to play his hits with Nine Inch Nails. Numan has emerged as a legend's legend.
Gary Numan performs with Kitten at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. Wed., 8 p.m. $35. All ages.
"It's a lovely problem to have," Numan says, discussing some of the hangups that come with the rock-legend label. "People may not know that much about you, but they may have heard, well, 'Trent Reznor said this,' 'Kurt Cobain said that,' and now you're like, 'Fucking hell! I wonder if this is going to come across as fucking legendary?' I feel that especially when I'm at festivals."
Numan's headspace has never been his sanctuary. Plans for the release of his latest album, Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind), slated to come out in October, were constantly pushed back as Numan went through phases in which he found it impossible to write because of a crippling lack of self-confidence. "I've always struggled with that," he says. "It's very easy for me to get in a downward spiral if I have a bad day in the studio. I really have to work hard to not let that bother me."
An extreme nervousness defined his stage persona early on in his career. While some critics panned his statuesque presence, Numan leveraged this perceived lack of showmanship into an essential characteristic of his performances. And it worked—singing songs about robots, playing music generated by machines, and appearing unanimated and emotionless played right into that aesthetic. But really, he was just terrified onstage.
"It was my dad who said if you can't find a way of beating this, it is the worst possible profession you could be in," Numan says, now able to laugh off his past stage fright. "All those things you are scared might happen, well, they do happen at one point or another. And you find they're not as bad as you thought. And that mellows you out to the point where it's fun."
Now, playing live is Numan's favorite aspect of musicianship—well, if it weren't for having to play his old tunes. "There is that sense of pressure and obligation; people are paying to see this, and there are certain songs they're expecting to hear," Numan says. "Anyone who wants to hear old stuff, come to this tour because I won't be doing it again for a while."
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Looking back at the past is something Numan loathes as an artist. "I find it strange that people who are into electronic music would reference the past because, to me, that goes against the reason for playing electronic music," he says, complaining about how artists romanticize the Mini Moog as if it were a '54 Les Paul. "I am like, 'Really? Really? You can have mine.'"
But mostly, he speaks highly about the young crop of electronica pioneers. He says he's fond of dubstep—Skrillex in particular, after seeing him perform live in London. "He is brilliant. You have melody, you have amazing noises, this powerful thing going," he says, emphasizing that it is Skrillex's attention to songcraft that sets him apart.
"If you cannot bolt those noises onto a melody, then you're wasting your time," he says. "There are an awful lot of people imitating [him] with no real talent, I think. That's probably true of most things."