Gary Numan’s reminiscing about one of the best Christmas presents he ever received, his voice now much deeper than it would have been in the mid-’60s, but no less kidlike, at least for the moment.
Numan was 7 or 8 years old when his father made him a gift that not only thrilled him at the time, but that tapped into a side of the influential electronic music musician that would later come to define him.
“All it was was a square wooden panel with lots of dials and switches and little levers on it,” Numan recalls. “It didn’t do anything and it wasn’t connected to anything, but I could just sit there with these little switches and imagine that I could be in a starship or in an airplane.
“I’ve always been fascinated by technology,” he says, practically purring his words. “Even my interest in music came via technology.”
With this, Numan remembers seeing an electric guitar being played on TV for the first time when he was a boy.
“The fact that you had to plug it in and it had switches and dials, I was just blown away by that,” he says, citing that moment as being the catalyst for his eventual career in music. “So when the synthesizer came along it was just … perfect to me. Absolutely perfect. I’ve never been interested in technique when it comes to music. I don’t care about scales. I still can’t play chords. I’ve got no real musical ability whatsoever, but I like sound and I like creating noises. So electronic music, it was just made for me, it was made for the way I think.”
With his debut solo album, 1979’s “The Pleasure Principle,” Numan would be one of the first musicians to take electronic-based music to the mainstream, scoring a worldwide hit with the album’s first single, “Cars.” Numan’s use of synthesizers in place of guitars and deliberate pursuit of a more robotic sound would help open ears to the promise of technological innovation in a musical context.
And it all came about by happenstance, really.
In the late ’70s, Numan initially had designs on making a punk album with the trio he was fronting at the time.
A piece of equipment in the studio would change all that.
“When I got there, there was a Minimoog, an early synthesizer, in the corner of the control room,” he says. “They let me use it, and I spent the next three or four days converting all of my punk songs into electronic songs. I just thought the synthesizer was the most amazing piece of equipment that I’d ever come across in my life. I was absolutely convinced that it was going to change everything.”
His label at the time, however, didn’t exactly share this conviction.
“When I went back to the record company with this pseudo-punk electronic album, they were massively upset with me, to the point that I nearly had a fight in the office with one of the directors,” he recalls. “We actually stood up and squared up to each other. He was really angry with me. He thought I’d wasted their money.
“My argument with them, which was actually wrong, was that nobody else knew about this yet,” he continues. “I honestly thought I was the first one to find this, and I wasn’t at all, but at that time I didn’t know that. I was standing up to this man saying, ‘In no time at all, someone else is going to discover this and it will be massive and I want to be the first one doing it.’”
Of course, he wasn’t. German electronic music innovators Kraftwerk had been at it for almost a decade by that point, British New Wavers Ultravox were on their third album around then and there was a smattering of other artists embracing keyboards as a primary instrument in their sound.
But it was Numan who took the music to new commercial heights.
“I was probably one of the last people to come into it before it became successful,” he says. “I was just very lucky that I was the one who made it massively successful. I really did get in there at the very last minute and stole the thunder from these other people, which I’ve felt guilty about.”
Since then, Numan’s compiled a varied, consistently forward-looking discography.
His latest record, “Splinter,” is among his most candid and personal albums, where he confronts his mortality, questions the value of faith and compares humankind to particles of dust over a dark, disconsolate industrial backdrop that brings to mind an act directly influenced by Numan: Nine Inch Nails.
It’s an intense, gripping listen, one that’s landed Numan back in the Top 20 of the U.K. album chart for the first time in years.
He says that he didn’t revel in the moment, much to the chagrin of his spouse, because that would have meant celebrating today.
And, as his career has underscored, Numan’s all about tomorrow.
“I look forward so much that my wife often gets very angry with me, she says, ‘You can really be quite annoying at times,’ ” he chuckles, “but I can’t really live in the present.”
Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0476. Follow on Twitter @JasonBracelin.