English musician discusses his post-apocalyptic new album
For 40 years, Gary Numan has been creating music that pushes the envelope. His new record Savage (Songs From A Broken World), continues that journey, peering deep into a post-apocalyptic world and the characters that inhabit it.
Numan actually adapted the idea from a novel he has been working on for a few years, and used the album writing process to better conceptualize the world he had been creating for the book. He then teamed up with producer Ade Fenton once again, and put together the album in a surprisingly short amount of time.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Gary Numan to discuss the surrounding circumstances that made his dystopian future so necessary to create today, learn about the album production process, and find out the moment when he realized he needs to just make the music he loves.
Christopher Friedmann: We are talking because you are about to release your new album, Savage (Songs From A Broken World). Just to start, how is the mood in camp?
Gary Numan: I am excited actually. When I finished it, when we mastered it back in May, I think it was, at that point you can’t do anything more to it. You’re done with tweaking you could do or any additions, but it’s still quite some time till it’s released. I found that period quite difficult. I had a lot of doubts about it. I wasn’t sure that I’d done as good as I could’ve done, and all that, which usually happens, to be honest, but I found it particularly shocking on this one. Because the last album had done so well, I felt really strong pressure with this one, to try and do it as good as I could. So when it was done, I was just riddled with doubt, thought I could have done better. But I got through that now. I did all the artwork in June for it, and when I was doing that, staring at the lyrics and all the rest of it, I listened to it again. I hadn’t listened to it in about a month at that point, and I was happy with it. It sounded pretty good. I think the production Ade Fenton did on it was fantastic. I really like the way the imagery worked out and that it worked really well with the actual lyrical content, which the album is about. Now I’m very happy with it, but it was a nervous thing, you don’t know how people are going to react. You don’t know if the fans are going to like it, if the media will like it, if radio will respond to it. All of those things are quite scary, but that’s pretty much been my whole life, really, so I am used to it.
CF: The album takes place in a not-too-distant future set in a dystopian, post-global-warming Earth. Can you tell us how you came upon the idea of writing an album from the point of view of this landscape?
GN: It actually all comes from a book I’ve working on. I’ve been working on this book for a few years actually, it’s almost getting embarrassing how long it has been a project because it’s just a collection of ideas, massive amounts of ideas, and I’m still yet to draft it into any kind of a story.
When it came time to write this album, I looked around at what was going on in my life, and I didn’t really have any great personal crisis, we’re all healthy, life is pretty good, so there was nothing bad to draw in, which there was for the last one. The last one was all very personal. So I thought I’d turn to the book as a source of ideas, and decided I was going to do like a science fantasy sort of theme album, based on this global warming, apocalyptic future, and that’s how it started. Then pretty much, as soon as I started to work on that, to take the ideas from the book, and convert them into a more condensed song format, the U.S. election got underway and candidate Trump, at the time, started to talk about his views on climate change and how he thought it was nonsense, essentially. That started to worry me a little bit because it was pretty much what I was writing about, yet in my writing it was all very much a fantasy.
Then he becomes President Trump. He appoints a climate denier to run the Environmental Protection Agency, which is a bit of a shock. And then he talks about coming out of the Paris Accord. Now, I understand that people don’t believe in global warming, and fair enough, but I do very, very much, and I see it as a great danger to the world. Something substantial needs to be done about it. I thought about the Paris Accord as being that thing, the very first important step of the whole world coming together to do something about it. Then President Trump says what he says, and right then the album suddenly went from being a fantasy hobby of mine that is something simply to write about, it suddenly became something that had a lot more everyday relevance to what was going on now, and it became a much more important thing to write and much more exciting to write because of that. Therefore the imagery became more important.
The idea behind it is you have this devastated world where water is incredibly scarce; it becomes currency. Then people that survived it, survival itself is so difficult, it’s such a hostile place that the concept of Eastern and Western cultures is just completely evaporated, and everyone, everything has kind of merged into one vast tribal society. And I wanted to get that across as well, that there was no more East and West. So I found a font, for example, that is in English, the album title is in English, but it looks Arabic. The imagery itself, what would people… what sort of clothes would they wear? If you were essentially living in the desert, the way a lot of Middle Eastern people do, but how would that look? It would be reminiscent, I guess, of the more kind of Bedouin sort of doctorate that we know at the moment, but it would be different. Perhaps it might even have a vaguely military feel about it, as well.
I was trying to find things that gave that impression. Obviously the landscape had to be right, so we went out into the desert to shoot it. We went out into the desert to shoot the video. The environment itself to the places that we did that, that side of the album, was also very, very important. It’s one of those things where all of the ideas that I had for it, from lyrically to visually and musically, because a lot of the songs have sort of a very Middle Eastern flavor to them, with certain lines and melodies that just drift in and out of the background, and again all of it was very deliberate.
It’s funny that it’s the only album I’ve managed that every kind of aspect of it complements every other one because the way that I saw it, right from the beginning, and it’s been a real pleasure, and apart from my two, three, or four week period of doubting everything, I’m actually really happy with the work. From the musical side of it, the visual side of it, the lyrical content, the subject matter, I’m very happy with it.
CF: You have this whole world that you’ve created that you were just discussing, and the characters in it are fictional. What does writing from the perspective of a fictional character allow you to do differently as a songwriter?
GN: I’m not even sure if I see it from a songwriter’s point of view because all of these things were created from the novel I’m trying to write. What I’ve had to do is adapt them and condense the things I did. The ideas in the book that go over, perhaps take the Ruin character, the “My Name Is Ruin” song, that would be a character that lives pretty much throughout the entire life of the book, so it’s a very evolved character who does a huge amount of things that make him what he becomes.
He starts out as a very, very normal person. He’s living in a small enclave somewhere with his daughter, and the daughter gets taken by a group called The Righteous, and then he spends the rest of the book eventually searching for her, and the things that he does, the man that he had to become in order to do that, he becomes an animal of a man. So he earns the nickname Ruin because of the things he does in order to try and find it. These are the very long subjects to try and condense into a four or five minute song. You are doing kind of lyrical snapshots of ideas in a way to give the impression, or to give the vibe, the feeling of what this person is about, rather than being allowed to develop it in a much more detailed way, which I’m going to do with the book version of it.
That really applies to much of these things. There is an entire group of people called The Righteous. They find an ancient piece of text, which turns out to be from the Bible, but they don’t realize that. They assume because they found it, that it was meant to be, that it was hand delivered by God to them personally. They begin to live by this scrap of text that they find. Then they decide that everybody else should live that way as well, so they start to roam around, attack other places, and try to generally force it on other people. It’s The Righteous that steal the daughter of Ruin, and why he does what he does. But again, that’s kind of two lines of chorus in one song, where again in the book, it’s going to be a huge part of this whole book.
It was finding a way of transferring these quite elaborate ideas into very short short clips, which is what songs are, or even parts of songs. That was the most challenging, but equally it actually helps in reverse, in that some of the ideas that I had were not entirely developed. By condensing them and trying to figure out how I would put them into a song, I had to then develop the idea, “How would this work?” That has actually fed back into the book in a way that I wasn’t expecting.
When I started the album, the book was still a bit of a shambolic mess to be honest. Just a mess of ideas with no real cohesion to them. But since writing the album, I’ve been able to look back at the book now, and a lot of the things have really come together. So now, I genuinely feel that I’ve got a really good chance to get that book done and finished before the next album comes out, which for me would be a fantastic result because it was beginning to feel like a never ending project, if I’m honest.
CF: The characters live in this post-apocalyptic world and have to make difficult decisions that affect their survival. It reminded me somewhat of the trolley problem. How do you answer the question and how do you live with the result?
GN: Sometimes you watch these things or you read about these things, and these people that have made these awful decisions, and you try to wonder, “What would you do?” Could you make the same decision? I saw a film recently about one of the tsunami problems, and someone in there could save one child out of the three that they had, and they’ve got to make that decision, and they’ve got to make it now. They’ve got no time to think about it. It almost becomes instinctive. And you can’t help but put yourself in those situations. What would you do? And I always relate everything back to my own children because they are the things you love the most. It’s just impossible, but I think if you take the emotion side out of it, if you can save five lives letting one go, then you’ve got to look at it in a ruthless manner. Of those ones that you’re facing, who would be the most likely to survive anyway? Who could contribute the most? Who would be the most likely to withstand what’s coming? Whatever the situation might be. And you would have to choose the one that you think is least of all those things, but God, what a thing to have to do.
CF: You once again worked with Ade Fenton on this new record. I know you’ve been working with him for over a decade at this point. Why is he the perfect person to collaborate with?
GN: Well funny enough, on this album I wasn’t going to use him. We’d done Splinter, Splinter being the third, and Splinter did great and I think the best album I’ve ever made at that point, and so we had what seemed to be a very, very winning sort of relationship. Almost because of that, I thought, “Well, let’s try something else. Let’s go to someone different with the new one.” And I wasn’t sure what to do. I thought about producing it myself for a bit, so for awhile I was working on that idea. I got involved with two or three other people, but didn’t work with them, but talked to them, listened to what they did, and what their ideas would be, and what they thought I should be doing. I just didn’t feel comfortable with any of them, so I kind of went back to the idea of doing it on my own.
Then, I can’t remember exactly what happened, but we were doing some shows and at the end of this period of shows, they’ve got on two extra gigs, and these shows were all legacy stuff, just sang songs from an old album, but on these two extra gigs, I decided to abandon that, and I threw in two or three songs from Splinter because I just got a little bit sick of doing old stuff, and I wanted something that I really enjoyed. So I put one of the Savage songs on it, the first one I wrote, but in its demo form, and then two or three things from Splinter, and they just sounded so brilliant and so complete. I just thought, “I think I’m being silly. I think I’m being really, really silly.” So I spoke to Ade, this is sort of September, October of last year, so quite near the end, really, and I said, “You probably can’t do it. I’m sure you’re really busy, and I’ve only got six months left to get finished anyway, but would you be interested in working on Savage?” And it was great.
He sort of dropped everything and moved on to the Savage project, and it was fantastic. I’ve got to say that it was the easiest album to make with Ade out of all of the four that we’ve done. I think the reason for that is that where in the past when he’s taken songs in different directions than I’ve intended, I’d been quite resistant to that. I kicked and screamed a bit. We’ve argued about that quite a bit. Ultimately, there are a number of those songs where I realized that he was right. It was an interesting thing to try and give a direction, and it actually did work really well. And I kind of had to get over myself a little bit with that.
This album, with the new one, I was much more willing to give him a freer rein to try different things, to take the songs in different directions from what I had intended them to be, and it worked really well. I think conversely to that, Ade had realized from previous albums, Splinter especially, that when I did eventually say, “No, I really really do think we have to go back to the original idea for this,” he kind of learned to respect that I do know what I’m talking about, when I’ve decided that that was the way it needed to be, generally speaking I was right and it had gone off in the wrong direction.
With this album, we didn’t have any of those kind of arguments. We both gave each other a lot more respect for things, and we both allowed each other to do the things that we wanted to do. And it just worked really well. That’s partly why we got the album done so quickly. Realistically, even though I’d written quite a few things before October, it didn’t really kick in until October, and the bulk of it was written between October and March, so it was a fairly quick album.
CF: You set up a Pledge Music campaign to allow fans to have a better look at the creation of this album. Can you tell us a little about what your relationship with your fans means to you?
GN: Broadly speaking I think it’s a very good relationship. The idea for the Pledge campaign, for example, was to try and find ways of involving them in it more. Not in a collaborative way, but just so that they could be more aware of the experience of what it takes to make an album, the ups and the downs, why ideas evolve the way they do, why sometimes they are changed, why a lyric would be about the thing it’s about, why sometimes you change that lyric to express that better. The images, the covers, why did I choose the images that I choose? How do they relate to the lyrical content? All of these things.
Everything is part of what is a very big project, making an album is a very big project, and I wanted them to be far more aware of all those different aspects of the process. I felt that first of all, it would make the listening experience, when you actually get the record and listen to it, it would make it a much more enjoyable experience because they are so much more aware of the thinking behind it and the processes that made it. And secondly, in a slightly ego kind of way, I hoped that maybe they had a little bit more respect for me, and for how difficult they are to make, these things do not come easily and it takes quite a lot to make them, and it can be quite an emotional journey for a songwriter to do these things, and I wanted them to be a little more aware of that as much as anything.
It was just a bonding thing, and it’s an extension of other things I’m doing to try and create a better relationship with fans. We do meet and greets obviously, everybody does, but we also do what is called “Rehearsal VIP’s,” where we have a number of people come to rehearsals each and just sit amongst us and listen to us rehearsing. At some point we take a break and chat to everybody. They can come onto the little stage that we have and play instruments, try my guitar out, keyboard, whatever.
I think with the advent of social media, the way that an artist interacts with his fans is now quite different, in a good way. I think it’s much better than it used to be. All I’m trying to do with the Rehearsal VIP’s and the Pledge Music thing is extend that, and find even more ways in involving them with what we do, so that the relationship between us can be that much better understood and that much closer.
CF: Over the course of your career you’ve had a fair breadth of experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far, a moment that reminds you why you do all this?
GN: That’s quite easy, actually. There was a particular low spell for me, right around 1992. I did an album called Machine + Soul that was, to be honest, not very good, really not very good. And so I actually took a step back. I thought, “This is not what I want to be doing.” And I had a long think about why I was still in the business and did I want to stay in it? And if I did, how would that be? I realized that I’d actually lost interest in it quite a bit. I’d fallen out of love with the whole music making thing. Part of that was becoming a little bit corrupted by the sort of desire to get your success back because it started out pretty good, and then it all slipped away quite badly, and I think that really got to me quite a bit, and I started to do things not because I was musically in love with them, but just because I thought it would be a good career move. It might get me back on the radio. It might keep the record company happy. That sort of thing.
Slowly but surely, you kind of lose track of who you are, of what you want to be doing, the way you want to sound. You sort of lose direction really, really badly. That’s what happened. So come 1992, when I put out this terrible album, I suddenly thought, “This is all over.” It was going really badly anyway. My sales were terrible. My live shows were selling really badly. The whole thing felt as if it was over. I didn’t have a record contract. It didn’t look as if I’d ever get one again. But what happened at that time, right about that same time, I met my wife, or who would become my wife, and she introduced me to a whole world of music that had completely slipped me by before, and I liked it, and it was brilliant. And I just realized that is what I should have been doing all along. It made me realize how big of a mistake I’d made, how lost I’d become. At the same time, it played me a new world of music that completely fired up my love for it again. And I just wanted to go back into the studio and write all this new stuff, which is what I did, but I did it without any thoughts of commercialism. I wasn’t thinking about radio plays anymore. It was absolutely written from the heart. And it was just like when I was a teenager, and you just wrote music because you really loved it, you really wanted to be a part of it. It was right back to that again. It was like rediscovering music as a hobby, and it was a fantastic thing.
I ended up making another album called Sacrifice, where the music was all written purely from the heart, with no commercial thoughts at all, but all very much inspired by the things that I’d been listening to, and it was much heavier, much, much darker, lyrically a lot more interesting than anything I’d done in the previous 10 years at least, and I really love it again. I was really happy to be involved in it again. But I learned a massive lesson: if you aren’t doing it because you love doing it, then it’s all going to go horribly wrong pretty quickly, and it’s a pretty soul destroying experience, really. It’s not a business to be in if you don’t really, really love what you’re doing. But for me that was it, that ‘92 period of hitting absolute rock bottom and realizing that all you’ve been doing was completely wrong. That you think you need to go back to doing it for the love of it, rather than thinking about money or success.