Gary Numan opens up about epic new LP Savage (Songs from a Broken World)...
It has been an incredible 38 years since Gary Numan had his first hit with the icy slab of synth-pop that is 'Are 'Friends Electric?', and in the decades that have elapsed since Numan has released 20 albums, three of which have topped the UK Album Chart.
His last album, 2013's Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind), was one of his best in years, as well as his highest-charting since 1983's Warriors. This week he returns with its follow-up, Savage (Songs from a Broken World) and with the new record landing in stores today we caught up with Gary to talk about how the album evolved out of the idea for a novel, why he wanted to get his fans more involved and how living in America in the era of Donald Trump has affected the music on his new album...
So Savage is out this week, when did you start working on this one? How long did it take to put together?
“It's been a while actually, I started in November 2015, and I know that exactly because I did this Pledge campaign with it and I deliberately didn't write anything until the campaign officially started, because I wanted them to witness it from the first note to finished, shrink-wrapped loveliness. So I sat on it for ages and didn't write any songs just waiting for the campaign to start, so yeah it was November 11th, to be exact.”
The record has a very similar title to your last album, is this intended as a companion piece to Splinter?
“No, you know what? I don't even know why I did that, it was a pathetic attempt at a tenuous connection to the last album, 'cause the last album did quite well, haha! But it kind of actually makes sense, surprisingly enough, it does work in terms of the subject matter and stuff. When I first started to put it together it did feel like a sort of scary follow-up to the last one. I was really nervous about it, the last one did do well by my standards, a lot of reviews were talking about it being the best album I'd ever made, and it was all very lovely and very enjoyable at the time, but then you've got to follow it up with another and I'm sh*tting myself, you know? I didn't know what I was going to do, it was a real pressure. So almost the first thing I did was that title with the subtitling, initially trying to claw some association with the last one, but then as it developed and with themes that it had, it started to make sense, so I stuck with it.”
We understand this is a kind of concept album, if that's the right phrase to use. Can you talk us through the ideas behind the new record and what inspired it?
“Yeah, I'm not sure concept album is the right phrase but I know what people mean when they say that. I've been trying to write a novel for quite some time and as that has developed – and it's not finished by any means – but it's set in a time many, many generations from now in the aftermath of a global warming apocalypse, the idea being that we weren't able to stop the rise in temperature for whatever reason, the world is largely desert and so on. Within the story obviously there are many other things going on with the characters and things happening within it, but essentially that's the world that we've ended up with, which is where the title Savage came from, it refers to the environment rather than the people, although it can apply to the people as well.”
How much has living in America over the last few years impacted what you've been writing? The lyrical themes on this record do seem fairly apocalyptic...
“Well, as all that was happening, and this is where it started to become more relevant for me instead of being this kind of fantasy, sci-fi silly thing, Donald Trump sort of lumbers into view. I'd started writing at the end of 2015, just as the U.S. election was beginning to gather momentum and people were making their mark in terms of who was going to run, and he started to talk about climate change being a Chinese hoax and all this other brilliantly mental stuff. At first it was just funny, I didn't dream he was ever going to get in and so I started to think 'wouldn't it be funny...' - and it's not funny, but I was thinking: 'wouldn't it be funny if this man actually became President and started to actually do all these mental things that he's saying? Could he be the man that actually causes this thing that I've been writing about?'
It's a big question...
“I mean, there'd been this fantastic agreement in Paris where the whole world comes together, and it was such a brilliant moment for the whole world to actually all agree on something and put the good of the planet over national interests, it was an amazing thing and I was really blown away that it had happened because it felt like we were standing at the edge of this abyss of total catastrophe, and that we'd taken a deep breath and stepped back from it a little bit. Then Trump comes along, kicks it up the arse and pushes us right back to the brink again, you know? What the f*ck?? Could this buffoon actually be the man that plunges the Earth into the very situation that I've been writing this science fantasy album about?
“And then it just got worse. As I continued writing and developing those ideas, Trump became ever more popular and obviously eventually won, long before I'd finished the album. So in a really unfortunate way, he was like a driving force that was consolidating the themes I'd been writing about. It could very well have been that without Trump there would have been two or three songs on the album about that, and then it would have just drifted into other things. There is one song called 'Bed of Thorns', which was actually the first song that I wrote, that's about my fears about writing the album, it sums up all the anxiety that I was feeling. But that song aside, the other 11 tracks on the album have all ended up being about Trump in some way. I honestly couldn't say that without him I would have maintained the interest in that one subject.”
You've worked with Ade Fenton again on this record, you've done a few records with him now. What is it that makes him a good fit for you as a producer?
“Yeah, this is our fourth I think. The work that he comes up with is, I think, perfectly suited to what I do. It's extremely creative, he's got a tremendous feel for what I'm doing and where I'm trying to take it, and he's got a fantastic ability with technology, the recording quality of the things that he does is absolutely brilliant, beautiful. We just get on really well and over the four albums that working relationship has improved enormously. Actually, with this album, I don't think we had one single argument during the making of it. Now that's really unusual, we normally argue quite a bit!”
So you've gradually figured each other out?
“Yeah, I think what's happened is, over the years we've been working together, what tends to happen is that I write a song and then produce it up to a certain level, enough to give him clear guidance as to where I think it should be going and what I want from it. He would then sometimes take that, ignore me completely and go off on a tangent, and we'd have a big row about that. I'd be going: 'What the f*ck are you doing? You knew what I wanted!' But then sometimes I'd go back to it a few weeks later and I'd sort of have to swallow some humble pie and be like 'actually mate, that's really good, I get what you mean now.'"
"I've learnt that now, so this time when he would go off on some annoying tangent I'd sit back and let it happen, knowing it'll probably be the right thing because it usually is. Conversely to that, he's also learnt that if after a few weeks I come back and say 'mate, this is really not working', he no longer argues with me. So I think we've learned that mutual respect and between the two of us we'll allow thing to develop a little bit instead of having these knee-jerk reactions. It's made for a much better relationship.”
You raised funds through Pledge Music for this, is this the first time you've done that? How did you find the experience of doing things that way?
“It is the first time, yeah, but actually it wasn't about funding, I've got my own studio so I don't really need funding at all, really. The only cost I have is Ade, and that all comes much later. I'm a cheap date! But the thing about Pledge is that the whole music industry, it seems to me, for some time now has been rapidly evolving from the way it was for decades. Suddenly the internet comes along and everything changes, record sales are largely gone, it's just a very different thing now with downloading and streaming or whatever, and I'm constantly looking for ways to adapt to that and find ways to bridge the gap between artist and fan. I wanted to bring them closer together and make them feel more involved, give them things that will add a level of interest."
How did you want that to come across?
“So rather than just receiving the finished album in all its shrink-wrapped loveliness as I said before, with no idea of what it took to make it or, to some degree, the struggles I'd gone through to make it, because it isn't easy to do these things, I wanted them to be a part of that. Partly, to be honest, because I wanted them to know that it isn't easy. I want you to watch me struggle and give me a bit of sympathy! But mostly it will bring them in and make us feel closer, and at the end of it, when they finally get the record and they and play, it will be that much more of an involved experience for them. They will know the thinking behind the lyrics far more than they would have done from just reading an interview, they will have been there when I wrote them and seen me holding them up to the camera saying 'this is the lyric, it might change because this bit doesn't work'. They'll have seen the evolution of the sleeve from the early ideas to the very different thing that it became and why, how it evolved into being an album about climate change when the first song wasn't at all.”
Some of the packages included old synths and guitars of yours, were you sad to see any of that stuff go?
“Some of it actually, yeah, the (Oberheim) OBX-a I was particularly fond of, that had quite a thing for me. But at the end of the day I wasn't using it, it's had its day and been played on these albums which to fans might be of considerable interest. I mean, when I was a kid, if I'd had the chance to buy Marc Bolan's Gibson, I'd have bent over backwards, it would have meant the world to me. And Marc Bolan would have probably just given to his mate, or put it in a cupboard or a room with his other 2,000 guitars, and it might not have meant that much."
"So I just thought I've got these bits of equipment and usually I'd just let them go out to music shops, and it seems a shame really, there are probably people that would really love to have these things. So we decided to let some of it go. Not all of it, there's a few key things that I've kept. The OBX, I'm slightly regretting that one actually! It's a really lovely machine and I remember so much about using it, how excited I was when I got it and the impact that it had on the records that I made, that was quite a key one. But they all played a part in some way.”
Do you still like to use old analogue gear, or do you work with software synths and things like that?
“It's mostly software now to be honest, there's a bit of old stuff lying around but not very much, I think the new album is probably about 90% software. But it's usual for me at the start of any album to go out and create a number of bespoke sounds. That sounds a bit pretentious, but I mean sounds that are not synthesizer created. You know, banging on doors, dragging things across concrete or whatever it might be."
"I think it's important to always have a little recorded with you, because when you're out and about you often hear sounds and think 'oh, that's cool', so I'll grab a bit of that and then the trick is to make it sound musical. These are just noises out in the street, essentially, so you need to find a way of manipulating that. You don't want it to be like sound effects, it's got to feel musical in one way or another. There are all kinds of ways of doing it and it's always fun actually to get a few of those sounds on there.”
So finally, you have some tour dates coming up in the UK next month, where else are you taking it?
“We're going of to Europe straight after the British tour, then we go back to Los Angeles after that. I think we've got a couple of weeks and then we're off again around North America, that'll take us up until Christmas. Christmas and new year we'll spend at home with the kids, then in the new year we're off again. We haven't got the rest of the dates confirmed yet but we're off to Australia and probably back to Britain again, most likely. Then a bigger one in Europe, we're looking at South America and it'll be nice to do Japan at some point, I'll know in the next few weeks.”