Gary Numan has a throat infection. Early last week, the pioneering synth-pop artist had to pull the plug on the second date of his North American tour. "I couldn't even talk," he explained to fans online the next day. "I can't remember a time in the last thirty one years where I've cancelled a show due to any kind of health problem, so it was a horrible decision to make."
Those who know Numan primarily for "Cars" — his Top 10 U.S. single that reached No. 1 in his native U.K. — may be surprised to learn that, over the ensuing 30 years, the artist has released nearly two dozen studio albums (and as many live albums). But this tour is all about The Pleasure Principle, the 1979 album that featured "Cars" and introduced the world to Numan's unusual vocal style (think Ziggy Stardust on lithium), coldly melodic synths, and a Ballardian take on machine-age alienation. Numan will perform the album in its entirety, along with other songs that span his career.
Faced with the prospect of a silent phone line, we took Numan up on his offer to do our interview by e-mail. So you'll just have to supply your own British accent.
Indy: In retrospect, it seems like you and just a couple of other artists (e.g. Kraftwerk, John Foxx) pioneered the synthesizer-based pop that went on to become so popular throughout the '80s and beyond. What was it like to be doing that then, and how do you feel about the direction in which other artists took it?
Gary Numan: I was aware that it was a very new thing. It felt groundbreaking, but not in an arrogant "We are so clever" kind of way, more in a "I can't believe everybody else isn't doing it" way. It was very exciting.
A lot of people, especially in the U.K. media, were extremely anti, and even the Musicians Union tried to ban me, as they said I was putting "proper" musicians out of work. That kind of ignorant resistance just added to the excitement, though, made you feel as though you were fighting for a musical revolution. Once it had become more established as a genre and more and more people joined in, it went in many different directions, some good, some not so good. I loved what people like Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails did with it.
Indy: Did you pay attention to, or have contact with, any of the aforementioned artists, or did you pretty much keep to yourself?
GN: I was a big Ultravox fan, the John Foxx version that is, and so I mentioned them all the time when I was interviewed. I met him once or twice in the early days and, more recently, we've done a few things together. In fact, we are playing a show together in London in December.
I didn't have any contact with Kraftwerk, although I liked a lot of their stuff. For me, though, Kraftwerk had always taken a total technology path, and I didn't want to do that. I loved guitar and drums, so I just wanted to add electronic music as another layer to that guitar, bass, drums core. I keep myself to myself pretty much all the time, anyway.
Indy: It's been a fairly new development for artists to pull out a classic album and perform it live. What inspired you to do that and to choose The Pleasure Principle in particular, apart from it being so popular?
GN: It's something I've done occasionally for quite a few years. Usually, I play very few old songs whenever I play live, which has caused a certain amount of friction between me and some of the fan base. I offered them a compromise where if they would stop complaining about the lack of old songs on my conventional tours, I would occasionally play a classic album tour and give them nothing but old songs. It worked out OK.
I did an album called Telekon first. We played just four shows in the U.K. That was some years ago now. Then I did an album called Replicas that was to coincide with being in the music business for 30 years and my 50th birthday. Now we are doing Pleasure Principle because it's 30 years since it was first released.
After this tour, fun though it is, I won't touch nostalgia again for quite some time. It makes me feel like I need a shower. I have a strong need and desire to finish off the new Splinter album and get back out on the road with that in 2011.
Indy: If you could see any other artist doing a particular album live, who would it be?
GN: If I could raise the dead I would like to see T-Rex play their album The Slider. I was a huge T-Rex fan and never got to see them play live. From the living, I would choose Nine Inch Nails and Pretty Hate Machine.
Indy: And finally, what would The Pleasure Principle-era Gary Numan be surprised to know about the one who's with us today?
GN: That he is happily married with three beautiful children, 52 years old and still sitting on a tour bus in America doing interviews. I actually think that's seriously cool. I love my life.