Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind) is Gary Numan’s first offering of original songs (barring Dead Son Rising in 2011, a straight-to-fanbase compilation of reduxed demos) since 2006’s Jagged. In the seven years between, the synth-pomp paradigm pusher has dealt with a whole vista of upheavals in his personal life, resulting in a spiral of depression and a recent decision to relocate to LA.
Blueprint carver for much of the electronic stylings in most mainstream pop, industrial rock, new wave and even hip-hop – as well as always having to cast a sideways glance upon his many adoring acolytes – with Splinter, Numan has heroically conquered expectations, myriad social aversions, and also the hackneyed doubts of others to produce an uncompromising collection of metal fed, square wave juggernauts shot through with a newfound fragility of timbre. Yet similar to alien peer (and fan) David Bowie’s approach on this year’s elegiac Where Are We Now?, where he may formerly have been viewed as glacial and other-worldly, a new soulfulness pervades through some of the songs here.
In a brutally frank exchange, Mr Numan tells us about the pressures of dealing with his legacy and his personal motivation, his love of playing live, and also why, at 55 he is nowhere near unplugging his synths and sequencers and taking that final bow.
The title, Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind) appears to suggest a schizophrenic tone to the new album. Which different personalities are vying for our attention?
The main title Splinter has been around for a long time, it was the original working title of the album, and as it’s taken so long to get the album made, about seven years, it felt wrong to call it anything else. So, the sub title, Songs From A Broken Mind, carries more meaning. Much of the subject matter comes from the three or four years following the release of the last studio album Jagged. In those years I went through a long period of depression and the medication that comes with that and I felt broken. I wasn’t the person I used to be and it took a long time to get over that and find my way back.
While Dead Son Rising was built out of unused demos from previous projects, am I to believe this is all fresh material?
Very fresh. About half of it was written between November 2012 and April 2013. Most of the other half in the 12 months before that. Only a few songs are more than a year old. Although it’s been a seven year gap between the Splinter and Jagged albums for most of that time, because of the depression, I didn’t work on it at all. I think I had a three year period, possibly as long as four, where I didn’t write one song.
Having proved so much and being so lauded by your peers, how do you motivate yourself to write an album of all new material (and may I say, as brutal and thrilling as ever), seven years after your previous one?
Writing allows you to explore things very deeply, should you need to, and that helps you deal with them. When I was depressed though starting a new album was the last thing I wanted to do. I had no drive whatsoever to do anything really and, as the problems were causing more than few issues with my marriage to Gemma, I didn’t think it was sensible to start a new album until we were sorted. Making an album is a very emotional thing, it’s a huge mountain to climb and I can be very difficult to live with when I’m deep into it.
It wasn’t just me, Gemma also had problems. She had fallen to post-natal depression with our second baby which continued with the third baby and beyond. She had big problems of her own to deal with and so neither of us were able to help each other and that caused a lot of friction. Having said all that, we came through it brilliantly, as we have with all the other trials that have come along and we are stronger now than ever before. We’ve been together over 21 years, married for 16, so it’s a lot of time and a lot of things have happened. You either break or grow stronger.
How do you split your time between England and California now? How do these disparate backdrops feed into the tone of your music?
We are fully resident in California, have been for about a year now. I do miss some things about life in the UK but you can’t beat waking up to glorious sunshine every day. I live a 20-minute drive from Hollywood, a 30 minute drive from the ocean, or a 90-minute drive from the mountains. It’s an extraordinary place, exciting, fast, full of life and energy. It’s also incredibly friendly and so many of the people have an optimistic, can-do attitude that I find rather refreshing. When I moved there it really did feel like we were starting a new life and the excitement and commitment to that really had an effect on my work ethic.
Some of the vocals on this album are a lot warmer and tender, especially on a track like Lost (the album’s centrepiece). Do you think your experience and closeness to your fans has made you more connectible and possibly less “otherworldly”?
Hard to say. I have all kinds of social interaction issues so I’m never at my best when I’m around people. I think it’s that painful awkwardness which can sometimes make me seem stand offish. I’m not, but I can see why people think I am. Sometimes I over compensate for that and just get way too gushy.
The vocals on Splinter are very natural compared to my other albums. I have never been confident about my voice and I have tended to smother it in effects and hide it in the mix. With Splinter Ade (producer) insisted that we keep it more natural. We argued about this a lot but he got his way and so, with Splinter, you have my vocal as naked as it’s ever been. Very few effects, much louder in the mix than before. Personally I’m still getting used to it but I’m surprised at how many people have commented on it.
On the subject of fanbase, yours is particular passionate. Do you take pointers from them on forums and other social mdeia while recording a new album or do you work within your own bubble?
I never look at forums, ever. I write what I like. If I like it then I’m prepared to sink or swim in the hope that others might like it as well. I get feedback from the fans I meet in person. I much prefer it that way.
As synth/techno music appears to have come full circle, do you take inspiration from the techniques of those that you originally motivated?
Tricky one to answer. I have certainly learned a few things from people like Trent Reznor and others over the last ten years. But, it seems that a lot of people doing electronic music now are looking backwards for their inspiration, and that feels odd to me. It makes me slightly sad to see that electronic music now has it’s own nostalgia. That should never have happened. People are now making music and deliberately trying to sound like we did in the late 1970s or early 80s. I have no interest in looking backwards, in going back to my ‘roots’ and using old equipment and reworking old styles. It goes against the very thing that attracted me to electronic music in the first place, namely that desire to push forward with each album.
The album artwork is fantastic. You look like some kind of twisted Victorian solicitor. Was this a character you wanted to inhabit for the album?
It’s a tenuous connection to the music to be honest but as a visual it seems to work. For some reason that escapes me now the idea of an old Victorian ghostly gentleman seemed to make sense, especially once I’d decided on the Songs From A Broken Mind sub-title. I saw some photos that the LaRoach Brothers had done and thought it would be a great style for the album. I can’t quite find the words to explain why the Victorian ghostly look works so well with such a modern high tech album but it does seem to.
There has never been any talk of you winding down or retiring. Is this something that is on the horizon?
I’ve not thought about retiring or winding down but thinking about what I might do after the album/touring part of the career is over has crossed my mind. I have to admit that part of the reason for moving to Los Angeles was to do with that. I would like to slowly become more involved with film music but I certainly don’t want to give up on the album/touring thing to do it.
Finally, what should we expect from this autumn’s UK tour?
I’m hoping to raise the spectacle of the stage shows to a new level. Musically it will revolve largely around Splinter but I’m also now becoming more comfortable with my earlier catalogue. For many years I played very little old stuff but I think I’m getting a better balance these days.
by Benjamin Lovegrove
Gary Numan is on twitter
Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind) is out Monday October 14 on Mortal Records
I am Dust Video: