Gary Numan on the paranoia of parenting, the fear of death, and a planet that may regard humanity as a virus – which just so happens to be the subject of his album, ‘Intruder’
Ominous images of Mr Gary Numan emerging from inky blackness in his post-apocalypse survival suit, three red slashes down his face… snippets of epic and dark electronic music spreading across social media like, well, a virus… a cosy Zoom chat with Lorraine Kelly on ITV… The evidence is stacking up. There must be a record on the way. Sure enough, with a release date later this month, the new Numan long-player is upon us.
‘Intruder’ is another sci-fi concept album, hot on the heels of 2017’s chart-busting ‘Savage: Songs From A Broken World’. While ‘Savage’ was about how humans will (or won’t) cope with the devastation that climate change might wreak, ‘Intruder’ contemplates ecological destruction from the perspective of the Earth itself.
“Essentially, it considers humankind to be a virus attacking the planet,” explains Numan.
Welp, it’s nothing if not a timely creative reaction to the most immense and almost incomprehensible existential threats facing humanity today. It’s also every bit as raging and explosive as you’d expect, with Numan’s melodic touch bolted firmly to a fierce electronic soundscape. Time then, to catch up with the beloved electronic superstar from his Los Angeles bolthole.
So Gary, how’s life been in LA?
“In a pandemic, it’s a bit rubbish everywhere. But if you’re going to be stuck, here’s as good as anywhere. We’re very lucky – we’ve got a pretty big house, the kids have all got their own room and bathroom, and they can do their Zoom schooling in their own space. And we’ve got a swimming pool too, which has made it far more bearable for us than for most people, so I think we’ve been very, very fortunate by comparison.”
Still, it’s been grim, right?
“It’s been a long time and it’s beginning to take its toll, despite us being relatively comfortable. At the moment, I’m the only one in the family that’s doing OK. My wife Gemma’s finding it hard, and our three daughters are now struggling with depression, anxiety and all sorts of things needing medication. I feel sorry for them. To be teenagers and to have had a year like this must be incredibly difficult.”
‘Intruder’ links into this, doesn’t it? It’s not so much sci-fi as sci-fact – the Earth taking its revenge for climate change, humanity cast as a virulent infection.
“The idea isn’t so much about revenge, although that does play a part. It’s more about if the Earth could speak, how would it express itself? How would it feel about what’s going on – disillusioned, disappointed, betrayed, angry? Probably. Most importantly, would it feel the need to fight? So it’s less about revenge and more about fighting back and trying to save itself.”
Where did the original concept for ‘Intruder’ come from?
“It was my youngest daughter, Echo – about three years ago, when I was trying to come up with ideas for the new album, she wrote a fantastic poem about the planet called ‘Earth’. For an 11-year-old, her understanding and empathy were remarkable. Obviously, it was the work of a child, but it was brilliantly done, and it planted the seed in my head for the new record.”
Children today seem far more in tune, sensitive and thoughtful than I was as a kid.
“Yes. The subject of climate change in particular is more out there now. It’s a day-to-day topic kids are aware of. It’s the sort of thing their pop stars are talking about – your Ariana Grandes and Justin Timberlakes – which makes it a relevant thing for a teenager to be interested in. It’s good. My kids are massively bothered about racism and white supremacy, all the things that didn’t really come into my consciousness until I was much older.”
As a parent, do you feel part of the generation getting the blame for the crisis?
“Not with my kids. Luckily they don’t seem to hold me accountable for any of it, which is good [laughs]. It’s probably because we talk about this at home, and they know how I feel about the same things that are bothering them, and perhaps part of the reason they feel the way they do is their upbringing. The advice and opinions we’ve shared with them as they’ve been growing up reflect good values, I think.”
But it’s a fine line between protecting them and letting them find their own way.
“It is awkward. It’s like when they want to ride down the street on their bicycles. They want to go out of sight, and I can’t bear it. It’s trying to keep them safe without giving them a sense everything is dangerous and the world is a terrifying place, where every white van has someone in it waiting to grab you. It’s difficult for any parent to find the balance, and every concession you make is a risk. So when do you start allowing the risk? It’s been my dilemma with all of them.
“Kids push all the time – to go further and to be away longer – and you feel you’re becoming this unbearable constraint on the life they want to live, and they’re going to resent you for it. So I weaken and go, ‘Alright then, you can go to the end of the street’. But then I’ll stand out in the middle of it watching them for an hour to make sure they don’t go any further! And then they hate it because I’m not giving them the freedom they wanted.”
It’s a dangerous world but, equally, you can’t live in fear.
“My middle daughter, Persia, had a long conversation with me yesterday about how she would deal with any man who came up to her in the mall and tried to grope her. She asked my opinion as to what point she should tase him. What?! Why would she have a Taser in a mall?!
“But it’s my fault because I’ve got Tasers all over the house [laughs]. I’ve got six of ’em dotted around in case somebody breaks in. So whenever we go out to drop one of the kids off somewhere and the other two are left behind for 20 minutes, when I get back the Tasers are all out. They’re already thinking that way, which isn’t a bad thing because it doesn’t seem to be freaking them out. They’re just aware danger is out there, and they have methods of dealing with it.”
‘Intruder’ seems to fit that theme. It’s an emotional album with soul-stirring melodies and some bleak lyrical territory. How do you adjust back from it to normal family life?
“It’s never been much of a problem. The things you write aren’t necessarily the way you’re feeling, or the way you’re thinking, or the way your life is going. As a listener, something a bit heavy or sombre can still be a positive experience. You can enjoy listening to music even though it might be a little down and serious. It’s the same writing it. I can come up with something pretty sad and without an optimistic or upbeat message, and yet really enjoy the moment because I’m proud of what I’m creating.”
Does your state of mind dictate the mood of the material that you produce?
“Since I’ve been older, I’ve found the mood I’m in has no bearing on how I write. When I was younger it did. If I was in anxious or a bad mood, I tended not to want to write at all. Writing was a way of dealing with the mood swings which were pretty severe back then, and that’s how I got through it as a young man. It doesn’t happen now, yet I write the same sort of stuff.
“I remember when I first moved to Los Angeles, lots of fans wrote to me saying, ‘Is your music going to be happy now, more like The Beach Boys and sunny and talking about surfing and shit?’. Well, no. My environment makes no difference to what I want to write about. It’s the things you’re concerned about, the things you feel are important, regardless of your mood. That’s where the music comes from these days.”
The album could be read as a metaphor for our own inevitable deaths. There’s a line that stuck out on ‘A Black Sun’ – “When I was a child I thought my life was endless…”
“The song is about the way love changes as we get older. When we’re young, it’s an easy thing. There’s no pain attached to it. Our parents are still relatively young, they’re going to live forever. We’re very young, we’re going to live forever. Everything about life is good, it’s out there waiting for us, full of opportunities. Then as you get older, it all changes. Love unavoidably has pain attached to it. Ultimately we’ll get sick and die, our parents die, our friends die…
“The day I wrote that song, I was lying in bed looking at Gemma before she woke, and I was really frightened. There was this MS scare hanging over her for a while, which thankfully hasn’t come to anything. But I was thinking about if it did happen, or how it’s going to be for her when I go, and about the cruel inescapability of it for all of us, and that was when it struck me how love changes. When I was a little boy looking at my mum, I had no fears or worries or anxieties about the passing of time and what would come. So in the lyrics I was trying to tie it all in with the planet – the way the Earth has loved us has changed because we’ve now become something creating an awful lot of pain for it.”
Do these bleak songs get an emotional reaction from the people closest to you?
“My wife struggles with them. I started to play something a little while ago, I think we were working on an edit for radio, and she lost it almost instantly. I had to stop playing it as she got really upset. It triggered something. She’s heard it all before. In a selfish kind of way, I’m quietly proud it provokes that kind of reaction. But the intention is never to upset – it’s always to entertain or to give people room for thought. I don’t think I’d even know how to deliberately upset. But I suppose I can write a pretty sad melody.”
It’s definitely a skill you have.
What’s the status of your plans for touring this album?
“Playing live accounts for 80 per cent of my income, but it’s impossible to plan at the moment. No one really knows what’s going to go on. There are lots of optimistic predictions about when vaccinations will be at a level where herd immunity kicks in. There’s talk of opening venues at 25 per cent capacity to begin with, but it’s never going to work – no one’s going to make any money at 25 per cent capacity.
“I had a tour booked for June, which has been cancelled. There were festivals throughout August, but whether they actually happen or not is a very different thing. One of them has been put back to September, which feels slightly more optimistic. I’ve also got a tour of North America booked for October and November, so that’s looking possible. There might even be a handful of British shows around September or early October. They’re talking maybe a remix EP coming out to give the album another little shot in the arm, but the main touring will be in May next year as far as Britain’s concerned.”