Cars, Planes and Keyboards: Escape from Exile
Charles D.J. Deppner
I have distinct memories, as a wee lad, of “rockin’ out” in front of my bedroom mirror to much of the music that came to shape my youth. The distinctive “cracking whip” sound of “Cars” was, to me, the end to an era of music that could only represent the preceding generation. It was indicative of a possible finale to all the Fleetwood Mac, BTO, Chuck Mangione, Bob Seger and the rest of such ilk that sickened American airwaves.
While it is highly arguable whether Gary Numan was the progenitor of purely synthetic music, there is no denying that “Cars” exemplified the potential commercial viability of synth-pop, and opened doors to the music that, to many, was distinctly Eighties — Heaven 17, Human League, Flock of Seagulls, Depeche Mode, etc.
When given the chance to interview one of my all-time musical heroes, tension began to mount from the word go. To this day I still “rock out” to Gary Numan’s music. I still feel strongly that his work, particularly as Tubeway Army, is still some of the best and most underrated rock’n’roll to this day.
Gary was gracious enough to take time out of his precious studio time and grant me this interview. I found him, despite his prolonged alien-esque image, and his affinity towards technology as both an acrobatic pilot and progenitor of synthetic music, to be a man seemingly more human than most, with strong convictions and legitimate concerns about his impact on music as we know it.
Has getting older been good to you?
It is now. It wasn’t for a while. I think, in the Eighties, as the Eighties developed, I went in a musical direction that was clearly not right for me — but it was clear to everybody else and it wasn’t clear to me. And it took me too long to realize that I’d made several albums — I mean several albums — that I’d really shouldn’t’ve made. Although they had their moments, it was less and less “Numan-ISH.” I’m amazed as many people, fan-wise, stayed with me as they did. It must’ve been outta pure loyalty, ’cause some of the music was not what I was into at all. And I ran out of money — I got really bad money troubles — and the career was going down the toilet and it just got real depressing, and I was getting older and seein’ all these new people coming in.
The way I describe it is I panicked in slow motion. I did panic. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what I wanted to sing about, or write about. I just lost my direction very badly. I was in a really bad relationship as well. And all these things sorta peaked at once around ’90-92. Everything came to a head — career, private life, money — the whole thing. It was a terrible year. I put out the worst album I ever made — without doubt.
And then I got my private life sorted out. I met somebody new who I’m now married to — so I’m very happy with that. The money thing sorted itself out. You know there comes that glorious month when you actually earn a pound more than you spend, and you turn that corner, and you start to come back up again. And that’s a huge weight off my shoulders. Career-wise, I took some time out and just looked at why I was still in the business, and why I was making music. It was all wrong. And I started again. And I went back — as much as I could — I went back to doin’ it for a hobby. I wasn’t interested in whether it got on the radio or not. I wasn’t interested in how many records it was going to sell. It was like a massive weight off my shoulders.
I hadn’t realized it — all this huge mental baggage, you know, and worry. And I didn’t really realize I was worried about things until I stopped for a moment and looked at it more closely. And what was happening, I think, [is that] this weight that I was carrying around had crushed my imagination until I was only writing about the struggle — the money, the career. I was just writing about the same things again, again, and again. And it got very stale and very boring. And as soon as I stopped doing that, I found that me imagination was back, and I started writing much more naturally again — the way I used to. I went back to working again on my own. I accepted my limitations. Y’know, I’m not the greatest guitar player in the world. I’m not a great keyboard player, but what I do have is a style which is mine. I saw it far too late, but eventually I came to accept that and realized this may be a small talent, but it is MY talent. Went back to work on me own and [I] came up with an album which is, at the time, considered by the fans to be the best album I’ve done since Replicas, if not ever. It was like finding yourself again, and I found the road I should’ve never got off. Did another one [Exile]. That’s the second one of the new period, really. I went back to doin’ what I do best.
And the funny thing is, as soon as I started using my imagination more, and write more freely, the music got darker and heavier and it became — much more interesting, and much more enjoyable to write. And when I go out on tour with it, it’s so much more powerful live. It’s given touring a whole new lease on life for me, as well. Everything’s just turned around. Me as person now as compared to me in 1992 — you would not believe the difference.
Do you think there was some kinda backlash with regard to you “doing away” with the traditional elements of pop music in favor of keyboards which, at the time of “Down In the Park,” were extremely different?
I’m often credited for “opening doors” for a lot of things that came afterwards. Some people have said [I’m] — what do they call me? — “the godfather of electronica,” I think I read the other day — something like that. I [have] often been given a lotta credit for being the person who introduced mainstream electronic music into the music business. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. I was one of the people that were there at the beginning, but I wasn’t the only one. But I do tend to think that, if I was the person who opened that door, normally, if you open the door to something new, the person who first pokes his head around the corner gets a punch in the face. And that’s what I’ve felt has happened to me. I was the first person to put my head around a corner of the door of electronic music. Certainly the first one to open it so that the public actually noticed — ’cause it kinda happened before, but it had never really taken off. And it was considered to be a little bit weird and strange and bizarre at the time. You do tend to take the backlash for it, even though you’re doing something which is no worse or heavier than what comes afterwards, but by then people are starting to get used to it a little bit. But also you get a tremendous amount of credit and excitement from being that first one to poke your head around that door, and so I wouldn’t change it for the world. I really wouldn’t.
I think I could’ve handled it so much better. I think I was my own worst enemy. I was my own worst enemy with the press. I was my own worst enemy with the audience — to a large degree. I’m not an arrogant person at all, but I’m fiercely determined, and that can often be mistaken for arrogance. If I’m going in a certain direction, I will not be deflected from it. This is gonna sound really sad, I’m afraid. [chuckle] I think I was misunderstood a lot in the early days. I was trying to do something. I didn’t have any great pretensions for it. I wasn’t trying to say I was a quite clever or whatever. I was trying to say, “This is what I’m gonna do. Get outta my face!” And that was mistaken for arrogance. And then when all the press, particularly the British press actually, really started to steam into me in the early Eighties, instead of dealing with that in a mature way, I dealt with that in a really childish way really. And I kinda just ran away and stopped talking to them and got all upset about it.
I really think if I had made it maybe five years later or possibly longer — it took me a long time to grow up — I think I could’ve done a better job. I could’ve handled it better. But really it was too much success too quickly for somebody who was really too young and not at all ready for it or experienced enough. I had no gradual rise to success, y’know, where you get used to each increased level — Top 30, Top 20, Top 10 — that sort of thing as your albums come out. I kinda went from nowhere to number one. And it’s a lot to take in your stride, y’know. You sort of wake up one morning and the press seems to think you have some kind of instinctive knowledge on how you deal with becoming a big pop star overnight. And, of course, you don’t. You learn as you go and you make lots of mistakes and you say lots of silly things. You just hope people’ll understand you’re just wingin’ it. You’re winging it at the highest level you could possibly do it at. And everyone’s watching you make mistakes, and you feel like such an idiot so many times. And I sometimes think the press don’t make allowances for that, especially when it happens to young people. There can be fewer bigger upheavals in your life, there really can’t. And it does take time to learn. And, unfortunately, most people are finished, and their careers are over and done with before they learn enough. Again, in that sense, I think I’ve been very lucky.
Getting back to your older material, how natural of a progression was it to going more synthetic? I mean you went from doing mostly guitar-laden material to almost exclusively keyboard. How conscious was this decision?
I saw electronic music, or the synthesizer, as a way of getting into sound in a much much more human way — in a much deeper way than had ever been possible before. I was always amazed that the critics have said that electronic music was cold and empty. It wasn’t. Some of the early music sounded a bit sparse because we were all learning how to produce electronic music. It took a while to learn how to get the best out of it. But, at the end of the day, you pick up a guitar and it sounds like a guitar. And there’s not much you can do with it, unless you plug it into a thousand pedals and then it sounds a bit like synthesizer anyway. You’ve treated it so much, it’s not the same thing. It’s become almost synthetic. With a synthesizer, you can go in and you can manipulate sound to such a degree that you end up with things which are just absolutely unique and beautiful — nothing to do with the melody or the rhythm — at all. The sound itself can be a thing of beauty. And I love that about the synthesizer. I really do.
But having said all that, I still don’t consider myself a flag waver for synthesizers. I’m not on any kind of crusade for them. I never have been. I don’t want this to be an unpopular thing to say, but I use them as much as I use the car to get somewhere. I use them because I found them to be the most exiting thing around, not because I was mercilessly trying to pursue a career to stardom. I genuinely loved what they were doin’. I just wanted to incorporate them into music in general, y’know. I think I did one album that didn’t have any guitars in it, but apart from that, I just used them in a different way than other people had used them, but I incorporated them into conventional music. Y’know I’ve got drums around them, and bass, and melody, and all those things.
And I didn’t feel ‘specially innovative at the time. I really didn’t. I was just havin’ fun. I stumbled across the bloody thing anyway. Somebody had left it behind in a studio and I found it. And they let me use it before they come and collected it. And that’s how I got introduced to synthesizers. I had never seen one before. It was pure chance. I went into the studio to record a punk album — a guitar three-piece — guitar, bass and drums. I came out with an electronic album! And the record company went apeshit and wouldn’t release it. And I said, “Well, I’m not goin’ back in, y’know. That’s what I’m doin’ now. I found what I’ve been lookin’ for.” I had been lookin’ for something. I had no idea what it was, but I had been looking for something ever since I started writing songs that I felt was me. I never thought the guitar was really it. But there wasn’t an instrument that was really “it,” and I put it down to my lack of ability, really. I mean I come across synthesizers, and again, it was one of those “eureka” moments. I played it, and luckily it had been left on a sound that was pretty good, ’cause I didn’t know how to set them up. I just pressed this key and this STUFF came out of the speakers, and it just blew me away. And that was it. It was the most POWERFUL thing I had heard in my life. And I loved it. I LOVED it. I still would never claim to be what I call a flag waver for them.
Here’s the bizarre thing — I don’t consider myself to be an electronic act. Apart from the first coupla years, I never have [been], really. But electronic music is a part of what I’m doin’. It’s just a PART of it. It’s pretty much always been just a part of it.
Regarding synthesizers, planes, cars, and guitars, do you have any prevailing theories or philosophies about the man-machine relationship?
I don’t really have any philosophies about it, but for me personally, I find a comfort in machines that I very rarely find in people. I find people to be unpredictable by nature, and therefore I find them very slightly intimidating, and I tend to overcompensate for that. When I meet people, I’m not aggressive, but until I find my feet, I’m on the lookout for trouble. And I’m ready to argue at the slightest provocation with people in general. And it’s silly, because I’m not comfortable around them. It’s not because I’m aggressive or anything like that. I’m just uncomfortable around people by and large — not always. Somedays I have good days, and sometimes I have bad days. But, in the main, I find it a lil’ bit awkward.
Well, when it comes to machinery, I’m absolutely at ease. And I find nothing more enjoyable than to strap myself behind the most hugest, powerfulest motor you can imagine, and launch it off at several hundred miles an hour. And I’m happy there, because I know whatever is gonna happen — even if the motor fouls and it lets me down badly, I know it didn’t do it on purpose. There’s no emotion or fear. Fear of dying — obviously. Burnin’ alive — that’s kind of a horrible thing. But there’s no emotional fear. There’s no sense of hurt and worry, which I get from people. And the unpredictability which is inherent with machines you have a very different kind, and one that I accept and am happy with. So I find machines to be much more — No-no. I can’t say that ’cause it’s always misunderstood. I was gonna say “much more like me than people,” but I don’t mean that… it always makes me look like a bloody robot and I’m not! I hate that. I HATE it. It’s just that I find machines very exciting, and I trust ’em. I know if I press a button then THIS is gonna happen and it will always happen. And you can’t do that with people. You press a button and they bloody well do something different every time. You never quite know where you stand.
What’s lies on your horizons?
On the personal side — I just got married. I’m gonna try and have a baby. So I might be a dad by the end of the year.
On the musical side of things, I genuinely feel as though I have serious opportunity to try to claim back some of the ground that I lost — which is pretty much all the ground, really. And I want to be given the opportunity to play the music to as many people as I can get to, and then let them decide whether it’s worthwhile — me being there or not. And I honestly find this to be the most exciting period that I’ve had for years — possibly ever. And I’m very enthusiastic. I’m very keen to make as good a job of this as possible. I’m enjoyin’ writin’ and I’m enjoyin’ bein’ around and I’m lookin’ forward to bringin’ the album over there and tourin’. To be honest, when you find yourself bein’ forty years old and gettin’ a second chance, you just grab it with both hands and fuckin’ run for the airplane, y’know, and start workin’ because that’s what it’s all about. It’s gettin’ out there. Workin’. Doin’ it. And that’s it really. I would not believe — I’m forty years old in ’98. And I’m not happy about it, but you gotta accept it. And I would not’ve expected that a second chance would ever come my way. I never would have expected that a second chance THIS GOOD would come my way. But it HAS come and I’m excited about it. And it’s a little bit scary. I just want to do the best I can with it, really. But I think it couldn’t’ve come at a better time. I do not think I’ve written an album much better than the one that’s out now, and certainly not for a long long time. If ever I’ve written an album I was happy to have heard by people, then it would be this one.