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The Weekly interview: Synth-pop pioneer Gary Numan

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Full disclosure: Gary Numan is a huge Trent Reznor fan.
Annie Zaleski

Electronic music pioneer Gary Numan has been an influence on everyone from Trent Reznor to Dave Grohl, thanks to enduring songs (“Cars,” “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?,” “Down in the Park”) and a knack for innovative synth-pop. Last year’s moody Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind) is yet another example, a vital, modern-sounding album incorporating cinematic strings, industrial twinges and sleek keyboard arrangements.

We caught up with the 55-year-old London native, who now lives in LA, as he was “sorting out his health insurance” and buckling down to work on his first film score.

How is the film score going? I know this is something you’ve wanted to go into for a while. It’s a very easy, low-pressure first step. I’ve been here just over a year now, in Los Angeles, [moving] from England—there were many, many reasons for coming [here]. But one of them was I would like to slowly move into film music. To add it to what I’m doing [musically]; it gave me an option when I’m much older, when the album and touring thing may not be quite as appropriate.

It’s an animated film calledFrom Inside. It’s an apocalyptic, nightmare thing; it’s really dark, really, really heavy. But I love it. It’s already been out once, it’s had a soundtrack; what they’re asking for is a new soundtrack. They’ve been very laid-back with deadlines; they’ve been very accommodating and allowing me to fit it into the album and touring schedule. It’s really good fun. For me, it’s something very new.

For you, what is the biggest difference writing for film? When you write a song on your own, you’re your own judge. You decide if it’s ready or good enough, or how you want it to be. And it follows a fairly predictable format—verse, chorus, verse, chorus, that kind of thing. With film music, you’re obviously writing something for a particular piece; you’re expected to create a certain atmosphere or vibe that’s been hard-set. It’s more specific in that sense, more guided. And you’re writing it for somebody else. The director will say whether it is what he wants or not.

That’s a very unusual thing for me. I’ve spent the last 36 years writing music, where I’m really the only one who judges it. It gets reviews and so on, but in terms of the actual creative side of it. When I think it’s finished, then it’s finished. I’ve not had to answer to anybody before. That’s the side of it that’s probably going to cause me problems if I go further into it.

This one is lovely—the director knows my own music anyway, and he’s a fan of that, and that’s why they got me involved. There are so many reasons why this one is a very gentle first step. I do expect that things will not be quite so easy or as accommodating if I do get further into it. It’s all part of the learning, really.

I’m not good with dealing with people; that’s my problem. From what I hear [from] the people I speak to that do it, with film music there’s an awful lot of politics that goes on. You have to deal with committees of people giving you conflicting opinions at various times and so on. All this is for me to discover. It may not be quite as bad as it’s been painted. It may be worse, I don’t know yet. (laughs)

I’m doing this film, and hopefully that goes well. And then with each new project, I’ll decide whether I want to go deeper into it or not, or whether I’d much rather stick to making albums and touring, which I love anyway. So for me it’s not a problem. I’m just trying to think of what other things I can do as I get older—other things that would be interesting and challenging for me to do, anyway. I’ve made an awful lot of albums for a very long time. And I love it; I haven’t lost my love for it. But other things would be interesting. And I think it may even help the songwriting, doing something like this. I’m certainly writing slightly differently with this. Already it’s bringing other things out of me that my own albums haven’t done so far.

Splinter is a very dramatic, cinematic album. There’s a number of things on there, where I added lush string sections and that kind of thing. I did that deliberately. I think it worked for the album anyway; I don’t think it compromised the album in any way. But I was deliberately leaning the album in a particular direction so I could show that I could do that kind of thing. It’s all little parts of the pathway, if you like. Little steps being laid down so you can follow a particular route.

Do you have any film or score music idols that you really admire? Old-school, I used to love all the James Bond themes. That’s more like a teenage kind of point of view, really. I’m a big fan of Clint Mansell, he’s done some amazing stuff. He’d probably be my favorite. I think The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, that’s beautiful stuff. Graeme Revell, he does amazing things. Danny Elfman.

All these people are so good at what they do, it’s actually very, very daunting to someone like me. You listen to what these people can do; it’s so impressive. They set an incredibly high standard, and also seem to be very prolific. That itself is a bit daunting to me, because they seem to be able to churn out stuff that would take me forever to get together. (laughs)

There are so many things about it which might mean [film music] doesn’t work out for me—talent being one of them. (laughs) I’m not sure I’m good enough, really. We’ll have to see. I’ve met Clint a couple of times. Trent Reznor, obviously—he’s been very successful with film music. There are people around me that I’m sure would help if I asked them to guide me through some of the shortcuts, perhaps, of how to do it. We’ll see. I don’t want to start knocking on people’s doors unless I have to.

Did Trent give you any advice when you were embarking on this? Not really, no. I’ve not really spoken to him much about it. I’ve talked about it in interviews and so on, but I did have a meeting with Clint where I picked his brains a little bit. I also went to one of the shows that Clint did—he did a series of shows where he played the music with a live band from his films. I picked his brains a little bit there. The last few times I’ve been with Trent he’s been very, very busy getting the Nine Inch Nails tours together. In fact, Robin Finck from the band was ’round our house last night talking about that. I know Trent’s really busy, and I don’t want to bother him with my little problems. I’m sure he would help; he’s really lovely that way. But at the moment, it’s all going very well. I don’t feel the need to be asking for any advice.

You opened a few Nine Inch Nails shows last year and have done so a lot in the last few years. What do you like best about jumping onstage with them and doing some songs? Robin [Finck] is probably one of my closest friends in America. On the last tour Trent did, he also had Pino Palladino playing bass. That was my bass player back in 1982. I hadn’t seen him since then; it was lovely to get back onstage with Pino again and play one of those songs. I’m just a big fan. I love the band—I’m a huge admirer of what Trent does. He’s been extremely kind to me—he’s said some lovely things. He’s done a cover version of one of our songs. He’s got me involved in Nine Inch Nails things on a number of occasions, which is a very good connection for me to have. I’m just a great admirer of him, and I really love the band.

On the last shows, Trent invited me onstage to sing “Reptile,” one of my favorite songs ever. It’s just such a cool thing. You’re onstage [in front of] a huge [amount] of people, you’ve got Nine Inch Nails standing behind you and you’re singing one of your favorite songs of Trent Reznor’s. It doesn’t get much better, really, if you’re into music.

I follow you on Twitter, and I always enjoy reading your feed, because it’s so funny and personal. It seems like you enjoy using it. It’s difficult to know how to use it properly, or what people are actually interested in following. I do a few things once in a while about my dog. And my wife just comes out with the most ridiculous comments at times. She’s actually a really intelligent woman, but you’d never guess it from some of the things that come out of her mouth. And they make me laugh so much, I just tweet them straight away. Other times, it’s just information, to let people know what’s going on. If an interview’s come out that’s particularly positive, I do that—or if a piece of music gets used, I let people know about that. It’s a mixture, really. It’s just trying to let your personality come across without boring people. I don’t think you should be telling people what you had for breakfast.

I saw that you were in Vegas at the start of 2014. Do you go there a lot? What do you like to do when you’re hanging out there? That was my first trip ever.

Really? I went there once before, in 1981, I think it was. I was flying a small airplane around the world, like for an adventure. It was a frightening, but fantastic thing to do. And for one brief moment, we stopped in Las Vegas, but we got there late at night in a very scary flight down from Canada along the mountains. We had all kinds of problems with the airplane. By the time we landed, we were very worn out. It had been a very stressful thing; we felt lucky to have got there and not crashed the airplane. We got to the hotel, went straight to sleep, and had to fly out very early the next morning just as the sun was coming up. Technically, I had been there before, but I can’t actually say I saw any of it.

I was there last weekend, and as far as I’m concerned, it was my first trip to Las Vegas. It was my wife’s birthday, so we went there with my managers. It’s amazing. An absolutely amazing place. I’d heard so much about it—it’s legendary as a city. It actually blew me away. I loved it. As soon as we’re finishing the touring, we’re going back with the children, going to spend maybe four or five days with the children.

I must be honest, I was quite intimidated. There was so much money there, so much success. It’s so vibrant. I was quite nervous going there. We went to see a Cirque du Soleil show; we went on the roller coasters. Strangely enough, I’m not interested in gambling at all, so I didn’t do any of that. But there’s so much else to do if you’re not into gambling, it didn’t seem to matter. I loved it.

Gary Numan with Big Black Delta, Roman Remains. March 7, 9 p.m., $29-$33. Hard Rock Live, 733-7625.

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