Ahead of his show next month with John Foxx, Mirrors & Motor – that Ransom Note is doing tickets for – Jim B from R$N caught up with the living legend to hear his thoughts on a career of extreme highs and lows, being deeply unpopular in the press at the beginning, a lack of musicianship and John Foxx.
It seems your career has been one of pretty extreme highs and lows, commercially, critically and personally. What for you have been the high points and the low points? Comparatively, how content are you with everything right now?
Well it all started pretty well, 2 number one singles and 2 number one albums in the same year and it doesn’t really get much better than that. Went downhill quite rapidly after that although I would go for 1992 as being the lowest point. Put out a diabolical album, couldn’t give tickets away for shows, didn’t have a record deal, no money, big debts and very little hope of things improving to be perfectly honest. Not a happy time. Since then, each year has been better than the one before so I’m very happy with where I am these days. Very happy with the music I’ve been making, very happy touring, very happy at home, with Gemma and the children, and yet still ambitious and excited about what the future has to offer.
You were deeply unpopular with the press when you first started out and this set the tone for the majority of your coverage; even during your years of global super stardom. Why do you think they had it in for you from the start? And did you feel vindicated or all the more alienated as your career took off over the course of the late 70s?
The press had never even heard of me before I went to number 1 in 1979, apart from a handful of people that may have stumbled across my first Tubeway Army album. My first big single was number 1 for two weeks before radio even playlisted it. I seemed to come out of nowhere and, for some reason, I seemed to generate a huge wave of hostility from the media for a while. Thankfully that’s all decades in the past but it was pretty hard at the time. I think there was a lot of resistance towards electronic music, and a lot of ignorance about the making of it, when it first topped the charts. As I was the one with the first big hit single all that media hostility was pointed at me. I’m glad to say that things are very different these days, both in the way the media think about electronic music and me.
I saw a documentary recently in which you said that at times your lack of musicianship had been by turns frustrating and liberating. Would you say that more accomplished musicians have a tendency to ‘over-think’ the music making process? How far in your experience is virtuosity a barrier to nailing a concise, punchy pop song?
It has often seemed to me that a very gifted musician is not always a gifted songwriter. Often the gifted musician uses his or her songs as a vehicle to demonstrate, constantly, how gifted a player they are. Endless solo’s and overly complex arrangements where the playing is fantastic but the song itself instantly forgettable. I am not a good player, I have no great musical skills to show off, and so I rely heavily on my songwriting to keep my career moving forward.
You went through something of a renaissance in the 00s, presumably with all the youngsters you inspired in the early 80s finally coming of age and singing your praises. Did you feel as if up til that point you’d struggled to gain acceptance from the wider artistic community? What was it like to hear your influence on the so-called electroclash sound of the times?
It definitely took a long time before I had any credibility from the artistic community although it wasn’t something I was struggling to obtain. It’s nice to have it of course but you still write the same music whether you have it or not. These days I seem to have all the credibility anyone could ever dream of, people are constantly recording cover versions of my stuff or sampling it, and it’s a very pleasant position to be in, especially compared to how bad it used to be. Whenever I hear my influence in things it makes me proud, be it electroclash, Nine Inch Nails or whatever. It’s a great honour to have people cover my songs and to hear other artists talking about the influence I’ve had on them. It’s very flattering.
Given that you are something of a pioneer of electronic music; what did you make of the acid house explosion of the late 80s/early 90s? How closely have you followed dance music since? Are there any scenes, sounds, clubs or producers that have really struck you?
I haven’t followed it much at all I’m afraid. My own music, over the last 15 to 20 years, has moved into much heavier and darker areas and so I tend to listen to that type of music mostly. I’m still learning, still trying to do it better.
John Foxx joins the bill for this show at the Troxy. I guess you two have been friends for some time now but is this the first time you have shared a bill together? Might there be a chance of a collaboration at some point?
I did a DJ slot for him when he played at the Roundhouse in London a while back but the Troxy show will be the first time we’ve ever played live together. It’s a real pleasure for me to play a show with John Foxx. John was a vitally important influence on me when I first started. In many respects John’s work with early Ultravox helped shape my own direction once I got into electronic music. It’s a real thrill for me.
Interview by Jim B
April 1st & 2nd: Back To The Phuture Live: two nights of electronic futurism with Gary Numan, John Foxx, Mirrors, Recoil, Motor and Daniel Miller (Mute)
Academy 1, Manchester: Friday 1st April:Gary Numan live / Recoil live / Motor live / Mark Jones DJ set
We’re also posting We Take Mystery To Bed… cos it’s ace!