Electronic Pop Legend Gary Numan Talks About His Album, Intruder, His Classic Hit “Cars,” And His Other Songs

Gary Numan
Gary Numan
(photo credit: Chris Corner)

Since his breakthrough as an artist in 1978, Gary Numan has been an iconic and acclaimed singer/songwriter & musician, who’s a pioneer in pop & electronic music. He is known for creating cutting-edge, synthesizer sounds within a pop & rock framework. He has been praised by such artists as Nine Inch Nails, Prince and David Bowie, and in recent years Kanye West, Lady Gaga and Dave Grohl (of the Foo Fighters) have cited him as an influence.

Numan’s best known song, “Cars” (from 1979), remains one of the most popular songs from the new wave era, and with its brilliant synth-based sound and powerful bass line, it sounds as fresh and vital today as it did when it was released.

Over the past four decades, Numan has written & recorded steadily, and he has produced a large body of work. He is about to release (on May 21) his 18th solo album, called Intruder (on BMG Records). Numan is releasing this album amidst a renewed popularity and appreciation for his music, that began about eight years ago. In 2013, he released his album Splinter (Songs for a Broken Mind), which was his highest-charting album in the UK in two decades. Then in 2017, he released the follow-up album, Savage (Songs from a Broken World), which was even more successful, debuting at #2 on the UK chart.

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with Gary Numan. He recalls the pivotal moment early in his career, when discovered synthesizers and realized he wanted to be an electronic pop artist.

Now in 2021, anticipation is high for his new album, Intruder. This album is an ambitious, compelling collection of songs with a unifying theme. Numan explains, “Intruder looks at climate change from the planet’s point of view. If Earth could speak, and feel things the way we do, what would it say? How would it feel? The songs, for the most part, attempt to be that voice, or at least try to express what I believe the earth must feel at the moment. The planet sees us as its children now grown into callous selfishness, with a total disregard for it’s well-being. It feels betrayed, hurt and ravaged. Disillusioned and heartbroken, it is now fighting back. Essentially, it considers humankind to be a virus attacking the planet. Climate change is the undeniable sign of the Earth saying enough is enough, and finally doing what it needs to do to get rid of us, and explaining why it feels it has to do it.”

Here’s the video of Gary Numan’s new single, “Intruder.”

Numan, who is 62, was born and raised in London, UK, and he learned to play guitar when he was 15. In 1976, he formed the punk-rock band Tubeway Army, and he became the group’s lead singer, songwriter and producer. Then in 1978, the band signed with Beggars Banquet Records and released their self-titled debut album, Tubeway Army.

It was in 1979 that Numan broke through as an artist. Tubeway Army’s second album, Replicas, became a best seller with the #1 UK hit, “Are Friends Electric.” Then Numan launched his solo career, and his album, The Pleasure Principle, contained his worldwide hit, “Cars.”

From there, Numan released a string of singles and albums that were successful, particularly in the UK. He released three albums (Telekon, Dance and I, Assassin), that reached the Top 10 on the UK chart. Along with this, he had several more Top 10 UK hits including “Complex,” “We Are Glass,” “I Die: You Die,” “She’s Got Claws” and “We Take Mystery (To Bed)”.

Gary Numan Interview

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Gary Numan. He tells how he got started with music, and he recalls the pivotal moment when he discovered synthesizers and decided to focus on electronic music. He also discusses the making of his new album, Intruder, and he tells how he wrote his classic hit, “Cars.”

DK: You’re known as a pioneer of electronic pop music. Back when you started, how did you get into playing keyboards and synthesizers and creating your sound?

Gary Numan: It was an accident, actually. I was in a 3-piece punk band called Tubeway Army. I was the singer & guitar player, and there was a bass player and drummer. We were part of that British punk movement around 1977. So we were signed to a label in as a punk band, and we put out this single that was a demo and we made another single. Then we went to the studio later that year to record our album, which should have been all the songs from our set. It should have been a punk album. But when we got to the studio, while the others were unloading the gear, I went into the control room to introduce us to the engineer. And I noticed there was a synthesizer in the corner of the room. I’d never seen a real one before, so I was blown away by the switches and dials. I’m a little geeky when it comes to technology, so I was fascinated by it. Then I asked if I could have a go, if he could turn it on. So he turned it on, and it was an amazing experience. I pressed the key, and the whole room shook. It was the most huge, powerful, floor-shaking thing that I’d ever heard.

Here’s a video of Gary Numan performing his classic hit, “Cars.”

So I was fiddling around with this keyboard and trying to make different sounds. And by the time [the band] finished setting up and came into the control room, I said to them, “Everything’s changed. We’re not doing the album that we came here for. It’s all different.”

Then we did these rushed-together electronic versions of the songs we had, which were punk songs. But instead of recording them with guitar, I changed what guitar parts could move, into synth parts. It was incredibly amateurish, because I didn’t know what I was doing. But it was also incredibly exciting.

After that, I went back to the record company with our new recordings, and they were really unhappy. They weren’t interested in our new sound at all, and we had a massive argument, We were standing up and screaming at each other, and it almost came to punches at one point (laughs). But I was absolutely convinced that I’d stumbled across something new—it was something that I thought would change my life. I was convinced that electronic music was the future.

So I said to the record company, “This is coming. These machines are amazing and will revolutionize music and the way it sounds. And we have a chance to be right at the front of it. If you won’t release this album…if you insist that I go back and re-record the punk album, you are tying me to something that’s dying, and not letting me be at the front end of something that’s coming. I would never fuckin’ forgive you.

Finally, they decided to go with it, and that album (Tubeway Army) came out. Then I recorded another album (Replicas) that came out five months later, and it went to number one. After that, there was The Pleasure Principle record that went to number one. So I put out three albums in 11 months.

DK: In 1979 you have your biggest hit, “Cars.” What inspired you to write this song?

Numan: I’d been to London to buy a bass guitar, because I wanted to learn to play bass better. And at the time I didn’t have the money for a keyboard; I wasn’t a very good keyboard player. So I was trying to write my synth lines on the bass, and then I would rent a synth when I got to the studio.

Here’s the video of Gary Numan’s new song, “Saints and Liars.”

I did have a piano by then, but it’s difficult if you’re not a good keyboard player, to come up with good synth/bass lines on an upright piano. So I bought a Shergold Modulator bass guitar from the West End in London, and brought it home. I opened up the case, pulled out the guitar, and the first four notes that I played was, “Do-do-do-do,” (he sings the bass hook of “Cars”). And I thought…That sounds pretty good, I’ll keep that. And then I did something else—the next four notes became [the other hook]. It was really simple, like a child’s song. It took me 5 to 10 minutes to get the three parts of the song worked out, and figure out a structure. Then it took me another 20 minutes to do the lyric.

It’s funny to me, that one of the most well-known electronic singles ever, was written on a bass guitar. I’ve written about 400 songs, and only two were written on bass guitar. “Cars” was one of them.

DK: In 2017, you released your album, Savage (Songs from a Broken World), which became a popular album. Can you talk about the making of this album?

Numan: Yeah. The album I did before it was called Splinter, and it got me back into the British charts for the first time in decades. So for me, Splinter was a huge moment, to finally be back in the Top 30 again. Then when I started Savage, I was terrified, because I knew it was important to follow the success of Splinter. So I felt a huge amount of pressure when I started it, and the first song was called “Bed of Thorns,” and that is about the pressure that I felt trying to write the album. The rest of the record is mostly about climate change.

I’d been writing a book, and I started to borrow ideas from it. The book is about the Earth, about 300 years from now. Climate change has happened—the Earth has been devastated. And what’s left are these tribal factions that are incredibly brutal and vicious; people do terrible things just to survive. So it’s a science fiction story set in that future.

With climate change as its underlying theme, I wrote a couple of songs to get me going and get some momentum. And that happened to coincide with Donald Trump announcing his run for president. He started to talk about climate change as a hoax, and he pulled out of the Paris Accords. And it really shook me and bothered me. I believe in climate change and take it very seriously. So I started to write more songs about it, and eventually the whole album became this science fiction story about climate change.

Here’s the audio for Gary Numan’s new song, “Now and Forever.”

DK: Your new album is called Intruder. Is the album a follow-up to Savage, with its theme about climate change?

Numan: It is. Again, Climate change is the core of the new album, but it’s not the follow-up. It’s a very different thing. Whereas Savage was a science fiction drift into the future based on climate change, Intruder is about…If the Earth could speak now, what would it say? How would it feel about what’s happening? Would it feel angry and betrayed? We are these little creatures that it nurtured for so long, and now we’ve just turned on it and we’re abusing it and using it. And flying off to other planets to do the same to them.

What would the Earth feel? Would it want to fight back? And if it did, would the virus be the first of its strategies? Is the answer to the Earth’s problems getting rid of us? So the intruders are us. We are the virus on the planet. And if the Earth could speak, this is my idea of what it would probably say.

DK: Over the years, you’ve released 18 studio albums. For music fans who know your hits but may not be familiar with some of your albums, which ones are your favorites that they should check out?

Numan: There’s an album called Telekon from my early success years that I think is pretty good. There’s also one called Sacrifice (from 1994). The reason that album is important to me, was that my career had really crumbled and I went through a long, bad period. But Sacrifice is when I got it together again. It’s a pivotal moment in my career; the renaissance of my career started with that album. And there’s one called Pure (in 2000) that I’m really proud of.

Here’s the link to Gary Numan’s site: https://www.garynuman.com/

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima