Out of the shadows with Gary Numan

Gary Numan
Gary Numan at his home in Northridge.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

British electro-rock pioneer Gary Numan got an unexpected welcome when he moved from England to Los Angeles last year. Nine Inch Nails leader Trent Reznor, who calls Numan a crucial early influence, wrote a personal testimonial for his immigration application, and soon welcomed Numan into NIN’s larger musical circle.

“I had been here only a week and he got in touch and invited us over and introduced me to all of his friends, all kinds of really cool people, and gave me a social life immediately,” Numan says of Reznor’s welcome upon his family’s arrival. “I’m very grateful for that.”

Numan has been embraced in other ways too recently. There is a new-found appreciation among music critics for his early work, including numbers such as 1979’s “Cars” and “Are Friends Electric?” His quirky electronic songs were largely panned or dismissed by critics back in the day, though they were among the first to take synth rock to the top of the charts.

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Today, he’s selling out shows on his new home turf (he plays Thursday and Friday at the Masonic Lodge in Hollywood Forever Cemetery), and there is considerable interest in his new release, out this week. “Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind)” is shadowy, muscular and his first album of new material in seven years.

“I don’t feel vindicated,” says Numan, 55, sitting on the back patio of his home in faded black jeans and T-shirt, his hair jet black and tousled. “I feel really grateful and privileged that the stuff I did a long time ago is now regarded highly. It’s a real triumph of hanging there long enough.”

With his wife and three daughters, he lives in what he calls “a Disneyland version of a castle” in Northridge that is decorated with a medieval theme, with crossed swords and armor scattered around the house. A dragon sculpture greets guests behind a metal gate.

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The new album opens with heavy waves of electronic sound on the track “I Am Dust,” muscular and brooding, with melodic flourishes and industrial accents not unlike those of NIN. It’s modern but remains rooted in the records Numan released in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. He calls the sound and success of those early albums “part luck and being in the right place at the time, and part recognizing something when it came along.”

Near the end of the ‘70s, England was aswirl with punk rock, and record labels old and new were hungrily signing up snarling young bands. Numan saw it as an opportunity and his band Tubeway Army soon was signed to Beggars Banquet as a punk act. That was until Numan discovered a Minimoog synthesizer tucked into the corner of a recording studio in 1978.

“I turned it on and pressed a key. It was an amazing experience,” he recalls. “The whole room shook. There was this huge low-end growling coming out of it. I never heard anything like it. It was love at first hearing.”

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Within a few months, his band had recorded the song “Are Friends Electric?,” which went to No. 1 in England. He’d just turned 21. On Numan’s follow-up album, “The Pleasure Principle,” there were no guitars at all.

“I really did think I was the only one who’d come across the mix of guitars, bass, drums and electronics,” he says with a smile. “I was one of the last, as it turned out. I didn’t realize there were other people doing it.”

Ultravox was already on its third album by then, and other acts scattered around the U.K. were discovering the pleasures of synths at the same time. But Numan was the first to top the charts with three consecutive No. 1 albums in the U.K. It helped inspire a rush of record company signings aiming for the same kind of success with a wave of new sounds: Depeche Mode, the Human League, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

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“Nowadays, I get a great deal of credit and credibility for being at the front end of it, but at the time it wasn’t like that at all,” Numan says. “That’s the downside. If you’re the first person to open that door, and there is resistance to it, then you get [criticism] full on and you get trampled by the rush that follows. The career started brilliantly and then went steadily downhill for the next 15 years.”

The hits stopped coming. Numan’s career bottomed out, he says, in 1992 with the release of “Machine + Soul,” which aimed for pop radio airplay with a lighter, bouncy commercial sound.

Its failure meant the loss of his record deal and he began experiencing serious financial problems. It was then that he met his future wife, Gemma O’Neil, who introduced him to some of the electronic music that followed his early success, including NIN and Depeche Mode’s album “Songs of Faith and Devotion.”

“All these new influences started coming in — this much heavier electronic thing, with these themes of God and anger and cruelty and all these different things. I was absolutely taken with it,” he said.

He followed with a new, darker sound on “Sacrifice” in 1994.

His “Splinter” album was delayed for several years because of personal crises: depression, trouble in his marriage, a falling out with his parents that lasted two years.

“Then I had a midlife crisis. I turned 50 when this was going on, and that hit me in an unexpected way,” he says. “I started to get paranoid about being old and dying. I had panic attacks and was crying in the middle of the street — all this stuff that was not me at all. Eventually, you realize that something is actually wrong with you. This isn’t a bad phase, but something is actually wrong with you.”

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After treatment for depression, he began writing again, putting together musical bits and pieces, but made no major progress until the beginning of 2012. He found that his recent struggles had given him material for “lots of songs, lots of personal stuff. And it helped me to understand it and be clear of it.”

A breakthrough in both his personal and musical lives, he says, came in the form of the song “Lost,” inspired by the problems in his marriage. Music was his answer.

“There was a point when we were really struggling, when I was thinking of running away and just leaving. I just sat down and thought, ‘What would life be like if she isn’t there?’” he says.

“There was no thought of commercialism, there was no bowing to A&R men. I knew I had no chance of getting on the radio, so why try? Just do what you want. Write what you want to hope for the best.”


Gary Numan

Where: Hollywood Forever, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday

Tickets: $35


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