Techno pop pioneer Gary Numan talks family, living with Asperger’s, and why he’s thrilled to play NI again
The last time Gary Numan performed in Belfast, the Limelight in Ormeau Avenue was bursting at the seams.
Fans clapped in appreciation for his then current album, Savage, and roared with delight when the techno pop pioneer treated them to old favourites such as Cars and Are Friends Electric.
That was in 2018 BC, an era before Covid when phrases like social distancing had no meaning. Since then the Covid pandemic and lockdown has put an end to live performances depriving music lovers of the thrill of showmanship and interaction with the stars. But now, as restrictions ease there are signs that the music world is finally bouncing back to life.
With a concert booked at Belfast’s Ulster Hall in May of next year, Numan’s fans can look forward to what organisers are billing “his biggest show in Northern Ireland”.
Speaking from his home in California, the star told me about the personal impact of Covid-19, how it affected his family and why his youngest daughter, Echo, proved the inspiration behind his latest album, Intruder.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, I was busy working on the album so lockdown didn’t make a huge impact on my daily routine,” Gary says. “I still got up early and worked late, so nothing much changed. Initially, our three girls were happy enough, enjoying the freedom of not having to go to school.
“But, as time wore on, things began to change. The novelty had worn off and they were beginning to feel cut off and missed their routine. They were very low. To be honest, I was really worried about them. They were diagnosed with depression and one of them had an anxiety disorder. There were all sorts of things going and it was a very stressful time for all of us.”
Children’s mental health is a global concern but for parents in this part of the world, a study suggesting that anxiety and depression is 25 per cent more common among children in Northern Ireland compared to other parts of the UK, is particularly worrying.
Like the Numans, many families have found school routine is a major contribution to children’s well-being.
“The girls have since returned to school and it has made an enormous difference,” the star shares. “They definitely seem a lot brighter, happier and more like themselves. We’re in a much better place.”
Gary has also suffered mental health issues and has a history of depression.
“As a child I was very moody and I mean very moody. It was terrible really. I never seemed to be in sync with what was going on around me. For example, something really positive and good would happen and I’d be miserable. Other times, in a bad or sad situation I’d be happy enough. It was like a little valve went off in my brain and I could feel my mood shift. It could happen out of the blue, like literally midway through a sentence. I had no control over it.”
By the time he was 20, painfully shy with a bad bout of acne, Numan seemed an unlikely star. Critics didn’t do much for his confidence when they sneered at his music and labelled his performance “wooden”. But in a music industry hungry for change, Numan’s distinctive voice, unique sound and android-like persona sated the appetite for an alternative to the mainstream and audiences loved him.
In 1979 Numan and his Tubeway Army found success with their single Are Friends Electric as well as the album, Replicas. A few months later, Cars, considered his most enduring song, went to the top of the charts in both the UK and America.
“I didn’t set out to be a pioneer,” he laughs. “At the time I was experimenting with sounds and trying to write good songs. Not everyone liked what I was doing but it turned out to be something pretty special.”
Maturity may have sharpened his creative edge but has it mellowed the crippling shyness that blighted Numan’s early years?
“I have a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome which has always made small talk difficult,” he explains. “I tend to fixate on things and take them to the extreme. If something interests me I have to know everything about it.
“For example when I was into planes and air display flying, I wasn’t happy with simply taking part. I had to become a qualified examiner. On the whole, I think having Asperger’s is a good thing, it has given me a slightly different perspective on life and I wouldn’t wish it away. It can make social settings feel awkward but I have Gemma (his wife) to help me with that.”
It’s the people around him that have helped the singer most. His conversation is peppered with affectionate references to Gemma and his daughters, Raven, Persia and Echo.
He explains how his youngest girl inspired his new album.
“My daughter Echo wrote a poem when she was just 11 years old. It was about the earth talking to other planets, explaining how it felt and how badly people had treated it. It really was brilliant and I shamelessly stole it for this album. Basically, Intruder is very much about how the earth is angry and what I imagine it would say if it could speak to us.”
The theme of his previous album, Savage, was climate change and now Intruder, with its dystopian vision of the future, feels like a natural progression.
“Savage looked at the human condition, what humanity would eventually become in order to survive in such a hostile environment. But this new album is from the earth’s perspective and set very much in the present. It’s a different view of the same issue.”
Critics have described Intruder, Numan’s 21st studio album, as “fierce and fascinating”. The title track, with its sinister synths and glitchy undertones, is a nod to the earlier days while The Gift has a darker, pensive beat that captures the sombre mood of the pandemic.
‘The album was already well under way when Covid came along,” Gary reveals. “It was a horrible virus and I wrote The Gift directly about Covid. The idea was that Earth and nature had identified humans as an enemy, a sort of infestation and in reacting against it had given us The Gift. Maybe Covid is the first of many viruses to come.”
Now 63, Numan has witnessed a lot of changes in the music industry. Does he think our technological era makes life better or worse for young artists?
“I don’t think technology works against artists today. It just works differently. Obviously, social media gives them the opportunity to communicate directly with fans. I use it to keep them updated with news of tours etc while in the past artists would have had to rely on record companies for advertising — I actually prefer it now. But, at the same time, the whole streaming situation also makes it harder to make money. Having said that, we are trying to fix the streaming situation.”
Gary tells me his children are half Irish and that he has always enjoyed visits to Belfast and the island of Ireland.
“Hopefully things are getting back to normal. I’ve really missed touring, it’s more than a career, it’s a way of life. We’re due to tour America soon but yes, I’m very looking forward to coming to Belfast. I really enjoy live performance there as my fans there are amazing.”
For tickets to his show in Belfast on May 21, 2022, check out www.waterfront.co.uk