Gary Numan pioneered the use of synths in rock and, with his number one single Are 'Friends' Electric? he may very well have invented the concept of the sex robot.
Last week he won our Tech Legend gong at the T3 Awards. This week his new album Savage has gone in at number 2, giving him his first major hit for quite some time. Coincidence? We'll leave you to decide…
Numan's synth-driven tunes, dark lyrics about tech and alienated, satnav-like voice caused a sensation in the late 70s and early 80s. And also, it must be said, a fair bit of hostility.
He’s since sold millions of records, and influenced everything from the New York hip-hop scene to Nine Inch Nails, techno and, erm, the Sugababes.
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T3: How did people react to you using synths and singing about technology, back in the late 70s?
GN: Very different to now. I remember when the stuff first came out the resistance to it was… striking. People were really hostile, y’know? I think people actually saw it as a dangerous thing… That it was gonna change the world order of music – that guitars were gonna be thrown out the window almost.
I’ve got friends now who are in big, chart bands who openly admit they hated me back then. I had the Musicians’ Union trying to bloody ban me because it ‘wasn’t real music’! I mean Jesus, that's a bit much isn't it? So it was, erm… interesting.
T3: Now, electronic music is totally normal… And obviously guitars haven’t ceased to exist as a result.
GN: Well it was coming from somewhere really ignorant because all my first singles had guitars all over them anyway. Now, synths are in every studio, they’re on peoples’ iPads, everywhere.
T3: What were the first synths you used?
JB: The MiniMoog. It is pronounced ‘Mogue’ – it should have an umlaut over one of the ‘o’s really. Then there was the ARP Odyssey and PolyMöog. The Odyssey you could play two notes at once and the Poly you could play multiple notes. Now for me, I couldn’t play for shit anyway, so it didn’t make much difference, but for people who could use more than one finger at once, that was a big leap forward.
T3: Do you still use those old synths?
GN: To be honest, no. Every time I start a new album there’s a whole world of new equipment and that’s really exciting to me. I feel slightly guilty saying it but I got the Moog Innovation Award a few years back and the prize they give you is the new D-Series MiniMoog they’ve done. Well, it’s a lovely thing to have and I was really grateful but when I'd done the new album I realised I hadn’t used it at all.
The whole analogue versus digital thing, I don’t really give a shit. Analogue isn’t ‘better’, nor is digital; it’s just different. All that matters is the sound that you make.
T3: A lot of your early lyrics deal with technology as an alienating force. Do you look at parts of the web today and see that as a vindication of what you wrote?
GN: Sort of, but I never in a million years could have foreseen the internet. I did write about the idea of robots alienating us from our humanity. Like [early hit, later sampled by the Sugababes] Are ‘Friends’ Electric? was about a man who lives in his bedroom and has sex delivered to him by robot prostitutes. So there was the idea that tech could make us more insular.
T3: Your song, M.E. was about AI. Is the idea of sentient computers something that keeps you awake at nights?
GN: That was sort of a love song really. There’s a lot of books written about being the last person alive but I thought it would be interesting to write about, if computers became self-aware, if there was some sort of apocalypse, the last being alive could be a machine. How would it feel? The funny thing is then they made that Wall-E film and that was what that was about haha! I thought that was pretty cool, actually.
T3: I thought M.E. was about a computer that had killed everyone.
GN: No, it’s more about a computer dying. That was really all that was about. It’s quite sad really.
I just read Elon Musk’s thing about self-determination in robot weapons. That’s truly terrifying. I think what he wants to do is come up with some world directive to prevent countries making those kinds of weapons but it’s hard to see how that would work with countries like North Korea. Putin said, “Whoever controls artificial intelligence will control the world”, so whatever these people say in public, you know they’re gonna be beavering away behind closed doors trying to make AI weapons work. It’s inevitable.
T3: That aside, are you into tech and gadgets?
GN: Obviously, I do like smartphones and tablets cos you can do things wherever you are. Which of course is a double-edged sword. This morning I woke up to about 40 emails wanting instant decisions on a dozen things. But on the other hand, they’re amazing. Phenomenal.
I think of new cars being able to steer themselves and brake automatically. Incredible. My brother’s a pilot and I flew with him on a new Airbus he was flying a few years back and I could not believe the amount of automation. It’s staggering. So much so, my brother was saying as a pilot you’re almost disconnected from it, like you’re a disinterested supervisor.
T3: It’s like the pilot is only there because it would freak people out if he or she wasn’t.
GN: I think so. I think when driverless cars happen and become a normal part of life. I think in some respects the danger is in keeping humans involved when really we should just leave it to the machines.
You do need to have faith in a way… Although when your own experience of using technology is using a laptop or whatever and it crashes all the time – it does go wrong reasonably regularly – you do think, ‘not sure I want it flying the planes’. But it’s not like there’s gonna be one MacBook flying the plane, is it? There’ll be a load of computers making group decisions.
I’d be alright with it, I think. It’d be… interesting.