Gary Numan talks about the making of “Intruder”

Over 40 years after unleashing such pioneering electronic hits as “Down in the Park,” “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?,” and the new wave classic “Cars,” singer/musician/producer Gary Numan continues to evolve and push his work in new directions. His 2013 album Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind) was widely considered his best in years and was Numan’s first top-20 (UK) album since the early ’80s.  Its 2017 follow-up Savage (Songs from a Broken World) was equally well-received, and the trend continues with his latest, Intruder. Numan recently did a live-streamed concert and will be touring extensively in support of Intruder, beginning North American shows this fall. In the following interview, he talked about making the new album, touring, and more.

Did the Covid-19 pandemic have any impact on the making of Intruder?

Gary Numan: Not really; most of it was done. I was probably three-quarters of the way through, or close to, when the pandemic started. The album was the Earth speaking; if the Earth could speak, what would it say? So every song in the album is from the Earth’s point of view. It was meant to be the Earth’s voice speaking. The idea that we’re at war with the planet was already embedded in the concept. How does it feel about us, and would it fight back? Is it already fighting back? That was already there. So when the pandemic came along, it in a way fed into that. This idea of the Earth fighting back.

I mean, I hadn’t specifically come up with a particular method in which the Earth would fight back. But the pandemic came along, and I just thought, ‘Oh, there you go. That could be one.’ Maybe one of the mechanisms might be to employ viruses, to whittle down our numbers or ultimately to get rid of us completely. So it affected it in that way, in that it added a specific to the narratives of the album. I wrote a song called “The Gift,” which is about Covid specifically, but in the sense that it’s the Earth, the Earth is speaking in a slightly sarcastic way about, you know, do you like the gift I’ve just sent to you? ‘It wants to take your breath away,’ that kind of thing. And when the song starts, it’s talking about it as if it’s a good thing, and then quickly you become aware that it’s not a good thing at all.

And the reasons behind it, and the frustration, the anger behind why it was sent, become ever more obvious as it goes along. So I probably wouldn’t have done that song if Covid hadn’t been around. So yes, it would have had an effect on it. But that just fed into this general narrative anyway, so not a huge swing. 

But from a working point of view, it’s much the same. You’re in the studio in the morning, you come out at night, you don’t go out much when you’re working on an album, you get in kind of a work bubble, I guess. So pandemics can all come and go really, you’re just in there doing your thing. And the world is just ticking on by without you. And then when the album’s done, it’s finished, you sort of re-emerge, like a butterfly.

And that didn’t happen. The album was finished. I wrote a book as well in the summer. When that was all done … you sort of re-emerge, and the world is not what it was when you left it. And I was very aware of it obviously, I’m reading the news every morning before I start. I knew what was going on, and I was very keen that the children should all have masks on. I was very pro mask before it became a thing. I took it very, very seriously. I was very frightened of it. I absolutely did not want to catch it. I took every precaution I could; I was worried, I worried about my lungs and my career, and so on, even if I didn’t die. But in terms of my sort of day-to-day life, because I was so deep into the album at that point, it didn’t have that much of an effect on it, you know, the amount of time that we would spend going out and evenings, for example, that we would often do, they’re very limited when you work on an album. You’re just getting the record done. So when it was finished, I realized that the world was sort of partially closed and things were very, very different. And then it started to come home to me a little bit more, the inability to travel freely. It hadn’t really touched me until that point. So it sort of snuck up on me a little bit.

When I interviewed you for the last album, you said that you didn’t come up with the overall concept until you had started work on it. Did you have the concept going into it this time?

Gary Numan: Well, I knew I wanted to stay with the climate change connection. I just didn’t know how to go about it. I didn’t want to do another science fiction [theme], the way the previous album was. That sort of looking at what the human condition would be a hundred years or so after the global apocalypse, should it ever happen. And how brutal we would become and how very different we would be as people, simply to survive. The cruelty, and so on, that would be necessary. I didn’t want to do that again, obviously, because I sort of felt like I’d done it. But I did want to stay in climate change. My daughter wrote a poem, which is just lucky for me. She wrote a poem called “Earth,” which was about the Earth speaking to the other planets in the solar system, about why the Earth is so unhappy and how terrible people were, and all these horrible things that we were doing.

And it was really lovely. She was only 11 or maybe 12 when she did it. And it was really lovely and it showed great sensitivity to the issue, and sympathy and empathy for the planet. And I was really proud of her. That gave me the idea for “Intruder.” The idea being that the Earth is speaking. So I just took her idea and just broadened it a little bit, made it into an album, and then tried to find certain contradictions or certain similarities between that. Like there’s a song called “The End of Dragons.” I choose to believe that dragons were real because I want them to be. I love dragons. My whole house is covered in dragons. I’ve got a 20-foot bronze dragon in the front garden.

I mean, I’m obsessed by dragons. So I like to believe that they were real and that they were persecuted and pushed into a corner and eventually wiped out by humanity. And in that sense, I see a similarity between that and what we’re doing to the planet and that we’re pushing it into a corner and we’re making it fight. It has to fight back, to survive at all. There’s another one called “Saints and Liars,” which draws a parallel between those people that are so willing to believe in a God, for which I see no evidence, and yet are so unwilling to believe in climate change, for which there is a mountain of evidence. So again, I’m trying to draw parallels. It’s not always just the Earth saying ‘Oh, it’s all terrible. And people are horrible.’ It’s trying to find other connections to highlight the way people are, and the different ways people feel about it.

There’s a song called “I am Screaming,” which points out the fact that the Earth is sending us many very, very strong signals, and has been for quite some time. And we’re either not seeing them, or we’re not believing them or ignoring them or whatever. There’s a range of examples of how we are reacting to those signs. So that’s really what I was trying to do, take my daughter Echo’s idea from the poem and just expand it considerably into an hour’s worth of music.

Did you collaborate with anyone on this album?

Gary Numan: Well, I write everything. I produce everything at home, to begin with. So, the lyrics and the music and everything, that’s all mine. I produce it out to a level where Ade Fenton, who produces the records ultimately, has a very clear idea of what I want. So when I say I produce them, I don’t mean I produce them to the point of where that could go out. Although it could, I suppose, most of it’s finished. But it’s not done for that reason; it’s done to give Ade a very clear idea of where that song needs to be, where I see it going, the dynamics of it, the mood of it, the feel of it. So that when he gets it, he knows, he knows what I want. And he’s able to just polish that. I send him little songs in the rough, so to speak.

And his task is to smooth out those rough edges and make them more accomplished, more professional sounding, and to give some clarity. A lot of my productions lack clarity. They’re just a big wall of noise, five or six different loops all banging away. And it’s just madness. And he kind of unravels all that, keeps the essence of it, but just makes it sound better. So that’s the collaboration, really. Steve Harris, he plays guitar for me on tour. He played guitar on it. He’s great. I had my other two daughters, Raven and Persia sing on it. Eight songs I think they sing on. Actually, I say I write everything, I didn’t, and there’s a song on it called ‘A Black Sun’ that I co-wrote with Persia.

In fact, it’s more Persia’s song than mine. 80% of it is her. Musically, it’s nearly all her. I helped out with the chorus, but everything else is entirely her. I just did the vocal and the vocal melody and lyrics for it. So there was a collaboration. Gazelle Twin sings on it, who did some unbelievable stuff, really brilliant. I was amazed at what she did. Tim Slade, my new bass player … my previous bass player that I’d had for years has just had a new baby, and he’s always done art, and his art has suddenly become very successful. So he’s decided not to go touring anymore, and to just stay at home with his baby and his new wife and concentrate on his art. So I’ve got a new bass player, who’s been my standing bass player for the last few years. He was also on ‘Savage.’ 

But the real find for me was a man called Gorkem Sen. He’s a Turkish musician who invented an instrument called a Yaybahar. It’s absolutely unique. It’s very middle Eastern-sounding, but it’s just this bizarre contraption. It’s got like a central stem that you play upright with strings coming down, you can finger it or bow it. But from that, it looks just like springs, like springs are attached to it, which arc out towards these drums, like an array of percussion drums.

 And so when he plays it, the vibrations are going through the springs, into those drums, and creating all these weird effects. He’d be bowing in and then he’d just lean forward and he’d hit one of the springs with his bow and just sort of magical stuff happens. I’ve got no idea how it works. It’s the most amazing-looking thing. I heard about him and we wrote to him and eventually, after some discussion, he agreed to play on three songs on the album. For me, it was an absolute treat and honor, because it’s a unique thing.

I’ve always had a fascination with Middle Eastern sort of melodies and instrumentation, for a long time. It had been sprinkled across previous albums. But with this one, I actually got the real thing in, with this unique instrument. So the first three songs on the album are the three songs that Gorkem plays on and the one called ‘The Gift,’ which is about COVID; that’s where I think more than anywhere, that instrument really flies. You can really hear what it’s doing. On the other two, it’s sort of weird background, sort of a noisy sort of thing. And it’s brilliant, you know, you really miss it if it’s not there. But on ‘The Gift,’ there’s like a solo towards the end of it. And it’s just beautiful. When I first heard it … you know the thing about all the hairs on your arms stand up? I always thought that was bullshit. It had never happened to me. But it did when I heard it. I just went, ‘Oh my God.’ And it was amazing. I just listened to it again and again and again, and I was so happy with it. I consider that to be a massive feature of the album.

As the instrument is so unique, were there any challenges utilizing it in your music?

Gary Numan: It was a little bit of a challenge because there’s so much of it. It’s such a full sound. It fills every gap there is. And so the trick was to create space for it. So there was a certain amount of undoing the production that had been there before. Because we gave him sort of fairly complete songs and just said ‘Right, off you go,’ and there was too much, there was too much music there to allow the Yaybahar to fly. So there was a fair amount of work to then create space for it. In the future, should I ever use it again, I’ll be that much wiser. And I would send him things which are far less complete in terms of production and give him the space to really, really do his thing. But on ‘The Gift’, you hear it, he got the space that he needed, and I think it’s amazing. I know it’s my album. I shouldn’t say that. But what he does, I think, is amazing.

You’ve been using crowdfunding with your recent albums. Has that direct interaction with audiences affected or influenced your music at all?

Gary Numan: So actually, I don’t see myself as being highly interactive, to be truthful. When we made this album, and on the previous album, I had these campaigns running where I would do video updates regularly, and people could see the development of the songs. Part of that was vanity, actually. On the mercenary side of it, it is a very good way of pre-selling a record. So it’s a good way of getting the fans involved. Pre-selling helps the chart position. It helps to galvanize interest and so on. But the truth of it is that the original idea for doing it was actually vanity. You put a lot into making an album, you know, several years of your life usually, and it’s quite painful. You have good days obviously, where things go really, really well, but the majority of it is pretty painful. You’re constantly worried, and you’re constantly concerned that the ideas aren’t good enough, you know, you doubt yourself all the time. Your confidence is a fragile thing at best. And so I find making albums to be pretty stressful, actually. There’s a huge amount of worry and doubt and anxiety goes into them, from beginning to end. And it used to bother me that people would get the shrink-wrapped CD and go rip it apart, put it on and go, ‘Yeah, it’s alright.’ All right??? That’s two years of my fucking life in that record! For it to be so casually judged … I understand that, but it bothered me a little bit, and I began to wonder whether the fans would get more out of it as a listening experience if they were more aware of what went into making it in the first place and the decisions involved. Why that song has now got that lyric or that vocal melody, or that noise there. They were able to follow the decision-making, the other ideas that I tried that didn’t work before that one. 

If they could see all the anxiety that I go through, all the bad days where I’ve got my head in my hands and it’s been shit, if they could see all of that, when they get that finished record they would be so much more involved in it. Then I feel it would make the listening experience that much more enjoyable, or they would be more engaged in it because they were aware of the journey that album had taken. And so that was my thinking. It was really to make people realize that it’s really difficult. You don’t just sit there in your room in your nice big house sort of just churning out tunes for a couple of weeks and that’s done. It’s two intense years of your life, quite often. And I wanted them to be aware of that. And so, like I said, there is a good business reason for doing it, because it’s a pre-sell, but really I wanted them to know that I suffer through that [making an album].

But it’s not interactive in the way that I’m listening to feedback. One of the funny things that happens with these campaigns is I would do an update and I say, ‘Look, this is a very early idea. This isn’t the way it’s going to be. This is just to let you see this in progress. There’s that chorus, but I’m not going to keep that, there’s that sound now, I won’t keep that. This is just to give you an idea.’ And then they come back and say, ‘Oh yeah, that chorus isn’t right, is it?’ What did I fucking say? What did I say? I know it’s not right. So you get all this stuff coming back, and it’s lovely, and it’s really fun. But it doesn’t shape the way you think about what you’re doing. You’re going somewhere, and you’re just allowing people to peek through the window. It’s not changing the fact that you’re going that way. So no, I’m not affected by the level of interaction that I have at all.

You recently did a live-streamed concert. What was that experience like? Did not having an actual in-person audience affect you?

Gary Numan: It’s very different in that I didn’t realize how much of the confidence, the showing off element of being on stage, how much of that is fed by the reaction from the audience. When a concert starts, when a gig starts, the lights go down, the crowd starts making a noise, you walk out, the crowd erupts, and you feed off of that.

You feed off of the fact that they like that you’re there, that they’re excited that you’re there, and that makes you feel special. And that gives you that extra level of confidence to just do your thing, to get down and amongst them. Just really be that full-on performer that you need to be. When you’re doing the stream show, of course, there is none of that. There is no big roar as you come on. It was all very, very quiet. The camera crew will say,’ Right, rolling!’ The sound man says, ‘Right, recording.’ And off you go, it’s very, very flat. And so you kind of have to find your own energy from it, I guess. Because you’re not being fed that element that is so vital. I think we were all concerned about it.

We all talked about it a lot. Me and the guitarist Steve, especially, were worried about how we were going to do our thing without that audience there. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be when it came to it. You know, it started, the volume was there. I would look across at Steve, he was doing his thing and we sort of just fed off each other and looking around, I looked back at a keyboard player and he’s banging in and going for it madly. I thought , ‘Oh, that feels great’. For a lot of the time, I look back and I see all the lights and they’re doing their thing and it just looks great, and I’m thinking, ‘This looks cool. This sounds great. It sounds really loud.’

We had a PA system put in, even though we didn’t have a crowd, just to give us that weight of volume and the noise of it. You very sort of quickly just get on with it, really. And it was good. I enjoyed it. At the end of it, I’m sweating. And it was, you felt like you’d done a proper performance. I think it looked good on the screen. It looks quite dynamic. But in truth, it is nothing like a gig; nothing, nothing like it. As an alternative to doing a proper gig, it barely comes close to it. There is so much about touring that is missing from doing these streamed events. Anyone that prefers doing a streamed event to actually going out and tour proper is crazy as far as I’m concerned. There’s no comparison, you know, there’s so much more; it’s not just a gig.

It’s the whole thing, you know, you’re traveling, getting to cities, meeting new people. Everyone is different. Every day is a new adventure. It’s a new experience. And you’re living through all of that and experiencing all of these things with the band, who are like your closest friends. And so it’s a shared experience, and you’ll kind of be rooting together, and you’re all working to a common goal. It’s a lovely thing. I’ve missed it massively, much more than I thought I would, to be truthful. That’s what I want back. That’s why we just announced that the North American tour will start in September. For me, that’s just the best thing, the best thing ever.

So, yeah, I’ve done the streaming show. It was really good. It wasn’t as difficult an experience as I expected it to be. I think from an audience point of view as well, it must be great sitting at home, watching on TV. You haven’t got to go out and you haven’t got all the aggravation of trying to find a parking space and all that you have to do when you go out and see a gig, and dealing with traffic, none of that. You don’t have any of that, so I can see that it has advantages. But you’re not in the moment, you’re not sharing that thing with all these other people, you haven’t got that group excitement. That feeling of being there when it happens, as opposed to watching it happening somewhere else. It’s just a different experience for all of us, I think. And I think although fans will probably welcome a stream show rather than none, I don’t think it will compare to going back to real gigs for anybody.

In terms of the setlist, how did it compare to what we can expect with your upcoming tour?

Gary Numan: When we go out and tour proper, it won’t be the same songs necessarily, but along the same sort of lines. The same mix of old and new and recent; the same heavy emphasis on the new album, obviously. Because that’s really what you’re there for. I think we did five or six older, early generation songs, so I’ll probably carry on doing that. I might bump that up a little bit, so seven maybe. And I rotate what those songs are. So they’re not always the same songs every night, but it will have much the same feel to it.

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NOTE: As part of this interview, I also spoke to Gary about how he initially got into electronic music. This will be part of a large piece I am working on for about electronic artists who emerged in the post-punk era. It will be published later this summer and linked to my author page (which currently features many other interesting interviews – take a look!).