If you've never listened to Gary Numan beyond his decades-old synth-pop smash hit "Cars," well, I feel bad for you, son. Numan sprouted from the U.K. punk rock scene in the late 1970s with his band Tubeway Army, cranking out art-damaged songs about drug addiction, comatose patients, male prostitution and, just for kicks, teenage masturbation. Numan wrote all the tunes, and while the sound might have been a punk take on Roxy Music, his lyrics were unabashedly influenced by William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard and, most important, the hyper-paranoid science fiction of Philip K. Dick.
It was Dick's influence that would permeate the lyrical content and sound of Tubeway Army's second album, Replicas. While there's minimal use of synthesizers on Tubeway Army's debut, they were front and center on their second record. The sound and bleak lyrics about untrustworthy androids and vulnerable humans would go on to inspire many a goth and industrial act in later years. Trent Reznor is highly vocal about its influence, and both the Foo Fighters and Marilyn Manson have covered Replicas' high point, the despondent "Down in the Park."
It was the third album—the first released under his own name—that cemented Numan's icy, sci-fi take on synth-pop and would define his career. 1979's The Pleasure Principle eschews guitars for synthesizers, and the Kraftwerk-influenced single "Cars" would hit No. 1 in the U.K. and go on to make new-wave history. Numan was at the height of his career, embarking on a lavish worldwide tour on the strength of the album. He dropped the Tubeway Army moniker and took on a robotic persona, and his fans responded by calling themselves "Numanoids." The influence of The Pleasure Principle is still felt today: Electronic dance duo Basement Jaxx used the hook from the rousing "M.E." for their smash single "Where's Your Head At," and the album laid down the blueprints for the recent resurgence of electronic dance music.
By the early '80s, while a handful of Numan's albums (1980's Telekon and 1983's Warriors, notably) still had some significant numbers, the sound was becoming increasingly stale and the public image that he'd created was causing severe personality damage. Numan, who had a history of violent outbursts, was becoming combative with the media while shrinking from the public eye. After years of missteps, and the occasional tour playing older albums in their entirety, Numan is back with a U.K.-chart-topping new album and the largest tour since his heyday. When I asked Numan how it felt to tour on a scale this massive again, he let me know it was a matter of "family man" perspective.
"I have three young children and so I try to limit tours to two weeks so that I'm not away from them for too long," Numan says. "With Splinter, though, I think the album is good enough to warrant extra effort and commitment. The reaction to it has been amazing and it would be such a waste to not try and help it in any way I can. I'm dreading being away from the children for so long, but I'm also really excited by the tour."
The new album, Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind), is his strongest since 1980. The synths are still there, but, per the times, they're in the background as a crunchy, industrial-rock tone sonically sprinkles the majority of tracks. Hearing the influence of Reznor's Nine Inch Nails is unavoidable; they've collaborated in the past and have toured together several times. "He has been very helpful to me in a number of ways over the years and I'm very grateful to him for that," Numan says.
The music may be darker, but the lyrics take an even grimmer tone, and rightfully so. Numan was recently diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Many of the songs on the new album lyrically showcase Numan battling his demons, and it's a miracle it even got made.
"I was diagnosed with depression in 2008 and didn't write a song for nearly four years," Numan says. "I then worked on a side project album called Dead Son Rising with my producer. That got me working again and I went straight from that into working on Splinter. Splinter is mostly about my fight with depression in that period and the effect it had on my life and those around me. I think, though, because it was written as I was recovering, it's more aggressive and powerful than you might expect given the subject matter."
Another calamity, a near-divorce, was the influence for one of Splinter's strongest tracks, the haunting "Lost." Recalling the melodic dystopia of Replicas' "Down in the Park," it's a distraught love letter Numan penned to his wife of almost 20 years.
"I came close to splitting up with my wife during my depression. I was about to run away from all the arguing, but before I did that, I started to write down how it would actually feel to not be with her," Numan says. "Those thoughts eventually became the lyrics for 'Lost' and that helped me to remember that she was still the amazing person that I married. Writing that song was the moment that we started to put it all back together. It's without doubt the most important song I've ever written, for me anyway."
Numan plays the Rialto Theatre on Sunday, March 9, before performing at several showcases at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. Not one for nostalgia, Numan is happy to be back, playing mostly new material.
"I'm not really one to dwell on the past anyway, so I've always concentrated more on new songs. But, as it's been seven years since my last studio album, my latest songs were no longer that new. Splinter has changed that, and I now have a new collection of songs that I'm very proud of, that the media and the fans seem to rate very highly. And I now know, having toured them quite a bit already, that they work even better live."