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Are children electric?

Synth-punk legend Gary Numan contemplates the apocalypse and collaborates with his daughter.


Gary Numan plays Tower Theatre on Monday. - PROVIDED
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  • Gary Numan plays Tower Theatre on Monday.

Gary Numan’s at his best when he’s looking toward the future. Recording the self-titled 1978 debut for his punk band Tubeway Army, Numan became so fascinated with a synthesizer in the studio that he rewrote his guitar parts for it. The move ultimately altered the course of pop music the following year after the Tubeway Army single “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and his solo hit “Cars” topped the charts and expanded the musical palettes of listeners around the world.

His work took on a post-Nine Inch Nails industrial sheen in the 1990s, and his most recent successes, 2013’s Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind) and 2017’s Savage (Songs From a Broken World) were inspired, respectively, by anxiety attacks over aging and imagining what life would be like in a global warming-ravaged hellscape. Numan plays Monday at Tower Theatre, 425 NW 23rd St., so we talked on the phone with him as he drove through Santiago, Chile.

Has touring internationally for Savage made you reconsider the world the album depicts?

Numan: Not really. Mainly the album is very much about a future world; it doesn’t really have that much to do with what’s going on now except the whole concept behind it being the global warming, climate change problem, which I obviously believe is very, very real and some people don’t. We went up to the Andes when we first arrived in Santiago, and there was virtually no snow whatsoever. We went to a ski center, and there was virtually no snow, and it was mid-to-late August. I was saying to the people there, “This isn’t normal, is it?” and they said, “No.” They were absolutely blaming global warming.

The snow had vanished a good month earlier than usual. And so the thing I have noticed as I’ve gone around the world is how many people are telling the same story in their local climate. Wherever you go, things are different — significantly different to what they’ve seen before. So when you hear this talk about, “It’s not real, and it’s a hoax, fake news,” and the rest of it, it’s so frustrating. And it makes me feel that the album is well-timed. It’s a very, very small part of the discussion, obviously, but I’m glad I made it now. And I don’t think it’s going to change anything, change anyone’s opinion, but at least I’ve been able to have my small contribution to the discussion about the whole global-warming situation because it’s absolutely happening.

I read you’re writing a book set in the same world as Savage. Is that coming out anytime soon?

Numan: [Laughs] Yeah, that has become an embarrassment for me, actually. I have been on that book for so long. I really hope so. It is a genuinely important ambition of mine to have a book published, a novel published. My ambition is to end my career, if you like, as a writer, not even as a musician, so it’s massively important to me. But I’ve done a fantastically bad job of actually making it happen. I really have been on that thing for years, so it’s an embarrassment I’ve not able to give enough time to it to actually get it finished. I’ve made albums and toured around the world, and I’m constantly working, but I don’t seem to be able to get it together enough to get that one thing finished. And I could have done. I don’t know what it is, really. It’s pathetic.

You’ve said that some of your biggest career mistakes came trying to recreate earlier successes. Since Splinter was one of your more successful albums, did you find yourself worrying about matching it with Savage?

Numan: Oh no, not at all. … I make music now because I love making it. It’s a hobby that transfers itself into a career. And I lost that. That’s how it was when I started. When I was a teenager making music, I did it for the love of it. There was no record company; there was no success — nothing like that. I just loved making music, and I completely lost sight of that when that first success happened. … And with Savage, absolutely, even though it’s done well, even though it charted in Britain, that to me is just an incredible cherry on the top, the icing on the cake. It wasn’t the intention of making the record. … I did not try to manipulate the music or the lyrics or the image so that it would do better. I learned a long, long time ago that I’m actually really shit at doing that anyway. When I tried to second-guess what was going to work, when I tried to second-guess what the radio would play or what the record company would like, I was terrible at it, absolutely terrible at it, so I have no sensitivity for that anyway. It nearly ruined my entire career trying to do that, and I would never go back to that.

Your daughter Persia appears on Savage. What was the experience of working with her like?

Numan: It was not planned. She sings on a song called “My Name Is Ruin.” I’d been working on that song pretty much all day. I tried to do the vocals she sings myself, and I just couldn’t get it to work right. It didn’t give the song the dynamic it needed. And then purely by chance, she came home from school that evening, and I thought, “D’you know what? I’ve heard her singing around the house, and I know she can sing really well.” I said, “Do you mind doing something for me? I’ve got this vocal, and I can’t get it to work, and I think your voice would suit it.” And she was amazing. She had never heard the song. She just listened to it a few times, learned what I wanted her to do. … She multi-tracked everything six times, all absolutely precise, and she’s got ADHD, so after about half an hour, she got bored and didn’t want to be there anymore and just sort of wandered away. But in that half an hour, she had done three completely different vocals and multi-tracked them perfectly. I just thought, “Jesus Christ!” It blew me away; she went out of the studio, and I just sat there thinking, “That was amazing,” and I had no idea she would be able to do anything like it. … It’s in her; she’s just got it in her, you know, without even trying, and I’m really proud of her. And hopefully she’ll actually sort of go into the business as a career for her. I would love it. All three of them actually; I’ve got three children. I’d love all of them to get into the music business if they want to. I would definitely support them for that.

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