When it came time to compose songs for the follow up to his hard-edged, 2013 album, Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind), Gary Numan, the mascara-eyed androgynous electro-pioneer, found himself completely stumped as to what to write about. But he knew exactly why. Having recently emigrated from England to Los Angeles with his wife, Gemma, and three daughters, and coming off a successful tour for what was his highest charting album in three decades, Numan was, well, happy.
“I have no talent for happy or uplifting songs,” says Numan, whose offstage, no-makeup demeanor is surprisingly self-effacing. “If I have a really good day or period in my life, then I have no inclination to write about it.”
Numan instead decided to “steal ideas” from a dystopian novel he’s been writing on and off for several years. Set in the aftermath of global warming, the novel-in-progress ultimately provided the storyline, characters and post-apocalyptic scenarios so vividly rendered in the lyrics and sonic textures of his newest album, Savage (Songs From a Broken World). This Friday, Numan brings his futuristic sound and vision to Warehouse Live.
From the neon tube pyramid that appears in the video for his 1979 New Wave hit “Cars,” to the harsh, seemingly endless desert landscape in the drone-filmed clip for Savage’s first single, “My Name is Ruin,” Numan has always married his music to memorable visuals. The ethereal, heartbreaking guest vocal heard on “Ruin” is sung by Numan’s 11-year-old daughter Persia, who also appears in the song’s video—a white cross painted across her forehead, her gentle face framed by the future world’s relentless, unsetting sun.
“There’s a suspicion that I put Persia on it just because I’m her dad,” says Numan, who was inspired to invite Persia to sing on the track after finding his vocals alone lacked a certain energy. “She absolutely nailed it and lifted the track in the places it needed lifting. She’s there on merit, and that makes me all the more proud.” The resulting song is both cathartic and poignant, a fearless ode to an impending apocalypse.
“I’m not good at writing about anything other than darker subjects,” says Numan, “and when I do, and come up with something I’m particularly happy with, like ‘My Name is Ruin,’ it really does make me happy. (laughs) It feeds the negative side of me in a positive way, I guess.”
As a singer, Numan possesses one of the most distinctive voices in post-punk, New Wave, electronic music. “He’s a bit like David Bowie,” says Savage’s producer Ade Fenton. “You can’t mistake Gary Numan’s voice for anybody else.” But Numan admits he has a love-hate relationship with his voice.
“I’ve never really liked my voice,” he says. “I do think it’s got slightly richer as I got older, so I’m less upset with it now than when I first started, but I don’t see myself as a singer. I have a voice that serves a purpose, and if I could choose a voice, it wouldn’t be mine actually. It would be someone else’s.”
Still, that voice has been the lodestar for such fans as Marilyn Manson, Trent Reznor and the Foo Fighters, who have all covered Numan’s music.
“Sometimes, the limitations you have, almost by default, give you a certain style or sound that’s your own,” says Numan. “What I struggle to do is embrace that as a good thing.”
Like much of Numan’s recent work, the sound of Savage is much more industrial and experimental than his '80s work, blending digitally distorted, Zeppelin-esque synth riffs with Arabic scales and spooky, cinematic sound design. Numan’s lyrics speak to what he describes as “science possibility rather than science fantasy.”
With a U.S. president who claims global warming is “a hoax” and plans to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, does Gary Numan harbor any optimism for the future?
“I am optimistic,” Numan says emphatically. “I’m stupidly optimistic. . . . When you see a huge amount of unfortunate things going on, on many different levels, in many different areas, always, always within that, there are good people, trying to do the right thing, trying to undo the damage that bad things or bad people have done. There is always good struggling to surface.
“I write about dark sh*t. And I’m fascinated by dark stuff, I can’t deny that. But over all of that, I’m actually optimistic things will slowly get better.”
Gary Numan plus special guest Me Not You will perform Friday, Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. From $23.00. Warehouse Live, 813 Saint Emanuel St. 713-225-5483. More info and tickets at warehouselive.com.