Donald Trump propelled Gary Numan back to the future.
On his 22nd studio album, Savage (Songs From a Broken World), due out Sept. 15, the English electronic music pioneer revisits futuristic concepts for the first time since his career-launching 1979 Replicas and Pleasure Principle collections, inspired in part by our president’s regressive environmental agenda.
Throbbingly enthralling, sometimes exotic and cinematic, Savage is a continued return to form for Numan, following 2013’s critically lauded Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind). Lyrically, it portrays an apocalyptic, post–global warming Earth in which humans have become ruthless survivors.
“It was something that I was quite concerned about anyway,” Numan says, speaking from his castle-esque Northridge home. “Then all of a sudden Trump comes along and the whole thing looks like it might go to shit.”
An unfinished dystopian novel that Numan’s been writing for about six years provided the thematic roadmap for Savage’s sonic and lyrical narrative. In turn, making the record helped the book, the first of many Numan hopes to write, progress beyond “just a never-ending collection of ideas.”
“It’s become a bit embarrassing, really, how long I’ve been working on it,” he says, his “h”-dropping West London accent firmly intact. “[But] it’s really got some kind of structure to it now — and writing the album is what made that happen.”
The son of a London bus driver, Numan, 59, initially turned heads with groundbreaking electronic trio Tubeway Army, whose second album, Replicas (credited to Gary Numan + Tubeway Army), topped the U.K. albums chart and spawned No. 1 single “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” — since covered by everyone from The Dead Weather to Weezer.
“Periodically I’ll give you a dose of nostalgia. But then
Running early synthesizers through guitar effects pedals, Numan projected new wave–y visions of a future London run by a rogue, self-aware computer. He carried his theatrically robotic Tubeway Army persona into a solo career that initially continued the band’s stellar success. Just five months after Replicas, Numan unleashed the U.K. chart–topping The Pleasure Principle, featuring the androidal, much-sampled “Cars” — still his sole stateside hit.
While his popularity began wilting in the mid-1980s, as Numan flirted with a funkier, more radio-friendly sound, toward the end of the following decade he enjoyed massive cred injections when alt-rock royalty Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson and Foo Fighters covered his songs. By the new millennium, his now goth- and industrial-tinted music was once again living up to the hype, cementing global cult status and a legion of “Numanoid” fans.
Over the years, Numan says he’s mostly written about religion and firsthand personal experiences, rather than looking beyond his own life for fictional concepts. But when it came time to write what would become Savage, he found himself almost too cheery to tackle such dark subject matter.
“I’d moved to America [in 2012]; life was good … I didn’t know what to write about,” he explains. “And then the whole election thing kicked in, and Trump started to do what he did, and it just gave [the book/album narrative] so much more sort of relevance.”
Numan is referring specifically to President Trump’s promises to roll back many environmental regulations, and in particular his longtime threat (confirmed in June) to withdraw America from the Paris Climate Accord. Yet although he was an outspoken supporter of then–U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the height of his early-’80s fame, the singer insists he’s “not political at all.”
Defying his studied automaton image, Numan’s actually a personable family man who discusses his accomplished new record in the by-the-way tone of a bloke down the pub describing a bathroom remodel. But he palpably glows while recounting his 11-year-old daughter Persia’s haunting vocal performance on Savage’s lead single, “My Name Is Ruin,” and says he’d actively support any of his three kids who chose to follow in his career path. In contrast to many of his peers, Numan has no negative opinions on today’s download-dominated, do-it-yourself music business.
“There’s so much doom and gloom and I just don’t see it that way at all,” he says. “If anything … I see what’s going on now as something of a golden age.”
He singles out retail music chains as examples of “things that were getting in the way” in the old industry model.
“They were absolutely crucifying independent labels. … I know this from when I tried to run my own label [Numa] in the ’80s,” he laments. “'You greedy little shits!’ So I was not disappointed when I saw a lot of the big chains starting to go under, ’cos I thought, 'You fucking deserve it!’”
Numan ran a successful Pledge Music crowdfunding campaign for Savage, not so much to finance the record (which was recorded fairly cheaply in his home studio by longtime producer Ade Fenton) as to involve listeners in the process, he says.
“I genuinely believe that if a fan is more aware of what it took to make a record … it might make the album a more enjoyable experience,” he explains.
Numan attributes his enduring cult rep to consistent, quality output and regular touring, plus a “chip on my shoulder about nostalgia” that averts creative stagnation. But with his biggest hit some 40 years distant, he has to delicately juggle self-identity with fan expectations. His solution has been to perform sporadic “nostalgia” tours, often tied in with anniversaries of particular releases, and then devote his remaining energy to newer material.
“Periodically I’ll give you a dose of [nostalgia],” he explains. “But then, for the rest of it, get off my back … ’cos I feel like I’ve 'serviced’ that.”
Accordingly, two years ago, Numan performed a three-night residency at the Teragram Ballroom, where he played the Replicas, Pleasure Principle and 1980’s Telekon albums in their entirety. But when he returns to that venue on Nov. 16, “maybe about a quarter of the set” will be old songs. And even these will be reimagined for contemporary coherence.
“We actually make [old songs] much heavier and much darker than they were before,” he says. “So they can sit alongside what I’m doing now and not feel like these awkward little additions.”