Above: Johnny Cash, photographed by Harry Langdon
Before it became cool to like Johnny Cash in the nineties, it was decidedly uncool. At least according to Trent Reznor, who grew up in small-town America trying to escape the country music establishment. For the Nine Inch Nails frontman, Rick Rubin’s legacy-shaping production on Cash’s famed American series was the first time the country singer’s stripped down genius and rich baritone struck a chord in him—one that continues to echo in Reznor’s own productions today.
The late Johnny Cash only became the focus of my attention when Rick Rubin asked me if I thought it was cool for him to record my song “Hurt” for the album American IV: The Man Comes Around. That was in 2002, but I was certainly aware of Johnny Cash before that. Actually, I’ve known about him my whole life. But it wasn’t until Rick Rubin stripped away all the unnecessary trappings of whatever era he’d released music before and refocused Cash into a new direction that I really started paying attention. This was the beginning of a series of great albums—all of which featured that uniquely sparse sound consisting only of Johnny Cash’s voice and a guitar. I thought that the first album, American Recordings, was such a bold move because it suddenly became obvious that reducing the songs to their core was what really mattered. This was about his songwriting and voice and persona… and nothing else.
When I started to work on the—how shall I put it?— Nine Inch Nails “comeback” album Hesitation Marks, I remember telling The New Yorker in an interview that I wanted the album to sound open and Johnny Cash-like. I guess American Recordings really had left a strong impression on me. And even though Hesitation Marks eventually didn’t turn out to become that sparse and ascetic, it was still driven by the idea to use as few parts as possible—just my voice and a drum machine. I don’t remember any other Nine Inch Nails album that was so reduced to the core of what I wanted to say and I certainly don’t recall any other musician who has influenced me that much recently. A lot of this has to do with Cash’s natural authority and sense of style.
Having said that, I have to stress the fact that I was the opposite of a Johnny Cash fan before. I always thought of him as a country and western has-been and the exact opposite of what I considered cool as a kid growing up in a little town called Mercer, Pennsylvania. This was true even when I started making music in Cleveland years later. But as a teenager, I was against whatever my little town was all about, and since it was a country and western town, I also hated Johnny Cash. In my adolescent ignorance I saw him as a representation of a lifestyle I wanted to escape, strange as it is to say. But after maturing I was of course flattered when Rick finally sent me Cash’s version of “Hurt”, even though this is an extremely personal song and it still sounds strange in my ears to hear another man singing these lyrics… even if it is the man in black.
This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 36 (4, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.
Above: Mark Fell, photographed in Chicago by Satoki Nagata.
Dance music deconstructions are a dime a dozen these days, alternately appearing as noisy four-to-the-floor embellished with unpredictable sonic artifacts or industrial, reverb soaked meditations on atmosphere. Not so the music of Mark Fell. The Sheffield-based artist and electronic musician has long been doing things bone dry in an attempt to get as far away from “representational” music as possible. Fell sees spatial effects—in contrast to pure synthesis—as an attempt to evoke something beyond music itself, of which his own compositions function as modernist critique. This is the common thread in his repertoire, which spans the avant-house of Sensate Focus and SND (his duo with Mat Steel) to the borderline academic analysis of house music’s component parts—its peaks and troughs and the spaces in between. As Fell told A.J. Samuels in the Winter ’13 edition of Electronic Beats Magazine, his highly sculpted dance music reference points are as shaped by philosophical considerations as by British alternative music culture’s anti-Thatcherite history.
Mark, like a number of electronic musicians you have at least one foot in the art world. How do you see the relationship between your music and sound-related art installations?
I think the music industry has a sort of baggage—that music is about having a good time, being an emotional release, being “universal” or getting lost in the moment. But I’m not primarily interested in trying to achieve these things. On the other hand, in the art world there’s a reaction precisely against all that. The art world’s baggage emphasizes critique and meaning. When you visit a show, interpretive notes are intended to guide the visitor through the work by explaining the meaning of things. So when I make art installations, even though I read a lot of philosophy and I’m involved in the theoretical aspect of the work, I still don’t think the point of the art I make is to understand a theory of the artwork. For me, art is something ideally one should be able to engage with in phenomenological terms. So my work in both music and art is usually a reaction against both those kinds of baggage. I just did a performance at Krakow’s Unsound Festival where I have a bottle of water next to the mixer and my bag, and about thirty seconds before the set ends I take the bottle and put it in my pocket and put my bag on. I do it in a way that’s very contrary to the climax or the idea of a musical crescendo or some massively involved ending. I was showing the audience that I was thinking pragmatically about getting off the stage, doing it in a very matter of fact way. I’m not sure if everyone picked up on it, but I was actually quite proud of it.
You can see that especially in your Boiler Room performance with SND on YouTube. You’re wearing your backpack the whole time, too.
Exactly, I did that to look as untrendy as possible, which for me is not too difficult. Trying not to show enthusiasm is important for me. Even though I am enthusiastic about the music, I am actively trying not to prompt the audience to share my enthusiasm. They should decide for themselves.
What do you think that achieves?
It’s a really difficult question to answer. I guess for me house music has really meant a lot. I grew up in a part of Sheffield that was really falling to bits when house and techno music arrived. It was towards the end of Thatcher’s government and it was quite a repressive time to live in. So club culture here felt like a reaction against that state of affairs in a very real sense. Now, some twenty-something years after it seems as if club culture has become overwhelmingly commodified. I’m not interested in displaying wealth, taking drugs, driving fancy cars or trying to have sex with lots of women, and it seems this kind of music now promotes those things. So my music is a response to the commodification of club music culture, which is something that I kind of object to.
Terre Thaemlitz has similarly criticized the Madonna-ization of house music—i.e. the popular white washing of its roots in urban poverty and queer culture. I know you’ve said in previous interviews that your views on house music were the only thing you two really had in common.
Well, Terre and I actually have quite a lot in common in that we’re both pretty antagonistic about a lot of things. We’re very different kinds of characters, but we share concerns about wanting to question things. I can’t speak for Terre but I think he’d agree with me. We don’t want to present just a really engaging, “fun” experience. When I first met Terre I had invited him over to Sheffield to perform one of his electroacoustic pieces. Then he told me, “Oh, I can DJ at the party if you want too.” I was like, “Sure, DJ in the bar.” Then I told Mat from SND, “This Terre guy wants to DJ, it’ll probably be awful, but whatever.” And then when we heard him that evening we were laughing like, “Wow, he’s actually a pretty good DJ!” I expected him to just play a whole bunch of really eclectic stuff and for it to be a big mess structurally or whatever—a fair description of my approach to DJing, by the way. With Terre you could tell it was all a very considered and consistent approach, and he played a bunch of records that were very important for me at the time—very specific house music from a very specific period.
You mention growing up under Thatcher. What was your reaction to Thatcher’s passing this year?
I don’t hate Thatcher as a person, I just disagreed with most of the policies she and her government stood for. In the village next to where I live they were dragging effigies of her through the street and performing quite degrading acts on those effigies. And although I sympathize with the motives of those people, that’s beyond what I would say is acceptable when someone dies. Having said that, when we found out she died, it sounds terrible, but for most of my family and friends there was a celebration. There were parties; not because a person died, but rather because of the memories of everything that had happened in those times. It was a horrible time and a very repressive government. We all lost friends as a result of those policies: people committed suicide, people got into drugs, lives got screwed up. So the celebration, if you could call it that, was in memory of those people, and in reflection upon those times. A woman on the local radio summed it up very well: “When the oppressor dies the oppressed celebrate.”
Which policies are you referring to specifically?
It’s hard to say specifically which but what I can say is that there was a general mood of uneasiness. I grew up next to the village of Orgreave where in 1984 the Battle of Orgreave took place between police and miners. Jeremy Deller actually made a reconstruction of the confrontation, which is quite interesting. Around the time, when I was sixteen and leaving school I was thinking, “What the hell is going on?” It seemed like society was falling to bits. My dad lost his job and couldn’t find work again. It was so oppressive. I was brought up with certain kinds of moral beliefs about how you should contribute to society and things should be getting better and people should treat each other with respect. You know: you get a job and it… works. But when I was finishing school I realized it was all bullshit. It’s not what I observed in the world and society around me. That’s when I encountered Throbbing Gristle. For me they weren’t “wreckers of society”, as they’d been portrayed in the press. Actually they highlighted the fact society was being wrecked. I was just this uber-alienated school kid from a crumbling town in the North who saw things falling apart and got obsessed with electronic music and alternative culture.
It’s a common narrative that artistically exciting things come out of eras of crisis, but it still feels crass to think about it like that.
In my town, Rotherham, none of my friends worked for years and people just made their own culture. There was music every night and events all the time. There were maybe fifty or one hundred people that would just hang around and do stuff. Between leaving school and starting college in ’87 or ’88 it was culturally the most amazing few years because everyone was doing stuff. And maybe that was a consequence of the terrible socio-economic state the country was in, but I don’t know.
Mark Fell blocks the light. “Seeing the medium as a way of representing something else is not something I really do, like the idea of using paint to represent a landscape. I would rather get a bunch of colors and put them on the canvas and see how that works.”
What did your dad do?
He was a steel worker and his whole family worked in the steel industry. Between central Sheffield and Rotherham is this corridor of factories, and he worked there from the age of about fourteen for around thirty-five years. This was when you got a job and you just had it forever. He was fifty at the time and never worked again, and he suffered quite severe health problems as a consequence; he had a stroke because he was trying to work so hard doing other things to survive.
Were you expected to follow in your dad’s footsteps as a steel worker?
No, I was quite lucky in that both my parents, although they were from this very traditional Northern working-class background, had other interests. My mum was quite into literature and was more of an intellectual person. As a child from a very poor background she won a scholarship to grammar school, and this was a kind of step into a more intellectually engaged environment for her. Similarly my dad won a scholarship to study art at Ruskin College, but was unable to go because he had to earn money to support his siblings. They always encouraged me to do art and music and never pressured me about anything else. It was a very liberal upbringing and I always felt very lucky to have had that support.
I know philosophy is important to your practice both in music and art, and you’ve written in the past about the importance of phenomenology for what you do—specifically in The Wire about Martin Heidegger’s positing the primacy of practical knowledge of tools and systems over theoretical knowledge of the same.
Well, I studied philosophy for two years and after a few twists and turns eventually became obsessed with Wittgenstein’s later work. After college I went on to study fine art at university, I found myself looking at things from a philosophical perspective. But this was quite in contrast to the mood at the time, which was heavily influenced by the French post-structuralists—Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and so on. In contrast what I liked about Wittgenstein was his matter-of-fact approach to language, that there’s nothing scary or problematic about it. If you think of people like Chomsky who say language is the way it is because of deep structures in the brain, or you think about any of the French post-structuralists where language is framed as something problematic and restrictive, Wittgenstein’s description of normal, everyday language seems free from this paranoia. Anyhow, I eventually got heavily into Richard Rorty and through him I got into Martin Heidegger. Actually, my ambition was to learn German in order to read Heidegger. Hubert Dreyfus, whose lecture series is downloadable as podcasts was quite helpful. I bought the same version of Heidegger’s Being and Time used in his class and sort of remotely attended the lecture series. This was really engaging because you could actually listen to students in the audience going, “Hey! I know German—I think I have a better translation,” or whatever. The podcasts really helped with understanding the subtleties. Then at a certain point I met electronic musician and artist Yasunao Tone and soon realized that he was also heavy into philosophy and Heidegger. That also gave me a new way of understanding his work and performances using technology.
Do you see Yasunao Tone’s work with malfunctioning MP3s as an example of the kinds of disturbances in a system that modify a tools function—and for Heidegger also highlight its relationship to the tool’s surroundings?
You could give it that reading, but I think with Bruno Latour you can also get an interesting reading of Yasunao’s practice, especially his ideas about the connection between humans and non-humans and how action is constituted in networks, instead of human action always driving networks of things.
It seems ideas related to object oriented philosophy—investigating the psychic reality of objects and non-human systems as opposed to just human knowledge—has been especially relevant in the past few years for artists and musicians dealing with independently evolving electronic artifacts.
Having looked at this quite superficially I didn’t see what was so special about it. For me, philosophy isn’t about trying to understand the absolute truth of things. It’s about how we understand things under different, perhaps even contrary descriptions. Like when Copernicus pointed out that the sun was the center of the universe and not just some yellow thing that goes around the earth, it’s not like the planets started behaving differently—they didn’t suddenly adopt different positions. It was just a different description. And actually we could still describe the solar system as moving around us. It would probably be a bit more complex and not mathematically as elegant. But it would still be meaningful. I’ve also been obsessively watching Richard Feynman’s lectures on YouTube and one struck me in particular about gravity and centrifugal force and why the moon revolves around the earth. He said that initially people thought it was angels that were pushing it. And after a long complex description of the forces involved he concluded that the angels are pushing it, but just in the opposite direction we thought.
In your solo work I often hear repetition as a tool to display all of the variations of a closed system of sounds. The approach seems pretty scientific and focused on multiple perspectives and sound-variables in all its possible combinations, especially on n-Dimensional Analysis.
Well, somebody said one of my records sounded like an n-dimensional analysis which I thought would be a good name for a record. For the piece I made quite normal house tracks using a bass-line sound, a chord-like sound and percussion. It’s important to me that in the production, things sound authentic. I’m not into making “weird” sounds; I am into using very recognizable sounds and production techniques, but creating unusual patterns. If the sounds were unfamiliar, I wouldn’t be so interested. What’s happening on the record is all the different ways I undid or deconstructed the original track. Something that recurs in my work is that an object can be seen from many different angles, and that’s also what I tried to do with Multistability. It’s a way to prompt the listener to encounter the work from multiple points of view. But it’s also about a practical question of how you structure a record. In dance music you might consider how things are introduced and the peaks and troughs, and what happens in the eight minutes of a track. But this is something I find really difficult to do. I also find this structure problematic from a musical perspective, even if I could do it really well. I wanted to try to develop other ways of structuring that kind of music.
Was that always the case?
My kind of journey into electronic music started with Human League, hearing “Love Action” in August 1981. At that moment there were loads of breakthrough British new romantic acts: Soft Cell had “Tainted Love”, Duran Duran had “Girls on Film”, Ultravox had “Vienna”; but “Love Action” was what I really loved. Then I realized they were from Sheffield as well, so every weekend I would come into the city to try and spot them but never really did. And that’s how I got into more esoteric electronic music, like Throbbing Gristle, Chris and Cosey, Clock DVA, The Anti-Group and Cabaret Voltaire. For me, if anything had a guitar on it, I was like, “No, that crosses the line.” If the kick drum wasn’t right, I wouldn’t listen to it. And for me the perfect formula was “Love Action”. You could judge how much I liked something based on how far away it was from that song.
I know that last year you did an installation in an anechoic chamber at University of Salford. That seems like a perfect atmosphere for what you do because the sounds you work with are so incredibly dry and pure and without any spatial effects.
I tend to not treat sounds. I’m more of a synthesis person and for me, clarity is a really important consideration—which, again, is because of “Love Action”. I don’t use artificial reverberation—the room adds spatial qualities; and I don’t process sound with effects. I come from a contemporary art background instead of a music background, and I have an affinity with very untrendy ideas from modernism. Seeing the medium as a way of representing something else is not something I really do, like the idea of using paint to represent a landscape. I would rather get a bunch of colors and put them on the canvas and see how that works; just a presentation of shapes and colors. Representational aspects creep into music production in terms of how sound is processed to create the illusion of space. But music has a non-representational tradition. In the history of music there haven’t really been so many instruments built to sound like an elephant, say. Creating instruments to represent those sounds is a pretty recent development. In visual art it’s different, of course. But in the end, it’s a kind of ideological stance. Like if an architect is building a wall out of concrete, they wouldn’t go and paint bricks on it to make it look like bricks. If I make something that exists in a computer environment, why make it sound like it’s in a cathedral or something?
So reverb is kind of the trompe l’oeil to the abstract expressionism of pure synthesis?
Yeah. It’s like the “Truth to materials” slogan in architecture. But in academic electroacoustic music, the approach is very different. If you read Denis Smalley, who’s a prominent electroacoustic composer, you’ll see he talks about sonic forms in terms derived from real world landscapes—for example a river with points of bird song along it, and things moving in and out of focus, et cetera. What I do isn’t entirely formal—rather, it’s a critique of that kind of approach. I also dislike the idea of intentionally trying to create a specific emotional response. This is a belief that a lot of people have about music: that the composer is inspired by something and that they want to convey that feeling and to elicit the same response in the listener. I’m not saying people don’t have emotional responses to what I do. That would be stupid. I’m just not trying to create a specific emotional response. In contrast, when you listen to classical music, these cues are at the forefront. It’s like, “Feel this! Now feel that!” But there is a lot of music that doesn’t do that, like Indian classical music, which I really enjoy. The emotional direction is not so clearly enforced.
But does the emotional content of the music have to be translated into something linguistic-conceptual? Can’t some complex emotions best be “described” as the music itself, as opposed to an emotion that is translated into music, and then converted back by the listener?
I think our backgrounds, personalities, and cultural beliefs are implied every moment of the musical experience. That isn’t to say that you might not experience a direct sense of that emotion, or that music isn’t the medium through which the emotion can be articulated. Just that this doesn’t happen outside the cultural world. I listen to all kinds of music, a lot of which is emotional. But I’d much rather be taking people out of the direct experience of emotion and have people wonder what’s going on and get them to ask what they’re supposed to be feeling, and why and how they are feeling it. I’m much more interested in curiosity and people saying, “What was that?” than coming out with some resolved emotional or conceptual outcome.
In the past you’ve said that drugs had a negative effect on music in England in the late eighties and early nineties. What were you referring to?
I’ve never taken any drugs, I’ve never even smoked a cigarette. And until I met my girlfriend I very rarely drank, and I still don’t drink much. I’m not interested in taking drugs at all, but I’m not anti-drugs. If someone wants to take a substance and change their head state or experiment, they should be able to do that in a legal and safe way. I’m for the legalization of drugs. Many of my friends take drugs recreationally and they should be able to do it without being turned into criminals. I suppose in relation to music it’s more of a personal thing really, because I would go out to parties in Sheffield and the music was simply going in a direction I didn’t like. It was getting harder and darker, and techno in the style of something like Jeff Mills and Underground Resistance was emerging as an identifiable form. I respect those people, and there are a few Underground Resistance records I like but I wouldn’t listen to it for pleasure. I had already been through Einstürzende Neubauten and stuff, and I’d had my dark, hard brutalist interests. But in 1990 with techno and hardcore, I realized I just wasn’t interested in listening to that specific kind of dark, tense experience anymore.
What turned you off? Did you think it was frightening?
No, I just didn’t like the music. It’s like with punk: although Throbbing Gristle were aggressive, but in a very articulate and carefully constructed manner. The Sex Pistols and their whole swastikas thing was something I didn’t get. I was a little bit too young mainly. And spitting… Well, I had a polite upbringing where if you spit on the street you’d get hit on the back of the head by your mum. So when Soft Cell and other similar things came out, it was a radical shift from that kind of aggression, and this was implied in the production of the sound and the character of the music. And later from techno to hardcore I just moved to other interests, which at the time was primarily New York house music, staying home, drinking tea and reading books. ~
Mark Fell appears at the Beyond Pythagoras Symposium in Huddersfield with an installation and an artist Q&A on March 21st and performs at the Présences électronique festival at Paris’ GRM on March 28th. This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 36 (4, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.
As a general matter, it’s difficult for me to write my personal opinions about music, especially about entire genres of music I might not like in a given moment. And classifications or definitions about musical “types” is the opposite of what I see in music and understand it to be. Music is music and just music. Music should have no Babylonian boundaries or distinctions and should not be ruled by economic interests. I’m interested in what people have in common through music. Similarities over differences. Music shows its similarities by itself and music alone allows the people to recognize those similarities.
After the Industrial Revolution, the new bosses needed to promote and tell a new fairy tale—a fairy tale about a relationship humans have with products. Ultimately, the point of this fairy tale is to sell more products to more atomized individuals (the opposite of music). It’s a promotion of the completely artificial and unique phenomena called “INDEPENDENCY”—an economic model to produce and sell more specific and personal products to make people feel unique and products seem distinct from each other.
But nothing in the entire universe is independent. That’s just a businessman’s fantasy. They want to help compensate for the disadvantages of reality with a legalized LIE, keeping the customer uninformed about the real price of production costs and making more money than anybody really needs. They aggressively promote the differences and various classifications amongst people who are actually quite the same. It’s their way of being happy and protecting their interests in tough economic times. They want you to belong to something. They see it as necessary to be part of whatever kind of group they’ve created and to share what YOU have instead of selling large amounts of individual products to individual, independent people. It’s a hidden and accepted thing you see once you find yourself alone. To be alone is the most expensive price to pay to finally be noticed in the crowd. To feel FREE AND INDEPENDENT is heaven on earth? What a lie.
Instead of writing my personal opinions about what makes one kind of music different from another kind of music, I find it’s always more useful to say something about what people have in common—music, for example.
This text first appeared first in the Winter 2013/2014 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from the magazine.
Above: Gary Numan, photographed in Berlin by Luci Lux.
Berlin’s Ramones Museum provides an irritatingly authentic rock and roll atmosphere in which to interview Numan, whose carefully constructed trademark man-machine image has appeared on every one of his album covers since starting his career in 1978 with Tubeway Army. Accompanied by long-time wife Gemma, who he often describes as his guardian angel, Numan was eager to discuss his relief at coming out the other end of a long, dark tunnel of a once declining career. Ahead of his Berlin performance on February 18th, we present our interview by EB editor-in-chief Max Dax, originally featured in the Winter 2013/14 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine.
Gary, you belong to a pioneering group of artists who were extremely influential for electronic music. Do you consider yourself a veteran of sorts?
I’m aware of how old I am, that’s for sure. But talk of influence has only reached my ears in the last fifteen years. For instance, I met Afrika Bambaataa a while ago, and he was explaining to me how he and Soulsonic Force used a lot of my music—Kraftwerk as well—in the formative days when hip-hop became a genre. That was amazing, but I had no idea what was going on.
You weren’t listening to hip-hop back then?
No, no. Looking back, for a long time my interest in music became very narrow. I became very self-obsessed about my career—which, I should add, was in trouble for such a long time. So I listened to music less and less. I think I fell out of love with it. Then in the early nineties I discovered Nine Inch Nails and The Sisters of Mercy and a lot of heavier, more aggressive things that I hadn’t been aware of for some reason. And I loved it. So I started to write very different music from that point and that’s when I started to be interested in other people again. Soon after that the Internet came along. I think about ’95 I started to be actively involved with the Internet and that opened up so much more information. That’s when I really began to read the things that other people were saying about me—people like Trent Reznor or Marilyn Manson—and it kind of just carried on from there. I suddenly found out about other people doing cover versions of my songs, or that they used to sample bits of my songs. A lot of the strength of my gradual renaissance has largely been due to other people being positive about what I’ve done, the effect I’ve had on them. Their praise has introduced me to a new audience. Their props gave me a credibility that’s very difficult to come by.
You can’t buy street cred.
That’s what I’m saying. You don’t even get it from being famous. I certainly didn’t have it when I was selling millions of albums. But via people like Trent the high caliber recommendations from such quality musicians caused so many good things to happen. I mean, in 1979, the NME reviewed my Pleasure Principle album and hated it. But only a few years ago they reevaluated it and called it a classic album of its time.
They probably hated Klaus Nomi, too.
Yeah. There was a hostility to that, an ignorance to white faces and make-up.
When I interviewed Neil Tennant a few issues back, he told me that the beauty of pop music is that it’s all about the surface. Maybe the critics you mention are from a generation that still held the concept of authenticity in such high regard?
I honestly have always seen pop music, even without make-up and image, as artificial. I never was convinced by the reality of any of it. For me, image was essential, as I had so many problems with fear and stage fright. I couldn’t even hold a conversation among friends. And if I was to do a gig in a tiny club, I was terrified of it. Developing my neon cool image was a way of hiding behind something. For me it was a necessary tool, a mechanism to protect myself. But one day, I realized that my image had become me. So it’s a double edged sword: On the one hand it’s good to have a strong image and on the other you have to be careful to stay true to yourself. It’s like having two gears that grate against each other. I realized then that the way you look, the way you sound, the album covers, and even the things you say in public are all parts of the same machinery, and they all need to work together for the whole thing to work properly. I should add though that I don’t care that much about all this nowadays.
Both The Pleasure Principle and Replicas (Beggars Banquet) were released in 1979, a testament to Gary Numan’s youthful hustle. Part of the “machine music” trilogy, which also included 1980’s Telekon and focused on dystopian themes populated by contemplative cyborgs, The Pleasure Principle contained the Kraftwerk-inspired hit “Cars” and was the first album Numan recorded that prominently replaced guitars with synthesizers and drum machines. Terre Thaemlitz also recorded an entire album of piano interpretations of Numan’s songs titled Replicas Rubato.
To stay with the metaphor, you’ve also changed gears: instead of running a synthesizer through guitar effects pedals to get your signature distorted synthesizer sound, you’ve switched to playing guitar directly.
I still play everything through everything. It’s still very much about creating sounds and noises. One of the fun things about making albums is trying to come up with sounds you’ve never heard before. I have no time for this analogue vs. digital argument that seems to be going on forever. I simply don’t care.
What is it you care about then when it comes to sound?
The feeling it gives you. Is the sound powerful? Is it haunting? Does it make you feel something? Can you manipulate it, turn it into a groove, a beat? I spent a huge amount of time when we were putting albums together in the early stages just making noises and recording them with my West German Uher tape recorder—you know, banging things, getting bits of concrete and hitting them with a hammer or wood or whatever it is to get different sounds. I collected hundreds, possibly even thousands of such recordings—I never really counted them.
Can you hear them on The Pleasure Principle?
No. With The Pleasure Principle we were still using synthesizers. But in anticipation of the sampler, which came out in 1981, we were doing our own sampling with tape recorders. At that time I had a studio in Shepperton where they would also make films, and I’d walk around their various metal staircases, full of interesting stuff, hitting things, banging things, scraping things—and recording everything. And then I’d take it back to the studio where I would transfer my field recordings onto quarter-inch tape and then I’d cut that, depending on what the sound was and put it through my effects pedal. I’d spend days just tweaking, doing things, exploring. Sometimes I would make loops out of it, I would cut the tape and I could work out exactly how long the tape needed to be depending on the tempo of the song. I had a little calculation that did it, if the song was ninety-six beats per minute then I knew I needed to have forty-one inches or whatever, and I would put that around the tape recorder and hang it, put little weights or empty reels on it to keep it taut so I’d have a groove from things I’d recorded out there.
Were you aware at the time of the history of musique concrète and the first experiments with tape loops and field recordings by people like Pierre Henry, Pierre Schaeffer and Eliane Radigue?
No, I wasn’t, but I wish I had known about it then. There would have been so many things I could’ve learned from.
Then again, tracks of yours like “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” have become pioneering without that kind of background knowledge. I know some of your songs have been used in commercials. A couple of years ago that would have been considered selling out. I know lots of musicians see it differently today. Have you seen a change?
The thing that I’ve noticed about it recently is that electronic music has been around long enough to have discovered its own nostalgia, which I find uncomfortable. I’ve always thought of electronic music as being very forward looking; you could almost say that its reason for being is to search out new sounds, develop new technologies, and find new ways of doing things. Now we have people—and this is not a criticism, it’s perfectly OK—who are now coming into electronic music and referencing the seventies or the eighties as the source of what they want to do. They’re talking about old equipment with almost a romantic glint in their eye. They’d probably put a Minimoog on an altar rather than play it. I don’t have any of those romantic, nostalgic feelings about it and I find the very idea of looking backwards musically to come up with something new a really strange concept anyway. I find it particularly strange with electronic music. It goes totally against what I thought it was for. Yet we have this new generation of people who are not thinking like that, who are thinking, “I want to be doing that too! How can we emulate that?” No criticism at all, I’m perfectly happy if people want to do that. But for me…
You’ve once famously said about Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” that it’s the kind of music where you want to have a sports car and just drive it faster and faster and you don’t want that song to ever end. Your biggest hit was “Cars” and I wonder if there is any connection?
Ha! I have to give you a disappointing answer: I’ve got children and I’ve got an insanely huge dog that weighs over two hundred pounds so I have this big tank of a vehicle and it’s not what I wanted. My wife Gemma got a lime green Wrangler with tiger seat covers—now, that’s a great car! I on the contrary have this horrible boring thing called a Suburban, which is far too long but with enough seats for a football team. I bought it so the children don’t fight because they fight all the time. The size of the car helps to keep them separated. We even have two TVs in it to keep them occupied. So I’m afraid my car isn’t fancy at all. It’s just to move around children and animals. When I moved to America I thought I was going to get all kinds of lovely things; I was going to get a Camaro, a Corvette, and I had all these other ideas for cars and that I was going to live the life. But here I am driving a truck.
And what car did you drive when you wrote “Cars”?
I can’t remember. But let me tell you a funny story: During the video shoot for “Cars” I remember having a casual meeting with my A&R man at WEA. He asked me which cars I liked, and I thought it was just a conversation. So I said a Corvette because I’ve always loved Corvettes. He asked what color? And I said a white one with red seats if you must know. I thought nothing of it, and then the next thing I know they’d bought me a Corvette.
With red seats?
Everything that I’d inadvertently asked for. I didn’t know that my lawyer had been seen going into CBS by somebody from WEA. They thought that after “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” I was going to move and get a better deal from CBS. So the car was a bribe and it was given to me on the understanding that I sign a new contract with WEA for another three years.
They thought you’d do anything for a Corvette? Was it true?
Yeah. I can be bribed. Buy me a car and I’ll sign anything. This is because I have a fascination with machinery in a way that I think it’s the opposite side to my nervousness around people. I feel at ease with cars, the more powerful, the faster, the more demanding they are to operate, the better. The same goes for airplanes: the more dangerous they are, the more comfortable I feel. I don’t know if that’s my Asperger’s coming into play or not. I am so at ease in these machines, airplanes in particular, although I haven’t done that now in some time.
When was the last time you flew a plane?
A couple of years ago, but I stopped. I was an air display pilot. I would do aerobatic things at air shows all over Europe and loved it. But nearly every friend I had was killed at some time or another, which was why I stopped doing it. Since I have my own children it just seemed too dangerous a thing to do for fun. But I did love it and I miss it very much and I was so comfortable doing that in a way that I will never be around people. I think whatever that quirk personality problem I have is, it finds its yin and yang in machinery.
Joseph Beuys, who was famous for becoming a pacifist after being a Stuka dive bomber pilot in the Second World War, would always say that the planes he flew brought death but they also were beautiful. He was actually shot down but he survived and processed this experience in his art. How would you describe the impact of technology on you these days.
I’m very much at the cutting edge of technology with music. I’m Pro Tools, I’m plug-ins. The only hardware synth I’ve got is Virus, which is a phenomenal bit of a kit. I don’t have anything older than two years, I’m right up there. But if somebody said to me tomorrow the next album you’re going to make you can’t have a computer, you can’t have plug-ins, I wouldn’t really care that much because to me it’s about the sounds. So I would find another way of generating the sounds. I would go back out with my tape recorder and start kicking things again and building up sounds that way, making my loops the way I used to.
That’s absolutely true. From an initial production point of view, for me, we don’t even touch the computer at all, we don’t get into any plug-ins. The sound is a separate thing, it’s another day: you go out and record and build up your library that you will then work into the record, so you have a new battery of sounds for each one. In terms of actual songwriting itself, for me it’s not on a guitar—it’s a piano. Everything starts with the piano.
You’ve learned to play the piano?
I can write songs on it. I play it well enough to do that. But if you say to me play a G chord, I’ll have no idea.
Do you know Terre Thaemlitz? He has recorded a couple of piano versions of your songs.
I know one of them, yeah.
How did you like it?
I loved it. I think it’s beautiful. I wish I could play properly like that. Trent is a great piano player. Trent did a cover of one of my songs called “Metal” and he added all these piano things to it which weren’t in the original and it really makes a difference. In situations like that I realize my limitations.
You said Trent Reznor’s your neighbor. He could give you piano lessons.
I think he might be a bit busy.
Do you meet socially?
From time to time. My wife Gemma and I’ve moved to Los Angeles for just a week and Trent invited us over with the children, his baby was having a first birthday party. Robin Finck was there, Josh Homme, all kinds of people and all had their children. So you’re looking at all these rock stars being dads, which was quite surreal actually.
White Noise is one of numerous live albums Numan has released over the span of his more than thirty-year career. This one has the artist in top form, even displaying decidedly un-cyborgian behavior such as laughter on “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”. Aside from Living Ornaments ’79 and ’80, it was also the only other live album that charted in the UK. In contrast, this year’s Splinter sees Numan happily bumping along a rockier road, inspired by friends and collaborators Trent Reznor and Robin Finck of Nine Inch Nails.
Somehow I find it calming to think that these people have a life outside of music.
They’re great. We’re very grateful to Trent because he introduced us to a number of people very early on that made us feel very welcome and gave us a social world. We didn’t really know anybody when we got there and almost immediately we were welcomed into Trent’s group of friends. It’s been very lovely actually, and it’s really made a difference to us.
It’s fascinating because there are people who say that L.A. is difficult to dive into. I’m not sure if they mean it socially or culturally, or both.
We’ve had no trouble. We found it more than friendly. The amount of interaction is far greater than we ever knew in England. Musicians joining in with each other, famous musicians hanging out with beginners, everybody just playing together and appearing on other people’s albums. There seems to be a joy of life there that British people don’t seem to have.
Can you explain?
I don’t know; it just seems that Americans have a very different attitude toward fun and recreational time. This is what it’s for, this is why you work, to have all this fun. One of the things you’ll notice in England if you walk around are signs that say “NO”. We went to the beach at Eastbourne and the first thing you see is this big red sign with “NO” written at the top and a long list of things you’re not allowed to do on the beach. You can’t do anything. That kind of sums up Britain. It’s the country that says NO, and they pretend it’s to do with health and safety. America doesn’t have that.
We’re living in an era when copy and paste has become the most normal working method, which could also be described as a give and take thing between artists. Would you agree? What are the social politics of copy and paste in terms of, say, sample usage?
I’d disagree. The thing about copy and pasting where you take something and you put it somewhere else is that you’re repeating something that’s already there. In contrast, when people appear on your songs as guest musicians it’s like you’re working on a song and someone will say, “I’m in town next week, we can record together.” In England they wouldn’t even think it. Robin Finck, whom I admire as one of the finest guitar players of his generation, proposed to me during a barbecue to play on a couple of my new songs, and that’s exactly what he did the following week. I never experienced that in England, not once. You’d have to sort out what they were going to get paid first. It’s not interaction—it’s work, it’s a job. In England I would have had to pay 2,000 quid for having a famous guitar player such as Robin on my record. I embrace the American attitude, and step-by-step I’m finally getting rid of my British cynicism, my suspicion, which is a positive thing. We’re really enjoying it, the climate is fantastic, and I’m amazed at how much music is going on there.
Can you recommend any new music from L.A. that we should be paying more attention to?
Fresh new music I probably couldn’t because I’ve only been hanging with Nine Inch Nails and these sort of people—established bands.
It sounds like things have come full circle in going to Los Angeles, meeting these people that you respect and who you enjoy interacting and collaborating with on your new album. Would you consider this progress?
For me it’s great. Meeting people who claim you as an influence and finding out that they’re cool and doing stuff which is really interesting and clever is something I’ve been learning a lot from. One thing feeds into the other so that it then feeds back to the beginning again. It’s very much a two-way street. I said to Trent a while back, for everything you ever got from me in terms of influence and ideas, you’ve paid me back equally, if not more so because I’ve in part also survived thanks to you. ~
Gary Numan is on tour in Europe now and plays Berlin’s Imperial Club on February 18th. This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 36 (4, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.
Giorgio Moroder’s considerable contributions to disco and electronic dance music have long elevated him to the eminent position of godfather of various resulting subgenres. With his recent appearance on Daft Punk’s disco roots paean “Random Access Memories”, he’s gone beyond being merely a big name amongst techno and house intelligentsia to being a household name. In this piece from our recent Winter, 2013 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, we ask him to give us his digits.
1 memorable line in a film or song:
“I love you like a love song, baby.” – Selena Gomez
2 decisions I regret:
– Not writing the score for the movie Fame.
– Not having invested in Apple.
3 sets of people that should collaborate:
– Democrats and Republicans
– Devil and Angels
– Moroder and Rihanna
4 things I haven’t done yet:
– Bungee jump
– Made a hole in one
5 things I used to believe:
– That Disco would never end… oops! It’s called EDM now.
– Santa Claus
– Tooth Fairy
– Easter Bunny
– Storks are where babies come from.
6 hours ago…
… I put together a new DJ set.
7 records everyone should own:
1. Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon
2. George Harrison – All Things Must Pass
3. Donna Summer – Live and More
4. Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde
5. The Beatles – Abbey Road
6. Michael Jackson – Thriller
7. Elvis Presley – Elvis Presley
After 8 p.m….
… I finish my Italian crossword puzzle that I started in the morning.
My 9 lives…
… 8 too many.
I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole…
… COCAINE. ~