His influence has been proclaimed by artists ranging from Kanye West and Prince to Foo Fighters. Hip-hop producers sample his pioneering electronic experiments. But when Gary Numan receives the Innovation In Sound honour, in front of an audience of his peers at the Q Awards today, don’t expect him to indulge the atmosphere of backslapping bonhomie.
“I’m still painfully shy,” admits the musician, who scored No 1 hits with the synth-fuelled, dystopian visions of “Cars” and “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”. “I’m not exactly the life and soul of the party. My wife is very good at that side. I’m happy to just sit in the corner.”
An outsider for most of his career, derided variously for his “wooden” stage persona or his propensity for voting Conservative, Numan, 57, is only now receiving the kind of acknowledgement granted his post-punk contemporaries.
“It took me 35 years to get my first award but I musn’t grumble. It’s lovely to get any award,” says the Hammersmith-born Numan. Flattered to be hailed as the originator of “industrial” music by Trent Reznor, Numan will not follow up offers to collaborate with admirers like Queens of the Stone Age, Prince and West.
“I just do my own little thing. I don’t have the confidence for it. I get blown away to be called a legend and an innovator. To get that level of acceptance feels unreal. I really admire people like Prince and Trent Reznor so I can talk to them but then I got back to shouting at the kids and I’m just the same as before. It’s never made me feel any different.”
Numan’s robotic stage movements and alien persona, honed with The Tubeway Army before his solo breakthrough in 1979 with the international hit album The Pleasure Principle, were designed to protect an unlikely pop star, whose parents took him to a psychiatrist aged 15.
“The alter-ego was a way to get through performing,” says Numan, who now has a clearer understanding of his youthful struggles after being diagnosed with autism. “It was a way of me hiding a very fragile and shy personality. I created a disembodied self.”
“I was so nervous. I was throwing up before a pub gig once. My dad said ‘you have to find a way of dealing with this or it’s the wrong profession for you.’ The potential to be different people in different circumstances was the way I got through it.”
Numan doesn’t need the alter-ego after 36 years of performing live to a hugely-devoted army of “Numanoids.” They hang on to his every tweet but Numan, who relocated to Los Angeles three years ago with wife Gemma and their three daughters, is wary of allowing social media to invade his personal space. “I don’t interact that much. The world is full of people who want to put you down. Twitter is a tool for telling people what I’m doing and I try and make it humorous. I don’t want to look at the feedback and see all that stuff and let some asshole ruin your day. I meet and greet fans at gigs all the time instead. I used to talk to everybody after gigs for 20 years until a couple of incidents happened. I’m very accessible.”
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The Innovation award might never have occurred if Numan had not stood up to an executive at his label Beggars Banquet, who was furious that the punk signing they had made in 1978 was now dabbling with new-fangled synthesisers.
“We squared off against each other. I’m only little, I thought the guy was going to beat the shit out of me. Fortunately Martin Mills (label boss) stepped in and said ‘let’s go with it’. That decision changed all of our lives, for me and Beggars Banquet.”
Exploring new sounds has been an obsession of Numan’s. “There was a lot of resistance to synths, people said you couldn’t replicate that warm, human feel. My argument was that electronic music could be very emotive. You can generate a sense of menace with one note, it’s in the sound itself, not the melody or lyrics.”
A settled family life in the US means Numan has given up a sideline as an aerobatics display pilot. “I flew with six people in aerobatic teams and four of those were killed. It is a dangerous hobby. It was a sacrifice to give it up but I pushed my luck far enough.”
He is happier now that any point in his career, touring, exploring film soundtrack work and crowdfunding new albums. “Virgin and Tower Records were absolute shits. When the record chains went under I was clapping my hands. Their problems were entirely self-inflicted. We don’t sell as many records but we’re making more than 50p back on each one.”
A call from Michael Eavis would confirm national treasure status –“I’ve not been asked to do Glastonbury, I would like to play there” – but Numan is unlikely to permanently return to the UK since he believes his daughters will have a better chance in the US. “There are fewer obstacles put in the way of women in America. The kids also feel really safe here. In three years, I’ve also yet to see a fight on the street or a drunk person being offensive. But I really want my kids to join a band and do what I did. If they want to be rocket scientists, great, but I loved my life.”
Gary Numan receives the Innovation In Sound honour at the Q Awards on Monday and plays the albums Replicas (1979), The Pleasure Principle (1979) and Telekon (1980) at The Forum, London, 21 to 23 October
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