Whether it’s the recesses of his troubled mind or more globalized concerns like nuclear war and climate change, electronic music pioneer Gary Numan (of “Cars” fame) is fearless when it comes to writing about his internal and external threats. Take 2013’s Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind), in which he described how psychologically fragmented he felt when his depression wasn’t being treated properly or his latest release, Savage (Songs from a Broken World), where he predicts the dangers humanity will face if we don’t begin treating each other and our planet better.
SF Weekly spoke to Gary Numan, who appears at the Fillmore on Sunday, about the new album, getting kicked off the Dance/Electronic chart, and recent criticisms he’s received, including, of all things, environmental insensitivity and cultural appropriation.
Which was scarier for you to tackle, your internal world on Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind) or the external one on Savage (Songs from a Broken World)?
I don’t have any trouble with either, to be fair. I find no embarrassment or awkwardness speaking about depression. I’ve always been open about Asperger’s Syndrome, from the moment I found out about it, when I was a child. I don’t see it as a disability. I see it as a different set of skills being given to me, and for those skills I give up a few things that the majority of other people do have — facial interaction skills and so on. The depression is an extremely common thing, and I think that the more people talk about it and say, “I have it, and you could get through it,” the more people will make the right decisions rather than just blundering on with it and having a terrible period of their life. It’s not necessary to suffer.
What spurred your decision to pen an album about the impact of global warming?
I’m a firm believer in it. I watched what was going on and saw the scientific world coming together and having a very strong consensus that it was genuine, and then I saw governments one by one stepping into line and beginning to get involved right up to the Paris Agreement. With the Paris Agreement being signed, it seemed that global warming, in a sense, was yesterday’s story. But then Donald Trump lumbers into view, who didn’t see the truth in the science and was powerful enough to make decisions that could impact the entire world. All of a sudden, it became very frightening and a real worry. So I just wrote more and more about it.
One of your daughters provides backing vocals on the album track, “My Name is Ruin.” How familiar are your daughters with the sheer breadth of your music and career? Do they listen to your music? If so, what are their favorite songs?
They are slowly becoming aware of my place in music. I think I’m a bit of a disappointment to them, because I’m not playing shows in arenas. They do listen to my music occasionally, the new album especially. Favorite songs are “The End Of Things,” “When The World Comes Apart,” and “My Name Is Ruin,” of course.
You left England during a politically challenging time there, moving your family to the U.S., which is now experiencing its own problematic period, amid the Trumpocalypse. Do you worry about the world you’re leaving to your daughters?
Moving to the U.S. was definitely the right thing to do, even with the current state of affairs. We are all very happy living in California. What’s happening at the moment, both in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, is a concern, of course. As a parent, as a human being, you do worry about what’s going on and where it may lead. The world seems to be struggling at the moment. It’s been shocking to see how quickly ignorance and hostility have risen back to the surface. It feels as though so much progress has been undone in the blink of an eye. The world feels dangerous again.
I’d like to address two criticisms leveled against Savage. The first is that it’s ironic that the “Cars” guy now cares about the environment, and the second, that the Bedouin garb you wear and the Arabic characters you use on the album’s cover are forms of cultural appropriation.
Well, let’s start with “Cars.” The song is called “Cars,” but it’s about feeling safe inside a car, safe from the danger of people — a mobile cocoon for the modern world. It had, and has, nothing to do with promoting fossil fuels and clearly made no statement whatsoever about my thoughts on the environment. Not only that, but I wrote “Cars” 40 years ago. Even if it had been promoting a car-above-environment message, which it wasn’t, a lot has changed in our understanding of climate change and the damage we are doing in the last 40 years. It would be quite understandable to think differently about the environment after 40 years of change and research.
As for the album cover, I think they should look again at the sleeve. The clothes are not Bedouin, nothing like it in fact. Bedouins don’t wear heavy coats with a hood or long gloves with strands hanging off them. They didn’t the last time I checked, anyway. The lettering has an Arabic feel to it, but is still clearly English. The point is, the album is about earth in a post- apocalyptic world devastated by global warming, which has become largely desert. Western and Eastern cultures and the hostilities and mistrust that currently exist between them are gone. What remnants remain have become a swirling mix of cultural fragments. The problem in that future, environmentally hostile world, is simply surviving from day to day. Religion has been abandoned and forgotten, at least for a while. I tried to find ways to illustrate that merging of cultures. To do that, you have to have elements of both, musically and visually. That’s not appropriation, that’s an artistic example of a possible future reality.
Savage actually sold more copies than Calvin Harris’s Funk Wav Bounces Vol.1, which should have earned it the top spot on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic chart, yet some Billboard executive decided that the album didn’t qualify as electronic? What do you make of this?
I’ve made 21 albums, and I’m considered to be one of the pioneers of electronic music. And Savage is the most electronic album I’ve ever made — far more than Pleasure Principle, which arguably kickstarted the whole genre in the first place. To be disqualified from an electronic chart for what is my most electronic album was just bizarre. I couldn’t quite understand the rationale behind it. But I think Billboard is trying to maneuver its electronic chart as an EDM chart, so I think they should be honest and just relabel it. Don’t call it a Dance/Electronic chart if that’s not what you want it to be. Call it an EDM chart, and then I won’t put myself forth for it. So it was really disappointing and now Billboard’s electronic charts have no credibility to them whatsoever if they’re going to exclude me from it.
You were once described as a one-hit wonder. But over the last couple decades, you’ve been hitting higher points on the charts and have been talked up and covered by Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and the Sugababes. How does it feel to get long-deserved recognition?
I really love making music, whether it’s been successful or not. I totally accept the one-hit wonder thing. In this country, I’ve only had one single that high on the chart, and I’m not embarrassed by that. It’s just a fact. But the fact that I love doing what I’m doing has made it easier for me to just keep my head down and carry on doing what I love doing. I get the most satisfaction and pleasure in my life from simply making the music, and if that music goes on to sell well or to help my career, that’s the cherry on the cake. For me, it’s about having a life where I can choose if I want to work. Being able to write songs gives me a freedom that I appreciate. Beyond that, luck will fall where it falls.
So many of your late-’70s/early-’80s songs are about feeling disconnected. I know you’ve already spoken at length about playing a disconnected android-like character onstage to deal with stage fright, but is this something you actually felt, and is this something you continue to feel?
I did feel that way. Partly because I was very young at that time and had plenty of that “no one understands me” teenage angst going on, but partly because I do have Asperger’s Syndrome, so that feeling of being disconnected was real and very strong. I don’t feel that way now, 40 years later, although my social awkwardness remains intact and as difficult as ever.
Gary Numan, Sunday, Nov. 19, at The Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd, $30, 415-346-6000 or thefillmore.com.