Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Gary Numan
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Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Gary Numan

In Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz a grizzled artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them

By Gary Ryan

Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Gary Numan - NME interview

1Which frontman once sang an unreleased duet with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann about you, containing the lyrics: ‘Instead of going to Montserrat, a la Simon Le Bon / I bought a caravan in Weymouth and nearly shot my mum’?

“I don’t know. Damon Albarn?”

WRONG. It’s The Fall’s Mark E. Smith. While recording Elastica’s second album, ‘The Menace’, in 1997, he wrote a tribute song about you called ‘We Want You’.

“No way! (Laughs) I didn’t know that. That’s brilliant. I did a joint interview with Mark E. Smith once. I was nervous because of his reputation and he was really complimentary and disarmed me. But he would repeat the same comments again and again, and you run out of ways of saying, ‘Thanks Mark, that’s really lovely’ and end up going, ‘Alright mate, you’ve been saying this for half an hour!’. He got offended because I wasn’t enthusing about his compliments and he got weird. So I pretended to go the toilet and legged it up the street, got in my car and fucked off! He scared the shit out of me!”

The quoted lyric is about the fact that when ‘Are Friends Electric?’ and ‘Cars’ both hit Number One in 1979, you celebrated by booking a holiday to a caravan park…

“That’s how limited my worldliness was (laughs). It was where I used to go with my parents when I was a kid. All the normal people like us had little caravans down on the lower bit and all the rich people had the big caravans up on the hill. In my mind, I never lost that picture of the difference between rich and poor. If you made money, you rented the big caravan up on the hill!”

2At a meal together in a posh restaurant, which frontman had his limo driver fetch you a McDonald’s?

“Freddie Mercury.”


“Bless him! I’d gone to Tokyo with the band Japan to do something and it had gone a bit weird and wrong, so I went to watch Queen at the Budokan. I bought a ticket and sat in the crowd, but didn’t realise I’d done quite well in Japan and it caused a bit of a fuss, so I got rescued, taken backstage and met everybody. I was a big fan anyway, so was overwhelmed. We go to dinner, and as we’re sat cross-legged on the floor, Freddie notices I’m not eating anything. I explained I didn’t like sushi, but I was just grateful to be there. 20 minutes later, his limo arrives and the driver puts a McDonald’s bag in front of me! That was the loveliest thing. Freddie was an amazing character.”

3Which pop star covered your track ‘Metal’ in 2018?

“I don’t know.”

WRONG. It was Poppy.

“Ah, I knew about Poppy covering ‘Metal’. Nine Inch Nails had done a version years before and I was interested to see what the difference was.”

Did Nine Inch Nails covering the song mean a lot to you? Their song ‘Closer’ was your first wedding dance with your wife Gemma in 1997…

“I hadn’t thought that choice through ‘cause my nan, my granddad and my Auntie May – who was particularly upset about it! – were all shocked by the ‘I wanna fuck you like an animal’ lyrics (laughs). It’s a great honour to have someone of the calibre of Nine Inch Nails do one of your songs.”

You’ve said previously that you were going to be writing with NIN frontman Trent Reznor. Did it ever happen?

“No, but we still talk about it. He only lives down the road! We see each other and text a lot, but he’s busy with his film score work, and his work ethic is embarrassingly good compared to me. The willingness to do it is there; the difficulty is finding a block of time when neither of us is doing anything.”


4According to his diaries, which Gary Numan song was Kurt Cobain listening to when he wrote Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’?

“‘It Must Have Been Years’”


“I only know that because my eldest daughter has just become a massive Kurt Cobain fan because she sees herself as tortured (laughs). She found out a few weeks back I was mentioned in his book and all of a sudden I’m the coolest dad in the world for about 10 minutes! Foo Fighters did a cover of one of my songs [‘Down In The Park’] as well.”

Who’s been the most unexpected person who’s turned out to be a fan?

“Kanye West said some nice stuff. Tyler, The Creator talked about liking my music – I was blown away by that. I went up to my kids and went: ‘Look at that!’ (laughs)”

5Which two cover versions appear on the 1999 reissue of your 1992 album ‘Machine and Soul’?

“The two Prince songs –  ‘1999’ and ‘U Got The Look’”


“That’s etched in fucking stone in my mind as probably my biggest mistake. I love Prince, and he’s another person who was hugely complimentary about me, but I never should have done it. It was me struggling at the lowest point of my career listening to bad advice from the record company and not having the backbone to say it’s a shit idea. They wanted me to cover [1946 Merle Travis country and western song] ‘Sixteen Tons’ so Prince was a compromise. Absolutely awful. Never should have done it!”

Around that time, you were considering jacking it in. Did you have a back-up plan of what you wanted to do?

“No, I was trying to think of something else to do because I had to. By ’92, my career was finished. I didn’t have a record deal. I literally couldn’t give tickets away – I’d have people out in the street trying to give free tickets to students walking past. They didn’t want them! Fair enough – it was a shit album. I’d run out of money, was massively in debt, my personal life was shit, I was writing badly and had lost all sense of direction. It was a horrible time and there didn’t seem to be a way out. I was thinking about what job I could do that would be the least humiliating and expose me to the least amount of taunting and bullying. But that crisis coincided with meeting Gemma who enabled me to make music as a hobby again and not see it as a way of salvaging my career. That lifted the pressure that was crushing my creativity. That bad album [‘Machine and Soul’] was the shock I needed to make me stop and rediscover myself.”

6Which icon once had you thrown off the set of The Kenny Everett Christmas Show in 1980?

“(Mock naively) Oh who was that?! David Bowie!”


“It bothered me at the time because I was a massive fan and he’d been such a big part of my life for so many years so I was pretty disappointed – and the fact I got taken off the show afterwards. But I later came to realise we all go through periods when we’re more fragile or paranoid and not sure how we fit into all of this. Although I was hurt, I never harboured any ill-feeling. It was good because it humanised him for me – he went from being an untouchable godlike figure to a human being. I never held a grudge about it. It just became a funny story to tell.”

Was it jealousy at someone younger coming up on the inside track?

“I think there was an element of that. I never got to meet him afterwards and ask, but my feeling was at that moment I was the current big thing in weird make-up and I don’t think that period was the best for him. I know many people that met him and he was lovely, and I wish I’d met that version.”

7You released the tribute album ‘Random’ in 1997 on your first label, full of bands covering your songs. For a quarter-point each, can you identify which artist tackled each of these tracks?

‘We Have a Technical’?

“Was that Damon Albarn?”

CORRECT. Alongside Matt Sharp. 

‘Everyday I Die’?

“Was that EMF?”

WRONG. No, they covered ‘We Are Glass’.  It was Dubstar.

“I should have remembered that one! They come to my shows. Whoops, that’s embarrassing. Brain cells have been lost!”


“My favourite cover was the Nine Inch Nails version  of ‘Metal’ – because they didn’t bastardize it, it’s the same song, but better. I listen to it and think: everything they did I should have done on the original. ‘Random’ was a significant factor in my credibility improving. People re-evaluated those songs which had not been reviewed well when they first came out. All of a sudden people were talking about them being ground-breaking and innovative.”


8You played The Mighty Boosh Festival in 2008. Name two other musical acts on the bill.

“The Kills? And The Mighty Boosh Band?”

CORRECT. You could have also had The Charlatans and Robots In Disguise. You were Noel Fielding’s character Vince Noir’s favourite artist on the show and cameoed in it…

“I got to know Noel quite well and going on the show was brilliant, even if I did spend most of the day inside a cupboard!”

9You won two accolades at the 1979 NME Awards. What were they for?

“No idea! They were probably for Best or Worst Album, brightest new hope or worst thing ever (Laughs)”

WRONG. You won Image of the Year and – clear a place on the mantelpiece – Creep of the Year! You faced a barrage of negativity from the press and public back in the day – there were kidnap plots, car bomb attempts and your mum was put under police custody…

“Two of my children want careers in music and I’m trying to make them realise how resilient you need to be mentally. I’ve got Asperger’s, which is useful in this business because it gives you the emotional disconnect that’s necessary when that shit is going on. If you don’t have that, it’s damaging and dangerous. It used to just be the music press, but now it’s strangers online. Being famous isn’t to be surrounded by adoring fans, it’s to be in a position where people don’t like you so much they want to hurt you, damage your car, send you death threats and your girlfriend rape threats. Somebody once gave me a letter after a gig. We’d just lost a baby and the letter said: ‘I’m glad your baby died. Maybe now you’ll put some more effort into your music’. That’s the kind of thing that stands out, and what I’m trying to get my kids to understand because I know what’s coming for them.”

10Sugababes famously had a number one single, ‘Freak Like Me’ in 2002, that sampled ‘Are Friends Electric?’. How many different Sugababes have there been?

“There were those three and one before. Five?”

WRONG. But close! It’s 6 – Keisha Buchanan, Mutya Buena,  Siobhán Donaghy, Heidi Range, Amelle Berrabah and Jade Ewen. At the time you said it was better than your original…

“It is. I don’t think overly highly of my own stuff. That’s not being artificially humble; it’s just that when you listen to your own music, all you can hear subsequently is what you should have done. One of the reasons I find making albums difficult is because I’m forever riddled with doubt as to whether it could be better.”

Talking about albums, tell us about your forthcoming new one, ‘Intruder’…

“It started with a poem my youngest kid wrote about the earth explaining to the other planets why it was so sad because of what the people were doing to it. That planted a seed: if the Earth could talk, what would it say? How would it feel about what’s going on now? So ‘Intruder’ is a collection of songs trying to give voice to and humanize the planet – that sense of betrayal, hurt, disillusionment and anger. When you open the record sleeve, her poem is the first thing you see.”

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