During the formation of Gary Numan's 20th album, Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind), he went through phases of writer's block, depression, and lack of "self-confidence." (See title.) But Gary Numan can't be depressed. I mean, he helped impregnate new-wave music. He's a pioneer. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world have been roller-skating to his hits since 1978, specifically to "Cars." I guess Numan is human after all—the discovery of his mild Asperger's syndrome, and trouble interacting with people, make more sense in that context. According to Prince, "There are still people trying to work out what a genius Gary Numan is." One of those people is Trent Reznor. Wait, you want to say something, too, Trent? Okay. What impresses you about Gary Numan? "I've always been impressed by the way Gary Numan found his own voice," says Reznor. "It was unusual, but it was unmistakably him and boldly him. I see myself doing what I learned from him." If Trent Reznor is doing some Gary Numan, we should all probably be doing it. Numan spoke from his home in Los Angeles. He and his wife moved there from London two years ago.
Mr. Numan, when I was growing up, I roller-skated to your music for eight years without stopping. What's new?
I'm glad I could provide your ears and your skates with some fuel then. What's new is I'm about to go cage diving with great white sharks for a week. I've always wanted to do it. After that, it's a rehearsal period, then I'm heading back out on the road for a tour.
Holy shit, tell me about the great white sharks.
I'm a very animal-friendly person. My wife is as well. I'm not a vegetarian, much to my shame, but she is. Animals have been a big part of our lives since we've been together, and we've been together a long time. I've always loved sharks. My whole life I've been fascinated by them. For my wife, it's the same thing—sharks are our favorite animal. We've always wanted to see one close up. She found out about this trip where you spend five days on a boat out near the islands of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. You're with the sharks for three days, going in and out of the cage several times a day.
What is it about a shark that interests you?
So many things. First of all, they're beautiful. The shark hasn't really evolved for millions of years because its design is just perfect. I find that fascinating. The fact that it's so deadly, so big, and so powerful. They're absolutely stunning animals. And the fact that they're water-based—I'm totally out of my element in the water, and they're totally at home there. So it makes them seem all the more dangerous and impressive. They're perfected creatures.
When sharks make a kill, do they make a sound? They're killing machines. Top of the food chain. Is there an audible quality to them? Do they grunt? I wouldn't want to hear that sound.
I'll have to let you know when I get back. Hopefully in one piece [laughs]. I think I'm going to learn so much about them. The only thing I'm slightly nervous about is that I don't want to see them killing anything. I don't want to see them eat any seals—that would freak me out. Obviously it's part of their existence, though.
Your next album is going to be a completely new direction after you see the sharks. You're going to turn into a reggae folk singer.
[Laughs] I fucking hope not.
Did you have to do a bunch of training to learn how to get in and out of the cage?
No, it all seems pretty easy. You don't even need to be a trained scuba diver. The cages are right on the side of the boat, and they run breathing tubes into them. If you have scuba training, there's another cage you can get in that goes down 30 feet. But I'm going to be in the cages close to the surface.
For your latest album, Splinter, you teamed up with Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck. I know you know Trent and NIN, but have you written and recorded with Robin before?
No, this was the first thing. I've known him for quite some time. I came to Los Angeles in 2009 to do some guest spots with NIN and really became friends with him then. Robin and his wife, Bianca, and their little daughter are probably our closest friends here. The album was pretty much finished, actually. Robin was around one night, and we got to talking, and we decided he would see if he could add a few things to the songs if he could think of anything. And what he ended up doing was absolutely brilliant. It was so well-played, and recorded, and inventive. Like I said, I thought these songs were finished. I couldn't think of anything else to do to them. Yet Robin came back with not just one idea, but several, for every single one of those songs [laughs]. It was impressive. Figuring out which of his takes to use was the hard part. I didn't realize how good he was. It worked so well, it really suited the album.
Will Robin be part of the live show?
He was all signed up to do it, but Trent rang him up and said that NIN was going back out again. Robin's an honorable man. He would have stuck with me if I'd insisted, but not only will Nine Inch Nails pay him much more money than I would, but he's such an integral part of that band. It's where he belongs.
Is there a piece of gear that's been with you all through the years? Some sort of Moog, or compressor, or synth that's essential to your sound?
Yeah, one thing. My guitar—a Gibson Les Paul guitar. It's stayed with me. To me, synthesizers are like screwdrivers or wrenches. They make cool noises, but after a while, you get all you can out of them and you move on to another one. These days, it's a very software/computer-driven tool. There's something about this guitar I have, I don't know what it is. My mom and dad got it for me when I was a teenager, I was still at school, and it was a very special thing to have. It's been with me on everything I've done. Every tour I've done. It's got every scar and scratch on it that comes from a lifetime of touring. In a way, it symbolizes my career. The good points and the bad points, it's all in that guitar somehow. It's like a best friend who doesn't talk. There's nothing in my life that I've had longer than that guitar.
That's interesting, because I think a recurring theme in your lyrics and sounds is the inanimate thing that has a life and personality. Machines, objects as friends. Like on Replicas with "Are 'Friends' Electric" and "When the Machines Rock."
I think it's a natural thing in me, to be comfortable around machinery. I'm also quite nerdy. I love technology. When I was little, and sat at home learning to play and dreaming of being a musician, that's the guitar I did it on. Then I got to be number one with The Pleasure Principle, and that was the guitar on that record. I think the first song I ever wrote on it was "My Shadow in Vain." It ended up on my first record. That guitar is such a big part of my life.