Gary Numan's The Pleasure Principle hit the musical landscape of 1979 with a chilly gust of anomie and paranoia—and the British and North American public ate it up, strangely enough. With its synths splaying out a Bowie-in-Berlin grandeur and its near-Kraftwerkian rhythmic precision (but with more funk, thanks to excellent drummer Cedric Sharpley), The Pleasure Principle embodied the new-wave era's hankering for danceable robotic music laced with dramatically stifled emotions and swirling, Moog-enhanced melodic flourishes. Numan's pinched, leave-me-alone whine and terse lyrics communicated an almost pathological aversion toward humanity, anxiety toward the body, and suspicion toward technology.
Americans, of course, mainly know Numan for his hit "Cars," which still instantly ignites dance floors and hums with elegant, frigid energy. But The Pleasure Principle has much more to offer than that classic song. All 10 tracks hold up well 31 years later, and their influence has rippled through many bands over the past three decades. Nine Inch Nails covered "Metal"; Fear Factory covered "Cars," while Armand Van Helden lifted a huge chunk of that cut for his club smash "Koochy"; Afrika Bambaataa helped establish "Films" as a crucial breakbeat source among hiphop producers; and Basement Jaxx jacked the atypically exuberant melody of "M.E." for "Where's Your Head At?" The Pleasure Principle greatly fostered the spread of synth-based music in the UK and United States. Further, several contemporary Seattle musicians—from both the rock and electronic worlds—cite The Pleasure Principle as an important influence on their work.
How is your voice doing? [Due to the perilous state of Numan's vocal cords, this interview had to be conducted via e-mail.] You had to cancel your Atlanta date due to a throat infection.
It's a bit better, thank you. We played in Washington, D.C., last night, and it got stronger as the gig went on. It was pretty dire in the sound check, and I thought the gig was going to be a disaster. I asked the fans if they could sing the songs that I knew I would struggle with, and they did great. After a while, I could feel the voice loosening up and it just started to come back. I feel really bad about Atlanta, though. It's the first time I've ever had to cancel a gig for a health-related problem in 31 years.
What's the main motivation to do this tour?
This year is the 30th anniversary of the original Pleasure Principle album being released in North America, and I had the choice of either ignoring that or celebrating it in some way. I chose to celebrate it by taking the album on tour again. It was actually quite a difficult decision for me, as I don't like nostalgia at all, but 30 years is such a significant milestone it seems a valid thing to do. Not only that, but Pleasure Principle runs for only about 50 minutes, so we have a lot of extra time to play plenty of new stuff.
How has crowd response been so far?
It's been great. In fact, it's been better than I expected. I had assumed that people coming along to see Pleasure Principle songs might not be quite so keen on the newer songs, but everything is going down really well.
Are you surprised that there's still such interest in The Pleasure Principle? After you completed the album, did you have the sense that it would strike a deep chord with so many for so long?
When I recorded it, I had no idea it was going to make such an impression and stay around for so long. Even now, I get requests for samples or notices of cover versions of Pleasure Principle songs on a weekly basis, sometimes several a week. It is, in some ways, more active now than it has ever been. When I made it, I was trying to make an album that would be a worthwhile follow-up to the one before [Replicas]. I didn't think of it lasting more than a year.
Did the success of "Cars" in America shock you at all? I grew up in the Detroit area, and when that song came out, it was huge there. The Motor City understandably warmed to it, even though the lyrics seem at best ambivalent about automobiles. The song is more about social anxiety, but I think Detroiters viewed it as some kind of pro-vehicle anthem.
It had already been a No. 1 single in the UK, so I realized that, given the right exposure, people seemed to like it. I was completely unprepared, though, for what success in America means. I drove to a TV studio to film Saturday Night Live, and nobody had a clue who I was. A few hours later, as we drove away from the studio, it seemed that everyone knew who I was. Stopping to get food, at traffic lights, walking into a hotel, everyone knew me. It was a matter of hours.
Upon revisiting the songs on The Pleasure Principle, did anything about them strike you as lacking? Are there any tracks that you think haven't held up very well?
I think it all hangs together quite well considering it was made in 1979. I don't have any problems with the way it sounds. If I recorded it today, it would obviously sound very different, but you have to look at it in context. I think for a 31-year-old album, it sounds remarkably fresh. The album has a very uniform sound throughout, so if one song sounded dated, they probably all would. A lot of the new electronic bands coming along now seem to draw quite heavily from that early electronic period, so if you compare The Pleasure Principle to those people, it still sounds as though it could have been recorded yesterday.
Do you think The Pleasure Principle is your career peak? If not, which release do you think stands as your best?
No, Pleasure Principle is something I'm proud of, but it's a long way from the best album I've ever made. I'd have to choose either [2000's] Pure or [2006's] Jagged as my favorite album.
For a record that was so popular, The Pleasure Principle sounds almost like the epitome of emotionally cold, anomic, isolated urban music. Were you going through a particularly difficult time in your life during the recording of it?
No, I was just very young and full of that "poor little me... no one understands me" crap that seems to plague a lot of teenagers. I also have Asperger's syndrome, which I didn't really understand at the time. That made things quite difficult.
Your music has been sampled by several hiphop and electronic-music producers. How do you feel about this? Have you heard any tracks that used snippets of your music that gave you a new appreciation of it?
I'm massively flattered by it. For a songwriter, it's a very cool thing to have your songs covered or sampled. It's done a lot for my confidence, which hasn't always been very high. I've been riddled by a lack of confidence pretty much throughout my entire career. And, yes, I have often heard cover versions that I preferred to my own. Nine Inch Nails' cover of "Metal," for example, is absolutely brilliant.
Besides performing The Pleasure Principle, what other material will you play on this tour?
We play some songs from Replicas, a lot from Pure and Jagged, plus a couple of new songs from albums that we are releasing next year, one called Dead Son Rising, the other called Splinter. We also have a few songs from other albums that we drop into the set as and when we feel like it.
What is the biggest misconception about Gary Numan?
That I've only ever written one song.