Rock tours can fall apart for any number of reasons, but it's rare that a volcanic eruption prevents an artist from hitting the road. Yet that's what happened to English electronic music pioneer Gary Numan this year.
Set to play a Sunday night set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., in April, Numan was forced to cancel not only that appearance but also a string of small club dates after ash from Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, forcing airlines to ground thousands of flights out of Europe.
"It was a horrible experience," Numan says months later, speaking by phone from Florida where he was vacationing with his family. "I woke up on a Thursday morning, and the last thing I expected to see on the news was that a bloody volcano had erupted. I live in England. Things like that just don't happen."
Although he was disappointed to have missed an opportunity to play to the throngs who turn up for one of the biggest live music events in the country, Numan said he was heartened that his other scheduled shows, where he was set to perform his 1979 album, "Pleasure Principle," in its entirety, had sold out.
Now he's back in the U.S. for a 16-date tour that stops for two nights at Los Angeles' El Rey Theatre on Nov. 3 and 4; "Pleasure Principle," which spawned Numan's biggest stateside hit, "Cars," will make up the first half of the set list, with newer material ending the show.
"The good thing about 'Pleasure Principle,' the album itself is quite short," Numan says. "I think the whole 'Pleasure Principle' section of the show is about 45 minutes long, so there's another 45 minutes to play. We start with 'Pleasure Principle,' get that out of the way, and because I play keyboards on every song and I don't usually play keyboards live, it actually makes it a bit more interesting to me."
If Numan sounds of two minds about the upcoming tour, he is. Although it's become incredibly common these days for artists to reach back in their discographies for collections to play live, Numan expresses a certain reticence about the practice — though he's previously performed both the 3-decade-old releases "Replicas" and "Telekon" in the United Kingdom.
"I don't really like nostalgia, retro-type things," Numan says. "I get a fair amount of criticism for not really doing enough of the old stuff, but for me it feels like a step backward. Every once in a while to do one of these sorts of tours where you play mainly old stuff, it seems to work quite well. It leaves me free, unencumbered, when I do the more conventional touring where you can play what you really want to play."
Numan burst onto the music scene at the end of the '70s, using keyboards to create futuristic, alien soundscapes that matched well with his androgynous robotic aesthetic. He became a chart-topping artist in Europe but failed to gain much traction in America beyond that one ubiquitous new wave classic.
In the intervening years, he continued to release music at a prolific clip, though by the late '90s, he'd transitioned from synth pop and began to produce darker, more aggressively guitar-driven fare on albums such as 1997's "Exile" and 2000's "Pure," writing songs that lambasted organized religion and adopting a goth-accented fashion sensibility. He's on track to release two albums — "Dead Son Rising" and "Splinter" — next year.
His influence, though, has extended far beyond his own catalog. Bands including Nine Inch Nails, Foo Fighters and Basement Jaxx have covered or sampled Numan's songs, and in the case of NIN frontman Trent Reznor, that initial creative inspiration flowered into a friendship. Numan appeared onstage with Reznor last year at each of his band's four final L.A. "Wave Goodbye" shows, and the two plan to collaborate on a project.
Numan says that having his music reinterpreted by artists he admires has tremendously bolstered his confidence. Despite a career spanning more than three decades, the 52-year-old veteran said he's long been riddled with self-doubt that hasn't necessarily abated with age.
"I've always looked around at what other people were doing, and I've always thought it was better than mine," he said. "Even when I was No. 1 in the U.K., I remember feeling more embarrassed than anything because I thought that there was so much other stuff that was better than what I was doing. I felt lucky rather than talented. With what's going on in recent years, with people doing the cover versions and talking about my stuff being influential, I'm blown away by that."