When Gary Numan met Little Boots

He arrived in 1979, bringing synthpop to the masses. She is part of the bold new wave reinventing the genre for the 21st century. So what happened when Gary Numan met Little Boots?

As far as Little Boots is concerned, only one thing happens at this recording studio in north London. "This is where I hang out with 80s legends," she laughs. Earlier this year, she recorded a track called Symmetry, from her top five album Hands, with Phil Oakey of the Human League in this very room. And today she is going to be rehearsing here for a BBC 6 Music session with Gary Numan, synthpop's prince of darkness, a man who 30 years ago was one of the most adored pop stars in Britain, even if the music press treated him more as a figure of mirth than menace.

His head full of Philip K Dick and JG Ballard, Numan was, to say the least, a different kind of pop star. He wore boiler suits, painted his face white and lined his eyes kohl-black; he coldly intoned songs about machines programmed to rape (Down in the Park), robot prostitutes (Are 'Friends' Electric?) and sci-fi ultraviolence (Cars) over icy keyboard patterns. Virtually unimaginable in this Simon Cowell age, his dystopian visions and songs of alienation connected in a big way with the British public, making him the strangest of teen sensations and the biggest solo artist in that period between punk and the arrival of the new romantics.

Little Boots and Numan have yet to meet, so Blackpool's pop princess is a bit nervous. "He's got such an aura," she says. "You don't quite know what to expect. His whole aesthetic is quite uncomfortable yet somehow enjoyable. There's something really uneasy about it, a dark, unsettling vibe, that I really like."

Does Little Boots – Victoria Hesketh to her family – believe one can draw a line between what Numan was doing in 1979, Year Zero for British synthpop, and what Little Boots is doing in 2009?

"Maybe, although I don't know what it would go via," she says. "All I know is, I listened to a lot of his albums and he influenced the sound I make. Even though my music's upbeat, that doesn't necessarily mean it's uplifting – it can still be dark. I like that: uplifting music with dark lyrics."

When Numan enters the studio, he is far from the impassive cyberman of lore. Dressed in jeans, black T-shirt and Doc Martens, like an off-duty metalhead, he is unswervingly friendly and polite. He also has an unmissable shock of thick black hair, just one of the things, along with his aeronautical misadventures (he famously used to fly – and crash – planes) and brief support for Margaret Thatcher, for which he was lampooned in the UK press.

Today, though, he is lauded by a new generation of electro popsters, including Sugababes (who had one of the hits of this decade with Freak Like Me, based on a sample of Are 'Friends' Electric?) and Basement Jaxx (whose Where's Your Head At? sampled Numan's M.E.). In the US, he is hailed as one of the greats by industrial rockers such as Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, while the likes of Dr Dre, the Neptunes and Timbaland have used snippets of his music as the springboard for their futuristic R&B.

As it turns out, that pokerfaced demeanour of his was just a front all along. After he and Hesketh exchange pleasantries, Numan explains what lay behind the facade of arrogant disdain.

"I was burying a lot of emotion," he says of the extraordinary moment when he was catapulted, aged 21, from nonentity to household name virtually overnight. "I was very young and still living at home, being mollycoddled, and I hadn't experienced much, but like every teenager I felt angst. My problem was, I had Asperger's syndrome, and that had a big impact on how I related to the world."

At grammar school in Slough, the 15-year-old Gary Webb was referred to a child psychologist following a series of violent outbursts during which he would "smash things up, scream and shout, get in people's faces and break stuff". He was given antidepressants and anxiolytics, and diagnosed with Asperger's. A couple of years later, reborn as Numan, he sought solace in punk, although he was unable to identify with the scene's politicised rage.

"I didn't find any comfort in what they were talking about because they seemed to have more specific problems than mine," he says. Numan suppressed his anger, inadvertently inventing a new emotion for pop: new-wave numbness. "I got really hung up with this whole thing of not feeling, being cold about everything, not letting emotions get to you, or presenting a front of not feeling. It seemed to be very important at that time, which is why I wrote songs like Metal – about machines wanting to be human – or M.E., about being the last machine in the world, not the last person. It was all about denying emotions, which was fake because obviously I was highly emotional; I just couldn't control it. So I wrote about being the opposite of that – totally in control of your emotions, completely cold, because that's the image of myself I wanted to project."

Numan debunks himself at every turn. He says he is "proud" of the British public for taking so readily to his early, extreme music, but claims it was "more down to luck than judgment" on his part. He dismisses his early, highly orchestrated manoeuvres as due to a combination of "incredible self-consciousness" and "incompetence – I didn't know to move on stage, so I rehearsed every part, which is why I looked so wooden". And his striking maquillage was merely a practical solution to acne. "I was about to go on Top of the Pops and I had spots everywhere, so they slapped about half an inch of white makeup on me before I'd even walked in the door. And my eyes were like pissholes in the snow, so they put black on there. My so-called image fell into place an hour before going on the show."

He is similarly dismissive of fame and understandably negative about its fallout. He had "a lot of strange fans in the early days" – he received death threats and his parents had a petrol bomb put under their car, which resulted in his mother being put under police protection for a month. "I had to have a minder," he says. He wasn't above being nasty himself, though – he once wreaked revenge on some former acquaintances by seeking out their girlfriends and having sex with every one of them. "I was a spiteful little boy," he admits. "But I had to do a lot of growing up very quickly. My success was very rapid; there was no gradual rise. It was just – boom! I woke up one day and everybody wanted to talk to me. A great deal of the attention was hostile, and you were expected to sink or swim."

Little Boots knows exactly what it's like to suddenly have the media's gaze trained on you. She went from internet darling to magazine-cover star at the start of this year, before she'd even released her debut single proper. Ennui seems to have set in already.

A lot has been written about you this year, I say. "I know," she replies, sniffily. "People say a lot of silly things; I try to ignore it. I won't even pick up a newspaper now. I'm just not curious." But it's been a good year, hasn't it? A gold album, top 10 singles … "It's been a big year; a lot of years rolled into one. Someone said that being a pop star is a bit like being a dog – they don't live long but each year is about a decade."

Fair enough: Numan had three or four music papers and maybe the odd tabloid to contend with; Hesketh has had to face an onslaught of attention from countless publications, both physical and virtual. And many of the innumerable articles about her, as far as she sees it, have been overly preoccupied with comparing and contrasting her with the other female artists of the day and attempting to create tension between them. She describes a recent article about a supposed row with Pixie Lott, as "bullshit".

"I find it bitchy," she says. "There are so many female artists now, and they're always trying to pitch you against each other. It's not a competition. Everyone's trying to sell records and it's tough enough as it is. These petty rivalries are just stupid. There are a lot of female artists who use keyboards. If you want to join the dots between synths and vaginas you can do, but there's not much point, is there? It's ridiculous."

And yet one of the great things about Numan's era was the factional nature of the pop scene. Wouldn't she be interested in a more rarefied level of debate about aesthetic differences?

"Yes, but there's no need to be nasty to someone just because you don't like their songs," she says, perhaps smarting from recent online snipes at her weight. So what is her opinion of La Roux? "I think she's very good."

Hesketh met her US counterpart, Lady Gaga, in New York and she has nothing but praise for her, either. She can tell I'm disappointed and envisions a more colourful, media-friendly, encounter for my benefit. "No, actually, she was like, 'I hate your music!' and she pulled out a giant synth sword and I was like, 'I fucking hate yours, too!' and I got out a synth laser and we had a massive catfight.' Is that better?"

Numan had his own nemeses back in the day. "I remember Brian Eno was a bit shit about me, as was Mick Jagger – and David Bowie," he says of the height of his success, when he seemed to colonise the charts. "Eno said something like, 'With three albums in the charts I thought there would be more going on.' I still had three albums in the charts, though, didn't I? Bowie has said some lovely things since – he said I'd written two of the finest songs in British chart history. Well, he's written one good song in 25 years, so fuck him."

He later regrets this outburst. But it's a measure of how sensitive he is beneath the man-machine carapace that he can still recollect the pain of rejection by one of his all-time heroes. "I don't mean to sneer at Bowie, it was a lovely thing that he said, and it healed a rift between me and him. But I was gutted when he said it."

Hesketh is trying her best to avoid rifts with peers. "If someone says I'm the future of pop or the destroyer of pop," she declares, "I just don't care." She does, however, seem mildly flattered by my inability to decide whether she is a Tesco's pop girl or a Hoxton rumour that spread to the charts.

"Well, I hope I'm more than a Hoxton rumour," she says, "but I quite like that confusion about me." She's baffled by the constant need to pigeonhole artists. "Why can't you build your own instruments then dress up in a sparkly frock and go on the X Factor? Why do there have to be all these either/or's? It's silly. I don't lie in bed at night going, 'Oh my God, am I Pixie Lott or La Roux?'"

Arthouse or mainstream? In a way, Hesketh is so northern-lass normal, she's weird – for a pop star. "Am I weird?" she asks her press officer, who declines to respond. "I dunno. I'm not that weird. Next to Gary I'm pretty normal."

Actually, Numan is quite normal. In fact, he always was. "I was massively devoted to my music," he reveals. "I wasn't a saint, but I didn't take vast amounts of drugs and shag supermodels." These days, he's too busy "looking hassled" and "wiping bogies off the faces" of his three young daughters to indulge in rock-star excess, despite being close friends with Trent Reznor and Keith Flint of the Prodigy. Either that or he's driving his off-road buggy around his seven-acre estate, with its stream and bridge and assorted livestock. Gary Numan, farmer? So does this rustic android dream of electric sheep? "Yes," he laughs. "I reckon I do."


Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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