Meeting John Niven, I feel like I'm walking into a scene from his 2008 novel Kill Your Friends, a tale of excess, greed, and depravity in the 1990s British music industry—something he experienced firsthand as an A&R man. Sports cars that cost as much as an outer London flat line the Mayfair street I'm standing on as I watch Niven step out of a fancy seafood restaurant, suited and booted in preparation for a music industry awards ceremony he's going to after our meeting.
Thankfully, Niven is nowhere near as odious as some of the people he creates, including the protagonist of Kill Your Friends, a racist, misogynistic, violent, and generally vile—but often hilarious—A&R man, Steven Stelfox, who's played by Nicholas Hoult in the upcoming movie adaptation of the book, set for release on November 6. Niven and I spoke about the film, the music industry, and how the life of an A&R man is an unsustainable one.
The trailer for 'Kill Your Friends'
VICE: Kill Your Friends is set in 1997. What were you doing that year?
John Niven: I had just left London Records and I became the A&R guy at Independiente. I'd just turned 30 and things began to wane a little bit for me. The first five or six years were really great fun as I was in my 20s, but as you get a little older—and I'd always wanted to be a writer, and that was eating away at me—it gets a little repetitious and you're not as good with hangovers. Also, I was looking down the line and seeing myself as the guy in the bad leather jacket at the back of the gig who doesn't understand what's happening. I think by your mid-thirties or forties, if you haven't signed the next big thing, it might be time to get out. Music is a young person's medium. Thirty-five is young for a novelist, but it's old for an A&R man.
How involved in other aspects of the film have you been? Or were you hands off other than the writing stage?
In a way it's better to be hands off, because going to the set as the writer can be a mixed blessing. You can't really affect much at that point—you have to let the director do his job. I often use the analogy that being the writer on set is a bit like going to an orgy but you're not allowed to fuck anyone. It can be extremely frustrating. A visit to the first day's shoot and then the wrap party—that's not a bad way to play it.
Actually liking music isn't really relevant for a lot of characters in Kill Your Friends. Did you step into the role as a fan of music?
I did. I was a guitar player in an indie band and then I worked for an indie label. Then, in 1994, I ended up at London Records, which was a very hit singles-driven label. It was a very vicious, success-driven environment, and to an extent I felt like a vegetarian who had suddenly been forced to work in an abattoir. I was a little appalled with how abhorrently bands were treated, but at the same time it was kind of intoxicating, especially when you had a hit record. The first record I signed was nearly Christmas number one, and we sold half a million singles in the first week—that sort of thing is a very heady rush, and gradually you slip into that world. Next thing you know you're thinking, Everything we sign has to be big, rather than it has to be good. It took me a few years to go through that and come out the other side.
Are there any parallels you could draw between the behaviors and attitudes of big film industry executives and music industry ones?
To a degree, I think Hollywood makes the music industry look like it's run by a group of focused, well-intentioned people who are really on the case. There's perhaps even more executive paralysis in Hollywood because the stakes are so much higher. If you're going sign a band, you might be rolling the dice on a few hundred grand, but to make a Hollywood movie you could be rolling the dice on a hundred million dollars, so it's basically like setting up a giant corporation that's going to stand or fall on the basis of one product. You can see why people get very gun shy and second guess and hide behind decisions; it's like a labyrinth of a decision-making process. I think the trick with Hollywood, as it is with the music industry, is to maximize your connection to success and distance yourself from failure. Sadly, when you're a writer, there is no such get-out available—you either go up or down with the ship.
Just how accurate is Kill Your Friends in terms of capturing what took place in the music industry in the 90s?
When I finished the novel and sent it to my friend, he said, "People are going to think you're exaggerating," which I assure you I'm not, especially in terms of the mentality the film displays and the excess of the time. It was like a last days of Rome era for the record industry; there was just so much money. Today, a successful album sells about 100,000 and it costs £7 [$10] to buy it. Back then, a successful album sold 1,000,000 copies and it cost £13, £14 [$20] to buy it, so we were selling ten times the volume at double the price. You take a lot of guys that are 24, 25, 26, and give them huge salaries, expense accounts, and international travel and that's what you get. Some people who see the film that are over 35 will think, Ah, the good old days, and then people under that age that see it will think, Ah, you were the guys who fucked it all up.
Was the dialogue based on real things said in label offices?
If any artists who get signed to record companies could hear the things executives said about them when the door was closed or the minute they left the building, they'd be—rightly—staggered and horrified. Anything I'd heard, even if it was as a joke or being ironic, then Stelfox was allowed to think it or say it, and that became hugely liberating because it opened things up to a lot of really foul, misogynistic, sexist, racist things that do get said in life and that make people gasp with horror sometimes when they read them on the page.
Have people found Kill Your Friends offensive for these reasons? And should they?
The movie, like the novel, is going to offend people who don't get it, who think it's sexist and misogynistic. Whereas, I think it's not doing that—it's holding the mirror up to that. Each generation seems to be less sexist and racist than the last, and that's fantastic, but the PC desire is to step on the accelerator peddle and get rid of all of it now, today, so that it doesn't exist any more—but that's not the way life is. If you want to draw me up a list of the heads of major record companies or film studios that are black women, then you've got a very short piece of paper in your hand. You can say it's not a sexist and racist industry, but it is, and was more so then. Those seeking to find offense will usually do so. I always like Stephen Fry's response to that: 'I'm offended by something'—'Yeah, so fucking what?' as if that phrase gives your viewpoint any credence.
When you left the music industry, did you leave all the habits and behaviors behind with you?
No, I'd love to be able to say I did, but I don't think life works like that. You get a bit older and wiser and you choose your battles more. It's just an issue of age, although I am still capable of being foolish. When you're in your 20s you can have three days of fun and a one-day hangover, and now you have one day of fun and three days of hangover. The math stops adding up. I also found that when I started writing, I couldn't write with a hangover. If you're going to imagine and create this world into existence, I couldn't do it because I was crippled by self-loathing and doubt from being hungover.
The novel is a pretty demanding taskmaster and you have to come to the desk in pretty strong shape to tackle it. Paul Schrader [writer of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull] would get off his nut and stay up drinking whisky and doing cocaine until 5 o'clock in the morning and get about 20 pages done, then he would edit the next day sober and take that down to two, and that ratio can work when you're in your 20s, but it doesn't work in your 40s. You're better off getting up early; I'm often at my desk for 6.30 AM.
What are you writing at the moment?
I'm working on the script for the adaptation of Caitlin Moran's book, How to Build a Girl. I've also started a new novel, No Good Dead, about a guy who runs into an old school friend who is now a vagrant, a bum, and he takes him into his house with hilarious and catastrophic results.
Sounds great. Thanks, John.
Follow Daniel on Twitter.