By Greg Wetherall
Record company A&R men: those scrupulous, heartless figures of the record label cloth, stereotyped as careerists looking for a hit at any cost. Depicted as ignoble and aggressive, John Niven’s book (and now film), Kill Your Friends, does nothing but enhance this nihilistic view.
Featuring Nicholas Hoult as the ruthless Steven Stelfox, Kill Your Friends is a ferociously funny and devilishly dark drama based on Niven’s observations of the record industry during the heady Britpop days of the mid-to-late-90s.
We spoke to the author and journalist on why he didn’t sign Coldplay or Muse, his success with Mike Flowers Pops ‘Wonderwall’, the experiences that let to Kill Your Friends and more.
But first, director Owen Harris expressed his feelings on the harsh critical consensus (for what it’s worth, our view is don’t believe the Metacritic score: this is a punchy satire that plays like a cross between Trainspotting and High Fidelity).
I must say, the metacritic score for this film (43/100) doesn’t seem particularly fair…
Owen Harris: The point of making this film wasn’t to make something that was critically lauded. To dismiss it instantly as a poor man’s Wolf of Wall Street, or whatever you want to attack it with, is to completely miss the point.
This film is about a very particular time in British culture. It’s also about an industry culture where ambition gains supremacy over talent. No more is that more polarised than the music industry. And no more so than it was in the music industry as it was in 1997, where it was so incredibly arrogantly successful and flushed with money. That period allowed us to tell a story with a very authentic tone of voice.
What I’ve loved about it, and perhaps this is why it’s quite easy to slap it down, is that the tone of voice is ultimately very juvenile. These are young men, fuelled by fear – because they don’t have a fucking clue what they are doing – and ambition. It’s a very heady cocktail.
This could have only happened then (during Britpop). It was a bubble and it’s very interesting looking back on it. There was a real energy there. An arrogance, I suppose. We all really did think that Tony Blair was the messiah. We had this small island mentality, where we thought we were ruling the waves. Oasis and Blur were sizing each other up and swaggering around. When you look back on it now, it’s a very interesting period to look at, especially when you consider how dated those attitudes look.
There are certain moments in the history of popular culture where the country unites, and Britpop, weirdly, was one of those moments. We were listening to sounds from Liverpool and Manchester. This music meant something to people across the country where there was this sort of British pride that there isn’t at the moment. London has become this bizarre little country of its own.
What do you think was the end of Britpop? Was it Princess Diana’s death?
It tipped over the edge. I think it’s very difficult to make that style of music when people aren’t feeling that way. Suddenly, this much more folky sound took over. That went on for a while and then, of course, the X Factor bubbled up. Then that manufactured sound takes over.
The X Factor joke in the film is a little highlight…
We allowed ourselves one little, tiny tear into the future.
With that in mind, do you think the music industry has significantly changed?
I don’t think the music industry is any different now. I just think it’s more hidden. I think that Steven Stelfox now wears a very thick nit jumper, hangs out with the bands trying to be one of them, but he’s still going to knife them in the back the moment they’re not successful anymore.
The humour is very dark in Kill Your Friends. Did you come up against any resistance from the censors or the studio in order to dilute the humour a little bit?
A lot! And I think they missed the point: you can’t back off from a character like this. They asked where the redemption was and all this sort of stuff.
I think that if you’re looking at it from that point of view, you’re missing the point of John’s book and this character, which is that he doesn’t take a backwards step and that is the point of these characters: these people win.
Unfortunately, psychopaths have the perfect make-up to succeed in these sorts of environments and cultures that we’re busy creating. So, you can’t allow him to back off.
“I think that to younger people now, the nineties look like the sixties. We were very spoilt. I think that my first major label job in 1994, I was paid £30,000 per year. My first job. That’s kind of like a starting salary now, over 20 years on. Back then, you could buy a flat in West Hampstead for £120,000.
Kids who have seen the movie say to me, ‘It’s a bit unrealistic, isn’t it? They’re all living in these swanky flats on their own. Where are all the flatmates?’ But we did. It was possible then. We did all this. The life that I lived during Britpop was a crazy, excessive life”
Your background was in writing originally, how did you get into the music side of things? How did that happen?
John Niven: I was doing a bit of music writing in Scotland for some of the Scottish music papers that existed at the time. My cousin ran a record shop called Bomba Records in Glasgow. This must have been ‘91/’92 and it was the time of the huge dance music explosion.
He wanted to set up a label to put out some records. He thought I knew about that, because I had been in an indie band and we’d put some records out, but I didn’t know anything technically about running a record company. But I said I did, so I lied!
So we did this little dance label together and we had some success. Then I was at Midem in 1993, which is portrayed in the film, and I met all the London record guys there partying. They offered me a job the next year. I just hadn’t quite figured out what I wanted to do and it seemed like fun. The next thing you know 10 years of your life have gone!
Being a record company executive then, you lived a life very much in a bubble, almost like an artist does. I had a huge expenses account, a company car… I didn’t know how to tax a car until I was in my thirties, because a secretary would come round every twelve months and put a tax disc on your desk. If you wrapped your car around a lamp post, someone would take it away and give you a new one. It was pampered existence in lots of ways.
Did you find the record industry at that time to be populated by Machiavellian characters as depicted in the book and film?
The people who were successful, and I think this is true if it’s the city, or advertising or Hollywood, what they do is they manage to minimise their failures and maximise their successes.
So anything successful, they manage to attach their name to and anything that goes down like a lead balloon, they somehow manage to distance themselves from. And that’s a very fine art.
If you looked at any successful A&R guy, I can guarantee that they’ve signed more turkeys than hits. As it says in the movie, if you can get it right one out of ten, you’re doing pretty well, because a lot of guys never get it right.
And you use the ‘aids’ metaphor in your script about something going wrong… Actually, there’s a lot of dark humour in this, John!
(laughs) Well, that was kind of the way that we talked. Those were the sort of metaphors that we spoke in! It’s funny to me that a lot of people seem really shocked by the humour.
Do you think we’ll see anything like the Britpop scene again? Or is music too fragmented now?
I think the culture, not even just the music, is too atomised now. It’s very fragmented. Back then, something like TFI Friday or… well, everyone watched the same shows, everybody listened to the same radio stations. For example, as an A&R guy one of the first records I signed was Mike Flowers Pops version of ‘Wonderwall’.
And we did nothing. Chris Evans just jumped on it, played it every single morning on his radio show, which was reaching 12-15 million people a day and that was it. That was the promotion. He did that every day, we put the record out and sold half a million singles.
Whereas now, in a way, it’s easier with Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media, you get direct access to people but it’s much harder achieve a consensus in the culture because kids nowadays don’t even really watch TV like they used to, because everything’s catch-up. I’m not moaning about this, because it’s just the way the world is. There’s more boring than a fucking middle-aged man wanging on about how it was all ‘much better when I was young’, you know? I don’t think like that. I’m not really a nostalgic person.
Funnily enough though, I think the movie’s benefited… twenty years after the event is always the peak of the nostalgia for any culture. If you look at Hollywood in the mid-seventies, you had Grease, Happy Days¸ American Graffiti etc. All the fifties revivalism was taking place in the mid-seventies, ’75, ‘76’ and ’77.
Here we are now twenty years exactly on from the mid-nineties and what you have is two things: 1) people who are too young to remember it will have a view of it as a fabulous time; and 2) those of us who are old enough to remember it have had a long enough to filter out all the bad stuff. That’s why nostalgia kicks in at that mark.
You’ve gone from the sociable life of a record A&R guy to the necessary loneliness of writing. It’s a big shift. How have you adjusted to that change?
Martin Amis said that the thing that distinguishes novelists is that they’re most fully alive when they are alone. I never got that until I was older. In a way, it can make you a bad human being, because books absolutely get the best of you. They put the people around you through it.
What was it about Coldplay and Muse that you didn’t like?
I just wasn’t, and I am still not, a fan of their music. Muse, I find very overblown. Coldplay I find just a bit wet. They both came off the back of so many sub-Radiohead demos. I’m talking 1996/97, when every band wanted to be Radiohead. Muse and Coldplay’s stuff was hugely indebted to Radiohead.
I thought, ‘do we really need another one of these? We’ve already got Radiohead, surely that’s enough?’ It turns out that we did!
Kill Your Friends is in cinemas from 6th November 2015.