John Niven on music industry satire Kill Your Friends

Ayrshire-born writer John Niven on penning music industry satire Kill Your Friends, getting the film version made, his years working as an A&R man during the rise and fall of Britpop and binning Coldplay's demo tape

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 04 Nov 2015

It’s Sunday afternoon at HOME, Manchester’s hub of independent cinema. The perfect time for a sedate matinee, perhaps. But that’s not on the menu today. We’re here to catch a preview of Kill Your Friends, a foul-mouthed evisceration of the music industry based on John Niven’s blackly comic novel of the same name.

Kill Your Friends is a thinly-veiled account of Niven’s time as an A&R man during the 90s music boom in the UK and centers on a monstrous anti-hero called Steven Stelfox (played in the film by Skins star Nicholas Hoult), who goes from sabotaging his career rivals to murdering them on his climb to the top of the business.

Set in 1997 (“the year Britpop died”), the film delivers an all-out assault on the record industry, lampooning everyone from the talentless music acts who littered the charts at the fag end of the 90s to the public who lapped the music up. But most of all it’s a takedown of labels and the cynical A&R hacks who fueled this toxic machine.

We watch Stelfox live it up at parties and on transatlantic junkets, with the only thing sustaining him being a functioning coke habit and luck that some of the garbage he signs (including a German techno act with the single called Why Don't You Suck My Fucking Dick? and a caterwauling female five-piece who Stelfox reckons he can turn into the new Spice Girl) turn out to sell a shed-load of units.

Nicholas Hoult as Steven Stelfox in Kill Your Friends

The film is very watchable and delivers an amusingly toxic spray of un-PC invectives (Stelfox describes one of his acts, a tone-deaf drum'n'bass DJ, as looking “like he’s covered himself in glue and charged headlong through an outlet called Rich Black Bastard”), but the real treat of this preview is hearing from Niven (who proves as delightfully foul-mouthed as his script) during a Q&A after the film, chaired by Elbow frontman and Niven’s old mucker Guy Garvey.

The 49-year-old begins by confessing that writing the novel was a cathartic experience. “Part of being a writer is you get to settle your scores,” he tells Garvey and the HOME audience. “My background: I was an indie kid. I played guitar in an indie band and I worked at an indie label for the first couple of years of my career, and then, just by luck rather than design, I found myself at a major record company in 1994 [London Records] and getting paid a vastly inflated salary the whole time that the Britpop thing was kicking off and the industry was very cash rich.”

Sheepishly, Niven confesses that his first signing was heinous novelty act Mike Flowers Pops. “Going into that culture I was a bit like a vegetarian who had been forced to work in an abattoir: I was kind of horrified.” But he soon had a hit on his hand with Flowers’s cover of Oasis’s Wonderwall. “We did, like, half a million singles,” he says, “and it was almost the Christmas number one.”

“What kept it off number one?” asked Garvey

“That fucking horrible sex offender Jackson. I still cannot hear the opening bars to Earth Song without wanting to go on a killing rampage.” We feel your pain, sir.

'I thought Mogwai would be bigger than Pink Floyd'

Niven and Garvey’s conversation is pleasingly quixotic, ranging from the fall of Britpop to the writing process to the current generation’s attitude to fame. The Scotsman gives some insight in to the colleague he based Selfox on: “He really knew his music, but in terms of selling it, and making a profit from it, he played a very zero sum game. His whole idea was, ‘Who gives a shit about indie kids who might buy 200 copies of this record when there are 500 million morons out their who might buy this?’ It was almost like the final insult to humanity. He was saying, ‘I’m cleverer than that, my record collection is immaculate, but I know this is what you halfwits will enjoy and that’s what I’ll produce.’”

Niven, it seems, was not capable of this duality. “This is how bad an A&R guy I was: I turned down Muse and Coldplay but I thought Mogwai would be bigger than Pink fucking Floyd.” Luckily he was in the industry at a time when such colossal fiscal fuck-ups were tolerated. “There was so much cash in the music business in the 90s,” Niven explains. “You could be a buffoon who just could say the right things, you could fart about for ten years earning 80 grand a year and not actually do anything.”

There are also plenty of wry observations, too, about his more recent experience of the movie-making racket. When trying to get financing for Kill Your Friends, Niven and the producers were told “so many times that if Selfox gets his comeuppance at the end, we’ll make the movie,” recalls Niven. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t. “We were asked, if you show a scene where we find out why he’s this twisted and terrible, we’ll make the movie. It’s what David Mamet calls the ‘my-kitten-died-when-I-was-ten scene’. You have this terrible guy, but then he’s like, ‘Oh, my kitten, that’s why I killed all these people.’”

More music industry memoirs:

 Mark Ellen on why modern day pop stars just don't cut the mustard

 An unscrupulous history of the music business: Simon Napier-Bell

But those were the least of the compromises the filmmakers were asked to make during the development process. “Some of the mental shit you hear!” laments Niven. “There was an American financing entity who would have made the movie if we either a) set it in the hip-hop community in LA; or b) if we got Hugh Grant to play Stelfox. They wanted Hugh Grant – who at this point was 55 – playing the 26-year-old Steve Stelfox! As Greg [Cameron], the producer, said, we could have called it Four Grams and a Funeral.

One question from the audience has Niven musing on the popularity of the anti-hero in fiction and movies. “The old maxim in writing is that ‘happiness writes white,’” he says. Meaning, nice guys don’t stand out on the page: “Begbie is a lot more interesting than Renton, we all know this. Writers have been finding this out since Milton wrote Paradise Lost and finding Satan to be much more compelling than God. The darker side is always much more fun to write.”

Stelfox is so potent a character, Niven reveals, that his radioactive attitude began to rub off on Nicholas Hoult during filming. “Nick said, ‘It’s getting really bad. I’ve got this constant Stelfox in my head. I’ll be in public places and I’ll be seeing people and I’ll be looking at them and thinking in the way that Stelfox does. It happens a lot on the Tube.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s not a very Stelfox environment, dude. I’d avoid that.’”

It was an afternoon of great insights and sparkling anecdotes. We’ll sign off with the best: Niven’s story of how he and his fellow A&R pals were the last to clock on to where their industry was headed, thanks to the public’s growing access to a little thing called the world wide web:

“We had guys in 1995 come in to see us at London Records. They wanted us to invest in the internet. They were Americans and they told us, ‘In the future, the internet’s going to change everything. Kids are going to buy music on their computers, and they’ll be doing it on planes and on trains and in cafes.’ And we were going, ‘Hold on, where are the wires going to go? Where will you plug it in?’ And one of the guys went, ‘There wont be any wires.’ And we were like, ‘This cunt’s mental.’

“We just couldn’t get our heads around it. We were like ‘How will they get the music? Will the CD come out their computer?’ And they were like, ‘There won’t be any CDs.’ And we were like, ‘What about the artwork? Does that come out your printer and you build it yourself?’ And they were like, ‘No, there won’t be any CDs.’ We kicked them out the office thinking these fuckers are insane. It turned out the company they were setting up was called Yahoo.

“Much later on, over redundancy drinks, we realised that if we’d invested the $50,000 we spent making the second Menswear album in Yahoo, we’d all be billionaires.

Kill Your Friends is released 6 Nov by StudioCanal

Follow John Niven at @NivenJ1