John Niven’s mid-90s set debut novel Kill Your Friends (Harper Perennial) concerns the drug-blasted and homicidal adventures of London-based A&R man Steven Stelfox. Niven, 40, himself worked in A&R at the height of the Britpop era and his darkly hilarious book drips with insider details and a number of familiar-sounding pop star characters. EW spoke with the genial, but foul-mouthed, author about sexism, drugs, and why it helps to not actually care about rock-n-roll if you want to get ahead in the music biz.
Were you a good A&R man?
I was absolutely terrible. I had very uncommercial tastes. I signed (aurally-challenging indie-rockers) Mogwai. I was convinced Mogwai could be as big as Pink Floyd. That’s how off my t–s I was as an A&R guy.
Is it true you turned down Coldplay?
We played their demo at an A&R meeting, and I was the one who pegged it into the rubbish bin with the words “No one is going to be having this sub-Radiohead drivel.”
Steven Stelfox is a really loathsome character: a sexist and a racist who, very early in the book, uses the word “darkie.” Are there really people like that in the music industry?
There was a lot of racism-for-shock-value’s-sake that went on behind closed doors. I had a rule while writing the book that, if I had heard it in private, then Stelfox was allowed to say it or think it. The industry is a hugely racist and sexist institution.
Stelfox is also very cynical about music. At one point he says thatasking an A&R man what kind of music he likes is similar to askingan investment banker, “Hey, what’s your favorite currency?”
Themost successful guys I know are cynical beyond Stelfox. In the musicindustry, nice guys finish last. Every nice guy burns out and getsfired and screws the pooch. The people who go all the way are alwaysthe most cynical.
Stelfox signs a Spice Girls –esque girl band who are depicted asbeing utterly without talent, unable to sing or even dance. Were theyinspired by any particular act?
I won’t say who, but they are basedon one. I was around when they were signed. And there was actuallynothing good about them. We didn’t like any of the songs. But there wasSOMETHING about a couple of them, about their look. As Stelfox says inthe book, “If you threw an ocean of money at them then maybe you’d getlucky.” I’ve seen that time and time again.
Have any of your ex-colleagues crossed you off their Xmas card list because of the book?
Ihad a guy call me a c–t because he believed he was a minor character.But the egos in the music industry are so huge, people were moreoffended because they WEREN’T in the book. In the UK, the book has gonebeyond the music industry. And we’ve now done translation deals forabout seven countries.
There is one paragraph in the book that’s basically just a list ofBritish slang words for cocaine. That must present a challengetranslation-wise.
I there’s certain chunks they just don’t botherto translate. It’s a pretty exhaustive list. As we didsubsequent drafts of the book I’d keep remembering one or two more andhave to go back and pop them in.
And your next book is about golf?
I just finished it. It’s aboutinfidelity and contract killing and drug dealing – and also golf as thesort of backdrop. So, yeah, there is golf in there. But it’s a lot moreentertaining than that actually sounds, I promise you.