My drug-fuelled music industry hell
John Niven spent his 20s living hard and fast as an A&R man. Now his experiences have been turned into a film starring Nicholas Hoult
Published 09/11/2015 | 02:30
John Niven, enfant terrible of British fiction, has a weathered face and a smoker's cough. It's more than a decade since he renounced the full-on debauchery of his previous life as a record industry A&R man at the height of the Brit-pop boom, but there's something slightly decadent about him still.
Or maybe it's just been a long day of interviews.
Writers of fiction are used to solitary struggle and days staring at a wall. It's the rare publishing figure who finds himself at the fragrant, micro-managed centre of a film publicity push. But then, Niven is no ordinary publishing figure. His best-selling novel, Kill Your Friends, has just been made into a film starring Nicholas Hoult and James Corden, with Niven adapting the script himself.
The film of Kill Your Friends, he reckons, has been 20 years in the making. First was the field research, though he didn't know that's what it was at the time. All he knew was that he was adrift for a decade at the heart of the music industry, a world, by Niven's description, populated by sharks and scumbags, a gaping moral vacuum awash with drugs and money and exploitation.
Then, after he finally left the music industry behind, there were more struggles to come. Kill Your Friends was rejected by 17 publishers before Random House stepped in at the 11th hour, just as he was on the edge of jacking it all in. "I was thinking, I'm fucked. I'm finished," he says. "I'm not qualified to do anything else. When I was a kid I wanted to be an RAF pilot, so I went online and looked to see what the maximum age is you can enlist as an RAF officer. It turns out it's 39. So I was sitting there thinking, right, that's my plan. Because if this doesn't work out, I can just run away and become an RAF officer."
Niven grew up in Irvine, Scotland. The son of an electrician, he was the first one in his family to go to university, where he studied English and dreamed of being a scriptwriter. So how did he end up, in his mid-20s, flying around the world first-class, scouting up-and-coming bands?
"The thing that happened to me was I was an indie kid," he says. "I played guitar in an indie band and then I worked for an indie label for a couple of years, so that was my world - that was my background. And then I sort of fluked my way into a major record label job. Which was highly paid, expense account, company car, company credit card, flying around first-class, it was a real jump into that sharky, very vicious culture."
How well adapted an animal was the young Niven to that kind of environment? "On the one hand I was kind of horrified - I was a bit like a vegetarian who was suddenly forced to work in an abattoir," he says." "But on the other hand I was very seduced by it. Because it is a very seductive culture, and you want more of it. It is a bit of that Wolf of Wall Street thing - you're suddenly in this culture which you know is kind of immoral and there's a lot wrong with it, but it's very seductive when you're 25, 26 and suddenly find yourself printing money. You find yourself chasing it. And it takes a few years until you finally turn around and go, hang on, this isn't what I wanted to be."
Niven's portrait of the industry he left behind is a scabrous, unforgiving account of a world that today is consigned to history. When he left the music business, it was still enjoying the excess and extravagance of the Nineties boom. With wealth came avarice and depravity. His story centres on the remorselessly ambitious Steven Stelfox, a ruthless Machiavelli who will stop at nothing in his grubby ascent to the top. When he's not busily hoovering up coke, or putting his prostitutes' bill on his expense account, he spends his time plotting how to dispatch his competitors. Stelfox is entirely lacking in ethics or ideals - he's barely interested in music. He doesn't even know what he likes, he just wants to get rich.
For his part, Niven claims he was a "terrible A&R man". That didn't stop him sticking around in the job for a decade, though, until the light bulb moment when he decided to take stock of where he was going with his life. There was, he admits, a "bit of a run of destruction" that came first.
"I finally napalmed all my bridges," he says. "Perhaps, looking back, deliberately. I think if you have a fall-back, you're going to fall back on it. I had a good degree, I could always find myself a kind of middle-class job. And writing, it seemed to me, it's like being a musician. The odds are so stacked for your failure. I was scared to try because I was sure I would fail."
He was approaching his mid-30s. "I suddenly could see 40 on the horizon, and I thought, the idea of trying and failing finally became not as scary as never having tried," he says. "So for a while I thought maybe I could keep a job in the music business and write in my spare time, and maybe it would take me five or 10 years to write the book. And then in the end I just jumped and thought, 'I've got enough money to live for a year or two. I've got two years to write the Great British Novel'."
Not that he's claiming to have written the Great British Novel, he is quick to make clear. But he does know that he was lucky to have found a second career as a fully-grown adult, and to have escaped the treacherous road so many of his acquaintances from that time went down.
"There are guys I know who didn't make it out of that time, who I see occasionally. Let's say at Glastonbury, you bump into a couple of people from back in the day and you're like (he takes a sharp intake of breath), 'You didn't get out of that alive, mate'. If you talk to people who work on, say, road crew or management for a really big, era-defining band, a lot of them never got over it. Because you have such an incredibly intense experience in your mid-20s, where you are playing these huge venues and on the private jets, and your life is just so huge. That the only way is down. You find people who turn around at the age of 33, and all they've got left is left-over life to kill. And that's a kind of sad place to be."
The jump saved him professionally, of course, but it probably also saved his health.
"Cocaine is a very insidious drug," he says. "When we were all starting out in the early Nineties, you'd maybe have a couple of lines - on a night out, you'd have a gram between four of you, and then by the end of the Nineties incomes went up and you'd find yourself in flats with people who had piles of the stuff. And it kind of goes from funsies to this is actually getting really dangerous and grim."
It was only after he discovered writing that he developed the laser-focussed ambition that still defines his work ethic to this day. Niven, who has two children from previous relationships, is currently writing his eighth book and clearly relishing his profess- ional second-wind.
"I'm now, at an age that a lot of my contemporaries are sort of bummed out, or slowing up or resigned to their lots, I'm very fortunate in that I love what I do, and I'm relatively handsomely rewarded for it as well," he says.
It wasn't until he found writing that he found his self-discipline and drive.
"I was never very ambitious in the music industry because I just couldn't take it seriously enough," he says. "Because if you're a writer I think the only thing that is real to you is your work, and my work is very real to me and I work very, very hard. Because, you know, I can see the value. And I guess I just never saw the value before.
"I like to portray myself as a sort of lazy guy who likes to mock everything, but I guess I take the work pretty seriously."
Kill Your Friends is released on Friday.
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