As an A&R scout during the hedonistic heyday of Britpop, John Niven’s first signing was a lounge singer who covered ‘Wonderwall’ and came within a hair’s breadth of beating Michael Jackson to the Christmas number one spot. Later he would prove his dedication to rock’n’roll by heroically declining to sign Coldplay. His 2008 novel Kill Your Friends, based on his time in the industry, is wickedly funny and dark as sin. His most recent book, Straight White Male, is about a writer coming to terms with his own mortality – but still manages to be filthier than a private Twitter message from Azealia Banks.
What made you leap from a record label to novel writing?
“I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but it seemed as if you were doomed to fail. I got a job in the music industry after university and was soon earning very good money, plus an expense account, and was being flown around the world. It’s hard to walk away from that, but in the end I thought: ‘Fuck it’. I’d burned all my bridges by that point. I wasn’t a very good A&R man.”
You passed over both Coldplay and Muse, right?
“That makes it sound like I had them sitting in my office and eventually told them to get fucked. It was just when those demos were doing the rounds I wasn’t keen. I’m still not really a massive fan of either band, but I guess if my job was to predict the public’s interest in them then I failed.”
How much was the bad behaviour in Kill Your Friends exaggerated?
“My friend Christian Tattersfield, who’s CEO of Warner Brothers UK now, said after he read it that people would think I was exaggerating but actually I’d underplayed it. It was a lunatic time. We were selling millions of records. Something like Portishead’s album sold a million plus at £15 a time. Now you’re lucky to get a fraction of that at £5 or £6. The volumes were huge and the profit margins were huge. If you take guys in their 20s and give them that kind of money it’s going to lead to some fairly excessive behaviour. Which it did.”
Any favourite tales of excess?
“Oh, they’re all in the book! I remember going to present the Orbital album at a marketing meeting having not been to bed to three days. When you’re older you think ‘Jesus!’, but when you’re in your 20s you’re testing your limits. As you get older it takes two or three days to get over a major bender.”
The protagonist of your new book, Kennedy Marr, is more sympathetic than Kill Your Friends’ Steven Stelfox.
“I’d hope so! You’d have to go a long way to be less sympathetic than Steven Stelfox.”
Did you set out to give this novel more of a heart?
“I wanted to make people cry as well as laugh. There’s an inherent sadness in the story. If you’ve lived your life in a certain way, by your early 40s there’s a fair old line of regrets queuing up.”
The book is very frank about Kennedy’s mortal terror of death.
“I can only echo his view from the book. When people say ‘What’s the point in being scared of death?’ or ‘We’ve all got to go sometimes’ I think: ‘Are you out of your fucking mind? Have you not thought this through?’ He also talks about the great hatred that those who write and create have for death, and how fiercely they run to embrace its opposites: laughter, life and love. If you’re engaged in creating things the idea of death is absolutely appalling.”
Speaking of death, is the record industry on its last legs?
“I don’t think it’s dying at all. The way people consume it and the way people get paid is changing, but I don’t think the music industry is dead by a long chalk. Years ago Nathan McGough, the Happy Mondays manager, was asked if he thought video games like Sonic The Hedgehog would destroy music. He said: “Music is about as primeval as fire-lighting and fucking.” It’s not going anywhere.”
Originally published in NME, 24 August 2013.