Celebrated Birkenhead author Kevin Sampson returns next month with his latest novel, The Killing Pool. Getintothis’ Peter Guy caught up with the author responsible for some of the UK’s best-loved contemporary fiction to talk international drug cartels, Americana, Liverpool music, how to start a record label and how being fired from the NME kickstarted a career in first-rate prose.
Getintothis: Hey Kevin, how’s tricks? So you’ve your first novel – The Killing Pool – out soon, your first since 2006, what’s it all about?
Kevin Sampson: I’m keeping out of trouble, thanks Peter.
Yes, The Killing Pool is the first in a series of detective thrillers featuring Liverpool-based DCI Billy McCartney. Mac cut his teeth on the DS (Drug Squad) in the 80s, and specialises in major cases against international drug cartels.
In The Killing Pool he finds himself pitted against a lifelong foe. It’s not out until March 21, but people can pre-order it; and tickets for the launch party are available from Waterstones in Bold Street – free, but very limited in number.
Getintothis: Tell us more about, central character DCI Billy McCartney, where does he fall in the detective stakes? Take it he’s more Rebus than Miss Marple? You’ve told me he’s into his tunes, what does he listen to?
Kevin Sampson: He’s in that taciturn, solitary school of detectives like Wallander or yeah, Rebus – but there’s no failed marriage, no drink problem… Mac is into his clothes, his car (drives a vintage Merc convertible) and his music.
He loves alt-country, new folk, Americana, bluegrass and name-checks bands like Deer Tick, The Unthanks, Calexico, The Low Anthem – that sort of thing. His all-time love, though, is Shelby Lynne.
Getintothis: Obviously the book takes it’s name from a classic Liverpool song – music’s always been a key part to your writing – what do you listen to while writing, and what have you been listening to over the last 12 months – any tips on new music?
Kevin Sampson: Ha! You’re right, the last two books both have Bunnymen-inspired titles!
I’m expecting a knock on the door from Pete & Peasy (esteemed Echo & The Bunnymen managers). But yes, music is ever-present in my work, and while I’m writing.
So many times, a certain piece of music has dislodged a block or inspired a passage I’d been postponing or avoiding or just plain struggling with.
I remember as long ago as Awaydays, I was trying to strike the right note for Elvis‘s confession scene and, as it happened, I had Leonard Cohen on very low in the background, and Famous Blue Raincoat came on – bing! That was it. Sombre and beautiful, just what I was striving for.
Obviously with The Killing Pool I’ve been listening to The Unthanks and The Decemberists to get inside Billy McCartney‘s head, also a band I heard on Spencer Leigh‘s show, Furnace Mountain.
Away from that, we’re going through good times in Liverpool with the likes of Harvest Sun and The Kazimier and even neighbourhood bars like The Dovedale giving such a great platform to up-and-coming bands.
I’ve seen, heard and loved By The Sea, Mercury 13 and The Tea Street Band (I was a fan of The Maybes? before that); there’s a great singer-songwriter, Esme, who’s got echoes of Beth Orton, Joni Mitchell and Joanna Newsom in her songs, yet she’s completely distinctive and individual; and my big love at the moment is High Violet.
They’re under the radar right now, but destined for obscene massiveness in over the next year or two!
Getintothis: Apologies if this is a tale you’ve repeated loads before, but tell us about the Sex Gang Children concert and the NME debacle, I’ve not heard it and intrigued by the story behind it.
Kevin Sampson: Oh, well, here we go then…picture the scene. It’s the olden days – there’s no internet, no email, no instant, immediate anything. Even the act of writing a 200 word gig review takes an hour or more as you have to Tippex over mistakes and clunk the thing out on a huge, unwieldy manual typewriter.
Week in, week out, I’m sending these gig reviews to NME on spec (ie: there’s no guarantee at all that they’ll use the review – more than likely won’t.) After about six or 10 tries, I get a letter – a LETTER! – from NME reviews editor, one Paul Du Noyer of this parish.
He tells me the paper will be using a review I’ve done of a gig by The High Five. I am elated. I lurk outside the newsagents, I’m so eager to see the review in print that I miss it first and second time and, heart and soul crushed, finally spot it tucked away next to the live adverts.
For the next few weeks, I’m getting my band reviews published and the first cheques start to come in – £7.76 her, £4.87 there. Blissfully unaware that such a thing as a guest list exists, I’m spending more going to the gigs than I’m being paid for reviewing them.
I have a fiendish plan. I note that The Sex Gang Children are playing at Liverpool’s groovy Warehouse Club. I hate The Sex Gang Children.
Their lead singer spells Andy with an ‘i’ and has added a second i for bad measure. He is Andii Sex Gang. I know just how they’re going to be and, rightly or wrongly, the NME is very much in the culture of relishing a vicious review as much as they’re into championing the bands they love.
I know that they hate The Sex Gang Children too. I’m embarrassed as I speak – what I did was very wrong.
But anyway, without so much as leaving my front room I gave the band a somewhat unkind write-up, walked down to the shops, popped the review in the post, went to the newsagents and bought The Echo. Got on the bus into town and started reading.
My heart stopped cold as I took in the front page news. A popular city centre night club had been burnt to the ground the night before, leading to the cancellation of a gig featuring… The Sex Gang Children. So I had a problem.
Having spent most of the summer patiently getting NME to use my stuff, was I now going to phone the aforementioned Paul Du Noyer and say: “That SGC review? Bin it. I take it back. They don’t deserve that…”
If I were to do that, they’d think I was a head case and that would be that – no more reviews. No more cheques for £6.18. On the other hand, I could wait and hope that this would be one of those weeks where the NME, regrettably, much as they loved my writing, would not have room for any regional reviews.
That, of course, is what I settled on. Fast forward to the following Thursday. I’m there at dawn, waiting for the NME to come in.
Sounds comes; Melody Maker comes; Record Mirror comes; eventually, there it is.
I buy it and stare at it. I’ve become accustomed to reading the NME in the same way I still read The Echo – from the back page.
That’s where the live reviews are. I can barely look. my heart is coming through my thorax as I scan the first page of reviews…then the second…then the third. There’s usually three and a half pages… I turn to the fourth page. Phew!! Praise the Lord!! NO SEX GANG CHILDREN REVIEW! I’ve escaped.
It’s been a drama but, on this occasion, I have got away with it. I promise to myself that I will never, ever do anything so unprincipled, ever again. Ever. And then I see it.
“LIVE EXTRA – PAGE 48.” They’ve found a bit of space about eight pages from the back and there, ladies and gentlemen – there, in scolding, accusatory black and white is my review of a gig that didn’t happen, because the club had been burnt down.
If I’d given the band a good review, who knows? But I didn’t. I received a letter – A LETTER! from NME editor Neil Spencer, gently relieving me of my duties.
He signed off with the kindly riposte: ‘I wish you well with your writing career. Unfortunately it will not be with us.‘
Ah well. Sorry about that, Andii.
Getintothis: Haha! Tremendous story, glad we got to the bottom of that one… Fantasy dinner date time, dead or alive, pick five famous/infamous people to come round to yours for tea?
Kevin Sampson: Bill Shankly, Billie Holliday, Bessie Braddock, Roger Eagle …and though he’s neither famous or infamous, my dad – he died 37 years ago. I still miss him and would love to…well. You know.
Getintothis: You started Produce Records back in the early 90s with Peter Hooton of The Farm – what was that like, any nightmare experiences – and have you any tips to youngsters starting out with their own labels?
Kevin Sampson: Ah, it was all pretty brilliant you know – even the madcap, incompetent, shoot-ourselves-in-the-foot stuff.
One of the best foul-ups was our very first release, Steppingstone. We only had a small budget for the ‘campaign’, such as it was – recording the track, shooting a video, hiring radio pluggers, the whole thing – so we decided to limit the release to 10,000 12 inch singles and that would be that.
Looking back, it would have been an act of genius to if we’d stuck with that initial plan. Steppingstone would have become an instant collector’s item. 10,000 singles, if you missed out, tough – get in early on the next release.
But we’d sold all 10,000 by the Thursday dinner-time in the first week. Now, Friday and Saturday have always been the biggest days for record sales (Saturday still accounts for upwards of 40% of all physical sales, even today), and the record stores were going crazy for the track.
HMV, Our Price, Virgin were all placing huge re-orders; another 40,000 all told, and they were asking for 7″ and CD versions, as well – which we didn’t have.
We had a ‘conference’ – me, the band, Barney, Wayne, Crofty and Macca from Produce all went to The Marlborough on Slater Street and basically took a deep breath and placed an order with Cops, the pressing plant, for another 50,000 records.
What Cops didn’t tell us is that their only plant with any capacity to handle the order was in France, and the earliest we’d get the new batch would be Thursday of the following week; Wednesday if they really put their backs into it.
So, from a Thursday midweek of 31 in an era when that would have got us Top Of The Pops and an undoubted bona fide hit record, we had no stock left to satisfy the Friday and Saturday customers; the record slipped back down, unable to defend itself; by the time the Top 40 run down happened on the Sunday we were No.58 and by the following Thursday, when 50,000 pristine 12″, 7″ and CD singles arrived, all the momentum had gone.
It was madness; yet I wouldn’t change the sheer deranged energy of those early weeks and months for anything. It was an incredible time.
And I’d still urge any new band or label to start off with a highly collectible limited-edition (i.e.: limited. Not limited to the first 50,000) coloured-vinyl release. They’re just… They’re what you start a band for. Do it.
Getintothis: Quote us a couple of lines from The Killing Pool.
Kevin Sampson: Bear in mind that McCartney is not from the city. When he first arrives to join the DS, he can’t stand Scousers, and has the standard preconception of what the city is all about.
By the end, in spite of himself, he has a warped love for the dirty old town! But here’s a snatch of McCartney talking about Liverpool through his outsider lens.
“Packed with clubs this stretch, when I first came to town. Seething with lowlife, all hours of the day and night. Clubs named for the nations that thronged the quayside; The Sierra Leone. The Ibo. The Somali. But you won’t catch McCartney going all Liverpool Echo, trying to make out the city’s a cultural this or a cosmopolitan that, just because some Scouser’s put a chess table in his café. Let’s have this right. This is Liverpool we’re talking about, one of the great, dirty knocking-shops of the world. World in one city? Capital of Culture? Liverpool is, and always has been, one of the world’s great capitals of crime.”
Getintothis: Several works of yours have been adapted for film or television – what do you make of that process/the results – can you think of any films that are better than the novels?
Kevin Sampson: I think Awaydays was great considering the miniscule budget.
Full of flaws, but full of energy, too; five years on, it’s already viewed as a modern classic.
I’d still love to make it all over again though, iron out some of its more obvious weaknesses. Powder and The Crew (Outlaws) are both okay, too. It’s hard to be objective about your own stuff, especially when you know how hard it is to make a great film.
I’d say Once Upon A Time In America way, way outstrips The Hoods (the book it’s based on by Harry Grey). Closer to home, Danny Boyle made a very good job of Trainspotting, too.
Getintothis: I always ask this, but there’s so much going well within Liverpool, not just the music scene, but what would you like to see us improve upon. What are we missing?
Kevin Sampson: Well, my big love is film and Liverpool has bagged itself the Hollywood of the North title (‘Scallywood?’), primarily as a result of our atmospheric streets and locations.
But it’s a bit transient, all that; the big film productions roll into town, take their fill and off they go.
It’s a good thing, but only as far as it goes. I’d love to see the allure of Liverpool Film City turned into reality for the Merseyside-based film and digital producers and innovators.
There are so many brilliant and revered industry professionals – set designers, special effects, CGI, make-up people, prosthetics, art department, cameramen, location managers, the whole caboodle – all of whom come from Merseyside but who look elsewhere to ply their trade.
We should have a cluster, a mini-studio almost, where all these little satellite producers and professionals can co-exist and thrive off each other. Baltic Triangle would be ideal, but Edge Lane are would also work well (especially if the Euston train started using Edge Hill station again.)
And while I’m on my soapbox, for a seaport in our geographical position so close to excellent farming country in Lancashire and Cheshire, the food scene is pretty limited.
Those who are doing it well are flying the flag, but there’s scope for so much more. I’m just back from Berlin, and that is the kind of proper, joined-up city that Liverpool used to be, and still could easily become.
It’s five years since we were European Capital of Culture and we took giant strides – I’d love to see the city kick on from that, now.
We’ve got great pubs and bars, a renowned live music scene, brilliant boutique festivals like Writing On The Wall and Sound City and a vibrant gaming/ digital design community – but all these strands have to come together, full-time, to create a living, flourishing cultural scene.
Getintothis: Finally, apart from these questions, what are you reading at the moment?
Kevin Sampson: I’ve just started Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and I can’t put the blighter down.
The Killing Pool by Kevin Sampson is out March 21.