Little White Lines

The NME called it ‘the best book ever written about being in a band’. On the DVD release of Powder, we spoke to author Kevin Sampson about adaptation, airport lounges and the grams!

The Double Negative: It’s more than a decade since you wrote Powder and much has changed in the music industry in the intervening years. How (if at all) did those changes inform the filming of the movie?

Kevin Sampson: We certainly had a long debate about how relevant rock music is today. If you look at last summer’s festivals, there were a lot of ‘revival’ acts – Primal Scream, Pulp, Suede, etc – and not so much in the way of gobby young bands with low slung guitars. A lot of what is exciting today exists outside of the four-piece garage band recipe, and I was definitely conscious of that going into the script. But the universal story of Powder is pretty timeless, I think.

TDN: Did you find it difficult writing the script for a movie when the book is over 500 pages in length?

KS: I found it very challenging, but then again it was difficult when it came to writing the book, too. I had this wealth of experience and inspiration, a lifetime of incidents and anecdotes and heroes and villains to draw upon, and it came down to a choice, really – do you write a vivacious picaresque, full of madcap incidents and hair-raising scrapes that is probably, in its cartoonish lunacy, as close as an art-form can get to capturing the excess of a young band on the road…or do you focus on one character and try to peel away the layers and masks that all great frontmen wear? Do you try and tell your story through a forensic investigation into the forces that drive a musician to create and perform? With the book, I went for the cartoonish approach – it’s a soap opera, knowingly so (right down to the design; soaps were created as an advertising opportunity for washing powder!). Approaching the script, and accepting that TV was probably the best format for a faithful rendition of the novel, I looked at the movie as an opportunity to re-tell Powder through a completely different lens. Same bands, same characters but looked at from a different angle.

TDN: What kinds of concerns did you have in turning the exploits of a fictional band into a living, breathing entity?

KS: Well, we were very specific in casting musicians in the roles of the band members. It’s important that they walk and interact in that strange yet distinctive way that rock bands do.  Obviously we have Joe Edwards and Greg Mighall from The Rascals (we had them in Awaydays too, along with Miles Kane playing a young Bunnymen-type band in Eric’s). And with Liam (Boyle, who plays lead-singer Keva) I know that Mark Elliott spent hours and hours with him, watching DVDs of all the great lead singers in action. I love the way Liam has taken all that in, but filtered it all into his own thing – you really believe him as a moody, smouldering front man. Apart from that, the music itself was the biggie. Too many movies about fictional bands seem to approach the music as an after-thought. We spent a lot of time talking to musicians and song-writers about the feel and atmosphere we wanted for the two bands. The music in the film is amazing – even the band we’re supposed to hate are infuriatingly catchy. And the playout track, Hollow Talk, is transcendental…one of the most powerfully affecting moments of music in film I have experienced.

“They’ve all got their stories they’re bursting to tell you, you’ve got yours, the drink flows…it was an absolutely incredible time”

TDN: The songs in the movie carry well, was it a relief to get James Walsh of Starsailor on board to write 7 of the featured tracks? How did that come about?

KS: Getting James involved was a huge moment in the genesis of the movie. When I was writing Keva’s music in the book, I was hearing Richard Ashcroft’s voice in my head – I guess that’s what I was describing at the time. But when I first heard Starsailor a few years later I just stopped dead in my tracks and thought: “That’s him. That’s them.” So it’s been a bit of a mission involving a certain level of stalkerdom for me to persuade James to lend us his genius. In short, I lurked outside Liverpool’s (then) Academy where Starsailor were playing what was to be one of their last ever gigs. Looking back, it was one of those collisions of fate where the timing was right, the opportunity was beguiling for him and it all came together beautifully. I would describes scenes to James, tell him what Keva was going through emotionally and what he might have been trying to communicate in a certain song and James went away and wrote this succession of gorgeous songs. Once the first few came through, Yoz (film Producer David Hughes) and myself knew we were going to be okay. The Grams had come to life.

TDN: It’s always great to see Liverpool on the big screen, was that something you insisted on, retaining that ‘local’ element?

KS: Yeah, we’re very much trying to build something home-grown, locally sourced, locally based. It’s difficult, to be honest. It all sounds very pure and heroic, but the obstacles to doing something of scale, and doing it up here, outside of the establishment…well, you’re asking for it! We’re still here, though. Two films with nationwide release in two years, and all from a derelict pub on the banks of the River Mersey!

TDN: How much of your experiences of the music industry (we’re thinking of your time as manager of The Farm) made their way into the book/film?

KS: Loads of the stuff I lived through with the band ended up being fictionalised in the book – not so much in the film. It wasn’t just The Farm…that period was a golden age for bands generally. On any given day you might be in a TV green room with The Stone Roses or back stage at a gig or festival with Happy Mondays or in an airport lounge with Primal Scream. They’ve all got their stories they’re bursting to tell you, you’ve got yours, the drink flows…it was an absolutely incredible time. Oh, to be in an airport lounge with The Charlatans again, boggle-eyed in horror/amusement at their escapade. Such a clean-looking bunch, too!

TDN: Do you miss those days?

KS: That’s the ultimate Yes/No question, isn’t it because, in essence, what we’re asking is: do you want to re-live your youth. Answer – who wouldn’t! And yet…it was fantastic doing all that when I had the zest and the joie de vivre to savour it – and I did. I absolutely loved it and lived it, to the full. But do I miss it? Not so long as I can carry on writing about it!

TDN: Do you follow the progress of bands in Merseyside? Who stands out?

KS: Having just sounded the death-knell for bands generally, I’ve got to say I was stunned by the energy and brilliance of a very young group called Notion I saw the other month. They’re pretty raw still, but I love that stage in a band’s development where it looks and sounds like raw teen spirit.

TDN: What would Keva have on his iPod?

KS: Keva would have Big Star, Low, Erik Satie and Mark Lanegan.

TDN: What does Kev Sampson have on his iPod?

KS: Kev doesn’t have an iPod – but am currently re-visiting grunge in the wake of Kurt’s anniversary. Mudhoney, Tad and The Screaming Trees.  Boss!

TDN: Tell us what’s in the pipeline for you, and for (Powder’s production company) Red Union.

KS: I have just finished a crime/thriller novel called Gangsterland and will start into a screenplay adaptation of the book shortly. Red Union have been working with Gemma  Bodinetz (artistic director of The Everyman-Playhouse here in Liverpool) and Helen Walsh, probably the bravest and most distinctive new voice in fiction for a decade. We have basically just left them to develop a script together, working title The Violators.

Powder is available now on Blu-ray and DVD

Posted on 16/01/2012 by thedoublenegative