Made up of crime writers Mark Billingham, Val McDermid, Chris Brookmyre, Luca Veste, Doug Johnstone and Stuart Neville, the band Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers present toe-tapping covers of songs all about death and murder. They’ve been embraced beyond the bookish world, playing at Glastonbury, Queen Anne’s Hall, and now at the Fringe.
I’d read that the band began when an open mic night at a crime writing festival got ‘out of hand’.
Doug: We were at a convention in New Orleans, a bunch of British crime writers over there for a few days. They had an open mic at the House of Blues in New Orleans! The house band had a break at one point: I was standing there with Mark Billingham and Stuart Neville, who are also in the band, plus an American writer.
We basically cobbled together like two or three songs, literally there on the spot, and went up and played them thinking well, that’ll just be the end of that. But they went down really well, people were obviously loving it, and somebody filmed it, and it ended up on YouTube.
And I can remember vividly standing at the bar afterwards saying, ‘We can easily do this back home, we could form a band’, which was kind of just a pie in the sky idea. But we also knew it would work. It’s such a tight community in the crime writing worlds – we all knew there was enough musical talent in there that we could actually make a go of it.
You’ve probably heard of The Rock Bottom Remainders, the American rock band made up of writers such as Stephen King. Maya Angelou was an honorary band member. If you could have any crime writer join you for a one-off gig, who would you choose?
Doug: Any? Oh, wow. To be honest, I mean, it would be great if it was Stephen King.
Val: Oh, that’s a difficult question. People got very excited when we had Yrsa Sigurðardóttir come up on the stage doing the woo woos – she’s so stylish and elegant. As Carol Ann Duffy (the then Poet Laureate) said, it was an interesting contrast in styles.
Doug: We do often get other writers up, particularly during ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ by The Rolling Stones. If there’s any other writers in the audience we get them up to do backing vocals. We often play book festivals, so it happens a lot. We had Nicola Sturgeon on stage doing the woo woos.
This one’s for Val in particular. So you’ve won Eggheads, played at Glastonbury, you’ve sold over 70 million books worldwide. Which one right now gives you the biggest rush of like, oh my god, I did that thing.
Val: I’d have to say playing in the band. It’s such an unexpected thing to be doing. I did not think in my 60s I was going to be with a bunch of guys on stage doing rock music, having the best time of my life. As we’ve been in the band, there’s been a real bond that’s grown up between us. And I didn’t expect that either. We have a good time no matter what. If things have gone right, then that’s fantastic. If things have gone wrong, we can all sit around and bitch together in style.
You said you’ve played a lot of book festivals. It’s interesting to see how they’ve widened their types of events.
Doug: Definitely. People are there to hear their authors talk about their books, but they also want to let their hair down, so we’re an absolutely perfect Friday or Saturday night last slot for people to come along and have a fun couple of drinks and a bit of a dance. Dancing is absolutely mandatory at our shows, just to point out.
Edinburgh Book Festival’s Unbound programme was an entire programme of stuff in the Spiegeltent that was basically music-based or slam poetry or performance. It’s actually a whole new dimension to the book festival experience. Now we’re not just doing it for a book festival – it’s at the Fringe, which is just another kind of level. We get nervous before we play anyway, but this is slightly out of our comfort zone because we’re not necessarily playing to an entirely bookish crowd.
Val: Although we did play the Queen’s Hall to pretty much a packed house.
How do you create together as a band when you’re used to being creative as individuals?
Val: Before we have a rehearsal, we’ll have talked amongst ourselves in our WhatsApp group about new numbers we might want to try. When we come together to rehearse, if we’ve got a couple of new numbers we’re going to run through, then everyone will have been working on those beforehand. The guys will all be playing it in the same key and hopefully I’ll be singing the same key.
Sometimes we consider: are we playing this too fast or too slow? Should we cut out the middle verse? That sort of thing, but it’s not a sort of, people flouncing out of the room because they’re not being listened to.
There’s a real strong sense of friends working together, friends having a good time together. The fact that that can expand to include an audience is a bonus. One of the other things about this, of course, is when you’re on stage as a writer by yourself, you’re having an interview or whatever and sometimes you say something really stupid. You feel like a complete idiot. But when you’re in the band and you make a mistake you’ve got the rest of the band to carry you.
Doug: There’s sometimes the songs that don’t work. I keep trying to get us to play ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ and it just never works. As we’ve worked together more and more, we get to that point of realisation much quicker. The set feels very honed and streamlined – it’s a targeted party set that people are really going to enjoy.
Would you say they’ve got a lot of singalong kind of classics, your sets?
Doug: It’s for all ages! But the average age of the band – we’re not spring chickens – so it tends to be stuff from the 70s and 80s, and into the 90s. Every single one of the songs we play, people know it already. That works really well.
Val: My last book, 1979 it’s called, it’s got a playlist at the back of 40 tracks that my protagonists will be listening to in 1979 and I was taken aback by how many of them we actually play.
How do I know, if I hear one of your covers, that it’s from the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers? What’s your sound?
Doug: We are a fairly robust rock outfit, partly because Stuart Neville, the lead guitarist, is an absolutely insanely good guitarist, like proper shredding guitar solos, and just one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever met.
Val: We’ve all got quite distinctive styles as well. Mark has a background in stand-up comedy and acting. There’s always a sort of certain element of theatricality to his performance, and some of it was quite over the top in a good way. My voice is recognisable, it’s noticeable. If you hear me belting it out, then it’s the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, as opposed to David Bowie or somebody else. You can tell we’re enjoying ourselves. I think sometimes with bands they’re playing stuff all the time – it’s like, oh, God, here we go again. But because we don’t get to play that often, because of the distances involved that we have to cover to get together, when we are together, we’re having a good time. I think that vibe comes over to the audience.
The last one just, I would like each of you to finish this sentence. The audience come for their favourite crime writers, but they stay for…
Val: …their favourite music.
Doug: …a good time.
Catch the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers at 9.15pm from 8th till 11th August at New Town Theatre
Use the code ‘FUNLOVIN’ for the 2-4-1 ticket offer. thestand.co.uk