Interview : Dave McLean on adapting his own wild life into new film Schemers

Music promoter and story-telling powerhouse Dave McLean tells us all about his music biopic Schemers.

Few of us manage to live the kind of life Dave McLean has, and just five minutes of conversation will let you know he’s the real deal.

From his early days as a teenager in 1980s Dundee, Scotland, Dave has used his gift of the gab and love for music to chart an unbelievable course through the world of live music promotion, band management and every wild experience the mind can conjure. Among many accolades is his position as manager of English rock band Placebo, a close relationship which is still going strong after nearly thirty years.

Dave is a never-ending fount of stories and perspectives. All it takes is a little prodding to let them flow, and he’s found a cinematic outlet in the form of his new film Schemers. Based on his own early years in Dundee, Schemers stars Connor Berry as Davie, whose hustling puts him on the path to band promotion success – but the journey’s not without its deadly obstacles.

After a football injury, Davie falls for trainee nurse Shona (Tara Lee) and tries to impress her by running a disco. Along with friends John and Scot, the trio start promoting bands – culminating in a hugely ambitious Iron Maiden gig at the Caird Hall, Dundee. With ambition so grand they go deep in debt with Fergie, a gangster of legendary violence, Davie needs to use every trick to pull off the biggest scheme of his life.

Dave spoke with us about his decision to begin putting his story onto the big screen, reflections on a whirlwind life and even some hints at when we might expect new material from Placebo.

Dave: As you get older and older, you kind of become quaint dinosaurs like me, and you meet people you knew years ago. You see what they’re up to, and they’ve maybe had the same job for 30 or 40 years. But that’s fine – it’s good, it’s steady, it’s reliable. Same wife, same house. And I just think, “my life is just so ridiculous”. I mean, I’m just so lucky that I’ve traveled to so many places on business.

With Placebo, you could throw a dart at the map and head to Moscow or Rio. And you can do that with a reason; to do some business, not just to walk around. You can actually justify going to Buenos Aires or Melbourne or Sydney, because there’s things to be done. You think about the hotels, the limos, the crowds, the stadiums, the arenas, the excitement; let alone the money, which is good when you can make it.

There’s definitely ups and downs, but it’s just a great life. This is only the first little film that we made. The second film is when I go to London with my mate Scott, and I think I’m going to conquer the music business. He goes his way, and if you Google his name you’ll see what he did. It’s crazy, because it covers all the bands we did in the London scene. It’s really flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants stuff. 

I just thought I should write it all down, because Placebo can’t tour. I thought, “I’ll write a film, I’ll just do that”. Just something to do; that’s how it really all started.

To be able to take the life you’ve lived and turn that into something like a film in your downtime is pretty incredible. Not many get to live the kind of life where that’s possible!

Dave: It’s lucky. My business partner and the band always said, “you should write a book”. When you’re on a plane for twelve hours to Santiago or Mexico City and you’re sitting with a band, you inevitably get to telling anecdotes and all your stories. 

I went into Waterstones in Bangkok one day and thought, “write a book? You’re joking”. There must be about 20,000 books here, nobody’s going to read it! 

It’s also easier to make a film. For 99% of the people who try and make a film, it never happens; for the 1% who do make it happen, it usually never gets released. And if it ever does get released, it usually never makes any money. So I knew that the chances of actually jumping the hurdles was easier on the film side. Not easy, but easier.

Filmmaking, of course, lends itself well to a story about music and the lifestyle around it, so there’s an advantage over putting it onto the page.

Dave: Yes, it’s easy with film. If you’ve got a great cameraman and a nice location like Dundee, the city where I grew up, at least the cameraman can make it look great. If you’ve got a good soundtrack, then it could at least look good and sound good too, even if the script’s rubbish. If the script’s half-decent and you’ve got good actors, it looks good and sounds good, you’re already half there. That’s the way I logistically look at it, and it’s got a better chance of hitting.

From left: Conor Berry (Davie) & Grant Robert Keelan (John)

You’re absolutely full of great anecdotes and experiences, and blessed with the gift of the gab to tell them. What I find so remarkable about people who have the gift of the gab like that is how much you can make happen with a little bit of confidence. 

Did you find that you had that ability from a young age, or was it something you developed as you got older?

Dave: Definitely. When I was at school, it was a very rough school in Dundee. I used to be really posh and had loads of money, but my Dad lost all his money in a big rip-off. So I went from posh school to tough school, right?

They used to have this thing where if you fell out with somebody, they’d say, “you’re claimed!”. It meant you were in for a fight. So one guy said to me, “you’re claimed. Four o’clock, outside the school”. And I was going, “oh, fucking hell”. 

So there’s fifty or sixty people shouting “get into him!”, “batter him!”. I went up to him and said, “excuse me, I just want to make you aware. This is for your own good. I have a hole-in-the-heart situation. If I get into a fight and I’m punched heavily there, it’s quite likely that I’ll die. So I’m just giving you a heads-up there that if you punched me really hard, I’ll be dead”.

And that was that. I talked my way out of that one! It was all a load of toss, but it worked. 

It’s all smoke-and-mirrors once you get into the music business. You take on a sort of persona that lets you get anybody. It doesn’t matter if an agent says you can’t get a band – you just go and see the band. Then you fall out with the agent and the agent goes crazy, but you get the band, right?  You’re not meant to go to the band’s manager or even the band themselves.

I used to fly to America to see bands in Seattle, Los Angeles and New York – but you’re not meant to do that! You’re meant to go through the agent – which I do now – but you just have to do what you have to do to get the band.

If you can hang out with the band and tell a story; if you can go to the bar and have a few drinks and a bit of a laugh with them, then that sets you apart from people who are a bit too formal and business-like. It’s a fine balance. You don’t want to out-stay your welcome. You just put yourself out there, and if they take to you, they take to you. If they don’t, then oh well.

God knows what possessed me, but I went to L.A. once because I wanted to book Presidents of the United States of America – they were big for about a year or so. I met their manager, and she says “hey, nice to meet you, Dave.” She tells me, “I just want to come and tell you that we don’t want you to promote the band. We want the guy who does Oasis”. So I said “okay, see you later”. Shortest business meeting I’ve ever had. Then again, they didn’t really do that great.

You win some, you lose some. Seems like you’ve had more wins than losses, though.

Dave: Yeah, definitely more wins, I think. I think it’s been about 3000 gigs I’ve promoted if you take into account all the clubs, bars, different countries, etc. Placebo have done about 1500.

I was thinking the other day, we used to run loads of venues in London with three bands on every gig. So that’d be about 9000 bands. Out of those bands, you’ve probably got maybe two or three hundred that made it quite big. There’s plenty that nearly made it, but never quite did. It’s very much a hit-or-miss sort of business.

From left: Alastair Thomson Mills (Fergie) & Blair Robertson (Pike)

In the last twenty or so years, the music business certainly seems to have changed dramatically on every conceivable level. Touring has certainly changed a lot, that’s for sure. Do you feel like your general approach to the business has changed a lot with the times, or do you still go about things your own way?

Dave: Well, Placebo’s been going for about as long as you’ve been alive – they started in 1995.

I was born in ‘93, so definitely a baby back then.

Dave: They’ve always done things on their terms. The record deal they’ve got, all the deals they’ve got, it’s all on their terms. It’s not like today, when a band gets signed up on this ‘360 degree’ deal where they’re going to have a part of the merchandise and a part of the publishing and a part of the touring. I call it the ‘taking the piss deal’, you know?. It’s just ripping you off.

I’m super lucky in the respect that our deals are brilliant, right from day one and when you negotiate stuff. So that’s never changed a bit. In fact, life’s got better for us. We have a good position.

On the live side, I don’t really do much there. They did a big festival in Bangkok a few years ago that we’re actually going to make a film about, because it was hilarious. Unbelievable, the stuff that happened. We had Oasis, Franz Ferdinand, Placebo, Snow Patrol – it was brilliant, this big open-air thing.

But it was a nightmare. I call it the ‘Oasis diet’. It wasn’t them who was bad, but it was the whole thing around it. I lost 12 kilos throughout that, but that’s a different story.

But the record business for a new band? I manage this guy called Kyle Faulkner. He’s in a band called The View, and he had this amazing debut album. Nobody would pick it up, because he had a bit of a reputation. So I put it out on my record label, and it got to the Top 40 which is amazing because we were just a little indie label. It won Scottish Album of the Year and all that. But all the main guys and girls in the music business would hear this album, and every single one of them would say, “wow, it’s amazing. This song’s amazing, the lyrics, amazing! But the algorithm!”. 

The algorithm? What the hell is that? Explain it. “Well, that song’s 4:12, that song’s 1:50, and we’re looking for 2:40”. That’s different, obviously. But it won Scottish Album of the Year, and it had 40 reviews. All of them were 9/10, 10/10, 5/5. 

Once, you’d hear a song and say “oh, that’s a tune”. And if you woke up the next morning and you could whistle it, that’s it. That’s a smash hit. Now these bean counters are there going, “let’s check that algorithm. What’s their Snapchat? What’s your Instagram? How many followers?”.

It’s more of a product than music at that point, really.

Dave: Oh, yeah. It’s like K-Pop. It’s not rocket science: you get four really good-looking girls. One’s from Thailand, you get another three from Korea. You train them like they’re in a circus or something for six years, intensively, in a production line. You teach them dance moves, dress them in the most skimpy thing you could possibly imagine, pout, ride, dance about.

Then I checked it out. My daughter said to check out the YouTube video, and see how many views it has. I was thinking around 100 million or something – it was something like 1.3 billion. That’s like one in six on the planet.

To be fair, the tune was alright, but all the paraphernalia, the shooting, the production, it was like making a Hollywood movie. So that’s changed, in my opinion.

Even as a casual observer, it’s clear that things aren’t exactly the same as they were twenty years ago. But it must be another whole experience to see it all on the other side of the curtain.

Dave: Many years ago, I went to L.A. to meet this agent Marlene Tsuchii, who manages a bunch of massive bands. I did The Goo-Goo Dolls with her. I went into her office, and she says “Dave, I’ve got a new band, you might like it”. And if I liked it, I could promote it. So she sticks in this cassette, and it’s Beck’s Loser. So I said “oh, this is great, I love it”, and she says “well, you can do it”.

So that’s how it used to work. Algorithms didn’t exist in the world. She just heard the tune, thought “Dave’s a good promoter, I’ll give it to him”. Now it’s like rocket science; there’s all these equations to take into account. But it is what it is.

I mean, I’ve got this girl doing an audition for a big Chinese show. 100 million viewers. She’s half Thai, half German; a rapper. She’s a great kid. So I’m sure I wouldn’t be complaining if she fit into the algorithm and we have a TV show with 300,000,000 people [laughs]. So you just have to adapt and go with the flow.

You seem to be able to more or less what you like, creatively. You’ve released Schemers, and of course there was the documentary with Placebo touring Russia.

Dave: That was a good laugh. We’ve done three documentaries, actually. One’s not out, but it’s about the Mercy Center in Bangkok, which is an orphanage. This guy Father Joe runs it, he’s run it for fifty years. Fantastic guy. 

We did a documentary about Placebo at Angkor Wat, which was superb. Have you ever been to Angkor Wat, in Cambodia?

No, I’d love to!

Dave: You should Google it, just to see the image of them playing there. They’re the only band who’ve ever played there. That was ten years ago.

The documentary in Russia was hilarious. That was a trip across Siberia; we played twelve cities and played twelve cities. We traveled on this train which had seven classes. We had First Class, which was three carriages. Each member of the band had their own compartment with a flat screen TV, a shower, a little table, two attendants, nice lighting, huge double bed. 

You go down to Second Class, which is bunks, and it just gets progressively worse as you go further back. We get down to Seventh Class and there’s fourteen sleeping in a thing, stacked seven-high up the wall like bread in an oven and eating roasted chestnuts.

The Russian bodyguard we had, Anton, was in Special Forces. He was a real hard guy, liked guns a lot, had been shot ten times. He said, “you’d do as well having a light shining on your door saying ‘come and rob us, we’re rich!’”. And he was right – the pure opulence of it was ridiculous.

But it was great, and the shows were amazing. We went to some right ridiculous places. The Russian people are great – their situation isn’t great, but they’re great.

I’d love to go some day. Just incredible.

Dave: It must have been hard running Russia if you were the Czar a few hundred years ago. If they said they’re having a problem in Vladivostok and he’s in Moscow, you’d have to send the horses.

A full horse-and-carriage convoy.

Dave: Exactly, and they get the message and have to send them right back.

It’d take a couple of weeks each way, too!

Dave: A couple of months, really. When I first flew to Tokyo, we flew over Russia and I couldn’t believe it. It was like, “jesus, it’s been eight hours and we’re still going over Russia”. [laughs]

The flight had eight different time zones or something like that – Europe, Russia, Korea, Japan. It’s a hell of a big place. We had some great times and some great laughs there, you know. 

I’ve actually written a book – I wrote it with a guy at The Guardian, called Rich Pelley. We’ve just finished it, and it’s all the anecdotes and stories from over the years. But it’s quite a laugh, because they’re always mad times. Every day’s a holiday to me, that’s my maxim.

In my time preparing for this interview, I read some fantastic stories from throughout your life and I’m sure you have countless more to share.

Dave: Yeah, I just keep living the life every day. You never know what you’ll get. 

I only had time to read one email this morning, and it was from my brother. He’s in Scotland, and he honestly cracks me up. He’s actually quite a good writer. He’s always done his own thing; never really got involved in any of my projects. But I’m getting him involved in a project now, because he’s pretty funny. So that’s got me off to a great start to the day.

From left: Conor Berry (Davie) & Tara Lee (Shona)

I’d be doing my girlfriend Kristi a disservice if I didn’t ask you about Placebo’s upcoming album. She’s absolutely desperate for anything new from them, because they’ve been a beloved band her entire life.

I understand that things have been made rather difficult by the pandemic, so I’m curious as to whether there are any solid plans for the new album to be released this year.

Dave: The album’s been finished for two, three months. It’s got a title, the first track’s ready to come out and all that. I’m not really allowed to say much, but I can say it’s finished. And I can say without a shadow of a doubt, it’s the best thing they’ve ever done by a million miles.

And I really mean it. There’s not one bad track out of twelve tracks – and they might add another one. But you know how you wait and you wait, and you think, “christ, what’s this going to be like?”. I can never lie to them, because it’s impossible to lie to them. It’s good to be a sounding board for them. 

So I was waiting on the songs, and you get it on your iPad with your headphones, and you press play. And you go “oh!” [claps]. Every single one of them. So there’s that, and I think it’s safe to say there’ll be a single around September. But you can tell Kristi that it’ll be worth the wait. 

We had eighty-six shows booked for this year. Headlining twenty-odd festivals, a huge arena tour – ten, fifteen thousand people a night. The band’s still massive in places in Europe, like Russia, even south-east Asia, and the demand is there. Out of eighty-six shows, there’s only one left, and that’s in Moscow. I don’t know what’ll happen with that one either, but the other eighty-five are gone. So 2020’s out, 2021’s out.

It doesn’t really matter about the loss of money, because everybody’s losing right now. We’re very lucky we’ve got our health, and we make some money on streaming. We’re very, very fortunate. 

But I just miss going out and seeing them. I miss the atmosphere of a gig; you go to the stadium or the arena and you line up in the queue, the crowd falls in and rushes to the front. All the little things that happen during the show; the little looks from the band and the thumbs up when I’m at the side of the stage, all those corny little things.

They come off and you go, “awesome, guys!”. Big hugs, and they ask “how was that, Dave?”, and you say “it was awesome, you’re brilliant”. The last time I saw them was in Milan, which was two years ago. It was really funny driving back to the hotel, because it was just me and Brian (Malko) in this people carrier. He says “I love it in Italy, you always get the police escort” [laughs]. We had about ten guys on motorbikes with their sirens going. You always get that in Latin America and Russia too.

You just kind of laugh and pinch yourself. The first gig they ever got paid for was at the Splash Club in London, and afterwards he said “how much did we make?”. I did the math and he went “wow, £382!”. Now, of course, you get offered to play a gig somewhere and he might say “is that all?”. I’ll say, “alright, you remember—“ and he says, “I know exactly what you’re going to say. The Splash Club, 1995. £382”. 

You always bring that one out, he tells me.

SCHEMERS will be available on iTunes, Google Play & Sony PlayStation May 12.

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