Words: Colin Brownbill
"I remember numerous times during the first year when people would be screaming 'how dare you play this music in the Sub Club!' It was crazy how angry people got, which for me was a positive thing. It was a reaction." Almost twenty years since Keith 'JD Twitch' McIvor and Jonnie 'JG' Wilkes hosted their first party as Optimo, the duo are still taking risks. Whether it's with their musical selections or hosting their first festival in a never-before-used space in the centre of Glasgow, two decades on from that Sunday, Keith and Jonnie still seek a reaction.
From the very beginning Optimo has been about open minds and fresh perspectives; the vision of what a club night could be. With their weekly residency at the Sub Club, Twitch and Wilkes cultivated their own dancefloor by engaging different audiences, presenting DJs next to live acts, Joy Division records next to house records, connecting dots and confronting preconceptions.
"Right from the off, the Sub Club saw that this could have some potential beyond what we could even see and they were very supportive' recalls McIvor. "On the very first night, Mike Grieve, who is now the owner and was then the manager, comes up, grabs the microphone and shouts out 'this is the start of something wonderful!' There was maybe only 100 people there that night, but you could sense something in the air."
"It was very exciting to go from being very under-stimulated to being in a position where we could say 'right, we're going to do what we want here'" agrees Wilkes. "It was a real opportunity to get my teeth into a lot more musically, as well as booking live performers."
Optimo (Espacio) became a Sunday night institution and its influence reached far beyond the Jamaica St basement where it was born. Everyone from LCD Soundsystem to Liquid Liquid performed live, while on the final night in 2010, a certain Marea Stamper aka The Black Madonna was listening via a live stream from Kentucky, later revealing in an RA interview that the experience was a "huge turning point" and "proof of life", inspiring her to chase the DJ dream that had so far eluded her.
Next month and twenty years to the day since the first Optimo at the Sub Club, The Black Madonna joins Twitch and Wilkes at Optimo 20 - a festival celebrating one of dance music's most culturally significant parties and a night which sparked a genuine dancefloor revolution.
Read our full interview with the duo below, in which we discuss the motivation behind Optimo, life after the residency and what it means to be celebrating such a momentous milestone:
SG: I wanted to begin by asking you about the motivation behind launching Optimo and how you felt about club culture at that time; what dissatisfied you about the nights you were playing at and attending?
Twitch: For me, personally, I just thought that the dance scene had lost something. When the club/rave scene first exploded, it was so vibrant, exciting, colourful and mixed-up. Before that in Scotland it was weird for guys to even get up and dance, so the fact that people were all dancing together from different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different sexualities…it was just really exciting.
By the mid-90s, at least in the place I was playing, it felt that it had lost that and people had gone back to their own little ghettos of clubbing. But also, musically, it just seemed to have lost its vibrancy; everywhere I was going the music was getting harder and faster, and I was just bored. It had lost its sexiness and a lot of people I was good friends with also felt the same.
SG: 20 years on, do you see any parallels with how you felt then and where dance culture is now?
Twitch: Very much so; it really feels like its gone full-circle. Back then it was the era of the superstar DJ and that always made me feel a little queasy. In many ways, we’ve progressed though, because club culture has expanded so much that there are hundreds of DJs doing really interesting things in small niches. But the club scene as a whole, the way it’s evolved, it’s become this massive commercialised entity where it’s all about the money, the ego and the image, so it feels very similar; there are a lot of parallels.
It’s really hard for things to grow organically now. We started Optimo in 1997 so we were almost under the radar, because most people didn’t get online until around 2000. If Optimo had started now and it became popular, it wouldn’t have a chance to breathe and develop because someone would instantly write a feature about this scene that’s brewing up, and it would be analyzed and everyone would know about it; so perhaps it would never have the chance to rise up and become something.
SG: The last Optimo on a Sunday night was a really significant event and the end of an era; when you look back, what do you really miss about your weekly residency?
Twitch: For me, I miss the people. There were a lot of people we’d see every week for years and you’d have this relationship with them, even though you’d only see them in a club environment. Then suddenly, when we stopped doing it (the residency) and there were people that you literally never saw again in your life.
I also miss the creative freedom of having a residency; you really can do things that are impossible when you get booked to play elsewhere; you can build a rapport with people over a long period of time and introduce them to music that would be far harder to play if it was a one-off gig.
Wilkes: I feel I've been a bit guilty of being not as adventurous as I could be as I'm out touring all the time and I don't have this place where I feel totally relaxed and comfortable. We’ve had occasional residencies at clubs over the years, and you get to know a space, you get to know a system, you get to know the booth, you get comfortable mixing there and you get to know the crowd. I remember our residency at Trouw in Amsterdam, and we definitely started to feel relaxed and it became more interesting as the residency progressed. I miss that, and as Keith said, it was like a social club having a weekly residency .
SG: After the weekly residency finished, that freed-up a lot of time to take on more tour dates. Do you feel people have a certain expectation of you when they book you, to take musical risks and present Optimo like you did during your Sub Club residency?
Twitch: It’s really hard to know what other people think. There are a lot of people that like to book us who know about music, but it’s hard to pin-down what is Optimo. If someone asks what Optimo is about, I find it hard to explain, and it’s not just about throwing all this random music together, it’s definitely not about that, but it is hard to pin-down. Quite often when we play, the audience don’t quite know what it’s going to be and more often that not it works out, but sometimes it doesn’t work…
Wilkes: But it’s not really a musical formula, and it’s probably got as much to do with our individual personalities and where we are in our headspace at a particular moment; I’m not really able to describe it. You’re asking us what audience expectations are, but I’m not really sure…
Twitch: I guess the fundamental ethos is that we want to give people as good a time as possible, but also, if we can, introduce them to music that they otherwise might not have heard - but without being self-indulgent about it.
SG: The Black Madonna described hearing a recording of the last ever Optimo at the Sub Club as a “big turning point” in her life. How does it feel to know that you had such a positive impact on someone so far away and for that person to now be joining you at your own festival?
Twitch: I was very moved when I heard that. When she played for us in December at the Sub Club she asked if she could get on the mic at the end of the night and she told that story; I really felt a lump in my throat. I forget that we had even been live streaming that night. Apparently Optimo started trending on Twitter because all these people were following the stream, so to realise that had such a profound effect on someone like The Black Madonna, and subsequently hear the story…
…I think her story is one of the most wonderful DJ stories there is - someone who was really passionate, doing it for two decades, but wasn’t really getting anywhere and then suddenly has this stratospheric rise; that must have been an incredible experience for her. To feel that we inspired her is mind-blowing.
Wilkes: We went to Chicago to meet her a few years ago and met her; she was the booker at Smart Bar where we were playing, and we really got on as friends and then when we played together we clicked. We’re very different DJs, but we’re coming from a similar sort of place and attitude.
SG: If we talk about the lineup for Optimo 20, you must be one of the few acts in the world who are both widely recognised, but can also host your own festival with some fairly obscure artists. How did you make sure the lineup represented who you are musically?
Twitch: It’s only in hindsight that I’ve realised how obscure the lineup is! The idea behind it is that it’s hard to pin down what Optimo is; we wanted it to reflect music that we’re interested in and also acts that we’d seen in the last year that had blown us away.
Everyone on the bill is someone that we’d seen that we just thought ‘they are great’, and beyond that it’s people who we have a personal relationship with. It’s not really a commercially obvious lineup, but we just wanted to throw the best party possible which represented what we’re into. Only once we’d booked everybody did we start worrying whether anyone would actually want to buy a ticket!
Wilkes: I don’t think there’s anyone on there we booked just to sell tickets. Keith called me up and he said ‘we can get Nurse With Wound, will we do it?’ I was like ‘yes, definitely’, because they have been a constant source of inspiration for us.
SG: You’ve always been pioneering with Optimo, and this festival is no different as you’ll be the first to use the Galvanizer’s Yard for a music event. What appeals to you about this space and how have you utilized the SWG3 complex?
Twitch: We wanted to do it in Glasgow, somewhere central, and we always wanted to do it in a place no one has used before. So the attraction was that we will be the first people to use the Galvanizer’s Yard; it’s a phenomenal space and it’s hard to find a space like that in the middle of a city.
Wilkes: The important thing for us, without sounding arrogant, is that we wanted to try and make a day for people that hasn’t happened so far in Glasgow and try and make an experience out of. There will be a DJ arena in the yard with bars and food outside, but we’ll also have a state-of-the-art live stage in the new shed which we’re working on with a team to produce a really high standard of production. We’re also hoping to have a small exhibition of memorabilia, and yeah we’re able to utilize the whole area really. We’ll also have an afterparty at the Sub Club…
Twitch: We always said we’d never do a Sunday at the Sub Club again, but it felt fitting on this one particular occasion that we would have the afterparty where we started the whole thing.
SG: Following the festival you have some exciting tour dates lined-up to celebrate the 20th anniversary; what does it mean to be celebrating something you started 20 years ago with people around the world?
Twitch: It’s pretty mind-blowing. When I try and think back to myself in 1997, it would have been beyond my imagination that we’d ever still be doing this and going to all these places and sharing this with people in different countries with different cultures.
Wilkes: Keith has really nailed it there; if I think back to when we started out on that Sunday night, and to imagine what we do now, with the travelling and what we’ve seen over the last twenty years, it really is quite overwhelming.
Twitch: The funny thing is, no matter where we go in the world there is always someone who is either Glaswegian or spent time in Glasgow that will come up and say ‘I used to go Optimo’ or ‘I met my wife at Optimo’. You can usually spot them before they come up because they are usually the drunkest person in the club, especially if they’re originally Glaswegian (laughs). But it is really moving to know that you had such an impact on someone’s life that long ago and they are still drawn to come and see you when you are on the other side of the world.