Optimo turn ten
Henry Northmore talks to Twitch and Wilkes, the duo that unleashed Optimo on the world, as the cutting edge club night celebrates ten years of freaked out excellence
The main problem with Optimo (Espacio), to give the club’s full title, is that it’s almost impossible to categorise in one handy soundbite. Keith McIvor (aka Twitch, pictured left) and Jonnie Wilkes (pictured right) both came from a techno background with residencies at Edinburgh’s legendary Pure and Glasgow’s My Machines respectively. But to call Optimo a techno night would be a total misnomer; they’ll happily cram The Stooges, Carl Craig, John Carpenter movie themes, Gang of Four, The Cramps, Depeche Mode, Ricardo Villalobos and Nancy Sinatra into their set, and those are just the ones you’d recognise. Names as diverse and respected as Grace Jones, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Franz Ferdinand, The Rapture, Peaches and A Certain Ratio have all played live at Optimo.
It’s their strict adherence to not observing the rules and conventions most clubs slavishly follow that has set Twitch and Wilkes apart and made them perhaps the most revered DJs in Scotland. Optimo may have started as a quiet Sunday night in Glasgow but now Twitch and Wilkes play across the globe. What at first must have seemed like a specialist selection of anything goes tunes appealing to a niche market has lasted ten years and become respected the world over.
‘The original idea was just to have a club where we could play whatever we fancied and it wouldn’t really matter because nobody would be there to care,’ explains McIvor, ‘and that spirit has endured.’ You never know what you’ll hear, it’s that journey of discovery that is part of the pleasure of the club.
‘That first hour when the club is filling up is often a reflection of where our heads are at on that particular day,’ says Wilkes. ‘Maybe you play dark or noisy or maybe very trippy or something ridiculous. Other times we play a set which we think will introduce the live show appropriately. It depends, but it’s never dance music although sometimes people do freak out to the more esoteric stuff. Later in the night it’s all about the dancefloor.’
‘I never think about music having a boundary so it would feel wrong to limit my choice,’ he adds. ‘I suppose it’s whatever experience you want to give your audience.’
It’s this full commitment to creating a ‘night out’ that has made people feel like they belong to Optimo, and Optimo belongs to them. There’s far more connection between DJ and clubber than your average night out. It’s why the likes of LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy proclaims, ‘Optimo’s the best club in the world’ while Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard claims to have done his favourite ever gig there.
But the club didn’t get off to the most auspicious start. Back in November 1997, Twitch was playing at Aquaplanet every Sunday at the Sub Club, then resident Mark Ryall moved to Barcelona so an empty slot came up on the Sunday. Twitch stepped into the breach calling on his friend and fellow musical voyager Wilkes and Optimo was born. They instantly gelled, and the freeform DJ style created a unique club experience. At first numbers were low, but luckily for them the Sub Club had a pretty relaxed attitude, as long as staff costs were covered. But word of mouth spread, and, almost inexplicably, Optimo soon became the club in Glasgow.
‘A lot of people were a bit fed up with what was going on in clubs and there was a certain general Glasgow attitude – people don’t follow, they just want to have a good time, it’s a hedonistic, party city in general – and I think that might be why Optimo became popular,’ ponders Twitch. ‘In the early days we tried to do it in a couple of other cities and people just looked at us with shock and horror.’
Glasgow helped shape Optimo. It’s a club that couldn’t have been created anywhere else. The city’s appreciation and knowledge of music is world renowned, and only a city like Glasgow could give birth to and appreciate as eclectic and diverse a club night. ‘The commitment of our home crowd to getting totally into it is thrilling when you play there week to week and is a permanent highlight,’ says Wilkes.
Today, Twitch and Wilkes appear as Optimo the world over, from cities across the rest of the UK and mainland Europe to Brazil. ‘Usually the first time we ever go anywhere we play a more conservative set until we can get a feel for it,’ explains McIvor, ‘but in Japan it was almost like the audience was encouraging us to go as far as we possibly could.’
Their devotion to music as a whole led them to set up their own record label OSCARR (Optimo Singles Club and Related Recordings), releasing tracks from artists such as Bis, Crème de Menthe, xVectors and Pro Forma. ‘We’ve had it for about seven years and we’ve only put out about a dozen records,’ explains McIvor. ‘But there wasn’t an outlet for the kind of music we wanted to release, so it was a commitment we wanted to make to people who were making music that we would provide an outlet.’
The last decade has been full of highlights for the dynamic duo. ‘The main highlight for me is that anyone ever came to begin with – we literally had no idea anyone would,’ laughs McIvor. There were multiple rumours that the tenth birthday party (which features Chris Corsano, Ebony Bones, Jimi Tenor, ‘a very special surprise appearance’ and a run through ‘ten years of Optimo classics’) would be the last ever Optimo date but the passion and fire is clearly still burning brightly in both of them. With plans to devote more of their time to their OSCARR label, Twitch and Wilkes are always looking to the future of music. ‘After all the years doing remixes for people we’d like to concentrate on making our own music,’ says McIvor, ‘and of course more crazy parties, weird locations, strange themes and to continue bringing things to Glasgow that no one else would think about bringing.’
‘Onwards and Opwards,’ laughs Wilkes.
Optimo’s tenth birthday weekend takes place at Glasgow School of Art, Glasgow, Fri 23 Nov and the Sub Club, Glasgow, Sun 25 Nov.
Twitch and Wilkes guide us through their top ten Optimo tracks
n ‘Optimo’ Liquid Liquid (99 Records) So good that we named the club after it. Proof that some of the most amazing dance music can be made by people playing instruments together in a room.
Twitch and Wilkes guide us through their top ten Optimo tracks
‘Kiss Me Again’ Dinosaur (Sire Records)
It’s long, very long. Possibly the longest dance record in the history of the world. I wish it was even longer. A two-fingered salute to instant gratification.
‘Zorba the Greek’ Herb Albert & the Tijuana Brass (A&M Records)
At Optimo we say we play everything from ‘the sublime to the ridiculous.’ This record falls into the latter category.
‘Everybody’s Got To Live’ Love (available on How to Kill the DJ Vol.2, Discograph)
A lesson in perseverance: the first time it was played there was tumbleweed on the dancefloor. Several weeks later everyone was singing along.
‘I Need a Freak’ Sexual Harassment (Heat/Montage)
Lean, wonky electro music and lyrics purely about sex. The freedom in the lyrics is a big part of its appeal.
‘Sonny’s Burning’ The Birthday Party (Budda)
Starts with the cry, ‘Hands up who wants to die?’ Sometimes there comes a point at Optimo when this question has got to be asked.
‘Relevee (Carl Craig Remix)’ Delia and Gavin (EMI)
This remix takes a charming beatless Kraut-style synth journey and produces an insane dancefloor record.
‘Hot On The Heels Of Love’ Throbbing Gristle (available on 20 Jazz Funk Greats, Industrial Records)
This very old electronic song has been played since the first ever Optimo.
‘Shake It Up’ Divine (Break Records)
If Divine were still alive we’d book him several times a year. This has everything we love about dance music, masses of (hi) energy, camp fun, dumb lyrics and the power to cause people to shriek.
‘Rock Cottage’ Ten Benson (Cottage)
Obscene feast of booze fuelled rock. I think it appeals to the dirty bastard in us all.