Not many clubs make it to their 20th birthday, let alone spend 20 years at the cutting edge of dance culture. Henry Northmore talks to the people behind Glasgow institution the Sub Club to find out how they have succeeded in doing just that
Optimo and Subculture sprang up in the Sub Club’s hallowed basement space and Slam first made their mark there with their legendary Atlantis night. It can’t be coincidence that three of the most important clubs in the country all evolved in one space. Now three of the most popular DJ duos in Scotland, these residents are in demand across the globe. Slam are primarily seen at their Pressure night at the Arches these days but they still host Return to Mono at the Sub. However, it was their Atlantis night, which ran from 1990-1994, that helped bring house and techno to the country’s collective consciousness. Atlantis was a trail blazing club that brought the emerging sounds of dance culture to Scotland. Harri was also a resident at Atlantis, and now hosts Subculture alongside Domenic Capello, still the best place for deep house north of the border. And of course there’s the runaway success of Optimo. An innovative, anything goes attitude sees dub, garage, funk, electro, techno and all manner of oddities co-exist in a seamless mash-up of the best music has to offer. All these nights have hosted guests from Basement Jaxx to Franz Ferdinand to Kevin Saunderson, but it’s the residents that have cemented the Sub Club’s place in history.
The List assembled the key players from the Sub Club to talk about its unique position in Glasgow culture: co-directors Mike Grieve and Paul Crawford, Keith McIvor (aka Twitch resident at Optimo), Jonnie Wilkes (Optimo), Harri (Subculture) and Dave Clarke .
Why is the Sub Club special?
Dave Clarke It’s the perfect set-up with the DJs as close to the dancefloor as possible; it’s like a huge living room. How many clubs survive for 20 years?
Mike Grieve The Hacienda only lasted about 15 years and it wasn’t profitable for many of those years. The crowd sets the Sub Club apart. But the crowd wouldn’t be there if the space wasn’t great and the DJs weren’t great.
Jonnie Wilkes These kinds of venues are becoming few and far between. It’s very hard to find city centre, independently run, underground music venues.
Keith McIvor It’s a pleasure to DJ at the Sub Club. It’s rare that you get a place that’s just a joy to play. If we’d been in a different venue there’d be no way Optimo would still be alive after ten years. We’re very fortunate they gave us time to breathe; in most clubs we’d have been out after a year. It kind of spoils you.
Paul Crawford People in Glasgow just love a party, it’s that working class thing.
Harri They’re all alcoholics and hedonists [laughs].
How does the Sub Club compare to other venues you play as DJs?
JW It’s raised our expectations.
H You can be braver at the Sub Club. You know people will get it, stuff you would think twice about playing at other places, because you think ‘this will bomb here’.
KM Because you have a residency you can take risks because the crowd knows you. They can think ‘what is he playing that for?’ but they know the next record will be good.
JW It’s a trust thing.
KM We play ‘Optimo-lite’ when we play anywhere else. You have to water it down.
Any personal highlights from the Sub Club?
PC One for me was when Ron Davis just started singing. He’d never sung before and he just sang over the records and it was amazing, absolutely incredible, a hairs on the back of your neck moment.
MG I think everyone looks back and thinks it was great in ‘89 or ‘90 but there’s been many great nights recently, like when you guys [Optimo] put on A Certain Ratio the other year.
KM We’ve been very lucky. We’ve managed to put some of our absolute heroes on, people we want to see, and thankfully enough people come along so it pays for our self-indulgence. But you get random nights, like the other Sunday, when it’s insanely busy for no fathomable reason. Sometimes you’re DJing and the atmosphere is so great there’s a lump in your throat.
H I still get a wee bit nervous. You never take it for granted, you always want to make it the best night rather than just playing the hits. You’ve got to make something of every night.
JW You can develop your night to the point that you can now have a slightly quiet night and feel good about the fact that your set was strong and the music was interesting.
H And the night is almost as special as the busiest nights are because you conjured something up from something that initially didn’t look like it’d be a fantastic night.
Do you think the Sub Club has affected Glasgow culture?
H Aye, it’s produced a generation of mutants [laughs].
DC It’s part of the fabric of the city. It’s had an influence on the rest of Scotland - people from Aberdeen, Inverness and Edinburgh come down. For such a small space it’s had this dramatic effect not just on Glasgow.
How did the fire in 1999 affect the club?
MG It was a disaster. I’d been trying to build up the club for years and 1999 was the best year we’d ever had. Subculture was at it’s peak and Optimo had really just started to take off big time, it couldn’t have happened at a worse time, a month before the millennium celebrations.
JW I remember the firemen saying ‘you’ll be back in by midnight.’
MG We were all having a pint watching it, with the firemen saying ‘we’ve got it all under control’. About 10 minutes later there were flames shooting out of the building. It was the biggest fire I’d seen in my life. At first it was going to be a few weeks, then a couple of months, then six months and it went on like that for three years.
PC What it did, though, was it gave us a chance to make the venue the best it had ever been, the facilities, the soundsystem, everything.
What’s planned for the 20th birthday celebrations?
PC The midweek we’ve decided to run like a mini-festival for the club with names like Roy Ayers, Karl Bartos and Sugarhill Gang. For the club nights we have Louie Vega, Barbara Tucker and Kerri Chandler.
KM And we’ve got Blurt playing at Optimo, which is a 60-year-old guy who plays sax and sings, a drummer and guitarist and it works. They are a band we just love so wanted to put on, even though there are only about ten people in Glasgow who’ve heard of them. But people will hopefully trust our judgement. It’s self-indulgent but it’ll take their breath away at the same time. They’ll wonder why this guy hasn’t played Glasgow for 20 years.
What’s next for the Sub Club?
MG It’s an entity in its own right, so hopefully when we cannae hack it any more somebody else will. I don’t see any reason why the ingredients of the Sub Club won’t last indefinitely.
KM People will always want to go out and have a good time, and I can’t ever see that changing. And if they do stop wanting to go out and have a good time, well, society’s fucked.
The Sub Club, Glasgow, celebrates its 20th birthday Sun 1- Sat 7 Apr.