Optimo: Hung Up On Music

Since their decision to bring their beloved Sunday night institution to a close much has been written and said about Keith McIvor and Jonnie Wilkes: the greatness of that night, its significance in the history of UK clubbing, and (overwhelmingly) the extent to which it will be missed. But while they have both appeared flattered by the admiration of all those who attended Optimo (Espacio) during its 12 and a half year stint at Glasgow’s Sub Club (and a great deal of people who didn’t attend), there remains the impression that it was but one chapter in the ongoing musical adventures of two of the UK’s true individuals. A new night – Hung Up! – is already underway in the same Sunday night slot, and JD Twitch and JG Wilkes will continue to bring the Optimo sound to audiences around the world, as well as embarking on new projects that the commitments of a weekly clubnight would often hinder.

In preparation Optimo’s appearance at the Horse & Groom in London the other week Keith took the time to answer some of my questions about Pure, Optimo, and Hung Up!, and a whole bunch of stuff in between.  He turned out to be the perfect interviewee, the polar opposite of most monosyllabic jocks out there, and an all-round super cool bloke.  So cheers Keith!

This interview was originally published on the Warm Music blog.


So the Fabric mix just dropped – what did you both set out to do with the mix? Is it a fair reflection of the kind of set you guys have played at Fabric in the past?

We were trying to reflect what we would play at Fabric but as we have played all three rooms there that gave us a lot of leeway. Initially we had thought of doing a “banging” Room 2 mix but as we were putting it together it drifted away from that. We can be quite chameleon like and very undogmatic with our djing in that we’ll play differently depending on where we play. This makes it a lot harder for people to get to grips with what we actually do but makes life a lot more interesting for us as it means we get to play all sorts of interesting places – from uber cool clubs such as Panorama Bar and Robert Johnson to crazed rock and roll nights, disco parties, enormo raves, avant-garde arts installations, anything goes basements and all points in between. I’d never play anything I don’t like but love the challenge of being able to move almost any kind of dancefloor. The idea of only ever playing, say house clubs for my whole life would drive me insane.

How did the process of putting that mix together pan out? I heard that you recorded your contributions to it separately…

We always work this way. We’ll each come up with a list of records we hope to include and then sit down, look at each other’s lists and talk about it a little bit. Then we decide who is going to do which half, go away and do it and then I stitch them together. Somehow it seems to work. We each have different tastes and play quite differently to each other so trying to do it any other way would be very difficult.

There’s a bit of crossover between the Fabric mix and the people-voted ‘Optimo 250’ which went up shortly before the final night – A Basic Channel track on both, the Desire track… Those two quite neatly represent the 2 sides of an Optimo set I guess…the club tracks, the more functional, maybe more disposable stuff (though admittedly it wouldn’t be right to dismiss a Basic Channel record as disposable), and the ‘songs’…the ones that overwhelmingly people seemed to single out when they voted for that list. How did it feel to see the more incongruous choices beside one another? In a way it must be a confirmation that what you wanted to do with a little Sunday night slot back in 1997 actually worked… I mean it seems that you wanted to start the night to play all of those kinds of tracks, the kind of thing you could never play at Pure.

It was an odd feeling to see the list, but it confirmed what I suspected – that people love songs. I think about 90% of the music on the list was song based. In the early Pure days I was quite averse to vocals but over time I have become increasingly besotted with songs. Almost every remix I have agreed to do is a song. There is obviously always a place for functional club tracks and often they are what people will go wildest to on the dancefloor but most of them are disposable short term hits. So, yes the list was confirmation that what I set out to try to achieve actually worked.

Following on from that, can you try and put Pure in some sort of context for the uninitiated? What else was there in Edinburgh around the time that night started? What was the night like?

There was nothing like it here at the time. There had been the odd acid house or house club in Edinburgh but they were dictated by a strict dress code and were more about the posing rather than the dancing. Pure was very dark, albeit with intense bursts of light and strobes and very, very loud. In hindsight it was stupidly loud and I’m amazed I am not deaf as the monitor set up was louder than most full club soundsystems. I have yet to play at any other club that had such a powerful system. So, there was this combination of all this new electronic music the likes of which most people had never been exposed to before being played incredibly loud with intense lighting effects in a room with literally nothing in it apart from a dancefloor. This was of course combined with the arrival of ecstasy so it was a perfect synergy and in hindsight perhaps not so surprising that it instantly took off.

It brought together people from all over Scotland who would never have encountered each other in a zillion years before. It literally changed people’s lives and broke down a lot of barriers. It was probably a little too crazed! The term “mental” was in common parlance back then and it was actually a little too mental in that the atmosphere was at absolute fever pitch from the doors opening until the doors closing – people would run onto the dancefloor as soon as they were let in. Oddly I was practically straight edge while all this madness was going on around me which is possibly how I survived to tell the tale.

We were feverishly passionate about what we were doing. The music was literally inventing itself from week to week and we were determined to bring the very best and most cutting edge acts to Scotland. Richie Hawtin, Jeff Mills and a host of other now legends made their European debuts at Pure. We had Richie play both as F.U.S.E and Plastikman live for the princely fee of £500 both times. Aphex Twin played live with an all analog set up of home made and modified synths (wires everywhere) and almost everyone who ever released a Detroit techno record or a Chicago house classic played at one time or other, a couple of whom had to ask to be relieved from the decks as it was too crazed for them to continue playing! We also brought over a lot of European DJs and live acts but often the residents nights were the wildest as we absolutely knew how to work that room.

This year is Pure’s 20th birthday and we are hoping to get together to do a one off party to celebrate the fact. I think most of the people who come will be expecting to hear a night of Pure classics but I am aiming to play what I think Pure would sound like today if it had never stopped.

Had you done much DJing wise before Pure? What sort of musical background did Jonnie come from when you began working with him on Optimo?

I had been DJing (in the loosest use of the term!) for a few years before Pure, playing records rather than mixing them together. I had a Saturday night warm up residency in Edinburgh playing pre-house/techno electronic music and used to get a lot of abuse for playing “that drum machine shit”. I ran a couple of nights in Glasgow but back then people here really didn’t like or get electronic music so I had decided my forays into trying to introduce people to electronic music were over and had no intention of DJing ever again. Then I got talked into doing this new night in Edinburgh called UFO which morphed into Pure. With Pure it was a case of being at exactly the right place at the right time and it all went ballistic.

Jonnie first started DJing at a funk and reggae night in Glasgow. He was studying at the Art School here and the opportunity to do a Saturday night there came up. That developed into a very long running techno night on a Saturday which is what he was doing when I met him.

At the Optimo nights there would often be a good hour where you would play pretty straight up techno, and often pretty ‘nostalgic’, older stuff in the R&S vein, kind of harking back to the sort of things I imagine you played at Pure. Obviously Pure was very much in the 4/4 tradition, but did you still get to skirt around the edges of House/Techno and try to play outside the crowd’s comfort-zone a little bit? (I’ve heard a story that the first track Brainstorm ever played there was a Hawkwind song?!) Is it fair to say that there’s always been that contrary nature in the way you try to do things?

Can I just say that I deplore the idea of nostalgia in music. If I play a record from my past it’s because I still think it sounds great to this day. A label such as R&S was a massive influence on me at the time and from time to time I will still play a lot of records they released as I think they stand the test of time. But, a lot of them don’t and I wouldn’t play them just because I associate them with a certain supposedly glorious era in the past. At the same time, one’s past always informs one’s present and techno/house is in my DNA so it’s always going to form a part of what I do, even if that is simply down to the way I DJ. I think even if I’m playing say, an all disco set, the energy of how I put that together would be informed by the way I initially learned how to dj.

To answer the question though, yes. At Pure, we definitely tried to play outside the crowd’s comfort zone a little. Even the name Pure was partly a dig at musical purists and within electronic dance music our tastes ranged all over the place from the deepest Strictly Rhythm record to the most mindwarpingly intense acid to beautiful soul techno and all points in between, while occasionally throwing in something completely out there just to mess with people’s heads. I’m not so interested with messing with people’s heads these days but definitely like confounding expectations. My girlfriend always tells me I’m a contrarian and I guess she’s right, but I try not to be contrarian just for the sake of it. I just can’t help myself!

Tied in with that, I saw a Michael Mayer quote recently which immediately made me think of you two and what you might think about it: “A DJ has a certain responsibility. He has to play progressive, contemporary music and combine it with the past. It is all about entertaining people, but you must not underchallenge nor overstrain them. You must be subversive and play music that no one would have ever dreamt of listening to voluntarily at the club. You are both entertainer and educator.” Is that a fair summary of the way you and Jonnie approach things? I can imagine how the ‘educator’ role might be a bit of an unattractive label, but if you’re trying to play any sort of varied set there must always be that tension there of trying to strike the right balance…

“Educator” is definitely an unattractive label and there is a very fine line one has to tread but Mr Mayer’s quote is pretty much spot on. I’m an entertainer at the end of the day but I would have been bored out of my mind long ago if I just pandered to what people wanted to hear so I try to introduce music they might not know whenever I can. It always varies from gig to gig and I usually very quickly get a sense of what I can play so sometimes I can play exactly what I want to play and other times have to play a bit more conservatively. The joy of having a residency is that you build up a relationship with your crowd. You know you can play something you might not have the nerve to play at a gig in a club you have never played before and even if it absolutely doesn’t work, it was worth taking the risk as you know the crowd will come back to the dancefloor rather than leave the club or give you abuse. You also have the opportunity to persevere with a record you truly believe in which is why some rather odd records ended up becoming Optimo anthems.

It sometimes seems to me that the importance of techno can be downplayed a bit in the Optimo coverage in favour of emphasising the diversity of the music policy. Yet the Pure night ran for so long that it clearly forms a huge part of your musical background – for you professionally as a DJ at the Pure nights and I’m sure for both of you as club-goers yourselves. Can you say a bit about your relationship with the genre over the years, how it’s changed, which styles have turned you on and which have turned you off… Is there much new stuff coming out now that pricks up your ears? Do you buy into much of the Berghain/Berlin school that’s been the dominant strain over the past few years?

I have a love/hate relationship with techno nowadays. I fought incredibly hard to get people into it when it first came out and was evangelical about it to the point that to this day I have almost no idea what was happening in music outside of the electronic ghetto from 1989 – 1995. But, by 1995 the template had been written, innovation slowed to a crawl and I started to get bored and feel constricted in my ghetto. I still followed it and indeed do to this day but while once I would have known about every record and every producer, now I skirt round the edges of it looking for the more interesting releases. Sometimes I’m asked to play an all techno set but it’s not something I like to do very often as Optimo destroyed my ability to really enjoy playing single genre sets. The “hate” bit comes from the fact that to me techno was always this forever moving forwards music and now 99% of it is just fine tuning or regurgitating the formula. I feel I’ve heard it a zillion times before. But, the other 1% is what keeps me keeping an eye on it and there definitely are amazing records still being made that aren’t too in awe of what came before and move the music forwards.

The style that most turned me off were banging for the sake of banging tracks that had one idea that was repeated ad nauseam. People like Jeff Mills, Dan Bell and Robert Hood knew how to make a record with very few elements that were sexy and interesting to hear and dance to. Unfortunately thousands of producers tried to copy them and forgot about the things that made their records great. It sounds a bit airy fairy but for me, techno should be for the mind, body and soul, not necessarily in every track but within a set of techno music.

Where Minimal ended up is a bit depressing to me as originally there was a lot of imagination and beauty there but it went down the most tedious cul de sac and most of the audience for it is incredibly narrow minded about hearing other sounds. Dogmatic music and audiences are without a doubt my least favourite aspect of dance music.

As for the Berghian/Berlin school, I really like some of it but probably not a whole night of it. It is starting to mutate a bit, and when any sound first mutates that’s often the point where the most interesting music is produced.

One thing I’ve always enjoyed from your output are the kind of ‘genre mixes’ that you do. The ’60 Minutes Of Fear’ mix, the Cumbia mix you did last year for Beats In Space (to name only a couple). You said something to the Little White Earbuds site recently about the easy availability of music, and the worry that people can download large amounts (even entire genres) so easily, but not necessarily digest it. I think with so much out there it’s an effort for even the most dedicated of us to really sit down and try to immerse ourselves in everything that comes our way. Do the mixes act as a way for you to get your head around certain groups of records? You could say that about playing tracks out in a club regularly I’m sure, but a mix is a more cerebral, less spontaneous thing…

I have this weird rule that I’ll only put something on a mix if I physically own the record. I’m not a luddite who won’t play digital files (far from it) but if I’m putting a mix together it is always from records (unless the music doesn’t exist on record). I get to know music a lot better if I have it on record and while I download music all the time the music I truly love outside what I play for the dancefloor I try to obtain on vinyl, even if it takes me years to find.

I used to worry that as I got older my appetite for hearing music would diminish but actually the opposite has been the case. The downside of this is that I have all this music and not enough time to listen to it as much as I would like to. So, I tend to pick out the songs I love the most from albums and return to them again and again rather than listening to each album over and over as I would have done as a teenager (although of course there are exceptions). So, I often end up with groups of tracks in a vague genre that seem to fit together and that will often form the basis of what will become a “genre mix”.

Our podcast series has ground to a bit of a halt recently but there are a few in the pipeline – a gospel one (godcast), an acid one, another Cumbia one that digs a bit deeper and is a bit more psychedelic, an all Arthur Russell one featuring some of his lesser known recordings plus an African funk mix. I worry that there is a danger of it looking like we are showing off as in “hey, check us, we know about all these different types of music!” but it’s not really like that. I sometimes have thought it might be better to be an absolute expert in one particular genre rather than a musical magpie but I am the way I am and I get so much joy listening to all this music that I want to share it with anyone who cares to listen.

You seem to have never really been that secretive about records in the way that some DJs are – most of the time you’re pretty thorough with track listings on mixes etc, while other DJs would refuse to name certain tracks. Is that a conscious decision? Do you think that educating (again, for want of a better word) people about certain types of music is something you consciously try to do?

“Loving music is sharing music” is a slogan we have used in the past. I started doing this because there was all this music I thought was amazing that I wanted other people to hear and that’s why I continue to do it. The idea of covering up records was always abhorrent to me. I will always tell people what a record is. The only time we don’t tell people what a track is is on our podcasts and that is simply because, from my own experience, people will look at the tracklisting and judge the mix on their preconceived notions of what they think it will be like and often don’t actually bother listening to it. Even then, we make it very clear that if they want to know what the tracks are they can email and we will tell them. It is quite incredible how many people do email to ask and that has been a great way to get feedback on the podcasts which we wouldn’t otherwise get.

I am in a very privileged position in that I get to spend a lot more time discovering music than most people. It’s what I do and I get an immense amount of joy by turning people onto music I have found, both old and new, that I think is fantastic. Why would one want to keep that to themselves? I just can’t get my head round that mentality. Even if someone had all the same music as me, they wouldn’t sound like me as a DJ. Everyone has their own way of presenting it, so DJs that won’t say what something is because it is “their record” are beyond my understanding.

I dug out the ‘Mmm, Betty’ CD recently and noticed this from the sleeve-notes: ‘these reworks were constructed strictly for club play and are 100% beat mixable. If the process or the fidelity offends your sensibilities, please track down the originals and do it yourself.’ Does that comment spring from anything in particular? Do you sometimes encounter people that have a problem with the way you might have re-arranged a track?

Not really. I guess I could see even then that the edit thing was going to become a craze (which like all crazes got out of control!) and I was trying to emphasise that the only reason I had done these was for my own DJ sets. I had to be talked into releasing the Betty Botox stuff and was aware some people would feel I had abused the source material, which of course I had. I never edited for the sake of editing. It was more about having my own versions of songs or reworking them to reflect my style. If anyone has a problem, well, the disclaimer said it all.

Are there any editing styles that have really grabbed your attention in the past few years…Are there certain things that turn you off with an edit? What prompts you to think ‘right, I’m going to sit down and edit this track to make it better to play out’?

My edits were always very basic in terms of adding additional production, whereas the ones that grab my attention now tend to be the ones that are more in between a remix and a re-edit. I have more or less ceased to do edits as the software I use has developed to a point that I can do the edit live and adjust it according to how it will fit in my set at that precise moment. That’s a lot more liberating and a lot more fun (and challenging) when I’m playing but the result is that I’d rather do it myself than buy someone else’s edit unless they have done something very drastic with it. People I still pay attention to are Eric Duncan, Todd Terje, Situation and a handful of others who are creating new music in the editing process, but my real edit heroes are still the ones who spliced tape back in the days – Omar Santana, Latin Rascals, Chep Nunez etc. It was a different style of editing but they were the true masters of the art.

Things that turn me off are editing for the sake of editing or editing out all the good bits to leave behind a tedious liner groove that isn’t actually very groovy.

So tell us about the new night at Sub Club. Actually where did the name come from for a start?

As the new night started just after the general election we had this somewhat daft idea to base the name depending on the outcome. As it was a hung parliament we went for Hung Up! which I like as it has all sorts of different connotations. And of course, like almost every club I have been involved in it is also the name of a song.

How important do you think the Sunday slot was to Optimo, and subsequently the new night? Would Optimo have even worked on a Friday or a Saturday?

It was the whole reason why the club was the way it was. It simply wouldn’t have worked on a Friday or a Saturday, or at least not in the long term. People who go out on a Sunday have to make more effort to be there and tend to be more open to hearing different music or have been out all weekend and are quite happy to hear a different soundtrack.

The new night has gone back to being our hobby. I get to play what I want from time to time but don’t have to devote 1000% of my energy to it. With Optimo, we put in a huge amount of ourselves week in week out to promoting it and making it as amazing as possible every single week. Hung Up! is a LOT more low key and while I’ll still give 1000% to it when I DJ, playing there once a month or so requires a lot less input from me. We have no plan for the night, no requirement that it makes any money. As long as it ticks over, the people who come enjoy it and The Sub Club are happy to have us, then we’ll continue to do it. If it doesn’t work in the long term, it’s not a big deal and we’ll simply do something else. I loved every minute of Optimo but after 12 years it is incredibly liberating to have a low stress night to play at.

At Optimo you only booked bands, rarely DJs. With Hung Up! it’s going to be different – are you going to be booking mainly local DJs for the night or getting the occasional bigger-name down as well? Was that always going to be part of the decision to bring Optimo to a close – to try and start something fresh in Glasgow, encourage new talent…

I think Glasgow has some of the best DJs in the world. They all have their own unique style and they all tend to know and get on with each other. It was the right time to involve the ones we admire in a night and for us to play with them from time to time. The night is absolutely based around them but we will also book DJs we love such as Tim Sweeney and Ivan Smagghe as well as DJs we have played with in other cities who perhaps aren’t well known but who in our opinion are a lot better and more interesting than many big name DJs. We’ll also continue to book live acts we want to bring to Glasgow.

What do you both plan to do with the spare time that stopping Optimo is going to open up for you? Obviously you’ll have to turn down fewer DJing opportunities I guess… Are there any particular projects coming up?

I plan to up my average number of hours of sleep per night from around 4 to perhaps 5. More importantly for me is to have time to work on projects I just wouldn’t have had time to do before, most specifically working on my own music which as I work very slowly will take a long time to see the light of day. But, when Optimo was running, there simply weren’t enough days in the week to even start making music so up until now I have mainly done remixes and edits. Hopefully that will change…

I also hope to do some production with bands and maybe, just maybe, do something that gets me out of dark rooms and into daylight. Hillwalking sounds vaguely appealing. We’ll also hopefully do a few trips to play in far away places that we have had to turn down before as it meant missing a Sunday.

I’ve also heard that you’re going to be doing some production work for a band? Can you say anything about that at this stage?

I have been working with Sons and Daughters. We did a couple of songs together to see how it would work out and are about to go and do another three as we were all very happy with the results. After that, hopefully I’ll work with them on their album. We worked in an all analog studio, recording straight to tape which was a really joyous way to work. I spend so much of my life staring at a computer screen so it was a revelation to work on music without using any computers.

I’m also going to be going into the same studio with San Francisco band Tussle in September to work on their album. After that, we’ll see how it goes and whether it’s an avenue I’d like to pursue.

Have you encountered/played with Tim Goldsworthy before over the years? It’s interesting that he’s kind of always been on the fringe of various people you’ve been involved with, bands you’ve booked for Optimo, etc (he’s had a hand in at least 1 of that Optimo top 250 for one thing!)

I have met Tim several times. Initially we met him when we visited the DFA studios in New York and then met him on several subsequent visits. We had him play, alongside Tim Sweeney, at a DFA party we put on in Glasgow a few years ago. He is one of our favourite people, both as someone we admire for his prodigious talent and as an all round lovely guy.

Finally, any records in particular that you’re feeling at the moment? Anything you’ll definitely be pulling out for Causes Of Colour?

I never know what I will pull out until I start playing. At the moment I’m head over heels in love with Nigerian synth freak William Onyeabor’s 70s records. The new Nicolas Jaar record on Circus Company is a thing of wonder and he is fully deserving of the hype. I’m deep into my Cumbia obsession and am head over heels for the new Soundway “Palenque Palenque” compilation. I’m really enjoying some of, well I don’t know what it is really – post dubstep mutant funk? Records such as “Claptrap” by Joe and “Squark” by Roska which I play pitched way, way down. However, it is very probable that I will play almost none of the above on Friday. It all depends on the crowd and the feeling in the room on the night.

2 Responses to “Optimo: Hung Up On Music”
  1. Antony says:

    COOL i like this


  2. Neal says:

    Just discovered this, nice interview!

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