The DJs that changed the world look to new pastures, six weeks after the end of their Glasgow sweatbox.
Up until April of this year, Optimo took place every Sunday. Hardly the day we associate with letting go, losing control (in fact, the opposite). After announcing the closure six weeks in advance, Keith McIvor (Twitch) and Jonnie Wilkes (Wilkes) ran the last events as a series of celebratory farewells, each frantically edging closer to the end of an era. As the final night drew nearer, the events grew progressively more intense – ultimately closing the book to Optimo’s indelible quest to invert perceived givens, bend the rules and open people’s ears to something new.
“It was such a phenomenal way to go out,” says Keith a few weeks later. “It was the best atmosphere I have ever seen in my entire life. I just got sucked into the euphoria. There was so much love from everyone that came. At one point I had a lump in my throat but then it was such a frenzied night. It was so wild that I stopped thinking about it and, only in hindsight, after receiving messages, has it sunk in.”
A pre-cursor to the 2ManyDJs explosion, Optimo melded things that weren’t made to go together – The Ramones and German Techno, the art party and pill-head ravers – in a way that felt easy and natural. Never before in a club have I experienced such a feeling of abandonment. Every Sunday night in the Sub Club in Glasgow, the outside world stopped – or rather ceased to matter. OK, you might say that any credible club night needs to offer an escape from nine-to-five drudgery. But, between the moment you snaked out of the Sub Club tunnel onto the smoke-filled dancefloor towards the neon “OPTIMO” sign above the bar, to the moment you spilled out, drenched in sweat, on to bustling pavement of Glasgow’s Jamaica St at 3am, there was no escaping Optimo’s vortex of visceral energy. The incredible force of the Subby’s sound system and the feeling that dancing harder would release the built-up negativity of everyday life was infectious. The music – gritty, sleazy, at times retro and at others futuristic – always felt wild. The fact that all this happened on a Sunday made it all the more special, as Keith explains through enthusiastic Edinburgh tones in a hotel piano bar a few hours before an early-hours appearance at London’s Fabric: “Because it was on a Sunday people had to make a real effort to be there.”
Optimo started in 1997, a few years after Keith met Jonnie on the bus from Glasgow to Edinburgh on the way to Keith’s weekly Techno/House event, Pure. “In 1996, we did a couple parties together and then Keith invited me to play in the small room in Pure,” drools Northern Irish Jonnie. “I think we just got talking about things and we did a couple of parties which explored the idea of putting different things in different rooms.”
Conceived out of a will to break out of a rut created by a very tired looking Techno scene, Optimo’s pursuit was fun and fun only. “Around about that period, Techno, in particular, had got very aggressive, very masculine” says Keith. “The fun had gone out of it. When we did Pure, it was really aggressive music and musically we were kind of stuck.”
The opportunity to take on a weekly Sunday spot at the Subclub provided a chance for Jonnie and Keith to re-assert the freedom that doing Pure had removed. On a Sunday, the pressure was off. It was a chance to start afresh and do something new, albeit in front of less than 100 people during its first year-and-a-half of existence. “It wasn’t what I wanted to do for a living, it was kind of like a hobby that we just did on the side, where we would just play music to our friends. It didn’t matter whether it was popular. It was just total indulgence,” says Keith. “People would come and be horrified that I was playing Pop music or Punk records. At the start people would get so angry. The Sub Club was – and still is – a very famous House club and people were like ‘How can you play this music?’ but then there were our friends, people who really enjoyed it.”
Then, almost overnight, Optimo exploded. Word was getting about and not before long the Sub Club was rammed week after week. It had become Glasgow legend. “We were just having such a good time, so much fun doing it,” says Jonnie. “When it became popular we didn’t change our ideas. Into the second year there were only 100 or so people there and we were playing records that some people really loved and some people were like ‘you really shouldn’t be doing that’.”
Weirdly designed posters and flyers matched its music policy. Grotesque Hammer Horror images induced smiles, while a Space Invaders theme tapped everybody’s affinity with tacky-retro bric-a-brac. Essentially, it was a general disregard for safety that represented the club night’s ethos. As Jonnie points out, they approached it “with no concepts”.
Emerging from the cinders of 90s Acid Techno as a backlash to the po-faced chin stroking that preceded it, Optimo became part of a wave of colour washing over club land at the beginning of the noughties. DFA was emerging, electronic Pop bands were acceptable again and the peak-time splendour of Electroclash was the order of the day. “We never really felt part of it but there was Electroclash,” says Keith. “Before that, dance music had been very faceless and instrumental and then it became colourful again. There were interesting acts that were making flamboyant music. People started dressing up, bands started having weird images and also songs became important again. Dance music had been very instrumental before then.”
Over the 12 years that Optimo ran, Keith and Jonnie became renowned for exploring the unfamiliar and under-discovered side of Pop music to such an extent that the tunes they smashed out week after week became Optimo anthems, from Laid Back’s White Horse to Arthur Russell/Loose Joints’ Is It All Over My Face?. As Keith puts it, “there were so many records that were “Optimo” records. As the weeks went on, we played more and more of them and that was the last time they were heard. There are records that I will never play out again. So, it was like putting all these records to bed.”
“Those were the records we would play at the Sub Club on a Sunday,” adds Jonnie.
“They have such an association with that night that, sure enough, we will never play them again,” says Keith.
From Blondie to Basic Channel to Lee Hazelwood, Optimo represented a celebration of remarkable pop music. The last of the weekly events typified this most of all. “Every time we dropped another record, you could feel the crowd behind you,” says Jonnie. “That happens in a set sometimes but with every record we played the atmosphere went off again and again.”
“It was literally like that all night,” adds Keith. “People were singing along and lots of the records were drowned out.” At that time, there was a sense that anything could go. The further that Twitch and Wilkes pushed out from convention, the wider their creative boundaries were set. The excitement of surprise was what made Optimo catch on, but this did not come without drawbacks. “The only downside with the formula was people’s expectations,” admits Keith. “You had to follow the original mould and give what people were expecting and that made life difficult.”
On the flip, there were also times when Optimo’s audacity was too much for its audience. When they booked Noise band, Whitehouse, on a Bank Holiday Sunday resulted in Keith – a staunch left-winger – getting arrested and interrogated by Glasgow CID for being “subversive” after someone complained that the band were associated with Nazi imagery, it also led two, of what Keith calls, “glammed-up disco dollies” to tell him “it was the best thing they had ever seen”. Inevitably, some were repelled by Optimo’s impudence, others were thrilled. It worked both ways.
One night in particular, however, Twitch went too far; heavy-handedly breaching the line that separates a club from being a hedonistic escape and a space of political consideration, challenging the very notion of what is acceptable of a DJ. An audio tribute to September 11 just days after the attack almost led to Twitch getting killed by one over-affected clubber. “I think it was was Jimi Hendrix Star Spangled Banner and then a song called O Superman by Laurie Anderson and the line “Here come the planes / They’re American planes” that went into the tape of George Bush’s speech and then into a loop of REM’s It’s the End of the World as We Know it,” smirks Keith. “There was this moment of shock. Some people started throwing bottles and one guy tried to KILL ME! He had me on the floor shouting “I’m gonna kill you, how dare you”. I don’t even think he knew why he was doing it. It was just all these raw emotions. It needed, like, four doormen to get him off. And I don’t think he was a particularly crazed man. I guess that a club night is usually an escape from all the horrible things in the world and there I was forcing everyone to confront this yet again,” he says. “I realised how powerful sound can be in that environment.”
With all the arrests, attacks and in-club witnessing of “abandoned sexual congress”, the endless bookings and the relentlessness of weekly responsibility, came an eventual feeling that it had to end.
“It was such a long time: 12 years,” says Keith. “It took up an enormous amount of our lives. We were involved in every aspect of the club. It wasn’t as if we just turned up every Sunday and played a few records. The only thing we didn’t do was literally handing out the flyers.”
“Us two, as individuals, did the booking, the technical stuff, all the artwork and all the promotion,” adds Jonnie.
While an end to the weekly event is all very sad, it now offers a chance for Jonnie and Keith to dedicate time to other parts of Optimo. More focus on music production, one-off events in Glasgow and travelling to gigs are part of the Keith and Jonnie’s future plans. It is certainly not the end, as Jonnie states. “We should go on the record and say we are not retiring,” he says.