Optimo Interview: Push the limits

Optimo's JD Twitch spoke to Marko Kutlesa about the club nights he's been involved with, his current projects and why he'd never do another residency.

Becca Frankland

Last updated: 27th Oct 2016

Sub Club in Glasgow has long been regarded as one of the UK's premier underground music rave dens, largely thanks to its long running Saturday house night Subculture, helmed by Harri and Domenic Capello. But Subculture is not the only legend born at the venue

From 1998 to 2010 the venue hosted Optimo, a debauched Sunday nights attended by a loyal crowd of students, artists, bar staff, in later years visiting musicians and clubbers and anyone who didn't have any serious engagement with work on a Monday morning.

Its soundtrack, a heady mix of almost anything goes including techno, early electronic music, no wave, punk, mutant disco and leftfield rock was delivered by resident DJs JD Twitch and J.G. Wilkes. It lead to them running their own label, Optimo Music, to becoming remixers and re-editors and producing mixes for brands such as Tigersushi's Kill The DJ Records, Eskimo Recordings, Endless Flight, R&S Records, fabric, and FACT Magazine.   

Optimo was not however the first successful night Twitch, real name Keith McIvor, had been involved in. For 10 years, from the start of the 90s, he had been resident at Edinburgh's best remembered club night of the era, Pure. A house and electronic music night it is perhaps best remembered for its championing of techno and it brought many Detroit, Chicago and European DJs to the UK for their debuts or some of their earliest appearances. 

With their Glasgow residency now long finished, JD Twitch and J.G. Wilkes continue to DJ together internationally, produce studio work and run their label. They are both also involved in separate projects. Twitch records as Doubleheart with Neil Landstrumm and runs the Autonomous Africa label alongside Midland and Auntie Flo with all proceeds going to the Mtandika Mission in Tanzania.

Marko Kutlesa caught up with JD Twitch ahead of some key gigs including Klubnacht at Berghain, Until the Music Stops at Bloc London and Yellosphere at Ministry Of Sound to ask about both his famous residencies and his current projects. 

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Glasgow and Edinburgh are so close together, in any era do you think they've shared the same club scene?

Not really, but there was a brief point in the 1990s where Edinburgh has just as, or almost as an exciting club scene as Glasgow. I was involved in a club there called Pure from 1990 to 1992 and we used to take buses from Glasgow to Edinburgh and maybe 50 to 100 people every week would come. That's unheard of now, it's never happened since.

Edinburgh had a really bad period where its club scene was in terminal decline, mainly due to an unenlightened city council, but its really picked up again now and is quite healthy. I think Glasgow has always had the edge over it, partly because it's a bigger city, partly because it's got more venues available. Someone from Edinburgh might tell you something completely different, but I think Glasgow trumps Edinburgh generally for culture.

What's your own background? Where are you from?

I grew up in Edinburgh and then moved to Glasgow to go to university when I was 18.. I got into DJing accidentally about a year after and through knowing people in Edinburgh, who wanted to start a night and knew I played records, we started a night. I didn't even mix records at this point.

We were just in the right place at the right time, when the whole rave thing exploded and almost from day one it was a phenomenon and that went on for years. The next thing I knew it was what I was doing for a living without ever having intended on doing so. 

In terms of Pure, what were your chief inspirations? Was it Chicago or Detroit?

Neither. I'd been a fan of electronic music since the mid 80s, I'd started playing electronic music before house or techno even existed and that's why I wanted to DJ, to introduce people to electronic music.

At that time people were really resistant to it. When I played people would get upset that I was playing music with drum machines. Then house and techno came along and for me it was a natural progression from the music I had been listening to. It wasn't like some revolutionary sound to my ears, it was just some twist to it. I fell in love with it and that became a way to introduce more electronic music to people, the synergy of the music, the drugs.

But I was never aligned to one sound, I played house, I played techno, I played UK hardcore, Belgian techno. I tried to fit in some of the older stuff, so I would play Belgian new beat stuff. I've never felt particularly aligned to anything so I'm neither a Chicago house purist nor a Detroit techno purist. 

Who were your personal favourite guests from Pure?

God, there were so many. The best DJ sets I ever heard were this guy called Dimitri from Amsterdam, who we had play several times. He was mindblowing every time. The first few times we had Derrick May, he was amazing. The first few times we had Richie Hawtin, he was amazing. The last few times I've heard them they did nothing for me, but at that time they were incredible.

We had amazing live acts. Aphex Twin played live, sitting on the stage with all his synthesizers disassembled and all these circuit boards next to each other, completely improvising from homemade electronics. That was pretty amazing. We had Sähkö from Finland, (some of) who were Pan Sonic, Psychic Warriors Ov Gaia.

We had almost everyone you could think of from Chicago and Detroit over ten years, literally hundreds of guests, too many to mention. But those are some of the ones that particularly resonated with me. 

Are Psychic Warriors Ov Gaia the only opportunity you've had to put on someone connected to that whole Throbbing Gristle, Coil, Chris and Cosey axis?

No, we put on Throbbing Gristle in Glasgow, we put on Chris and Cosey in Glasgow. That was post Pure, that was as Optimo. I've quite a close connection with Chris and Cosey because I've released several of their records. But I think Psychic Warriors Ov Gaia were the first that had a connection to that.

Were there any DJs that played at Pure who you asked to play at Optimo?

I'm trying to think. We didn't really have DJs playing at Optimo. In the very early days at Optimo we did book DJs but we would give them the proviso that they were free to play whatever they wanted, this was a really openminded club. So few of them took us up on the challenge, they all just played really boring club sets, so we stopped booking DJs.

The one exception to that which I can remember is DJ Harvey. We had him come and play a couple of times at Pure and then we had him play again in the very early days of Optimo. He was incredible. He was playing records that if I played them people would have left the club, but because he was playing them they went with them. He was fantastic. But after the second year of Optimo we never booked DJs again, except very occasionally, if we were away. 

What music did you feel particularly wouldn't work at Pure that you knew you definitely wanted on the menu at Optimo?

Well Pure was very, very electronic driven. There was so much music that I got into over the years that was not electronic. Optimo was named after a Liquid Liquid song, so acts like that, the mutant disco, Arthur Russell records, they were the early things Optimo was championing.

Some of that could have fitted in to a set at Pure, but the crowd that was coming were only into electronic music. The Stooges was a huge thing early at Optimo. I think I once tried to play them at Pure and people were practically throwing things at me. Optimo was about having more freedom musically, not thinking what genre it was, is this electronic and will it work on the dancefloor. It was more about playing music that I personally loved and that maybe it would work on a loud soundsystem, although it's not something that people might think is a dance record. 

In what respects are your sets these days a continuation of what you did at Optimo?

They are a continuation in that, this might sound pretentious, but they're free thinking. I'm not tied to any one musical dogma. I think the one difference is that at Optimo we had a weekly crowd there. When people come every week it's really easy to play very challenging records, because you knew you could play them the first week and maybe nobody would really get them, but you could persist and eventually people would get to know it, fall in love with it and then realise it was an amazing record.

It's a little more difficult to do that when you're a two roomed DJ who only plays once ever. So I would say that maybe it's a little more conservative than when you're doing a weekly residency where you can really push the limits. 

Are there any records that stick out for you that maybe fell a little flat the first time you played them at Optimo, but ended up becoming anthems at the night?

Yeah, and I always cite this one, but it's an Arthur Lee/Love song called 'Everybody's Gotta Live'. I can't remember how I heard it, I think maybe I was just going through some Love records, but this song really stuck out. It's such a beautiful song. So, I played it one week. It cleared the dancefloor. It's not even got a drum beat, but I knew there was something about it. So I played it again the next week. Same reaction.

Then after about four weeks you could tell people were getting to recognise it. Then people would come up and ask about it and after about eight weeks everyone knew all the words. After three months they were begging me to play it and after six I was fed up with it, but people would demand it. It became one of the ultimate Optimo anthems.

With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything from the R&S catalogue you wish you could have included on your compilation?

I'm trying to remember. There were one or two things that we weren't able to get, a couple of things that they had licensed in and they no longer had the rights for. Then there was something else that they couldn't find the master to.

For that project they basically sent over their entire archive of DAT tapes and I spent a month going through it all. I found unreleased mixes, some Frank de Wulf material, unreleased Aphex Twin tracks. I asked about releasing those but they no longer had the rights. It was great for me though, because I got to have all this other material that no-one else has, that I still have to this day. 

How did Autonomous Africa come about?

It came about because a very, very old friend of mine had lived in Kenya for the last 25 years and he was working as a freelance fixer for Médecins Sans Frontières. He was helping take aid convoys into Darfur and he got seriously injured doing that and had to come back to Scotland for surgery on his leg.

We hooked up for coffee and he just told me these incredibly harrowing stories about the things he'd seen that no-one should ever see. And I just thought, I wish I could do something to help. So that's how the original idea came about, it was originally going to raise money for Médecins Sans Frontières.

I got to know Midland and it turned into something to raise money for a project which his parents run in Tanzania, a girl's school. So, it was just one of those situations where you think you're powerless and you can't do anything, but even small acts like this can have a power. It's raised tens of thousands of pounds and really has cost me very minimal effort, putting out a few records and doing a few parties. 

After reissuing a Peter Zummo album you've ended up releasing a mini LP of new material from him. How did that come about?

I first met Peter because, when we put on Chris and Cosey, we did it as a double bill with Arthur's Landing, which was a group of ex Arthur Russell collaborators performing his music. I got to know Peter and asked about reissuing the LP I've put out and then last year or the year before he did a UK tour and I was invited to be one of the participating musicians.

I'm not a musician, but I was manipulating sounds on turntables. We had a five date tour and I got to know him really well on that. I gave him an open invitation, if you ever have any more new material then I would love to release it. That lead to the new one I've just put out.

What's next for the label?

Next year we're going to release a lot more albums. There's an album coming out by this band called The Golden Filter, there's an album by their singer Penelope Trappes too. There's an album by this artist from Glasgow called Iona Fortune and several compilations.

Today I have been working on licensing for a Fourth World compilation, which is this music that Jon Hassell kind of invented. I don't know how to describe Fourth World music, it's kind of ambient but not ambient, it's  rhythmic. So there's a double vinyl compilation of that. There's a compilation of Japanese music I'm working on, one of German post punk and an anarcho punk compilation too. 

What's next for Optimo, your pairing with Jonnie?

Well, we're just trying to think about that because next year is going to be our 20th anniversary and we think we want to mark that in some way. It's quite a momentous thing that we've managed to work together for 20 years and we haven't killed each other yet. We want to celebrate, so we're just bouncing some ideas back and forth about some things we might do.

Would you like to do a club residency again?


Ahahahaha. Why not?

I've done two over God knows how many years. There's elements of it that I really miss, some things about having a residency are amazing. But I'm a kind of all or nothing type person, so the commitment I would have to give, my whole life would have to revolve around that residency.

As much as I love doing that, there are just so many other things that I want to do. I don't think I would have the time. Maybe a short term residency of a few months where you have an opportunity to do something, build an audience, develop a rapport. But to do another long term residency? I think I've paid my dues for one lifetime. 

Optimo headline Alfresco Festival 2017. Tickets are available below.

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