Twenty Years On The Job: Optimo Talk


Back in the dawn of time – known to you and I as 1997 – the UKs rave scene was running out of steam.

The manic burst of electronic musical invention that had kicked off in the early 80s and run pell-mell through to the mid-90s had finally seized up, wheezing and knackered. Underground parties terrorising the status quo with soundtracks stolen from the future had been replaced by Brandon Block playing BeeGees covers on Top of the Pops, The Prodigy devolving into Sham 69-with-samplers, and Tony Blair co-opting whitewashed gospel house. Things Could Only Get Better. Fucking hell, the irony.  

Whatever counter culture rebellion dance music may once have represented had been utterly absorbed into the mainstream, and despite the nostalgic drivel the misty eyed might feed you, the late 90s was rushing towards a cultural low. Inevitably, around the United Kingdom DJs and promoters who had been buffeted along by the mad rush of rave invention were bored rigid, restless, and ready to change – even if the crowd didn’t always feel the same.

“We were doing a club in Edinburgh called Pure which was known as a techno club,” remembers Keith McIvor. “By this time it had got a bit boring… We booked David Holmes. He came and he played the Stooges – now I love the Stooges and I went diving off the stage, and I looked round and everyone else was standing around going ‘what’s this shit?’ and I thought, there’s something wrong about this, that you are not responding to the amazing energy of this record, there’s something wrong with the whole scene. So I guess David Holmes was one of the inspirations behind Optimo; he just got bored as well. He was a great techno DJ, he liked all this other music and he thought, why can’t it work in a club? Fuck it I’m going to play it anyway…!”

McIvor’s response was to start a new night where he could get back to the spirit of fun that enthused the early days of dance music. He found a kindred spirit in his mate Jonnie Wilkes – “we were really, really bored with what was on offer,” Wilkes confirms “A lot of our friends didn’t want to go to these parties that were predominantly male with a single minded music policy. It was an aggressive environment, and for a lot of people it had become a very boring environment. We had all these records, we decided we wanted to put bands on and create something different.”

Finding a receptive home in Glasgow’s Sub Club, who were up for handing over a weekly Sunday to something new, McIvor named this venture after Liquid Liquid’s classic 83 punk funk EP, Optimo, setting the music policy as he did so; Optimo was a place for weird, awkward dance music to return, a night where the energy of a record was more important than it’s bpm, where live bands could play music for dancers used to electronic sounds, and the unpredictable, chaotic spirit of rave could take over. Just don’t call the playlist eclectic… ”I always hated that word,” sighs Keith “– Optimo wasn’t about being ‘eclectic’ it was about loving other types of music and thinking, well what is club music? Why is it religiously defined as this 4/4 electronic music?”

Now, 20 years on, Optimo have become a UK institution; a byword for curve balls and experimentation, even as the mainstream dance scene seems to be heading back towards narrow genre monotony. They have long left behind their weekly in the Sub Club, but the ethos they formed there has stayed with them, ensuring that they remain in demand at the forefront of dance culture – high profile gigs at Sonar and Love International are just a couple of forthcoming summer dates they have in the calendar, along with their very own 20th anniversary celebrations in Glasgow – which were, in fact the first thing we asked about when we got 'em on the phone…  

So you’ve decided to celebrate 20 years of Optimo with a full scale event-

Keith: We’d long thought about doing some event in Glasgow but we were always scared because of the amount of money involved, but in the end we thought, fuck it, let’s do something – it’s not often you get to celebrate 20 years of something. It seemed like a nice idea to try and sum up everything we’re about in one day.

What had to be there to represent the last two decades?

K: Well one thing about Optimo is that we never booked DJs. In the cases we would, we’d say ‘OK it’s a Sunday night; you’re free to dig as deep as you like’, and in most cases the DJs didn’t. When we started I was bored with DJ culture, I was going out to see live stuff all the time, so the line-up reflects that; there’s more live acts than DJs. Almost everyone on the bill is someone we have a personal relationship with, or we love the things they do. It’s the opposite of the awful festivals that are like, ‘what’s going to get the people through the doors?’ Sometimes what Optimo can be about can be hard to explain, but if you look at that line up it’ll tell you what we’re about – it’ll tell you that we’re not aligned to any one particular musical movement. Everyone who’s playing is someone who had blown us away in the last couple of years.

When you started, Optimo felt like it was part of this really exciting new wave of nights that were re-approaching dance culture, I can think of other events like Nag Nag Nag or Trash in London-

K – Well when we started, we were in total isolation. We started in 1997 and I didn’t get on the internet until 2000 maybe. It was really hard to know what was going on at that point, it was only around 2001 or so that we discovered there were other people doing anything at all similar, and then through that people came together and made connections – you’d hear of someone in Paris who’d be doing something similar and try and get out there. But at first we felt like complete outliers, just out there on our own –

It’s interesting how ideas can spring up simultaneously…

K – Morphic resonance it’s called. In 1997 when we started, apart from your Harvey’s and a few other people it was all pretty boring.

Do you think of the last 20 years as being split into quite distinctive periods for Optimo?

Jonnie – It’s certainly got distinctive periods. You know yourself that it was a weekly party when it started, which is very different from what we do now. There’s always an Optimo spirit and that is essentially the same, but we were very, very involved in producing that weekly party. It had to happen every Sunday for over 12 years, it was a real DiY effort, and it involved just me and just Keith doing everything; the bookings, the DJing, the graphic design, the production for the events, sorting out the bands that played, the various campaigns that we did that were unrelated to the night. That was a great time for me, because we were really getting stuck in all the time, and getting involved in all sorts of aspects of putting a party together. I suppose things changed when we terminated the residency and became in a sense touring DJs.

J – We’re communicating what we have to communicate in different places. It feels different being out there floating around the globe DJing. It’s really been my life for the last 20 years and whatever twists and turns it’s taken I’ve tried to embrace them. I mean I had a real job for a few years as a teenager, and I never wanted to do that again, so I feel very grateful to be involved in something that’s allowed me to express myself.

Optimo was known for creating big tunes from unlikely records – does that become harder when you don’t have a permanent, weekly residency?

J – For me personally, yes I think it did. I think that feeling so at home as a resident is a very particular situation. A residency is not so common these days – people say they’re residents but they book guest DJs every week, we didn’t book DJs, we booked bands. Your confidence grows and you realise what’s possible. The environments we find ourselves in now – I never aim to shock with records, but I did used to reach for things that I only thought there was a glimmer of a chance that this could work, and when you did snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with a record like that it’s really rewarding. And I think I take that chance less these days – I still take it but I take it less.

K – An accomplished DJ should be able to play in any environment, we play a lot of big festival stages and when you play those it’s a bit harder to throw in something weird. So we play – I hate to say more conservatively, but with a different energy from when we get to play 7 hours in a club all night. I mean I’ll never compromise and play something I don’t like, but in an hour at a festival it’s hard to do anything a little stranger, so maybe we bang it out. We still try and fit in things that are not the norm, but we do adapt to the energy of the place we’re playing in.

K – I think we’re very fortunate that we get a lot of offers to play the whole night in places. It’s very different to when you’re playing a 2 hour set and the warm up DJ is banging it out – it takes you 45 minutes to get you were you want to be. I love both though- I love playing short sets where it’s just whacking people over the head, and it’s also great to have the privilege to play 8, 9 hours – we did a tour of the United States were we did 8 hour sets over three consecutive nights, and that’s a wonderful experience to have as a DJ. Then you can really take risks. It’s certainly informed the way I DJ, and having a residency you can play a record that one week people hate, if you keep playing it and keep playing it in the end you can make them love it.

Stockholm syndrome kicks in!

Exactly! And in the end they’re begging you to play it when you’re sick of it! And it’s harder to do that in a one hour set – you can’t work some crazy record with no drums in it, you need a residency for that, and residencies are dying out.

What do you think was the most unlikely dance floor tune you played?

J – Well there was a few over the years. Records like the Duelling Banjos theme from Deliverance was one of the biggest records at the club. Also the Nick Cave project, Grinderman – No Pussy Blues, that was a massive record. Cristina – Is That All There Is, that was a big record for the end of the night. There were loads of strange records that became dancefloor anthems.

K – I always quote this, but it’s the Arthur Lee/ Love song Everybody’s Got to Live. The first time I played it, it literally cleared the dancefloor. But I persevered every week, and about 8 weeks in –  bearing in mind that you couldn’t go home and download it then, you’d only be hearing it in the club – about 8 weeks in people started to know the words and singing along, and it ended up becoming a total absolute Optimo anthem – people would be begging to hear it, and then I’d start hearing it everywhere I’d go in Glasgow, I’d hear other DJs play it – it’s a record that’s a very unlikely dance hit, but knowing our crowd so well we managed to turn it into a massive club smash.

Having done your thing for so long, and made it popular to take risks and draw on a broad scope of styles, I feel a bit like we’ve returned to a time where more and more puirist nights are springing up again. Have we gone full circle?

J – I do think that now things are possible heading towards – I won’t say it’s a crisis for anyone – but I do think there’s a purist aspect that’s come into a lot of parties. Certain clubs are only booking certain DJs. I see it even in the venues that we respect, things are maybe beginning to feel a little dull.

K – It feels in some ways that we’re back in the same place we were when we started, it’s all got a little bit safe and boring. The big differences now of course is that there are countless new DJs out there doing their own thing, but most dance festival line ups are pretty much interchangeable. It seems like no one is prepared to take any risks any more – the superstar DJ thing has come back which was the thing that made me sick in the first place. It feels like a similar place to where we were 20 years ago.

OK, so what was the worst ever Optimo?

K – Well, I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad Optimo, but the worst one would be the Sunday night when the Sub Club burnt down, so there wasn’t an Optimo at all. The building  next door to the club had a small fire, so the fire men said, ‘look we know you’ve got a club to put on, but you might have to open a little bit late tonight’. So we’re standing outside, I think it’s 11 o’clock, and the fire chief said, ‘I think it’s gonna be about midnight when you get in’ – just as he said that the whole building went up, and it was actually two and a half years until we got back in the club. That was the worst night, the club had just reached some momentum and was taking off, and suddenly we’d lost our home. Fortunately as we kept on moving around the critical mass kept growing.

The only other bad night was the Sunday after 9/11. We’d always do some sort of audio tribute if someone we’d really loved had died. After 9/11 we had to do something to mark events. I did this audio collage that I played for 5 or 6 minutes, it was a really weird atmosphere, heads were totally fried because we’d been seeing so much of this imagery on television. One guy in particular, he thought I was taking the piss out of the whole thing which I wasn’t. I played this audio clash and came out of the DJ booth and he started beating the living crap out of me. It took about 6 people to pull him off, the police were called. That’s the only time I can ever remember having a bad night – we had such an amazing experience and the best crowd you could hope for, it was unbelievable really…

Catch Optimo at Love International festival this June

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