As a solo DJ, and as one half of Optimo alongside JG Wilkes, JD Twitch has carved out an illustrious musical career over the past three decades. Growing up just outside Edinburgh, Twitch (real name Keith McIvor), became a co-resident at fabled 90s techno party Pure in the city, before he and JG Wilkes established the Optimo (Espacio) night at Glasgow’s Sub Club, which would run every Sunday from 1997 until its finale in 2010.
The legacy of the residency remains, and now Optimo are more in-demand than ever, bringing their multifarious selections across the globe. Ahead of their appearance at Farr Festival this weekend, we picked McIvor’s mind on topics like his early experiences of DJing, the Pure days, and trying to have a “normal life” now he’s touring the world.
How did your early life experiences lead you towards a passion in music?
My parents, if they listened to music at all, listened to extremely middle of the road stuff. Until I was around 10 – apart from the odd thing I would hear elsewhere – my general impression was that all music was terrible. When I was 10 I got a radio cassette player and started discovering that there was all sorts of music out there, and by the time I was 12, I was fully obsessed. I think a big part of it was also being a voracious reader as I’d get hold of any of the music papers of the day and completely absorb all the information. I also started gravitating towards being friends with other people who liked music, and it just spiralled out of control from there.
What were some of your first experiences DJing?
I started DJing in 1987 and fell into it quite accidentally. There was a club in Edinburgh I used to go to every week, and at some point they made it known they were looking for people to audition to do the warm up. My friend, who I always went with, talked me into auditioning alongside him (so, from day one I was part of a duo). I knew nothing about DJing and had never even seen a pair of Technics up close at this point, but as mixing was of zero importance in those days – and I was wildly enthusiastic about music – we somehow got the gig, and I got the bug. When that night ended I tried to do a couple of nights in Glasgow where I’d moved to study, but had little success. I was all set to call it a day when I ran into a promoter I vaguely knew who asked if I’d be interested in playing this night he wanted to start in Edinburgh, playing alongside this other guy he’d discovered. That night eventually morphed into Pure which became a phenomenon in Scotland. Before I had time to really think about it, this is what I was doing with my life. When Pure started I still didn’t really know how to mix so was literally learning on the job in front of several hundred people every week. A baptism by fire.
How did yourself and JG Wilkes first cross paths?
We used to run buses from Glasgow to Pure in Edinburgh (that would never happen in a million years today) and I think I first met Jonnie on the bus to Pure.
Your openness to exploring different genres as a club night and DJs stretches back to when you co-ran Pure in Edinburgh, was your broad-mindedness radical for that time in comparison to other club nights?
It was a bit radical but having started going to clubs and DJing before house music arrived it seemed normal to me to be like that. The formative clubs I had gone to had never played one sound all night. We always get asked about the range of music we play as if it’s some sort of weird anomaly, but it just seems like the most normal thing in the world to me that if you’re into music, you’d be into more than one type, and if you DJ surely it’s more fun and interesting to mix it up a bit. Obviously lots of DJs play a wide range of music, but there’s a general sense of music conservatism in dance music that just does not compute for me.
How did the ethics and characteristics of Pure transfer into Optimo’s personality, and what did you want to improve upon or change when starting the club night?
A lot of the ethics about how to treat people – and the kind of open, safe environment a club should be – transferred into Optimo’s personality. But, we felt we could take this further with Optimo and create what we felt was the ideal club we’d want to go to. It being on a Sunday helped with this and we wanted it to be somewhere people who felt a bit disenfranchised with clubbing would be welcome. The gay club scene at this time in Glasgow was in a fairly bad way with regard to the music being played so we wanted to reach out to that community and make them feel very welcome. A lot of female friends at this time had stopped going clubbing as the music had become very masculine, so it was also important that women felt welcome and comfortable there, and it worked as the audience at Optimo was always around 50% female and at least 20% gay which created a completely different atmosphere from most clubs at that time, or indeed most clubs today.
The idea of community and making people feel this was their own special place was also very important and this worked too, as we had an insanely loyal crowd who would contribute to the night in all sorts of ways beyond just attending every week. We always tried to push the limits of what could happen in a club so were coming up with crazy ideas for things we could do, or acts we could put on who might not normally be thought of as club acts.
The amount of time, thought and love that went into it every week was exhausting, but extremely rewarding. I think we were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time in a club that completely got what we were doing, and were very supportive and willing to put up with us doing all sorts of crazy (and possibly illegal) things any other normal club would have had a conniption over. I am extremely proud of what we and the people of Glasgow managed to do and that we managed to do it for such a long time without the spirit of it ever diminishing. Obviously I am biased but having been to literally hundreds of clubs around the planet I’ve still never encountered anywhere that was quite like – or had the energy – of Optimo at The Sub Club on a Sunday night.
Was it a conscious move to host a club night on a Sunday?
The Sunday night was offered to me because the guy whose night it was before, who I also played with, moved to Barcelona. Having already played on Sunday for sometime I had thought long and hard about what my own perfect Sunday night might consist of, so was very happy to have the opportunity to try put those ideas into practice when Sub Club invited me to take over the night. We never imagined it would ever have more than a small audience, so were quite incredulous when it really took off.
What was the reputation of Sub Club and the music scene in Glasgow before you began the Optimo residency?
It’d long had a great reputation as probably the best club in the city, and likewise Glasgow had a long history of having a very vibrant music scene.
You booked a range of artists over the years, from the likes of LCD Soundsystem to ESG to The Bug, were your choices of artists who performed always well received by the dance floor, and did you ever feel pressured to move in a certain direction?
No, not always and often we had acts play whose music didn’t work on the dance floor at all. But, thinking about the dance floor in relation to who we booked wasn’t really what it was about. We always put the live act on quite early (around midnight) and had a policy of them only playing for 30 minutes. People knew and understood that the live act was not going to take up a huge part of the night, and knew if the act wasn’t really playing for the dance floor, that as soon as they finished the party would begin.
The crowd were very open minded and while occasionally there would be the odd moan or two, people were quite open to checking out whoever was playing. Often people would tell us they’d really enjoyed something they’d probably never have encountered otherwise. I don’t think we ever felt pressured to move in a certain direction with our bookings, but tried to maintain a balance between being quite self indulgent and booking acts we thought would go down well. However, I can’t think of a single occasion when we booked an act simply because we thought they would be a big draw.
Did you see a change in the attitude towards clubbing and rave culture over the duration of the Optimo residency?
A bit, but perhaps not as much as people might imagine. The most gargantuan change was obviously the internet. When we started, the majority of people were not online. Apart from the way promoting events changed over that time, the most noticeable change was how much music people knew. At one point, a big part of going to clubs was to be introduced to music you didn’t know and I’d always be asked “where do you get this music from?”. Nobody would ask that question today and audiences are infinitely more knowledgeable about music, though not necessarily more open minded. Clubbing has probably become a little bit more of a mainstream activity since those days but ultimately a great night out in a club is not that different to how it once was.
What was the ultimate decision to stop the residency?
It involved a phenomenal amount of time and energy to do a weekly night and keep it constantly evolving and interesting. Eventually we felt we wanted to devote some of that time and energy to doing other things, but didn’t feel we could continue the night too without giving it 100%. It felt like the right time to stop doing a weekly night, to go out on a high and to end it while we still loved doing it, rather than perhaps ending it at a point where we were falling out of love with it. That we were still in love with it after so long is testament to how great the crowd were.
What led you to start the label Optimo Music and why do you feel it’s important to put an emphasis on supporting local talent?
I had dabbled with labels before but wanted to do one that was specifically linked with the Optimo name. The emphasis on local talent (and I should point out that now more than half the releases have been by non-local artists) really came down to the wealth of great music in this city and the lack of outlets for a lot of it.
The label also places importance on reissuing older music of a wide variety, do you ever worry about what will sell and current trends when releasing music?
I always worry whether any release will sell but it’s not really a consideration for deciding what to release. And while current trends must have some sort of subconscious impact, I really don’t think or care too much about what is currently in vogue.
How have both your lives changed now that you are world touring DJs.
Being away from Glasgow a lot more is the most pronounced change as well as trying to manage that alongside running the labels… and also trying to have some sort of “normal” life.
You’ve revived your Optimo events with bimonthly club nights, are the intentions the same as they always were and has the atmosphere of Glasgow and Sub Club changed since returning?
The intention is simply to throw a great party, although there are a couple of differences. As our bimonthly Sub Club dates are on a Friday I’d say the musical flavour is slightly different. When the party was on a Sunday night, that allowed us to play in a slightly more freestyle way than we would on a Friday or Saturday. Also, having a weekly residency enabled us to make certain records that might be perceived as a little difficult, become anthems, as we’d be able to play them week in week out, letting them slowly seep them into people’s consciousness – which is not so easy if you are doing a bi-monthly.
Optimo play Farr Festival at Bygrave Woods, Hertfordshire, July 14-16. More info and tickets here.