Optimo (Espacio) was started in November 1997 at The Sub Club. Prior to this, Twitch had been playing at The Sub on Sunday’s for a couple of years at the Aquaplanet night. This night was started by a guy called Mark Ryall who decided to move to Barcelona and so the night fell into Twitch’s hands. “At that point, I’d been playing house and techno for 10 years or so and the last thing I felt Glasgow needed was yet another club ploughing that trough.
At Aquaplanet, I’d tried to push it forward but the crowd weren’t too responsive, so I felt that this was a chance to go for it and play what I wanted to hear. Sunday nights seemed like the ideal night to try something different and really I didn’t care whether it would work or not, or whether anyone would go, it was just something I had to do. I love dj’ing with all my heart but at this point I was so bored with seamless(?) mixing – it was all just too obvious, too predictable and too easy – that I had to do something to preserve my (in) sanity.”
So Optimo was born. Twitch asked Belfast playboy Jonnie Wilkes to do the night with him as he felt he was the only other dj in Glasgow who was open minded and ‘punk rock’ enough to come along for the ride. The name came from a song by Liquid Liquid which summed up how the core of the night should sound – raw, percussive, out there sleaze funk and a return to the ideals of early 80’s New York where lots of different scenes (hip hop, punk, no wave, disco, gay, straight, art, photography, anything goes) briefly collided into one of the most inspiringly creative moments in the history of art, music and clubbing. The Espacio part of the name was tagged on following prolonged exposure to The Fast Show’s Channel 9 sketch and although thought to be meaningless, it turns out it means ‘Optimum Space’ – well I never!
And so it started and it was great. It was liberating. It was the most fun behind the decks either of them had ever had. Most weeks it lost money but the 80 or so people who came were so passionate about it that it didn’t matter. The blueprint was developed more by accident than design. There was no money to hire in lights so slides were used and they looked better anyway, so they stayed. Most of the people who ‘got it’ came from bands rather than being dj’s so it made more sense (and was more refreshing) to put on live acts.
Twitch had bought a portable sampler so rather than leave it in the studio, it would be brought down to the club to tear apart and re interpret classic songs. The sampler took on a life of it’s own outwith anyone’s control and became a bigger part of the proceedings. Then the sampler got an ego and she demanded to be put on the flyers – so Roland came into being. The first night she was billed, she did a 30 minute solo set as Wilkes and Twitch propped up the bar – the response was phenomenal and ever since then, there has been something of a love – hate (clash of the egos) relationship between her and them! But they love her really.
And the music! Each week it would get wilder and wilder as they delved into their collections. Sleazy funk, post punk, electro, 50’s swing, torch songs, disco classics, percussion workouts, sublime house, raging techno, 80’s pop. All played with no seeming regard to continuity but somehow working together into this deranged hybrid. There was a great deal of humour injected too as songs like Herb Alpert’s ‘Zorba the Greek’ became end of the night anthems.
Serious dj’s would come and watch in horror while several times, seasoned trainspotters would come up to Twitch and tell him ‘You’ve lost the plot’ or ‘You can’t play this in the Sub Club – it’s sacrielige!’ or ‘But… you started Pure, how can you do this?’. People would get really angry about it which of course only fuelled the flames! The standard response to this would be ‘get a life’ and indeed not being one to shy away from a good verbal arguement, many idiots were sent away with a flea in their ear from Twitch. In their heart of hearts though, both Wilkes and Twitch realised that the more you love music and the deeper into it you get, the more you appreciate the humour in it. And as a great philosopher once said ‘It ain’t easy being cheesey!’
So it continued for a year in this vein until one night in July 1999, the numbers went from the usual 80 to 100 to 250. This was put down to a fluke but the next week it was the same, and the week after, and then it went up again. “To this day, I am totally bewildered as to what happened” says Twitch. “After more than 18 months, it was as if people finally got it. But the fact that it was from literally one week to the next is bizzare. I guess it’s better to not analyse these things but it still freaks me out from time to time”
From then on in……..!!!!!!!!!!!! Onwards and upwards. Laptop computers and effects units started appearing and while many people deemed Optimo a retro club, it was (and remains) perhaps the most technologically advanced night in the country. And then… November 99, the Sub Club was forced to close after the building went on fire. At first, it was thought it would just be a few weeks but when it was apparent that it could be months, action had to be taken. At first Optimo moved to the 13th Note but this proved too chaotic so Planet Peach in Queen Street became it’s new temporary home. That Hogmanay, there was the first of the Art School parties (the only millenium party to sell out!) and the first Optimo mix cd.
I guess most of you know the rest – a year of unparallelled mayhem on a Sunday night! A sell out Lee Perry gig at Barrowlands, Mad Professor and The Optimo Booty Bar at the Art School, lots of great live acts, another mix cd and another wild New Year party. Says Twitch ‘I am not one to dwell in the past and indeed, I hate it when that age old line ‘it’s not as good as it used to be’ raises its ugly head. But, having lived and played through the crazed days of the early 90’s rave era, I truly thought I had seen the wildest nights and best atmosphere I would ever witness. I was wrong – some of those nights in 2000 were……beyond anything I have ever known . Jonnie and I would be powerless to do anything but look at the dancefloor in awe and just burst out laughing at this monster we had created that truly had a life of its own. Wherever this club is going is no longer down to us – the people who come have its destiny in their hands which I think is a truly great thing.”
A DJ mix CD is supposed to be a representation of what it’s like to hear the DJ playing full flow in a club, even if it’s a chronologically compressed snapshot, listened to in repose rather than with moving feet. Yet the majority of mix CDs are not recordings of performances taking place in actual time. The DJ mix CD is, and for much of its history has been, a studio artifact, currently created most often using digital audio files lined up to exact tempo by engineers using Pro Tools software—the DJs looking on and giving instruction need never dirty their hands touching a record deck.
The CD covers rarely mention the technology or the recording studios located on run down industrial estates or the professional technicians required to run them, and it’s hardly any wonder, as this would clash with the cover images of tanned DJs with artfully arranged hairstyles that hide receding hairlines and expensive sunglasses that shield their eyes from the sunlight of whichever blue-screened exotic location pictured.
As superclubs struggle and digital music playback technology becomes cheaper, more powerful and, most importantly, more efficient, things are changing however. The use of technology by DJs is increasingly not effaced. Even Sasha, the epitome of the big room trance and house superstar DJ, is openly using software to mix now, albeit preceded by elaborately boastful countdowns that ensure that the listener knows how advanced he is being.
DJs JD Twitch and JG Wilkes, who since late 1997 have been running Optimo, a fiercely open minded Glasgow club night capable of making people stay out until 3am on a Sunday, are rather better placed to explore the unique benefits of using laptops equipped with mixing and virtual effects software. Optimo use Ableton Live, developed by Robert Henke of German dub-techno duo Monolake, to twist otherwise incompatible pieces of music into sync and to perform on the fly re-edits.
Whilst their previous mix How to Kill the DJ (Part II) was an 72 minute ADD trip through 42 tracks in almost as many genres, here they stretch out with half as many tracks and only one genre, psychedelia, albeit in their own wide ranging interpretation. Record collector scum usually abbreviate ‘psychedelic’ to ‘psych’, so it’s telling that Optimo also include an ‘e’ as their definition, and this collection, includes music as wide ranging as the early 90s Warp Records bleep-and-bass of The Step and Sweet Exorcist, the acid house of Eddie Richards and the synthesised jazz funk of seventies Herbie Hancock.
This is head music that doesn’t forget the body. The mix opens with some of the most obviously psychedelic music of the set, Hawkwind and the Silver Apples, although it’s still one remove from anything canonical. “Hash Cake ’77” by Hawkwind channels Barrett-period Pink Floyd into the brutalist tower block landscape of late 70s Britain—like getting high on cheap resin rather than a sugar lump dosed with LSD. The jerry-rigged synth and drums duo of Silver Apples sound more hopeful and expansive, as befits a group formed in 1967 but their minimalism and rhythmic concern allows them to mix neatly into one of the most modern tracks here, a 2003 remix of Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom by the DFA.
Among the highlights are Chris and Cosey’s mid-80s EBM gay club favourite “Walking Through Heaven” mixed into the camp electro of the Skatt Bros’ “Walk the Night” and the entire final third of the mix. This runs Belgian techno into “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” by The Temptations (you can hear the software timestretch algorithms working on the warp and weft of the sound) to, most beautifully, Arthur Russell project Dinosaur’s propulsive and messily human disco into the endlessly hopeful psychedelicised funk of the Chambers Bros’ “Time Has Come Today.” It’s an ending as blissful and unashamedly ecstatic as that of any house set, one that avoids the usual pitfall of self-styled eclectic DJs, that of an ironic distance from the material played. Optimo are DJs prepared to get their hands dirty, to get right into the tracks they play and make them work up a sweat.
It’s considered an unassailable virtue to have eclectic taste in music. That’s how most everyone likes to think of himself, as the person who likes a bit of everything (the good parts, presumably) and subconsciously understands musical connections that extend beyond the boundaries of genre, scene, or geography. The appeal is demonstrated in the story of early hip-hop, which– as it’s usually told– is the story of DJs who would throw on whatever rocked the party, be it Aerosmith, Chic, or some uptight German dudes obsessed with robots who happened to be so stiff they were funky. This mythical late 70s/early 80s period can be seen as the DJ’s Garden of Eden before the Fall (before serious money became involved, I guess), to which so many yearn to return.
In practice, though, eclecticism in a DJ mix isn’t always all its cracked up to be. If you’ve ever actually played music for a crowd of people gathered to have a good time to your selections, you know most of them aren’t at all interested in the wild and crazy shit in your crate. One indulgent misstep and the dancers disappear faster than if someone lit a stinkbomb in the center of the floor. Most people who go out want to dance and feel good to something familiar, so club nights are accordingly designed to let them know what they’re in for.
Ultimately, the thing about the eclectic DJ set is that’s it’s really, really difficult to pull off. Without the parameters of a micro-scene to guide you, the DJ has to know his records backward and forward to understand how pieces cut from different saws might snap together. When it works, though, it’s something. On the evidence of their first official mix CD, JD Twitch and JG Wilkes– who since 1997 have been the resident DJs at the Glasgow club Optimo (Espacio)– do diversity beautifully.
How to Kill the DJ [Part Two]– the sequel to Ivan Smagghe’s excellent 2003 Tigersushi release– is actually a two-disc set, with the first given over to a mashed-up approximation of the what the club sounds like in full swing, and the second containing 18 tracks representing what might play as people are filing in. This 75-minute continuous mix is a miracle of licensing, with 42 indexed tracks from 50+ artists, including big names like Love, Suicide, and Gang of Four, and many lesser-knowns familiar primarily to followers of a specific scene (Ricardo Villalobos, Loose Joints, Akufen).
On paper it looks like an ADHD sort of mix, with many selections lasting only for 30 seconds or so, but the Optimo DJs generally keep the transitions smooth and have an uncanny knack for building bridges between disparate sounds. Keep an eye on the CD player and it’s often surprising when one track ends and another begins. How to Kill the DJ is a true collage, where the tiniest musical fragment has a job to do. So the seven seconds of Basic Channel’s “Phylyps Track 2” solo exists to connect the throbbing techno of Luciano and Quenum’s “Orange Mistake” to the industrial synth pop of Crash Course in Science’s early 80s track “Flying Turns”, which then leads to a brief snippet of the Revolting Cocks’ heavy “On Fire” and then the Superpitcher Schaffel mix of the Quarks’ gothic/sleaze “I Walk”.
With all the uber-hip records flying around How to Kill the DJ never feels analytical or showy. So even when the pre-teens from the Langley Schools Music Project show up to do “Good Vibrations” in the middle of the CD, which would normally seem a guaranteed vibe-killer, the indulgent gesture feels earned. Besides, it’s Twitch’s set closer before he gives the decks up to Wilkes, and when the latter starts his set off with the insanely danceable D.C. go-go of “The Word” by the Junkyard Band, all is forgiven.
If the first CD is an approximation of a club mix, the second comes across simply as a mix CD, the kind you or I might make for a friend. No themes are overt connections, just 18 tracks of music that hang together. Angelo Badalamenti’s gorgeous and unsettling theme for Mullholland Drive opens, other highlights include Arthur Russell’s “Another Thought”, Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra’s spooky “Some Velvet Morning”, Sun City Girls’ “Opium Den”, and Os Mutantes’ “A Minha Menina”. It’s a record collector’s mix, no question, filled with tracks that have all been labeled “cool” at some point. But as a collection of good songs that sound great together on one CD, it’s a convincing argument for the power of good taste. Combine that taste with skilled editing and you’ve every right to be as eclectic as you want to be.
In the perpetually outmoded world of club comps, there are two ways to ensure fame and fortune: Sign up to some chain series (DJ-Kicks, Global Underground) or keep your transitions so ironic, jagged, and counterintuitive that critics can’t help but note your “wild eclecticism” and “vibrant juxtapositions” and laud you for your ability to mash-up Mancini, Martin Denny, Artery, and Icelandic dub in two minutes or something.
In the age of James Murphy and Girl Talk, even the most trifling mid-album house track better have some Krautrock or Lee Perry allusions if it’s going to catch anyone’s attention. I don’t mean to sound overly critical, since this is hardly a new occurrence. Juan Atkins and Derrick May were spraying Funkadelic all over “Radio-Activity” back in 1986 and Larry Levan laced Jamaican dub with powdery disco at a time when both genres barely even existed. But my contention here is merely that the most prominent DJs and splicers are increasingly satisfied to sacrifice any sustained sense of mood for the sort of obligatory thrills of, say, binding Blondie to Nurse With Wound. Which is precisely how Optimo ended their most famous album, the terrifically silly How to Kill the DJ, Part II.
Optimo is JD Twitch and JG Wilkes, two peerless DJs at Glasgow’s Sub Club who have spent the past decade mixing the most fashionable concoctions of post-punk, techno, and funk into everlasting bouts of grinding pop psychosis. Their names became household with 2004’s double-disc Kill the DJ II, which gnashed through the most guttural beats of everything from Laibach to Carl Craig. It was arguably the best mix album of that year, but it spent half its time crawling out from the trenches it kept digging itself into. In the eternal battle between novelty and momentum, Kill the DJ II tended to side with the former.
After this epic anthology of drooling hipster name-dropping, 2005’s Psyche Out was a genuinely enjoyable jolt of dance purity that managed to segue in a couple prog songs without losing any velocity. Walkabout completes that trend. It’s uncompromising and unadulterated and consists entirely of pure synthetic electricity. There’s still a tremendous amount of diversity here– hell, the title cut’s from Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats– but it’s all in the service of the same pulsing circuits of rhythm that act as Optimo’s neo-acid foundation.
Beyond the sheer consistency, the new album seems even more deeply affiliated with Eno, the Detroit scene, and Basic Channel. It may as well be a European Union symposium on house, from the most moronic Glastonbury tent to the dankest Cologne dub basement. It courses through British industrialism, German minimalism, Scandinavian sound sculpture, and Dutch slapstick without ever missing a mark. With the exception of Boris’ benzo-blasted psych-coma (“My Machine” off Pink), Walkabout unloads glowing synth circuitry and metallic meltdowns like an hour-and-a-half evacuation’s going on at the club.
Throbbing Gristle’s cloying twitters are swallowed whole by Grungerman’s industrial grab-bag of warehouse rave: factory alarms, stomping feet, chiming glass, and the faint hum of house music from a distant building. Pan Sonic fumbles around, enveloped by burnished electronics and trodden by some delightfully tacky Latin settings off a Casio. Who cares whether Databrain’s “Electrofrogs” exhibits the slightest trace of originality? It’s impossible to impugn heaps of handclaps and hi-hats piled under hulking resonators.
Undeniably, the most impressive portion is the middle, where Philus spins cell-phone tones into gorged pop and Shane Berry alchemically converts spitting into doo-wop amidst razor-carved reels. Even the least memorable track here, Godsy’s ambient “The Grass Runs Red”, is covered in the ecstatic noise of dribbled static and foam.
And, as a testament to the producers’ prowess, one should note that the best moments are in the transitions, not in the songs themselves. Witness the tipping point between Lenny Dee & Nicolai Vorkapich’s “The Virus” and Philus’ “Kuvio 3”. It’s like an Apollo mission heard through a rusty screen door, or like a laserium with construction defects. The sheer depth and volume of the tracks are immediately perceptible to even the laziest listener.
Lest I appear overzealous, it would only be fair to note that Walkabout isn’t inventing the wheel here. There’s nothing distinctive enough to leave indelible imprints upon the history of dance mixes, and there isn’t anything so spellbindingly creative it demolishes the very scaffolds of electronic music. While I’m glad Optimo have loosened the mash-up mentality’s grip on their otherwise accomplished albums, they’ve yet to release anything propulsive enough to leave listeners in a permanent state of withered euphoria. Better to say Optimo have come one step closer to perfecting their deadly stockpile of broiling rave and retro homage.