Interview: Optimo


In their own words, Optimo are like an ‘old couple who have been married for 60 years and have separate beds’. On the hundreds of flights they take each year they don’t sit next to each other, and yet their partnership in music could not be closer. Their weekly Optimo (Espacio) night at Sub Club was a cornerstone of Glasgow clubbing and had a hand in putting the club and indeed the city on the map. It also served to further their experience and careers as DJs, as they were residents of the night every week until its closing in 2010. Now with a busy touring schedule, joint and separate labels and many other commitments, we grabbed a few minutes with them to them about where they met, why they stopped running the night and exciting projects they are working on.

Catch Optimo at Bestival on Thursday at the Red Bull Music Academy stage, and at Farr Festival on 18th July.

Where did you gentlemen meet, and whose idea was it to start working together?

Wilkes: The very first time we met would have been a Friday night in about 1994 on a bus going from Glasgow to Edinburgh. It was the bus organised by Pure, the club which Keith was resident at along with Andy (Brainstorm). It went from Great Western Road and along the M8 to bring Weegies through to The Capital for the party. Over the next couple of years we did some stuff together in Glasgow at The School of Art on Renfrew Street then, in 1997, Keith was offered the chance to take over the weekly Sunday night slot at Sub Club, as the DJ he’d worked with there previously was moving abroad. He had an idea of what he wanted to do, that this would be something completely different from what he’d been doing there before and a name (Optimo). That’s when he asked me to come along.

Back in 1997, when you started Optimo (Espacio), did you have any idea how popular it would become?

W: No idea whatsoever. The notion of the party growing into something as popular as it became never crossed our minds, neither was it a concern. We knew there was a small cross section of people from the Glasgow club / live music / art / performance / experimental communities that might come along and check out what we were doing and we were delighted and encouraged by this small but really diverse group who came religiously every week. That was success in our eyes and a lot of fun. Fun was definitely our motivation for all of it.

Was there a sense that you were filling a niche that just hadn’t been tapped into in Glasgow clubbing up to that point?

Twitch: Not really. It’s more that the niche became apparent after we started and became more of a chasm than a niche. I genuinely thought it was going to be something very self-indulgent, that a few of my friends and a few Glasgow freaks would enjoy that would fulfil my desire to play some different records. I could never have imagined what it would turn into but it definitely filled a gap that people hadn’t probably realised was there and made clubbing fun again for a lot of people who were a little disillusioned with it, as well as attracting an audience who had never previously thought to go out clubbing before.

I’ve heard a number of DJs speak of the Sub Club in very special ways. What makes it special in your eyes?

W: The basics (which surprisingly some venues manage to get spectacularly wrong) are all in place.  Those basics being: great sound (but sound which has it’s own character); a low ceiling (you can touch it on the dance floor); a booth and equipment set-up which means you feel really amongst the crowd when you play; and a space arranged so people can interact, not just on the dance floor. It’s a very sociable space, the lights are very simple but, if controlled by the right operator, are perfect.

I guess there’s an undeniable excitement as you descend the stairs and open the door into the basement area of any building; a feeling of anticipation or uncertainty. But when it’s a dark, sweaty basement club with the system pumping like it does at Sub Club, along with the quality of DJs that play there and that 25 year history of parties, then you have something pretty special.

What prompted the decision to stop the weekly nights?

T: doing a weekly night is a lot of work and being on a Sunday tended to eat into the following week quite a lot. As we started to tour more and more, it was becoming apparent that we had little time for other things such as production, remixing, running a label and other projects we wanted to embark on as well as generally having any sort of life. We loved doing the night and put 100% into it every week but after 12 years it felt as if it was time to move on and leave the night on a high rather than it perhaps dwindling away.

Since you started Optimo, what do you see as the big changes in dance music either in the way it’s created or consumed, or just in dance culture in general?

W: Studio processes in dance music production are one thing for sure – some of the most interesting new electronic music is made entirely “in the box” nowadays, some of the worst stuff around is also made that way. I think it’s not so interesting to discuss this and these methods will keep changing – swinging back and forth as producers look for a new process. The technology used to allow us to consume music however and in a way determine most people’s musical intake is the big change of course. The musical reception of different generations has always been changing but recently the changes have been very bold I guess with on demand streaming and kids swapping music in terms of gigabytes. They can and will have everything. I suppose the thing I wonder about is whether we are listening differently now and culturally the effect that might have.

Someone else who’s been around to see a lot of changes in dance music is Move D. Your recent Boiler Room with him is one of our favourites. It seemed like there’s a great relationship between you and David. Do you all go way back?

T: Not really and this seems to be a bit of a misunderstanding. I co-ran a Sunday evening experimental / ambient club in the early to mid 90s and we had David play live as part of Deep Space Network in 1993, so I met him then but didn’t have any contact again until we all did the Boiler Room together. At that, we had a 30 second conversation about how we were going to proceed and then went for it. It was just one of those things that just worked and came across like we had perhaps played together before but we hadn’t.

You’re both due to play Farr Festival this summer. Tempted for another impromptu b2b?

T: We played b2b again recently in San francisco. We are always up for everything so wouldn’t rule it out but we also like to play ourselves too.

Was the philosophy behind starting Optimo Trax similar to the nights in terms of playing things that didn’t quite fit the mould of dance music at the time?

T: The original label, Optimo Music tends not to be a dancefloor focused label, though it can be on occasion. More and more great club tracks were coming my way so I decided to start Optimo Trax to release those with the A&R criteria being that they had to be things I’d play in my DJ sets. I don’t really care if they fit into any current, easily defined trend. Some do, some don’t but all have been road tested on dance floors before they see a release.

Clips from Optimo Trax 10 have recently surfaced (see above) and are sounding great.  Could you tell us a bit about Crooked Man, for those not familiar and what’s in store on the EP?

T: Crooked Man is Richard Barratt from Sheffield, better known as Parrot. He was first off the blocks playing house music in Sheffield back in the 80s, had a top 10 hit in ’88 as part of Funky Worm, collaborated with Richard H Kirk on the seminal Sweet Exorcist releases on Warp and had another top 10 hit in the 90s as part of The All Seeing I.

I’m a massive Sweet Exorcist fan and have championed all the Crooked Man releases so was delighted when he got in touch and sent some music and jumped at the chance to do a 12″. The EP is three tracks that all feature vocals and all have a very distinctive, psychedelic house sound to them.

Twitch your Autonomous Africa label is going from strength to strength at the moment. Could you fill us in about EP 3 – who’s involved and how it came together?

T: Autonomous Africa release one 12″ each year, although this year there will also be a compilation of music from Africa too. The idea is to raise funds for the Mtandika mission in Tanzania and also to highlight the exploitation of African nation’s resources. I started the label and various other artists have offered to contribute. This year Midland, whose parents run the charity in Tanzania, contributed for a second year running, Auntie Flo for a third and General Ludd came on board for the first time.

A bit of a self-reflective one…what’s it like working so closely with one another for as long as you have? Has it all been smooth sailing or have there been some challenges along the way?

W: It’s nice to be a partnership especially because we’re involved in quite a few other projects with our work as touring DJs and for this we need a wide range of skills – some of these Keith has, some I have and some we both possess. We’re so close that we tend to be able to take away the things we each need to attend to without a great deal of discussion and get them done so this “whole thing” that we do together can move on. It’s about helping each other along the way and making sure we can be proud of what we come up with together in the end. We afford each other a lot of privacy because we work in such an intense environment and in such an intense way when we play – often exhausted and for long periods of time. Time on your own is very important in order to stay sane when your working life is like this. People are constantly surprised to know that even though we take upwards of 180 flights a year together we never sit beside each other but to us that seems like the obvious choice. Like those old couples who have been married for 60 years and have separate beds haha. Although we have grown incredibly close as friends over the years, we don’t ‘hang out’ as such that often when we’re back home. There’s always a lot to do but we’re also both quite private people and we are each respectful of that I think. Most of the socialising we do together is when we’re away and maybe have an extra day somewhere on a trip, attending ‘DJ Dinners’ as we call them, or finishing off the rider after we play. It’s been very much a smooth ride  with only the very occasional cross word over the years.

Finally, you’re playing at a few festivals this summer, big and small. Any you’re particularly looking forward to?

W: Yeah, we’re playing quite a few and particularly looking forward to Nachtdigital, Glastonbury, Dekmantel, Unknown, The Secret Garden Party, Farr Festival and Bestival. It’s looking like an interesting summer for sure.

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