Music interview: Optimo’s evolution from cult Glasgow club to global phenomenon

JD Twitch (Keith McIvor, left) and JG Wilkes (Jonnie Wilkes) at an Optimo nigh. Picture: David Moffatt
JD Twitch (Keith McIvor, left) and JG Wilkes (Jonnie Wilkes) at an Optimo nigh. Picture: David Moffatt
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Iconic club Optimo was born in Glasgow 20 years ago. Ahead of an anniversary celebration, JD Twitch and JG Wilkes talk to Fiona Shepherd about the anything-goes ethos which they now recreate around the world

In the pantheon of legendary nightclubbing anecdotes, it’s pretty hard to beat Bianca Jagger riding through New York’s Studio 54 disco on a white horse (even if, as the animal rights campaigner has subsequently claimed, she merely perched on a pony which was already provided).

But Glasgow’s Optimo can boast its own lo-fi equivalent. As the internationally renowned club is poised to celebrate its 20th birthday with a day-long fiesta of live acts and DJs, founders JD Twitch and JG Wilkes, aka Keith McIvor and Jonnie Wilkes, recall hiring a white horse prop from the BBC for one of their early Hallowe’en extravaganzas. “No Bianca Jagger – she wasn’t available,” notes McIvor.

On another occasion, they ran an Apocalypse Now-themed night, teased with a poster claiming “I love the smell of napalm on a Monday morning”, complete with jungle vegetation, door staff dressed as GIs, orange smoke and sampled artillery, helicopters and explosions between tracks.

But Optimo is no novelty night. Founded in 1997 as a reaction to a stale clubbing scene, the mischief and irreverence has always taken place against a backdrop of inspiring, eclectic music and an inclusive, often euphoric atmosphere.

“Clubbing doesn’t have to be this ephemeral thing,” says McIvor. “It had become so much about hedonism but it was more than that.”

For its first 13 years, McIvor and Wilkes ran Optimo as a Sunday night residency in The Sub Club (decanting to other spaces following a fire in 1999), gradually attracting an Optimo family of devoted, open-minded regulars who didn’t have school in the morning.

“I think people came along week in week out because something was going to happen there or they might meet someone who was a bit like them or they might get what they need there,” says Wilkes.

Friendships and relationships were forged and plans and projects were hatched against this carefree backdrop. A couple who met at Optimo – or Optimo (Espacio) to give it its Sunday name – even chose to stage a mock wedding in the club following their actual nuptials, with the bride arriving to the strains of Billy Idol’s White Wedding.

From the beginning there has been no fixed music policy beyond McIvor and Wilkes playing an enlightened mix of what they want to hear, be it techno or electro rubbing up against post-punk, new wave, northern soul and assorted oddities from across the decades. But that very eclecticism quickly gave Optimo its idiosyncratic character – the club motto is “we love your ears”.

“I’m deadly serious about music, but music doesn’t have to be taken too seriously,” says McIvor. “But you’ve got to take a crowd to a certain place before you can drop Duelling Banjos or Zorba the Greek!” says Wilkes.

Live music has also been a distinguishing feature of an Optimo night from its earliest days and again the booking policy has ranged widely from indie rock to hardcore noise to local choirs. McIvor remembers an early appearance by feminist electronica trio Chicks on Speed as a turning point in the club’s fortunes, though not necessarily for righteous reasons: “there was a massive queue to get in and they were just very shambolic so there was actually a queue to get out of the club at the same time…”

Over the years, Optimo has welcomed a roll call of 21st century greats, including a fledgling Franz Ferdinand, Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem, to their basement home. Guest DJs were a rarity but an exception was made for Jarvis Cocker and Steve Mackey of Pulp – “Jarvis mucked in, he didn’t get any special treatment,” says Wilkes.

A number of veterans have also made their mark, including Grace Jones, who exercised her diva prerogative at an Optimo-hosted Barrowland party with demands of Cristal champagne and oysters before taking to the stage two hours late, and no-wave saxophonist James Chance, who staged a remarkable recovery before playing a blinder in The Sub Club. “Five minutes before he went on his wife was holding him up, we don’t know what prescription medication he’s taken, there’s no way this guy’s going to be able to perform,” says McIvor. “He was looking in his saxophone case for his reeds,” adds Wilkes, “and his false teeth fall out into the case, there was saliva everywhere.”

But an emotional highlight for both was hosting New York punk-funk veterans Liquid Liquid, purveyors of a certain cowbell-touting number called Optimo. “I think they were expecting it to be 25 middle-aged men in a room stroking their chins,” says McIvor, “rather than 500 young people who knew every single chord of all their songs going absolutely crazy.”

However, as the duo’s international touring commitments blossomed along with a desire to spend more time building up their roster of record releases, they decided to end their Sub Club residency in 2010 while it was still on a high. Sunday nights would never quite be the same again for the Optimo family.

“People will tell us what a formative part of their life that was,” says McIvor. “When it finished, they thought ‘what are we going to do now?’ They were so committed to it, but now they were free to move on to the next stage in their life.”

As has Optimo. Twitch and Wilkes continue to take the party all over the world but always bring it back home. To mark their 20th birthday, they welcome the Optimo diaspora to a Sunday blowout on a larger scale, featuring performances by industrial noise veteran Nurse With Wound, Finnish electro rockers K-X-P, 2016 DJ of the Year The Black Madonna, Ghanaian kologo player King Ayisoba and local artpop outfit Happy Meals – in many ways direct descendents of the original residency.

“The thing that really made Optimo more than anything was Glasgow,” says McIvor. “People in Glasgow are more open, they’re not so worried about ‘is this cool?’ and we were so lucky we had all sorts of people with perhaps a certain outlook on life and we managed to capture that community. It really did feel like it was everyone’s club.”

Optimo 20, SWG3 Galvanizers Yard, Glasgow, 6 August, www.optimo.co.uk