A profile of JD Twitch (one half of Optimo and a Discopia correspondent) by Niall
JD Twitch aka Keith McIvor, has been growing steadily in reputation for a while now, mainly for his DJing skills, as one half of Optimo (Espacio), the now legendary Glasgow Sunday night party at the Sub Club he hosts with JG Wilkes, and also for his remixing/re-editing talents. But he is also quite handy with a pen and paper, as his epic history of 99 Records in this issue of Discopia proves. Though he is quite renowned on the Scottish scene, we thought it was about time his own story was told, for the benefit of our readers who may not have heard of him, his nights, or his music.
Thankfully he had no qualms with an in depth interview. And even more thankfully for us, he can talk the legs off a donkey! Which in some people can be an annoying trait, but not here, when the patter is as top quality as this. An easy going guy with little pretensions, he readily admits that his first record he bought was either a Top of the Pops compilation, or worse still, Shawaddywaddy, but it wasn’t long before he stumbled on something that really grabbed his interest:
“I bought another shockingly dodgy compilation called Action Replay. But it had “Supernature” by Cerrone and it had “Hanging on the Telephone” by Blondie and I became obsessed with “Hanging on the Telephone”. I just became obsessed with Blondie: it was my first obsession, and I was, what, 11 or 12, I guess it was the beginnings of adolescent lust and Debbie Harry. And then I got to see Blondie in 1980. My best friend at school, his dad ran a nightclub and he managed to get us tickets to see the Eat to the Beat tour. It was amazing. My first gig, it was mind blowing!”
But as the 80’s progressed, so his tastes widened…
“I was really into lots of industrial European electronic music, like really really into it. I went to Belgium on a pilgrimage ‘cos that’s where so much of this electronic music came from, just to see all these bands. I spent a couple of weeks there. When the first house records came out, (even then I was obsessed with buying records and that) I would go into 23rd Precinct, cos they would sell a whole lot of imports, and electronic stuff. And as the first house records started to come in, and I got the feeling that “this sounds kind of slightly similar to that music but the drums are a bit better”. But I didn’t really get into it. But then the first Detroit techno came out, and I was like, well, you know, this is really the same music but it’s more dancefloor orientated. I mean I’d been into reggae which I guess was dancefloor music as well, but when the first techno stuff came out in like ‘86, ‘87 I just fell hook line and sinker for it.”
Through his love of EBM and industrial Twitch got into DJing, more by accident than design, even though the dance boom of the late 80’s had yet to hit.
“I DJed in Edinburgh for some guys who used to run this club called the Backroom, and they would play the Fall and a lot of this industrial electronic music, and I guess what would have been called Goth music. They had been doing it for like 2 or 3 years, and they had been really bored doing the warm up of the night, and I would go religiously, and they asked me and my friend whether we would like to do the first two hours of the night. I’d never DJed in my life, but, I just kind of jumped at the opportunity. But they had started (in legendary Edinburgh gay club Fire Island) a Thursday night called Block which would be the first - this would be 86, beginning of 87 - playing house music, and I would go back through. It was the only place you could hear house music anywhere. And then in 88 when acid house came along a few more clubs opened up. There was the Sub Club in Glasgow, the Sub Club on a Saturday night became an acid house night. But when house and techno first came out and those kind of records started filtering through, you really couldn’t hear it anywhere.”
How did the acid explosion of 1988 affect Glasgow?
“I think it kind of introduced a lot of people to it, but also it was still kind of bad because it was still really elitist. I remember we used to try and go to the Sub Club and it would be hit or miss if we could get in. It was really like what-you-were-wearing attitude and “regulars only”, which seemed to me to be the antithesis of what acid house was meant to be. It was actually a couple of years later the real explosion happened in Glasgow, like probably 1990. There was a club called Tin Pan Alley on Mitchell Lane and when it opened it did a night called UFO which was a big night on two floors, the club would take a thousand people, it was a lot easier to get in there. That’s when I think the whole dance rave thing kicked off through here. And from then on in there were clubs everywhere playing that kind of music. But even up to that point most other clubs were so stuck in the kind of like Soul II Soul/funk revival thing, and clubs in Glasgow were all about what you were wearing.
I was DJing at the Backroom, but in the loosest possible sense. The first night I DJed there I thought the pitch control was the volume on the decks. So we would do this club and basically it was full of the creatures of the night it was all mainly Goths and Punks would go. We were kind of a bit like that, but we were sporting bandanas and acid house gear and taking ecstasy. We were just sick of that kind of vibe, so from one week to the next we would change the Backroom, which was really dark, this kind of cavern in Edinburgh, and we had Day-Glo everywhere and UV and we totally changed the soundtrack to playing acid house music. So the first week it was packed ‘cos all these Goths had come thinking it was the same club they had been going to for the last three years, hated it, the next week there was ten people there, and the next week the management kicked us out! I thought that was the end of my career DJing. But somewhere I got a bit of a kick out of it. So I decided to take a year out from Uni and start my own night . I started a night in Glasgow at this place 46 West George St., which is now a hole I the ground. And I did that for about three months, and it was kind of quite popular to begin with and it tailed off and tailed off. I was like “Well this is DEFINATELY it, I’m gonna go back to Uni and finish my degree”. And then some friends of mine in Edinburgh used to put loads of bands, and they had this concept where they would have a band every week and they would try and build a club around it. It was called UFO (coincidentally!) and we did that for nine months. It was at the time of indie dance, like the Happy Mondays and Primal Scream, which I hated, but the only way you could get people to dance was you could play like a Primal Scream records, THEN you could play a Belgian rave record, but then you had to play a Happy Mondays record then you could play an acid house record. So we did that for about nine months and basically the club got invaded. Edinburgh had a real problem with football casuals at this point and the Hibs football casuals decided that this was their club and they intimidated the most people from going. And then the last night we did it, there was this band from Manchester called the Paris Angles playing and for some reason lots of Hearts supporters wanted to see this band, and somehow it turned into a full scale riot. The band kind of incited it; the Hibs supporters jumped on stage, beat the living daylights out of the band, and the Hearts supporters tried to defend them. It was just like from some western bar room brawl! We were hiding under the decks with like chairs and furniture flying everywhere, and like 50 police came down and surrounded the club and took everyone away in coaches and basically arrested the whole club! And we were like, well that’s the end of that we’re not doing that again… But we actually really enjoyed it, so we decided we’d start a new night but we’d make it members only initially, so we could control who gets in, and we changed the name and it was called Pure. And instantly, it was just perfect perfect timing. It kind of co-incided with when the first big rave records were coming out when the rave explosion happened. Also when, I guess, ecstasy was readily available. From week one it was just a totally different crowd of what became known as ravers, and it was just immensely popular from the get-go. We thought, this will last a few months, it’s great fun to do, but it took over my whole life! I was in my honours year at Uni, and it was two weeks to get my dissertation in and I hadn’t done it, so I just never went back. I’ll just go with this for as long as I can. We ended up doing that club for ten years.”
And it was through Pure, that “Keith McIvor”, humble student raver by day, became known across the land as the mysterious, shadowy figure named “Twitch”…
“We were known as “Twitch” and “Brainstorm”, and the reason we had the silly names cos when we were first doing it, it was again in that rave era. DJs had daft names; you had Grooverider, or whatever. We just thought it would be quite funny to have a silly name. Also we were signing on, and we didn’t want our names emblazoned all over the place. So we just had to think up names really quickly, on the spur of the moment, so I came up with Twitch, he came up with Brainstorm, obviously never thinking that 15 years down the line I’d still be stuck with it! That I’d be walking up Great Western road and people would go “Alright Twitch maaan!! How’s it goin?” and you’re kind of cringing with embarrassment! I even go into my local sandwich shop and the 60 year old woman goes “Hi Twitch!”.
A legendary club among Scottish ravers in its own right, Pure moved from being primarily rave orientated, to symbolizing a new kind of harder edged techno style.
“When we first started we would be booking the rave acts of the day like A Homeboy a Hippy and a Funky Dred, the Ragga Twins, Shut Up and Dance but pretty soon we started to realise that there wasn’t that much mileage in it. We were the first people to bring Ritchie Hawtin to the UK, first people to bring Green Velvet, Jeff Mills, and I guess from that point on the club became more or less known as a techno club. Which it wasn’t. I mean we’d play lots of Strictly Rhythm house, lots of NY house, all sorts of stuff. As the years went on… I think the club was amazing up 'til around 1996, 1997 but by that point techno had become so defined that we were really stuck in this ghetto musically. The people that were coming just wanted to hear this banging pounding tech music which we hated but we couldn’t go anywhere else because that is what they wanted to hear. We were too scared to stop it because this is what we did for a living and we didn’t know what to do next. I wish we’d been brave and gone “That’s it” but we kept doing it for exactly ten years. We stopped it on it’s tenth birthday whereas we should have stopped it a lot sooner. My musical tastes had totally gone away from that kind of music, I was just going through the motions of doing it. But then the opportunity came to do a Sunday night in Glasgow, no pressure, no expectations, it didn’t matter if no-one went, Sub Club was just happy to take a few pounds on the Bar. And I’d had this concept brewing in my head of what it should be for quite a while and just went with it.”
That concept being, of course, “Optimo (Espacio)” Though initially seen as a niche-market type affair, the night has developed over the years to being one of the most renowned clubs, not just in the UK, but in the world, with Twitch and his musical partner JG Wilkes (Johnny to his Mum) performing sets all over the planet, and mix CD releases such as Kill the DJ Vol 2 on Tigersushi and Psyche Out on Eskimo receiving massive acclaim. But even a mighty oak was once an acorn, and Optimo had no expectations when it was born.
“[In the beginning] most of the people that came, we knew. I had lots of friends who still liked to go out clubbing but had become disillusioned ‘cos everything was pretty dull, and it was something that they’d all been looking for as well. In fact I knew almost 2 thirds of the people there. There’d be maybe 60, 70 people there every week, but everyone who was there was phenomenally into it. And we were totally happy, we were breaking even more or less, the club was happy. I never really thought it had any long term prospects and the Sub Club would always tell us “You know one day this is going to be massive” and we’d be like “Yeah right, you know, whatever”, and it went along like that for about a year and a half. On a bank holiday there’d maybe be a couple of hundred people there, but it was never really really busy. Then, it literally, from one week to the next, went ballistic. There’d be 90 people there one week, then the next week there’d be 300 people and we thought that’s a bit weird, there must be something on, and the next week 400 and the week after the same, and it’s more or less been like that ever since. We couldn’t really figure out why it was, I mean usually I can understand if a club would slowly and slowly grow, but it was literally from one week to the next it went crazy. I really don’t know, it’s a mystery!”
And then disaster struck!. Late in 1999 a fire in the building above forced the Sub Club to close it’s doors (albeit not forever)…
“Yeah! And that was just about the point where the club had started to become really popular. We were like Fuck that’s it it’s over. So we moved really briefly to the 13th Note but it really didn’t work in there we were just there for like 4 weeks and then we moved to Planet Peach, which was actually really great, that was some of the days that were the best the club has ever had. And then the Sub Club decided they wanted to Move to Mas and we had to go along with that, but I didn’t really like it in there. But thankfully then, eventually, the Sub Club re-opened after 3 years.”
How did you team up with Johnny Wilkes?
“I’d kinda just seen him about for years at club events in Glasgow, but didn’t really know him. But then he was doing the art school on a Saturday nights with this guy Hamish. This was about 1996, and we were trying to do more Pure events in Glasgow ‘cos I was living here and I was sick of going through, so I kind of approached them about doing some sort of collaboration. I think we did a couple of Friday nights; their night was called Knucklehead, and it was “Pure meets Knucklehead”. It wasn’t that great, but I just hit it off with Johnny. When I started Optimo I just knew I needed someone else. I didn’t really wanna do the whole night myself so I asked Johnny if he’d like to get involved. Also he’d been to Art School, he could help with the design. I just got on with him and I knew he a similar attitude to liking different types of music.”
One of the factors that sets Optimo apart from other clubs is it’s refusal to book guest DJs, and instead a reliance on live acts and bands. Some of these shows have become legendary in their own right, and indeed Optimo is probably the best place to see a live band in Scotland at the moment. But again, it was not a planned decision…
“When we first started we would book a handful of DJs and we would tell them before we booked them, look you’ve got the opportunity, you can play anything you like, you can really dig into your record collections. And they didn’t, except we had Ashley Beadle play and he was phenomenal, he literally took the concept on and ran with it. But after a couple more total failures we were like we’re just not going to book DJs anymore. I was only gonna go and see bands, that was all I did for going out, and I thought as that’s what we’re into we’ll just make the club around booking bands. Originally it was just local bands cos that was all we could afford. And then after that, through Jill Mingo, quite a few things happened because she represented, for example Peaches, she represented Chicks on Speed, and she would tell them, there’s this great club in Glasgow, it’s not that busy, you won’t get much money but you’ll have a really good gig and these acts were in their infancy, so they weren’t charging lots of money. So she really helped us out to start with getting some of the bands, and as it progressed we would just approach bands we liked and invite them. Now it’s at the stage where everyday I literally get 5 or 6 emails from bands who want to play, but it’s very rare I’ll put a band on who have asked, usually we still invite whoever it is that we book, or we’ll know that they’re going to be touring around that time and ask if we can do the Glasgow show.”
Another element of the club that has always set it apart from others is Twitch and Wilkes’ openness to using new equipment to diversify the mix...
“When I first started doing Optimo I had bought this thing called a Groovesampler, which was just a Roland sampling box with a really basic sequencer on it. And I just came up with these things and thought “this is great” and I’d make all these things just for playing in the club and it became quite a big part of the club in the early days, like things that were coming form that were a lot of the original anthems form the club and also I had been mixing with decks for so long it just gotta bit boring. There’s gotta be something more, something that’s gonna keep me interested. If I’m being more interested, hopefully that will project into the crowd. And then when I finally got a laptop there was this software called Ableton Live and I was using that to try and make music, but then I realized that although it’s not designed for DJing at all that actually I could do things on this for DJing that would be impossible to do on a set of decks. And I would love doing it so much, and I still do it every week, I would spend hours and hours putting new things into that, it’s a really great way to re-edit songs, to re-work songs to take chunks of songs. Also the way it works you can mix it in like it’s a third turntable, and I think that, particularly for what I do, it’s become a huge part of what I do and a lot of people go “You’re desecrating the art of Djing by using a laptop” which is ridiculous. You’ve got to embrace technology, and I always say this, even though it’s a cliché, when Bob Dylan first used an electric guitar and people shouted Judas, but you can’t fight the future you should embrace it. If it makes what you do more interesting… and sure there’ll be a handful of guys watching at the side of the DJ booth going “Oh that’s really boring to watch”, but watching DJs is pretty boring anyway, unless they’re like some scratch master or something!”
And how do you think the club has changed since it’s inception?
“It’s perception amongst people who don’t go has changed. I’m always hearing from people who don’t go how it’s full of people with mullets and sunglasses and this and that. I’m always hearing that it’s a this type of club or a that type of club. I still think it’s true to what we meant it to be, we will still play whatever we like but I think because it has become so popular, in some ways it’s diluted the vision slightly. I love everything I will play at the club but if I was totally being true to myself it would be a lot more way out than it is, but it’s really hard when you are confronted with so many people. So in some ways it’s popularity has been a negative thing. Also it can be unpleasant in there with so many people, just from the space and the heat. And then there was definitely a point when people were coming because they thought it was the place to be, which I just think is the dumbest thing ever, why would you want to go somewhere because it’s the cool place? I just don’t understand that mentality. You also get the people who come to the club for a long time and they go, “Oh it’s not as good as it used to be” but its actually because they’ve got their golden age memories which is a certain point in the past, and then they’ve gone for too many weeks and they’re kind of burnt out. But in some ways it’s as good if not better than what it used to be. The whole profile thing is weird, it’s had so much publicity, which at first we were really reluctant to do, but then because we had a mix CD out we kind of had to do all these interviews, which has taken it’s profile to another level. But I really believe we are still as passionate and true to what we want to be as possible, it’s just hard when it’s so popular. On Bank Holidays it’s crazy, you’ve got like 1500 people trying to get in. And we keep thinking the backlash is around the corner, it’s gonna die. I think Johnny and I are both born pessimists when it comes to that, but it just seems to keep continuing. But it won’t go on forever, I won’t wanna do it forever. Like I said when we did that club Pure, we just did it for too long we should have stopped it. I think we will know when that point is. I still love doing it, the point being when I think I am just going through the motions, I’m not enjoying it, then we will stop it. But I hope that will still be when it is on a high, not when there two people there or something!”
Have you seen Optimo’s influence on other clubs?
“I don’t really think it is Optimo’s influence, it just over the last few years it’s just been a sea change in general in a lot of people’s idea about what a club could be or should be, and I think that a lot of the younger people, nowadays, are into more than one type of music. That kind of tribalism is gone where you were like a house freak, a techno freak. There is still people like that, but I think on the whole people listen to more stuff and their more interested in hearing different music in a club.”
Where else do you like to play, on a global scale?
“I really like playing in Ireland, I think Irish and the Scottish people have a really quite similar temperament, and they’re the most crazed people you will ever play with, and they drink too much, and they take too much of everything. Ireland’s sometimes scary, actually, sometimes it’s like can you calm down a little bit. I really like playing Germany, there’s a club we play in Berlin called Ostgut which is like this massive, massive gay club and they have two rooms. Downstairs is just like, I never went to Trade, but it’s what I imagine trade must have been like, it’s just like absolute debauchery! Then they have this room upstairs called the Panorama Bar, and it doesn’t get going ‘til about kinda lunchtime (after the night before), but again the people are so into it and they’re so into music in general, its not about being totally wasted and dancing to anything. There’s a club in Frankfurt we really like playing. There’s something about German people, they have this image of being stern and dour but they’re not, they’re quite joyful. But basically I like going anywhere that gives us a chance to go somewhere else.”
Keen punters may also have noticed Twitches name in another context: when cult label ZE was relented recently, Keith was commissioned to do the first new release, a reworking of “Contort Yourself” (an Optimo anthem) by James White & the Blacks/the Contortions. How did that come about?
“There was nothing on the internet about Ze so I decided I’d start a Ze website. I only really got as far as one page and it just happened by coincidence, there was just this general resurgence of interest in Ze Records. And one of the guys from Ze, Michel Esteban, who is the e in Ze decided that he was going to relaunch his old label and re-issue all his old stuff, so one of his ideas was he wanted to get a compilation of people covering their favourite Ze records. And I guess he must have been looking on Google to see what there was on Ze and came across my page and just got in touch, and we corresponded quite a lot. I had lots of stuff I wanted to ask him about the label. He found out I dabbled in making music and asked me if I would like to have a go at something and I did I had a go at that track, and it’s all reprogrammed rather than resampling the original, it was like a tiny little James Chance sample in the middle or something and I got Mike [Lancaster] to do the bassline for it. I sent it over to him and he liked it and mentioned that he was going to put it out as a 12”, and that was the first new Ze records release in 20 years! Which as a Ze trainspotter nerd was like heaven on earth!! Ha ha.”
So how did you discover/get into 99 Records?
“Again from hearing techno DJs, particularly the Detroit ones. I had heard Carl Craig play three times, and three times he had played “Optimo”, and the first time I didn’t know what it was and the third time I was like “What IS this record?”. I didn’t know it was an old record I thought it was a new one, and he told me what it was. Then I heard Derrick May and he played “Moody” [by ESG], and he played “Optimo” [by Liquid Liquid], and I was “What’s that “Moody” record?”. I knew the bassline cos there’s an old house track by Funky Green Dogs on Murk records called “Reach for Me” that used the same bassline, and I thought this ESG record he was playing was something that had sampled the former, I had no idea. So I just went on a mission that I just had to find these two records. My sister lived in new York at this period, and I would go over a couple of times a year to visit her. And I just scoured loads of shops in the village and found about three Liquid Liquid EPs and a couple of ESG records, but I also, while I was scouring, noticed some other things on the same label and bought them, and thought well they’re great as well and just went on a mission to try and find as much as I could. But there was no information, I didn’t have access to the Internet back then. I didn’t know what was released or when, and it was only when I managed to get on the Internet that I pieced together what had been released on the label and I managed to track them down.
For the article, a lot of it was just garnered from speaking to different people. When Liquid Liquid came over I particularly hit it off with Sal Principato, the vocalist. I kind of stayed in touch with him, he’s been back in Glasgow a couple of times, we’ve spent quite a lot of time together and I’ve met up with him a few times in New York and just like interrogating him about 99 records. He can talk for hours, he just has loads of interesting stuff to say. But before when we had ESG over we asked them quite a lot of stuff about it.”
And speaking of labels, how is your own label, OSCarr, faring?
“At the moment it’s not, we hooked up with Tigersushi in Paris. When they asked us to do the Kill the DJ CD they also suggested would we like them to run OSCarr as a sub-label, because basically we were only managing to get a couple of records out a year and basically we didn’t have enough time, and they put it to us that if we did this arrangement with them I would A&R the label and they would do all the office work they didn’t particularly like doing. But we’ve been with them for 18 months and in that time we’ve had 3 records come out. So we decided that we would re-launch the label ourselves, which is what we’re trying to do at the moment. The idea is that once we’ve finalized distribution, 6 7” singles will come out with a two week gap between them, which will hopefully let people know, I mean most people don’t even know we have a label it’s on a really low profile, hopefully that will help boost it’s profile. But we’ve got two artist albums we wanna do, and then when all that comes out we’ll just kind of see where we are and take it form there. We don’t really have any long term plans for anything we do, we’re just gonna see how it goes!”