|The nights that dreams are made of...: An Optimo oral history
Sunday night will never be the same again. As the legendary Glasgow party draws to a close, RA gathers up testimonials from artists, clubbers and staff of some of the best nights had at Optimo (Espacio).
On April 25th, the greatest club night in either Glasgow, the UK or the world (depending on who you ask) finishes. Optimo (Espacio), the brainchild of JD Twitch and JG Wilkes, arrived quietly at Glasgow's Sub Club in 1997, and set about blowing the cobwebs off a stale, self-congratulatory Glasgow techno scene through a simple core philosophy: If it sounds good and makes people dance, play it. Now, after 12-and-a-half years of sublime, genre-straddling, how-did-they-do-that acts of weekly musical witchcraft, combined with a zero-tolerance approach to "DJ culture" and a live booking policy that has brought LCD Soundsystem, ESG, Whitehouse, Liquid Liquid, The Bug, Franz Ferdinand, Sir Richard Bishop, The Bush Tetras and a couple hundred more to their 500-capacity home, it will all be over.
It's far from pipe and slippers time for Twitch and Wilkes, though: next month they will add to their impressive canon of mix albums with Fabric 52, and they'll also be touring with renewed vigour once the weekly requirement to play in Glasgow has finally lapsed. In addition, they will continue to promote Sunday nights at the Sub Club (the new night's name, intriguingly, will not be decided until the results of the UK General Election are known), handing the DJ reins to a rolling roster of trusted local torch-bearers, bringing their customary calibre of live guests to the Sub Club and returning from time to time to play to a Glasgow crowd that, in Twitch's words, "would be very, very hard to completely leave behind." The first of these new nights, on May 2nd, features guest Matias Aguayo and is called, in true fence-sitting style, the Keep The Tories Out Mayday Bank Holiday Fiesta.
Ahead of the final two Optimos (Espacio), RA talks to time-served regulars, occasional visitors and some of the musicians from Glasgow and further afield who have graced the club's live stage about their greatest-ever nights at Optimo.
Ego "Bob" Fludd
DJ, member of Big Ned and regular since 1998
Personally, I was convinced that the club should have ended immediately after Liquid Liquid played "Optimo" live; a bit of a lost opportunity in terms of spontaneity and myth-making, but in retrospect the shock would probably have been too great. Despite all the incredible bands and artists that performed over the years, for me the best nights were those uninterrupted explorations that seemed to strike a chord from the very start, perhaps once every few months where (as Jonnie has remarked on several occasions) "it's gonna go off in here tonight." Nights where people are grooving away in every corner, the music often held to a relatively slow tempo and taking time to build to the inevitable banging Ableton jivebunny mayhem, where the club is not full to capacity but busy enough to feel crowded, where for a combination of reasons the pressure is off and the symbiotic relationship between DJs and dance floor is given fullest expression.
Having been to quite a few raves, clubs and house parties in various countries, nothing has ever compared to the atmosphere (not necessarily full-on, air-punching, tops-off, etc.) when Optimo has "gone off" ... the sight of nearly every single hand banging the ceiling to Vitalic is hard to shake ... as is the unusual fact that an abrupt change of style and tempo after such moments never clears the dance floor, with the typical Optimo audience game for staying on, switching their movements and navigating the output.
Regular since 2001
There are two Optimos that stand out for me. Firstly, the night Keith and Jonnie recreated Apocalypse Now in the Sub Club. The night was unannounced and complete with trees, steel barrels, tank turrets and bamboo prison cells with actors playing bloodied POWs. They played a war soundtrack interspersed with sub machine gun and helicopter sound effects, together with loud explosions and pyrotechnics. By the end a lot of us had taken to crawling around the floor in the undergrowth trying to ambush our friends. The second night was Remembrance Sunday a few years back, and the last song they played was Johnny Cash's cover of "We'll Meet Again." I remember the whole crowd still sweating from the past furious hour, hugging and singing along. An incredibly moving tribute to those lost to war. I think this is what Keith and Jonnie do best: They can create a moment in which nothing else matters.
Regular since 1998
When James Chance rolled into town some of us were in two minds about how good it was going to be, but we had waited years for it so there was no way we were going to miss it. You know, it was James Chance in our town, in our club! James looked pretty rough and a little bewildered, but as soon as he grabbed the sax he was ruling the stage like it was 25 years ago. They were awesome, with Judy Taylor writhing about against James, just managing to remain upright.
My memories of Optimo are very hazy. I haven't been since 2003. (Sorry, guys, I needed to get my life back.) But before that I was a religious attendee. Every week, if possible. So it's impossible to distinguish at this distance exactly when and where those great things happened. But great they were. Hearing Britney go through the macerator; Ivan Smagghe, Yummy Fur, Liquid Liquid; a live performance during its Planet Peach days by a couple of guys, one of whom I knew by sight from Northern Soul clubs, hammering some synths and making the most deliriously funky mess; playing the Ramones' "Baby I Love You" at the end of the night. I can't make it before they strike the marquee that last time, and even if I could I'm not sure I'd want to. I'm happy with my memories, hazy as they are.
The first time we played Optimo we had driven in a van from some festival in Belgium where we played with a bunch of hardcore bands and had food thrown at us. We hadn't really slept for three or four days. It was our first European tour and we had hit rock bottom. So when we arrived in Glasgow to play some club called Optimo on a Sunday we didn't really have high hopes. The main thing we were happy about was that we had the day off on Monday.
When we arrived, everyone seemed really nice and friendly. They actually knew who we were and seemed really excited about us playing. Keith and Jonnie started DJing and I remember they started with some really great slower tunes and built as the night went on. This was one of my favourite things about Optimo. I loved going right at the beginning and staying through the whole night because Keith and Jonnie really built up the energy and vibe in the club masterfully. By the time we played, we had already been dancing and had started feeling a musical kinship with them over the music they were playing. The show went amazing and we met a bunch of kids and ended up going to one of the most bonkers house parties I've ever been to.
After that first time we played Optimo we always tried to make sure we played there every time we toured Europe, and even after our shows got too big for us to play there we would always try to schedule the show so we could still be in town for Optimo. Living in NYC I had always wished I was around for the Paradise Garage or The Loft parties but looking back, although it was in Glasgow and not NYC, I had Optimo. For me it was and still is the greatest party in the world.
Joakim and The Ectoplasmic Band
It's hard to choose. There was one when I DJed almost all night long while they were away in Japan. It was a very rare occasion for me to ACTUALLY play all those weird records I wish I could play more often. You don't have to educate Optimo's crowd, they educate you. But maybe it was even better when we had our first live show there with my band. Jonnie told us: "There's a rule here, that every band plays for 30 minutes maximum. No matter how famous you are, even ESG had to obey the rule!" Fair enough. That was 30 intense minutes, on the smallest stage ever, where I could hardly stand up because of my head hitting the speakers while the neck of Max's guitar hit the keys of my Poly800 keyboard. We usually play very loud, and the crowd was even louder. And after that we could hear and be amazed by the DJ sets of Twitch and Wilkes, setting the dance floor on fire with an obscure Northern Soul song or Johnny Cash as if they were rave techno.
To be honest, most of my nights at Optimo have blurred into one big memory of dancing to good music with friends. Specific moments include: Seeing ESG play a great show to an ecstatic audience; hearing "Venus in Furs" at a Hallowe'en Optimo Espookio where the attention to detail and imagination that had gone into people's costumes was wonderful; Hot Chip playing live on Hogmanay at the Old Fruitmarket and a couple of years previously in the Sub Club to a lovely audience; dancing to "Hung Up" by Madonna in the early hours after Keith had been teasing the crowd with short bursts of the line "time goes by...so slowly" all night. It's a combination of great DJs, a great club and a great crowd.
DFA label manager
When we went to visit them for the first time, it was myself, Tim Sweeney, Tim Goldsworthy, Justine D, and Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom. The night before Optimo, Keith and Jonnie hosted a big show at the Art School in Glasgow and Delia and Gavin performed live and Tim and Tim DJ'ed. I think 500 kids turned up at least which was great. That cover on DFA Remixes where the kids have their hands in the air: That was taken from the DJ booth that night. We all slept until dinner the next night. Keith took us out to some four-star gastropub and I ate haggis for the first and last time.
We then went to the club and the Optimo night began. I remember very little except visions of Gavin in a leotard and flares dancing, weaving, flying and maybe practicing yoga. Delia wore a mink coat which I believe caught fire because she was dancing on top of flood lights. It was loud and clear and cathartic and a really rapturous, friendly and completely mental group of people, from 18 to 60 years of age I would say. They all seemed like they were best friends.
The best experience I ever had at Optimo happened fairly recently. Having semi-regularly attended for five years or so, and having three bands I played in grace their stage at the Sub Club (Michael Dracula, Bricolage and Divorce), I can without question regard Optimo's Hogmanay '09 party at the Old Fruitmarket, which we were immensely honoured to play at, as the most amazing. We were rather philosophical about the whole thing: we presumed people would be out to dance their feet raw and wouldn't want a gammy punk band harshing their buzz, so we expected to have finished and packed up our gear well before the bells. Optimo weren't going to have that though. We were informed on the night that we would be on at around 2 AM, well after all the other guests (The Niallist, Drums Of Death and Hudson Mohawke) had finished their sets. When it came time to play we were buzzing with excitement...
But we were also crippled with fear, trying to ignore the nagging doubt that we'd get bottled off or worse (since we were playing in the Fruitmarket's bar/cafe area, not their main venue, we were at eye-and fist-level with all the potentially dissatisfied party people). We all sucked it up and battered into our first song. What happened for the next 20 minutes is something I will remember for the rest of my life. The room EXPLODED. A huge mass of mentalists surged and meshed together in a seething mass of joyous chaos. Pieces of the low-lying ceiling started to crash down, our vocalist Sinead jumped on our friend's back and was charged into the fray. Drums Of Death appeared, skull make-up smeared everywhere, moshing like a lunatic. Jonnie Wilkes flew completely sideways across the room and back again. The Fruitmarket's security looked petrified and eventually, after about 10 minutes of this madness, erected a human wall between us and the crowd.
The sheer energy that was being pushed out towards us was intoxicating, but we were leaving our ace in the pack till the end; a faithful rendition of the coda (AKA "the good bit") of "The Chain" by Fleetwood Mac, an Optimo staple and guaranteed to bring this mind-blowing show to a worthy conclusion. We heard after the fact that people were getting thrown out while we were playing, and somebody even broke a rib...basically, like the fox said, chaos reigned. Beautiful chaos. And all thanks to Optimo.
I'm sure Keith and Jonnie had their perverse reasons for wanting us to play at the club (the second time being on a notably busy Easter weekend) and despite the enigmatic nature of that intent, I know it was in good faith and with lots of sincere respect; on both occasions. Naturally, there was a clear polarisation, and while this music typically has that effect, what made it especially exhilarating was to get the chance to have a contemporary audience largely unprepared for the experience, something rare since the '80s; and yet, despite the clear antipathy of many, it didn't affect the exceptionally friendly open-minded atmosphere of the club, testament to Keith's and Jonnie's eternally amazing concept.
Voxtrot, regular since 2002
For me, the proudest and most memorable night was the one at which my band, Voxtrot, took the stage at the Sub Club. Performing at Optimo had been a fantasy of mine since the age of 19, and now, four years later, it was finally happening. Casting my eyes upon all of my Glasgow pals just below the stage is one of the warmest feelings I have ever experienced: The energy in the room was phenomenal. During the last song, I was doing my usual jumping about routine, when I suddenly ventured slightly too far to the right, slamming my head against a mounted speaker. The whole world shook, and I ran my hands through my hair to remove what I believed to be a gathering of sweat. Much to my surprise, the "sweat" was actually blood. I was heroically swept to the bathroom in the arms of Rachel, then Optimo door girl, and one of my closest friends.
My biggest fear following the accident was not that I might have suffered a concussion, but rather that I wouldn't be able to stay and dance alongside my friends and bandmates. Back in the Sub Club office, as Rachel and Jonnie alternated tissues, absorbing the last bits of blood from the top of my head, I asked Jonnie, "Do you think it's safe for me to dance?"
"Oh Ramesh, it's just a flesh wound."
I remember flying into Glasgow on a Sunday after travelling around a bit. I got to Optimo about 2 AM exhausted, but as soon as I walked into the space I got a rush of adrenaline. What I was hearing sounded like big hair rock from the '70s or '80s, but it was working so well on the dance floor. That's when I started thinking of them as alchemists. Or even supermen, as in the old TV show, when he takes a chunk of coal, squeezes it in his hands, turning it into diamonds.
I can't point at one particular night and say "that was more amazing than any other," but some of my favourite moments have been when little, ridiculous things have happened in the midst of it all. Like when James Chance was searching around for his reed and his false teeth fell down his saxophone; when we hyped the Chicks On Speed show to the moon in 1999, they came on screaming and within a few minutes there was as big a queue to get out of the Sub Club as there was to get in; and the night a hardcore porn DVD somehow found its way onto all the screens at the club. I spent about three hours in the clink after that, and when I was let out the officer said he'd have to take possession of the DVD "to review the content in full."
Behind the booth at Optimo (Espacio).
Optimo press officer
It would have to be in April 2003, during the Triptych Festival. Earlier in the evening, Grace Jones had played her first show with Sly & Robbie in something like 22 years at the Barrowland, with Twitch and Wilkes supporting. That amazing show, the fact that Nina Simone had died that day, plus a load of other factors, came together to make Optimo that night incredibly special. There were a bunch of journalists up from London for the Grace Jones show who came to Optimo and just had their minds blown: a guy from Men's Health who by the end was a really terrible example of men's health; a girl from The Independent who said to me at the beginning of the night she "only liked 1950s girl groups," but by the end had completely changed her mind about music, saying to me "that was as if every great piece of music I've ever heard had been put through some magical machine and turned into some long piece of sinuous tape that is singing a song I can't get out of my head."
The spiralling loops of Nina Simone's "Feelin' Good" that Lady Miss Roland announced as Optimo's tribute to the great lady propelled everyone physically towards the ceiling and all hands in the room seemed to be held in the air in tribute. When the Sub Club disgorged us out into the street, myself and my party all looked into one another's grinning faces, and without saying a word we all knew that we'd experienced something astonishing; a night we would never forget.
Musician, comedian, MC at Optimo's Hallowe'en parties
The most fun I ever had at Optimo was as part of the Optimo Espookio Hallowe'en nights. As the Irreverend Randy B Cockburn, I babbled filth into the ears of the not-so-innocent as they revelled in their magnificent costumes. The Optimo Hallowe'en Party was the best in the world. No other crowd was dressed so brilliantly, so amusingly and so filthily. And the crowd didn't just change their clothes. They often changed their persona; staying in character all night, so that you felt that you had left reality far behind, until the strip lights came on and the spell was broken and the enchanted evening was swept out with the glittering broken glass.
Hijinks at Optimo Espookio.
Employee and regular since 1998
October 2004: John Peel is dead, the G8 summit comes to Gleneagles and Jonnie Wilkes of Optimo decides, last minute, on his Halloween costume for the club. I head down early as usual to do the various bits and bobs of set-up. I hear a call from Jonnie, "Teamy, mon gies us a hand gettin' intae this will ye?" (That's the best Belfast accent I can write; use your imagination.) I walk into the toilets to find Jonnie in a vest, briefs and trainers with a 12-year-old's Wonder Woman costume in his hand; Jonnie is about six-foot two-inches tall. After much protestation on my part we manage to squeeze him into this costume. Then he put on the tiara. I go off and get into my costume for the night: Freddie Mercury in the "I Want to Break Free" video: Leather skirt, wig, teeth, moustache; the lot. Even a hoover. Later on, near the end of the night, Jonnie frantically waves at me on the dance floor, so I pop my head into the DJ box.
I believe the phrase was something along the lines of "Give us a hand here. This thing's right up my slot." Getting a grown man out of a child's costume is considerably harder than getting him into it. Eventually we manage to get the costume down to his knees, but it won't come over his calves.
Around this time Twitch decides it's time for the John Peel Tribute, a pre-arranged mix of the man himself introducing songs, making various mistakes, a minute of noise, a Fall track and other stuff. So, there I am, dressed in a pink angora top, leather skirt and wig, on my knees in front of Jonnie in his knickers and vest with a child's Wonder Woman costume around his ankles with Twitch pushing us frantically and screaming "We've got to get out, we can't be in here when John's on!" Jonnie stumbles, I fall out the door, arse first, with Jonnie falling over the top just missing my head with his knee and looks down and says, "I bet you never thought you be dressed like that, doing this at a fucking wake."
Then "Teenage Kicks" drops.
Published / Friday, 16 April 2010
Photo credits / Jonnie as soldier - Jack Mottram