Headphone Highlights: Optimo

Jonnie Wilkes and Keith McIvor – alias JG Wilkes and JD Twitch – are Optimo. Founded as a Sunday night party of the same name in November 1997 at Glasgow’s Sub Club, the boys rose to worldwide fame with a music policy and attitude that crosses borders, religions and philosophies of all kinds. They gave up the night in 2010, setting their sights on a more regular international touring schedule as well as clearing out more time to focus on production. But when RBMA Radio corralled the duo they picked out plenty of records that made their legendary party so beloved.

The Desperate Bicycles – The Medium Was Tedium

JD Twitch: The reason that this record is so important to me is because it was one of the first DIY records. The lyrics of the song go, “It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it.” That kind of inspired me when I first wanted to start a record label. I thought: “Well, how hard can this be?” I came across it in, maybe, 1990. Even though it was from the punk or post-punk period I thought the message about doing it yourself was very relevant at that time, and is [still] relevant today.

Robert Rental – Double Heart

JD Twitch: When I was 10 or 11 years old, someone gave me a record on Mute. I had never heard any music like it, and at first I didn’t quite understand it, but I persevered and fell in love. I could pick anything from the first 30 or 40 records on the label, but the one I’m gonna choose is a record called “Double Heart” by Robert Rental. Robert Rental was a guy from Scotland, so I felt a certain allegiance to him. What I particularly liked about this record was that it was electronic, but it fused organic elements as well. There are live drums in there with the synthesizers. I think this record, which came out in 1980, was ahead of its time.

Liquid Liquid – Optimo

JD Twitch: We took our name from this song. One of the reasons is that I just loved the word. I loved that it didn’t really have a meaning, so there were no associations with it. Although, in hindsight, it turns out it was a cigarette brand. If you had grown up in New York, you would have seen that word all the time. I heard Carl Craig and Derrick May DJ in the early 90s, and they played this track and I was like “What is this? What is this?” And they told me, but I had no way of finding it, pre-internet. In record shops in Scotland there was just no way I was gonna find this record. Then my sister moved to New York and, on a visit to see her, I found it and became obsessed again.

The track itself has four guys playing instruments, but it also sounded like it could have been created by machines. There’s this perfect rhythmic fusion of electronic and bass, but with a certain rigidity. In my head, when the club night started that was the blueprint for what the sound should be. Obviously it wasn’t – and the club went in all sorts of different directions – but beyond just giving us the name the record had a deep musical influence on what we were trying to do.

Yello – Bostich (Reese Uptempo Mix)

JG Wilkes: I was thinking about this record recently because it’s something that I think Keith does better than anyone. He will play a record with an element of stupidity, which can change the party for the better. I remember the first time I heard him play the Kevin Saunderson mix of “Bostich” by Yello, which for me is a raucous party record. But the way the vocal in it is slightly moronic or silly in a way, it sometimes brings that something to the party that we often forget: an element of fun.

JD Twitch: I take music very, very, very seriously, but music doesn’t need to be serious, particularly in a club environment. If I played a whole set of nothing but dumb, stupid records that would be really annoying. But I think there is room in music for a bit of frivolity and something that is gonna change the atmosphere. There are elements of stupid that can be too stupid, but I think it’s a fine line of [finding] something that will maybe lighten an atmosphere and change the direction or put a smile on people’s faces. It’s hard to actually nail what “stupid” is and I actually spell it “s-t-o-o-p-i-d.” It’s a different kind of stupid. Cheesy is something else entirely... and there’s always room for a little bit of cheese too.

Neu! – Hallogallo

JD Twitch: “Hallogallo” by Neu! is a legendary 70s krautrock record. Incredibly hypnotic. The record is constantly building and falling and it has this incredibly hypnotic drum beat that feels like you could listen to it for hours without getting bored. That was a really interesting record to play because it’s not a dance record but it always would get people to come out of the shadows. Maybe they didn’t know what it was, maybe they did, but there was something about it that would just draw them in.

Basic Channel – Phylyps Trak II/I

JG Wilkes: Basic Channel changed everything for me. I was like, “Okay, there’s some space in this music, there’s some texture, there’s some sensitivity, there’s some depth.” Those were elements that were missing from the majority of music that was around at the time. I thought it was fantastic, even though they borrowed the production techniques of early digital King Tubby and applied them to this groove. It was loopy, like a lot of the music at the time, but the beautiful sounds and the shifts and reverb and texture and tonal things…

JD Twitch: These tracks were really long, but you could listen to them without getting bored. I remember doing a mix where I had one of them on for half an hour in and out of other records and it wasn’t boring because the delays were always changing. That was the thing with “Phylyps” and all the Basic Channel records. They were constantly morphing, and warm and sexy at a time when techno had lost its warmth and sex. They really created something completely new within techno. Techno existed, obviously, but this was something so far out and so new.

Love – Everybody’s Gotta Live

JD Twitch: The end of the night has always been important for us. Maybe not when we play elsewhere, but more so when we we’re at our own night. There’s nothing greater than when you’re packing up your records and all the bar staff and all the security guys in the club are cleaning up and you can hear them whistling something that you’ve been playing and you know they’re gonna go home with that in their head.

One song which kind of accidentally became an Optimo anthem is called “Everybody’s Gotta Live” by Love. I played it one week before the end of the night and it completely cleared the dancefloor. You could see people looking like, “What the hell are you playing?” When you have a regular club where you’re playing, though, you can do things like that. So next week everybody comes back and you do it again and you could see people starting to get it. So I just kept playing it and playing it. Eventually people became obsessed with this song and would demand to hear it. It became one of the ultimate end-of-the-night Optimo songs. Quite often we would start playing it then we would pretty much fade the record out and the crowd would carry on singing it. It kind of became their song. It had gone away from something we had discovered to being the song of the people that came to the club.

I think that’s something that you can only achieve if you have a residency. We don’t have residencies now. We do parties every few months in Glasgow and play there when we’re touring. Now it would be almost impossible to do that because you wouldn’t get to know an audience well enough to have the confidence.

By Optimo on January 18, 2013

On a different note