Little White Earbuds Interviews JD Twitch

When I caught up with JD Twitch, he and his DJ partner, JG Wilkes, were nigh on closing shop on their legendary Optimo (Espacio) party at Glasgow’s Sub Club. While the man born Keith McIvor would soon be shutting the book on a major chapter of his life, he obviously had his sights set on what lies ahead for his Sunday nights and beyond. Jumping from Optimo’s peculiar envisioning of peaktime techno (soon to be laid out on the duo’s highly anticipated Fabric compilation) to a strange series of events deep in Madrid clubland, JD Twitch gives Little White Earbuds a peak into the infamous past and exciting future of some of dance music’s most singular party-starters.

You guys will throw your last Optimo (Espacio) on April 25. Can you sum up your feelings about leaving your Sunday nights in Glasgow behind?

JD Twitch: Mixed feelings! I think it’s a very positive thing. You know, we’ve done it for so long, and it’s kind of reached the point where it can’t really go anywhere else. The only thing we can do is not do it anymore and put our energy into other things. But at the same time, there’s been this kind of massive outpouring of grief, almost, amongst people in the city the last few weeks [before the party]. We announced three weeks ago so people would have a chance to come and have their last one before then. The last few weeks of the club have been insane! People coming to say their goodbyes, people bursting into tears! I’m glad it’s coming to an end, but at the same time you’re like, ‘Whoa, what are we letting go here, there’s something very special.’ We’ll still do things. We’ll do parties in Glasgow. It just frees us up to get a little bit of a life back.

There are a lot of people who are doing monthly parties, people who will do things four times a year. But this idea of doing one party with the same two DJs weekly, and especially on a Sunday night — at your level, it’s pretty much unheard of.

I mean, it kills your week — and that’s fine. But there’s other stuff we want to do. And I guess also, as much as we love doing it, I could sense that our energy for it was starting to go, and I didn’t want it to go to where our energy had gone. And I think that if it’d been a year from now, we’d have been doing it and we’d have been going through the motions. I think it’s always terrible to do anything when you’re just going through the motions, not doing it because you’re actually wanting to be doing it.

You and your partner, JG Wilkes, are known for your open music policy — you’ll play everything, pretty much. Did you feel like this whole notion of playing everything every week was becoming a formula in and of itself?

Exactly. Not following a formula had become a formula, completely! Especially after so long. It was almost like people would expect there to be this certain, [impersonating a punter] ‘Oh, maybe they’ll do something really crazy now, and oh, okay, maybe it’ll be slowed down, and oh, maybe some, like, dancehall reggae now.’ It does, it becomes a formula. It becomes ridiculous, that you’re trying to have this kind of freedom to play anything. It’s probably just from having done it so long. It kind of made it this expectation. The night of the club — it was because it was Sunday in particular — that was why we had the freedom to do what we liked to begin with, and I think the idea was always to confound expectations. But then when that becomes the actual expectation itself, it becomes a little… [trails off].

We’re at the end of a decade when “eclecticism in DJ sets” had become such a big thing, maybe because it was also a big decade for the kind of digital technology that allowed DJs to play all of these records together which might not have gone together otherwise. With your embrace of all that, Optimo really found a nice niche within the zeitgeist. But do you think clubs are moving past this eclecticism? Are crowds going for a little more focus?

That’s definitely a change that we’ve noticed. And it’s reflected in what we play. But it totally depends on where we play. Sometimes we’ll play somewhere, and I guess it’ll be a lot more straight — not necessarily one genre, but one kind of style, one kind of tempo. As a DJ, you kind of get a feel for what you can do, and sometimes we’ll be very open-ended, but we’ve played that way probably less. For some reason, and I can’t quite put my finger on it, I’ve always just loathed the word “eclectic,” but they’ve always used the word eclectic. I mean in some ways, we’ve become less eclectic. It’s maybe become harder to — I mean, I would love to play loads of crazy African music, but it’s just not going to work. I’m not going to go play like I’m here to educate you, this is what you’re going to hear, and clear a dance floor. I think that’s stupid. I think there’s a medium where you can introduce people to new music they’ve never heard before, but at the same time, at the end of the day it’s about entertaining people. I think it cools down a little bit if people just hear — they want to go to a disco night, want to go to a house night, want to go to nu-rave or whatever it’s called now. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think these things come in cycles and change, and it’ll change again farther down the line somewhere as well.

I’m taking a look at the tracklist for your upcoming Fabric 52 compilation, and it’s a lot heavier on contemporary dance music than what we’ve generally heard from you — Oni Ayhun, Levon Vincent, Comeme. It’s a strikingly more streamlined project than your seminal How To Kill The DJ (Part 2) set.

I think that’s reflective of where we’re at at the moment, but we’re also consciously thinking, “This is for Fabric, how would we play at Fabric?” How we play is reflective of where we play, and obviously I’m not going to play a rock ‘n roll track in the middle of a Fabric set. And what would we play on a Saturday night? Saturday night especially is their more serious electronic dance music night. This was our idea of what we would play if we were playing a set at the club. But within that, it is a more cohesively dance mix. But I think there’s still a couple things where people will still be like, “wow.” We’ve managed to fit a cumbria track in there. It’s mixed over the top of something else, but it’s our way of taking something a little off the hook.

Is there anything that’s just never worked? Something that would never fly under any circumstances, something you’d never be able to pull off?

I’m trying to think — [laughs] like maybe 150 beats-per-minute trance music might never find a way there. If it was the most amazing trance record that I liked I’d try to fit it in. I guess more of the commercial side of dance music is something that we maybe don’t touch much, even though we might play what’s a big pop record at the time. Cheesy, kind of commercial dance music is something that’s never really had much of a place in what we do. If it’s a good record, though, it’s a good record.

Not having to do the night at Sub Club will definitely open up your weekends. Will you use the time to do more production and remix work?

Absolutely. That was one of the reasons for doing it. And then, almost instantly, the opportunity — and I can’t actually name who they are just yet, because it’s not 100 percent confirmed — to produce bands [came about], which is something I’ve always wanted to do, kind of in the back of my mind. But I’ve known that it wasn’t possible because to do that involves being in the studio for like four weeks, going away somewhere, and I would have never been able to leave the club before for that long. And then, completely unrelated — it wasn’t because they knew that the club was ending — someone asked me if I would do this, and I was like, ‘Yes, I will, and I can!’ Also, definitely making more of my own music is something I’ve started doing at the beginning of this year, actually actively working on it, and this will free up more time to do that. Quite often, we get invited to do gigs in the States and we often have to turn them down because it would mean being away for Sunday. I think more opportunities like that will present themselves. I think [there will be] just more opportunities in general, and at the same time we’re going to still promote something in Glasgow that will involve the next generation of Glasgow DJs. We’ll start inviting DJs that we know, love, and respect to come and play in Glasgow. So there will still be a continuation, and we’ll still play at that maybe once a month or once every six weeks, but we’ll be doing lots of other stuff as well.

Thinking back to the beginning of the club in 1997, you pretty much came to Optimo (Espacio) as straight techno DJs. Was there a moment around that time when you knew you had to do something different, when you know you didn’t want to play straight four-four all night?

Absolutely. I would say about a year before that. From 1990 to 2000, I did this techno/house club [Pure] in Edinburgh. And it was a great club, but even within techno it was very open and we would play quite wide-ranging [sets]. But it was all four-four electronic music. It was the favorite thing I ever did up until that point. But right at about ’96, late ’96 or early ’97, it totally changed, and the music that people wanted to hear had got really, really hard. It wasn’t Jeff Mills’ fault, but Jeff Mills had kind of created this sound, and everyone else who was making techno kind of jumped on this looped, grinding sound. The club became more masculine, the energy became darker and more negative, and it wasn’t fun or sexy anymore. I’d try to take it in other directions, but it just wasn’t working. I was pretty bored, pretty disillusioned.

Meanwhile, I was digging out all these old records and already buying all sorts of other music and thinking, “If only I could find a way that I could just play all this stuff.” And then the opportunity [came] to do something on Sunday night — that was perfect. For one, there’s was a low expectation from the people that ran the club, because it was a Sunday. They were happy if you got enough people in just to cover their costs. And I kind of figured that if people do come, they’ll be more open to listening to other music because they’ve probably been out Friday and Saturday, and they’ve heard techno and house all weekend, so on Sunday we can introduce them to other stuff. I guess that’s how it started — out of boredom and frustration. Also, people around that time were just bored with going out. The club scene here wasn’t very exciting, and we thought we might put some fun back into it.

That’s interesting that this hard sound was what changed the whole mood of a techno night for you. The sound you described has really come back in vogue right now with the Berghain and Ostgut Ton.

It is! It actually is! It’s almost like time has come full circle, it’s almost come back to that same place. I guess because I’ve been out for so long I’m actually finding it a bit refreshing, which is kind of bizarre. You know, I think we’ve got to a really bad phase again. The whole minimal techno thing, for me, went to a really bad place. And now we’re coming out of that, and there’s lot of great house music, there’s lots of great techno. My one vague reticence is that a lot of it is an homage to the past, especially the techno. Techno was always this fast-forward-to-the-future music, and that’s my one little thing. There is a lot of great stuff, a lot of stuff that sounds new, but a lot of it is paying so much to what’s come before.

Who’s finding a way forward in house and techno right now?

What he does, does have something to do with the past, but I absolutely love all of Levon Vincent’s records. There’s something classically old-school about them, but there’s also something in the arrangements and the overall production that I think is very futuristic as well, and very current without being too retro. I think what Oni Ayhun does is great. Some of it’s maybe a little too abstract to play on the dance floor. I was just listening to that, um… I can’t even begin to tell you the guy’s name, the guy who did the podcast for Resident Advisor…

Oh right, the guy whose name is just numbers [19.454.18.5.25.5.18]

Yeah… there’s gotta be some techno geek somewhere who knows that name by heart. [Laughs] I was really enjoying that! A year ago, I would have just been like, “That’s just dying techno,” but it’s not. There’s something kind of brewing, and maybe it’s an antidote to all those years of minimalism just being a little bit too… boring.

Going back to Pure, what were some of the records you were feeling before the sound changed?

For us, the whole Plus 8 thing and the harder edge of Detroit records, like Anthony “Shake” Shakir [trails off] – the stuff on Plus 8 was really cool. A whole load of European techno — it was this whole forgotten era. Like Holland, for example, produced a lot of great music. There were all these amazing labels, like DJax, 100% Pure, which actually still exists — all these amazing Dutch techno labels that have been forgotten in the messes of time. Lots of Belgian, Dutch — I mean, it was this kind of global thing. One of our favorite artists was this guy who we finally met a few weeks ago when we were in Australia, who was called HMC, from Adelaide, who was releasing on this label around that time called Juice Records. It was just the most amazing techno, and you’d look at the label and go, ‘Wow, it’s from Australia!’ Back then, [techno felt] pretty intimate. But there was something really exciting about knowing that there was this global movement going on, but because there was no Internet, there was no connection from one artist to the other unless people were traveling and meeting each other.

Do you think that’s one of the biggest things that’s changed since you’ve been DJing, and especially since you started doing Optimo? That a person can have a much larger knowledge of music without being a really serious record collector?

Yeah, that’s completely true. The way that people buy — I mean, I buy all my music online, pretty much, whereas before it was all about spending half my week trawling through record shops. And how I find or hear about other music is all through [the Internet], whereas before it was all word-of-mouth or just randomly discovering things in record shops. For promotion, when we started off we didn’t have a website. The internet obviously existed in 1997, but no one I knew was online, so the idea of trying to promote the night has completely changed over the course of the last decade.

The Internet allowing people to amass huge music collections so quickly and easily — do you think that’s changed record collecting for the better or for the worse? When people can download, say, the entire canon of New York disco in no time at all, do you ever think to yourself, ‘Man, I was out there tracking down all those records!’

It’s a double-edged sword. In some ways, it’s a great thing. There are things I’d been looking for my whole life and now with the Internet they’re available. For me, part of the downside of that is now that excitement that I might find [such a record] in a used record shop in New York one day has gone. I think the one problem with downloading the entire discography of New York disco is absorbing it. People have this, but are they actually absorbing it? If you were to find all those records over time, you gradually get to know them. People talk about having 400 terabytes of music, but what does that actually mean? How are you actually absorbing it? What do you do with that music? Is it just sitting there? Do you use it? Do you immerse yourself in it? Listen to it? So I think it’s still — you have to get to know this music, and love it. And I’m very guilty of downloading a bunch of music and listening to it once but never fully immersing myself in it, and thinking, ‘Okay, I’ve got that now, I’ve got that now,’ but you don’t have it unless you’re living with this music and using it and immersing yourself in it on a regular basis. You might as well not have it.

Are you guys still buying a lot of vinyl?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, maybe a little less. I think what I do now that I didn’t used to do is — there are certain records that come out, and I think, ‘Okay, how often am I going to play this? This record is $18 plus shipping, and I’m going to play one track off it.’ In those instances, quite often I’ll buy it digitally. But actually buying records? Yeah, I probably buy about as many records as I ever have, but for my own collection, not so much for my DJing collection. I kind of have two distinct piles of music. There are records I would never use — like I buy lots of African music, and I very rarely play that when I’m DJing, so I love to have that on vinyl. But some of the more functional club tracks, I don’t really care whether I have them on a record or whether I have them as digital files anymore.

Still, you get the sense that you must have a pretty enormous record collection. Any idea how big it is?

I moved house about three years ago, and when I did that I took some sort of inventory. I actually did a massive cull, and I got rid of about five or six thousand records. I reckon that last tally was about maybe 25,000 records?

Incredible.

Too many! For some people that must be great, but it’s a pain in the ass! I’ve ended up buying things again because I just can’t find it and I really want to have it. I’ll just buy it again rather than spend a week trying to find where I’ve filed this record away. But it’s great. At the same time, it’s great having all that music at your fingertips.

Back to the party, I unfortunately haven’t been, and at this point, I’ll never be able to. But as far as the format goes, I know you almost always booked bands rather than DJs.

When we first started, it reflected our interest at the time. And again, for me, the whole club DJ thing was for a couple of years in a really bad, boring place. It was the era of the superstar DJ, and I would go out and hear all of these DJs and it just seemed like none of these DJs were really caring, they were just playing what they were playing and taking their money. I kind of stopped going out to clubs and was going to lots and lots of gigs, and I guess it reflected my interest. And also with no budget — when we started the club, very few people were coming, it was maybe a hundred people on a Sunday night. It was a cheap night to get in, so we couldn’t afford to book DJs. So it was based around our interest, which was bands, and we would get all the local bands to come and play for next to nothing, and then we got a little more adventurous and started inviting bands from elsewhere.

And then we went through a brief phase where we booked a handful of DJs, and we would always get in touch with them before [and tell them], ‘You have complete freedom, dig deep, play whatever you like, we’re very open-minded, it’s a Sunday.’ But they wouldn’t. They would just come and play what they’d play anywhere else. So we were like, ‘Okay, that’s it, we’re only gonna book bands now.’ That kind of became the mantra of the club, I guess. There’s been a few exceptions. We have a few great friends who always come and play. And there are a few weeks when we’ve been away and we couldn’t get back, and then we’ve had someone come and play. But on the whole, we based the whole idea of the club around the idea of live music. Also, when we started, there were lots of people I knew who had never been to a concert — they were clubbers, they’d never actually seen a live act, and I kind of liked the idea of introducing them to that. Likewise, there were people at the beginning who came because we had bands on but had never really been clubbers. I liked the idea of mixing these two groups of people up.

The whole ethos of the night — never charging more than you needed to, never really conforming to a particular style — it seems like you have more in common with a punk night than with the club scene. Was it a conscious effort to bring in elements that wouldn’t normally have anything to do with each other? Does that make any sense?

Yeah. I mean, I think we were thinking about all sorts of things. We were thinking that we have a complete blank slate, this freedom to do whatever we like. Neither of us were punks, but I think we both have a kind of punk ethos and that kind of inspired us. I have some older friends who come from that movement, and I was really interested at that point in reading about the anarchy-punk scene. I had this huge list of things I hated about club culture, like experiences I’d had where people had policies like “regulars only” or “only people wearing the right clothes” or just clubs ripping you off. Everything that I’ve hated about club culture over the years, I want to do the complete opposite and think, ‘How would I feel if I was going to this club?’ I just like the idea of treating every single person as if they are absolutely equal — no guest list, and the idea of VIP rooms is absolutely repulsive to me. [I just wanted to make it] as egalitarian as possible. Everyone had to queue no matter who they were; like if Franz Ferdinand came down, they’d still have to queue. Just because you’re in a band doesn’t mean you’re better than everyone else. It was just this experiment in trying to create this utopian club night, and I guess in some ways we kind of succeeded.

Speaking of utopian club nights, I read on your blog that you can kind of lump your gigs into four categories: the 33 percent that just completely suck—

I mean, I was kind of half joking! But it’s not too far from the truth.

Right, of course. So you talk about the 33 percent that suck, the 33 percent that are really good, the 33 percent that are just life-affirming, and then the one percent that are beyond words. You described a gig in Portland that fell into that last one percent. Were there any others that were just so bad they were almost hilarious, or any others that were just perfect?

On the ones that were bad, we once did this festival in Rotterdam, and literally there was nobody there. The stage manager was like, ‘Guys, I think you should just play.’ And we’re like, ‘But there’s no one here.’ And he says, ‘No no no, just play, someone might turn up.’ So we played a two-and-a-half hour set and nobody turned up. That was kind of… surreal. We played once and someone let off a tear gas canister. I was playing, and Jonathan was watching the dance floor clearing and is like, ‘What are you doing?’ thinking I may have lost the plot with my DJing, but then we realized that someone had just let off tear gas. I carried on playing, and eventually everyone came back in, and then they went crazy. I think they respected the fact that I’d played right through it. I went back to that club again a few months later, and the same thing happened again!

Tear gas?!

It was in Madrid. I don’t know whether it’s just something that happens in Madrid, or whether someone had a particular hatred for us. The gigs that are those one percent ones… over the course of those Sunday nights in Glasgow there’s been a lot of those. I recently have the good fortune to play in Beijing. I had no idea what to expect; I thought they’d be pretty musically conservative. I didn’t think there’d be many people who’d listened to — well I thought, ‘Who the hell in China has ever heard of me?’ But this gigs was one of those one percent gigs where people were just going absolutely wild, where they were open to the kind of weirder and more tripped-out [stuff]. The more music I played, the more into it they got. I’m not under any illusions that they knew who I was; I think that people were going out to this club and happened to be incredibly open. Great club, best sound system… it was kind of like, ‘Wow, China’s really rocking it.’ It’s those gigs that make you think, ‘This is why I keep doing this.’ I’ve been doing this for 25 years. Maybe I should retire and get a sensible life. But those are the things that make you want to keep on doing it.

It sounds like you’re not finishing up Optimo (Espacio) so you can retire. It might just open you up to doing more of these “one percent” gigs.

I’m sure a day will come when we are too old for this, and then maybe it’ll go back to being a hobby. I would always like to do this, even if I’ve reached the point where I’m doing something completely different, like production, for a living. I don’t think I would ever want to relinquish the DJing side. But maybe one day that’ll go back to being something I do as a hobby, which is really how it started. But at the moment, I’m still hungry for it. I’m hungry for music, for new music, for traveling, for making music, releasing music, producing music, whatever.

Jimmy  on June 2, 2010 at 6:26 PM

That Australian guy is HMC…Optimo played his Late Night Tough Guy track when they were down here last month (or a bit longer ago).

Legend.

littlewhiteearbuds  on June 2, 2010 at 8:34 PM

Thanks for the head’s up, it’s fixed now.

clom  on June 3, 2010 at 5:33 AM

great, in-depth interview. nice to have a bit of chat about pure which is as important, in my eyes, as optimo. i live in edinburgh and pretty much anyone who grew up here who is interested in techno or house music were schooled on the floor in the venue.

i’m from ireland and their brief monthly residency at phunk city in the funnel in dublin was an absolute revelation to me. they played the second last night in that venue and tore the place asunder, i’ll bring the memories of that night to my grave.

recordings of the last night of optimo are available online and are well worth 5 or 6 hours of your time…

Johnny  on June 25, 2010 at 6:31 PM

Legends

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