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In Conversation With: Optimo

In Conversation With: Optimo
Jack Smith

“I am open minded about most types of music but definitely have some sort of aesthetic going on”. So reads a 2013 blog post from JD Twitch, aka one half of Optimo with Jonnie Wilkes (of Naum Gabo fame). Just what is this aesthetic? A like for left-field? A penchant for perplexing? Does it really matter? Tellingly he leaves it at that – no definition of this aesthetic is ever offered – because you’ll be hard pressed to find an act that has and will continue to revel in its own indefinability for as long as the incomparable Glaswegian duo.

This of course extends to the immaculately-curated Optimo Music. Let’s take a minute to put its latest release under the microscope. Sex Judas Ft. Ricky’s Go Down Judas LP: equal parts folk, drone, post-punk, Euro-trash, balearia, acid house, Viz-esque sleaze, Red Light vice, Norwegian new wave and social commentary, with contributions from instrumentalists from Oslo, Mali… I could continue. It’s not only a beautiful clusterfuck of genre, mood, colour but also thematically coherent. A concept album that doesn’t play fast and loose with its influences but enriches them. In other words, it’s an Optimo classic in the making.

It goes without saying that the duo aren’t short of stories to tell either. From their bread and butter – namely just a monthly NTS show, insane touring schedule and the day-to-day running of the label itself. To everything in between – opening a new bar, parenting, the infamous Optimo (Espacio) club nights… theirs is a history unlike any in dance music. 

High time for a natter then, surely? We caught them ahead of a typically rammo summer schedule with highlights including pit-stops at the ever-tantalising Houghton and Gottwood, and a headline set at The Tower. The latter, which boasts an intimate 700-person capacity, carefully-curated lineup and 1:1 tree-planted-to-ticket-sold ratio (how’s that for eco-friendly?), is shaping up to be one of the UK’s best newcomers to the festival circuit of recent times. So what sort of vibe will they be packing in their record bags for these and more? How have they remained close friends after two decades plus? And will we get any closer to that elusive definition? All that and much more, after the jump.

You’ve both been DJing for quite a number of years now but it seems your touring schedule has ramped up a notch in the past 12 months. How are you enjoying the time on the road? Do you tend to stay closer to home these days?

WILKES – Yes I think 2017 was our busiest year ever. We celebrated 20 years of our Optimo partnership and played a ridiculous amount of shows – covering much of the planet. Our friendship is very important to us as well as the intense work we do together on the road and it’s about allowing one another space when it’s needed. A bit of ebb and flow means we’re able to manage quite a gruelling touring schedule, have a laugh together, eat and converse together, feed off each-other creatively when we play and have peace and time alone when we need it. I guess that’s why we never needed or wanted a tour manager like a lot of our friends who go out dj-ing alone. It’s a good life getting out and playing new places around the world and returning to the old ones we’ve gotten to know well. This year our agent has helped us work in one weekend off a month, or at least a weekend when we don’t travel abroad. The diary is still very busy though which is nothing to complain about.

Has it impacted on the time you have for the label? How involved are you these days in the day to day running?

W – It does impact on it so this year we are aiming to tour a little less. I want more time to devote to the labels and some other music projects plus we have recently opened a bar (Bananamoon) which requires a lot of love and devotion. I pretty much run the labels myself so am completely involved in the day to day running. I have a couple of people who help me out on an ad hoc basis but it is an enormous amount of work that soon catches up with me if I’m away for a long period touring. I should add that it is work I thoroughly enjoy doing and that is very fulfilling.

The forthcoming Sex Judas LP on Optimo Music is suitably kaleidoscopic. Can you tell us a bit about the project?

Twitch – I had released a Sex Judas 12” previously in my Optimo Music Disco Plates series. Tore (Sex Judas) then pitched the idea of doing an album and I said yes based on just hearing a couple of proposed tracks. It was then about a two year period before he finished the album, updating me along the way. I think he has produced a completely unique album that is not easily pigeon-holed in any particular genre or trend which fits the ethos of the label perfectly.

Harking back to your Sub Club days, we’ve heard a couple of anecdotes that speak to the jovial vibe of the parties – one regarding a last minute change of theme inspired by Apocalypse Now, and the other about a set consisting entirely of ‘Come On Baby Light My Fire’ covers. Can you recall either of those for us?

W – I recall them both well. Crazy times… we did a few parties which borrowed their aesthetic from certain films. It was really a way to explore the notion of building a strange, or for that matter, a terrifying environment within a club rather than being directly inspired by or celebrating a film as such. Kind of like… “what if a club was like this inside” or in another way, we were asking how much “come on baby light my fire” can a person stand? Is it good to hear that song again and again, does it make any difference after a while if it’s been interpreted in a different way by a different artist, or is it torture? 

It’s clear that your influences are extremely wide-ranging and we could name drop just about every style of dance music in the loosest sense of the term here. But is there one style that has proved the most foundational to you as selectors and party planners? Could you ever sum it all up in just one track?

W – Although perhaps not obviously apparent I’d say the style that is most foundational to Optimo is “dub”. Not necessarily as in playing Jamaican music but as in the production style that was born on that island. It is in the DNA of so much of the music we play and across widely disparate genres more often than not a trace of that DNA will be in there. As to summing it up in one track, in a word, no! 

Houghton returns this year after a monumental inauguration. How was your experience last year? Can we expect any curveballs for your set in August?

T – We had the most fantastic experience last year. The only negative was that we didn’t stay longer! I think it was as close to perfect as a festival could be and showed in spades just how important putting a lot of love into something can be. People can sense this and the love gets reflected right back. More festival organisers should take note! We never plan our sets so never have any curveballs in mind; they either just spontaneously happen or someone else decides they are a curveball. 

Your monthly NTS show will be three-years old soon. Have you got any celebrations planned? What is it about the station that continues to inspire you?

W – Oh! Well time flies! I didn’t know it was three years already – wow! Need to celebrate for sure. Maybe we do a whole show of “Come on Baby Light My Fire” covers. Actually that’s a terrible idea. Maybe we’ll just have some cake and a cuppa while we’re on air, that’ll do.

NTS is a good fit for us – plenty of oddballs broadcasting and running the shop – feel very at home there and feel no obligation to play anything other than music we find and just love. Whatever it is and in no particular order. The fact that they’re never mentioned once in three years how bad my microphone technique is means I’ve only got love for that lot. 

Finally, what’s on the horizon for you both and the label this year?

T – There will be around 20 releases on the label this year. I’m also working on my second album under a secret pseudonym and hope to get that finished this year. I’m also just finishing up as music supervisor on a forthcoming film called “Beats” which has been an incredible experience. Also currently putting the finishing touches to a compilation of German post-punk I have compiled that is forthcoming on Strut.

W – Just about finished an album of my Naum Gabo recording project which I hope sees the light of day this year. Building a live room at the studio as well to record more musicians which is kind of new territory for me. My partner Esther and I will have a baby girl very soon too which is exciting. We’re also working on some parties in more unusual venues – alternatives to conventional club spaces and utilising local hand-built systems. Doing some design collaborations too – I’ll be modelling them out on the road perhaps – maybe even at Houghton! 


Catch Optimo at Houghton, Gottwood, The Tower and an infinite amount of others throughout the course of summer ’18.