Energy Flash: Optimo On The Art Of The Residency

Energy Flash: Optimo On The Art Of The Residency

As the duo take control of London's Phonox...

Seasons come and seasons go but Optimo remain a vital, powerful force in club culture.

The duo - Keith McIvor and Johnny Wilkes - kicked off their endeavours in Glasgow over 20 years ago, famously hosting a Sunday night residency at the city's Sub Club.

Continually pushing the envelope, the pair have long since mastered the art of re-contextualising off piste sounds into club bangers, continually updating their sound while remaining true to this approach.

It's certainly working. 2019 has been one of their busiest years on record, with Keith McIvor overseeing the soundtrack for Scottish rave coming-of-age film Beats in between a hectic international schedule.

They land in London this month for a residency at Brixton club Phonox, determined to keep delivering the unexpected for clued up crowds who want a little something extra.

Johnny Wilkes spoke to Clash about their year so far...

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It’s been another huge year for Optimo, how has it all been going?

I think we’re maybe busier than ever! Keith’s working in a prolific way to release lots of music through the label, we’re playing lots of shows and travelling a lot, going to some new places, going back to some places that we’ve had a connection with for a long time. It’s really exciting, actually!

And it’s nice to settle into something in London regularly, as well, as we don’t play that often in the city.

Where do you think that hunger comes from?

It works in a couple of different directions. The longevity of what Keith and I do together has been helped by the fact that people find us quite hard to pin us down as to what we actually do. And that in turn leaves it open for us to take things in any direction that we want, really, and that’s the exciting thing… that we can do that. I think if we’d just been consistently ploughing the same furrow for years you would just get tired of it.

The fulfilment that you get from what it is you do – if that’s a DJ or any other profession – is a very personal thing, but I do think that that the way that we approach it means that it is possible to keep it a bit unquantifiable and exciting on a personal level because we’re not pinned down to a particular thing. I’m always looking for new music that might work, or I could explore to use in a club. Even things that aren’t considered out and out dancefloor music.

It’s not that I want to fuck with people’s heads throughout every minute of my set – I’m not! - but I’m trying to approach it in a diverse way, so I can get to the point where I could open a door and something really exciting might, or might not, happen.

Optimo were famed for their Sunday night residency at Glasgow’s Sub Club, and now you’re taking over Phonox for a short run. What’s the appeal of a residency over, say, a one-off night?

It’s an opportunity, really. We’ve experienced been able to play on a weekly basis in a residency, and the level of trust that you build with your crowd, and the sociable aspects that get built in that gathering on a weekly basis, it becomes a very intimate thing. I think it also lets you get to a place where you might be a more interesting DJ, and that’s a great opportunity as an artist, where you can get to a point where you can truly be at your best.

You can play for a little longer, as well – when we play festivals over the summer sometimes we get an hour between us. Optimo is at its best when we get to play longer, and that’s certainly what Phonox is proving to provide. It’s shaping up to be something quite special.

I’m already looking forward to the next week, thinking about how to approach it differently, and what music might be possible. That’s the beauty of a residency – you build confidence, personally, when you become more familiar with the space and the crowd, and that can led to something really exciting for everyone.

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Optimo do seem to enjoy returning to certain clubs, and building those relationships.

It’s important, I think, for us because we like being around like-minded people, and we feel support from certain promoters and clubs around the world who have been really supportive around the years, and have really imparted a lot of trust in us. It’s really nice to go back to those places and feel a part of it.

More than anything once you do start to work with people who have a better idea of what you do – it still happens to us that we’re placed in completely the wrong context and line up… you can work with that too. And sometimes it’s a challenge, sometimes it’s very important because you recognise that, and you feel a little bit incongruous, but it’s important that you’re able to do that as well and confront difficulties like that.

But yes, there are certain places we go back to regularly. It’s a comforting prospect that we’re going back there, to a room, a crowd, and the people who host it – and very often people who we’ve met in the crowd. We play a lot in the Netherlands even since our Trouw residency, and we really feel at home there.

I used to watch you at the Reading Rooms in Dundee, which hosted some fantastic nights. Sadly, it’s now closed, did you hear about that?

I did, and I was sad to hear that. It came as a surprise to me and I didn’t know about it until one of the residents posted about it on Facebook.

I don’t know exactly what happened, but we had many great nights in the Reading Rooms. It’s a place that we would return to – only once or twice a year – but it was special to us, and I was very sad when I heard it would be closing. I thought, well, what else is there in Dundee? These things always come around, but I’m sad to think we won’t be back in Dundee for a while as it was one place that really got behind what we were doing.

It’s a prevailing trend in club culture, isn’t it? It’s so hard for small clubs.

Oh I know. I think the councils have taken until very recently to recognise that there’s a whole night industry, and that this is people’s livelihoods, more than anything else.

Previously they just focussed on naive notions that people were out too late drinking, and instead of relaxing licensing laws they were squeezing them even more. They didn’t support venues, they closed places down with absolutely no forethought. I hope they have begun to think about the eventualities of operating like that.

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On a more positive note, underground electronic music in Ireland – both sides of the border – is absolutely booming just now.

We’ve played a couple of times as AVA Festival in Belfast, and for – personally – growing up in Belfast, I could never have imagined anything like that. It’s such a cross-section of all communities gathering in one place to dance.

It absolutely blew my mind when I first went to AVA Festival. I used to work in the shipyards where that festival was based, and back then East Belfast was a no-go area for Catholic kids. So to see that location being used for a music festival that was open to all, made me feel that we have actually come some way here.

There’s a lot of producers coming out of Northern Ireland and the South, and there’s a lot of great festivals popping up all around Ireland. I think it’s really, really heart-warming for me, personally, and when I speak to a lot of DJs around the world they’re like: wow, Ireland and Scotland are the places to play these days! And long may it continue, I think it’s great what they’re doing over there. From personal experience, it’s a hard thing to do.

Let’s finish by looking at the Phonox residency – do you plan an over-arching structure for these things, or is it very much reactive?

We never plan sets. We always bring in new music and change the music that we’re travelling with. Maybe bring in records that we really hope we could play but don’t get around to it – it’ll maybe be a few gigs before you get to that point.

With something like Phonox, we bring a lot of music and just find our way. When we open it’s quite similar to our old Sub Club residency, when we played a few hours that were just a reflection of where our heads are at, and you couldn’t really call it dance music.

It’s when the club is filling up, and it’s a more sociable thing – it’s an important part of the night for us, and it’s an important prelude to the party as the club fills gradually. But we don’t plan sets – it’s just not the way I think about DJing, really.

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Optimo play London's Phonox on July 26th, August 2nd - tickets.

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