Certain DJs have the uncanny ability to reflect your musical taste almost exactly while also expanding your knowledge and appreciation of styles that you've yet to explore. For me, and many others, one such DJ is JD Twitch (aka Keith McIvor) of the group Optimo. With partner JG Wilkes, Twitch has been running the Optimo (Espacio) club night every Sunday in Glasgow, Scotland, since 1997; they also maintain a label called Optimo Music. Wilkes and Twitch don't sleep much.
Twitch is the opposite of a specialist. His expertise extends over several musical genres: psych rock, dub, various African styles, early electronic music, punk, funk, soul, disco, experimental, jazz, post-punk, Tropicália (in 2007 he collaborated with Os Mutantes in a project called Trocabrahma), house, and techno. Eclecticism is all well and good, but if you have crap taste, diversity is a scourge. Gratefully, Twitch possesses exquisite aesthetics and an insatiable curiosity that leads to frequent discoveries of hidden sonic treasures (he possesses about 25,000 records).
Twitch's ascension to the elite echelon of selectors didn't result from cool calculation, but rather almost from chance. "I neither wanted nor intended to be a DJ," Twitch says via e-mail. "When I was 18 or so, I was always getting asked to provide the music at parties and play alongside bands, as I suppose I was renowned for having a lot of music. Then a good friend of mine talked me into playing alongside him at this club night (this was way before I discovered mixing records together). Next thing I knew, I had fallen in love with playing music for people, and it gradually became what I did for a living. I was more inspired by giving an outlet to music I loved that people hadn't heard before rather than by any particular person."
Twitch snagged his first major professional gig as a DJ at Club Pure in Edinburgh. If you scan the track lists for mixes he's done in the '00s, you could predict that playing only techno and house every week would not suit Twitch forever. In retrospect, it's a miracle he endured at Pure as long as he did.
"Pure lasted for 10 years," Twitch says. "For the first seven years I loved it. House and techno were constantly developing and even then I would throw in other records from outside those genres. Around 1997, it all got a little dull for me. The records that were coming out weren't inspiring me, and the crowd [was] increasingly becoming more narrow-minded. So I got burned out, and that's when Optimo started and the idea of doing a club that wasn't genre-specific or that was freestyle in the literal sense of the word came into being."
Twitch has had the good fortune to find a DJ/business partner who augments his own rarefied, ravenous tastes. "Our tastes complement each other's, but are also quite different," he clarifies. "I'm sure if you blindfolded anyone who came to the club regularly, they could tell you which of us was playing. We play separate sets rather than back-to-back, except at the end of the night when we play back-to-back for the last 20 minutes or so. With regards to running the night, I deal with all the booking of guests and running the website and [Wilkes] does all our design."
Those Optimo (Espacio) nights typically begin with an hour of un-beat-matched songs that, Twitch says, "are about setting up an atmosphere for the dancing to commence. After that, if there is something I want to play that can't be beat-matched, I won't really worry about it and will happily cut to something completely different, but not just for the sake of it."
With an eclectic, freestyle DJ like Twitch, one wonders if there are any genres he won't touch and what elements are crucial in tracks that form his sets. Surely there must be limits. Twitch's criteria couldn't be simpler: "If I like it, I'll play it. I look for music that moves me or that has a certain energy I like. While I don't like using the term 'soul,' I'd say everything I play has to have been made with passion for the music."
That passion amply blossoms on mixes like Optimo Present Psych Out, How to Kill the DJ (Part Two), and Mx6: Twitch's 60 Minutes of Fear. Psych Out reveals psychedelia's surprising expansiveness, with Optimo finding fortuitous connections within unlikely segues, such as the Stranglers' "Bear Cage" into Mr. Fingers' "Washing Machine" and Herbie Hancock's "Raindance" into Sweet Exorcist's "Mad Jack." How to Kill the DJ features unprecedented transitions like Miroslav Vitous/Soft Cell/Carl Craig and Nurse with Wound/Blondie/Ricardo Villalobos. The rampant stylistic shifts somewhat resemble those of Girl Talk, who's also playing Seattle this week, but Optimo delve deeper into the underground and don't cater to ADHD dancers like Gregg Gillis does.
Twitch has been DJing since the 1980s, but he has no secret tricks that guide his crate-digging.
"I spend an inordinate amount of my life seeking out music both old and new. My intuition guides me. A valuable lesson I have learned is to not chase the records everyone else is playing and to pay as little attention as possible to what everyone else seems to be doing. I don't feel part of any scene (nor would I want to), and while it can be hard not to be influenced by anyone else, I truly just try to plow my own furrow."
With such a varied palette at his disposal, Twitch could lay down almost anything at his Seattle date. Care to let us know what's in store at Re-bar, Mr. McIvor?
"I have no idea what I will play anywhere until I get there and get a feel for what is going on," he reasonably responds. "The differences between what I play at Optimo and elsewhere can be vast or not that different. I feel very fortunate that I get booked to play at disco clubs, techno clubs, rock 'n' roll nights, house clubs, psychedelic nights, and even on the odd occasion punk-rock gigs. It keeps things interesting and challenging for me, and I like that I can usually pull off playing completely different styles.
"Usually, however, most of the sets I play are more similar to what I play at Optimo, although there is some crazy shit I play at Optimo that I might not be able to play elsewhere, as it took our crowd a long time to fall in love with it and it probably wouldn't work outside that context. Also, there is a big strain of pop music that runs through Optimo nights that I might cut out elsewhere. Finally, we often play a section of dancehall at Optimo, and I tend to only do that there."
Finally, I must ask: Twitch, what's the stupidest thing anyone's said to you while you were working?
"I could write a book on this subject. All the usuals, such as being asked to play something more funky while playing James Brown, but my favorite is this guy who kept on pestering me while I was in the middle of a mix. I gestured to him that I was busy, but he wouldn't get out of my face. Finally, in exasperation, I muted the monitors and asked him what he wanted. His answer: 'Two vodkas and Coke and a whisky please.' The stupidest thing a punter has done is set off a tear-gas canister on the dance floor. That happened at a club in Madrid. I went back again a year later, and it happened again!"
Seattle: Please leave the explosives to Twitch, okay?