Few people have had as defining an impact on Scottish dance music as Keith McIvor. At the risk of sounding like an about-page bulletpoint list, he has done a load for the scene over more than three decades. His work as one half of Optimo saw him run Glasgow’s most iconic club night, Sub Club’s Optimo (Espacio) for 15 years. Solo duties as a selector, remixer and label-owner under his JD Twitch alias have been no less influential, both in Scotland and across the UK. He went from 90s techno night Pure to frequent sets he still plays, everywhere from Sub Club to Corsica Studios. Oh, OK one last thing: he also releases tracks through his label, Optimo Music.
Now, McIvor is set to showcase his soundtracking skills for the first time on Beats, a new film about the 90s rave scene (released last Friday the 17th of May). Set in 1994, the film’s chronology coincides with that year's much-reviled Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which criminalised parties featuring music “characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. The bill aimed to curb the rave movement as it had swept the UK and unwittingly politicised a generation of party-goers, leading to wide-scale demonstrations in London. While it's easy for Londoners to think most of the backlash to the bill unravelled in the capital, Beats sets its sights in central Scotland. The film unfolds against a bleak post-industrial, pre-devolution landscape, captureing a time when rave’s escapism was particularly vital.
But we're here for the music. And understandably, the soundtrack was always going to be of vital importance to everyone involved. On it, McIvor has more than risen to the occasion, curating a treasure trove of tracks from artists like LFO, Plastikman, The Prodigy, Liquid Liquid, Hudson Mohawke and Orbital. Over a phone call from Glasgow, McIvor talked us through his musical choices for Beats, his experiences of the Scottish rave scene and his latest record label venture, Against Fascism Trax.
VICE: Hi! How did you become involved with Beats?
JD Twitch: The director Brian Welsh and the producer Camilla Bray originally approached both of us [McIvor and Jonnie Wilkes] as Optimo. Through conversation we decided it was better if just I did it, because I was very active during the era the film was set in. It was a very interesting project to me personally because I lived through it. There have been so many films about that era that have been done badly, and this one looked like it was going to be an interesting adaptation.
In what ways is the Scottish setting significant to Beats – what makes the film different from a similar story set in another part of the UK?
I think the story could be set anywhere in the UK because rave happened everywhere. I think it’s attuned to Scotland, though, because it was a particularly traumatic time of economic upheaval there that is alluded to throughout the film. The two protagonists are working class boys from a town in central Scotland at a time when the future’s of these areas looked fairly bleak.
Beats is set in 1994, just a few years before the Optimo party started in Glasgow. What do you remember of the Criminal Justice Bill's effect had in Scotland?
It was a really ridiculous and kind of unenforceable law in the long run. It did have one benefit in that up until that point the rave era had been hedonistic but quite apolitical. The apathy of the people I knew was depressing, but out of self-interest people became politicised because they could see that this was impacting their life. It felt like the end of innocence in raving. People in the early rave era kind of felt how people must have felt in the early 1960s in the Summer of Love, that it was a dawn of a new age and people were finding new ways to live their lives. The Criminal Justice Bill made that naivety collapse.
What was the atmosphere in Scotland at the time?
The bill didn’t have such a massive effect here because there weren’t so many illegal parties. The police at parties that I went to would just take away all of the equipment. Not only would that shut down the party but the economics of that would make it hard for people to put on parties in the future. Generally people didn’t have very many resources, so if you took away their turn-tables or their sound system then that was a very effective way of stopping these parties. There was a backlash in that people got more creative in trying to find more places to do events that the police would maybe not find out.
How did you decide the songs on the soundtrack?
Through an endless conversation with Brian. I started off making mixes that I would send to him and certain things would catch his ear. Over the course of a two year period I literally sent him a couple of thousand pieces of music. From the very beginnings of our conversations I was always pushing for it to be more out there, and he was bringing it back to a more mainstream centre, so it was a very good collaboration. There were some things in the soundtrack though that were not my choices at all, that we had these passionate but friendly arguments about. It was a collaboration: if it had been completely mine to do what I wanted with it would probably have been very different to what the soundtrack ended up being.
What are some of your standout tracks?
There’s two in particular I was really happy we got in there. One was this track “Gravitational Arch Of 10” by Vapourspace and the other is called “Desire” by 69, which is a Carl Craig alias. They were both incredibly important pieces of music to me at that time – and are to this day – and they show techno at its most psychedelic and its most beautiful. There’s also a kind of in-joke from Brian. In one of the scenes he uses the song “Optimo" by a band called Liquid Liquid from New York, which is actually where Optimo took its name from.
Late last year you founded Against Fascism Trax, an imprint raising funds for the battle against the far-right. Can you tell me more about this?
We live in a time where people endlessly talk online but it gets to a point where you have to do something rather than say something. It’s a small music label and the money from selling records goes to Hope not Hate, a UK organisation that fights against fascism and racism. I just hope somebody will buy one of these records and read what it says on the sleeve and change their mind about what they were thinking before.
How do you see the AF Trax project developing?
There’s an incredible amount of people getting in touch with other things that can be done in relation to it, and I’ve been encouraging that. And then there’s also lots of other people who have been inspired by the label and gone off and done their own thing. I’ve been approached by a number of people doing events and there’s a festival in Poland called Unsound that I think I’m going to collaborate with. Their theme for this year is “solidarity” and they’ve asked me to come up with a concept around that.
Cool, look forward to hearing more. Thanks!
'Beats' is out now and soundtrack can be ordered. More info at beats.film.