Optimo's JD Twitch on Nihilism, Hedonism, and Bargain Bins
Photo courtesy the artist.

Optimo's JD Twitch on Nihilism, Hedonism, and Bargain Bins

“You could get these records very easily back then mainly because no one wanted to buy them!”
08 February 2016, 5:15pm

Keith McIvor's been reconfiguring dancefloors across the world for the last thirty years now. Best known for being one half of Optimo, along with Jonnie Wilkes, McIvor—or JD Twitch as you probably know him— the DJ, remixer and compiler is a man with a record collection so vast and wide ranging that it's essentially an electronic music Library of Alexandria. Not content with playing mind-bending sets that incorporate everything from blunt-edged minimalism to skronking and screeching disco-not-disco obscurities weekend after weekend, McIvor's just announced the release of a brand new two disc set of 80s industrial and EBM destroyers.

Read: JD Twitch's So Low is a creeping, crawling, late night masterpiece

Born out of a sporadically thrown party in Glasgow, So Low sees McIvor connect the dots between Chris & Cosey and Conrad Schnitzler, expertly weaving together sixteen track's worth of dark and stark synth-heavy analogue workouts that exist in a generic no man's land that he thinks of as, "head-fuck" music. To celebrate the upcoming release of the compilation, THUMP called Twitch to talk about escapism, nihilism, and hedonism. Oh, and 99p bargain bin finds.

THUMP: Do you find that having the license that your legacy gives you to make these compilations is a luxury?
JD Twitch: It's a total luxury. I'm very fortunate that I'm in a position where I can go to someone like the Vinyl Factory with an idea and they're prepared to do it. That's a privilege and a luxury, and it's a buzz to be able to do these kind of things. This was what I was DJing just before house and techno came into being. At the time it was incredibly unpopular and people really didn't like it. Especially here in the UK, there was a backlash against music with drum machines, a kind of 'Keep Music Real' thing and people just didn't get it. A couple of years later house and techno came along and the landscape totally changed. Suddenly everyone was very willing to accept music made with machines.

What was it that people didn't like about this intentionally synthetic, intentionally inhuman music?
Part of it was an actual campaign started by the musician's union, who were terrified by the arrival of the sampler, thinking it'd put musicians out of business. You'd see musician's union car stickers! I remember people constantly coming up to me when I was playing the kind of records on this compilation and asking me what this drum machine stuff was. The idea of drum machines got people really angry! "This is not authentic! This is not real music!" But a few years later these very same people were completely embracing house music.

Was house the moment the drum machine stopped being the enemy?
Absolutely! The change was really, really fast. There's this myth that house was a London thing. It was happening all over the country. People all over were incorporating it into their sets. Then there was momentum and enough house records to have clubs that only played it. Sure there's the synergy with the emergence of ecstasy, but the whole thing caught on very, very quickly. People who refused to embrace electronic music were suddenly embracing it. Like punk, it felt like year zero. People got rid of their old records and only bought house ones.

With the music on this compilation, was it easy back then, in 1987, to get hold of these records? Was there a good distribution network?
You wouldn't hear it on the radio, but there was a great music press back then. There was a paper called Sounds and they embraced it. You could get these records very easily back then, mainly because no one wanted to buy them! There was a great distribution network, lots of record shops, and a lot of the records on this compilation which are now worth a lot of money on Discogs used to be in the 99p section because no wanted them. Around that time I spent a lot of time in Europe, in France and Belgium and picked up a lot of records there. These were records that were freely available at the time.

When you were playing Front 242 stuff out in clubs, did people attune to that kind of sound? Was there an audience ready and willing to accept very dark, heavy, punishing music?
I liked scaring the dance floor. We called it head-fuck music. The audience was very small, and the difference back then was that the goth thing was big so you had people coming out to hear alternative music. This wasn't quite what they wanted but it was the only place for them. They'd come to the night but not many of them would like the music. You'd have a busy club but people would patently have preferred to hear something else. But they felt slightly like they belonged there. There was a small group of people passionately into it, but that was small. I was very jealous of what was going on in Europe because it was so much more a part of their culture. When I went to Brussels in the late-80s, there were 1000 capacity clubs where you'd hear this music. I couldn't understand why Britain was so resistant to it. Now, though, this stuff is infinitely more popular than it was. There's something about this stuff that sounds great now. Some of those records sound better now than they did then.

Why is that? Is it the minimalism? The starkness?
Oh, that's part of it. It is very stark. Another part of it is people like music made with machines, analogue music. There are people now trying to make music that sounds like it and I generally don't get down with it, because the reason the original stuff sounds like that is because that was what was available to them at the time. If other technology had been available it would have sounded totally different and it seems strange to me that you'd want to ape something from the past. It's fine to be inspired by the sounds of the past while trying to do something contemporary with them, but when it becomes a fetishization of the retro, I'm not keen.

Not to try and sound like a first year cultural studies student, but do you think the starkness, the rawness of these records and this kind of music, is reflective of the current global climate? Does it speak to the nihilism that most of us approach the world with?
Definitely. There's a parallel with the world now to the world that existed when these records were made. It was a harsh time. Current music doesn't reflect the current world as much as this stuff did then, perhaps. Perhaps there is something from a cultural point of view in thinking that these records speak to us now. I don't think all art or all music should be like that, but there's a certain responsibility to absorb what's going on around you and transmit that back through creativity. It shouldn't all be like that but there is an odd lack, in music, of actual reflection on the world. There's a lot of escapism. Escapism is fine but there should be some kind of reflection on what's going on around us.

When you're playing out do you feel a responsibility to aid with escapism?
I think that the goal of going out is to escape. It would feel disingenuous to force something down people's throats. There's ways to do that, certainly, and to engender a conversation, but most people don't go to a club to be confronted with the moral issues of the day. I don't want to preach to people. Fundamentally, I'm there to give people as good a time as possible. That's my raison d'etre. People have come out, paid their money, and they want to have fun, and I embrace that. But if I can turn them onto something new then that's great. Fundamentally it's about giving people a good time.

So Low a_rrives on vinyl, CD and digital download on February 19th via the Vinyl Factory. More information can be found here._

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