The Sub Club: 25 Years
The Sub Club turns 25-years-old this month, and though the Jamaica Street basement is but four crimson walls and a set of speakers, its continued existence – precarious and itinerant as it has sometimes been over the last quarter century – has been a mirror to electronic music's adolescence and new-found adulthood in Scotland and, indeed, far beyond these borders.
Before 'the Subby', as most of the locals know it, settled into its Jamaica Street nest in 1987, its founding residents were in thrall to a seismic shift in Glasgow. Dropped amid a stew of genres that predated house music ("early hip-hop, electro, reggae, soul, Northern soul, New Order, stuff like that," as James Harrigan, better known as Harri and now one-half of weekly residency Subculture, describes it), ecstasy had arrived in Glasgow, a catalyst that ripened the city's appetite for club culture – and the embryonic sounds of house music – quite literally.
"A new night called UFO [at which Harri was a resident alongside Hacienda's John Da Silva, Adrian Rennie and Funk D'Void] which was in Tin Pan Alley… really kicked off because ecstasy had just hit Glasgow big time, and that place was just bananas, that was just amazing. They were serving up fresh fruit slices and everybody was off their tits, and the whole place was just mental."
Some time afterwards in 1990, Harri had been invited to launch Atlantis at the Sub Club with Stuart [MacMillan, one half of legendary techno duo Slam], an initially middling night which, thanks to the Stone Roses, soon rose to prominence.
"Stuart and myself got asked to do the Stone Roses, they were doing this thing at Glasgow Green. To be honest, neither of us had heard of the Stone Roses but everyone was like 'this is going to be massive, this band is massive.'
"Atlantis had had five to six weeks of 200 people in, but after the Stone Roses gig it was queued around the block for four years."
By the mid 90s the Sub Club's contemporary nucleus had begun to take shape. Domenic Capello became a resident in 1993, joining Harri soon after to start Subculture after Atlantis was wound-up the following year; Optimo (Espacio) launched in 1997, redressing a balance that had started to tip towards house and techno.
And then suddenly, in 1999, the music stopped. A fire in the neighbouring building had caused enough damage to wipe the Sub Club dancefloor of bodies for three years. In the interim, the Sub Club staff found themselves hosting nights at Planet Peach (of which Sub Club director Paul Crawford says: "The name says it all. It actually had peach shaped tables, and when I asked the guy that owned the place why, he said it's because it looks like a woman's arse. So that gives you a kind of idea what the place was like."), and later in Mas, by which point Crawford had become exhausted by promises that the club would reopen "in a few months". In addition, the death of former Sub Club owner Kenny MacCrimmon complicated a proposed buyout involving Crawford and Mike Grieve, now also a director at the Sub Club. The club eventually reopened in late 2002, but not before things had reached breaking point.
"I think Mike and I had about four nervous breakdowns, went to the point of absolutely killing each other, and everyone else that we knew at the time. But we managed to get there. I think it was probably about 20 times that both of us thought that 'this is never going to happen'. But we persevered, with sheer determination, because so many obstacles came up. Both of us had such a belief in what we were doing, and a drive to make the club a million times better than it had been previously."
Such patience, a virtue that seems rather lost on countless other nightclubs, and perhaps electronic music in general, is emblematic of how the Sub Club had come to survive such a profound existential funk. Keith McIvor, better known as JD Twitch and one half of Optimo, attributes this patience to the very existence of the storied Optimo, a weekly club night that ran every Sunday, without interruption, for 12 years.
"Optimo wasn't successful when it started. It took a long time, a couple years, before people really started getting it.
"Most other clubs would've booted you out by then because you weren't getting the numbers in. I think the Sub Club have a very, very long term view. Another thing that's important about why Subculture and Optimo lasted so long, is because although lots of great guests played, fundamentally both nights were based around residents. If you have a night where the residents are the focus, it gives the clubs an identity.
"There are lots of clubs where they have great guests and a great warm-up DJ, but they never really get their personality across because it's different every time, because the guest is a dominant part of the night."
The phoenix descends
As motivational missives go, "work like fuck" is as direct and to-the-point as you would expect of a club that reflects Glasgow's unpretentious, matter-of-fact way. As if to further emphasise the point, Barry Price, a director at the Sub Club since 2008, is at something of a loss to expand beyond a hard and fast rule that he cites as central to the club's longevity.
"I'm trying to think of something monumental but, just work like fuck. Work all the time is basically what we do. It's constant and non-stop. You're no longer a human being, you're just the club, like an inanimate object.
"Basically," adds Price, "work hard."
Beyond the stock answers ("I hate saying these things without sounding really cheesy, but so many clubs come and go and look for the quick buck or follow a certain trend"), Price's outline of the Sub Club's general strategy for selecting guests is refreshingly free of self-mythologising, Svengali-esque sophistry.
"You put on someone like Maya Jane Coles or Julio Bashmore, then you're going to get a lot of people coming down because they're kind of hypey guests and you need to get these guys in, first of all because they're interesting guys int the scene. But you always have to keep your eye on the trends now; it doesn't mean you follow a bandwagon or whatever, but if somebody fits into the remit of what you're interested in and you're excited to hear them, then that's why you book them."
It's telling, though, that the youngest of the Sub Club's current staff, 23-year-old press and digital manager Chris Duncan, is most in thrall of one of the most established heads on the roster, Domenic Capello.
"Quite recently, Domenic's last half hour at the night with Ralph Lawson (20:20 Vision vs Subculture in February) [has been one of my favourite moments]. [Domenic] came on after [Lawson] – I know the two of them have a one-upmanship when they play – and then Domenic came on and just absolutely wiped the floor with him, and I found that really entertaining."
Otherwise, Duncan shares Price's outlook on striking a balance between booking artists du jour and DJs who have previous with the club. Of the degree to which the Sub Club reflects the wider UK soundscape, Duncan references artists like Nicolas Jaar and Julio Bashmore, but is just as aware of the club's lineage as anyone.
"We've been going for 25 years so we have relationships with certain artists from way back like Lil Louis and Andrew Weatherall, those are two names that go right back. While they're not producing new albums just now, they're still relevant to the club because they are the ones who influence a lot of the other artists we see and they're ingrained in our history."
"It was the build-up to it," says McIvor, breathlessly recalling Optimo's final night in April 2010, 'Optimogeddon', "because we announced about eight weeks before that we were gonna stop doing the weekly night, and there was this just kind of mania, that kind of build-up and the last eight weeks…it was just insane. Everyone that had ever been that was able to go had wanted to go and people had started queueing from lunch time.
"We put up this sign saying 'please don't queue', and me and Jonnie [Wilkes, aka JG Wilkes] arrived to set up, and just as we arrived there, a bar next to the Sub Club called The Crystal Palace was packed with everyone who was waiting to start queueing. Someone must have said 'right, I'm going to start queueing', and the whole pub was just running up the street and there was this queue, the most enormous queue I've ever seen outside the Sub Club in my life. We were pretty overwhelmed."
Glasgow has changed in the two years since, however incrementally: of late, dubstep and so-called 'UK bass music' have become conspicuous tenants in a city that, until recently, has always been quicker to embrace European and American influences. That said, this month's Optimo 2.0, an official return of sorts to their seminal residency, arrives not in a vacuum or a sepia-toned nostalgia trip, but rather with a renewed hunger to return to a city close to the duo's hearts.
"Something we always get asked at every interview, is like 'Where's the best place to play?' and people say something like 'New York'. The best place to play is in Scotland, maybe Ireland as well. There's something about those peoples when they go for a night out, they just give it everything and we get the best atmosphere, and we really miss playing at home.
"What brought it back home was this old friend of mine posted on our bulletin board: 'When are you guys gonna start doing something in Glasgow? It's actually easier for me to go to London to see you play together', which is faintly ridiculous.
"We felt like the time was right to do a handful [of nights] which would be like five or six things over the course of the year, and it also felt right not to do it on the Sundays, for it to be something a little bit different.
"It'll still be Optimo, but it won't be us doing exactly what we were doing then."
And indeed, it's a maxim by which the Sub Club itself also seems to operate, one of evolution rather than revolution; one which long-standing nights such as Subculture and Optimo are perhaps best placed to take forward into the lost nights, half-remembered months and ultimately unforgettable years to come.