Celebrating 25 Years of Optimo

One of the country’s most cherished parties has reached a quarter of a century – cause for a new compilation and a wee chat with one half of the duo behind Optimo, Jonnie Wilkes

Article by Peter Walker | 17 Jan 2024
  • Optimo

What is it with Glasgow and long-running club nights? Harri and Domenic are nearing 30 years of Subculture, Orde and Stuart have put on Pressure for almost as long, and now Keith and Jonnie are celebrating 25 years of Optimo. On the eve of an anniversary compilation from the latter DJ duo, we had the chance to ask exactly that. 

“We ran the party every week for 12 and half years, and it was a residency in the truest sense, as we really weren't booking many guests, but yeah, Harri and Domenic have been going forever, and Slam have been together since the 80s,” says Jonnie Wilkes. “I think it’s the tradition that Mike [owner of the Sub Club] comes from, he feels that it’s important to have someone trusted at the helm on certain nights, someone who knows the room and the soundsystem, someone that really knows their crowd; it makes for something special.” What he’s described is exactly what Wilkes and his musical partner Keith McIvor have developed over the last quarter of a century. But of course, it wasn’t always that way.

Before Optimo, Wilkes threw parties at The Glasgow School of Art, while McIvor (AKA JD Twitch) was running the legendary Pure at Edinburgh's The Venue, alongside previous partner Brainstorm. As Wilkes tells it, he would catch buses that were put on to the club from Glasgow and he got chatting to McIvor via shared friends. As Pure wound down towards the end of the 90s, McIvor was offered Sundays at the Sub Club, and decided to create something more musically diverse than the straight techno night he had become increasingly lumbered with. “He’d been thinking about a party playing other parts of his record collection and knew I had similar ideas about what a club night could be,” remembers Wilkes. “Pure had gotten very male-dominated and the fun was being sucked from the dancefloor at the end of the 90s – the sound was quite linear and it felt a rather isolating experience."

In the early days, they’d be lucky to get 100 people in the 500-capacity room, so there was much rearranging of furniture to make it feel more intimate. But despite a slow start, Mike Grieve liked the vibe and stuck with them. “About 18 months in, one week there were just considerably more people there – 200 or 300 – and after that, we had the place filled every Sunday,” Wilkes explains. “It was a bit of an anomaly – there still aren’t many popular Sunday nights – but people planned their week around it...”

With such a long run – the Sub Club residency spanned 550 nights from November 1997 to April 2010 – it’s been almost impossible to distil into a compilation. “I think we’ve done more than 2,000 parties and no two have been the same, so it’s impossible to make something definitive,” admits Wilkes. “Like with previous compilations, we’ve tried to pepper it with records that we love and seem applicable to an Optimo experience. Of course, there are inevitable disappointments when putting something like this together, due to the licensing, as not everything you want gets cleared, but I’m really pleased with how it’s come together.”

If this all sounds like the ending of an era, then that’s very much not the plan. Post-pandemic, Optimo is in rude health, with a renewed Glasgow residency at the Berkeley Suite, a touring schedule that’s as busy as it’s ever been and their very own festival, Watching Trees. “We both feel incredibly fortunate to be doing what we’re doing, playing the places we do,” comments Wilkes. “We’re so glad to have something regular in Glasgow again – it’s a really diverse crowd, with a feeling that so many people look forward to it every few months – and because it’s literally a few minutes from our houses, it feels like home. 

“As for Watching Trees, it's very DIY, only 500 people, but having gone to a lot of festivals we always had ideas about how we’d do it, so when the opportunity arose with Ransom Note we gave it a go and managed to pull it off. 

“We were certainly flying by the seat of our pants, but it was one of the most fulfilling things we’ve ever done,” says Wilkes, adding that next year’s edition is moving to a new site in Wiltshire as a 24-hour event with camping, with plans to expand to a full weekend the following year. “Such a lovely crowd, no dickheads,” he mentions, which kind of feels like an apt description of all they’ve achieved.

Optimo 25 is released on 2 Feb via Above Board