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JD Twitch: Politics of the Dance Floor

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March 2015 marked the 30th anniversary of the formal end of UK Miners’ Strike, 1984 – 1985; one of the last great moments of class struggle in British history, its bitter end signalled a decisive shift in power to the state and against working class organisations.

Perfectly timed, the release of Pride in 2014 tells the inspiring and ultimately tragic story of the London section of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), a group of activists who – as the name suggests – raised money in support of striking miners and their families during the dispute. Their most successful fundraising event was a one-off club night called Pits and Perverts, the name reclaimed from a nasty attack on the group in The Sun newspaper. Held at Camden’s Electric Ballroom and featuring performances by popular synth-pop acts including Bronski Beat, the night raised £5,000 for the benefit of communities bravely attempting to continue surviving in the most trying of circumstances.

But there was another aspect to LGSM’s activities, one beyond raising (very necessary) money: their acts of solidarity were so warmly received by the mining communities they helped that the favour was returned, and the cause of LGBT rights was finally taken up by the British labour movement.

It was the events of 1984 – 1985 that first politicised JD Twitch (Keith McIvor) – alongside JG Wilkes (Jonnie Wilkes), one-half of Glasgow’s cult party-throwers Optimo – and while it would be difficult to draw a direct line of comparison between LGSM’s activism and the recent work of his Autonomous Africa label, there is a similar sense of dual purpose at play.

Successfully walking a potentially tricky tightrope – lest accusations of wanting to be Bono or Bob Geldof or suggestions of cultural appropriation be thrown about – Autonomous Africa has used record releases and the occasional party to raise money for various worthy charities in a number of countries on the continent, while being very clear about the causes of the poverty that afflicts many of these nations: capitalist exploitation and neocolonialism, hence the need for a truly autonomous Africa. Closer to home, March 13th saw the second Autonomous Glasgow event, held to raise money for food banks in the city. In an interview before the event, Twitch and Wilkes made their position on the issue very clear: “It is unacceptable that food banks should need to exist [but] until we have a society where they are no longer required it seems necessary to do something to help.” Bringing together Glasgow-based acts including Dixon Avenue Basement Jams, Sub Club stalwarts Harri & Domenic and, of course, Optimo, the night raised over £6,000.

For those of us who wish to see an increasingly soulless and corporate nightlife rejuvenated, the radical roots of club culture revived, there is a lot to be learnt, and the (continuing!) legacy of Optimo provides a good place to start. In this short interview, JD Twitch gives some insight into what drives him and these projects, from his politicisation during the aforementioned Miners’ Strike through to the political situation in Scotland today.

There often seems to be the tacit assumption that the dance floor is simply a space of hedonistic consumption and escapism, to what extent can it also be a space used to further political or social goals?

JD: I think forcing anything on an audience is probably never a good idea but there is most certainly room for club nights that have a slightly deeper agenda than just being a location to get out of one’s mind and dance. Personally I had always looked for more in a club that it just being somewhere to go and dance which is perhaps why Optimo was the way it was, but even then we were never ramming our thoughts on things down our audience’s throats as apart from anything, I guess we’d have taken it away from the key thing that is most important in a club which is often forgotten which is of course that they are meant to be fun! Over the years we had had many fundraising nights at the club and in our own perhaps subliminal way tried to get across a message of solidarity, community and how important it is to think for one’s self so when we stopped doing Optimo weekly, I think I missed that community and the positivity there had been so that in part inspired me to do things like start Autonomous Africa. It also inspired me to start to perhaps be more open to expressing how I felt about certain issues and to try to do more events that could also help the local community in Glasgow.

Would you consider nights like Autonomous Glasgow simply fun parties held to raise money for a good cause, or do they serve secondary purpose, perhaps in educating people about issues like the rising levels of food poverty as a result of austerity?

JD: Here in Scotland we are living in a very unique time. The referendum politicised the country like no other event I can think of. It was akin to a mini revolution, a revolution of thought and awareness at the very least and despite the outcome resulting in the status quo being maintained, as can be seen from the media furore over the general election results here, things are very different from how they were a year ago. People have woken up and started to realise they do have the power to change things when they come together in large numbers and that the current system is no longer working or acceptable.

I always try to talk with as many people as possible when we do our nights here, mainly while hanging out in the smoking area, and the way those conversations have changed over the last year have been incredible. Where once it would have been pleasant small talk, now it is often about quite deep and complex issues and even more frequently talk of how things have to change and how that can be accomplished. In bars, on buses, in the streets and parks, one is always overhearing political discussions; I wish this fever could spread across the border – it has been truly exhilarating and while the peak was no doubt during the referendum, this energy has not fully dissipated by any means.

Because of all this, here in Glasgow, it would be almost patronising to try to educate people as they are already educated! The audience is however incredibly receptive and the most inspiring thing about our fundraisers is how many young people have come who are completely fired up and find the existence of foodbanks completely unacceptable. These events have felt akin to a political rally even though there has only ever been the briefest interlude on a microphone thanking people for coming and informing them that as far as we are concerned this is a fight that must go on. So, without having to say anything very much at all, people are fired up and inspired simply by coming together to do their bit to help.

Would you say there is a social function – or at least the possibility of a social function – to the dance floor, creating a sense of solidarity and collectivity, and if so does this end when the night is over, the dance floor cleared?

JD: Optimo, the club, which ran weekly for nearly 13 years was to my mind the epitome of this; a space for people to come together and share far more than just a night dancing to music. It was a genuine community where strong and lasting bonds were formed between people. Somehow without any overt or obvious agenda coming from us we managed to get this feeling across through our attitude to how the night should be and people ran with it and in turn it became this weird feedback loop where the audience were in control as much, if not more than we were over the kind of social space it became. In our case it didn’t end when the dance floor cleared or even when we stopped doing it as a weekly club. That solidarity goes on, partly through people who were inspired by the night or who met creative partners there and continue to pursue a course to this day as a result of the community that built up around the night.

I’m not sure if it is something anyone could set out to create. In Optimo’s case I feel it was a result of several sets of circumstances related to time, place and attitude coming together and drawing in the right mix of people along with the fact that the club was run with the sole motivation being love for what we were doing and a general disregard for all the perceived rules of how a club night should be. Thankfully whatever the x factor is that can create spaces like this was not unique to Glasgow and I have been fortunate to encounter a handful of similar spaces around the world.

Having roots in post-punk and D.I.Y. (sub)cultures, where music was far more openly political – consider bands like Gang of Four – electronic music in contrast is often seen as politically quietist, or simply apolitical – would you say this is true? In terms of your own work, does the political nature of post-punk inform your productions – for example could you consider the act of naming a track after Rosa Luxemburg, or even your edit of Amadou et Mariam’s ‘Ce N’est Pas Bon’, as political interventions of a sort?

JD: I am actually too young to have my roots in DIY / Post Punk although that era has had a big influence on me and continues to inspire me. My political awakening came in my early teens, during the Miner’s strike, partly informed by events I personally witnessed and partly through the then music press and various artists I was a fan of writing and talking about and making music inspired by what was going on at that time.

I think the fact that electronic music is often largely instrumental makes it harder to have a political stance and also, perhaps music journalism these days can be a little less probing which means the political feelings of many artists are rarely discussed. There are certainly many electronic artists who are highly political minded though few I can think of in mainstream electronic music. I wouldn’t actually consider the tracks you mention to be political interventions. Obviously the Amadou & Mariam was released on Autonomous Africa which is a label with an explicit political stance but the track itself isn’t political. Something like “Rosa Luxemburg” was so titled as I find her endlessly interesting, so it was in tribute to that and maybe that would lead to the odd person Googling her name and finding out a bit more about her. I think a lot of artists are perhaps wary about talking about political issues lest they turn people off. I definitely was in the past but now don’t really care. It’s not as if I have a gigantic audience to alienate anyway!