Tenement Tapes: An interview with Keith McIvor

by Conor Walker, Audio Preservation Engineer, UOSH 

The following is part of series for World Audiovisual Heritage Day 2020, where people were given the opportunity by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage team at National Library of Scotland to listen to recordings that they had not been able to listen to for a long time, asking them to reflect on listening in to the past.

As a recent Glasgow blow-in I first saw Keith McIvor (JD Twitch) between sets at the Old Hairdressers during a Zoviet France and O Yuki Conjugate night in 2019. He played a Frank Harris & Maria Marquez avant-pop rendition of the Venezuelan traditional “Canto del Pílon” (1985). Uncannily fitting to the title, although a reference to the conical pílonof sugarMarquez’ reinterpretation – accompanied by Harris’ synclavier escapades – evokes the pylon of an Egyptian temple leading through time, until a sequence of electricity pylons dot over the horizon. I mention this specific song because Keith has a knack for placing recordings into a space, which no matter how out of place they may seem to whatever else is occurring – in this case moments before the seminal industrialists Zoviet France took the stage – the contrasts break through as arrivals rather than disjunctures.   

Keith was at the forefront of two luminary club nights in Scotland. Pure, which for a decade throttled the techno-addled Edinburgh scene out of Thatcherism down a close lined with ecstasy (1990-2000). And Optimo (Espacio) (1997-2010), which has left an imprint on Glasgow’s underground that still informs the city’s multifaceted scenes.     

Keith also runs Optimo Music. As JD Twitch he has remixed the likes of Liquid Liquid, Konono No. 1, Charles Hayward of This Heat, Indoor Life, Harald Grosskopf and Steve Poindexter.   

For this interview, which we’re reclaiming as Tenement Tapes Day (known otherwise as Basement Tapes Day), Keith and I met in a park, where he handed-over a pair of cassette recordings from Freestyle with Twitch, his Subcity radio show in the 1990s, and an ostensibly random acetate disc pressed by Dubplates & Mastering in Berlin. As Keith no longer has a cassette player and acetate discs degrade effortlessly with each playback; and in lieu of being able to listen back to the material together at the National Library of Scotland’s magnetic tape and fragile disc studios in Kelvin Hall, I took the tapes and disc back to the studio for digitisation so Keith could have a listen back at home.  

This discussion is about Keith listening back to these recordings, but more broadly speaking, about listening back in general – how it engages and transforms memory in fashioning how we experience our surroundings, the agency we may or may not have, where archives fit in, and how the act of listening throws a much-needed spanner into the cadence determined by more rigid clocks in exposing deeper avenues of the self and our respect for the wider community as we move within it across time.   

Mid-1990s cassette recording of Keith’s Subcity radio show Freestyle with Twitch (aka Keep Those Dreams Burning).

Conor (C): Dance culture and the underground music scenes it sips from have been both a stalwart of inclusivity and praxis for developing diverse communities, and yet we also see capital and cultural capital siphoned to ensure power and influence remain in white, male and Global North hands. Many of us, myself included, learned about radical politics and lifestyles from outer jazz, Detroit techno, dub, and post-punk; and from going to raves and experiencing a diversity unavailable elsewhere. As someone who has spent your entire life in underground music, what are your thoughts on how dance culture navigates this struggle and how do we move forward to ensure histories aren’t appropriated, misrepresented and that marginalised communities have a seat at the table they created and have sustained for generations?  

Keith (K): I think ‘dance culture’ is too broad a church to be able to navigate this struggle. There are in fact multiple dance cultures that have as much in common with each other as, for example free jazz does to muzak. I feel people often expect them to act as a unified, united whole when in fact, this is an impossibility. The mainstream of dance culture is a machine designed to generate money and fame. It doesn’t and won’t care about anything beyond this, as it is capitalism incarnate and capitalism doesn’t care about diversity nor does it relinquish power unless it is of economic benefit. Mainstream dance culture may make a few vague concessions to diversity but only because it may be expedient to do so.  

Despite this, the so-called underground gets upset by this, when I feel they should expect nothing from mainstream dance culture, ignore it and come to the realisation it is a separate world. I also think the sooner the underground stops aspiring to embrace the tropes of mainstream dance culture the better. So-called undergrounds are much, much better at navigating all this when they devote less energy to trying to make the mainstream change and stop seeing the mainstream as some sort of mirror image.  

Then perhaps the underground can focus more clearly on the massive amount of work needing to be done.  

C: Since 1662 UK book publishers are required under Legal Deposit to entrust their publications to six UK and Irish libraries, but these laws don’t extend to audio-visual content. When we first spoke, you mentioned you’re a ‘shit archivist’. How do you envision the music scenes you’ve participated in being preserved for future generations? Will this occur organically, due in large to collective memory, or do institutions need to step in to protect the legacy?  

K: Part of the reason I am a ‘shit archivist’ is I don’t think everything should be preserved. We live in an era of over documentation. Sometimes live music and the club experience are best not preserved, as recordings can only document part of the story. Most of my gigs weren’t recorded – whereas there have been gigs that were recorded, which have been very special, but that I have then declined to make available online because they only made sense in the moment. People listening back to them might notice and focus on technical imperfections that in the moment went unnoticed and didn’t matter, or musical juxtapositions that seem to not make sense, but as it occurred was exactly the right thing for the energy in the space.   

Of course, there are untold numbers of great and worthy documented live recordings, but not all will have that special x factor, and sometimes just the knowledge a set is being recorded will impact the outcome. I have long been a champion of the idea of collective memory, but as scenes I participated in stretch back several decades, I have concluded collective memory often forgets, mis-remembers or completely fades away.   

Perhaps institutions really do need to step in and protect the legacy. The issue then is what to preserve as there is such a vast amount of material and who is the judge of what is worthy of documentation?  

C: Because of its unyielding power and dynamism I have Sonny & Linda Sharrock’s Black Woman (1969) in my head. Falling in love with underground, outsider, experimental and counter-hegemonic recordings circulates an agency that feels inert across other societal paradigms, particularly in uncovering escape routes away from the status quo. Receiving that agency – and I suppose I’m even getting spiritual here – is the only mechanism I’ve found to cut through the alienation of how we’ve ordered our surroundings. During the pandemic our listening experience has become unhealthily private – we have the recorded past to dip into, it’s a restorative period for new music and we can experience live music through streams, but without gathering publicly, without the release of dancing and listening together, we are tormented and dismembered. I know we must wait for a time when it’s safe to reconvene, but what are your thoughts on this purgatorial period, especially in how it’s forcing the collective expression of music into dormancy?    

K: I have found it extremely challenging. It feels as if part of my soul has been ripped out. I first started going to gigs at twelve and am pretty sure from fifteen onwards I haven’t gone more than a couple of weeks without immersing into live music. I’ve played approximately 3000 DJ gigs over the years and two weeks is probably the longest I have gone without performing in three decades. Recently I was privileged to get a little taste of what I and many others have been missing when we did a very controlled, socially distanced event in Glasgow. Even though the audience had to remain seated and there was no dancing, no mingling and low volume, the atmosphere was palpable and we all got a vivid reminder of that communal, shared cultural experience when human beings gather, which we are so desperately missing. ‘Tormented’ is a good way to describe what life is like without the release of dancing and listening together. I am really struggling without it. I feel drained of energy; drained of life force. My passion in this life is sharing music and of course this can be done online, but it is nowhere near the same. And so yes, listening to music at home in these times can absolutely feel unhealthily private.  

C: You dropped off an unaccounted-for acetate disc. As you mentioned, you didn’t want to play it at home to find out what’s on it because the disc deteriorates each time the stylus graces its surface. The recordings may have gathered dust for a reason, in this case plasticiser (a white discharge that looks like mould), but it could also be something impeccable and crucial. Now that you’ve listened back to it, was it lost in the heap for a reason or is it an example of the necessity to preserve recordings?   

K: It remains a mystery. I already have all four tracks on vinyl; it makes no sense to then have them pressed on an acetate. Usually I would have at least a vague memory of something like this, but in this case the memory banks are blank. It was in the sleeve of another record, so it is not as if I knowingly kept it either.   

Keith’s mysterious acetate disc, pressed at Dubplates & Mastering in Berlin

C: The disc features four seemingly unrelated cuts; Miroslav Vitous’ “New York City”, 20th Century Steel Band’s “Heaven & Hell Is On Earth”, Cameo’s “Money (Reese mix)” and Medium Medium’s Adrian Sherwood produced “Hungry So Angry”. Even though the final cut is about tensions in a relationship (maybe between Yoko and John?), it’s also a bright red brick into the window of Thatcher’s Britain. When I first heard it as a teenager, its beautifully punchy angst really struck a chord that still vibrates today. While listening back to the disc as it was transferred, I was again filled with this angst, but rather than feeling like it was a misplaced echo from youth, it felt utterly at home in this broken time of quicksand we are stuck in. Even though the disc turned out to be four seemingly random and published tracks, I’ve always appreciated how music follows us, catches backup and allows us to continue threads that keep haunting as we age. What are your feelings after relistening to these four cuts or maybe one of them stands out?  

K: Three of the four mean something significant to me. The Cameo track was played at Optimo, but was a really big anthem at Pure, and is definitely a track the regular attendees would feel as synonymous with me. Medium Medium was a teenage favourite of mine. I discovered them through being a Sherwood acolyte and I revived it at Optimo, while 20th Century Steel Band was one of the defining songs of the early Optimo era. Miroslav Vitous was to an extent a track played at Optimo and indeed was included on our first mix CD, but it’s a bit of an outlier here and just deepens the whole mystery behind this disc’s existence.  

Twitch DJ’ing at Pure in Edinburgh (c. 1996)

C: What memories surfaced while listening back to the cassettes from your Keep Your Dreams Burning radio show, which broadcasted on Subcity in the ‘90s?  

K: They have brought back vivid memories of the two locations on Park Circus where I did the show from. Most of the shows were out of a mews building behind what was then the original Glasgow University Maclay Halls of Residence. My show was at night, I think maybe 10:00 pm until whenever I wanted to stop. A friend of mine made some jingles and there was a machine to play these, but otherwise the set up was very basic. I never knew if anyone was listening but learned from friends at local record shops that quite a few people would come in to ask for records I played on the show. Since those years I have heard from a lot of people who said they listened. It is worth noting that Subcity had a temporary license to broadcast, and the transmitter could be picked up quite far outside Glasgow.  

The other location, a year later, in 1997/8 was a top floor flat on Park Circus, which Glasgow Uni must have owned. I think I only did one show from that location as I accidentally got locked in and despite making appeals on-air nobody came to let me out until late the next morning. I think that put me off continuing, but it was also around the time Optimo started and all my attention was redirected into it.  

I do remember a great sense of freedom to do whatever I wanted, and it was doing this that helped formulate the notion that a club night could feature all sorts of music – way beyond the sphere of what was generally perceived ‘club music’. Part of the inspiration for the genesis of the Optimo club night definitely came out of these radio shows.  

C: A lot of the content in these tapes, alongside more obscure material, are now canonised underground classics; New Order, Suicide, Television, The Stooges, Spiritualized, Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra, Can, etc. With the incredible access to our recorded past unleashed by the internet, we now have a tendency to rewrite music history, determining something as a classic, for example, even though at the time of its release it may have sunk into obscurity. The list of artists are all seminal in their own right, many of whom were also massive successes in their day, but now we can very easily delve into the most forgotten and neglected material. I am guilty of this, as are many DJs. After listening back to these cassettes, what are your thoughts around this abrupt acceleration in access and experiencing recorded music?  

K: It was quite unusual to hear this music at the time. I think my show was a bit different to anything else on Subcity. Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (1997 Dedicated) was just released – but Suicide, Television, The Stooges, Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra – they were mostly forgotten and felt quite out of fashion at that point. Most of my club audience would probably not have been familiar with any of them. At that time Can records were next to impossible to find in Glasgow. It’s around when I think I found my first Neu! album in Glasgow. I was looking for one for over a decade. Neu! were this mythical band that I had no way of hearing; I used to imagine what they might actually be like. It was such a different time from today. It is hard to get over just how difficult it was to hear and access lots of music; a lot of patience was required – It took fifteen years from when I first read about Fela Kuti until I finally heard a Fela Kuti album. I was going to say it might as well have been in the previous millennium, but of course it really was!  

Now almost the entirety of recorded music is at our fingertips, if you know where to look. I would never suggest that people don’t appreciate music as much today, but it is easy not to cherish it as much and to constantly be seeking out the next obscure record that would just never have been on anyone’s radar back then. Despite playing some artists that are now regarded as canonical on my show, in general I have always had quite an anti-canonical stance, but today there are many music freaks who don’t even know what the canon is, which is perhaps as it should be. A canon only exists because it is decreed to be so, often by self-appointed gatekeepers. I know experts on, let’s say, Latvian samizdat 80s synth pop or Indonesian Rock In Opposition (RIO) cassettes, who have never heard Pink Floyd. I’m not making a judgement, just noting this acceleration in access throws up previously unimaginable ways of approaching, discovering, judging and appreciating music from literally every corner of the planet.   

C: I appreciate when people know when to end something they love – whether it’s a band, a label or a club night. Regarding mortality, there is something genuine and biologically relatable to the acute awareness of lifecycles. Why did Optimo (Espacio) come to an end?  

K: It was time. We were travelling almost every weekend to play all over the world, but almost without exception we would find a way to get back to play every Sunday in Glasgow. Once we even played in Tokyo on a Saturday night, until 7:00 am, went straight to the airport and due to the time difference made it back to play Optimo at the Sub Club. But it started to get too much and one of the things about the weekly club was that we put so much love and energy into it and the ability to devote that on the level required was starting to diminish with all the touring. I also wanted to do other things, such as run a label, and it was important for the club to end on a high, rather than dwindling away. It was incredible it lasted over twelve years, and that each week, it was still the best club I had ever been to. It felt like it was only a matter of time before the odds had to stack up against it.