The Optimist Way

A fusion of live music and DJs is drawing huge and diverse crowds to downtown Tucson every Thursday night

It's Thursday night at Club Congress. While nattily attired downtown denizens move under a sultry summer sky to the Latin rhythms and Spanish lyrics of Salvador Duran on the patio, inside the club, new combinations of sounds are being born in a musical cauldron.

Cultures aren't clashing so much as meshing. At the weekly party event known as Opti Club, you can hear up-and-coming live bands from around the world alternating sets with dance-music DJs, all while the audience dances its collective ass off.

Originally called the Optimist Club, the event began about eight years ago, organized by a University of Arizona art graduate student named Jessica Lansdon. Back then, it was more of a glorified house party.

Dan Hernandez, who attended some of those versions of the Optimist Club, took over the night in 2008, when Lansdon moved to San Francisco. As an entertainment booker at Club Congress, he sought out DJs and eventually live bands to make the evenings more inclusive.

Since evolving into the Opti Club, the event during the last two years or so has been focused on concerts organized around the DJ crew O/W/L/S, which primarily consists of Andrew Shuta and Robert Felix (also members of the rock band RCougar). Hernandez lines up the bands, and guest DJs are invited regularly.

These folks promote an open-ended atmosphere for electronic dance music and off-the-hook partying, while Hernandez plays host to bands on the verge of taking off. Mixing live music with electronic DJs and multimedia art forms such as video, dance, visual art and installations may not be revolutionary, but it feels fresh and reflects the unique culture of Tucson.

And it's increasingly popular: Thursday-night Opti Club events attract as many as 1,000 patrons. Some of the nights have included waterslides and theme-night costumes. You can get your own Opti Club membership card and get in for free each week, or pay a small cover at the door.

"We're not the creators of this fusion," says Shuta, "but it's just a reflection of what's happening now. We're not in the small niche anymore. Opti Club is unique because it attracts many different kinds of people for many different reasons, and all those people can come here, get sweaty and dance without all the trouble you might find at other club nights.

"At some clubs, you might see one kind of people, and anything outside that faction causes friction. We are more about inclusion, rather than exclusion."

Although Opti Club isn't reinventing the wheel, it's finding new ways to make it roll.

"I don't think Opti Club would be so popular if Tucson crowds weren't so accepting of new innovations in the party experience," Shuta says.

Events combining live music and dance DJs aren't exactly new; they've been increasing in popularity and frequency around the world, says booking agent Bojan Jovanovic, who is with the Chicago-based Windish Agency.

Opti Club-style shows have been "growing more and more across the U.S. Clubs across Europe, South America and Australia have been doing these for years, with a lot of success," Jovanovic says.

The Windish Agency has worked with Club Congress' Hernandez to bring to Tucson some of the bands—Class Actress, Grum, Cold Cave and The Twelves, to mention just a few—that have appeared at Opti Club.

From his national perspective, Jovanovic is encouraged by what he sees going on in our neck of the woods. "For the Tucson market, it is definitely cutting-edge. I think it's a great idea to introduce good new music to a young crowd for cheap. It gives these artists a chance to play in front of a lot of new people and make new fans."

The combination of live music and DJs is breaking new ground everywhere, Jovanovic says.

"I think with the rise of the Internet and easy access to music, people are diversifying their own musical tastes," he says. "Before, you'd be crazy for putting together a bill with indie bands and an electronic DJ, but not anymore. Kids who are into metal are listening to dubstep. There's a lot of crossover."

Even Rolling Stone recently proclaimed dance music to be hottest musical trend in the world now, with superstar DJs such as David Guetta, Tiësto, Swedish House Mafia and Skrillex commanding millions of dollars in fees and playing live sets in front of hundreds of thousands at international festivals.

Shuta says dance music is as diverse as it ever has been. "I think, with the generation we're in, with the profuse information and high speeds for transmission of ideas, hybridity is going to happen between cultures and aesthetics and all that. This includes music."

At Opti Club, the DJs play a wide range of dance and electronic music, Shuta says.

"We'll go from baile funk—you know, Afro-Brazilian stuff—to Top 40 to electro to old school to dark disco and to old school to dark disco and nu disco."

Electronic dance music influences everything these days, he adds.

"You turn the radio on now, and with everything from hip-hop to pop to rock, they're using the formula that dance music has established since the Hacienda (nightclub) bands in the U.K. in the 1980s and '90s—four-on-the-floor beats, synth-based melody lines, and vocoder vocals taken to the extreme now with Auto-Tune. Pop culture has finally got its greasy hands on the dance-music sound."

DJ Matt McCoy has appeared as a guest on Opti Club nights, and he appreciates the diversity of the music presented—and of the crowd that enjoys it.

"I think some of the bands Dan Hernandez is booking are some of the most creative out there, and since (O/W/L/S) started hosting Thursday night, he really has done a good job of bringing in music that not only is compatible with dance music, but helps redefine it," McCoy says. "I like playing as a DJ there, because the bands are often a good match for what we do."

McCoy regularly DJs Monday nights at the Surly Wench Pub, and he teams up with DJ Dewtron to present Bang Bang, another dance-music night, on Saturday at Congress. He says he and Dewtron are examples of different musical cultures.

"In the early '90s, (Dewtron) was into punk rock and went to the Downtown Performance Center (an indie-rock haven) all the time," McCoy remembers. "At the time, I was going to a lot of raves. We were never really friends back then ... but since then, he has schooled me in a lot of rock and punk-rock stuff, and I have shared a lot of disco and electronic music with him. Now we are into a lot of the same stuff.

"There have always been crowds who took more to rock or dance stuff, but these days, the divisions between them are more and more blurred."

Many rock musicians, from Marky Ramone to Thom Yorke (of Radiohead) to former Morrissey sideman Boz Boorer, are known for DJing in their spare time. McCoy finds this to be indicative of the subtle way in which DJ culture has infiltrated rock music. He also noted that at Opti Club and other DJ gigs, he often tends to play music by rock bands that is dance-oriented.

"It goes both ways. DJs are playing these gigs on a regular basis, and they're getting bands out there making music for DJs," McCoy says. "A good 75 percent of the stuff I play is made by a band, not made by one guy sitting in his house. This also leads to a lot of groups getting remixed by DJs and stuff like that."

McCoy mentions artists who easily cross over between rock and dance music, such as LCD Soundsystem, Ghostland Observatory, Lykke Li, The Rapture, MGMT and Yelle. A pioneer in this sort of crossover was the '80s band New Order, he adds.

He also notes that up-and-coming DJ Skrillex sold out a recent concert at the Rialto Theatre. "I played on that bill, and it was amazing to see a whole show of DJs sell out."

McCoy says a group such as the young Los Angeles band LexiconDon, which joined him on the July 21 Opti Club bill, does a great job of combining musical styles. "That band reminded me that among the younger generation of musicians, it's anything goes, in terms of style and taste."

At Congress, LexiconDon—the band's Facebook motto is "celebrating fresh"—played funk, new wave, alternative-rock and electronic-inspired dance music, all in the course of one set. And although the audience was smaller than usual, thanks to the dog days of summer, attendees seemed to love the band.

LexiconDon singer Alex Koons says all bets are off, and no rules apply to music-making anymore—other than making it good. Although he plays in an indie-rock band, Koons first became enamored of music by being exposed to hip-hop, then had his mind blown by the French electronic-music duo Daft Punk.

"Music right now, it doesn't matter what kind it is. You like what you like, and that's it," Koons says.

The album, by the way, is over, Koons says.

"I realized that when I was a kid and downloaded my first song, 'Oops! ... I Did It Again,' by Britney Spears. But back then, you had to want it. I waited, like, 15 minutes with a 56k modem."

Koons gives definite props to the Opti Club. "Everybody's trying to build a unique sound, and everybody's trying to build a scene, and here in Tucson, it looks promising."

He noted that his band gets booked more often these days with DJs, which he doesn't mind a bit. "Sometimes, we'll be on the bill with another rock band, a reggae band and two DJs."

One of the most supportive patrons of the Opti Club is a Congress regular who simply goes by the name Hawkeye. He attends dance-music events at Club Congress as often as three times a week, also regularly hitting '80s night on Mondays, and Bang Bang on Saturdays.

"Mostly, I go to dance. I go there to de-stress, decompress and let loose," says the 45-year-old Hawkeye, who works as a freelance technical writer and editor. "I am maybe 20 years older than the average people who go there, and I find that it is an atmosphere—at the Congress in general—that isn't hung up on how old you are, and the harassment factor is pretty low. I've been to some other dance clubs, and that's not always the case."

Hawkeye lives for recorded techno music, which he finds he can get in abundance at Opti Club.

"Most of the bands that come through are not from my age group, and the sound they are generating is for people 20 years younger than me. That's OK, because the people who were 40 when I was younger probably hated my music.

"But dance music is not exclusive to one age group. Anybody can get into the sound. I dance by myself, and spend maybe a half-hour when I am the only person on the dance floor. I get a nice sweat going, and then when the dance floor gets too crowded, I leave."

Hawkeye also finds that there are no expectations, preconceptions or hang-ups among the Opti Club crowd. He can dance by himself, while others dance in groups. Boys dance with boys, and girls with girls. "Totally, 100 percent, it's about 'live and let live.'"

The popularity of dance music in the 21st century might be related to a population struggling with a challenging economy, Hawkeye thinks.

"I would tie it into the economic stress. If you look at history, all the times when everyone in America had economic woes, interest in new entertainment booms, like the movie and music industries. Dancing is a way to get away from the pain of life. People want that bit of time away from their job and to feel momentary release and happiness."

Heather Wodrich also feels the Opti Club vibe is about inclusion, but she goes one better.

"Everything we do at Opti Club is part of trying to make something happen in which the atmosphere is all about the experience; it's an environment that is permissive and allows everyone to be expressed. I mean, yes, a lot of people who show up, they like to party and get drunk; for them, that is first and foremost. But there is something that transcends that too, here, and it goes beyond your typical party mentality."

Wodrich has been involved with the O/W/L/S crew for more than two years, and Hernandez says she has been integral "in the conception of ideas and the direction of Opti Club."

A 26-year-old University of Arizona art graduate, Wodrich creates a live video mix to accompany the Opti Club music.

"I don't do any music, but I enhance some of the music and try to provide a further element of excitement, through movement, lightning, energy and color."

She uses a wide variety of source material, too. "The Internet is my biggest source of inspiration and content," she says. I like to use GIFs and found footage, and other footage I have shot. Sometimes, I animate JPEGs and add special effects."

Wodrich has been most excited to combine her visuals with recent Opti Club acts such as Mexicans With Guns, Das Racist, The Twelves and Classixx. She praises the creative booking of her compatriot Hernandez.

For his part, Hernandez just wants to find acts and DJs that excite and challenge him and his audience—such as New Orleans singer and bandleader Big Freedia, who is definitely a singular performer and a proponent of the hip-hop-influenced style of music called bounce, which is filled with call-and-response vocals, aggressive dance rhythms and considerable booty-shaking.

"When we did Big Freedia last year, she was not very well known around here," Hernandez remembers. "A lot of people in the audience didn't know what to expect and were a little shocked. I mean, what are you supposed think of a 6-foot-4 African-American transvestite urging everybody to shake their ass?

"But after about 10 minutes of watching her, the crowd started putting their arms around each other's shoulders, letting loose and totally getting into the experience."

Now, Freedia is much better known—she has even appeared in the New Orleans-based HBO program Treme—and is coming back on Aug. 25. Club Congress is expecting it to be one of its biggest shows of the summer.

Hernandez notes that Opti Club isn't the only dance-party game in town, but that last year, when there were fewer options, he took some risks.

"We trusted that people would respond to this new combination of dance music and live bands, and it took off," he says. "We are really grateful that people stuck with us while other clubs opened."

Most of the money that the crowds at Opti Club bring in goes back into exposing bands, he says.

"(The money) can go back into finding and booking these really obscure bands that people don't know about yet, but they should," Hernandez says.

So part of the Opti Club's mission is to use its resources to expose audiences to musical acts they might not otherwise see—but a byproduct has been increased traffic to downtown-area businesses and restaurants. "Since we clock numbers similar to those of big college bars on Fourth Avenue, we are bringing more young people to the downtown area who might not have come," Hernandez says.

In the near future, audiences can expect to see Australian band Art vs. Science, an on-the-rise act in dance-music circles, which will appear at the Aug. 18 edition of Opti Club. That night will also feature an art installation by the art collaborative Knock Knock, and live T-shirt screening by the team known as Motorcycle Cop, which includes O/W/L/S DJ Shuta.

Says Wodrich, "I love that there has been a convergence of live music, dancing, DJs, visual art and video here. It is what I have always been dreaming of, that sort of synesthesia, since I was a kid."

Also upcoming are a gig Sept. 1 with the Atlanta-based dance-music project Le Castle Vania, marking the opening night of the 2011 HoCo Fest; and a second annual tribute to Daft Punk, which will take place sometime this fall.

Wodrich, who is as much a fan as a part of the show, has nothing but praise and respect for the Opti Club.

"Dan does such an amazing job (and) brings together these acts in such a great environment. It's great to see the energy and love that happens here, and how we try to provide a safe atmosphere for the kind of artistic permissiveness that happens at Opti Club. It is definitely a party-as-art event, and reflects very well the unique aspects of Tucson's culture. You may be able to see similar things in other cities, like maybe Brooklyn or Portland—but nothing exactly like what happens here."

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