Here’s an extended Q&A I conducted with Detroit techno royalty Octave One, a shorter version of which was published in print in Clash Magazine in early 2007. The interview was to promote Off the Grid, an audiovisual album for Tresor showcasing footage of the duo’s live shows.
You can’t talk about techno without talking about Detroit. And you can’t talk about Detroit techno without talking about the Burden Brothers. As Octave One, Lawrence and Lenny Burden blasted on to the scene in 1990 with ‘I Believe’ on Derrick May’s legendary Transmat label, before setting up their own 430 West imprint and its electro-orientated sister Direct Beat. Over the next decade the brothers delivered a series of consistently killer tracks – bringing in younger siblings Lance, Lorne and Lynell and using aliases such as Random Noise Generation and KSR – that found their way into the record boxes of just about every house and techno DJ on the planet, before landing an enormous crossover hit with ‘Blackwater’ in 2000. Now, after a gruelling schedule of live shows across the globe, they’ve teamed up with Berlin techno giant Tresor for a special CD/DVD release, ‘Off The Grid’. Containing footage recorded at gigs in Glasgow, Liverpool, Berlin, Eindhoven, Helsinki, Vienna and beyond, it’s a unique release that brings the incendiary experience of a live Octave One gig into the living room. We caught up with Lawrence to discuss the project and find out what makes Octave One tick…
Who or what inspired you guys to start making techno/house music?
I don’t know if it was so much who inspired us to start making techno/house as what inspired us. When we came into the scene here in Detroit in the early 1990s it was blazing on the world stage. It was not long after the closing of the legendary Music Institute club and all the stars from Detroit and Chicago were in full bloom. You couldn’t help but be inspired by the pure energy that the whole city was into. So more than anything it was a pulse that the whole scene here was giving out that was so infectious that you just found yourself being swallowed up by it all.
Were you a very musical family growing up?
Our parents had this thing about really wanting to hear music around the house. It’s funny to us because neither of them played an instrument or even sang, but we think they lived out that part of their life through us. So all of the brothers played instruments coming up through school, and we all started with piano lessons when we were about six years old. That was our rite of passage, whether we wanted to take them or not.
How did the hook-up with Tresor come about for this project?
We were in search of a label for this project because we had got to the point that we were just too exhausted to do anything else to it. We performed, directed, produced and edited it, and it was the longest six months of our lives, so it needed someone who would be just as committed to carry the reins from there. And we had always wanted to work with Tresor on a project because they really have a true love and passion for the music.
What are your memories of performing at the Tresor club in Berlin?
We only had the opportunity to do a set there maybe about a year or two before they closed the doors. But we had been there to party countless numbers of times. We really do miss it very much – it was one of the few places that you could go and hear real raw gritty techno from the soul. And we were really sad to see it close.
How did the filming come about for this project?
You would not believe how much coordination it takes to organise multiple film crews in multiple countries. It was a big balancing act to get video artists to be free flowing and creative, but still capture the look that we were going for. So we had to get to know these artists in every country we filmed in rather quickly. You’re talking about different countries, languages, and cultures, but at the end of the day we found that we spoke one true language – that of an artist, no matter where we had come from.
Could you break down your various projects and aliases, explaining who’s involved with what, and explain a little about the sound of each?
The KSR (Kaotic Spatial Rhythm) project is the easiest to define, because this entity was built solely for the purpose of exploring our youngest brother Lorne’s works. He is one of those artists who just loves to create day and night and needs some kind of outlet for it. The Octave One releases are for our original works, with no sampling of music, and usually have any combination of the five brothers writting and producing the tracks. Random Noise Generation breaks all laws of rhyme and reason. Whatever you can sample, mangle and twist up beyond comprehension and play the most obscure rhythms with to create a pumping track with is legal. And it truly started with us not really understanding the first sampler we had – an Ensoniq Mirage – because it wasn’t working properly and we didn’t have the instruction manual for it. We kept mistakenly cutting off the beginnings and ends of vocal samples so we got frustrated and just created songs out of whatever we had seem to “catch” in the sampler, which were choppy and broken vocal sounds. Thus ‘Falling in Dub’ was born, which seemed to spawn a whole new sound at that time. And again, at some point at least two of us participate in these productions.
Do you guys all still live in Detroit? How is the techno scene there these days?
Yeah, we all still live in Detroit. The scene these days doesn’t even compare to what it was when we got into it, but that’s cool because we kind of feel that it’s going through some kind of rebirth. We’re seeing a whole new set of young and talented promoters throwing a quite a few one-off and monthly events. They’re mainly small at the moment, but isn’t that the start of any great scene? It derives from the core audience who have a passion and are truly devotees.
You’ve travelled all over the world with your live show over the past few years. Which cities and clubs have stood out for you?
Wow, that’s a loaded question for us, because every time we leave a certain city or club there’s always something that stands out for us and is etched in our brains. But I guess the best way is to sum it up by classes. More than anything we find that industrial cities where there are a lot of working class people seem to give the most intense feedback to the stage. We don’t know what it is about these cities, but we feel people just really want to let go and do not care who knows it, because they’re all there for the same reason. We find ourselves getting so much from these audiences that can’t help but to double it and give it right back to them.
After the success of Blackwater, did you consciously decide to avoid creating an obvious follow-up? It seems you’ve stayed fairly low-key since then, unlike some acts who have a surprise crossover hit.
We just didn’t want to fall into that trap of becoming a machine. Don’t get us wrong, the money from a crossover hit record is beautiful and we can see where that great temptation comes from, but we just wanted to stay those same producers that we were before one of our underground songs crossed to the mainstream. If it happens again great, but that’s something you really can’t control. We just don’t want to become those guys huddled around the mixing desk murmuring “we need a hit, we need a hit”.
What kind of music are you listening to at home right now?
Barry White, Nine Inch Nails, Jay-Z, Isley Bros, Luther Vandross, Fort Minor, The Cars. We’re pretty much all over the place – it really depends on our moods. for the most part we’re pretty eclectic.
Who’s your all-time musical hero?
We’d have to say Quincy Jones, no doubt. He’s one of the true musical geniuses that can move seamlessly across genres of music and musical generations, can still remain true to what he produces and still pops up from time to time and creates songs that are truly timeless.
What are your thoughts on the current market for techno? Are download sales helping the scene?
Well, anybody that has been in the techno scene for a number of years can see that the entire scene is going through a change globally. It’s a huge generation shift that I don’t think has occurred before to this degree at the same time globally. We think there is room for optimism with downloads helping the sales in this scene, because think about it: Aren’t there more kids with computers, or access to them, then there are with access to turntables? The only thing that’s killing vinyl is progress, which is in the form of technology. People have always wanted to make their life easier, and it’s no different with music. Remember the bulky 8-track tapes, which gave way to cassettes, then CDs, and now downloads. And don’t think there wasn’t a group of folks murmuring when vinyl first appeared that it was going to be the death of music, or at least live music. The scary part is the policing of music, because downloads came in in such a blast that there really wasn’t a way setup in the beginning to make sure the artist got their due. Phrases like “burn me a copy” and “send me an MP3 of that song”, became commonplace before there were actually any societies put in place globally to regulate them. Now the musical world is playing catch-up.
What does the future hold for you musically?
Right now we are working on a solo project with Ann Saunderson. We debuted a new track called ‘Release’ with her in Madrid in November and we loved the response. We hope to have it finished before the summer. We are compiling a best of double-CD/muti-vinyl release for our electro brothers from Direct Beat, Aux 88. We are also working on new tracks for our upcoming tour that begins February 2007 at the Loft Club in Barcelona, takes us through Europe and the UK for a couple of months, and then takes us to Japan, Australia, and Brazil, then back to Europe. And we are thinking of doing another Octave One DVD. Playing live is one of the greatest experiences for us, and the DVD seems to be a great way to capture that experience for the fans.