Send me your track


Octave One interview


If mixing desks could talk, what would the one under the commanding and palpably annoyed glare of Lawrence Burden say? This is obviously a big dumb mixer (it’s over 6 feet wide) because Lawrence and his brother Lenny have been rehearsing the opening song for their set here at Fabric, London, in February, for over half an hour, yet the mixer says nothing, and the sounds which it’s blending are still not to their satisfaction.

“We’ve got one of these (models) at home. It’s hot, but not as hot as this one,” says Lawrence. ‘Hot’ in US musician’s argot, appears to mean: ‘bright’ - a sound quality with unappealingly obtrusive high frequencies. A technician joins Lenny and Lawrence on the stage and adds his glare to theirs.

They try switching the dozens of thick leads snaking out of the monster’s back to different inputs, they try this combination of EQ, then that, rehearsing that same song after each adjustment. During this, Lawrence’s wife sits patiently behind the group at the back of the stage, nodding along to the track each of the several times it’s rendered, with little outward sign of boredom. Lorne “Kaotic Spatial Rhythm” Burden, the newest member of Octave One and the youngest of the five Burden brothers, is recuperating in Detroit, with a Michigan flu. So a friend deputizes on this, the ‘Back To The Rhythm Tour’ (to promotes Lorne’s mix CD of the same name) which started in December and has included Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, and after a short break at the end of February, will continue in March with Lawrence and Lorne DJ sets in Japan and Australia.

Lorne’s stand-in is rigging up one of the several laptops they’re using. This one has on it a sequence of animations, which can be improvised and played, just like a sequence of music, for display on a screen, which is being set up by a Fabric bod on the back wall of the stage. The laptops are midi-ed up to a dozen or so other very expensive-looking pieces of kit, including a keyboard. And this set-up is of course, hooked up to that damn mixer…

Eventually, whilst Lawrence doesn’t ever appear to become completely satisfied with the sound, the annoyance on his face subsides enough for him to relax a little and smile.

Whilst the other two men continue the sound-check, Lenny and I slope off to an office of the labyrinthine Fabric, to talk about life, the universe (okay, mainly Detroit) and “The Theory of Everything” - the forthcoming Octave One LP, “tentatively scheduled” Lenny says, for release in June or July. Lenny speaks animatedly, and is an open interviewee, friendly, and articulate.

Naturally, I’m intrigued about the title of the LP. “It has a couple of different meanings,” Lenny says. “The album is very diverse: of course we have what we call our traditional Octave One tracks, 4/4 cuts, there’s some more vocal cuts, and of course we always do a lot of instrumentals, we actually have hip-hop going on there too.”

K: That’s a bit of a departure isn’t it? Is that an experimental one-off or are you looking to go more heavily in that direction?

“Well our brothers Lorne and Lance - who actually helped us on the album, and are going to do the video - are younger, in their early twenties, and that’s pretty much what they grew up on: hip hop. What we decided to do on this LP is take the opportunity get all our flavours together, still have it be an Octave One project, so it still sounds like us, but to kind of give everybody a chance to express themselves.”

He says they will debut some select tracks from the LP during the tour. Later that night, I hear a few songs which sound new to me. That track which the mixer couldn’t get right is one of them. It sounds more housey, is quite hard, but melodic. It has vocals - not Anne ‘Blackwater’ Saunderson’s - but they’re more abstractly used than on BW. He tells me they’re not looking to make another ‘Blackwater’, but more about that elsewhere.

The Burden brothers have toured Europe a number of times and I ask whether on this tour, they’ve noticed anything different about the reaction to their staple of soul and funk-tinged techno. Of course I’m trying to gauge whether he’s noticed something remarked on by many: that what we call ‘techno’ music (a genre which is a lesson to people who love categories) its makers and consumers, are changing. Partly by these folk polarizing even more sharply than they always have done into broad camps of ‘purists’ and ‘experimentalists’. But also because the scene is being very strongly influenced by the overwhelming resurgence of its first cousin, ‘house’.

“Every time I come to Europe I get a different perspective. What I’m finding is that I think the crowds are now looking more towards getting more melodies, songs. It (that vibe) is kind of what we worked on our album to do. We had found that even with our style, we had got too minimal, and not as melodic as we started out being. We found that people are looking for songs and real kind of musical things now.

K: So you’ve noticed things are changing too?

“Absolutely, absolutely - I think a lot of producers, artists and our own 430 West acts are getting tired of the one-groove loops. They’re trying to expand, trying to show a little bit more musical ability, and I think it’s very healthy for the scene.”

K: The irony is that you guys have often said that you were trying to bring more soul and a kind of deeper feeling to this music, but in a way, especially with the Random Noise Generation project, it almost accommodated that harder, sparser side. (Says “yeah” in partial agreement). Did you feel in a way that you drifted slightly off what you were originally intending to do?

“It’s kind of what we did with Random Noise anyway, we wanted to do something different (to Octave One) as such, and we really wanted to let loose a crazy experiment. That’s pretty much what Random Noise was. It was myself and Lawrence just goofing around with samples and stuff like that. So it’s not necessarily a drift as such. A lot of the ideas that we started to develop were random. We dealt with a lot of ‘alternative-beat’ stuff, not necessarily break-beat stuff, just getting away from the 4/4. We developed it a lot better when we did our album (The RNG LP “Links In The Chain”, released in 2000). If the audience likes it they like it, if they don’t they don’t. We were just experimenting.”

Lenny’s use of the past tense when speaking about Random Noise Generation is indicative. Although he doesn’t hint as such whilst I’m recording - perhaps implying that Random Noise may not be a completely closed project - off mic, he strongly suggests that the Random Noise Generator has been switched off. This would fit in with what are conscious efforts by Lenny and Lawrence not only to reawaken Octave One as the original Burden musical powerhouse it was, but to do so by returning to the format of a three-member outfit. (See ‘Blackwater’.)

It goes without saying, but out of sheer archness, I’ll say it anyway: The Burden brothers and 430 West are to Detroit what NASA are to Houston. Yet, they’ve not appeared at what is the seminal (fractiousness aside) celebration of modern Detroit dance music, Detroit’s Electronic Music Festival. The reason why may be bound up with the way it’s been run, possibly by whom, until this month’s news that Derrick May and Carl Craig are to assume control. The reason will also have much to do with the complex web of historical loyalties and antipathies that is in the background behind any scene, but we won’t dwell on those here.

K: Is playing at Detroit’s Electronic Music Festival something that you would be prepared to do?

“Errrm. We don’t know actually yet. It’s one thing that we’re just kind of feeling as it goes, we’re not quite sure.”

Just then we’re interrupted by Lenny’s mobile. He exchanges a few words with the caller and hangs up. Afterwards, I can tell he doesn’t want to return to an area which seems to be a little sensitive, so I allow him to change the subject. He’s eager to tell me that the caller was Neil Rushton. It’s a UK name associated with the early blue print-defining compilations of the late eighties and early 1990s. Rushton’s quiet A & R influence - but backed up with the hefty experience of working with most notably Kevin Saunderson - has been in the background of this music ever since.

“Our new rep is Neil Rushton. We actually got back to a guy who actually knows Detroit Techno.”

His appointment appears to be a part of the realignment which the 430 West project is going through. It has included the closure of the Direct Beat sub-label as an active imprint. Lenny indicates the responsibilities it entailed were just getting too onerous. Now, they’ve also got a new UK representative: this is a real refocusing of resources. With the significant success of last year in mind, it almost seems as if the Burdens are gearing up to write a second, perhaps more definitive chapter in the Octave One Story. It ought to be remembered that these guys have actually been behind at least 2 stand-out and archetypal Detroit techno tracks, aside from ‘Blackwater’. Of course there was “I Believe”, the success of which, the brothers were eventually able to share in after taking back control of the rights to it from Transmat (it remains the only Transmat-released Octave One record.) As a 430 West track for the first time in the late 1990’s it sold like it had never been put out before. But there was also “Jaguar”. Whilst they didn’t produce it, after the initial Underground Resistance-imprinted release, 430 West played a major part in promoting it into the level of importance as a piece of music, that it became. If there is a machine which makes relatively large hits aside from KMS records in Detroit techno, 430 West has a strong claim to be it. So is this ‘restructuring’ part of a plan to move things up a gear?

K: Do you think you’ve got other ‘Blackwaters’ in the pipeline?

“We’ve actually intentionally tried not to make another Blackwater. We’ve actually done some more stuff with Anne Saunderson doing vocals, and somebody said ‘it sounds like “Blackwater”.’ We tried not to do that. We think we have some really good records (on the new album), we worked on it for about a year. And the styles are different. We tried to do the best record we could. We’ll see what people think. But we definitely worked hard.”

Later on that night, on the Fabric stage, they work hard too. Lawrence and Lenny, can be seen bopping and nodding and sweating along to a wide-ranging and dynamic set. I think I can hear a brace of RNG tracks too, like “Falling in Dub” and “We Can Survive” in it as well as Octave One standards like “Daystar Rising”. More than one person says something to me like “They’re still really into it aren’t they?” because of the group’s obvious enthusiasm for what they do even after a decade of hard work at it. It more than suggests that this latest push to introduce a younger set of ears (and reacquaint older ones too) to the Octave One style, is motivated by more than just the extra dollars which might be made. And then of course there is “Blackwater”. One year and scores of listens after its release, it gets the biggest roar of the night. It has to be said that the typical Fabric-goer will not tend to be as knowledgeable about Octave One as say, the typical reader of this page. “Blackwater” is likely to be the sum total of their knowledge, no disrespect intended. However, at the end of the Burdens’ hour-plus long set, those who don’t know will have learned that the relative minority of us in that crowd cheering at the opening bars of earlier classics means that the Octave One story doesn’t begin with “Blackwater”. But also after tonight, we can all be assured it doesn’t end there either.

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