Octave One on twenty-six years of techno
Originally published in the Metro Times on 20 May 2015.
The origins of Octave One —primarily Lenny and Lawrence Burden, but initially a band of brothers that included Lorne, Lynell, and Lance Burden — run simultaneous with the emergence of techno in the 1980s.
Pittsburgh-based electro-sonic aficionado Shawn Rudiman respects what these second-generation techno musicians do live. “They keep music as instruments, not as backing tracks. It’s a more human and rawer, more exciting — to both artist and audience — way to play. When computers came of age, most went that one-stop-shop route. They didn’t. It’s a fuller, heavier, and warmer sound. It’s more intense sounding, less sonically perfect. It has personality.”
Their first live show was only a decade ago, at the now-defunct Motor Lounge, performing as Random Noise Generation. And I was there. They improvised onstage with prerecorded as well as live sounds. At the time, our techno city had been reborn with the first festivals. Everyone seemed to be a DJ and to have a label. Hamtramck’s Motor Lounge was cooking multiple nights a week. But not everyone played live. That night, Lawrence, the eldest brother and the group’s DJ during the 1990s, jumped onstage while younger brother Lenny took control of the visuals, in addition to performing live.
“I was looking at him trying to work a lot of gear,” Lawrence says. “And he just looked like he had more than he could handle. He was running the mixing desk, and I think at that time he had some lights, or some visuals running on the laptop — he was all over the place! So I ran up onstage and my idea was just to kind of control the sound but I was amped up from DJing, so I started tweaking EQs and punching things in and out. And he started jamming even more, ’cause he was free up to start doing what he wanted to do, live-wise. So that’s how literally, before people’s eyes, that’s how we built the live show — that particular show, the very first one!”
The Octave One crew and their label are now based in Atlanta. But the label name carries the address of their first studio: 430 West, a small, two-story building still standing in Ferndale. At one point the label was host to a number of artists, including Anthony “Shake” Shakir and Terrence Parker. Shake appreciates their “straight to the point no holds barred” approach to creating music. Parker adds his appreciation for their “integrity in both their personal and professional lives.” However, the label is now more of a personal production company for their own work.
I caught up with them over the phone to discuss their live show Saturday night at the Movement Electronic Music Festival, the album release party scheduled for Sunday, and their career, going back to its start in 1989.
Metro Times: What’s the performance going to be like at this year’s festival? How might it differ from your normal road show?
Lenny Burden: Well, we’re releasing our album, Burn It Down. Last year at the festival, we had the opportunity of debuting a few cuts from the album and we’re going to play a lot more [of it] this time. Last year, we were on the Detroit stage; this time, we are actually going onstage with Disclosure, Method Man, things like that. For us, we always try to feel the crowd. We felt a little more aggressive last time, and who knows what we are going to feel this time — playing before Method Man and after Kerri Chandler — so we’ll see how it goes. We like to be very versatile. We’ve played harder techno events, more housier events; it just depends on how we feel.
Lawrence Burden: Yeah, really. How we feel, and how we feel the crowd. What they can handle at that particular time kind of dictates where we go. But this is going to be intense and progressive, because that is how we like to do things.
MT: In terms of technical stuff, how many boxes of things, how many suitcases, how many — what’s the metaphor here — what’s the stuff?
Lenny: We carry a lot of gear with us, man. I don’t know how many synths to be honest [laughs]. Lots of synths, lots of drum machines, lots of effects; this is primarily a complete recording studio, minus the recorder, onstage.
Lawrence: Even for certain things we carry backup, so for certain things there is double as well, just in case something happens. We hope it never happens, but we need to know we are covered in that aspect as well.
MT: Let’s talk about the album. Why choose Spectacles for the release party?
Lenny: For one thing, Zana [Smith, owner of the shop Spectacles] is a staple in Detroit, just period. She’s been there for such a long time, and she’s been part of the scene for such a long time, and we never had the opportunity to actually work with Zana. We don’t get that opportunity to play at something so intimate very often. And we wanted to be a free event and we want to play downtempo, stuff that we normally would not play. And really, to just have a nice little occasion with our fans.
Lawrence: And it’s in Detroit proper! [laughs]
Lenny: Yeah, it’s in Detroit!
Lawrence: Zana always supported the underground. People that might be new into the scene don’t realize she’s been around a long time. We wanted to show her some love as well. We are part of the same fabric, you know. We became friends with Ken [Collier, legendary Club Heaven DJ] later on. I don’t remember when we became good friends, but when I was actually a DJ, I had the opportunity to help Ken play overseas. WestBam wanted Ken to play Mayday, and that was actually the only opportunity he ever had to play overseas.
Lenny: I think it was the year before he passed.
MT: In terms of the new album, with a track like “Jazzo.” What does the word jazz mean to you?
Lawrence: It’s a way of self-expression, a deep creativity. And actually, I was a roadie, with my other brother Lynell, for [pianist] Bob James.
MT: Let’s talk about Dan Sicko for a second. Dan quotes you a couple times in his book Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk (Painted Turtle, 2010). And of course Dan has since passed away. So what do good writers do for you, as artists?
Lenny: Let’s first say something particularly about Dan, and not necessarily him as a journalist because he’s actually a big part of when we first started. He did our first record label.
Lawrence: Yeah, he sure did!
Lenny: We actually recorded with Dan in our first studio; we made tracks with Dan.
Lawrence: Yeah, stuff that never came out —weird stuff.
Lenny: He sampled Hellraiser or something; he was crazy, man! He used to come by at the studio on Eight Mile.
MT: Dimitri Hegemann from the Berlin-based nightclub and label Tresor wants to create a new, Berlin-style club in Detroit. What are your thoughts?
Lawrence: We heard about it, and I think it’s a great and large endeavor to try to undertake. I think his vision for what he wants to do is really kind of based off what’s going on in Berlin. And I just don’t honestly think the infrastructure is enough to sustain that kind of endeavor. That’s a really heavy endeavor for Detroit — it would take a lot of people, a lot of people to hold it up. We’ve always had nice underground clubs. But we never had mega-style clubs.
Even the Music Institute, that was the bomb. But it was not a huge club, it was a small storefront type of operation. And even 1515 Broadway, even when I hit heavy house clubs like Club 246, we always had small venues. I think he really wasn’t around, or had really been exposed to those type of clubs. He sees the property is reasonable. But still, you got to get people in the club, and the only way to sustain it in Detroit honestly is to make it hip-hop, because that’s just a bigger scene. It’s a grand endeavor, and I hope the best for him. I hope he can pull it off. But I think it might be a bit grandiose for the real clientele in Detroit.
MT: I’m curious, what does the female vocal do for you — why go there?
Lawrence: To us, a female vocal is another instrument. It is almost like if we’re adding a flute or something, that type of vibe to what’s going on. For some of our bigger tracks, a female vocalist just works better for us. It gets the point across — it’s a lighter and sexier touch.
MT: Now “I Believe” [Octave One’s first hit featuring Lisa Newberry], the way she intones on that record, the way that she speaks or sings, she’s kind of speak-singing, you know. Did you ever make it to Club Heaven to hear Ken play?
MT: So those vocals are different kind of vocals than the “I Believe” vocal, right? Like the real housey diva?
Lenny: Oh! “I Believe” is not a house track. Thing about it is that …
Lawrence: Our style was just different from the guys producing techno at that time. Shake coined the phrase. He was like, “Man, you’re not house, you’re not techno; but you can listen to it, dance to it, or make love to it.” He always said that “you can actually make love to your music” [laughs]. It wasn’t until later on that our sound became acceptable or popular. But we were always kind of a mixture: A lot of things for a lot of different people.
Octave One performs at this year’s Movement, on the Red Bull Music Academy stage, on Saturday, May 23, from 7-8 p.m. Spectacles will host their Burn It Down release party on Sunday, May 24, from 1-3 p.m; 230 E Grand River Ave., Detroit; 313-963-6886; spectaclesdetroit.com; entrance is free.