The Burden Brothers also known as Octave One have been rocking the international techno scene with their stunning live performances for many years. Aside of that they’re known for their label 430 West which released classics such as their own Blackwater and DJ Rolando’s Knight Of The Jaguar. We are delighted to have them for an interview at Hammarica.com
We saw you perform live at this year’s Decibel Festival. A lot of the times when “live performance” is mentioned in combination with a dance music act, we envision an artist with a laptop and some kind of controller. In your case however – like Carl Craig mentioned at Decibel – you take the whole pro audio department of Guitar Center with you on the road. Can you describe the fun and kick you get from performing live for which you take the headache of transporting this gigantic set-up for granted time after time?
We like do to our live set like we did when we first started producing music, like we do now when we produce music, with hardware. The interaction with machines has always been a huge part of composition process and it continued over when we began playing live. Creating music with hardware is a very unique experience. It really is a tremendous amount of fun. There’s nothing live hearing a synth rip through the speakers and watching the people feel the power! A true moment of synergy.
Could you go into some details as to how a live performance is laid out?
We’re a two person setup. On stage left, there’s myself, Lenny. I have the sound producing things at my end. Analog and digital synths, drum machines, multiple samplers, sequencers, and some effects. The Akai MPC 1000 is the master sequencer that drives everything. It serves as a master clock for the other sequencers and triggers the other units. We use stock equipment and a lot of custom gear. On stage right, Lawrence works the audio mixer with most of the sounds separated on the individual channels. He has several effect units and sound enhancers at his disposal. He’s ultimately responsible for what the audience eventually hears. He adopted his role from his DJ days. He works the individual sounds like he would if he was Djing records, only the sounds are separate. We bring most of our equipment with us, even our own mixer, the Allen & Heath Zed 24. We travel with a little over 100kgs (around 220lbs) in freight, and yes, it sometimes gets expensive to bring all the gear with us.
What is the balance to pre-recorded loops as compared to loops, sounds and arrangements you make on the fly?
We like to work within an arrangement so we have some place to start. Many elements of our tracks will only work one way, so it’s important they are paired together. The goal is to be as flexible as possible. Ultimately, you want to be able to fully interact with the audience and create a unique experience.
Do you encounter technical problems and how do you trouble shoot those with such a big set up?
Technical problems? EVERY show! Things don’t react correctly, sync goes off, equipment overheats, we have to deal with these kind of things all the time. You’re there to play music and you have to work through it. We really know our set up in great detail, so your mind works overtime thinking about what could be going wrong and how you can fix it and keep the show going. It’s really just part of it and you learn to expect it, the unexpected.
Are you classically trained musicians?
We have trained as musicians, but not classically. Our training came mostly from the Detroit Public School system, who, when we were growing up, had a very extensive music program in many schools. We all played in the school band and had bands of our own as we grew up. Individually, we’ve played saxophone, French horn, clarinet, baritone, drums and a number of other things. All five Burden brothers (yep, there are five of us) have been trained on piano.
Do you make recordings of your live performances and can we download and/or buy these online?
We don’t record very many of our live sets because it’s really about the entire experience and not just the audio recording but there are several sets already out there for download.
Octave One: Geared to escape
The hardware loving duo on packing bags, leaving Detroit and the piece of kit they'll never sell.
In a family with five boys—all of them made to take music lessons—it was perhaps inevitable that the Burdens would produce something like Octave One. Entering the consciousness of the techno community with "I Believe" in 1990, eldest brothers Lawrence and Leonard have pretty much remained there ever since. However, as they tell it, it hasn't all been touring the world and drinking champagne. At times, quite the opposite, in fact. When we sat down in advance of their performance at this year's Forward Festival, the duo told us of their intense love for hardware, and why leaving Detroit was a sort of creative renaissance.
In the past, you halted your release schedule because you felt you had nothing to say musically. Things are better now?
Leonard: For sure, I think so. We've been doing quite a bit of touring. We call ourselves still a young band, because we've only been touring live for about ten years. We've been producing for 20. We've really been picking up tremendously as far as our tour schedule, and it kind of energises us. We're playing some things that we never thought we'd be playing this long, things that we developed in 1991. People are gigging to it like we just did it yesterday. When you get something like that, it tells you that you need to continue doing what you're doing.
Lawrence: In the early days, you would produce a track, you would press it up and it would get distributed around the world. Then, you would have to wait for the feedback to come back to you. Now, with us touring so much, we're producing a track and literally, we're jumping on a plane to this country, to that country, like three countries in a weekend and immediately, we get to see how people react.
How does that compare to bygone years?
Leonard: I think there are advantages to both; how things were and how things are. The way things were is that people were a lot more surprised, and it was a very, very special occasion for you to come [to the club] because you just didn't know what was going to go on. Now we get the reaction from tracks that people have already heard through the Internet. When they're hearing the first eight, nine beats, they know what the track is and they start screaming!
Lawrence: It's like man, we just did this track two months ago, and you already know it?
What's your live show like?
Leonard: We're all hardware based. It's not like we have anything against people who use laptops, it's just because we've always made music with hardware, all our lives. We'll use computers in our studio too, but for us, it's about connecting with the audience. You're putting up a barrier with the screen that's between you and the audience.
Lawrence: We like to feel gear too, and that's important for us. We can't really get into it if we're pushing keys and just looking at a small screen. I like to feel a knob and push a fader up and things of that nature, too. We have to have that.
You have a lot of custom gear?
Leonard: We play with some standard stuff, some modified stuff. We try to make it so that if you are a new producer, you can look at our kit and say, "I could actually do that." You can mimic what we do, it's not very difficult; most of the things are very easy to get. We have modified things too, so we have a little special sound.
Is digging for synths a similar kind of mindset to digging for records?
Leonard: It's not how it used to be as far as trying to get that unique piece, especially with the computers and stuff, because so many things have been sampled and re-created. We would get something and another producer would look at it, and they didn't know what that was, period. Now, they can google it, and figure out what it is. Just last week, we got this piece from a small company in Paris. We know that we'll have it... probably for another month before everybody sees all the pictures all over the Internet, and they'll all be trying to go and get this piece.
Do you want to tell me what it's called?
Lawrence: Check the Internet!
Leonard: Yeah, you'll see it man! We literally just got the thing, and I think it just came out. The guy hand builds them. Well, he actually sells kits, and I had him put one together for me and do a couple little extra things, so it's a little different. But, we try to stay ahead. That's the thing; you try to have some things that are very common, but you also have some things that are unique to you.
Lawrence: In the early days, we used to go to pawn shops and find this little special keyboard. Now, the pawn shop has turned into Google and eBay.
Does the hardware emphasis make touring hard?
Leonard: It's hard, man. It's much more difficult; the programming is a lot more difficult. When you're using a computer, you pretty much can just take the files from whatever program you were working in—so a lot of times people are composing in Ableton Live and they'll just perform in Ableton Live. For us, we want that analogue ripping sound to come through the systems. A lot of times, the crowd has never actually heard a raw, analogue piece of gear; they've only heard a processed piece. So it's a new experience for a lot of people. The warmth is different, it's just how it affects you audibly, in fact you can almost feel it.
Lawrence: People might be surprised at how much repair we actually do to gear also. I mean, we might roll in tomorrow and find out that a keyboard has been busted so we're trying to piece it back—literally—piece it back to together or run out to go get something to replace it. So that's big with hardware, as well.
Leonard: We just keep buying drum machines over again. Gotta get them re-modified, keep buying synthesisers over again, stuff like that, because it just gets beat up. It's so important for us to be able to have our kit and be able to show all these things. A lot of the time—well, some shows—we'll have everything covered and we'll just take it off, and the kids'll just go crazy. Like they never seen this stuff, you know what I'm saying? They've seen pictures of it, or they've seen the modules on the computer, but they've never actually seen the piece.
Tell me about the days when you guys were roadies yourselves.
Lawrence: It was like the same kind of days as now, man. We're still hauling gear around!
It was for jazz bands?
Lawrence: DJ Bob James, Alexander Zonjic. Alexander Zonjic was a flautist and Bob James was the keyboard player; he did the music to Taxi [the 1978 TV series]. It was actually a really good experience for us, because you learn how to pack gear, man; to maximise space. Literally, that's how we even move our stuff now. People will be amazed, at the table—it'll be full of gear—but it might be like, four bags that we roll in with. And they're like, "You bought all of this?" but because we're used to being roadies, you have to move this that way, and you pack it tight so it's not really jarring around a lot, too.
Going back to Detroit, would it be accurate to say that, like hip-hop today, techno was an attractive means of escape for the youth of the time, whether lower or middle class?
Lawrence: It was a form of escape, I mean it was our hip-hop, honestly. You were feeling a certain way man, you listened to like—like I remember first hearing the kick of the 909 drum, and just the way it made me feel. I would just listen to a kick, for like hours, nothing else, nothing else! And you're just playing with the kick—the toning and the decay—you just listened to it for hours. I mean, that was our escape man, it took us to another place mentally. You know, because you were in this environment that was factories, steel and smog, and that just kinda took you into paradise, just a whole 'nother atmosphere.
So that was emotional or mental escape. What about financial?
Leonard: Oh man, it took a lot of years for this. We were just buying equipment.
Lawrence: You spend more than what you make. People would look, "Oh yeah, you're this person, you're that person, it must be great." Yeah, okay, I'm still paying for that keyboard, so get your hands off of it. So I mean, financially, it was for the love of it more than anything. That's one thing I do love about hardware. You would work hard, just to get this one piece of gear. I mean, you might work six months to a year, just to buy one piece of gear, and you learned that one piece of gear in and out. You know with software, you can just load up, so you never really become a master of it. You're like, "OK, I grab this loop, this is great, I grab this little piece here," but hey man, I might take that MPC, flip it around and do all kinds of stuff, and totally amaze you that this one little piece of gear could do all of these different tricks and stuff. And that's one thing I do appreciate about hardware, man you learned it. You grab the manual, you sit there, you sit there for hours. Everybody was like that that we knew.
You learned, man, you played with kicks—literally. We would just play with kick drums for hours, and a lot of the techno guys did. We would sit up with like, Jay Denham. Jay Denham would just—I mean, that's who I got it from—Jay would just listen to a kick all night. You'd go over to the apartment, he was in front of this one speaker on the floor. You'd go over there, and you'd be tranced out with him, you'd sit there for about two minutes and you were just like, "Man that's it!" He'd put a little decay on it or something and freak it out, and you'd just be in the zone, man, and that's what I dug, that's what drew me into it even deeper.
When you started 430 West, you did it with a $500 loan from your Uncle Herb, and when you did the music video for "Jaguar," you had to sell some equipment. Have you often found yourselves in similar situations?
Leonard: For "Jaguar," we didn't sell the equipment, but for other projects, we did sell equipment. We did sell personal things.
Lawrence: Oh, I've got some pieces I wish I had back now, man.
Leonard: The one thing that we constantly have had is our 909.
Lawrence: Yeah, we won't sell the Nine. We always go, "When you sell the Nine, it's over." You might sell everything around the Nine; every keyboard, every compressor, every sampler, but once you sell the 909, that's the end.
Leonard: Yeah, so that's our symbol. I mean, we still use it and it's one of the things where I don't care how dire financially things are, we will not sell the Nine. If we can't eat, then we're gonna be looking at this 909, man.
So there were periods where things got to that point?
Leonard: Oh, for sure. This is an art that makes you suffer. Anybody who's doing this for any period of time and has any type of success, has had periods where they have tried to figure out where the next meal is coming from. It's one of those things where it's a drug, it's addictive and you wanna stay in it, but it'll take you through ups and downs.
Lawrence: Like any art, just because you create doesn't mean that people wanna purchase. So you might get into this grey area—I call it a "blue funk"—where you're creating all this music and people just aren't connecting with it.
Why did you leave Detroit for Atlanta three years ago?
Leonard: Just something different man, just a lifestyle. All we need is an airport. I'm not really overly concerned about the club culture in Atlanta, I mean we don't play in the city. We never really played in Detroit anyway, to be honest. So, a lot of people are like: "Why did you move there, what about the vibe?" It's like, we never played a lot in Detroit anyway. For us, it was just trying to shake things up, and it was just time. You know, you have to do that, especially as an artist. You can find yourself constantly in the same loop; sometimes you have to jump off that loop and do something different.
Did it work?
Leonard: Yeah, yeah it definitely did.
You've always tried to make techno akin to that from the Music Institute era. Do you think that contradicts the genre's idea of being futuristic and forward-thinking?
Leonard: It's not neccessarily making music from that era. That's a perspective that a lot of people pick up. Yout gotta think about it from this point of view: that era is when we started making music, so if you're gonna call us old-school, what you're saying is, your sound is connected to a particular time period. For us, again, we've made records ten years ago, 20 years ago, that people still haven't caught up with. All of a sudden, we'll start playing it now and they act like it's amazing, but it's something that's been sitting on the shelf forever!
Lawrence: Literally, we have records that we put out that sat up for about eight or nine years.
Leonard: You know, even with "Black Water," it was not a new record at all.
Lawrence: Yeah, it was about four or five years before we put it out.
Leonard: Yeah, yeah, and then it took about three years for it to really even happen. So it's one of those things where you talk about future music, really, we're not trying to connect ourselves with any era. And the whole concept of what techno is, as far as it being, like, the soundtrack for the future, well, we're living in the future. The things that were conceived back then—"Pocket Calculator" and stuff like that.
Lawrence: I got a pocket calculator on my BlackBerry!
Leonard: Yeah, you can't even find a pocket calculator now. So the future that Juan Atkins and Kraftwerk were conceiving, we've far exceeded that. Yeah, so it's like that soundtrack was for a time that actually, we've already passed. There was something very special about hearing a synthesiser then; it was a magical thing. But now, it's a very common thing.
So you guys don't care about that philosophy?
Leonard: We just wanna make music, man, seriously. If we get a club bumping and it's some track that we really love, that's it man. We're not sitting around asking, "Look man, let's think about, you know, 30 or 40 years down the line, what will music sound like?"
Lawrence: I mean, we didn't get into music that way. We were just playing with keyboards and we loved it. Had we sat around philosophising before we got into music that we were gonna make the soundtrack to the evolution of man, I mean, that's a whole different thing. We got into it just because we loved the way that drum kick sounded, the way that bassline felt.
We never really wanted to give you too much thought, we want it to be an escape. That's how we entered into it – it was an escape for us. So, you know, we might not be trying to tell you about the rainforest. I mean, all of these things exist—Aborigine people over here, or what's happening in the ghetto over there—all of these things exist, but we create our music as an escape from everything. We've all got bills, health issues, whatever the situation might be and we wanted to just say, "Hey, let's leave that behind for a moment, just go here; let's float in this direction, let's gel into this planet, this atmosphere." That's what it was for us.
In Tune With Octave One
Octave One have been a hugely influential part of what techno has amounted to today. The Burden brothers were at the forefront of what's commonly known as the ‘second wave’ of Detroit techno, releasing several groundbreaking tracks that in hindsight can only be described as milestones on the techno timeline. Their most famous release to date, the phenomenal ‘Blackwater,' has appeared on over 70 compilations and sold over a million copies. Indeed, you're likely to have heard an Octave One tune at some point or another, even when shopping at a high street store (read after the jump for more on that). This Saturday, Room Two will become a one-way ticket to the Motor City, as the duo's live set will be joined by the iconic Mr Atkins, as well as a DJ set from “the father of Detroit techno in the Netherlands,”
Hey guys, what have you been up to recently?
We’ve been busy doing a bit of touring and recording this year. We’re finally dropping remixes to “A World Divided” early next month. It’s a single from our “Summers on Jupiter” album that we released earlier this year. We just made our New York live debut a few weeks ago (which was really fun) and flew back to Detroit to continue recording a new single series we’ve been working on since March. We’ve been sort of on an musical exploration for awhile. This is the first time we ever talked about it publicly, but the series is called MS10. Somewhat of a artistic evolution for us. We’ll be talking more about it in the next few weeks.
Tell us how you first started out making music?
As children, we were put into music classes: piano, various orchestral wind instruments, drums. This was primarily to “round us out” so to speak as people, and to keep us out of trouble. It stuck with us throughout the years. Our parents never really meant for us to make music a way of life, but it just turned out that way.
And when did people like Derrick May and Juan Atkins first enter into the picture?
We actually met Derrick first, while we were working at the Music Institute back in 1986. He probably doesn’t even remember our first meeting. A friend of ours knew we had a small lighting and effects company called Mission Control. We did lighting and special effects for local dance groups (break dancers and such), parties, and other special events. She introduced us to Alton Miller and Chez Demier, they were a couple of the co-owners of the club. The hired us to do effects and lights in the club. We spent every Friday (and some Saturdays) for months in the DJ booth at the Institute. That’s where we first met Derrick. This was a true introduction to the underground. Working at the institute is where we learned to love it all.
We met Juan later, in 1989. After a few years of DJing. we started buying musical equipment and teaching ourselves electronic music. Another friend of ours introduced us to Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir. He told us come down to Metroplex Studios (Juan Atkins’ place, where he was an engineer) to rent some time and do some recording properly. That was a crazy time. We were ACTUALLY at Metroplex! We had all the Metroplex records. It was like going to Mecca. The first track we ever recorded was the track that ended up on the Techno 2 compilation, “I Believe”. Shake turned out to be more of a co-writer and producer than engineer really. When it was all over, “I Believe” was almost a Metroplex record, but Derrick heard it and he had other ideas. It became a Transmat record. Either way, we were cool just to be out.
Running your label, 430 West, must be pretty different today compared to when you started. What is the biggest difference in your minds, and how has this affected the musical output and the business side of the label?
Yeah, it is a lot different today then when we first started years ago. The biggest difference is how fast the world is now. Technology has changed things in several different ways. We started when the fax machine ruled the world! You can get information around the world so much more efficiently now through the internet. Ideas can be born in Detroit and be in Tokyo in seconds. Finding information also used to take days, weeks, or months. Now it’s instant. Things can be done so much more efficiently.
People consume things so quickly now too. Music is so disposable. There is no time for it to grow organically anymore. You release a track and it burns out in a couple weeks. Sometimes, we used to have a couple years to work a track! There’s so much music and other things for people to choose from, it’s a lot more difficult to stand out. As a company, we made a decision years ago to not try and “feed the machine”. We still try and do things at our own pace. We have evolved as technology has, but ideally, we are still the same.
You’ve described your sound in an interview with Slices as 'soul-based' with inspiration coming from musicians like Barry White and Isaac Hayes. After techno went through a distinct 'minimal' phase, do you think funk and soul have become more important to both producers, DJs and the audience?
Well we think that funk and soul in dance music has never and will never die. For some, it’s the next progression especially after such a ‘minimal’ phase in dance music. For us, it never went away, although it may have went further from the mainstream. If you look at the natural progression of music in general, after a minimal period, audiences have always looked for something more. In dance music, more usually means some soul or funk influences, which translates well to the dance floor, which just goes back to the roots of techno music.
You must have seen a lot of things come and go in the techno scene. What inspires you to keep making music and to carry on doing what you do?
True, we have seen a lot of things come and go in this scene, but what inspires us to keep making music is a genuine love for the art of creating. It truly feels good for us to sit down in front of a keyboard or drum machine and use these pieces of electronic gear to create what we’re feeling in our soul. We don’t focus too much on what’s going on at the moment musically because that just leaves you chasing after whatever’s next, but what we feel drives and moves us from our environment and day-to-day life is what dictates us musically and drives us to create.
How would you describe your performance style when you play live?
The soul of a funk band, the energy of rockers, and the finesse of classically trained musicians…lol! Really though, just come and see us play, its about having a good time.
And you use a hardware set up, have you ever been tempted to switch to a laptop ‘live’ set up like so many other performers today? If not, why not?
Honestly, we tried to go software for a few shows but we really didn’t enjoy our sets, and we don’t feel the audience did either. It left us too constrained and chained down to the laptop screen, it didn’t leave us room to be as free spirited as we are in the studio. We try and think about what we would like to experience as a fan of this music, what we think a band should be, what’s going to make a performance good, performance being the key. We don’t knock the whole laptop live thing, don’t get us wrong, we just played with the Surgeon, and Tony does it very well, probably one of the best at it. But most times its not clear if the artist is playing the music or checking his email. Using hardware allows us to be interactive the audience, have the audience see us manipulating the music, and bring them into the experience. There’s no screen there as a barrier between us. It just feels to be more complete.
Hardware is expensive and often only available on eBay - is there an easy route into getting your hands on exciting instruments? What would you recommend to aspiring producers?
Our recommendation for aspiring producers is to just take your time and slowly build your arsenal (musical gear). There are many new pieces of hardware on the market (made by small and large manufacturers), as well as many pieces of classic gear out their on the used market. Not everything is super expensive either (remember, expensive does not always mean better). There are many pieces of gear that cost about the same or less than software, It might be more work for you to put your studio together, but it will be a better journey in the long run. Having less gear can also have an added benefit. It allows you to get to know and get a feel for a particular instrument, which is where your own creative style is drawn from. Unfortunately, that’s part of the problem with using software for many new artists, being overwhelmed and not taking enough time to develop there own particular style. That’s where you get longevity from as an artist!
The reach and success of your 2000 hit ‘Blackwater’ has been phenomenal; I heard it whilst shopping in a French Connection shop just the other day! Did you ever imagine it would be such a success in such a broad musical spectrum rather than just an underground hit? What is the history behind making the record?
No, we didn’t think it would have hit the broad musical success that it did. The only thing that we were focusing on at the time is how it made us feel when we heard it. And that’s pretty much how we do all the music that we create, if it makes us feel something it’s released. Thats pretty much the history of our (the five Burden brothers) creative process, one of us might start a track and the others at some point may contribute where they see fit. Wherever and whatever that may be.
You’ve described Detroit as your ‘birthplace of inspiration.’ Do you think that Berlin has become the equivalent birthplace of inspiration for a new generation of artists?
We think Detroit and Berlin have some key differences when it comes to musical inspiration. Where Detroit musical power base came from individuals coming to the city for jobs back when jobs where plentiful. And the music that was created was a direct derivative of the pain and anguish that they derived by being caught up in a system ruled by the auto industry. Everything in Detroit was moved by the wheel. The success and failure of the system both bought reasons for people to look for escape. Music became their release and that’s the reason it was so soulful and heartfelt, because of the pain they endured daily. Where as Berlin’s renaissance is more of a global artist community coming together to one place with the sole intention to create whatever that art form may be. At least, that’s the impression that we get when we talk to our friends who have either moved to or are considering moving to Berlin.
When you come to London, is there anywhere (other than fabric, of course where you like to visit?
We’ve been to London a few times before, but never came as tourists. It’s usually non-stop business. This trip we get in Saturday morning, have two radio interviews, have sound check, a meeting, a bit of sleep, play the show, a little more sleep and back on the plane home Sunday morning. One day we’d like to come over and just hang out a bit! But our schedule never seems to work out that way.
And finally, do you have anything you'd like to say?
We’re really looking forward to playing at fabric on Saturday. It’s one of our all time favorite places to play. Great crowds and lots of energy. Let’s do this London!