The Early Days Of Detroit: Octave One Talk
Octave One, aka the brothers Lawrence and Lenny Burden, have a colourful musical history. Much as you'd expect for two producers who grew up in Detroit, the 'Motor City', a city widely regarded as the birthplace of techno. They count the musical craftsmen Derrick May and Juan Atkins as old friends and comrades. Their first record, 'I believe', was released almost two decades ago on May's Transmat imprint. 2000's 'Black Water' is arguably their most prolific hit, garnering support from the likes of Laurent Garnier, Jeff Mills, Danny Tenaglia and Kevin Saunderson. A timeless record that soundtracked the early clubbing experiences of a generation of 30+ year-olds, and still evokes the same emotional, burgeoning feelings when played out on dancefloors today.
The brothers' had their early experiences in the area of downtown Detroit, in the Gratiot Street area, that became known as the 'Techno Corner'. An area in Detroit that was home to three of the most important labels in techno's history- KMS, May's Transmat, which is still housed there today, and Metroplex. In his deep, Detroit drawl Lawrence fondly recalls a bustling meeting point where a whole host of music industry movers and shakers would gather to exchange ideas and create some of the greatest records of our time.
"Whatever you were trying to get done, you were always at the Techno Corner. If you wanted to meet somebody- it was always at the Techno Corner. If you ran into somebody who just came in from out of town, it was always down there. It was such a big part of our scene and that's how we networked and connected. Literally, we were running from studio to studio. Because we did our first song in Metroplex and then we went round the corner to KMS to do remixes."
Chatting to the two brothers is both intriguing and energising. They have a zest for life and music that seems to show no signs of waning. My curiousity aroused, I wonder what crazy parties and mischief occured in the hallowed Techno Corner. Lenny and Lawrence both chuckle knowingly. Lawrence regales a time when they were renting a loft apartment above an empty warehouse. Knowing their landlord would only pay them a visit when it was time to collect rent, they decided to throw a party with Derrick May.
"We knew this warehouse was empty. We managed to make our way into it. It was Derrick throwing the party and us breaking into the warehouse. Unfortunately, the landlord showed up while we were setting up, so we were kind of busted. But he was cool about it. He somehow got convinced that it was a quick video or photography shoot and he let us go ahead with it. I don't know who convinced him."
How long did the party end up going on for? "Oh," Lenny laughs. "It was ALL night…..I would say that was probably one of my favourtie parties." "Yeah, for me too," Lawrence adds. "That, and one the first 430 West (their self-run label) party. That was fun because we got to perform with all of our brothers."
Playing with their other siblings, Lorne, Lynell and Lance, is now something of a rarity. Shunning life on the road and live peformances, it's up to Lenny and Lawrence to carry the torch. Not that it's anything of a burden to them. It's pretty clear from chatting to them that, put simply, they enjoy it.
In a world where many DJs now seem to suffer the fate of burning out how have Octave One managed to sustain such an illustrious career? Lawrence tells us that "you've just got to start taking some time out. You could be at the height of your fame, but if you're burnt out and you hit a brick wall mentally, you just got to stop and smell the roses for a while". Lenny agrees.
"It's a lot to deal with. This is a very unique thing that we do. The fact that we can go around the world and play our music to people is something that people dream about doing. The bad part is that you're away from home. You're not sleeping. Sleep is really important to your mental health. There's the loneliness of the road. At least with us, there's my brother and I."
With modern DJs there's an immnese amount of pressure surrounding them to stay at the top of their game. They don't really have the luxury of taking time out. Lenny agrees. "There's so much competition……There was no such thing as a brand when we started. We were just making records. Now DJs are brands. There are huge teams behind them now."
What other changes have they seen since they first arrived on the scene? "Things are so much more global now," Lenny tells us. "The introduction of the internet means that everyone is more connected, so music travels faster." He notes that this means it's harder for labels to find gems as there's so many other records to sift through to get to them. Lawrence interjects: "The one thing I've noticed is that territories used to have certain sounds. In the beginning there was a Detroit sound, a Chicago sound, New York, London. They had their own particular sound that kinda brewed and marinated in that territory before it was kind of expanded to the rest of the world."
Depsite these shifting patterns in music production and performing, the Octave One sound has remained solid and consistent. "We have a luxury that a lot of DJs don't necessarily have," Lenny explains. "If a promotor brings us to a territory, they want us to play our music….. we're pretty much there to play Octave One music." How about the production side? Lenny continues: "We still make bass-line. We don't really care that nobody else makes bass-line. We're gonna do melodies. We don't care if no one else is making melodies. We're gonna try to make it funky. We don't care that nobody else might wanna make it funky. That was always a Detroit thing. We never want to be a follower."
Next up on the agenda for Octave One is a series of appearances across Europe including a stop off at Amsterdam's Dockyard Warehouse Festival on the 6th May. Can we expect to hear that old favourite of ours at these events? Lenny concludes:
"Yeah. We were fortunate enough to make a record like that and then when people embrace it it’s our privilege to be able to play it live. It’s a new moment for people. We get that joy. It’s the moment in our set when all the phones come out, everybody decides to film and sing along. It’s always special for us because of the crowd reaction and that keeps it fresh for us."
Main Photograph captured at ADE by @joskottmann_photography .