|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.
"When we take the cover off, the
kids'll just go crazy, because they've
never seen this stuff, you know?"
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.
"I would just listen to a kick for hours,
nothing else, nothing else!"
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.
"We're not sitting around asking,
'30 or 40 years down the line,
what will music sound like?'"
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.