ONE of my biggest thumbs up of 2014 was my first ever trek to Roermond in the Netherlands for the dance festival Solar Weekend — with Detroit techno legends Octave One a chugging, soulful highlight on Dave Clarke’s roster at the Steampunk arena.
Brothers Lawrence and Lenny Burden bang off a colossal rig they call ‘The Mothership’ — a wire-tangled analogue hardware set-up that sticks two fingers up to many other live techno artists with their laptops. Live, it’s all hands on deck as the brothers’ heads bob in sync and they dart between synths, controllers and drum machines — tinkering, stomping and checking the crowd to see what’s firing their buttons.
I caught the brothers backstage at Solar straight after their Sunday night set, their t-shirts soggy with sweat from the top down, as if they’d done 10 rounds. Lawrence told me back then they’d “been road-testing new stuff for our new album for about seven weeks”, but we reckon it has morphed even further since the Dutch show, before its release early next year.
Every gig is a new venture, as Lenny explains: “There’s a lot of improvisation. From growing up and playing all our lives, we sync up… I kinda know where he’s gonna go, he know where I’m gonna go. We don’t really practice, we feel each other out.” Lawrence butts in, adding: “Say, sometimes if the equipment fails we have to get in there and make it happen, make that rhythm. “In clubs we can get a lot more eye contact, you can feel it from the audience and experiment a lot. At a festival the energy comes from the crowd in a wave and that’s a special kind of feeling also. It comes from the back to the front — totally different from a club.”
Octave One’s branch on the techno family tree is secure as part of Detroit’s ‘second wave’, emerging in 1989 with I Believe on Derrick May’s Transmat label, followed by the Octivation EP in 1990 on their own 430 Recordings, and yearly releases after that — hitting the Detroit sweet spot of tough, metallic driving beats and lush strings, with a house edge. Even casual techno fans will have heard their majestic 2000 track Blackwater, which has appeared on 30 compilations and was a permanent fixture with Jeff Mills, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson for years.
Lenny and Lawrence also compose with their brothers Lynel, Lance and Lorne — and they were all given instruments to learn growing up, and the formal training has allowed them to hit techno sideways. “It’s great because we understand the structure of music, but when we actually make it, we don’t consciously link to that, we do weird unorthodox things, throwing rules out the window,” Lenny says.
Aside from thrusting instruments in their kids’ hands, the Burden parents laid proper foundations with their record collections — and Detroit’s musical heritage of Motown soul and gritty proto-punk from the likes of the Stooges and MC5 didn’t hurt. Speaking of Detroit, Lawrence says: “Everybody takes from the city what they want. Some take it more aggressive, some take a laid-back kinda jazz approach. It’s just that environment. It’s an industrial working class environment.” Lenny adds: “We always had really good radio growing up, and our parents’ selection was always R&B and Motown. My dad was really into Elton John and the Beatles, and Mom was into Earl Jackson and Jerry Butler.”
The brothers’ brain hardware was rewired in the mid-80s when they sourced their first drum machine, the TR909. Lenny laughs when he recalls: “We were looking for the drum machine that Inner City used… we thought the drums went backwards from the drum machine, we didn’t know it was a tape edit. So we were going to music stores saying, ‘I want that drum machine man’. Now of course drum machines they do that but back then they didn’t.”
They ended up buying their first 909 off fellow Detroit pioneer Jay Denham — and they still have that piece of kit. The Burdens have been strictly hands-on analogue hardware guys from day one, as Lenny explains: “The sounds were so unique… you heard them on records before, but when you heard them raw, it was so inspirational. Here we had a raw drum machine and a raw synthesiser. It made us wanna make music non-stop.”
The pair admit they’re constantly buying new gear, tearing it apart and customising hardware in their studio, and the live Mothership has to be streamlined for touring. Lawrence says: “It gets mixed and matched… what we try to do is get some mobile versions of the big synthesizers that we have in the studio, and we have little Minitars so we don’t have to move it all.”
When asked about their formative clubbing days, both brothers immediately say “Detroit Music Institute” in sync, with Lawrence adding: “You’d go there at midnight then the next thing the sun was up. That would’ve been about 1986 when we were in there, awesome stuff man.” He jokes that they don’t pull many all-nighters these days, adding: “You get a lot of breakage on the road… people think we’re partying all the time, but there we are with soldering guns!”
Even though the Burdens are playing to thousands in Europe at, say Berghain or festival bills curated by the likes of Dave Clarke, they’ve no problem staying under the radar in the US.
“We’re underground in Europe, but seriously, we’re really underground in America,” says Lenny. “We play more festivals in Europe than we would ever play in America. People like Dave Clarke, he knows our music, he knows us. When he puts a stage together he will think of people like us, and Marcel Fengler and Technasia and people like that. In the US you don’t get anything like that, cos they’re not interested in the roots of anything — they’re just putting the hot guy on the main stage, and the hot guys on all these other stages.”
Lawrence adds: “Yeah, they’re not really trying to bring any culture to it, it’s commercialism. In Europe they care about roots. In US festivals it’s a drop every 30 seconds and, ‘Waaaaaah it’s the best day of my life!’”