Detroit veterans Octave One discuss their latest album, staying current in an ever-changing scene and the enduring joys of the Roland 909
For the vast majority of young producers, techno is created on a laptop at home, then played out by DJs. For Detroit’s Burden brothers Lenny and Lawrence however, techno is very much a live music form, part of a long tradition that stretches back through go-go, Prince, the live funk jams of George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic and back to jazz.
Octave One are based around the core of Lenny and Lawrence, with sometime collaboration from siblings Lynell, Lornen and Lance Burden. Although they have an impressive discography containing a number of records that are considered ‘seminal’, it’s their live performances that are really their heart and soul. When they build up their futuristic dancefloor clarion-call techno live, layer by layer, interacting with the machines on the fly, their every physical movement connected organically to the sound:, this is when the power and drama of Detroit techno is at its most potent.
Since their first release I Believe on Derrick May’s Transmat label in 1989, Octave One have spent their entire career making, performing and releasing genre-defining techno. They established their 430 West Records label in 1990 and have since released a series of classic tracks including the unforgettable Nicolette from 1990, Falling In Dub (1891), The X Files (1994), Empower (1995), Siege (1998) and then in 2000, the electronic soul of their huge international hit Blackwater.
In 2018, several acclaimed artist albums and numerous single and remixes later, Octave One released their eighth studio album Endustry. Released under their Random Noise Generation alias on 430 West, Octave One managed to avoid the weight of a ‘seminal’ back catalogue slowing them down artistically and continue to innovate. Endustry is an extremely contemporary affair, with a detached, restrained feel: pristine, precise, detailed. Like much of Octave One’s output, the album has an almost mathematical quality to it, as though each interlocking sound is part of a larger musical equation, an audio puzzle being solved in real time, with geometric musical figures moving together to answer some kind of abstract musical conundrum.
We spoke to Lenny and Lawrence about the album and about techno in the 21st Century, and began by asking them to flesh out their early days and influences...
Where are you and what are you up to today?
"We’re home for a few days between shows. We just spend the week in Europe doing a few weekend gigs in France, the Czech Republic, and Greece."
Can you tell us a little about how you first got into music?
"We grew up in a house filled with various kinds of music, from soul and funk to rock and classical. We listened to a bit of everything. Our mother put us all into private piano classes at a very young age, and we all played various musical instruments in Detroit public schools. Saxophone, clarinet, drums, violin, flute are some of the instruments we were taught in school."
So what about influences? Which artists have influenced your production sound, which DJs do you admire, which records can you not live without?
"We have a wide range of musical influences, as you may imagine! Barry White, Quincy Jones, Prince, Depeche Mode, The Eagles, The O’Jays, Elton John, Dr Dre, of course the Belleville 3: Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, Bee Gees, Stevie Wonder, among many, many others. Records we can’t live without: Depeche Mode's Violator, Barry White & Love Unlimited Orchestra's Music Maestro Please, Prince's Controversy.
Did coming from Detroit influence your music?
"Absolutely: without Detroit radio and club music, we would be very different musically. Like many others, we credit the progressive palate of radio DJ Electrifying Mojo (and his Midnight Funk Association) with introducing our ears to many different genres of music.
"We had a few very good new wave, rock, and of course, R&B radio stations also growing up, who mostly programmed music locally, and not from a parent radio station somewhere out of the city. Jeff Mills, Derrick May, and Alan Oldham all had radio shows on Detroit radio too, so it was a really good time for music."
So tell us about Endustry. What were you aiming for with this album?
"We worked for many many months on the new album. We composed most of it on the road while touring, doing basic ideas in hotel rooms and trying them out on stage. We to explore a bit of a rougher sound without abandoning the human element, keeping things melodic but adding some grit to it. The stage performances helped to shape the final recordings greatly."
To my ears, the album is simultaneously very contemporary-sounding while very much in the techno tradition. How do you keep your sound fresh?
"We always tried to not follow trends and just do what feels good to us. Sometimes we fit well with what’s going on but most times we’re rocking to the beat of our own drum. Doing it on your own terms means taking a risk, but also means your music is not tied to a mass movement that will eventually change to something else."
Are you happy with the result?
"Very much so! We had been living with the music for quite a while and we are very pleased that it evolved to what to came to be. The final studio process was the reward for our months of work."
So how does your creative process work in the studio?
"There is no set of rules we follow when we hit the lab. Everyone just falls into what the feels natural at the time. Sometimes it may begin with just talking about ideas. Sometimes we just start working on drum patterns or making sounds on synths. It could be anything. Once we hear something we all like, we start to build on it until we get it to a place we think we have something, or we just abandon it and move on. It actually helps to keep things loose."
Any particular favourite or go-to pieces of studio gear?
"The Roland TR-909 Rhythm Composer. It’s been with us since the beginning. It’s always inspiring and fun to program. It always reminds us why we started doing this music thing."
So what’s your live set-up?
"Our main brain is the Akai MPC1000. It’s the master clock and sequencer. We drive a varied array of synthesizers, drum machines, samplers, and sub-sequencers from it. Lawrence takes all the sounds, most coming from separate outputs from the various pieces of gear, and mixes them on the Midas mixing console. He also has many effects to help bring everything together or highlight particular sounds in the mix... whatever he chooses."
How do you prepare for a gig?
"Preparation for each of us is different. It’s quite a complicated set-up and things always need to be repaired, replaced, re-routed, programmed and reprogrammed to make it work efficiently. Most of the preparation comes before the start of a new tour, and then it's tweaked all along the year."
What do you do if something goes wrong when you’re playing live?
"When, not if something goes wrong, you do what you can to keep things playing, try and mask the error from the audience we’re playing to and fix whatever is wrong. We have a bag of wires and tools we always keep on stage with us to help us work through problems. We have back-ups of a lot of the gear, too."
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the mental strain of the dance music lifestyle - how do you cope with the stresses and strains of the game?
"We have been doing this for a very long time. First, we don’t buy into the rock star lifestyle: fast living only makes you hit the wall harder. We stay focused on the music and not all the other things that the music brings. We also have lives outside of this business. We don’t allow the music business to define us and we dictate how we live, not allowing other things to do it."
Do you have a favourite among your own productions?
"The Never on Sunday Day-by-Day EP. It was never a great selling record but was the most artistically fulfilling record we ever did."
You’ve remixed an impressive array of artists. How do you approach your remixes?
"We try and always think from the artists' point of view and try to make the remix more of a collaboration with the artist we are remixing. Keeping and reworking the key elements, using as much of the source material as we can. That’s what we would like to hear when someone remixes our music."
Looking back, how do you feel about all your musical achievements?
"We don’t necessarily call them achievements... more like signposts along our journey."
You’ve been creating great music for around 30 years – what’s been the biggest change in techno and DJ culture in that time?
"Techno and DJ culture in general is always changing. Technology is what enabled us to make this music, and technology is what keeps evolving things.
"One of the biggest changes in the culture is social media. In the past, feedback for music productions came in the form of DJs playing or not playing the record, a few reviews in magazines, fanzines etc and, in the end, actual sales. Now things are quite different with ‘fans’ giving feedback directly to artists, sometimes before the release or even final mixdown of a record!
"Everything about an artist is now criticised, for better or worse: DJ/live performances, online mixes, what you wear, how you travel. Getting closer to the people that enjoy your music is a good thing; having this influence the music you create or how you live may not be."
Are you feeling positive about the techno scene at the moment? Do other producers and artists still excite you?
"We love techno, especially Detroit’s brand of it. It’s about the music for us and it’s still that way for many people. There are still folks that really love this music and that’s really all we need."
And finally, what future plans for Octave One?
"Touring as always, and recording a new Octave One EP for for the summer of 2019. We are also now finishing recording a new more downtempo record for our band, Never On Sunday. We are really enjoying making this music and are looking to mid-2019 for its release."
Words: Harold Heath Pics: Marie Staggat
Random Noise Generation's Endustry is out now on 430 West