Q&A: Octave One

As the Movement festival nears, Detroit-born brothers Lenny and Lawrence Burden unveil their new album, 'Burn It Down.'
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Photo: Marie Staggat

Photo: Marie Staggat

It's been two and a half decades since Octave One's "I Believe" came out as part on the seminal Techno 2: The Next Generation, and even in those early days, the production unit had already nailed down its sound: deep and driving melodic techno that's brimming with feeling, blending starkness and sublimity like few others. Its a sonic template that has served Octave One—Lenny and Lawrence Burden, with contributions over the years from siblings Lynell, Lorne, and Lance—well over the years, and, with only a few tweaks here and there, it's the template (with only a few tweaks in service of modernity) that you'll find on Burn It Down, the Motor City–born brothers' first album since 2008's Summers on Jupiter. Featuring vocal contributions from Afrika Pratt-Ansa and longtime collaborator Ann Saunderson (who also sang on 2000's "Black Water," among many other claims to fame), its packed with hard-charging yet emotive cuts that are pure Octave One. Burn It Down is released on the Burden's longtime label, 430 West, on May 26th—but you'll be able to get a sneak preview when Lenny and Lawrence Burden perform live at the Movement festival on May 23, and when they play an intimate in-store set in Detroit shop Spectacles on May 24.

I’d bet that when you guys first started you didn’t have a clue that, a quarter of a century on, Octave One would still be going strong.
Lenny: You don’t know what’s going to happen when you start making records. We didn’t know we were going to have a career at all; it was kind of just like recreation that turned into something more. We would just head into the studio because we loved it. You have to get something out of your system? Head to the studio! It was kind of like driving a fast car. But we’re certainly glad it did turn into something.
Lawrence: Of course, we didn’t know it would last this long.

The studio, along with playing live, is what you do this for, right? You’ve been quoted in the past that you’re not really into the record-business end of the whole endeavor.
Lenny: Early on, it was actually kind of fun—but it wasn’t close to the kind of enjoyment we got from making records. We’ve only been playing live for about 15 years—though Lawrence was deejaying way before that—but once we got into that, we thought that was the best part. If someone told me we had to give up the running-a-record-label part, we wouldn’t miss that at all.

Having said that, though, your label 430 West is still going strong, right?
Lenny: Absolutely, and the new album is coming out on it. But it’s not how it was before. In one point in time, when we had 430 West and Direct Beat, we were dealing with 18 artists. Now, we’re primarily dealing with ourselves—which is a drastic difference from dealing with all these people on a daily basis.
Lawrence: Oh, yeah. [laughs]

We weren’t part of the Detroit inner circle. We never were actually nurtured by what you might call the Big Three.

One thing I’ve always found interesting about you guys is that even though you’re longtime figures on the Detroit scene, it always seemed like you stood apart from that universe a bit.
Lenny: I would say that’s a true assessment. We weren’t part of the Detroit inner circle. We never were actually nurtured by what you might call the Big Three. We were never apprentices to anyone, like some of the other Detroit producers. We developed our sound on our own, just three guys working together. And when we initially were working on our first record, “I Believe,” it was only through a friend of a friend that ended up at the Metroplex studio to record it.
Lawrence: And that friend introduced us to Anthony “Shake” Shakir—and he’s the one who finally did bring us into the inner circle, or at least as close as we ever were. He was connected with everybody, but definitely with Transmat and Metroplex. That’s how we got in. I mean, we knew everybody from the Music Institute and everything, but we just weren’t in that core group.

Your music was also a little different from what the others were making at that point, perhaps.
Lenny: It was probably a lot different. Shake always used to tell us, “It’s techno, but it’s different. You can dance to it—or you can make love to it!” And he was right, because we always did like a deep and melodic kind of sound.
Lawrence: We never really felt like we were competing with the other guys. But we appreciated everybody’s style; we really loved everything that everybody was doing back then.
Lenny: It was weird how everything came together for us. I lived in an apartment building, and we had our first little studio in my apartment. Our next-door neighbor was Marty Bonds, who was working with Juan Atkins. Jay Denham lived there, too.
Lawrence:Carl Craig’s sister lived upstairs.
Lenny: It was like this weird little collective, and there never was any competition. We shared equipment all the time. But still, we were always sort of on the outskirts, which let us develop on our own.

"Having a record was huge, man. When you get to touch that vinyl, and put it on a turntable, and actually hear something that you did…that was the ultimate goal."

You were probably happy just to be getting records out and having those records get some recognition, whether you were part of the core group or not.
Lenny: To be honest, that was really the only thing we were thinking about. And having a record was huge, man. When you get to touch that vinyl, and put it on a turntable, and actually hear something that you did…that was the ultimate goal. You didn’t care about the financial rewards—you just wanted to make a record. And once you did that, you wanted to make another one.
Lawrence: It was addicting. It was a drug, seriously.

Lawrence, were you playing Octave One’s early material in your DJ sets at the time?
Lawrence: I didn’t really get a chance to that far back, because I didn’t start DJing until early ’93. I do remember playing “I Believe” and some others at that point, though, after the heat of the moment had already expired on them. [laughs]
Lenny: I remember hearing “I Believe” at the Music Institute very early on, though. I can’t remember who played it…it might have been Derrick.
Lawrence: That was amazing for us.
Lenny: We were actually working there at the time, doing lighting and effects. I also remember hearing “I Believe” on local radio.
Lawrence: We were driving in the car, and it just hit us—“Oh, man, is that our song coming on?!?” That was amazing. We thought we had hit the big time…the local big time.
Lenny: And then we could retire. [laughs]

Let’s flash-forward quite a few years and talk about your new album. This is your first LP of all-new music since 2008’s Summers on Jupiter—why the long break?
Lenny: To be honest, we’ve been on a kind of journey for the last few years. In 2007, we actually moved from Detroit to Atlanta; we had kind of needed to shake some things up. And then between the move and now, we’ve been doing tons of touring, and working more as a band as a production unit, which is a different concept.

Photo: Marie Staggat

Photo: Marie Staggat

Do you think that this switch has effected your productions at all?
Lenny: Before, I think we were primarily making music for DJs, and now we’re really making music for our live set. They’re largely tracks that we’ve developed by playing live, and that’s required almost relearning out we make music. We have known over these past seven or eight years what we want to achieve musically, but it’s been hard to get there. And we feel that it’s not good to put records out just to put records out.
Lawrence: At least, it’s not good for us. We’ve always just put things out when we feel we have something to say. We have had our growth spurts where we’d put three or four months worth of records back to back, but that only was when we felt that we had a real reason to, because the material needed to be out.

You just mentioned that the songs were developed by playing live. How does that process work?
Lenny: The live stage is our new studio. That’s how all of these songs came about. A couple of songs are even reworks, like “A Better Tomorrow”—that was initially released as a Random Noise Generation track. We had been constantly playing that song, and it had matured to a certain level where we realized that most people hadn’t heard it in its new form. But in general, when we’re playing, we’ll start with the shell of a track, add another piece, then do something different with the arrangement, then add another piece or whatever. We feel like this all came together when we did a Boiler Room set in Moscow last year. It was made up of tracks that we had developed live, and people were asking forthese records.
Lawrence: And so we had no choice but to release them. [laughs] We had so many requests on Facebook, like “What was that track at 20:16? I need it!” We just had to go into the studio and record them. I mean, DJs were playing the tracks off of YouTube or whatever.
Lenny: It really came to the point where we already had an album ready to go. It was already a full story.

What does the name of the album, Burn It Down, signify?
Lenny: It has quite a few meanings, but it’s really like a rebirth. We find that in both our careers and our lives, we have to break everything down to the basic minimum, so that we can then build it back up.
Lawrence: And when you burn something, it consumes everything—and when that happens, you have no choice to start from the ground up. There was just so much going on with our personal lives and our careers that we felt like it was time to press the reset button and see what it felt like.

And how is it feeling?
Lawrence: Oh, man, it’s exhilarating.
Lenny: You know, because we’re brothers and have been working together for so long, our lives and careers have kind of been in parallel. And it really helped to shake things up a little.

Do you guys ever get sick of working together?
Lawrence: I’m sick of him right now! But really, we have our moments. But the thing about being family is that you always come back together. You do have to get certain things out of your system sometimes, but it’s all cool.

There are a number of vocal tracks on your album, and you’ve always embraced singing a bit more than some of your Detroit contemporaries. What is the appeal of vocals for you?
Lenny: I think we’ve just both always really liked vocals.
Lawrence: For us, vocals are another instrument. A lot of times, we’ll have some melodies in a track, but we’ll hear another instrument that needs to be there. And that’s often a vocalist. We like to bring them in and add their accents to what we’ve already developed.
Lenny: Sometimes it will even happen after we put a record out. That’s what happened with “Black Water,”for instance, and more recently with [the new album's] “Jazzo/Lose Myself.” We actually released “Jazzo” on very limited vinyl, like 500 copies, a year or so ago. When we got the vinyl and played it, we said to each other “You know, this record isn’t finished.” We knew the record could be more. It was the same with “Black Water,” too. We always thought it should have some vocals, but at the time our resources were very limited, so we just couldn’t do it.
Lawrence: But after it started selling, we had the money to reinvest in the record, so we had the opportunity to go into the studio and add vocals and an orchestra.

With or without vocals, Octave One tracks usually have a lot of emotion in them.
Lawrence: We always like to feel something. Whether it’s happy or sad, we always want the music to evoke some kind of emotion. That’s always been true: Even back at the Music Institute, if someone was playing even a jack track or something, the music’s got to make me feel joyous, so I can close my eyes and dance around the club from one end to the other.

You guys are playing in your hometown on May 23 at the Movement festival. Do you feel any extra pressure when you play in your hometown?
Lenny: It’s not really pressure: it’s actually just a lot of fun! We get to see all of our peers and hang out.
Lawrence: It’s like, alright—we’re home!