Octave One

Be Inspired: A profile on Octave One

We dig through the legacy of one of Detroit’s finest, Octave One as they make their way to Jaeger’s basement for another round of their awe-inspiring live show.

In Detroit, “everything was around us” according to Octave One. The brothers Burden are an indelible addition to the early history of Techno and one of Detroit’s finest exports. Born into the environment that birthed everything from Motown to the Model T automobile, the Burden brothers tap into a vast and extensive history of music and machines that all feed their singular creative output as Octave One. While Lenny and Lawrence are the central figures as the performers of the group, most of the brothers have a hand in some production aspects and running their label 430 West.

Their success is a stark contrast to circumstances into which they were born at a time when Detroit was going through one of its many downturns. “When the car industry declined, it caused a lot of problems in the city,” Lenny and Lawrence told Bridges for Music. People “went from making a lot of money to none” and “had to leave to survive.” That was happening as they grew up and for those that didn’t have the resources to leave there weren’t many options, especially for kids coming of age. For most being born in that environment in the USA there were two options, the military or prison, and for a few lucky ones there was also, sports or music. For the Burden brothers it was the latter and things got noisy real quick… 

“Having all of us in the house playing music could be kinda chaotic at times,” they reminisced in a Musicradar article. Their mum was nothing but supportive, because if it was noisy, she could be content with the knowledge her children were safe. It was ”a form of discipline because she could count on knowing exactly where we were.” The brothers had had a rudimentary musical education from elementary school, and it was emboldened by an eclectic musical taste. “We have a great love for early Old school RnB, Rock, Industrial and even some HipHop,” they told 15 questions;  “… our influences are endless!” 

They weren’t alone in their music adventures during this period., because while they were developing those influences, a whole city seemed to plug into the same wavelength, and Detroit Techno started to emerge. The Burden brothers had already been consuming “tons of Chicago House,” by the time the proto sound of Techno arrived with the likes of Model 500 and Transmat records and the transition was an effortless one. 

Techno was still in its infancy with the first wave of artists to emerge, but the Burden brothers would be there on the cusp of it too, even if it was still early days. “When we started in 1989, our exposure to Detroit techno primarily came from the radio and clubs, but you could have easily escaped it because there wasn’t a lot of it.” From that exposure, they bought “a couple of drum machines and synthesisers” and started making their own music. “It seemed amazing to us that we could make a whole song with just a few pieces of equipment.”

At the centre of their sonic explorations was the Roland TR909 drum machine. “Once we got the 909 I was hooked – that machine’s like a drug” Lawrence told Musicradar. “With the 909 we always say that if we sell that then it’s over.” The drum machine became the centrepiece from which they started to construct their own music, influenced by what they were hearing around them in Detroit. They were embedded in the scene early on, working the lights at the music institute (Derrick May’s joint) amongst other things, but they were not gonna get a free hand out either. Derrick May wouldn’t even give them a DJ set at the place they worked and the cassette tapes they sent for peer review from the labels around them “got rejected quite a few times.” They continued to work at it and the exposure to the new sounds of Techno emanating from places like the music institute undoubtedly only fortified their efforts. 

After a few more cassettes their work finally paid off with a release in 1989 on a forthcoming Transmat compilation and the follow up to the genre-establishing Techno! (The New Dance Sound Of Detroit) compilation, simply called Techno 2 – the next generation. At the time they were still unnamed. “We were put on the spot by Mr. Derrick May when we were asked what was the name of our band,” they recalled in Electronic Beats. “He left the room and we did a very, very quick ‘huddle’ to come up with a name on the fly that we felt best described us, and the name Octave One was born. And it meant and means all of us (Lawrence, Lenny, and Lynell) working in one accord almost as if sharing the same octave.” The track, “I believe” inaugurated Octave One as a fixture in the second wave of Techno coming out of Detroit alongside the likes of Carl Craig and Kevin Saunderson.

Not merely content with that release, the Burden brothers launched their own label right out of the gate, establishing 430 West almost directly after their debut. It was almost unheard of back in the early nineties for an unknown electronic music act to start an independent label. “Apart from Richie Hawtin’s Plus 8 and Carl Craig’s Planet E, not that many people had started their own label back then. We did it out of necessity because Derrick didn’t put out a lot of music on Transmat and we were ready for our next release.” 

430 West came “a time when even a bad record would sell a couple of thousand” and what started as one record soon took on a life of its own. In a couple of releases they established not only a sound for Octave One, but also for their label. Taking those rudimentary Techno archetypes of the generation before them and refining it, they had hit a nerve both in Detroit and Europe. There was, and remains a subtlety there that feigned the brutalist functionalism of the sole drum machine for a richer texture, even going so far as to set up the subsidiary label in the form of Direct Beat for their more functional- exploits and artists like AUX 88.   

Throughout the mid and late nineties they toiled away at both the label and the Octave One project, releasing records that have been coveted by collectors and enthusiasts since they were underground rarities at their time, most of which have only been appreciated with the advantage of hindsight.

Octave One became a touchstone for anybody interested in that early period of Detroit Techno, but this doesn’t mean that struggle has come without success for them. In 2000 they broke new ground with a crossover hit in the form of Black Water. The track sold over a million copies, thanks in part to the soulful vocals of Ann Saunderson, breathing live into the bubbling synthesisers and accentuating the emotive content of the strings.  

Black Water came at a significant time. Not only would it be one of the last examples of physical records selling into those high numbers, but it came at a time when the height of popularity for electronic dance music. As more people flocked to the music, the clubs,  the radio and even MTV, exploited this popularity with big business getting behind the genre for the pay day. As the big-room started selling out, most of the protagonists moved their music and act back toward the underground in this period, while some even abandoned these genres altogether for the likes of Punk and Disco, waiting out the tawdry commercial aspects that took hold.

Octave One took to the former, adopting an “adapt or die” approach during this period. “75% of our monetary gains came from sales, but a few years later it came from touring,” with Octave One becoming a fully formed live group. “I was supposed to play live by myself,” Lenny told Musicradar about the origins of the live set, “ and Lawrence would DJ his set right before I was supposed to hit the stage. I had his mixing console and all of his gear in front of me and was trying to do everything myself when Lawrence jumped on stage.”

Octave One, the live show, was born and soon it would also be immortalised in Techno lore thanks to their inclusion in Jeff Mills’ iconic exhibitionist mix and video series. From that Octave One set on a new trajectory as one of the most sought after live groups in electronic dance music and club culture. Their hardware-heavy set has decimated some of the best club sound systems in the world.

It all “happened organically” and as “the record label started to suffer” in the wake of the internet and everything else, they too started to “slow down being record label guys and concentrate on being performers.” As performers they’ve excelled in their field and there are few live Techno acts that can match the ferocity and experience of Octave One. “The fun part was playing the music” and while their recording efforts took a back-seat to their live performances, they still maintained a regular release schedule. In the last few years they’ve even resurrected and paid homage to a couple of their old aliases in the form Random Noise Generation and Never On Sunday respectively. 

Never On Sunday harks back to the early nineties, but as an album you can’t help being reminded of Black Water, with vocals from Karina Mia all over this thing and emphatic melodies and loud-like textures coming together in accessible, radio-friendly tracks. 

Softening the more functional edges of their live show, the record favours a more varied sound, but retains that elusive soul that remains the core appeal of Detroit Techno to this day.  “Thousands of people still want to experience Detroit techno that was born from the struggle of our lives,” the artists explained in that piece for Electronic Beats, and today more than ever, “from that, inspiration can be born.” Be inspired.