Willie Burns – On the crest of a wave

Willie Burns has finally quit his much despised day job as a swimming instructor. It means he can devote his life to “just doing music stuff and the thing.” Not to be confused with some obscure code word for a secretive indulgence of the American DJ, the Thing is actually a very prominent record store in the heart of Brooklyn. It’s where Willie Burns’ alter ego William Burnett spends most of his time, digging through endless stacks of records, categorising them and cleaning up the mess other record enthusiast make. Once referred to as the biggest influence in his life, the Thing is William Burnett’s personal cave of esoteric indulgences and the source of many odd gems in his record collection. “I don’t know if I would call them gems in the money sense, but they are definitely good music and not overplayed.” One such record that has made its way into Burnett’s record bag recently, and will no doubt find its way onto Jæger’s turntables, is “Never too late” by Robert Owens. “It has the bassline from Sylvester’s ‘I need somebody to love tonight’ looped over and over with a 909 and Robert Owens singing on it. It’s pretty great, and its one of those records that everyone thought about doing but never did – Sample that Sylvester track and put a beat on it.”

“Never too late” is a dance record from the furthest reaches of Chicago’s House history, but if anything Burnett’s digging is eclectic. “Good music is good music. It could be to enjoyed at home or in a DJ set, or a sample, or even a sound.” From his work as Black Deer, and its Moroder-esque synthetic space adventures, to his first explorations in disco as Grackle, this eclecticism shines through the many aliases he entertains in his productions. As Willie Burns though, he stays close to the dance floor appeal of Robert Owens, only striving to “make a dj or dancefloor record”, using his much-loved SP 12 sampler to make and shape the characteristic sound of Willie. It’s in that machine where a particular familiarity can be heard in his music, a familiarity that stretches back to the early days of House with a sound that is quite evidently New York. “I think I use the same machines they did and sample the same records”, explains Will when I ask him about the secret ingredient to Willie Burns’ New York inflection, “or maybe it’s the pace of life or the water.” Whatever it might be, it comes across in Burn’s productions as gritty House tracks that float as much as they stomp. Punchy 808s and rubbery basslines are drenched in luscious pads, while a crafty hook is always around the corner. It’s a sound that has found a home on labels like The Trilogy Tapes and Hot Haus, but often ventures outside the strict parameters of House. Last year’s EP “I wanna love you” goes from uplifting trance loops to low-slung funk bass grooves that bears some similarity to Moodyman at times. On the other hand 2013’s self-titled EP, released on L.I.E.S, ventures into even grittier territory with tracks “Dr. Monkey” and “Rewind” tearing up the groove like a dot-matrix printer and an irresolute tape machine respectively. It hints at the eclectic musical taste of Burnett’s, but when I ask the producer and DJ, whether this is something that he’s picked up through digging for records at the Thing, he only manages “hmm… I don’t know” as a response.

William Burnett is in San Antonio Texas when we catch up via email. “I came to visit my family. I haven’t been back in 2 years. Gonna swim and eat bar b que and Mexican food; and maybe check out the thrift shops.” Although originally from Texas, William has been calling Brooklyn home since 1999, after an extended detour through San Francisco. Collecting records, skating and refining his skills on guitar – an instrument WB still refers to as: “the only one I feel like I can play” – Burnett eventually got bored with the West Coast lifestyle and moved to New York, where his first adventures into production and DJing flourished. He adopted the DJ persona Speculator – a name that reflects the speculative way Burnett approaches music through a mix – and found a natural affinity with the decks by presenting his idea of “good music” to an audience. His disco alias Grackle matured during this time too, but it was eventually kicked to the curve when Willie Burns was born. “I think the biggest thing that ‘started it all’ was getting a studio outside of the house. That was when I really started taking it seriously.” Armed with little more than that SP-12 sampler, the producer cut his first record as Burns, the aptly titled ‘House’, in 2011. A string of releases naturally followed, and using the network of contacts he made through the Thing, William soon established WT records, a label that that reflects the owner’s eclectic personality through releases by artists like Hunee. It’s on the strength of the label and his musical career that William has been able to finally quit his other day job. Well that… and cutting down on some other expenses. “I still get records, but it’s not the way it used to be with me spending all my money on it.” That is not to suggest that Burnett is not feeding his musical impulses through other peoples music however. “I think it’s more about music in general. I’m listening to more music than ever, it’s more in the digital world, even if it’s a taboo.”

William is quite content on the listening end from the comfort of his apartment in Brooklyn, the life of a touring DJ never really holding much appeal for the artist. “I like Brooklyn. I have a good apartment, nice studio, and I like my job at the thing. It’s never boring. Good restaurants, records and people are always coming through.” He does make the odd exception and one particular person keeps calling him back to Jæger. “I come back for (MC) Kaman. I met him when he came to New York about 10 years ago through friends of friends and we hung out a lot. We stayed friends. Jaeger is a great place.” The last two times he was here he was able to swim in the fjord during a heat wave. “Swimming in the fjords isn’t exactly what you think about when you think of Oslo.” It looks like he might be able to do so again if the weather holds out, and at least the thought of an undesirable job will be the last thing on his mind as he dips into the tepid waters of the Oslo fjord.

*Catch Willie Burns on Wednesday, the 22nd of July alongside Øyvind Morken for Untzdag.

Words: Mischa Mathys