The birth of techno in Detroit is one of the most idealised scenes in music. The stories you hear have a mythic quality to them that to a skeptic like me can be hard to believe.
Things like the fact that Octave One lived in an apartment building that also housed pioneers like Juan Atkins, Marty Bonds, Jay Denham, and a sister of Carl Craig's who he visited often – which lead to jam sessions, collaborations, and gear sharing.
But then you realise that while it is amazing, it makes all the sense in the world that local artists would naturally find each other and form a bond through their common interests, and help each other reach higher heights.
Talking with Lenny and Lawrence Burden from Octave One, you see that, like all musicians, they're just genuine music nerds who've dedicated themselves to their craft and business.
Into their fourth decade in the industry, the duo have seen the birth and rise of electronic music first hand, and watched it grow into the billion dollar industry it is today.
With that amount of knowledge, I wanted to know what they thought of of how the scene's evolved to incorporate things like festivals, social media, and massive amounts of money.
This is what they had to say.
What I really like about your sound is how you guys always have that groove. You know, techno can get pretty hard, but for you guys that sense of groove is never lost.
Lenny Burden: For us it's just not fun [without it]. We had this conversation with a good friend of ours. We were talking about how we like to keep it funky and he said "you don't need the funk". And we were like "you don't need the funk?! I don't know what you're saying. What are you talking about?!" You always need the funk! [laughs]
There's no way around it. So for us even if it's just going to be a drum track, it better be a funky drum track. It better swing somehow, something that makes it sound like the drum machine didn't just make it itself. That's the thing. The funk is the human element. And if it doesn't have the human element, it's technology, not techno.
Working as a duo, do you have defined roles?
Lenny: In a live setting we do. But in production no. Live setting we have separate stations, he's in front of the mixer and I'm in front of the synthesisers and drum machines. I'm primarily responsible for the picking of the songs and the different instrumentation, he's responsible for how we sound to everybody else. He's adding the effects, mixing it, the whole thing. We're both responsible for the arrangement of the song. I can change the arrangement, he can change the arrangement.
Because you guys play live, how quickly can you change things on the go? If you build a loop and you're not feeling it, how do you communicate between each other?
Lenny: We kind of just feel it. It's all about the feeling. We usually don't like to talk. If we're talking that means something is terribly wrong. It's normally about the feeling, and we can usually tell when it's time to change. And we usually feel that at the same time. 99% of the time we kind of know 'OK this song is pretty much over, let's start to break it down'.
Because when it's time for a song to be over we start breaking pieces down, taking pieces out so we can start bringing pieces from other songs in. So we kind of just know. Both of us can usually feel it from the crowd, feel it from each other, and sometimes I can hear him start to break it down so I'll start taking pieces out.
Lawrence Burden: It's totally improv.
Is that something you've needed to develop over time?
Both: It's just natural.
I've talked to a couple of German DJs who say that along with Detroit, Berlin, Munich, and Frankfurt should be thought of as the birthplace of techno. What do you think of that?
Lenny: If you're talking about Kraftwerk you can't get past Kraftwerk. But really for us, I mean, what does Derrick [May] always say, "Techno's Kraftwerk and George Clinton stuck in an elevator" or something? [laughs] It's kind of that way. Ours was kind of from a funky point of view.
Lawrence: I think ours was the scene, the actual scene instead of an individual artist. It was really a scene of individuals who brought and developed a particular sound.
Lenny: Yeah, they might have a certain degree in their own right, but realistically the foundation of what we're all dancing to now came from Detroit. That's just what it is. You can trace even the stuff that came from Munich and those places, the foundation came from Detroit. It was the place where we took what Chicago was doing with the 4/4 and blended it with funky electronic stuff. If you're going to look at it from that perspective, it came from Detroit.
Lawrence: 909 drum machines, which became industry standard.
Lenny: Yeah, now you hear them on every techno track. If you want to know where that came from it was folks going to Chicago and finding it from the house guys and bringing it to Detroit where we adopted it to techno. That didn't originate any place but Detroit.
You've said before that to play consistently you need to go outside The States, though it's changing a bit now. Isn't that a bit strange since house is from Chicago and techno from Detroit?
Lawrence: You know what, not so much. I look at other genres of music, one in particular I always point out is blues. Blues was a predominantly black genre from Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, but after a while as it went out, the people that were into it started to look to other forms of music and other people started to appreciate it. It still existed, it just kind of changed hands. And it might have changed its sound a bit as outside influences came into it, and it's the same thing as in techno.
Lenny: And I think in the US it's all about marketing.
Lawrence: Yeah, that's true.
Lenny: If you look at how EDM came in, what they figured out is you have to put vocals on it and they started making the DJ more of an 'artist'. They had to figure out a way to market it across the United States. In Europe none of us even had faces on records, or any of that stuff. It was faceless and completely different.
White labels and things like that.
Lenny: Yeah, that's exactly it. You rarely see a music genre spread across the United States where there isn't something or someone where you can associate an actual image with that music. Everything has always been marketing. You go to these other markets and, you know, it's just pure.
So we never thought that the US would be a big market until someone decided to actually put a face to it and make an act that's marketable itself. That's why EDM became the new pop music. They took it and made it so it was palatable. You have to water it down for the United States, it's just the way it is.
Lawrence: So they did everything you would do to promote a pop record but it was just a 4/4. The genre changed a bit but they promoted it -
Lenny: The same way. They put it on radio and it's taken over the radio now. Records we were making were not radio records. You could not do a three-and-a-half edit to our stuff, it just wouldn't work.
Lawrence: The acid line wouldn't flow.
Lenny: [laughs] Yeah. And most of our stuff was instrumentals. How many big instrumental cuts are there on the radio?
You have a new A/V show, tell me about that.
Lenny: We've had visuals many times in our shows before, but this time we decided to rethink our visuals. Everyone's doing synch visuals, so it's not a huge thing, but we actually decided to link up with a video game designer, a guy out of New York and Tokyo. We wanted to get a bit more of an old school kind of feel but also still modern because it represents our music. We're old school dudes [laughs] but we like to keep it to what our perception of being current is.
So this time we decided to work a lot closer to how our visuals were being created, and for each song, which was unique for us. We were very hands on with it because we wanted it to be a lot more of a representation of us, and more of a cohesive feel for the entire show. It took a lot of time, you know, sitting down with designers and giving them our thoughts and building the visuals from the ground up.
Do you notice a different reaction from the audience if there is a big visual element?
Lenny: It depends what the setting is. Some clubs it totally just ruins it. You play some place like Fabric where it's supposed to be a dark club, it doesn't work. Festivals, because of how big the stages normally are and there's already crazy light shows going on, you get a much better reaction with visuals. That's usually how we make our distinction, between club shows and festivals.
About festivals, what's your split between festivals and club shows in general?
Lenny: I mean they're both necessary.
Lenny: The club shows are our groundwork.
Lawrence: Club shows give you the opportunity to try new things.
Lenny: Yeah, you can fail in the club [laughs].
Lawrence: And get as freaky as you want to get with what you're doing. When you get to a festival, you got to deliver. Everything you've worked hard for, you just got to give it to them at the festival.
Lenny: Club shows are a lot more forgiving. You can try some things. We have many tracks that we've never played at a festival that we've tried many times in the club. There are certain tracks that work well in the club that do not work well at festivals because they're designed to be intimate, they're not designed to be big-room. When we're first developing songs they start off as small productions and then grow bigger and bigger as we go along. So it's much better to start developing songs in the club. So it's definitely necessary for us to have these club shows.
I've read that the ever growing festival season is affecting clubs negatively, that some are closing down because of it.
Lenny: There has to be an element of truth to that because there are so many more festivals that are popping up. It's so competitive and the kids only have a certain amount of money. I can definitely see some clubs starting to suffer because of so much competition from these festivals.
It can be very organic how the clubs and festivals work together, but there can't be so many festivals out there where they're eating up so many of the days. In certain cities like Rome the clubs close in the summertime anyways, so they can work hand in hand. But they have to learn how to do that. And there has to be some kind of symbiotic relationship where they learn how to work together. But nobody's consciously doing it.
There's a new debate that you see a lot in the hip hop world about how necessary it is to know your history. What do you think about that?
Lawrence: I think for me with anything it's good to know the history. To know the root of anything is always good, you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you came from.
Lenny: Especially for the audience itself, if you want to keep them into that genre for a longer period of time -
Lawrence: You got to educate them.
Lenny: That was always the DJs job to educate them, so that he can have an educated audience and they know basically what this was about, as opposed to only enjoying the icing and not knowing what the cake is. I think after a while the icing will get old and if you never tasted the cake, you're gone.
Conversely, how much effort do you put into trying to keep up with all the new music?
Lenny: Little to none.
Lawrence: It comes far too quick now. And we work too much [laughs] so it goes over our head a lot of the time.
Lenny: There used to be a point where we knew every record that'd come out of Detroit, Chicago, London, New York. But there were also a lot less records. You know you had to physically make a piece of vinyl. And now you got to figure that there's probably a thousand records that are dropping tomorrow from kids with laptops. There's no way in the world we can keep up with it. There's no way in the world anyone can keep up with it. It's just so different now.
So whenever we're playing parties, there are DJs that we like so we'll go and hear them so then we might hear some new music, but primarily we aren't even trying to keep up with what's Top 10 on Beatport or any of that stuff.
Even just for a normal fan the relationship between a piece of music and a fan is so different now.
Lenny: It's disposable is what it is. There's a very limited shelf life. We used to think in terms of 'hey this record isn't going to hit when we drop it, but it might hit six months or a year later'. You don't have that window anymore. We used to always think of us making future music, not music for right now. So this is where we think things should go and that's how we made records. Now you don't have that kind of longevity.
Lawrence: You got to hit the ground running.
Lenny: Yeah, it has to be something that if they don't pick it up the first two weeks, the record's dead.
And when you're producing the music is that something you're conscious of?
Lenny: We try to push it out.
Lawrence: I don't think we're conscious of that, but when we release it is when that filter kind of comes into play. 'I love this song, but maybe the time isn't right right now'.
As business people who run a couple of your own labels, how do you approach putting out a single or an album? Has this new reality of music changed that? Are you hitting all the social media outlets and such?
Lawrence: That's what the team is for [laughs].
Lenny: Those aren't things that we enjoy. We understand that people need to know that the record is out and that's why you build a team. You gather people up who enjoy those things.
Lawrence: And there are people who do that so much better than we do. I'll leave it in the hands of the professionals.
Lenny: Oh man, yeah. I mean, we'll talk to kids on Instagram and Facebook or whatever, but primarily if we're talking about how can we present this song on Instagram? Man, I'm not even thinking about that. It's too much now, we didn't grow up with these things. A lot of the new artists grew up with Instagram and Facebook. These are all things that we completely understand, but they're not enjoyable.
Lawrence: It feels like work to us.
Lenny: Yeah, and especially at this point in our career, we just try to do stuff we like doing.
What's interesting about social media and music is that it becomes more about the artist's life, you're following their personal life as a celebrity and it's not really so much about the music. How does that relate to you guys?
Lenny: To a certain extent we understand we aren't some marketable beautiful girl [laughs]. We make music, we play music. Even looking at our Instagram account, it's of our gear. It's centred around our musical lives.
We understand it's a lot more visual now. And once again when we started it was about white labels, they didn't even know who we were.
Lawrence: They could care less.
Lenny: It was about when they drop that needle if they liked it or not, they could care less who made it. Now it's so much not about the music and we try to keep ours about the music as much as we can. And about what we do as far as presenting the music, as far as how we plan, little video clips of us playing, that's fine. But it's not so much social for us, like 'oh look at me I'm on vacation'.
Lawrence: 'I'm eating a donut!' [laughs]. I've seen that.
Lenny: [laughs] So if we have a picture of something crazy it's our team telling us we need to put something up.
Their PR chimes in: Sometimes you do take pictures of yourself on the plane. You've done that.
Lenny: Oh yeah I've done that! And it's because I was directed to [laughs]. That was not from my own consciousness [laughs].
This stuff must be influencing the music, no?
Lenny: I think it's more affecting the industry more than the music, as far as the booking of the artists. It's the perception that this artist is big and this artists needs a big fee. You know, you see this artists in a private jet or in first class. They're on the beach, they have a great life, they're wearing Fendi. And these things, bookers then look at these numbers and see that this artist has this many likes and it translates to fees. It's not about how this artist makes music -
Lawrence: Or even if the music is good. Or even if they did it! People don't make their own music anymore?! They got all these other producers, you know. For us it was absurd to even think about whether we were making our own music or not.
Lenny: It's definitely becoming so much more visual and music is supposed to be something you hear, not something you see. It's always been marketed, I mean Motown was marketed, everybody marketed music. And even in Motown the singer sometimes didn't actually sing what you thought, but the underground was always different. You know, Muddy Waters sang Muddy Waters records [laughs].
This is now becoming a lot more like pop. Pop has always had this air of marketing, about how people dressed and all that. I mean, for real we wore all black because it was easy [laughs], you know, so you couldn't tell how dirty this shirt was because we were wearing it for three days [laughs]. But now the black t-shirt is $500. It's a different thing. I don't know if I would have perceived that it would come to this but it's definitely different.
Lawrence: The thing is that it's here now, so you have to learn how to navigate it. You can't sit here and say "oh the old days".
Lenny: It's what it is. If we want to continue to play our music, we have to do things that aren't just comfortable for us. So every now and again if they want us to take a picture of me sitting on the airplane, I'll take a picture [laughs]. But it's not going to affect how I make a record or play my music. None of these things are going to affect how I do what I love. And that's the important thing.
I don't even want to stop in the set and take a selfie with the crowd, you know what I'm saying, because I can't do it. But if my guy behind me wants to do it, that's fine, but I'm playing. And I'm conscious of the fact that all these things are so I can play my music. But when it starts to interrupt me playing my music, why am I doing this?
You guys love tech and with so much stuff coming out all the time I've heard of artists putting false limitations on themselves to help spur creativity. Do you try to keep up with the latest tech or how do you approach it?
Lenny: We're not interested in the new thing. Even when we buy new gear, we make the same sounds [laughs]. It's just fun.
Lawrence: I'm totally old school, I stick with the same stuff. I just learn how to use that old stuff in a new way. That's just what I like. I'm just going to still to my same keyboards and same drum machines and I might try some new ideas with it but if it's working why change?
Lenny: Usually I'm the guy always trying something new. But I could show you picture of shelves of stuff that I've only played two or three times. Because I just want to see what's going on. It's things we add to the show that we might only keep for about a couple months and I put it back in the box and put it on the shelf.
Lawrence: Or eBay [laughs]. Get it outta here man! He's got tonnes of stuff.
Lenny: These limitations that people are trying to get, we've always had them. That's the reason we stick with the hardware and now they're figuring it out. But we understood that you'll just get lost. It already takes us so long to make a record. If we have limitless things to do, we're done. We'll never make another record.
I've seen that the next step is VR. So you put the goggles and gloves on and you can literally mix and flip through everything in there. It'll be like Minority Report.
Lenny: Yeah, I know exactly what you're talking about. Nah man. [laughs].
Lawrence: I have a mixer. [laughs]. I have keyboards, that is VR for me. That's all I need.
Lenny: All those things for me are just imitations of things that are real.
Lawrence: It's cubic zirconia and I got diamonds. Just enjoy the diamonds. You don't need a big rock just get a chip.
Lenny: Limitations are always important though. I've been preaching this for years that you need to get a piece of gear and learn it backwards and forwards. A lot of the time these limitations are what make the track.
Lawrence: It challenges you creatively. You need that challenge. That 'oh I can't do what I got in my head but what can I do to get close or create something new'.
Lenny: There's many times where a limited polyphony of an instrument will make a synth line different. Because it can only play eight notes and you're trying to play ten. And all of a sudden you're like "oh listen to that!" But you don't find that with soft synths. You rarely find where there's a limit to how many notes something can play, unless you set it. All real hardware synths have a limit to what they can play at one time. And usually that comes up with some real interesting stuff when it's stilling notes and stuff like that. These kinds of things were essentially a part of how we made music that we didn't consciously think about.
You've teased some upcoming music. Want to tell me more about that?
Lenny: We're doing a three record series. And we've been working on it for a while actually.
Lawrence: Locus of Control.
Lenny: We're really excited because we always try to push the envelope and come up with something different and we think we've got something kind of interesting. It's still us, always still us.
Lawrence: We've noticed that things have gotten so tracky now, we said "what if we swing the other way? Don't go tracky, let's go full melodic songs, but something you may be able to manoeuvre into a tracky set. Let's see what's going to happen". That was our approach. Everybody's to the right, let's go to the left and see what happens.
Lawrence, have you ever hurt your neck playing live?
Lawrence: [laughs] No I haven't. And I never even noticed I was doing all that. People started asking me "how do you do all that with your neck?" And I didn't know what they were talking about. Then I started watching some videos and saw. But no I haven't. I do have a big neck man, got to be from working it out [laughs].
PR again: No one else can do that. It's unique [laughs]. One day your head will fall off.
But at least that will make a good Instagram story.
Lenny: [laughs] yeah exactly. Gotta get those likes.
Find a selection of the festivals Octave One are playing this summer here