Octave One's Lenny Burden looks back over a 30-year career in techno

Octave One: "If you've got the whole planet making music with the same gear, your job is gonna be a lot harder"

As you probably know, Detroit played a crucial part in the development of electronic music. This hard-working industrial metropolis will be forever associated with Juan Atkins, Derrick May
and Kevin Saunderson, the trio of producers justifiably regarded as the godfathers of techno.

But Detroit had much more to offer than the Belleville Three - so called because Atkins, May and Saunderson were high school mates from nearby Belleville. Inspired by the trio's soulful machine music, a torrent of musicians, DJs, producers and record labels were soon taking techno in all sorts of different directions. Jeff Mills, Blake Baxter, Eddie 'Flashin' Fowlkes, Richie Hawtin - although he lived just over the border in Ontario, he's regarded as 'Detroit' - Carl Craig, Martin Bonds, Robert Hood… and the bloke who's sitting opposite us in a central London hotel bar, Lenny Burden.

Along with his brothers, Laurence, Lorne, Lynell and Lance - their parents obviously had an idea for names and stuck with it! - Lenny formed Octave One in the late 80s, debuting on Derrick May's Transmat label in 1990 with the still-sumptuous I Believe.

The following 26 years have kept them busy, forming their own label, 430 West; remixing the likes of Massive Attack and Inner City; denting the UK charts in 2002 with Blackwater; producing God knows how many tunes for other artists; helping to pioneer live electronic music; and, earlier this year, releasing their 41st release, Just Don't Speak.


Lenny, can we go back to the 80s?

Lenny Burden: "I knew you were gonna say that."

Did it feel like something special was happening in Detroit? Over 30 years later, can we look at it in the same context as, say, the San Francisco hippies in the 60s or London's punks in the mid 70s?

"The honest answer is no. It did not feel 'special'… it did not feel like a revolution, and there was no sense of change in the air. None of that. We were just a bunch of kids who were barely earning enough money to eat, but we'd all been bitten by the same bug.

"For it to feel like a revolution, we would have needed to be aware of what was happening outside the city in the big wide world. We weren't aware of anything. We were making that music because we had a simple and straightforward need to make it. The music was for us. The idea that some kid in London would listen to it or that I would be talking to you about it in 2016 would have been too crazy for words."

You and your brothers grew up in a musical household…

"Yes, we did. But you could argue that any black kid in Detroit grew up in a musical household; Motown was the sound… but our parents were also listening to Elton John, the Beatles, the soul sounds from the East Coast. Mom had this idea that music was 'good' for you; she sent us to piano lessons and made sure we had music classes at school. Sax, drums, clarinet… Laurence was a pretty good sax player, he could have turned professional.

"But what you've also got to remember is that Detroit is a machine town - a factory town. Michigan State made most of the cars that were driving on American roads. Every family that I knew had someone who worked in a factory; I had several factory jobs. The people of Detroit embraced technology and machinery. They weren't afraid of it, because it helped them put food on the table and send their kids through school. Technology was part of everyday life!

"You had black kids in the industrial heartland of America listening to a bunch of German dudes in suits playing 20-minute synthesiser songs… and it made perfect sense to us."

"You guys know the Electrifyin' Mojo, right? [legendary Detroit radio DJ Charles Johnson.] We used to listen to his show and he'd be playing George Clinton alongside this German group called Kraftwerk. You had black kids in the industrial heartland of America listening to a bunch of German dudes in suits playing 20-minute synthesiser songs… and it made perfect sense to us. It didn't feel alien or weird; it felt like we were coming home, it felt like we were listening to the soundtrack of our own lives.

"On the face of it, Kraftwerk might seem a million miles away from Motown, the O'Jays and Funkadelic, but I have occasionally bumped into the guys from Kraftwerk over the years and they told me they were trying to make 'soul' music, too. Music with emotion and humanity. Detroit understood that; 100%, we got it!"

Did you and your brothers have any equipment? Synths, drum machines…

"The city was an electronic treasure trove. We had a local ads paper - kind of like a weekly eBay - and it was full of stuff. We started out with turntables, some lighting units and stage effects, and became a sort of mobile disco unit. In the week, all five of us would go around the record stores in Detroit, and on Saturday, we'd put our money together, fill the car with gas and drive four and half hours to Chicago to buy more records. Even at that point, we had no idea there was an electronic 'scene'. We didn't join Chicago and Detroit together in our heads.

"Sorry, I kind of went off-road a bit, there. You asked about equipment. The universe moves in mysterious ways… at this very point in time, a new club was establishing itself in Detroit: the Music Institute. There was a good club scene in the city, but it was all soul, R&B and disco; the Music Institute played Juan, Derrick and Kevin, our music.

"Unfortunately, the club didn't have much equipment, so they started renting stuff from us. This gave us a gold-plated opening to everything that was happening in the city. It drew us in and we began to understand what we needed to make some music of our own. A Kawai R-50, a Korg DDD-1, a 909, a DX100, Roland W-30; and we were some of the first guys in Detroit to use a computer as a sequencer, the Commodore 64.

"Ah, man, it was like a drug! We'd drive two hours to pick up some crazy synth that we'd seen in the paper, and we'd gather round it like excited schoolkids. We had no idea what to do with all this equipment, but, at the same time, we felt that we could do whatever we wanted with it. The future was a limitless canvas.

"I was doing a factory job at that time, and it used to take me an hour and a half to get there and an hour and a half to get back. Every bus journey was spent reading manuals, so, by the time I got home, I just switched on the machines and started experimenting. I did that before I even had anything to eat. It was more important than food!"

Most of the Detroit names have ended up under the techno umbrella, but was that what you called it? This is the early years we're talking about…

"We all eventually ended up on the same 'techno' compilations, so yeah, people called it 'techno', and we probably called it 'techno'. But here's the strange thing: we were all from the same area and we were using a lot of the same equipment, but everybody at that time was trying to create their own, unique sound.

"In fact, it was kind of against the law to try and make something that sounded like someone else. If you heard a Derrick May record and you put out a record that sounded similar, you would have been looked down on. That was no way to make friends in Detroit.

"The ultimate goal was to try and create something that shocked all the other DJs and producers. You wanted to have them scratching their heads. 'How the hell did they do that?' Like when Kevin did the backwards drums on Big Fun. For a while, we were all searching for this new drum machine that had reverse sounds. We didn't know that he just reversed the tape.

"I guess that's what's kinda strange about the music business today. A record label sees that a song is a hit and says, 'OK, give me a song like that'. Our ethos was to not copy anyone; every time we made a record, we tried to create something new. Looking back, it was a great situation to be in, because we were pushing all the time; pushing ourselves and the equipment.

"Going back to your question… we were just making music, but if people wanted to call it techno, that was cool."

Even going back to Elvis and The Beatles, music was often seen as a means of escape for working-class kids. Was it the same for you and your brothers?

"After I left school, I worked. My parents couldn't afford to give me money, so that was the only way I could afford to live. At one point, I had three or four different jobs… finishing one and going straight to the next one. If you're asking me whether music was an escape from that 'way of life' - as in, did I see music as a career? - the answer is no. OK, some of the guys I knew had records out, but they weren't making the kind of money they needed to pay the rent every month.

"The way I saw it, I would probably be doing those jobs for the rest of my life, because that's what happened to kids from Detroit; nobody I knew became a rock star or a movie star. But if I made music, I could at least escape from that life inside my head. That was my escapism. I did the three jobs, I worked crazy hours and never had enough money, but when I started programming the 909, I could free myself from that life. I was flying to the stars, man.

"The fact that it did eventually become my job and it continues to be my job is just… grateful doesn't even begin to explain how I feel."

"Every bus journey was spent reading manuals, so, by the time I got home, I just switched on the machines and started experimenting. I did that before I even had anything to eat. It was more important than food!"

You mentioned that you were an early and enthusiastic adopter of the Commodore 64. Was the shift to DAWs just as easy, or has your hardware history made it difficult to go digital?

"It certainly wasn't easy. Even after we got the Commodore, we still liked to use things like the built-in sequencer on the Roland W-30 [which created most of the early Prodigy albums]. Everything that we'd learned over the years was about having a physical thing sitting on the table in front of us. Going inside the computer just didn't feel right… and it still doesn't.

"We messed around with Reason for a while, but I'd got so used to each individual sound and characteristic of our equipment that, without them, I felt uninspired. Look, this isn't a discussion about hardware vs software, because that's a pointless discussion. Neither is better or worse. They each do their job, and if they work for you, that's what you should use. I tried soft synths, but nothing felt like a real 106 or the Moog. I come alive with those machines.

"Where digital technology does work for us is Pro Tools; the biggest and best tape machine you could ever wish for. We also use it for sequencing, too. People tell me that the Pro Tools sequencer doesn't allow you to do as much as Ableton or Logic and I say, 'I know, that's why we use it'. We don't want anything complicated - we just need something that spits out exactly what we put in."

Are all the effects and post-production work analogue, too?

"We do have a lot of hardware outboard gear, but that tends to get used for shaping the sound as we're making a record. Once we get to the mixing stage, we work inside Pro Tools, with a lot of help from Waves. We started with the Gold bundle, because we figured we'd never use everything that was available in Platinum, but we are constantly adding to our Waves collection. We might even occasionally use a couple of their soft synths - Codex and Element."

You were there at the beginning, and here we are, many years later, still talking about the process of making electronic music. Have those 30-plus years of technical development made it easier or harder to create the music you want to make?

"Man, that's a killer question. We could spend days talking about it. Those years have certainly levelled the playing field and given lots more people the chance to make music. But that level playing field is also a cause of some of the problems we have today. If everyone has access to the same equipment, you run the risk of everyone making the same music. That's where the hard work and the patience and everything else comes in to play.

"When we first started making music, we were part of a growing but still fairly small group of people. Making a record that didn't sound like any of those other guys wasn't easy, but it was possible. If you've got the whole planet making music with the same gear that you're making music with, your job is gonna be a lot harder. But that's what you've got to do, man… find your sound. Find a place where you can thrive. Find a place where you feel alive!"

Octave One's single Just Don't Speak is out now. Their forthcoming album, Love By Machine, is coming soon on 430 West Records.

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