by Andrew Duke
For Octave One, it all comes back to Detroit's Music Institute. The legendary days when music was simply music; divisions like "house" or "techno" didn't exist, anything forward thinking was simply "progressive", because it was taking the groove to a new place. Ten years on from when Lawrence, Leonard, and Lynell Burden first began recording together, the spirit of the Music Institute remains the impetus behind their recordings, the driving force that has resulted in their 430 West and Direct Beat labels, and a slew of singles as Octave One, Random Noise Generation, and, more recently, Cirkit. Lawrence Burden juggles the roles of artist and label manager and took some time recently to relate the story of "I Believe" and the history behind Octave One.
As Burden puts it, their experiences in music are "varied and vast." Though neither of the Burden parents were musically inclined (a cousin Burden has yet to meet is a member of the Ohio Players), Burden's mother loved music and had the young Burdens taking piano lessions ("we didn't have a choice") at the age of six. The Burdens moved on to brass, woodwinds, and drums, but it wasn't until the entrepreneurial bug bit that things began to take shape. Their first venture was setting up as roadies, working locally with a number of musicians and nationally with figures such as jazz pianist Bob James. At the same time, they put together a DJ crew and used to do frat parties in the Detroit area. This exposure to the wax of New Wave acts like Devo and Gary Numan got Lawrence, the oldest Burden, into electronic music, while for Leonard and Lynell, who also shared a love for industrial and jazz, it was actually buying their first pieces of electronic gear. "We had like a Kawai R50 and a Korg DDD1," Burden says, "and once they bought those pieces, they were pretty much hooked." They took advantage of the opportunities they had while touring, dabbling with equipment as they were setting up and doing soundchecks.
The Burdens ended up doing the first lighting system for the now famous Music Institute. "I had a mutual friend of one of the guys, Tony Anthony, his performing name is Chez Damier," Burden remembers. "Anyway we had a mutual friend and she introduced me to those guys when they were building the club and putting it together. They didn't have any lights so we just kind of networked We had already been doing lights and things when we were doing frat parties with our DJ company, so we spun a lighting company off of the DJ company. They were really cool guys, we got to know each other and we offered our services, man, and it was a nice marrige at that time." What was the lighting company called? "VLE New Age. Don't ask me what it means," Burden laughs. So, working at the Music Institute was the main inspiration to move from playing around with instruments to actually recording? "You know, that might have had a big influence on us, but I can't actually pinpoint what made us actually start to go in and start recording. We were already making tracks even prior to that, you know, it was just kind of a natural progression. We would be jamming and making songs and after a while you just want to start taking them from cassette tape and actually laying them down to see if you could do something with them." They started recording at Juan Atkins' Metroplex in 1988 and a year later the pieces came together for "I Believe", the vehicle that took them from a studio in Detroit to a much wider audience through the track's appearance on the follow up to the "Techno: The New Dance Sound Of Detroit" compilation and as a single on Derrick May's Transmat imprint.
Once again, networking and being in the right place at the right time gave them the boost they needed. "The way we ended up on the second 'Techno…' compilation, we were not even shooting for that," Burden relates. "We were recording 'I Believe' in Juan's studio and Juan's brother Aaron really wanted the track for Metroplex [the label]. But we were really close to Anthony Shakir, and Anthony was really close to Derrick May. Derrick was in England at the time with Neil Rushton, who was in charge of really overseeing the whole 'Techno...' compilation." The "Techno 2: The Next Generation" release had already been completed. "I Believe" was sent over to the UK and, Burden says, "Derrick May will probably tell you to this day he really didn't care for the track, but Neil Rushton did. And they ended up pulling somebody's track off of the compilation and putting ours in its place. We were just kind of stunned because we were just sending the track over so that Derrick could check it out because Shake, Anthony Shakir, had promised 'I Believe' to Transmat. Shake was just letting him [Derrick May] check it out to see the kind of work that we had already done. We must have kind of stumbled on becoming part of that particular compilation." Do you know who you bumped to gain a place on the release? "I do," the diplomatic Burden says, "but I won't say." Come on, Lawrence, this writer prods, tell us. "I will not say," Burden repeats, before breaking out into laughter.
While "I Believe" gained much exposure from Octave One through the 10/Virgin compilation and on Transmat, rumors began to circulate years later when Derrick May hooked up with R & S and repressed the early Transmat releases. Noticeably, "I Believe" was not repressed. Burden provides the answer: "It was because of us he didn't repress it. Some legal things were going on and we stopped the repressing of that intentionally." The single was later repressed by the Burdens and released as 4WMS10 on 430 West. Burden was shocked at how well the record sold when repressed more than six years after it was originally available. "Generally you get the collectors who will buy pieces like that," he says, "but it sold like it was a new record and we were just stunned and we're still stunned to this day because we've stopped pressing it, but we still get so many orders for it. We were surprised, because we thought everyone actually had the record and just because it had been out there so long and Transmat had such a vast distribution set up." So why release it on 430 West instead of letting May repress it on Transmat? "Well, actually Derrick wanted to do it. It was some things that I don't really want to discuss that were kind of legal, but we held it from being repressed by Transmat. But, it was part of his intention, to my knowledge to press it as well. But once we found out that the entire Transmat catalog was going back to press, we kind of put the brakes on that situation." Transmat was doing pretty good numbers, but the Burdens wanted to have it for themselves on 430 West, is that why? "Well, not even just that. It was just other things involved," Burden laughs. "You know, I really don't want to get into detail because that's actually between us and Derrick."
The story of how "I Believe" came together as a song is an interesting one. "We had rented some time, like we generally did, out of Juan's studio," Burden relates. "And my brothers went to go pick up Shakir and bring him to the studio. I was already at Juan's studio and I was playing these chords and I'll tell you how it came about. Kevin [Saunderson], and he's probably still mad to this day, had loaned Juan this brand new keyboard. He [Saunderson] hadn't even had a chance to use it yet, and he had bought it for whatever the next Inner City project was going to be and he loaned it to Juan to check out. Juan left it in his studio and I started playing with it. I played these chords, man, probably for about three hours before my brothers and Shake got back there. And once they came in, they were like, 'Lay it down, we got to lay that down, we like that!' It just kind of stemmed from there, it was just a brainstorm. It was basically one night's work and I always tell people, 'If it's a good project, you'll see it come about in an hour to a day. If it's a solid piece of work, it'll just keep flowing, it won't stop going.'..It just flowed all night and that very night we went and grabbed Lisa Newberry and we did the lyrics the same night as well, everything was done in one night." Why bring in a vocalist, especially considering this is the only vocal track you've released? "We brought the vocalist in just because we wanted something different. It was a very strong instrumental, but at that time as Octave One, we had been doing full vocals. So it was just natural for us to actually have a vocalist to be that additional instrument on the track. We had been doing other vocal tracks but hadn't released them. We kept playing it, people were sitting down brainstorming, everybody kinda wrote a line or two, and before you know it, we had some lyrics and we just needed somebody to go on top of the music. She had the perfect voice." Why no vocalists on tracks after "I Believe"? "We didn't really have access to a full studio of our own," Burden explains, "and you start doing so many tracks you just want them to be heard. You don't want to sit on them. We got a little impatient, and we were just kind of like, 'We need to start putting this stuff out. Let's just, you know, sink or swim, and just put it out and see what happens.'"
After "I Believe", instead of releasing more material on Transmat or other labels, you started your own label; was this because you needed your own outlet to deal with your productivity? "That and not getting any money," Burden laughs, "from the work that we had previously did that was out. And that kind of falls into the political thing." As he talks about the lack of monetary payback from "I Believe", Burden gets more serious. "It was hunger, man, it was a real hunger. Things were selling, but money wasn't hitting our bank accounts, and that's kind of what stemmed us to go start on our own. We were like, 'Hey, man, we can be broke by ourselves, producing records that aren't selling and not making money.' We learned from that point about contracts and we decided to set up a label that other producers would enjoy. We tried to make a producers' record label. Instead of like so much for the label's benefit, it would be kind of like the corral where producers would hang out and make tracks and we would give you an astronomical percentages just to be a part of the whole organization."
So you wanted to do for others, I ask, better than others had done for you? "Correct." And despite "I Believe" being on the "Techno 2: The Next Generation" compilation on 10/Virgin and on Transmat since 1991, you received no money? "The deal was actually done through Transmat initially," Burden explains, "so no monies were paid to us directly. Everything kind of came back to the company [Transmat]. I don't consider it anyone's fault, but we just haven't received anything, so we just decided to take it from that point and do it on our own."
What ever happened to Lisa Newberry? "It's odd that you asked about her because we just did a track lately and we said, 'man, we sure could use some vocals on top'. We wanted someone real soft on it, and the only person we could think of was Lisa. To my knowledge, she got a law degree. I haven't talked to her in probably about three years. I'm getting ready to crash over at her pad probably real soon cos I've got this tape burning a hole in my pocket and we're thinking of getting her vocals on there."
With the productivity of the Burden brothers, why only nine Octave One records over ten years? "We didn't just want to become a factory. We wanted to put things out when we had something to say. That's why we put out other artists in between. You'll notice the first Octave One came out in 1991 and there was not another Octave One for quite some time. We put out Vice and Eddie 'Flashin'' Fowlkes and Terrence Parker because we really wanted to focus on making the label strong, but at the same time we didn't think we had anything to say musically at that time…We're getting ready to embark on another phase of our career. We want to experiment more, bring something different to the table. We kind of thought the scene was getting mundane, it just wasn't exciting, so when we really have something to say, we try to jump up to the plate." Burden explains the purpose of "The Collective" compilation is "to let people know that that was a certain era" before they begin anew. "We're probably going to end up doing a little less four/four because after doing it for ten years, I'm looking for myself, and I can't speak for my other brothers, but I'm looking at trying something a little different, probably a lot more experimental than anybody's ever really heard us since the beginning. We've been playing with some really interesting rhythms lately."
Despite the plans for changes in what may have become familiar for Octave One listeners, Burden says their goals remain the same. "We've always tried to make music from the era which we like the most, and that, for us, was the Music Institute era. If you listen to a lot of tracks we put out, a lot of those tracks, you could have been playing in the Music Institute era. I think part of the reason our music became popular, especially with DJs, is because most of the bigger DJs are from that Music Institute era. Either they were clubbing at that time, when people were releasing a lot of stuff and now they are DJs, or they were DJs then. And I think it just kind of hit the vibe of the dancefloor. That's the biggest thing with dance music, we always try to remember that it is to make people move, so we just try to incorporate rhythms that get you moving, even if they're subtle rhythms you might not realize. It might be a subtle African rhythm played with a keyboard or something. We just like to keep you moving and keep you thinking at the same time. We try not to throw too much philosophy into it. We just like making vibes. There's no politics in what we do, it's just all about the music in your soul, that's it.
From the release of their first recording on, they've maintained a sleek, intimate feel to their songs and never ventured into the harder material. "We like it smooth," Burden says, "cos we come from the era where techno and house used to always be spun in the same set. I'm still living back in that time zone. For some reason I can't come out of that, and we kind of make music to fit that era when you would spin a KMS record with something like a Farley "Jackmaster". Now there are techno DJs and there are house DJs. Techno went so far away from house that seldom can you put them into the same set. I think that's where we really come into play, generally we're the music that DJs use to go from house to techno. We're in between the two worlds somewhere. I'm not a devout techno head because some of the techno now gets a little noisy for me, but at the same time I'm not a devout house house head, you know, but I do like elements from both worlds. There are pieces from house that I like, there are pieces from techno that I like. Again, it's just that natural progression for us because of the two elements which we like when we like to dance. We like hearing both of those."
Throughout their releases, the tribal element has remained a part of their music. "We really like heavy percussion, different tom drums, low elements that sometimes aren't even really heard, but just kind of felt. I think that's just who we are as people. I think it's the beat of the city and things that are used to drive us that we like to hear in music. Especially by listening to a lot of jazz, a lot of live jazz acts where they use heavy percussion and stuff. Between the percussion and drums, I usually go crazy. Everybody else could be just filling in, but between the percussion and drums, that's usually it for me. So I think that always makes its way back to the music. It's just what we're made of."
Burden retains a positive outlook on the past and his future: "For us, it's been a real smooth ride. We have no complaints. We're really pleased. The only thing I would have liked to change is not being silent for so long musically as we did from the first release to the second Octave One. I think we had something to say then, but we got a little unsure as far as our feet , the steps and path which we wanted to take. And I think we probably should have stepped to base a little bit sooner. But once it got to the pressure cooker status, we couldn't hold it in any longer."
Lawrence Burden on...
…the Burden family
…the recording process
…how the 430 West label got its name
…Random Noise Generation
…early 430 West recordings