Willie Burns comes from the fringes. The US producer’s releases for Trilogy Tapes, L.I.E.S, Crème and Rush Hour have seen his left-of-centre house, techno and abstract electronics gain a steady following in Europe and the US. Real name William Burnett, he is in Dublin on the night before St Patrick’s Day to play a gig with DJ TLR from Crème Organization, one of the few labels he feels an affinity with.
Despite his growing popularity, he doesn’t feel part of a movement and doesn’t identify with just one label.
“I only see myself on a parallel with people that do music for the sake of music, it doesn’t matter what style — we are all in it together,” he says tersely over a pre-gig pint, but adds, “the Crème and Bunker guys were an influence”.
With his oversized glasses, rolled-up pullover and chinos, Burns looks like an absent-minded teacher or could have a cameo role in the Generation X movie Slacker. Yet despite his unkempt demeanour and frazzled manner — this is also due to jet lag and the fact he is booked for a rake of European gigs — there is no doubting Burns’ ability to create iconic electronic music.
The US producer released as Grackle in the late noughties, but his breakthrough came with 2012’s ‘The Overlord’ for Will Bankhead’s Trilogy Tapes. Centred on a repetitive riff redolent of the lost-it innocence of hardcore rave, the track’s clumsily infectious feeling was the antidote to rigid techno purism and sterile deep house.
A string of Burns releases followed, including ‘Run from the Sunset’ on Crème Organization, the old school piano house of ‘Woo Right’ on Unknown to the Unknown and a return to Trilogy Tapes for the blistering Midwest techno of ‘Tab of Acid’.
All of these releases are memorable because they revolve around catchy but simplistic hooks.
Is this deliberate?
“Yeah, I like melody a lot, maybe too much. I was guilty of making too many changes in tracks, so after some advice from friends I’ve decided to let it ride a little more — but who doesn’t like a catchy tune?” says Will.
In parallel to his dancefloor work, Burns has also put out a series of abstract electronic records as Black Deer, including two mini-albums — more about that later.
Despite his raised profile abroad, Burns is a creature of routine back home and his everyday life revolves around his work in The Thing thrift/record store in Brooklyn and his radio show on Newtown Radio. Before appearing on Newtown, he had a show on East Village Radio and the transition happened organically.
“They had too many people ‘running’ it and I didn’t know what their goal was, It seemed all for show,” he says about East Village Radio. “A friend started Newtown Radio and it was closer to my house and it was the same format, and more relaxed. I made the switch and have been there ever since. We can do whatever we want — there are no rules, it’s freeform and there are no lawyers or dumb people breathing down your neck,” Will adds.
If the radio show is a pleasant hobby, then The Thing is his passion. When DJ Mag asks him about what shapes his tracks, he talks briefly about synth presets and drum machines, but then admits that “The Thing is more of an overall influence. I get my clothes there, my dishes, my pretty much everything there. It must be an influence”.
When this writer persists and makes the point that the unforgettable central riff on ‘The Overlord’ sounds like it was recycled from a hardcore rave record, he responds that “I don’t know anything about it [hardcore]. I just stumble across some of the records occasionally”.
Burns believes that The Thing is “the best record store in the world”. Eschewing new releases in favour of crates of second-hand records procured at closing down sales, it offers endless possibilities for collectors.
“The records come from huge buys, usually no less than 30 crates, sometimes up to 500 crates,” Willie explains. “The boss gets them from auctions. I go through them to take out the records that are in bad condition and the stuff we already have a million copies of. I put some consumer stuff in crates out front and the rest goes out back and downstairs. People think I get the good stuff, but I already have most of it. I normally don’t take more than two or three records and it’s usually stuff that no-one wants. My job is mostly to keep things stacked up so they don’t fall and take out the piss jars — yes, people piss in jars in the basement for some reason.”
Despite The Thing being a central part of his life, some of Burns’ most impressive work is informed by his youth. In particular, the Black Deer project sees him mix jangling guitar with freeform, Krautrock-style electronics.
“Those are my roots, I grew up listening to experimental electronic stuff and new wave. I was into Chris & Cosey, Kraftwerk ‘Radioactivity’, that was my jam — New Order, Ministry and indie like Stereolab, Mouse on Mars, Oval and Tortoise. Spacemen 3 was big too,” he explains, his voice drifting off. “I also play guitar, so when you mix these things, it comes out like that.”
Apart from Black Deer’s shimmering electronic textures and tracts of hypnotic guitar, the other interesting thing about the project is its concept. The producer has spoken before about it having a distinctly American identity. Surely it’s hard for an artistic project to represent a society that is so brutal to the marginalised and the vulnerable at home and abroad?
“Mmmm, about the patriotic thing, it’s interesting to hear how music can sound American or European or whatever,” he responds defensively. “The concept of being American is so new that it has a strange cultural appearance that hasn’t become unified. It’s an interesting area to play around in.”
With so many of his peers already residing in Berlin or other European cities, has the US become a more difficult place for underground artists to survive in?
“It’s easier to see people complain or brag on the internet. All this ‘me me me’, but it’s all the same. If you work hard and make stuff and provide content then you can survive,” Willie responds abruptly. However, it’s clear that Burns does care about the fate of other artists. He set up the WT label in 2009 for the sole purpose of putting out a record by Stinkworx because “it seemed like the thing to do”. The imprint also released music by new artists like Alex Israel and Hunee. Is Burns acting selflessly by promoting others and not his own work?
“I think it’s tacky to release your own music and I want to help others that don’t have the motivation to get their music out there,” he explains. “I’m happy for Hunee, he is doing great, he is a good DJ and follows the path he wants. Alex is a great producer, world class. I want to do more stuff with him, but he has his normal life that has taken up a lot of his time. It’s settling down now and we will hear more from him,” he believes.
On the one occasion he has released on the label, the contribution was typically off-kilter, with Burns recording a folk album with Krysten Ritter — Jesse Pinkman’s girlfriend in Breaking Bad — as ExVivian. Despite Ritter’s newfound fame, their relationship hasn’t changed.
“I was just in LA and hung out with her. She is like a little sister, but she is smart and many times she has the big sister advice for me. I don’t really watch TV, so I have no idea how famous she is, but yesterday I was at a Mexican restaurant and she was on the TV, which was weird!”
Maybe his lack of interest in the mass media or his steady routine is responsible for the wealth of Burns releases in the coming months. The first is the slamming techno Daywalker release on L.I.E.S — a project with Entro Senestre — followed by Willie Burns and Black Deer material and a new alias, Phobian, dedicated to “hardware techno”.
Given that he has released a lot of music in the past few years, is he worried people might tire of him and his work?
“That is a big question. Yes, it’s something I have thought about. Some days I think it’s too much and others I think I should release more. I enjoy making music, so I’ll keep doing it. Maybe I can keep the quality control up a little higher and that will slow it down. I’m also touring a lot now, so I don’t know if I’ll have time to make as much stuff,” he explains.
With that, Burns gets on the decks, where he plays back-to-back with TLR. It makes for an interesting combination, with the Dutch spinner favouring low-key tracks to counteract a good-time, old school Burns selection that includes ‘Pennies From Heaven’, ‘House Nation’ and diva-heavy tunes from DJ Duke’s Power Music label. It sounds like his recent release on Unknown to the Unknown was influenced by early '90s piano-led house euphoria — was he always a fan?
“It’s more a recent influence. Actually, if you asked me when I was 20 or even 25, if I liked vocal house, I would have laughed in your face.”
As Burns’ own story shows, sometimes the most rewarding music can be found on the fringes.
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