With individual achievements across several digital genres in their own right, Julien Carbou (The Clamps) and Nicolas Levy, or Niko (Opsen) joined forces to create Burr Oak back in 2019. Since then, the pair have gone on to forge a strong following across the world of neuro drum and bass and last week saw the release of the first of several EPs on Eatbrain that will eventually culminate in the outfit’s first long player.
With such a monumental project in the offing and with the following these two have gained in the last three years, an interview with the French duo seemed long overdue. Here’s a run down of their history so far, and an explanation on where their fascinating name came from.
Bonjour guys, tell us a bit about your projects previous to Burr Oak. Julien, you have both been involved in making music for a long time, right?
Yeah, our involvement in music has already been quite a journey. I started to make music in the mid ‘90s playing guitar in a band, then around ‘98/’99, I discovered electronic music and I started to learn to mix and to produce tracks. I was more into 4×4 techno then, but some of my friends were into D&B.
Soon after I discovered breakbeat and big beat culture, and in 2006 I started a duo with my friend Ryos called The Phat Riderz, mainly making bassline and new school breaks. We also played around with D&B, but after a few releases and gigs we decided to shut down the project. Coming from the Illegal rave scene, we didn’t understand the business side of the music at that point and we preferred to stay away.
After this I started another project called ‘Imprintz’ which was mostly D&B but not exclusively. I released a lot of solo material and collabs (mainly with Kloé) and I learned a lot during this period in terms of production. I didn’t accept any gig offers and was focused purely on making music.
I moved to Toulouse in 2011 to join the Karnage /Kosen family and I was ready to start a new project. This is how ‘The Clamps’ was created and I continue making music with this alias. It’s like my second body connected to my main head!
Aside from all of this, I am also involved in other projects like Forum (with SKS & Niko) and Third Colony (with Deerhill).
And Niko, what about you? You also have a well-established production history?
Yes, that’s true. I’ve been making electronic music for the last 17 years and 10 of those have revolved around Drum and Bass. I made techno and acid techno during my time in the free party scene. I was in the trio SIGNS for 4 years and it was incredible. I realised some of my dreams with that project, like working with Noisia, going professional and travelling to play my music. I also have my solo project, Opsen, with releases on Kosenprod and Trendkill Records.
So, Julien, tell us a bit about your guitar playing days. You come from a metal background, right?
Yeah, I started to learn to play guitar and played in a metal/nu-metal band. I fell in love with rock and metal music because of my father. I grew up listening to Ten Years After, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and so on, and when I was 9, I discovered Iron Maiden and AC/DC and it was a real kick in the teeth. This led to discovering Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Korn, NOFX, Pennywise, Raised Fist and many more during my teens. At the exact same time though, a friend got me into hip-hop, including Wu Tang, Method Man & Redman……so it was a big musical melting pot. I still listen to all of this and I love what the new generation are bringing to these scenes.
The metal background doesn’t stop there though, because Niko, you also come from a guitar based youth?
Oh yeah, I have listened to rock, metal and grunge all my life and I still do. When I was 5 or 6 years old, my big brother gave me Nevermind by Nirvana. It was my first CD, and I was hooked right away and it never let me down, so I think it’s for that a lot of my influences come from that music. I was also in a hardcore/metal band when I was a teenager. I was the vocalist, or should I say screamer!
I also played drums for a few years when I was a child. It was the first instrument I learned, but it was a long time ago. I’m not sure how good I’d be now!
It’s pretty easy to correlate the metal sound with the sound of Burr Oak knowing this. Our musical pasts are often so influential, aren’t they? So, you were both making your own music and then you decided to get together to form Burr Oak. Nicolas, what were the main reasons for choosing to create a duo?
Well, we have been friends for about ten years now, and during all this time we always wanted to collaborate. We have always been big fans of each other’s music. When we decided to form Burr Oak, we had been talking about it for at least two years. This project was carefully thought out before its creation and I am really happy to have made it with my bro.
Burr Oak itself is a specific type of timber. It also sounds cool when said out loud! What made you choose the name? Please explain how it represents you both and what you stand for?
Well firstly, you should know that basically we are a fan of Native American culture and we were looking for something related to this culture but wasn’t sure what. We spent weeks trying to find names to fit the way we felt about our project. We were in the studio working one day and we both had the same auditory hallucination through a bass sequence that was playing on a loop. We heard something which sounded like a voice repeating ‘Walnut Grove’.
Weirdly this is also the name of the village in the TV program ‘The Little House on the Prairie’ which we both watched as kids. At first ‘Walnut Grove’ seemed like an ideal name, but after doing some research on the program and then the original series of books (which are based on the real life family, the Ingalls), we found that they eventually ended up moving to a village called ‘Burr Oak’, which as you say, also happens to be the name of a tree.
It sounded so nice, and we wanted something that could describe our music but still contain the mystery of not defining exactly what kind of music we could make. We continued to do more research on it and after discovering all of the healing properties of this special tree, both in the modern and ancient world (and in Native American history) we decided to use the name. The Burr Oak is a very big tree with a lot of stories around it. It was the perfect symbol for our storytelling. You’ll know more about this story when the LP is released.
Wow! What a fascinating story! Neuro is such a full-on style of music. Niko, do you find working together to write it more or less of a challenge in a creative sense?
Neurofunk is a style that requires a lot of devotion and concentration, but working together allows us to be much more productive, it’s actually easier from a creative point of view. We really trust in each other and I’m so happy with the music we’ve managed to write together. I never doubted our ability to work together but probably didn’t imagine that it would go so well. To be honest we don’t consider our music as neurofunk. We make music that we love and if people consider it neuro that’s fine, but to us we’re just making our music.
Yeah, I get that. There seems to be such a big focus on sub-genre titles and putting music in its correct categories, but I have to ask, on the subject of ‘neuro’ as a style of music, Julien, do you feel it’s fairly represented in the world of drum and bass?
I think it depends where you are in the world. Here in Toulouse or in eastern Europe where we play out a lot, the scene is massive. Even though neurofunk can sometimes get bad press on social media, I still think it’s one of the strongest, most energetic and more interesting musical styles to me. You can mix emotion, power and thoughtful insight into a very danceable style of music. I love to put messages in my music and making drum & bass is the perfect way to do it. The thing is to be focused on what you love and how you need to tell your story, not what other people think of it.
Niko, what’s your opinion on the matter?
At the moment no, I don’t think neuro is represented at its fair value, but things change so quickly now. A few years ago, neuro was at its peak and now it’s another style of drum & bass that’s taking the main stage. I think it all repeats in a way anyway, like a cycle, so I think that it will inevitably return to the top one day.
Yeah, this scene definitely is cyclic by nature. It has been ever since 1990! Tell us a bit about this exciting new series of E.P’s then?
We’re releasing a series of singles on Eatbrain before the album launch. The first one has just been released and it shows what the album will look like. We chose 4 tracks which represent the Burr Oak tales, and we hope you’ll appreciate that. And there is a lot more to come. You’ll discover that in the next few weeks.
An LP release is a really solid achievement for many bands. It is kind of a milestone in many ways. You must be really excited?
Definitely! We’re excited to show that to people. We worked very hard on it, spending months and months writing, rewriting, mixing etc. We put all our energy into it for well over a year. It was a big inner journey, both hyper motivating but very tiring. Making an album is very exhausting when you’re putting a lot of you inside it. We feel stripped bare.
We tried to be as sincere as possible in our writing by drawing on our deepest inspirations. We wanted this album to represent us as people as much as possible. The creation process was quite long and it was not always easy. A lot of doubt can arise over time, but fortunately we had more good times than bad during the creation of this album but it was a real work of introspection. We really can’t wait to show it in full and we hope you will feel our sincerity through listening to this album.
There’s often an interesting fictional backstory with a lot of neuro projects. It’s not always just about the music. Fill us in on the story behind this project. Julien, who are the main characters and what is their story?
I see the project as a whole movie with different chapters. Scruggs and Sonny Jim are the 2 most viewed characters for the moment, representative of Niko and I, but the main one is the Burr Oak. Itself. We’ve basically written the different chapters of the Scruggs & Sonny journey and how they’ll eventually meet the mighty Burr Oak. You’ll get most of the explanations by listening to the album.
There are a lot of messages inside, about humanity, ecology, the wild world, A.I, and mystic life. It’s quite esoteric too, but you can do your own reading. Our stories make sense when you’re sharing it with your own. All of the tracks are connected with each other. You need them all to understand the whole story….
Do you have any plans to tour the LP in the traditional sense? How about some worldwide gigs to showcase it, in particular Australia? I’m asking for a friend.
Yeah, we’re planning an album tour or showcase, but we kind of already started. People who have seen us live know we tend to play about 95% of our own music. That’s the way we found to tell our story, and sometimes we add some tracks that we love which share the same musical vision.
We’re planning to go to the US, but I (Julien) need to manage my anxiety first. It’s hard for me to play gigs, and I’ve been working for several years to manage my anxiety and panic attacks. But being with Niko on stage helps me to be a lot more confident.
And sure, we would love to come to Australia. It’s a country I’ve wanted to visit for years now, and I want to see a wombat in real life, and very much more
And Niko, where would you like to go?
For the tour, we are currently in the process of managing that, and we are in discussion for a possible tour of the United States and of course some shows throughout Europe are already planned.
Nothing is really precise yet, but we have already been testing the album for a few months on different dates and we really want to be able to announce an official tour for the album.
Can you see neuro and liquid blending in the future? Do you think that there could be a genuine combining of these two very different sub genres in the future?
I think it’s already happened, Noisia for example, did a few Liquidfunk tracks with their signature sound and it worked so well. Moon Palace with TeeBee for example. Dawn Wall also did a great one too with ‘Legends’ adding gritty bass stabs with lush pads.
We’re doing some Liquidfunk stuff with the project ‘Forum’. There is an album coming on ProgRAM in September, and there is definitely some neurofunk inspiration in our more chilled tracks. The future is a bright light with all kinds of genres mixed together.
We have made certain tracks that combine really softer and melodious styles with the futuristic side that we try to bring into our music. Drum and Bass is a mixture of so many different inspirations that yes, merging Liquidfunk and other much harder styles can only be good.
Finally then, where can you see neuro heading in the coming years? Where do you think it’s heading next?
Music in general will be more of a crossbreed genre, as it already is in some instances, but I hope in the future no one will need to justify their vision or their choice. I like to see it as a great combination of the best sounds of the world. This music keeps growing and evolving and we don’t think it’s about to stop. There are good things in every kind of music. Sometimes you just need to dig inside to find the one that fits your taste.