In 2016, The Knocks are going all in. If you visited an MP3 blog or two (especially this one) in the earlier half of the decade, the name will be familiar: since 2010, the dynamic duo of Ben “B-Roc” Ruttner and James “JPatt” Paterson have been shepherding East Coast indie kids and hype beasts to the dance floor with their disco and funk-infused electro sound. Their early singles like “Dancing with the DJ” and “Brightside” were instant-party starters, and in the years that followed, their prophetic aptitude for remixing soon-to-blow-up artists cemented their status as tastemakers.
With their songs and remixes populating playlists nationwide, a major debut album and a bid for a wider audience seemed inevitable. But after an endeavor with Interscope failed to pan out, the future seemed unclear. That is, until “Classic” hit the interwebz in 2014, and soon became the group’s most-played song on Spotify. Now with renewed inspiration and a slew of pop-ready but distinctively Knocks-sounding singles under their belt, B-Roc and JPatt are preparing for the release of 55 this March, and embarking on a pre-release tour that is already selling out venues including DC’s very own 9:30 Club. We spoke to Ben Ruttner about the past, present and future of one of our favorite bands.
I have to get this out of the way first – what was it like to have Cam’ron spit a verse on your song?
It was really fucking cool (laughs). We were in the studio, and we made that beat as an intro to the album. We were thinking about it originally as just an instrumental, with the choir and everything. We were kind of stoned and we were joking around, like, “imagine if we got Cam on this song.” I emailed my label, thinking it was totally a long shot. They were like, “hey we reached out, and he loved it, and he’s down to do it.”
We moved to New York to do hip-hop, and make music for rappers – it’s my first love when it comes to music. At the time, he was my favorite rapper. It’s a really cool thing to check off the list.
It reminds me of the songs he released with A-Trak in 2014, the sweeping soulful production…
You can tell he spent time with it and he really liked the track, which was awesome.
Would you say that the new LP is consciously a New York album?
Going into it we didn’t really think of anything conceptually until it all kind of clicked. We didn’t have a name for it, so we decided to call it 55, which is the address of the studio we built in Chinatown where we’ve been for seven years, which is where the whole Knocks thing started.
And New York nightlife is a theme on the album. When I got to New York I was DJing five nights a week, at clubs and bars. You know these parties where a DJ will play a Biggie song, and go into a Killers song, and then a Michael Jackson song, or whatever? That kind of “open format” DJing was an inspiration for the album, because our influences are all over the place – I grew up listening to the Beastie Boys and DJ Shadow, and JPatt grew up listening to Earth, Wind, and Fire.
To me, it’s a New York album because it’s like that – there are pop songs, electro songs, hip-hop songs – so it’s genre-less, it covers all bases.
That’s refreshing. The big dance music of the last few years has felt very one-dimensional.
Yeah, it’s very serious. It’s brooding house music with all these intense lyrics. What happened to fun? That’s the hole we’re trying to fill.
Are you guys mostly doing your own production on the album? Are you working with other people?
Everything is produced by us, but we work with a bunch of people. That’s where our music comes from. “Dancing with the DJ” and “Make it Better” are maybe the only songs we’ve done where it’s just us working on it. We’re producers first, and that’s what producers do: you get parts from everywhere and you bring it all together. We thrive with collaboration.
Production-wise, it’s all us. Musician-wise, there’s people all over.
Will fans be surprised with 55? Will anything jump out as being especially different?
I think our older fans that know us from the remix/dance world might be surprised with the pop songs on the album, that we think could play on the radio. But by no means did we sell our soul for that.
We made “Classic” and it was this eureka moment, when we realized we could make commercially viable music that still sounds cool. And it can still feel like us. And we didn’t have to go work with Dr. Luke, or something. We got to do it with our friends, Powers, and it was amazing.
On the old label, we were making really cool indie dance songs – but the label wanted us do pop-sounding stuff and we didn’t know how. It was like, should we make progressive house music? But it all clicked when we made “Classic.” I think people that know us now will be happy with it, and we’ll win a lot of new fans, too.
There are a lot of artists feeling pressure right now to have that commercial viability.
There’s so much music coming out now, and it’s a bummer for really good albums that don’t have built-in hits. A good example is the Classixx album. There’s so much beautiful stuff on there, but it came out at the same time as the Daft Punk album, which was working against them. But it’s such a good album.
With your LP and the return of LCD Soundsystem and their new LP, is 2016 going to be the year of NYC dance music?
They were underground for so long, and I never really thought of us that way. But now looking back, it’s like, we were totally underground. We were not selling out huge shows, but we had a core fan base, and people were DJing our shit. It feels like that formula is kind of extinct these days. A&R people don’t have the patience. A lot of bands come out and they’re like “okay, I have my branding, I have my social media presence, I have my big song.”
It was different for us, we were coming up in the early HypeMachine days. There was no Instagram (laughs). Not a lot of bands now are doing the long-term grind anymore.
Silly question to end on, but did you ever hear from Taylor Swift or her people after “I Wish (Taylor Swift)” dropped?
We never did (laughs). We could’ve done a lot of really shameless shit around the promotion of the song, and we decided not to. The song is really about reaching a goal, and having your dream life. So no, we haven’t heard anything. At least not yet. That song may go to the radio this summer, so who knows?