The Knocks, On Their Own

Published February 16, 2016

ABOVE: THE KNOCKS. PHOTO COURTESY OF JIMMY FONTAINE.

Having released three EPs and numerous singles and remixes during the last six years, The Knocks are finally arriving with a full-length of their own. Out March 4, 55 is 15-track labor of love, as Ben “B-Roc” Ruttner and James “Mr. JPatt” Patterson were set to release an LP earlier on, but scrapped it altogether due to label complications. Now, fusing smooth elements of R&B and hip-hop with the upbeat synths of disco and dance, The Knocks present an album flooded with modern hits and guest features from some of today’s biggest names, including Fetty Wap, X Ambassadors, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Walk the Moon. Premiering below is “Kiss The Sky (Wyclef’s House Party),” a video for the track “Kiss The Sky” that includes commentary about how it was made and the song’s significance. It’s also proof that for Ruttner and Patterson, music is just as much about the artistic integrity as it is the sound.

The two producers first met at age 19 at the New School in New York. Shortly thereafter, they moved into an apartment and decided to remix Jay-Z’s American Gangster, dropping their version, American G-Funk, two days later. The remixed album garnered 60,000 downloads in one week, and acts like Icona Pop and Ellie Goulding took notice, later asking the duo to produce their projects. In 2008, Ruttner and Patterson took out a loan and opened HeavyRoc studios, at 55 Chrystie Street, the same space in which The Beastie Boys rehearsed. From then on, the rest is history. The pair has toured with Goulding, Sleigh Bells, and DJ Shadow; they’ve remixed tracks for Katy Perry, Santigold, Taylor Swift, M83, Passion Pit, and more; for some of these remixes, they’ve brought on acts like St. Lucia’s Jean-Philip Grobler and Misterwives‘ Mandy Lee. Their work has brought them around the world and back, including a recent trip to Nicaragua, where they played a special set on New Year’s Eve and met a slew of new friends, including actor Josh Hutcherson.

Just after the Iowa caucus and right before The Knocks played in L.A., Hutcherson caught up with Ruttner and Patterson over the phone.

JOSH HUTCHERSON: I’ve finally, finally made a full recovery from Nicaragua. I think my mind is finally put back together.

BEN RUTTNER: And now we’re on tour—we’re coming down to L.A. on the 13th, you should come to the show. We’ll have a little reunion. We’re playing at El Rey.

HUTCHERSON: I think I’ll be here. I’d love to come.

RUTTNER: Where have you been? You’ve been working?

HUTCHERSON: I have this new project developing short films to make into features, so I’ve been reading a ton of scripts. I read eight scripts in the past two days. I’ve kind of been a recluse, reading. I was just in Iowa with the Bernie Sanders campaign going around to colleges and doing rallies.

RUTTNER: We literally just missed it. We played in Iowa a couple days before it happened.

HUTCHERSON: It’s so wild being out there, seeing all the campaign madness that happens, talking to young kids and students and people of all ages about Bernie, trying to get a feel for why some people vote one way or the other, and trying to get them over on Bernie’s side.

RUTTNER: We were watching the whole thing on TV with eyes peeled. It was close right?

HUTCHERSON: It was ridiculously close. It came down to, like, six coin tosses because they were completely tied in the caucus voting system. Hillary won, like, all of the coin tosses, which was really crazy. That ended up being the deciding factor in who technically won the state, even though they tied and had the same number of delegates in the end. It was a mind blowing statistic, that they were that close and had to go to a coin toss.

RUTTNER: I can’t believe they actually do a coin toss.

HUTCHERSON: I know. I was with the whole Bernie Sanders crew watching the results roll in. When we heard they were doing a coin toss in some of the precincts, we were just like, “Oh. My. God.” It was shocking.

RUTTNER: Well thanks for doing this. We appreciate it.

HUTCHERSON: It’s really cool. They said, “Hey, you’re friends with Ben and James from The Knocks right?” I was like, “Well, yeah, new friends! We had a good time in Nicaragua.” So you guys want to dive right in? How long have you been working on 55? Has it been a long process?

JAMES PATTERSON: Yeah, the music that’s on this album was probably all made in the past year and a half. It’s four or five years worth of effort, but the product is not four years’ worth of work.

RUTTNER: We had another album when we were on Interscope. We ended up scrapping most of it and making a new album in the past year or so. So it’s been a long time, but it’s finally coming together.

HUTCHERSON: Producing your album, has it been a very different experience from working with other artists? What’s your raw feel about doing this versus producing on other people’s stuff?

RUTTNER: For me, it’s definitely more fun. Because it’s your music, you get to do what you want. You can be more free. You don’t have to worry about if the artist is going to like it, or if is the artist’s label going to like it. But at the same time, it’s more nerve wracking and you care a lot more, because at the end of the day it’s your statement, it’s your song. You can’t just say, “I produced this song for Selena Gomez, it’s a Selena Gomez song.” Then you can kind of be detached from it. When you’re producing your own stuff, it’s a lot more personal. It’s your stage and it’s representing you, versus representing another artist.

PATTERSON: It’s more challenging, in a good way. Especially with the first album, a lot of it is finding your sound and figuring out what you want to put out as you. When you’re writing for other people, it’s like, “Make a song that sounds like this Britney Spears song on the radio.” It’s easier. You’re basically regurgitating whatever they tell you to produce. With us, it’s like, “This sounds cool, but maybe it’s not funky enough,” or, “It’s too serious,” or blah blah blah…

RUTTNER: And when it comes to working with people, that’s the biggest challenge: We want to put Cam’ron on this album, but we want it to sound like a Knocks song, not a Cam’ron song. We have to find that happy medium, where it feels like our song but at the same time it has that Cam’ron touch, something Cam’ron fans would like. It’s the same with all the other features. Like with Carly Rae, we wanted to make sure we did her vibe but it doesn’t just sound like we produced a Carly Rae song; it sounds like a Knocks song. You gotta find that sweet spot.

HUTCHERSON: It’s finding a way to utilize those [people’s] talents to make your thing come to life. I have a question, for me, personally: When you set out to make an album, do you have an overall idea of, “We want this album to sound like this?” or do you go into it like, “We want to make 14 songs we really dig,” and see what it turns into? What’s your approach?

RUTTNER: It kind of is like, “Make a bunch of songs,” and then slowly it starts morphing. I think when you’re 80 percent into the album, it starts forming itself. Down the road, maybe we’ll have a little bit of an idea of what we want, but when we start off, there’s a lot of throwing things at the wall, seeing if it sticks, and then seeing where the sound goes. That’s why we scrapped that whole first album. We had a whole album’s worth of songs—we made “Classic” and a couple other songs—but we finally found the sound we’d been looking for and that inspired us to go out and make a bunch of new songs in that vein.

HUTCHERSON: The album’s called 55. Is that because of the space you are working out of now, at 55 Chrystie?

PATTERSON: Yeah, it’s kind of where everything kicked off for us career-wise.

HUTCHERSON: The Beastie Boys used to record there or something, right?

RUTTNER: They used to own the building. They had their first rehearsal space and apartment there.

HUTCHERSON: That’s sick—to know you’re working at a place where The Beastie Boys worked. It’s an original, unique, funky, upbeat kind of place…

RUTTNER: We always say it has good juju. I grew up obsessed with The Beastie Boys. They were my first obsession in music. We didn’t know until after a couple years of being in the space that it was their old space. When I found out I freaked out. I was like, “This is why everything goes so well here, because it’s got The Beastie Boys’ ghosts!”

HUTCHERSON: So when you’re setting out to find the people you want to work with is it based on their music? What do you look for when you’re bringing someone on board to work on a record?

PATTERSON: I like to collaborate with people I know we have a good vibe with. It just so happened that, on this record, we ended up working with a lot of our homies. It’s less figuring out if we work well together, wasting our days doing that. Obviously there are dream collaborations with people based on what they’ve done in their careers, what they sound like, that we’d love to get to make the second album. But this one was a lot of friends and good vibes in the studio.

HUTCHERSON: Do you have anybody that comes to mind? I know people ask me, “Who’s the director you’re dying to work with the most,” or “Who’s the actor you’re dying to work with the most?” Is there somebody that’s on the top of the list for you?

PATTERSON: I would’ve said Cam’ron, but we got him.

RUTTNER: I want to work with Kanye, for sure. I want to work with Kanye. Not even to have a song with him. I really just want to see what he’s like in the studio.

PATTERSON: What about you, who is your dream director or actor to work with?

HUTCHERSON: I’m a huge David Fincher fan. All of Fincher’s stuff has always been a big inspiration for me, that kind of dark psychological [stuff], pushing the bounds of reality and stretching the mind. His use of camera angles and music, he really creates a world I want to be a part of. On that note as well, Edward Norton and Brad Pitt are probably two of my favorite actors alive that I admire and would die to work with. But also there are so many young, emerging, interesting people I’m really excited about working with. I’m sure it’s the same for you guys—constantly hearing new music, seeing new people. Even when we were in Nicaragua, getting to hear some of those artists that are emerging right now, there are a lot of unique things. Tei Shi, I had never heard her stuff before, but she did a really cool, mesmerizing and hypnotizing set before you guys on New Year’s. So it’s the same for me, whenever I discover a new director or a new actor, it’s pretty inspiring.

In making the album, what was the biggest struggle you had to overcome? Was it just finding that sound, finding the right tracks to fill it out? Or were the collaborations more difficult than you expected?

RUTTNER: I think the hardest thing is trying not to listen to a bunch of people around you, or be influenced by what’s going on around you. When we started making songs on our own for the album years ago, the popular music was heavy EDM, progressive house, Swedish House Mafia kind of stuff. We watched that blow up so quick and were like, “If we want, we could jump on this train, make this stuff, play all these festivals, and do the EDM DJ thing,” but we wanted to keep our credibility and not jump on a train. We stuck to our funky, groovy song-based stuff. We stuck to our guns, which, in the long run, ends up paying off because people know you’re not just jumping on the trends. Dance music is taking a turn away from the really fast, upbeat, crazy, heavy EDM to groovy, slower stuff. It’s finally turning towards what we’ve been doing forever, versus us chasing some other trend, but that was a hard thing to deal with. There are so many people telling you what’s hot right now, what’s hot on the internet. It’s hard to not get influenced by that. You have to keep your blinders on.

HUTCHERSON: It’s hard when you have something that you’re drawn to as an artist—something you want to express or a story you want to tell, or a kind of music you want to play—and you have all this outside pressure. You have to strike that balance, which is something that’s always been challenging for me because I don’t like to compromise, especially when it comes to doing what I love. I’m sure our worlds have that in common. Do you find that you’ve literally had to fight to not be pushed into that hot trendy thing?

PATTERSON: At Atlantic, we’re lucky to be partnered up with Neon Gold, who has been with us from the beginning and they get it more than this other label we were on before did. The label we were on, Octone, was more of the label nightmare stories you hear, where they’re like, “Do this or we won’t put your album out.” There was a lot of push and pull. We definitely butted heads because we were unwilling to compromise on some things, and I feel like that’s a big reason the whole other album we made didn’t come out. It didn’t feel 100 percent us. It felt like we were trying to make someone else happy.

HUTCHERSON: It feels good to see you guys in a position where people know who you are and now you get a chance to give them your own full album. To get to do your true passion project and show that to people has to be a cool feeling. I know for me it is.

RUTTNER: It feels good because this is our first big headline tour and we’re selling out. We’ve been dormant for a while, chilling and trying to finish this album. It’s scary, trying to go against the grain a little bit. You’re waiting for the right thing to come along and you have to make sure everything’s perfect. It sounds like we’re the same way as you—kind of perfectionist and very picky about things. You don’t settle, versus a lot of people in entertainment and art that will jump on anything they think will give them quick success, or a buck, or fame. The people that really take their time are the ones that end up more successful in the long run.  

HUTCHERSON: I know the reasons why I’m being very careful with what I choose to do is because, for me, it’s not about making a buck, it’s not about becoming famous. It’s about doing what you love, about doing it the right way, about having a career people respect, and having projects that do something, that say something, that are interesting. I think the only way to do that is to be driven by your passion and not by dollar signs or tweets—to be driven by something a bit more substantial.

PATTERSON: For sure. We just turned down an endorsement from Shell, a gas company, today. They would’ve given us a bunch of money and a bunch of facetime on their Shell ads, but I was just like, “No.” It’s not really something I believe in. I don’t care about the money. It’s about making a statement. I don’t want to be the guy that’s like, “Yeah, Shell gas.”

55 WILL BE RELEASED ON MARCH 5 VIA BIG BEAT/NEON GOLD. FOR MORE ON THE KNOCKS, VISIT THE DUO’S WEBSITE.