As far as origin stories go, The Knocks’ seems destined for the limelight. The disco pop duo formed in 2006, after Ben “B-Roc” Ruttner and James “JPatt” Patterson met through a mutual friend. Both were enamored with underground hip-hop and concentrating on solo producing careers, so naturally they made fast friends. In a blink they were moving into a small East Village apartment and setting up makeshift recording “studios,” quickly ingratiating themselves to their neighbors.
“They fucking hated us,” recalls Ruttner, laughing. “We were in this really shitty apartment, paper-thin walls, and we had these studio monitors that were really loud. They’d knock on the door, the walls, the ceilings — coming at us from all angles — and I’d stop what I was doing, go into James’ room and listen to his shit. We literally called it ‘getting the knocks.’”
Exiled into each other’s creative dungeons on any given night, the roomies eventually started collaborating, thanks in part to some divine inspiration from Mister HOVA himself.
“The first thing we actually put out as The Knocks was a remix of Jay-Z’s American Gangster,” Ruttner explains. “We did the whole album, all with samples from funk and soul and disco stuff — we called it American G-Funk and it got like 50,000 downloads in a week.”
More remixes and pet projects followed, but eventually The Knocks won out, spurred on by a mighty (and still growing) wave of internet hype. As all good rags-to-riches stories go nowadays, the guys released some singles, dialed in a live show, and hit the ground running. This week, they’ll finish out their first-ever national headlining tour with a string of West Coast dates in support of their new EP for Neon Gold Records. (They play SOhO on Wednesday, July 2.) In the coming months, The Knocks will unveil their long-awaited full-length debut. But before they do, we dialed ‘em up to talk DJs, munchies, and S.B. regular Rick Rubin.
I know you guys both started out as producers. Musically speaking, what bonded you? Definitely hip-hop, like indie hip-hop. We were both into Mos Def and that whole conscious hip-hop thing, and then we started deejaying. I’ve always been a DJ just to make money — that was kind of like my day job, I’d DJ clubs in New York like five times a week — and that introduced me to club music. I grew up in Vermont, where obviously there aren’t a whole lot of clubs, so I’d just play hip-hop, but then I moved to New York and kind of had to learn how to play the commercial house music and dance and pop. I think that’s what steered us in that direction, just being part of that whole scene and seeing what the nightlife in New York was like. We’re both still new to it.
What’s the trick to getting the a place hyped? Um, you’ve got to DJ for the crowd, I think. A lot of people DJ for themselves. Like, a song that you and your three DJ friends think is really cool might not be what the average 9-to-5 guy who wants to party wants to hear. Some DJs are super pretentious with that, and it works sometimes, but only if you build it up long enough. We like to play different stuff, but we also like to keep it accessible. We’ll throw in classics here and there. One of our go-to’s is “One More Time” by Daft Punk. No matter where you are or what time it is, it’s pandemonium. Or “Rock the Casbah” by The Clash. Where we come from, that’s all just party rock — it’s hip-hop, it’s soul, it’s oldies. We like to incorporate that and not just play six-minute-long house songs.
And you guys still do a lot of DJ stuff as The Knocks. Yeah, all the time.
How do the live shows compare? The DJ sets are fun because it’s easy. It’s just a lot less work. You can make a little bit more money; we can party while we’re up there. But with a really good live show it’s just way more fulfilling. You’re playing your own music and it’s more of a performance. By the end of a show we’re dripping sweat, versus at the end of a DJ show we’re just drunk. [Laughs]
What’s your vision for The Knocks in 2014? Well we’re finally going to get an album out. That’s a big thing for us. We have a single coming out called “Classic,” which we’re really excited about. I think it might be the first song that gets some proper radio play for us, which is kind of the goal. It’s a super summer jam, a real feel-good pop record, and I think it’s a good way to launch the album.
When are you dropping the single? Mid-July, I think. We’re hoping to put the album out in the fall.
Lightening round. What’s the weirdest request you ever got while you were DJ’ing? That’s a hard question! Usually when people walk up I just give them the palm to the face and tell them I don’t take requests. [Laughs] But someone once asked me to play this remix traditional Chinese music at this club in New York. That was probably the weirdest thing.
If you could work with anyone, living or dead, who would it be? Now that I’m listening to this Rick Rubin interview, I might have to say Rick Rubin.
Convenient. I’m pretty sure he has a house here. He lives in Santa Barbara? I didn’t know that. I’m listening to this BBC interview that just came out with him and it’s really interesting.
Favorite breakfast food and/or midnight snack? For breakfast I would say Honey Bunches of Oats. Midnight snack would be Sour Patch Kids.
Best show you’ve ever played? Probably last year when we headlined the 9:30 Club in DC. It sold out and there were like 1500 people there, which is definitely the biggest headlining show we ever sold out. That was a huge moment for us.