Blending Genres and Breaking Boundaries: Ben Ruttner of The Knocks Talks about Creativity in Modern Music
Feb 23, 2017 04:00PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
Photo by Rachel Couch
The origin of the electronic music duo known as The Knocks sounds like that of a film or comic book. Two young New Yorkers meet, almost by fate, and proceed to embark on a journey into the music industry. Their musical prowess and do-it-yourself attitude lead them to success as they had collaborations with some of the world’s most famous artists. Despite what they have already accomplished, Ben Ruttner and James Patterson know that this journey is only just beginning.
Ruttner attended The New School in New York while doubling as a DJ at night. It’s in one of the studios at New School where he met Patterson. Both in need of roommates and with a common interest in music production, Ruttner and Patterson would rent a small apartment together. Soon, they turned their humble apartment into a bootleg studio working with local rappers and vocalists. The music would get so loud, the neighbors would bang on the walls. It is then that Ruttner and Patterson would say to each other “I just got the knocks”.
The Knocks would begin their career by remixing the works of Jay-Z, Katy Perry, and Passion Pit, thus gaining online attention. The Knocks quickly became synonymous with a certain warm, retro-future, disco-kissed sound.
They put out their first big hit in 2010 with the filter-house party anthem “Dancing with the DJ”. This energetic theme captivated audiences and took The Knocks global, allowing them to tour the UK with Sleigh Bells and DJ Shadow.
2014 was a breakout year for The Knocks as they released their biggest hit “Classic,” a seductive track of endless celebration that featured Fetty Wap for a guest verse. 2015 would see The Knocks release the full-length album, 55, which has been heralded as a love letter to old school music, but with a new school twist. Collaborations on the album include Cam’ron and Carly Rae Jepsen.
The Knocks have just released their fifth EP, Testify, to kick off the Feel Good Feel Great Tour. Don’t miss their performance at the 9:30 Club Thursday, March 2nd, 7 p.m. Tickets are $20.
I am very interested in the origin of the Knocks. Two 19-year-old college students from New York meet in a studio and go on to become famous producers/artists. It’s quite the narrative. What was it like first working with James? Was the connection instantaneous?
When we started it was more about the production side of music. We were both into Hip Hop production, helping other rappers and singers, and ended up living together. We started helping each other out with different aspects of it. We each had our own skills or things we were particularly good at, so we started calling each other in. We would end up working on most projects together that way.
We come from very different backgrounds. James played a lot of church music and was influenced by a lot of gospel. I grew up listening to classic rock because that is what my parents listened to. I also got into Trip-Hop and DC based music, and was influenced by that. We quickly realized our sounds meshed well together. Creatively, it was like finishing each other's sentences and what we were creating was really exciting.
I read that before you met James and formed The Knocks, you were a DJ at nightclubs. What got you interested in pursuing music as a career?
I wanted to pursue a music career after having it around me at all times throughout my life. I come from a family of music lovers. They didn’t play music, but they loved listening to it. It was always on and always what we talked about. My mother especially, always wanted to talk about musicians and put them on pedestals. Music had a huge impact on my parents’ lives and thus impacted me as well. I never idolized politicians, athletes, or anyone like that. Growing up, musicians were the heroes.
In the early days, both you and James seemed to be more focused on remixes of existing albums. However, over the past several years’ you guys have been releasing original content on a fairly regular basis. How would you say your music has evolved over the years?
I think it has evolved a lot. That’s what keeps me excited to create music. We (The Knocks) don’t stick to the same formula. A lot of digital music does stay the same and follows a formula and that is cool, but it doesn't work for us. I think it has changed in the sense that, we have just gotten better.
We have more production chops. But, I’m not saying production is all that matters. You can do a lot of things with production, but you always need some sweet vocals or a good guitar riff to really make a song. For us, the vocals aren’t secondary. The song comes first. If the song isn’t right, the production won’t save it.
What was it like making the transition from producers to full-fledged touring artists in your own right?
That was interesting. We didn’t expect it after focusing on production for so long. We were definitely taken back at first. But really, it feels natural because we make so much of the music in the studio. It’s cool to have the people who put in the studio hours to create music actually on stage performing it. A lot of artists you would think create the music they perform, actually have very little to do with it. They are really more of a figure head.
That being said, we do real live shows with a lot of live music. We don’t just get up on stage and press “play” like a lot of electronic artists. We try and play as much live music as possible.
The Knocks’ sound is incredibly unique and electronic music can be divided into a large number of genres and subgenres. What genre would you classify your music as? What artists/genres do find influence you the most?
I think it changes so much that it‘s hard to really say. Our album, 55, was like retro-future electronica in that it felt like a classic album, but was new. This was achieved by mixing classic cords with new production sounds. You could say electric pop. Pop used to be a scary word, but now pop can be cool, which is pretty nice. I just don’t like when people call it EDM (electronic dance music).
The track “Classic” is arguably your most famous song. Currently the music video boasts over 2.5 million views on YouTube. Can you tell me anything about the creation process of that song?
That song really came together pretty naturally, which is always the best. The featured group on that track, Powers, was originally from New York, so we knew them a long time, even before we formed The Knocks. They are great people and the whole thing came together in one night, it was magic. Getting the details right and messing with it took a while, but it was worth it. You really feel that moment when you have made something special. You just know.
“Classic” started the next chapter of our careers with how big it was and the best part was that we got to share that explosion with our close friends (Powers) as opposed to some random people we were in the studio with one day.
You recently released a new EP Testify on February 2nd. The word “Testify” is a powerful one that invokes a lot of emotion. Where did the inspiration for the name develop and what message do you want listeners to receive from this EP?
It came together in a funny way. It started with the track “Heat” having a gospel influence. Gospel has always been a thing we enjoyed and we realized the songs we were making were all about confession of personal feelings. “Heat” being about the more sexual feelings one might feel.
“Your Eyes” is a confession of very intense personal feelings of love or infatuation. “Worship” is similar to that thematically and we even had the sample of a preacher shouting “Can I testify?” Gospel samples like that are frequent throughout the EP so it came together nicely and Testify felt like the perfect name.
What about a dream collaboration? If you could pick any artist throughout history to work with who would it be and why?
Throughout history? I can safely speak for James and myself and say Michael Jackson. He is one of our biggest influences and was very hands on in the studio, so that would definitely be the dream.
What’s next for The Knocks? Can we expect another full-length album perhaps?
Right now just chill and push what music we have. We’re planning on doing a lot of shows this summer. There will definitely be another album, but I don’t know when that would be. It’s kind of crazy for me to even think about a whole other album right now. We like EP’s because it allows us to make a short body of work and then move on to a different project with a different feel. It seems more modern to release music like that. But, we know people like albums so I’m sure there will be another one.
Music is in a weird place right now as an industry and how people consume content. We just have to find what works for us.