The video for thumping New York nu-disco duo the Knocks’ latest single "Comfortable" — off the EP of the same name, which dropped in February — is a glam-bondage nightmare, a sort of intentionally silly hybrid of "Eyes Wide Shut" and the instantly iconic video for Robin Thicke’s "Blurred Lines." In a glitzy mansion, Ben "B-Roc" Ruttner, 26, and James "JPatt" Patterson, 27, are alternately teased and assaulted by a cadre of scantily clad female models. One even takes a clothing iron to Patterson.
It’s a perfect complement to the song, a beat-rich, synth-scored banger that’s a both a legitimate dance gem and a bit of a self-conscious wink at the idea of synth-scored bangers. It also looks extremely expensive.
"We did that video with Interscope, when we had quite a budget, so it came out super-official-looking. LA in general is so official about stuff, with interns and huge teams of people standing around at all times," Ruttner says by phone from the apartment he shares with Patterson in New York City. "It was a great experience, but it was really funny, because we’re coming from our (expletive) Chinatown apartment, and we were being treated like we were Katy Perry or something. We loved it — it was an experience, hanging out in a mansion with a bunch of half-naked girls — but it was weird."
The Knocks have since parted ways with Interscope, but they walked away with a memorable video and the better part of an album. Call that a capsule summary of the Knocks’ trajectory: weird and unexpected. Ruttner and Patterson met through friends while both were in college. Ruttner — who came up drumming and had experience (and a manager) making hip-hop beats for rappers like Cam’ron as early as his senior year in high school — struck up an instant friendship with Patterson, who grew up as a gospel and funk aficionado playing in the church band. They moved into said aforementioned cramped Chinatown apartment and began pursuing music production, songwriting, and DJing full-time. They funneled much of their energy into sweaty dance parties and driving remixes of everything from Katy Perry to Santigold to Tegan and Sara. When Jay-Z released the a cappella version of "American Gangster," they cranked out a remixed version in 48 hours; it racked up tens of thousands of downloads in a handful of days.
But they also channeled more and more of their talents into increasingly assured, atmospherically textured nu-disco originals. Puttner handled much of the production, drumming and engineering; Patterson fielded much of the instrumentation and sang on many tracks. Their original material — as well as a dynamite cover of M83’s "Midnight City" with vocalist Mandy Lee — regularly landed them at the top of music blog aggregator the Hype Machine. They toured with Ellie Goulding and Grouplove and shared the stage with DeadMau5, Tiesto and Skrillex. British music mag NME named them one of the 20 hottest producers in 2010. Without much planning, they shifted largely away from production and remixes (though they continue to DJ, and will do so at SXSW) in favor of original songs.
"We started out thinking we’d write songs and produce for other people, but the Knocks stuff kind of took over. We weren’t placing any songs for pop people," Ruttner says. "So we were like ‘Well, this is more fun.’ Versus trying to bunker down and write a hit every night. We got really burned out by the world of writing sessions. Getting to do what we wanted was better than some label guy telling us the bass wasn’t right for Britney Spears."
Bucking the tendency of many hyped bands to release a constant stream of new music, the Knocks have carefully paced themselves. 2013 saw only a single song from the band. The four-song "Comfortable" EP, with guests ranging from Ra Ra Riot to Australia’s electronic titans Sneaky Sound System, is their first major release since 2011. But Ruttner says a debut LP is nearly finished, with guest vocalists including Escort’s Adeline Michele and Rozzi Crane, the first signee to Adam Levine’s 222 Records label.
"Hopefully it’ll feel more grown-up, more mature, more adult, as a result of us becoming better producers and better musicians," Ruttner says. "We want it to be more than just a bunch of bangers. We want to be versatile and build a real body of work, and not just make one-off dance records no one will remember in a year."
The Knocks play at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday at Empire Garage, and have a DJ set at 10 p.m. Wednesday at the Gatsby.
More EDM at SXSW
Annie Mac: This beloved BBC Radio 1 producer isn’t a businesswoman; she’s a business, woman. The host of a popular Friday night electronic dance music show, she’s also developed a burgeoning career as a live DJ and events producer, and reliably has her finger on the pulse. Expect one joyous dance party. (11 p.m. Thursday, Empire Garage.)
Blue Sky Black Death: A buzzed-about production duo from the West Coast — they’ve received attention from Pitchfork, Wired, Spin and the Fader — Blue Sky Black Death are something like electronic music’s answer to Explosions in the Sky, crafting rich, ever-escalating sonic landscapes. (11 p.m. March 14, Holy Mountain.)
Cash Cash: This New Jersey production trio’s material runs the gamut from Skrillex-esque thump to smooth Daft Punk-style danceable disco. Last year’s six-song "Overtime" EP is a quick-and-dirty celebration; listening to it, you can practically taste the Red Bull. (Midnight Wednesday, the Gatsby.)
Classixx: The Los Angeles production duo of Michael David and Tyler Blake launched themselves into Internet stardom on the strength of a steady stream of pillowy pop remixes ranging from Phoenix to Passion Pit to Madonna. Their first album, last year’s "Hanging Gardens," was a surprisingly great summertime listening experience. (Midnight March 15, Empire Control Room.)
Goldroom: A master of emotive choruses and luxuriant soundscapes, Goldroom, the working name of Los Angeles producer Josh Legg, has attracted attention from the likes of the BBC and Pitchfork and broke big with last year’s "Embrace" EP. (9 p.m. Wednesday, the Gatsby; 1 a.m. March 15, Swan Dive.)
Rüfüs Du Soul: Already a smash in Australia, selling out shows and regularly popping up on alternative radio station Triple J, Sydney trio Rüfüs Du Soul are embarking on their first United States tour at SXSW, behind the release of smooth single "Desert Night." (11 p.m. March 15, Empire Control Room.)
SAVANT: An almost staggeringly prolific crafter of arena-ready EDM — he’s released eight albums since 2011 — SAVANT, or Aleksander Vinter, is a producer from Oslo, Norway, who might slot more comfortably than any other SXSW artist into the archetypal "EDM" genre personified by artists like Skrillex. (1 a.m. March 14, Palm Door on Sixth Patio.)
TRUST: This atmospheric, weirdly enchanting post-chillwave project from Toronto artist Robert Alfons has collected plaudits from Pitchfork, the Guardian and Vice. "Joyland," the follow-up to his Juno-nominated debut album "TRST," dropped this week. (1 a.m. Wednesday, Swan Dive; 9:30 p.m. March 15, Elysium.)