The San Fernando Valley—“The Valley” to all native Angelenos—contains 34 neighborhoods divvied up over 225 square miles.
Often referenced in pop culture as “lesser Los Angeles” (I’m looking at you Clueless) these neighborhoods house a population hovering right around 1.75 million—a huge number exceeded only by New York City, Chicago, Huston, and Greater Los Angeles. On a bleak, drizzly day earlier this month, I found myself in the heart of those 34 neighborhoods talking to two of those 1.75 million: Justin Volkens and Jaime “Jimmy” Luque, lead singer and bass player for The Knitts, a band born and bred in The Valley with the attitude to match.
“There’s so many different kinds of people that turn you on to so many different kinds of music. And food! Why doesn’t Anthony Bourdain come to the fucking Valley?!,” Volkens ponders. “Do an episode on the Valley, man. No Reservations this shit.”
We’re sitting upstairs at The Federal Bar in North Hollywood, out on a balcony so Volkens and Luque can chain-smoke. It’s become a home-base for the band, where they can get free food, check in with their manager who has an office in the back, and shoot the shit with the bar staff. Though they’ve been together for seven years, they’re in the ramp-up period before the release of their first LP, Retreat (out now), an album as genre-diverse as the place they call home.
There’s the infectious power-pop of “Erotic Aquatic,” the post-Britpop slink of “Get Up Get Out,” and the punk lambast of “Hold Steady Pretty Lady,” mixed in with “She Likes The Idea Of Gold,” which jumps the gap from McCartney-esque, baroque piano to a metal thrasher in the course of three minutes.
“We’ve been criticized because of that before. ‘That song sounds too folky’ or, ‘That’s too indie’ or, ‘It’s too punk,’ but that’s how we challenge ourselves as artists,” Volkens explains. “Damon Albarn is a huge influence of mine, and I mean, you listen to Gorillaz and where the fuck would you put them category-wise? They’re punk, hip-hop, electronic, it’s everything!”
Volkens is the quintessential rock and roller. He’s slight, scrappy, and looks like he could use about two weeks of sleep as he hugs his shrunken, button-covered jean jacket to his slim frame. Luque is bulkier, dressed in head-to-toe black, and has long raven hair—perfect for head-banging during their shows. If it wasn’t for his easy smile, he’d be pretty intimidating. Before crossing state lines for a recent show, Luque had to get some outstanding warrants cleared up, “Mostly for parking tickets, but that’s another story,” he says with a raspy laugh.
The two met back in 1997, when Volkens and his brother Charlie (guitar), moved to the crux of The Valley—Reseda—from New York, bonding over Pokemon cards, and every kind of music imaginable. “First there was the pop phase,” Luque begins. “Backstreet Boys, that was good shit,” Volkens interjects. “Then there was the punk phase, then we all got into emo together, we all got into metal together, folk, everything.” It was the Volkens brothers’ time at a continuation school (“With all the gangster guys, and the pregnant women”) that introduced them to Victor Portillo, the band’s other guitar player.
Drummers have proven more difficult to hold on to, a phenomenon Luque refers to as “the curse.” Volkens explains, “Yes the drummer’s curse that’s been bestowed upon the Knitts. It’ll make for a good documentary in 10 years.”
It’s comments like these—and the way Volkens speaks with the charisma of someone that’s already a huge star— which make the Knitts compelling. They’re a rare combination of LA music vets with seven years on the scene, and rookie enthusiasm—their dogged determination to push on in the name of rock not hindered by the fact that they sometimes find themselves playing to crowds populated with only their girlfriends, the bartender, and the sound guy.
“The long-term goal is to be the biggest fucking band in the world [laughs]. I’m not even gonna sell it short,” says Volkens. “It’s like the Clash’s famous motto: The only band that matters. I think it comes from growing up in the Valley, this demeanor that we have.”
Before I can start thinking they’re megalomaniacs who fancy themselves the second coming of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, Volkens explains further.
“It’s not coming from that kind of place. We really want to be able to give back to other artists and musicians who have struggled the way we have. I would love to be able to create a record label where we don’t charge up and coming bands to come in and record their shit. They can take full control, we’ll sit at the computer and produce it for ‘em, and they can sink or swim based on their own shit. We would love to be able to give back to Los Angeles and the Valley.”
As far as more attainable goals in the short-term, Volkens explains that the hardest part of keeping the band going, is the current hit-or-miss situation with their live shows, explaining that he has yet to play to a room full of strangers who are singing the lyrics back to him.
“Playing live music is definitely a bi-polar bitch. You play in front of nobody, and you go, ‘I gotta go back to school.’ Then you play in front of a decent crowd, and you go, ‘Never-mind, I’m doing this forever.’ There are moments where you second-guess it. I mean most of the bands we played with six years ago don’t exist anymore. We’re very much the grandpas, of young music in LA.”
Luque: “We’re the oldest rookies.”
Volkens: “We’re the oldest rookies, the oldest dudes who have not made it yet [laughs].”
Luque: “Hey, 30 is the new 25, ok?”
In an age where musicians get major record deals off of their YouTube covers, or one song they posted on SoundCloud, The Knitts’ endurance and single-mindedness are admirable and endearing, but you can sense their frustration.
As I begin to take the negative side, asking if there’s ever a time for them to—
“Hang it up?” Volkens interjects. “Probably not.”
“Rock and Roll is gonna do that to you. It’s gonna put you to the test,” Luque adds.
“We may never succeed on the levels that we want to, but I’ll be a fucking 40-year-old playing the local bar. Because I still love it!” Volkens explains. “There will never be a time where the Knitts don’t exist, which, sorry world! Whether we’re good or bad, we’re around forever!”
That’s not to say it hasn’t been a long row to hoe. Their outsider status in regard to the current “LA scene” (“It’s very much shoe-gaze, psychedelic, post-punk that’s king”), reflects The Valley’s own interloper reputation, something that has made its way into the music (“The Valley has a lot of different genres and subgenres of music, punk and ska are huge out here. Every kid grew up with like, a fucking checkered backpack from Vans.”) as well as their outlook on life that gets them through the leanest times. “It formed this tough skin for us,” Volkens explains. “Even when people say bad things about us, we don’t even really notice. It’s like, ‘Fuck you, we’re from fucking Reseda, I don’t give a fuck [laughs]’.”
When it came time to finally record an album, the band shopped around, ultimately choosing Michael Leonhart whose work with the likes of Yoko Ono and Steely Dan—plus the prestige of being the youngest person to ever be award a Grammy—still has the group riding a contact high.
“He dresses nice, he’s got a nice little satchel, he’s got his Pellegrino and he’s walking around the studio, he’s got his scarf, he’s just a badass,” Volkens explains before gesturing to Luque. “And then two days into recording here comes Jimmy with his scarf, his satchel, he’s drinking Pellegrino [laughs].”
Leonhart pushed the band to record the album in just three days, a challenge the group met gamely (“We were like ‘Three days? Give us two’.”). The result is a time capsule, a crystallization of their early years as a band, a hard copy of songs they wrote seven years ago or more, before the managers, the Federal, or Michael Leonhart.
“It’s just the beginning, Volkens explains adamantly. “We’ve evolved so much as musicians, and as people. The content of the lyrics has matured and evolved. If there’s any glimmer of someone being like, ‘I sort of like this album,’ you will love our second album! For sure! It’s just the beginning. We’re not stopping.”
One gets the sense that The Knitts wake up each morning, take a look around, and say, ‘Well boys, today could be the day.’ There’s a feeling that they’ve been waiting in line, biding their time, waiting for a shot at the big title. In the meantime, as high as their aspirations go, they just want to live to see another day, happy to play for drink tickets or free beer.
“Even if this album just gives us an opportunity to record a second, it did its service, Volkens explains. “That’s really all we could ask for. And we’re gonna do it our way, because I would rather fail on our terms than someone else’s.”