Cell Singles Club 001: A Conversation With Activity Partners About Their New Single "Honey"
Activity Partners' brand new single “Honey” is the inaugural release in Cell Vision’s brand new Cell Singles Club series. To commemorate the occasion, Cell Vision co-founder Mattie Safer spoke to the modern funk duo’s Darren O’Brien and Jeff Knutsen about the music and more.
Activity Partners are a modern-funk duo from Brooklyn. Comprised of longtime friends and collaborators Darren O'Brien and Jeff Knutsen, the project was borne out of a question Knutsen asked O’Brien: What style of music have you always wanted to make but never have? A slew of post-disco-, electro-soul-, and synth-boogie-inspired tunes ensued, combining O’Brien’s lyrical knack with Knutsen’s recording skills to produce a truly delectable sound. “Honey,” the latest from the duo, is also the inaugural release in Cell Vision’s new Cell Singles Club (along with a limited edition t-shirt, a series of one-off singles with bands that we adore. Earlier this month, I asked O’Brien and Knutsen about the inspirations behind the song, their love of ‘80s funk and soul, and why “delect” is such a delightful yet uncommonly used word.
photos by Samantha Singh
CELL VISION: How did you guys become Activity Partners? What are the origins of the project, how do you guys know each other?
JEFF KNUTSEN: Around 2008, I had a band called It Lives with Steven Orenstein (Bosco Delrey, BDXtacy) and Dave Christian (Mary Timony, Sam Cohen). Things were really churning in Williamsburg back then, and we needed a new bassist, so Steven brought Darren into that project.
DARREN O’BRIEN: We weren’t that close until It Lives toured to SXSW. The last show was at a house party in Austin, in the living room. We’re there drinking all day beforehand, I’m not pacing myself at all, and by showtime, I’m a disaster. Midway through the set, I start to forget all my parts and just play random notes. Jeff is trying to get me to stop playing but I won’t and keep laughing about how terrible it sounds, being super obnoxious. This is a long time ago. So he pushes me and my $50 Hondo II bass through a window—open and ground floor, but I went through a screen into a bush. I’m sure it was the best thing people saw all day. It’s the only thing about the day that I remember, and I don’t even remember it.
So then we were friends. And he’s added synth and guitar to recordings and filled in on drums and bass for shows for almost all my projects since then. When he got some studio space, he wanted to collaborate because we have kind of complementary skill sets and to have another person motivated to finish stuff. I’d been coming up with ideas for boogie-style vocal hooks for years, so I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
CELL VISION: How did the song come together? What is your creative process?
JEFF KNUTSEN: For “Honey” specifically, Darren sent me a demo that was basically the skeleton of the song. This was in deep Covid, June of 2020 or something. I played around with some of the sounds, played bass, and added a bridge and some other details, and then we re-recorded it, and Henry Kandel played and recorded the sax. But, honestly, every song we’ve released so far has come together differently. It’s an “end justifies the means” kind of project in that way.
DARREN O’BRIEN: The first thing we wrote for this project was from a live bass and drum jam. I’ll demo stuff on my own, and Jeff will send me instrumentals to write to. As we’ve developed a gear chain, we’re more and more writing together with live electronics. Then we both add and tweak, and by the time it sounds done, we don’t always even remember who played what.
CELL VISION: There are a lot of bee-related sexual metaphors in the lyrics. What was the genesis of the lyrical idea? Is there a line that particularly pleases you?
DARREN O’BRIEN: I’m pretty happy with “delect her nectar.” Somehow “delect” never became a word on its own, but if something is delectable, it seems like you oughta be able to delect it. So I feel like I’m doing the language a service.
CELL VISION: Are you activity partners beyond Activity Partners? Is beekeeping one of them?
JEFF KNUTSEN: Haha. We get up to all kinds of mischief…
DARREN O’BRIEN: We screen print our own shirts, and we often enjoy the same substances.
CELL VISION: Darren, you used to work at Williamsburg's infamous afterhours spot The Shank; do you have any wild stories about that experience?
DARREN O’BRIEN: I was still pretty new to living here, so it feels wild now that I did that at all. The whole experience almost killed me, but I can’t recall any individual stories wilder than hijinks. And I guess part of my job was to make sure the stories didn’t get too wild. The only time I can remember really feeling like ‘uh oh’ was one night when Rocky and his entourage showed up, and they all went in except one younger guy who hung around outside to talk on the phone. That was a sure way to get police attention, so basically the one rule was don’t do that. I asked him nicely a few times, and at some point he told the person on the other end of the call to hold on while he tried to put the fear in me, in my face like, “Why are you talking to me like I’m some regular-ass [you know]?!” and letting me know he’s strapped and down to take me out. And I’m trying to calmly deal with that, like, “Naw, man, I don’t think you’re regular, I just need you to take your call inside, please.” And we did eventually get him inside. But I think it got back to Rocky, who was a gentleman and wouldn’t have let that happen if he’d been around, because the dude came back to apologize to me and we shook on it. Otherwise I mostly remember us as a bunch of very nice young people who just wanted to have a good time and knew how to act.
CELL VISION: What does it mean to be a modern funk band?
JEFF KNUTSEN: I feel like, in 2022, people are burned out, and they just wanna relax and have a good time. So, in that respect, it’s almost a healthy kind of nihilism. You can’t live your whole life on red alert, you know? So we’re catering to that zeitgeist as much as we’re swimming in it. The other side of the coin is the same as any other musical genre: there’s a canon of releases over decades that you can either celebrate or ignore, but either way, you have to respect it. Maybe a better question is, What makes a good band? Or good art? I guess you just pick a direction and filter the world through your version of that lens. If you’re on the right path, the rest should fall into place.
CELL VISION: What are some of the key influences on your sound?
JEFF KNUTSEN: Darren has turned me on to so much great music in this vein.
DARREN O’BRIEN: We have a Spotify playlist called Keep On that spells it out, 20 or so songs at a time. In Memphis, we had two classic soul stations, and they each had one hour a day–“The Drive at 5” on one and “The Mix at 6” on the other–where they would play synthy ‘80s funk. And on weekend nights, one had throwback party mixes by Stan Bell, the only person I ever heard play Kraftwerk on commercial radio there. That became a big part of my tastes as a listener, as a DJ, and as someone who likes to dance, so that’s our starting point. But we’re also listening to Detroit techno, New Orleans bounce, Miami freestyle, acid house, Italo disco... Last year, I got obsessed with Baltimore club music and blew Jeff’s mind with DJ Technics’ instrumental to “Théo’s Thongs.” He just started following us on Instagram, which we geeked out about, and now I’m thinking about how we can collaborate with him.
CELL VISION: What is your live show like?
JEFF KNUTSEN: Right now, we’re focused on being able to exist as a self-sustainable duo, which manifests in a few ways.
DARREN O’BRIEN: At Our Wicked Lady and Berlin, we'll do live vocals and bass to backing tracks. Our first performance was a live electronics set at a private dinner party, making what one guest called “spontaneous beat tapestries” with the sequences and ideas we were playing with at the time, sort of performing the writing process. We also plan on using a full band in the future.
CELL VISION: Jeff’s studio was flooded earlier this year. Can you tell us what happened? Have you managed to recover?
DARREN O’BRIEN: Our block got especially bad flash flooding from Ida, and the studio door was the lowest point of elevation, so four feet of water poured in in about 20 minutes. We were both waist-deep in water, hauling gear out, but it happened too fast to save everything. We didn't really talk about it as Activity Partners because we didn’t want to become “that tragedy band” when we’re making good-time music. But it was tragic and traumatic.
JEFF KNUTSEN: In terms of recovery, yes and no. Basically, I used to have a shit ton of gear in a medium-sized room, and now I have a lot of gear in a tiny room. Most of the instruments and synths were able to be saved. I just got my Moog Sonic Six back from the shop, which is a huge relief. I've had it since 1996, and it feels like a limb at this point. There’s no budget to replace the Wurlitzer right now, but there’s another electric piano in my future for sure.
DARREN O’BRIEN: We’ve already made a couple new songs with the gear that survived, and a GoFundMe that Jeff’s sister-in-law started is close to reaching its goal because a lot of people have been generous with that, even music scene people we only know a little bit or who only know me. And we thank them very much.
CELL VISION: How did your recent collaboration with Ursula 1000 come together?
DARREN O’BRIEN: I’ve had a friendly and artistic relationship with Alex for a few years, so I sent him “The Extra Mile” when it came out. He was enthusiastic about it and alerted his friend DJ Supermarkt in Germany, who put it in one of his Too Slow to Disco playlists. And he’s played us on his WFMU show, Sounds Spectacular. So a couple months later, he sent me an instrumental demo that he thought we would have fun with, and we did.
CELL VISION: What’s next for Activity Partners?
JEFF KNUTSEN: World domination.
DARREN O’BRIEN: We have a few dozen songs on deck, so… we’ll probably work on those. One or more of which will lead to world domination. But only for the sake of its liberation.
CELL VISION: Is there anything else you would like to share?
DARREN O’BRIEN:: RIP James Mtume.
Activity Partners "Honey" (our first Cell Singles Club release) is out now and available to stream on all platforms. You can also purchase a limited edition Cell Vision x Activity Partners T-Shirt via the links below.