Exclusive Holy Ghost! Interview
- Words: Shawn Reynaldo
- Photo: Shawn Brackbill
XLR8R: When did you guys meet?
Nick Millhiser: We met when we were seven.
Alex Frankel: And when I was six... 20 years? That's fuckin' awesome.
And you guys went to the same elementary school?
NM: Yeah, we both grew up in the Upper West Side in Manhattan, and we went to school together.
What point did you guys start making music together?
AF: Um... Well, our first band was in Ms. Preston's elective rock-band class in fourth grade.
That was a class?
AF: Yeah, we went to a really liberal, weird school. And for four weeks out of the year, instead of doing real classes, you'd do weird things like knitting or puzzle-solving. So we took this rock band class and we played classics like "Lean on Me" and "59th Street Bridge." And as a reward for learning all these songs we got to write and play one of our own.
And what instruments did you guys play?
NM: I played drums and he played piano.
And then you guys just kept making music after that?
NM: Yeah, Alex and I started a band called Automato, which we started when we were about 14 or 15 and that continued through high school. And then we got signed when we were still in high school and it continued 'til we were about 22. That's also how we met James and Tim from DFA. They produced that band's record. So we've always kinda been playin' together.
So were you guys always kinda hip-hop heads?
NM: Uh... just kinda music heads, ya know?
AF: I wore my hat to the side.
NM: Yeah, I definitely wore my hat to the side. Parachute pants and all.
Do you still follow hip-hop?
NM: Yeah, we still follow it, but we're both definitely less excited about hip-hop than we were. It was just such a great time for hip-hop. Mid-'90s/late '90s. There was a lot more going on.
AF: Even the mainstream and radio hip-hop, too.
Do you feel that being into hip-hop has an influence on what you're doing now? Even from a philosophical standpoint?
AF: Definitely. Everything has to do with drums for us, which is rooted directly in hip-hop. And also trying to not get too fancy. It's all about keeping things simple. We also still use the same language to describe things we like. I guess the tempos have increased and stuff, but I think we still have the same approach to music. And we're still trying to make stuff that sounds old. 'Cause, like, in our old band, we were a live band trying to make music that sounded like samples, and now we're trying to make music that sounds like disco. And there's not much difference in the two, 'cause a lot of the samples are the same. It's related in that the sound is the most important part.
NM: And we still reference hip-hop producers that have made a huge impact on us, like, we reference Dilla and Pete Rock.
So at what point did disco and electronic music start coming into your lives both as fans and musicians?
AF: We've always both been pretty open-minded about music in general. We had a unique experience growing up in New York where the hip-hop kids would go see indie rock shows or play in indie rock bands. There was a good foundation so as not to segregate your taste. But later, just by buying records of all sorts, when we were looking for samples, looking through dollar bins, we would find old disco stuff to sample. And when we started working with James and Tim, they saw us leaning toward that side a bit and they encouraged us to pursue the disco side of things further. They let us know that is was okay to like it.
NM: Yeah, like he was saying, the same kids who were going to see Pavement were also going to the raves and shit like that. Meeting James and Tim was a major turning point in sort of solidifying our love of dance music.
AF: And getting into the production techniques of it all.
At what point did you guys become Holy Ghost! and start making disco and electronic music?
NM: Well, very soon after Automato broke up, Alex and I continued working on music together—initially with the idea that we were going to keep doing hip-hop stuff but we didn't have a rapper. So Alex started singing and then we just started working on songs with more proper vocals and poppier arrangements. The name Holy Ghost! came a couple days before we had to go for pressing for the [first] single.
So that came out like, what, three years ago now?
AF: Two! October 30th, 2007!
So you guys pretty much have the "Hold On" single, the "I Will Come Back" single, and a few other remixes... How come there isn't more?
NM: We work very, very slow.
AF: There's more. More on my computer... I guess we've spent the last few years making an album. When "Hold On" came out, it wasn't the lead single to an album. It was kind of just the lead single to the project. There was nothing there. So we had little things going, like demos and ideas, but we've spent the last two years making an album. We just work slow, I guess.
NM: We've also done a shitload of remixes, too.
AF: Yeah, 13 remixes, a few singles, and we toured non-stop.
So, you guys do have an album? Do you know when that's supposed to come out?
NM: No. We're in the process of finishing it. We'll finish it in a few months. Then it'll sort of go into record-industry purgatory. Ya know, once you hand in a record, it might take eight months to a year to be out. So it's sort of out of our hands at that point.
Even on DFA?
NM: Yeah, even on DFA. It's just the nature of the beast. I mean, we both want it. We're both shooting for it to be out by the summer, which I don't think is overly ambitious but there's no definitive release date yet.
AF: There'll be a new single before that, though.
Alright, I want to switch gears and actually talk about gear for a bit. When did you guys seriously start acquiring studio gear?
NM: In Automato. Probably around when we were 17 or 18.
AF: When we signed that record deal, we had a little bit of a gear budget. And simultaneously we got into Radiohead. So I blame them and Nigel Godrich largely for our gear addiction. So it started there with [Roland] Space Echoes and stuff like that, and just trying to figure out what kind of effects and keyboards they were using. We also practiced in a building that housed a music-equipment store, so we always got to try new stuff out. So it started with Rhodes and Space Echoes, and has grown into modular synths and other stuff.
At this point, are you guys still acquiring new stuff?
AF: Yeah, we've been buying a lot of shit to play live. Because we have like a sound that came from the [Sequential Circuits] Prophet, but we can't take that out to play live for a number of reasons. So we've been buying stuff that isn't necessarily that exciting, but functional, like new analog synths that do a good job of replicating a real analog synth for the road.
And when you guys are getting new stuff, is it like you search for new pieces or do you just hear about someone selling some synth that you end up getting?
NM: I'd say 90% of the stuff we buy is something we've been keeping an eye out for for a while. There's been a couple times where I've walked into a music store and been like, "Oh, what's that?" and I'll end up liking it and buying it on the spot. But for the most part, it's stuff that we've either heard on a record or something that James from DFA has and we've decided we really like.
Do you have any favorites?
NM: Yeah, these Space Echoes, which are tape delays, which we basically use on everything. There are these compressors from the '70s called the DBX 162, which we also record and mix everything through. And as far as synths, our modular synth is pretty much used on everything.
AF: And guitars and Rhodes and basses... We have a couple cool keyboards—two of 'em—Yamaha CP-60s. They're like electrified acoustic pianoa. We played with these back in Automato. They're just a piano, not much else, but they sound awesome. Sometimes the simplest stuff is the best.
So what's the recording process like for you guys? Do you just jam on your equipment or do you bring in a loop sound and build off that?
AF: It depends. Sometimes it'll start out with a piano idea and sometimes it'll start with a drum track. The album is turning out to be half and half. There's stuff that starts out as beats and we'll build on it with a bassline or keyboard line. Then the other half of the stuff will be nuggets of songs, like the chorus or a piano melody, then we'll build on it. We don't really have one way of writing a song but, generally speaking, we focus most on sounds and the beat more than anything conceptual with the songwriting.
Do samples come into play at all, or is everything original sounds?
NM: 99% original sounds.
I know you guys are pretty analog-focused, but are there digital components to the production process?
NM: Yeah, we use Pro Tools as our recording tool. We have a four-track, too, though.
On that Vice thing, you guys were showing different pieces of the song and Alex, you started showing certain parts of the song that were off but couldn't be fixed because of the recording process. Could you elaborate on that?
AF: Well, we record everything through a board and we do stereo mixes. So once we move on from the song, we can't recall all the settings on the board, and certain things get lost. We try to always make finalized versions of stuff instead of leaving sessions open. So, in reality, we could go back and try to get the mix up, but it's easier to just leave that loud hand clap the way it is.
So, Alex, you do all the vocals on the records?
Do you have any vocal training or did you just start singing?
AF: Yeah, I just started singing.
So how do you approach it with skill but without being a trained singer?
AF: Hmmm... That's still up for debate. Sometimes it takes a long time 'cause I don't have a naturally trained voice. If we want something to sound polished, it can take a while, but sometimes we end up just going to the first mixes that are pretty raw....
Speaking of trained vocalists, didn't you guys just do a song with Michael McDonald?
AF: Yeah, he's definitely a trained vocalist. We just did a song with him. And by "did a song" I mean he just resang the hook of the song. His vocals are interesting. They are truly insane. One day we should just make a Mike-a-pella.
Is that song going to be on the album?
AF: Yeah, it will be. It's got a name but we can't say it 'cause this is one of the songs that actually has a sample.
So, this question is a little more philosophical. Your sound can be described as kind of retro with a lot of disco and electro elements. Is this intentional? How do you make old-sounding music in a modern context without it coming off as dated?
NM: It's unintentional in the sense that we're not trying to sound retro or old for the sake of old. Those disco records just happened to be the records we like. And ever since we started becoming comfortable in the studio, our tendency was to basically rip off whatever we were listening to at that time. So it really just comes from a very sincere love of those old records. And we just don't really like the way modern records sound. Ya know, records made between 1975 to 1985 are the best-sounding recordings ever made. And a large part of that has to do with the equipment being used, which harkens back to our obsession with gear. So, it's deliberate and undeliberate.
AF: It's also the music we grew up with at home. So there's an emotional, nostalgic component to it. It's the stuff we're still drawn to. I can't really listen to most new music. There's a lot of good new music; especially now, things seem like they're changing. But most music made on the laptop just doesn't do anything for me. Neither does electronic music. It just doesn't do anything for me.
You guys mention that you're working on building a live show. Do you have any tours planned, or are you still learning?
NM: Nah, we're still learning. We knew it would be a big undertaking, so our plan was to start without the pressure of anything looming directly in front of us. So, yeah, there is the vague plan that we will be touring in the new year, but nothing is booked yet.
AF: Except for maybe Corsica. That's our first confirmed date. There's a festival called Calvi on the Rocks that we went to earlier this year to DJ, and it was like a heaven-on-earth kinda place. So they asked us to play live and we said yes without any idea of how to play live. We've been asked before and have said no, but we couldn't refuse this festival.
So when you guys are going through the process of translating your studio gear to a live set-up, how are you guys doing it? Are you going with more pre-recorded stuff or more analog with a live band and stuff?
NM: It's gonna be a five-person band. With everybody playing and using every available limb.
AF: Some of it is hard 'cause it's like playing one part with your right hand, one part with your left hand, and singing at the same time. We brought in these guys, Tyler and Michael, who are in this band Classixx, and they're doing a lot of the hard stuff. They're very, very good, though, so it's been easier than we thought. So before we even started figuring out how we were going to do this, we had some guidelines, the largest of which was that we really wanted to do something that wasn't just a glorified DJ set or stuff that came largely from track. We wanted it to look and sound like a real band. So we approached the thing basically without any backing tracks.
NM: And we both come from live backgrounds. We've both been playing in bands since we were kids so we missed doing that. And these songs, as much as they were written in the studio and written into a computer, in a way, they were written to be played live. The instrumentation isn't so outlandish or so overly produced that it would be such a challenge to be played live.
AF: Most of it was tracked by a human, too. There's not that much MIDI on the record. It's not that we have anything against that, but we just don't work that way. It's largely guitars, Wurlitzers, live drums, pianos, etc. It sounds like there's six people playing, so the challenge was to get from the sound of two people to the sound of five or six. Then it was just about finding the right people and the right gear and do it such a way that you could get on a plane and have it sound like a modular or Prophet without the risk of destroying your precious tunes.
So, when you record live drums, are you good enough drummers to record it in or do you have to quantize the tracks?
AF: [Nick's] a really good drummer. He has a great touch. But we also had the pleasure of working with Jerry Fuchs—who played with Juan Maclean and !!!—and is basically the best drummer on earth.
NM: Flawless timing.
AF: Yeah, like when you look at him on a grid, there's barely any quantization needed. It's scary.
NM: I was doing a mix of some of the drums that he recorded and it took me an hour to realize that I had opened the wrong session and that the drums I was listening to were not quantized. It was just a live performance front to back and it was nearly perfect. He's that dead-on.
So, Alex, you used to be Moby's assistant? Do you still do that?
AF: [laughs] No...
Could you talk about it a bit?
AF: Sure, what do you wanna know?
Was it working with him on music stuff or more just like picking up his dry cleaning?
AF: I started working with Moby in an audio-related capacity. It started as a three-month job to help him with his album and then it turned into more of an assistant job where I was kind of like a wingman for all sorts of projects non-audio-related. No dry cleaning, but I did drop off a DVD of Twin Peaks once.
Last thing, in 2010, you guys have your album coming out. Is there anything else coming up like new releases or something?
NM: We have a mixtape coming out in cassette only; sort of a bootleg compilation of all our remixes. Then we have a couple remixes that we did a couple months ago that are blooming and should be coming out soon. Then, once the album comes out, we'll do some more remixes.
Can you say who those remixes were for?
AF: Kings of Leon, Datarock, and Van She. The Datarock one is already out. It's a dub version, weirdly enough.
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