As their debut album nears completion, NYC's Holy Ghost! delve into disco's past without irony.
Plenty of bands sport members with long personal histories together, but Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser of NYC disco outfit Holy Ghost! really go way back—the guys have been friends for 20 years. Meeting as wee tots at what they describe as a “liberal, weird school” on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, it didn't take long for the pair to begin collaborating musically. “Our first band was Miss Preston's elective rock band, which was in the fourth grade,” says Millhiser. “It was in a storage cage,” adds Frankel. “We played classics like 'Lean on Me,' '59th Street Bridge,' and then, as a reward for learning all these songs, we got to write and perform one of our own.” Apparently Miss Preston had quite an effect on the boys, as Frankel and Millhiser have been working together on music ever since. In high school they formed Automato, a six-piece live hip-hop group that operated in a similar sonic space as fellow East Coast outfits like The Roots and A Tribe Called Quest. Automato's 2004 self-titled debut album was produced by the DFA and received a smattering of critical acclaim, but the group eventually dissolved, leaving Frankel and Millhiser to soldier on as a duo.
“The second 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,” says Millhiser. “But we didn't have a rapper, so Alex started singing.” Soon thereafter, the tempo increased, pop arrangements came into play, and Holy Ghost! was born. The duo cites the influence of DFA producers James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy as an obvious factor in their move toward disco and electronic music, but their listening habits had always been diverse, even in their younger, baseball-cap-to-the-side hip-hop days. “I bought [Daft Punk's] Homework when it came out, when I was like, 15,” says Millhiser. “[Growing up in New York,] the same kids who went to Pavement or Lyricists Lounge shows were also the same kids who went to raves.”
Late 2007 saw the release of “Hold On,” Holy Ghost!'s debut single on DFA. A near-perfect slice of pop-disco, “Hold On” was simultaneously modern and true to the classic analog-synth work of disco legends like Giorgio Moroder. The track thrust the duo into the spotlight and made them in-demand remixers—Panthers, Curses! (a.k.a. Drop the Lime), In Flagranti, Cut Copy, Phoenix, and even electronic music legend Moby have all come calling for their services. (Frankel actually worked as Moby's assistant for a time, although he claims “there was no drycleaning, but I did return a DVD of Twin Peaks once.” Overall, he describes it as an “awesome experience.”)
Not surprisingly, all the remix work, not to mention the sudden demand for their DJ services around the globe, has left precious little time for producing new Holy Ghost! material. The group's second single, another offering of pitch-perfect electro-disco entitled “I Will Come Back,” was only released this past summer—strangely enough, as a free download on the Mountain Dew-sponsored Green Label Sound label. “We were anxious and nervous about working with a corporation,” says Frankel before adding, “[it was an] amazing experience.” Millhiser adds, “We were right about to release 'I Will Come Back,' just as a second 12-inch on DFA.” Frankel continues, “The package was ready to go, and they were able to come in last minute, give it a big push, and offer support that DFA couldn't do on its own. Working together, DFA and [Green Label Sound] proved to be a really good team.”
Questions of distribution model aside, the fact remains that to date, Holy Ghost! has only released two proper singles and a number of remixes—a fact Frankel and Millhiser are certainly aware of. “We work very, very slowly,” begins Millhiser before Frankel cuts in, “There is more! There's more on my computer. We've spent the past two years making an album.” He continues, “When 'Hold On' came out, it wasn't like that was the lead single to an album. That was the lead single to the project—there was nothing [else]. We joke about it ourselves—when we only had 'Hold On,' that was even worse because then people would be like, 'You only have one song out,' and we'd be playing somewhere like Israel, and they'd be like, 'How the fuck did you get to come here?'”
These days Holy Ghost! has more of a discography, but the production focus has shifted entirely to finishing their debut album, tentatively slated for release sometime in 2010. Production is something the duo takes seriously, as they've also acquired a budding reputation as gear hounds. Frankel and Millhiser began seriously collecting equipment as teenagers in their Automato days, as Frankel explains, “We signed a record deal and we had a little bit of a gear budget and simultaneously we got into Radiohead. I blame [the record company] and Nigel Godrich largely for our gear obsession.” That obsession continues to this day, as the pair has amassed an impressive arsenal of instruments and studio gear. Favorite items include Roland Space Echo tape delays, '70s-era DBX162 and DBX165 compressors, Yamaha CP60, CP70, and Rhodes electric pianos, and their modular synth.
Nick Milhiser and Alex Frankel
While Frankel and Millhiser openly cop to their passion for vintage studio equipment and musical instruments, there is a method to their madness. “We just don't like the way modern records sound,” says Millhiser. “Records made between 1975 and 1985 are just the best-sounding recordings ever made, and a large part of that has to do with the equipment that was used, so that's where a big part of our obsession with gear comes from.” And despite their studio-geek tendencies, the guys are not trying to simply re-hash the days of disco past. Millhiser explains, “We're not trying to sound retro, or old for the sake of sounding old.” While elements of nostalgia factor in to the creative process and the guys admit to borrowing ideas from their favorite disco and early electro records, Frankel boldly proclaims that Holy Ghost! makes music “without irony.” That even includes when the guys are enlisting the vocal services of Yacht Rock legend Michael McDonald, who sings the hook on one of the tracks from their forthcoming album. “His vocals are insane,” says Frankel. “One day on the 12-inch we should just make a McDonald-pella that's just his [vocal] tracks because they are insane-sounding.”
Speaking of insanity, besides finishing the debut full-length, Holy Ghost! is also in the midst of tackling another challenge—performing live. Much of the band's vintage equipment isn't exactly tour-ready, so the gear acquisition is now focused on smaller, stable, and functional items for the road. Rather than relying on pre-recorded tracks and performing a glorified DJ set, Holy Ghost! is attempting to keep the live show as 'live' as possible. “It's going to be a five-person band, everyone playing, everyone using basically every available limb,” Millhiser explains. Frankel adds, “Some of it's very hard because it's like playing one part with your left hand, another with the right hand, and singing at the same time. We brought in these guys Tyler [Blake] and Michael [David] who are in the band Classixx, and they are doing a lot of the hard stuff.” While there are no concrete tour dates yet, Holy Ghost! does have one confirmed show—at next year's Calvi on the Rocks festival in Corsica, a “heaven on earth” spot where they DJed earlier this year. “They asked us to [come back and] play live and we said yes without having any idea how to play live,” says Frankel. “You can't say no to this festival.” Millhiser adds with a laugh, “And there's no money involved.”
Read the entire transcript of this interview here.