Holy Ghost!: TAS In Session
Holy Ghost! is one of New York's quintessential dance bands, joining LCD Soundsystem, The Roots and The Juan MacLean as a group that boldly that bring live instrumentation to the forefront.
The duo of Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser, friends since childhood, released their ambitious sophomore album, Dynamics, in September, an exuberant collection that at times reveals its wistful, more pensive undertow. The Alternate Side traveled to Brooklyn for a session with Holy Ghost! while the band — which expands to a sextet on tour — rehearsed for their second North American road trip, continuing through early November. Alex and Nick discussed their evolution as a band, the difficulty of surviving as a musician in New York and their summer tour with New Order.
Holy Ghost! plays a hometown headlning gig at Terminal 5 tonight, Halloween, and will be on TAS on 91.5 for a session this Friday, November 1, at 11am EDT, also streaming online.
Kara Manning: When I walked into your studio your entire band — there is a sextet that goes out on the road — was arguing about the best bagels in New York.
Nick Millhiser: I was saying that a good bagel is a fresh bagel, which means that it’s warm and it doesn’t need to be toasted. Needing to toast a bagel is usually the mark of a bad bagel.
Kara: The discussion was so detailed about what makes a good bagel, I thought, oh my, how do they ever record an album? It indicated a level of perfectionism. Does that exemplify who the two of you are?
Alex Frankel: I wasn’t involved in that [bagel] conversation! Inevitably, there’s a point where it’s like, whatever, you just go to the corner store and get the bagel that’s nearest.
Kara: You did take your time with [your self-titled] first album. You released a lot of singles first. You both had day jobs. What were those?
Alex: I worked at a record label when I got out of college. I went to Bard in upstate New York, then I started to work at !K7 Records in Brooklyn and then I got a job working for Moby as his assistant. Moby was my last day job. I don’t know if that was my last "day" job — it was a 24 hour job.
Nick: Night and day job. I worked at a wine shop.
Kara: Did you feel that doing all of that impeded what you wanted to do artistically? Or you were at the pace you wanted to be at to do what you needed to do.
Alex: It’s hard to judge it in retrospect but I don’t think a day job hurts someone’s ability to make music. I would just get off work and then run home or run over to Nick’s and we’d work from 7 to 10, but probably get more done from 7 to 10 then …
Nick: In an eight hour day.
Alex: Because you felt the pressure.
Nick: It’s still fun now but it’s definitely quitting day jobs and making this a day job. It’s a job we love, but it’s still a job. There’s something definitely to having a day job. It kept [the music] exciting and doing that inherently kept it a hobby which makes it more exciting and fun. It’s something that you wait all day to do as opposed to the thing you do all day.
Alex: So we’re available.
Kara: [In interviews] you’ve picked your first album apart quite a bit. Was there a disappointment with it or were you fine with what it was?
Nick: I think we were both happy with it. I think it was as good a job as we could do at the time. I’m still very proud of that record. I think we felt the same way finishing this record to a certain extent. The second we finish anything — the process of finishing anything — is a learning process. Whenever we finish anything, whether it’s a remix, an individual song or an album as a whole, there’s always this sort of, “Well, next time we want to do X, Y and Z.”
Alex: Not to play analyst, but it’s a little like when you move on to another relationship, you look back and think, that relationship was really messed up, that’s why this one is so much better. There’s that component of it. It’s also about convincing yourself that what you’re doing, currently, is a step forward. I think that’s the case for any artist in any medium.
Nick: I think some of the problems we had with the first record didn’t necessarily have to do with the music or the production or the songwriting itself. I think a big problem we had with it, at the time, was so much of it had been released already. So as a new album, our first album, it didn’t feel as coherent. Looking back at it now and having as much distance as we have from all of those songs, it feels more cohesive than it did to me at the time.
Alex: Some of the songs on the first album were four years old.
Nick: Now they just all feel old (laughs).
Kara: On Dynamics, your new album, you were not afraid to go in a softer, even darker place both lyrically and sonically. Did this also parallel the transition from your 20s into your 30s? Is there something about this album that reflects that?
Alex: Yeah, I think the album reflected the changes going on. I’m sure what was going on lyrically or in the mood of the music …
Kara: It’s still very much a dance record, but there’s …
Alex: An undercurrent of darkness.
Kara: A New York melancholy, a wistfulness …
Nick: We were born that way.
Alex: We have always been that way! And the truth is that we come from liking moody, melancholy music. All of the rap stuff that we liked growing up, particularly rap, the production was dark.
Nick: Or we gravitated to things that merged the two. Even “Hold On,” the first song. When that song starts, it’s verk dark and minor and then it shifts. We both always like things that occupy both worlds.
Kara: When building a song like “Okay,” does [the process always] begin with the the two of you?
Alex: That song started, like many of the songs on the record, as a bad-sounding demo that I made on an iPad. It sounds really bad! But Nick and I have known each other long enough so that I can send him something and he can see that there’s something in there. Nick worked on it, sent it back, redoing the parts. In terms of working with band, at least for the writing and recording, we just keep it as the two of us. That’s usually whether it’s me starting something or Nick, that’s the way it works. One of us does something and sends it to the other who gets excited [about it] and turns it around.
Nick: “Start” can mean very different things. Something like “Okay” was something that Alex sent me. As a song, it was pretty full-formed, but something like “Dumb Disco Ideas,” which I started, was just a bassline and a drum part.
Alex: I demo a lot at home. I’m writing lyrics and when you’re writing lyrics, at least for me with demos, I’m thinking more about the song than the production.There’s less tinkering going on and more output. It only takes 15 minutes to write a song – or it should — so you do a lot more of them. But if I was worrying about the drums, then it could take a lot longer to demo something. Production labor is a lot more intensive than songwriting labor, at least in our case. “Okay”
Kara: So Alex and Nick, you’ve known each other since you were in diapers?
Alex: Not that far back! We were six.
Nick: I wore diapers until very late.
Alex: We were both 13 and still in diapers.
Kara: Did you grow up near each other or did your parents know each other?
Nick: We met in grade school and we did live very close.
Alex: Two blocks away from each other.
Nick: You lived on West End [Avenue] …
Alex: Nick stayed in one place and my family moved around ten blocks on the Upper West Side with Nick as the center.
Kara: Growing up, you must have been influenced by bands like the Beastie Boys. You’re such archivists, there’s always elements of your influences in your music.
Nick: I’ve always liked records that sound, to a certain extent in some subtle way, like someone whose taste you respect is making you a mixtape. The LCD [Soundsystem] records feel that way, Beastie Boys feel that way to me and a lot of rap records that we listened to when we were kids. We learned so much about music obsessing over producers like Pete Rock, [DJ] Premier and [J] Dilla. You’d hear these tracks and then you’d find the record that they sampled. I don’t think we do anything that overt but I have always liked records that do feel like someone showing you their record collection.
Kara: Do you tend to listen to a lot of music while doing an album?
Alex: I kind of obsessively search for something to get going on. I don’t sit and listen to music in the background that much. I’m sitting at my computer or in a record store, flipping through, trying to find something to get going from. I’ve been forcing myself to listen to new music more and more. I bought the new Drake album, the new Haim. I’ve been trying to buy popular music because I feel out of touch. But during the recording of the record, searching through everything.
Nick: We both do that. At some point, early on in making the record, I realized I wasn’t listening to any music and I thought, that can’t be good. It was at a time when we hadn’t been DJing a lot and we were starting to DJ again and I was so sick of everything in my record collection.
Kara: You had an extraordinary mentor in James Murphy and you met him when you were ...
Kara: How did you connect with him?
Alex: James was pre-LCD.
Nick: He was just James Murphy. He did front of house at Brownie’s.
Alex: He was a little more than that. He had a record label and he was producing The Rapture.
Nick: There were a lot of people with record labels!
Alex: He had an office in the West Village which impressed me.
Nick: That’s true. A very nice studio.
Alex: A lot of toys.
Nick: And he was very funny.
Alex: And he had to cut out of our first meeting to go to therapy. And I thought, I like this already. We were signed to Capitol Records in our first band, a rap group, and we were searching for producers to produce a bunch of 18-year-old kids making rap music.
Kara: It was Automato?
Alex: Yes, Automato. Our manager/A&R person, Laurel Sterns at Capitol and Mia Jones, our manager, connected us both to DFA with James. We went in to meet with James and Tim and they were the first producers that we met that seemed to understand both the hip hop side of stuff and the live side of stuff. James was an amazing audio engineer, acoustic audio like drums, bass and keyboards, and Tim Goldsworthy, his partner at the time, was a programmer. That was the combination we were looking for.
Kara: Did that album ever come out?
Alex: Yes, it eventually came out on Coup de Grâce.
Nick: Which I believe means mercy killing (laughs).
Alex: Basically, Capitol financed a small label just to put out this record. It didn’t turn into anything for us and it was a very different time in the music industry where you put out a record today, you put it up on Soundcloud, you get a few thousand listens, maybe get some DJ gigs and suddenly your career has begun. A lot of musicians are like that. Then, it was like, make a record, it goes to some bigwigs in L.A. who put it out and then you sit around and hope. There was no way to interact with the world; you were separated by these huge machines, whether it was PR or A&R people. So we waited around for it to take off ... and it didn’t.
Nick: It was really interesting, the culture we came from growing up in New York was very DIY. At a very young age, we organized our own shows, we had a bunch of friends who were in bands, quasi-professional bands. But it wasn’t until the time that we met James and Tim [Goldsworthy] [and], coincidentally, I moved into an apartment in Bushwick with a bunch of strangers, that [I met] a kid who was my age and grew up in Brooklyn. Our circles, as kids, didn’t cross. But he grew up playing in a lot of crusty punk bands and they’d all press up 7-inches, arrange their own shows, and make objects to release. It wasn’t until then — and meeting James and Tim — that being DIY occurred to us.
Alex: We were very young when we were approached by major labels. We were 16 years old. We never even got beyond the stage of making flyers ourselves and doing shows in New York. We did go into the studio, some crappy studio in midtown Manhattan for $300 for the day and made a record and CDs out of it, but we never took it [beyond that] before the majors came in and took old of the operation.
Kara: So where did Holy Ghost! come into being?
Alex: The basic chronology was: Automato dissolving in 2004, I go back to school at Bard, Nick, while finishing his degree at NYU, starts playing with The Juan MacLean and both of us continue to help out at DFA, whether that was playing on remixes or playing piano or drums if James needed that. Nick and I continued to get together to make music for Automato even though it was clear that Automato wasn’t happening anymore. We realized that we no longer had a rapper or a band. By necessity, we started to sing over our demos and try to shape them without the help of the rest of the band we were used to working with. We started playing James and Tim at DFA …
Nick: And Juan. Juan [of The Juan MacLean] was very important.
Alex: Yes, around 2005-6 these demos. Basically, James picked “Hold On” out of the batch of crappy demos we sent him and said, “That’s the one. Finish that one.” It was just a beat at that point. We finished it, went in [the studio] with [James], mixed it and put it out. At that point, in 2007, putting out “Hold On” on DFA was already the peak of what we wanted to do. We have our own 12-inch on DFA? This is insane. We’ve been wanting this for four years. From that, friends started [asking us to do remixes].
Nick: We sought them out. As excited as we were to have a record come out on DFA, we were very much looking at James and Tim, James specifically, at the way he was doing things. I remember thinking, that’s really smart. He has a band, he makes his own music, he’s also a producer who remixes stuff. He DJs. He’s able to do all these different things and somehow keep them different. We’d always wanted to do remixes, we tried to do them in Automato, but there were too many cooks in the kitchen. The first remix we did for Panthers — they were our friend’s band and putting out a single ["Goblin City'} on Vice — and we were like, “Can we do it? You don’t have to pay us anything.”
Alex: “Hold On” sounded polished when it came out in some way, but we were really clueless still. That was a fluke that it sounded that good. We didn’t even know what vocal compression was. We wanted to do remixes to learn how to be better producers.
Kara: What was it like touring with New Order this summer?
Alex: When you meet someone that you really look up to, you’re kind of scared that they’re going to be monsters and not live up to what you’ve dreamt them to be. In [New Order’s] case they were total sweethearts and really helpful and encouraging. They knew the music. It was really cool. We took a plane back with them from Atlanta to New York and they were saying that they had “I Will Come Back,” one of the first 12-inches we put out. It was pretty weird to know that they had it this whole time.
Nick: Sometimes, these things come together because some manager or booking agent is like, hey this makes sense.
Kara: But they knew your music.
Alex: Yeah. For “I Will Come Back” we made this video for it that is a replica of their video for “Confusion.” And at the time we put it out, we did it on 16mm and put it up on the internet, never expected to reach them. So Bernard [Sumner] said he had the 12-inch and I was like, “Did you ever see the video?” And he was like, “Yeah, to be honest I was half worried that you guys were going to be stalkers! I’m glad you guys are cool because it freaked me out a little!”
Kara: Speaking of great stories, you made your dads celebrities in the video for “Wait and See.”
Nick: Now they’re out of control.
Alex: My dad recently said to me, I’ve worked as a writer for 25 years and I never thought I’d die being best known for being in my son’s music video.
Kara: Holy Ghost! is continuing a tradition of some great New York bands. As New York, over the last 12 years under Mayor Bloomberg, has shifted and changed, have you noticed a change with musicians — people moving away? Has the scene changed?
Nick: Yes, we’ve definitely noticed a change. New York is never as good as it was ten years ago. But it is the first time I’m seeing people move who can’t afford to live here anymore. I think the same thing happened when my parents were 30 as well. People have kids and decide they don’t want to raise kids in the city.
Alex: I think Instagram and Facebook have changed the scene more than Bloomberg has. I think living publicly in New York, the cliquey-ness of the scene.
Nick: The cliquey-ness and if I hear one more DJ or person refer to themselves as a brand and building their brand ...
Alex: I actually don’t mind, I don’t have a yes or no on any it. But I think the music scene has changed a lot in self-promotion and brand promotion in Brooklyn. Connecting yourself to other people visibily. I know what people’s houses look like. I know what people’s studios look like. You know so much about people.
Kara: It takes the mystery out of it.
Alex: In 2007 when we put out "Hold On," I remember meeting Lee Douglas who did “New York Story” which is a 12-inch that came out that we both love and hail. [We] thought, who could this possibly be? I met him at ATP. Normal, 27-year-old dude who lived in Brooklyn. We ended up hanging out that night, but meeting him, I was like, “Sir, what an honor.” It was an honor. But it probably wouldn’t have been such an honor if I’d seen what he’d eaten for breakfast.
Nick: When I look back on my experience of music as a kid, in retrospect I can say that half of what made music so exciting to me at that age or what excited me the most about bands at that time, had very little to do with the bands themselves. It had to do with whatever I imprinted on them. Especially a band like the Beastie Boys. My narrative that I invented about that band had nothing to do with them and was not based in reality at all — all you knew about that band was a few interviews a year and pictures of them apparently living in a bunker with a half-pipe and a recording studio. I thought they lived together in my dream world. I really did! That was my vision of what I was going to be when I was grown up. I’m going to live in some loft with my friends with a recording studio, a basketball court and a half-pipe. And now, I don’t know if it’s better or worse, but the accessibility probably makes music seem more attainable as a profession which is a good thing in some ways. But I think the experience is inherently different.
Alex: I think New York has been affected by it.
Nick: … The city is insanely expensive.
Alex: It’s not doable.
Kara: You don’t see yourselves ever having to leave, do you?
Alex: I am 100 percent thinking about it. If you really want to be an artist, if you want to be away from your city and your home 250 days a year trying to make ends meet on the road, then you can kind of afford to live in New York City. But if you had to take a year off to make an album, how would you survive in the city? We barely did on this record. Where it is now, I don’t see how. It also seems somewhat fake now to claim to be … there’s something pretentious about someone saying they’re making an album in New York or taking a year off. I don’t believe that you can do that anymore. You can’t be working at a diner down the street and making a record. You either have to have backing privately … it kind of makes me want to leave and do something. I look at L.A. and my friends who live upstate who are living more in tune with making art.
Nick: We’re a band that demands a lot of space physically. We have a studio. It’s not a big studio, but we don’t work on a laptop. We need a space to work as a band. [This studio we’re in] is about as small a space as we can practice in. This space is expensive. It’s an empty room with brick walls. That is gone in New York. There’s no cheap, large space in New York.
Alex: So if you’re listening, don’t move to New York!
Holy Ghost!'s Dynamics is available now on DFA Records. Remaining North American tour dates are below:
Oct 30 - Boston, MA at Sinclair
Oct 31 - New York, NY at Terminal 5
Nov 1 - Washington, DC at 9:30 Club
Nov 2 - Philadelphia, PA at TLA
Nov 4 - Burlington, VT at Higher Ground
Nov 5 - Montreal, QC at Belmont
Nov 6 - Toronto, ON at The Hoxton
Nov 7 - Pontiac, MI at The Crofoot
Nov 8 - Columbus, OH at The Basement
Nov 9 - Chicago, IL at Metro