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Holy Ghost!

Holy Ghost!

Interviewed by
Courtney Sanders
Wednesday 9th October, 2013 10:00AM

Holy Ghost! are a New York-based two piece who, at the turn of the century, found themselves helping out at a little known label called DFA Records. Over a decade later and DFA is internationally renowned for revolutionizing dance music, while the duo of Nick Milhiser and Alex Frankel have just released their sophomore record on the label, called Dymanics. UnderTheRadar caught up with the pair to discuss the development of their sound between first and second releases, and how it feels to be a part of an historically significant music scene and movement.

Hey Alex, how you doing?

I’m doing good, Nick is here too, so we can both answer the questions.

Haha yeah, you sound like you’re on speakerphone – great. What have you guys been up to recently?

We just released a record two weeks ago in the States and now we’re in London, doing some DJ dates and going to Paris, and then getting ready to go on a Fall tour in the States.

Let’s start by talking about the new album, Dynamics. When and where did you write it?

We started the record in the summer of 2011 while we were wrapping up the touring cycle for the first album. We were writing whenever we weren’t on tour, and we knuckled down and really got into it at the end of 2011 and the start of 2012. We locked ourselves away until it was done.

Cool, and then you recorded in New York at the DFA studios?

Yeah we mixed it at the DFA studios and did a little bit of the recording there, but most of the recording was done at Nick's house, because he has a little studio there. We’d go into the DFA studio for bigger things like the drums that we can’t record at home.

Was there anything in particular that you guys wanted to achieve on this album?

We were really happy with the last album but we wanted to make this album much more direct. Direct was a word that we used a lot, and it’s kind of where the title comes from to some degree: when it’s loud it’s loud, when it’s quiet it’s quiet, when it’s weird it’s weird. We wanted to move into extremes on this record and try not to compromise as much. We were really trying to force ourselves to keep it simple and not to hide behind studio stuff.

You’ve mentioned the word ‘direct’ as important but in interviews you also mention the title, Dynamics was thematically quite significant?

Yeah definitely. It signifies the nuances of a relationship between friends and couples, but it also relates to sound. It’s a word that we use a lot in the studio, and we talk about the dynamics on some of our favourite records. You also have a lot of records today - because of compression and MP3’s - that have lost a lot of dynamics – they’re aren’t as many peaks and valleys. We wanted to make a full album that had ups and downs.

Before this band you were both in a lot of music projects, and when you formed Holy Ghost! you dedicated yourself to writing accessible music, right?

We were always musicians in bands growing up. Nick was a drummer and I was a keyboard player. We were in a band called Mono Mono that was produced by DFA and that’s how we made James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy in the early 2000s. That band fizzled out for whatever reason and when Nick and I started Holy Ghost!, we just naturally started writing music with pop structure and pop choruses.

You mention playing in bands in the early 2000s in New York and meeting the DFA dudes then. That must have been a pretty incredible scene to be part of?

When we met with those guys we knew nothing about anything really. We were always the weird step kids running around the DFA studios, making a point of absorbing as much as we could from what was happening - what is that album they’re playing? What was that song they played last night when they were DJ-ing? We also watched the way they worked in the studio, because we didn’t really have the faintest idea of how to get sound into a computer. We were working with four tracks at home and stuff – very primitive recording techniques. We just watched and learned as much as we could and whenever James and Tim needed something – a keyboard part for example - we would happily go in and play for them. Whatever it was. We were always just hanging around and waiting our turn to put something out on the label. That was the whole plan with Holy Ghost! – to put out a 12” on DFA, and it kind of spiralled into something more.

From an outsiders perspective, the whole DFA community has had a profound impact on that sound worldwide. Do you see any particular reason why that sound became so important in New York at that time?

Yeah maybe a little. When the label first started and the first Rapture record or the first LCD Soundsystem 12” came out, that sound (the merging of indie production and dance music) wasn’t around - it’s easy to forget revolutionary it was at the time. Now it’s totally common and not unique to DFA at all - it’s in everything from us to The Killers.

Merging traditional dance and rock production together also served to make dance music – at least in America at the time – a little more accessible to kids, or like, straight white people. At that time in America, especially in New York, going to clubs was something that people from Jersey or Long Island did, or gay men did. It had some weird stigma about it. As far as our role in it, I donno, I think we were lucky to be in the right place at the right time. When we met those guys when they were just starting the label and they certainly had no idea what it would become and neither did we. I will happily admit that I did not like ‘House of Jealous Lovers’ when I first heard it, now it’s one of my favourites.

You guys are based in New York and have been for a long time. Do you think that sound and scene that you are a part of has changed over the years?

It certainly feels like there are more like-minded people in it now. I don’t know if that’s actually true or if that’s our perspective now, but it certainly feels like that.

How do you think you have changed as a band between your debut and your sophomore album?

We've changed insomuch that when we finished the first record we weren’t a band - we had hardly played live. Between the first record and now the band consists of six people on stage.

Does that change the type of sound that you think about creating - I imagine it would have a massive impact?

Yeah, playing live in general has definitely had a huge input on this record. We had never done it on the first record and we were only vaguely thinking about playing those songs live but on the second record we applied certain things about playing live that work and don’t work. For Alex, the process of having to sing the same lyrics night after night had an influence on how much he thought about writing words for this record. Again, that gets back to the word 'dynamics’. One of the first things we realised when we started to play live was that the songs that were the most fun and exciting to play to an audience were those ones that had the most dynamics – songs that had peaks and valleys and songs with conflicting elements. We didn’t think that at all when we made the first record. Playing live has had a massive impact on this record.

Are there any experiences in particular from the touring cycle that stick out as particularly memorable?

We recently played a festival in Los Angeles and we closed our stage and that was an amazing show. The whole touring experience has been getting better and better. We started the band as a four piece opening for LCD Soundsystem and we were pretty green and nervous and didn’t really have it together yet, and that was three years ago. We’ve grown, adding members to the band, adding a front-of-house guy that we really like and the whole process has been an awesome. I think we can say subjectively that we weren’t a very good band when we did our first show – I watch the videos and it’s a bit cringey. But three years later and 400 shows later we’re maybe not the best band but we’re a good band now, we sound really good.


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