A scant eight months have passed since last we spoke with Holy Ghost! It was early spring, and the New York duo was visiting the District for a two-night stand at the 9:30 Club with theatrical hand gesture enthusiasts Cut Copy. Nick Millhiser and Alex Frankel were expecting at the time, just days away from becoming proud parents of a self-titled debut on DFA Records. On the eve of those shows, Millhiser chatted with BYT’s Julian Vu about the forthcoming record and the road that led to it. It’s a fantastic interview. You should really give it a read.
Since then, much has changed for Millhiser and Frankel, and much has remained the same. Holy Ghost! is still a band defined by impeccable taste, something it has displayed time and again since March. Clever music videos, thoughtful album packaging, savvy remix selections: these two have their shit thoroughly together. This probably isn’t much of a surprise to anyone who’s heard Holy Ghost!, an immaculately assembled cocktail of shimmering synthpop, disco, and electro that’s unquestionably one of the year’s best sounding records.
But after subsisting for years on the promise of an occasional single or remix, Holy Ghost! also finally came into its own in 2011, rising from a support slot for aforementioned Australian pop juggernauts – and a place in the electronic orgy of the HARD Summer Tour – to its own major headlining tour. When the band stops in DC on Wednesday night – fittingly, at the 9:30 Club – it will be boasting an expanded six-piece line-up and a gearhead’s wet dream of an onstage set-up. With a tour closing on Saturday with a sold-out show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, the argument can be made that Holy Ghost! will end this year having become the marquee act of a post-LCD Soundsystem DFA Records.
BYT gave Millhiser a call the other day to discuss Holy Ghost!’s productive 2011, as well as its new (free) single “I Wanted to Tell Her”, a recently acquired “holy grail of synths,” and the current landscape of hip-hop. Millhiser also revealed that Holy Ghost! has no plans on slowing its momentum: a sophomore effort is already well in the works. (Don’t forget to comment here for a chance to win tickets for Wednesday.)
BYT: It’s been a big year for Holy Ghost!. What’s been your personal highlight?
Holy Ghost: I don’t know if I can pinpoint one thing. This tour has been really fun, and I kind of feel like this is what the whole year – or year-and-a-half – of touring has led up to. We’re finally at the point where we have as many people on stage and all the gear that we’ve always dreamed of. So this tour definitely feels like a highlight.
BYT: What kind of changes has Holy Ghost! undergone to get this point?
Holy Ghost: When we started, we were basically limited by budget constraints. Touring with a live band is incredibly expensive, because, obviously, you have to pay people, and those people need to sleep somewhere. You have to get from point A to point B somehow. So when the band started, it was just Alex and I and our two friends, Chris and Eric. It was still a band – we were still playing live – but we were sort of limited by the number of people we had onstage, so we had to sample some stuff, and run some things off tracks, or sequence things with MIDI. Now we’re at the point where there are six people onstage. There’s virtually nothing coming off of a prerecorded track. We have enough people onstage that basically all of the parts for the songs can actually be played by hand. And, obviously, two more people means there’s that much more stuff onstage. We have a huge keyboard rig, piano, bass guitar, and percussion. Tons of percussion.
BYT: You’ve toured with some big names in dance music – Chromeo, Cut Copy, LCD Soundsystem. What kind of lessons did you pick up from them as you developed your own live show?
Holy Ghost: From the beginning, we’ve followed LCD’s model to a certain extent. I kind of grew up playing in bands and stuff like that. When Holy Ghost! started working on this stuff, it was always our goal to play live. But after watching James [Murphy] start LCD from the very beginning, and likewise touring in The Juan MacLean, I think we sort of used those bands as models, in terms of not giving into the temptation to do things the easy way and just have a laptop on stage, and putting in the extra work to have a real live band in the classic sense of the term: a bunch of people on stage playing together, interacting together. LCD, James, and everybody else have this incredible work ethic. The amount of work that went into that band as a live band was just insane.
BYT: The Juan MacLean has a role of your cover of Ministry’s “I Wanted to Tell Her” for Green Label Sound. How did that single come together?
Holy Ghost: We’ve been talking about doing that song for three or four years. It was actually initially the idea of Nancy [Whang]. We started it a long time ago and just never got around to finishing it. Then the idea came up of doing another single with Green Label Sound. Alex and I had started working on stuff for the new record, but we had never done a cover before and it kind of seemed like a cool opportunity to do a cover song, and that was one of the first things we thought of. It was something that was in the back of our minds. When we started it way back when the idea was always that Nancy would sing the girl part, and then Juan’s involvement came about at the very last minute, before we were mixing it. There’s a girl part and a boy part – Nancy did the girl part, and Alex did the boy part – and then there’s sort of these two rap parts. In the original, [Ministry singer] Al Jourgensen does it with this really silly, kind of fake British accent, and it just didn’t sound right without the fake British accent, which Alex couldn’t quite nail the cadence of. And I was like, “I bet Juan could do this.” And I just sent Juan the instrumental, and I was like, “If you have time in, like, the next six hours and you’re at your recording studio and you want to give this is a try, let me know.” He actually found it really difficult as well, but he got it done and recorded his part and sent us back the part and whatnot. It was a family affair, as usual.
BYT: Ministry took a stylistic left turn in the late 80s, when it transitioned from synthpop to industrial metal. Are there any surprising places you could envision taking Holy Ghost!’s sound?
Holy Ghost: I don’t think anything as drastic from Ministry’s first record to what they’re doing now. The stuff that Alex and I are working on for our next record is sort of less… I don’t know, it’s not that Alex and I want to stop making dance music, but we want to be more focused on thinking about the album as an album, and if we’re working on a dance track, then trying to do it as a 12 inch. I think that with the last album, we were trying to make dance tracks in a way, and with this record, there are definitely songs where we’re not thinking about it like that.
BYT: How far along are you guys in the recording?
Holy Ghost: It’s kind of hard to say because it’s always the last little bit that takes the longest, but we have four or five songs where the music is basically done and Alex has some vocal ideas. We had about a month off in the middle of summer and we booked it at the DFA studio, and we’re going to do the same thing when we get home from this tour. With any luck, we’re hoping to be done with it in January or February. We’re trying to do it much faster than the last one.
BYT: That record took about two or three years to get done, right?
Holy Ghost: Yeah, there was a huge learning curve in making the first record. It wasn’t just writing a record – we do so much of the process of making a record ourselves that we also had to learn how to work a recording studio and engineer and all that stuff, and now we’re comfortable doing all that stuff, so the process of writing the second record is really just that: writing a record.
BYT: What were the last tracks you recorded for the record? There are some – “Jam for Jerry”, “Some Children” – that seem less dancey, and I’m wondering if that gives any indication of where the band is headed.
Holy Ghost: It’s interesting you say that – “Some Children” was one of the first things that we did. The last song we did was “Wait & See”. We kind of had the record assembled, and I forget what it was, honestly – it was either “I Know, I Hear” or “I Will Come Back” – but a song that had already been released was going to be on the record, and it just felt like there was too much stuff on the record that had already come out. So Alex and I were sort of like, “Let’s just spend a couple of days and try to write another song.” And we did that basically right before the deadline of the record. And, I guess, “Jam for Jerry” was the second to last song that we wrote. The first songs we did for the record were “Hold On”, “Some Children”, and “Static on the Wire”. Those are probably the oldest, and to me those are the ones that have the strongest hip-hop influence to my ear. Those sound like us coming out of our old band [Automato]. I’m sure they don’t seem that way to other people.
BYT: It’s a little surprising that for two guys who used to be in a hip-hop group, Holy Ghost! doesn’t seem to name check a whole lot of rap in interviews I’ve seen. Is hip-hop something you still keep up on?
Holy Ghost: A little bit. Alex does more so than me. I mean, if I’m driving around the city or if I ever have a chance to listen to the radio at home, I listen to Hot 97 or Power 105. I’m just not particularly stoked about modern rap records, even with people I like, like Jay-Z. You know, I bought Watch the Throne and I like it, but it didn’t blow my mind or anything. It’s just been a long time since there’s been a new rap record that I’ve been really excited about, but I still listen to the older records that I still love as much as ever. I guess the same thing is true for music in general: newer records that excite me are few and far between. That’s less so in rap – I could definitely name a handful of records in other genres that came out in the past year that I really like, whereas I couldn’t necessarily do that in rap.
BYT: When BYT interviewed Justin Miller this summer, he mentioned you had broken the piggybank for a Yamaha CS-80. He said it’s considered the “holy grail of synths.” Can you explain to us non-gear enthusiasts what makes it such a coveted instrument?
Holy Ghost: It was one of the first polyphonic synthesizers, which means a synthesizer where you can play more than one note at a time. When Yamaha designed it, they spared no expense. They were basically just trying to make the most incredible synthesizer ever. And they were making it at a time when musicans actually made a shitload of money and could afford ridiculous luxuries like a synthesizer that costs, I don’t know, like $15,000 in 1978, or whatever year it was. It’s hard to explain in non-technical nerdy terms. It just sounds incredible, and it’s also a very specific instrument unto itself. It’s one of the most expressive synthesizers. I think most people think about synthesizers as these machines that computers play, but the CS-80 was really instrument that was made to be played by a very qualified piano player, which I am not, but Alex is a very good keyboard player. It’s a really fun instrument to actually play by hand. It doesn’t have MIDI. It’s can’t sync to a computer at all. It’s really made to just be played by hand. And it’s just the sound of all these sort of all these classic, huge records from the late 70s and early 80s, like Thriller or the Bladerunner soundtrack. [Laughs] It really is just the most incredible sounding keyboard ever made.
BYT: Is it on tour with you?
Holy Ghost: No! [Laughs] I mean, that’s the dream – if we can someday get to the point where we can afford to bring that along, and the tech that would be required to keep it in really, really good shape.
BYT: And the bodyguard that would be required to keep it safe.
Holy Ghost: Exactly.
BYT: Going back in time, you and Alex a hand in some of the DFA remixes that James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy were cranking out in the middle of last decade. Are there any of those that you’re especially fond of?
Holy Ghost: Our involvement with those remixes was really, really minimal. It was always just if, you know, James was out of town and Tim wanted someone to play percussion then I would play percussion. Or if they wanted someone that could really play piano then they would call us up and ask Alex. It was just: “Play in this key and we’ll edit it together.” But I love all those remixes. For my money, James and Tim, when they were at the top of their game, were the best remixers ever. I mean: the Nine Inch Nails remix, the Jon Spencer remix, the Soulwax remix. I don’t think there are any of them that I don’t like.
BYT: It’s a bummer that Tim and James aren’t making music together anymore. I asked Gavin Russom this same question: how do you think Goldsworthy’s departure changes DFA’s identity?
Holy Ghost: It’s hard to say. As is natural, things evolve. It’s hard to say how things would be different if Tim was involved. I mean, I too am bummed that he’s not. He was such an integral part of the label and the sound of the label. It would certainly be different, but it’s sort of hard to speculate as to how. I still talk to Tim – he’s an incredibly talented and inspiring guy to be around.
BYT: You said that after the tour wraps up, one focus will be the new record. What else does the Holy Ghost! have planned for the rest of the year and beyond?
Holy Ghost: After this tour, we’re basically going home to work on the record. After that, I don’t know – we’re kind of playing it by ear. That’s basically the end of touring. We’re going to do the Future Music Festival in Australia. There’s going to be a 10 Year Anniversary of DFA tent. The only reason we agreed to do the festival is because we get to do it with all of our friends and it’s going to be really fun. It’s going to be us and James and Pat [Mahoney] and Juan and the Rapture. But that’s just a one-off thing for fun.
BYT: Australia’s not a bad place to be this time of year.
Holy Ghost: Yeah, it’ll be summer in Australia. But aside from that, I guess the vague plan is just to go home, work for another month, and then see where things are and how things are moving. As we’ve been touring as a band, we’ve been DJing a lot less – I would love to start DJing more in that time. I would love to have a regular party in New York. I would love to start doing some more remixes here and there when we have time. But no concrete plans. We kind of made a plan to not have a plan.