“This city doesn’t make things anymore,” David Byrne said about New York City in a lightning rod op-ed recently. “The city is a body and a mind – a physical structure as well as a repository of ideas and information… The physical part of our city – the body – has been improved immeasurably… But the cultural part of the city – the mind – has been usurped by the top 1%.”
Byrne is making a knotty argument, one worth parsing and debating, but one thing is certain: If no one in the city is making things, then no one bothered to tell Holy Ghost!.
The duo of Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser have been producing music in NYC for a decade now, and there’s next to nothing in its bio that doesn’t read of the city. The two are natives of the Upper West Side – where, as is often noted, they attended elementary school together – but currently reside a few blocks from each other in the more affordable creative haven of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The band is signed to DFA Records, one of the city’s seminal dance labels, and for all intents and purposes, a West Village small business. And the protagonists of its songs exist in the universe of its the hometown: the inter-borough grind of “Bridge and Tunnel”, the city streets of “Teenagers in Heat”, the bodegas of “Dumb Disco Ideas”, the shadowy clubs and hotels of “It Gets Dark”.
When I reach Frankel and Millhiser, however, they’re preparing to leave the city. It’s the eve of another Holy Ghost! tour. When they spoke with BYT two years ago, it was the opposite scenario: The two were nearing the end of some time on the road and looking to buckle down on a sophomore effort. “After this tour, we’re basically going home to work on the record,” Millhiser said at the time. “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.”
That record, Dynamics, was released in September. The two took some time to discuss how it ended up coming together, along with their complicated relationship with New York and their reaction to Mr. Byrne’s thesis.
BYT: You worked with a few producers on the last record – Chris Zane, primarily. Was it important for you to handle that responsibility yourself on Dynamics? Or was it just the result of being able to record at home?
Nick: It was both. Towards the end of finishing our last record, we had gotten to the point where our studio was sufficient enough for doing 75% of what’s required for us to make record. Working with Zane on the last one was great and really helpful, but we walked out of making that record with a clearer idea of what we wanted to do with this record, whereas with the first record we were stabbing in the dark a little bit. Zane actually did end up helping with this record – he helped on a more technical level. He helped mix this record. He wasn’t involved with the production, but he was there for the final stage with every song, giving it a little bit extra spit and polish.
BYT: What was that clearer idea you had?
Nick: The last record was such a learning process on so many levels – songwriting, production, engineering. Listening back on it now, it sounds we were trying to cram every single idea that we had into every song. With this record, we were trying to paint in bolder strokes and have things be slightly more defined aesthetically. We wanted to be more direct lyrically. If something felt like it was a pop song, we would push it as far in that direction as possible. If something felt like it was more along the lines of one of our old remixes, we would push it as far in that direction as we could – that was “Dumb Disco Ideas”.
BYT: Were there any songs that took a little more finesse than others?
Nick: They’re all difficult in their own ways. [Laughs] I can’t think of a single song that didn’t have one challenge, but those challenges are different song to song.
“It Must Be the Weather” was the song that took the longest. It was one of the first things we started, but also one of the last things we finished. But it’s hard to articulate what made it difficult. It was just one of those things where it needed something and we didn’t figure out what that something was until the very, very last minute. Sometimes that’s just how it goes. That’s happened on a bunch of songs – sometimes it takes putting something away for a while and coming back to it with a fresh set of ears.
BYT: Reading through Dynamic‘s liner notes, I’m surprised by now inconsistent the demarcation of responsibilities is. Song to song, you two are all over the place.
Alex: You’re totally right – looking at those liner notes, it is kind of a mix.
Nick: With the exception of vocals, which, you know, no one wants to hear me sing.
Alex: I do, Nick. I do.
Nick: No one wants to hear me carry a tune.
Alex: Nick doesn’t write the lyrics or melodies, but I like to say that he has veto power. We pretty much go back and forth on instrumentation, but, traditionally, Nick is a drummer and comes from a more rhythm section place, and I’m a piano player. I play piano percussively, but I still come from a place of chords and melody. So, if a bass is coming out, Nick’s usually playing it 90% of the time. That said, once and a while, I might catch a funk. [Laughs] I might play some bass.
Nick: You slap the bass.
Alex: I might the slap the bass a bit. [Laughs] But Nick is really more rhythm section and I’m more melody and chords, although it really can go both ways. We’re that ambidextrous. [Laughs] We’re that talented.
BYT: The vocals are a more exposed here than on your previous record. Some guests show up as back-up on the choruses, but the verses are more often than not single-tracked.
Alex: That was a conscious choice. A lot of the records we really like have vocals that sound: a) more off the cuff, b) more like a performance, and c) less labored over. For me – and I think for Nick too – a lot of times, vocals resonate more when it sounds like person is really in the room with you and saying something, as opposed to hiding behind tons of effects. There’s a lot of music that I really like where I still wish the vocals weren’t so drenched in reverb or multi-tracked – that they stood out more. I really wanted our vocals to pop out of the speakers. We ended up single-tracking a lot of verses and trying to choose the takes that had the most personality instead of the ones that might have been more traditionally in key.
BYT: New York is a constant setting in your lyrics – to the point where it feel like its own character. What is it about the city that lends itself to your songwriting?
Alex: I was recently going through some memorabilia from high school, and I came across something about New York from some dumb high school poetry competition I entered myself in. [Laughs] We grew up here. If you’re from anywhere and you never leave, it becomes the backdrop to your shitty movie. It’s always there. New York is a particularly special town in that most people move here. We were born here, which is kind of a unique thing.
Many people have written about the city as a living organism whether lyrically or in fiction or whatever, and it sounds poetic, but it really is the case: This city is a living, breathing body that you interact with on a daily basis – the people and the architecture and the transportation and whatever. And we’re very attached to it, so it always works its way into our music. You have a love-hate relationship with it, because sometimes the city can be really kind to you, and all of sudden it can be fucking hell.
Did you read David Byrne’s op-ed?
Alex: Yeah, I did see it, and I started writing a response to it, and then realized that: a) no one wanted to read my response, and b) I don’t even know what to say. I had been saying what David Byrne said. I had been saying, “I’m going to move out of New York, because I don’t think anyone can be a dedicated artist here anymore, unless you’re a trust fund kid. It doesn’t seem possible.” But after he said it, I started to second guess myself. And I realized that I disagreed with him: People in New York do make things. That pissed me off. I just made an album. I know a million other people who are working on albums or art or building stuff.
I thought, “Maybe this is a crutch – to say that the one percent is ruining the creative spirit.” Maybe it’s David Byrne’s proximity to that one percent and his own insecurity with his own output that compels him to say something like that. Because, first of all, he’s rich. [Laughs] If he’s not in the one percent, he’s fucking close to it. He has a loft in Tribeca or SoHo – whatever it is on Wooster. He’s eating at Souen. He’s riding, you know, his invisible bicycle around. [Laughs] I love the guy. He’s one of my heroes. But I don’t know if I want to hear that from him. I don’t want to hear it from David Byrne. It made me defensive about the city. I don’t know what the answer is, but I started to think, “Fuck you, David Byrne. The city’s alive and well. The creative class is alive and well.”
Nick: I think he was saying that, to an extent. I think he was saying what Alex and I say to each other a lot, and individually with our friends, which is that New York changing and it’s too expensive, but ultimately we come to the conclusion that as much as it might not be as good as it used to be, or that it sucks that it’s more expansive than it used to be, that it’s still the best city in the world. I think he sort of says that. My take on what he was saying is that we’re not there yet, but we have to keep –
Alex: He’s also stuck in Manhattan. He’s stuck in downtown Manhattan, where the cultural landscape below 14th St. is fucking grim. It is just trust fund kids, and artists that are successful, like himself. It’s a place that you go to show work now – where you go to play your big show or have your art opening. But I certainly don’t see people making things down there.
It feels like a snobbish thing for him to say. It feels disrespectful to so many artists and so many kids who are living in different parts of New York. New York is gigantic. SoHo is dead. That is gone. But there are thousands of artists making stuff, working, and showing. He makes the point that it’s not cool to be a struggling artist anymore. He says that the one percent has changed cultures so that it’s not valued to be barely getting by and making your art. I don’t think that’s true. I think there are a lot of people who chose to come to New York and make art and know that they’re not going to live in luxury.
Nick: Like you were saying, there’s an element of your proximity to something. A year ago, I was filling in on drums for my friend’s punk band for a while. Playing shows with them made me aware of certain aspects of the music scene that have nothing to do with Holy Ghost! – things that I never would have otherwise seen. There are still kids who put on punk shows in their lofts. David Byrne has no reason to be exposed to those things.
And, at the same time, as much as he’s bitching about it, he’s also not doing anything to help it. He’s not putting on punk shows in his fucking loft in Tribeca.
Alex: Exactly. He’s also in an unfortunate position, because if he goes to that loft show in Bushwick, even if he likes it, then he’s the old guy who’s like, “Wow, that was a really hip happening tonight!” [Laughs] He’s in a shitty position where, by nature, he can’t be part of the scene anymore. It sucks, but that’s the truth. After age 55, you have to move into fine arts, and that’s what he’s done, and so therefore maybe he should not comment on what’s happening in the up-and-coming side of the art world. It seems a little off.
Nick: “It Gets Dark” was the first of the new batch of songs that we finished. Another one of our problems with the first record was that it felt like when it was released, too many of the songs had already come out, so we really wanted Dynamics to be all new material. “Teenagers in Heat” was done right in the middle of the record, along with all of the other songs, but it just didn’t seem to fit. It seemed stylistically similar to at least one other song on the record and it felt like we had to make a choice. And we wanted the record to be ten songs long. It’s nothing personal against those songs. [Laughs] We’re really proud of those songs. “It Gets Dark” has become on of the more fun songs for us to play live. But it just always bums me out when someone’s like, “Here’s our new record!” and you go and buy it and you’ve heard half of it already. [Laughs]
BYT: What was the appeal of a ten track album?
Nick: That’s just what Alex and I grew up with. To be honest, we were trying to make it even shorter. I’ve always loved albums that fall around the 40 or 45 minute mark – short enough to fit on a single actual record with a A-side and a B-side. Dynamics actually came in too long for that. But ten songs seems like just the right amount. [Laughs] Since the CD, the standard length of the album has gotten closer to an hour or an hour and ten minutes, but most of my favorite records – and most of my favorite newer records – are usually on the shorter side.
BYT: There’s only one song where you share a songwriting credit: “I Want to Be Your Hand” with Surahn [Sidhu]. He’s a fellow DFA guy – what’s your relationship like with him?
Alex: The song started as a demo in a completely different key, and then Nick worked on it and it basically became the song that it is now, but it was missing all those harmonies that are in there now – the background vocals and the “ooh-ooh-ooh” section. We were stuck, as we are often with songs. The song would sound done to a lot of people. There’s not a huge difference between what it was then and the final song. But at that moment, we couldn’t put it away, and so we sent it to Sid to do some backing vocals, and it ended up that he came up with the backing vocals and an additional vocal melody that comes after the chorus. Once that was there, we were like, “Well, there’s the song.” That’s the case often. We’ll get something 90% and then it’s just waiting for that final thing.
BYT: Do you get feedback from the various minds in the DFA brain trust during the course of making a record?
Alex: We try not to send too much unfinished stuff to DFA. The fear of sending something unfinished is that: a) someone’s going to become very attached to it and you’re not sure of it; or b) they could hate it, and you’re like, “Wait, wait, wait, it’s not finished! Don’t judge it yet!” There’s no real point in sending something that isn’t pretty close to done. You only get a first impression once. We don’t to send too much to them, but we talk about music a lot with them.
DFA’s also really strangely respectful of the studio process. Maybe it’s because the studio’s in the building and it’s just how, physically, they know not to come to the studio from so many years of James [Murphy] working there. But they’re really cool about it, whereas I assume most labels are like, “What’s going on guys? It’s been a month. I want to hear something.” They never do that. We play the record for friends, or just a few old and close friends who are similarly minded.
Nick: Along the way, we played it to Nancy [Whang], just by virtue of the fact that she worked on it, obviously. We played stuff for Juan [MacLean]. We played stuff for James [Murphy] here and there.
Alex: I was thinking more of Jonathan [Galkin], like the label brain trust. I think of Nancy and Juan and James just as friends. But, yes, it’s important for us to get the thoughts of our support network.