interview by: Julian Vu
Brooklyn-based Holy Ghost! cull influences from 70’s disco and 80’s electrofunk to make some of the catchiest dance music today. They’ve just put together a live show, which has opened up for the likes of LCD Soundsystem and Chromeo. Their tour in support of Cut Copy just kicked off, and they play Tuesday and Wednesday at the 9:30 club. Their new album drops in a week, and we sat down and spoke with Nick Millhiser about writing the album, and working with legends like Michael McDonald and the late Jerry Fuchs.
BYT: Can you clear the air on when the new album is going to release and what formats it will be out on?
NM: It’s coming out the 5th of April digitally, and then a week later on the 12th, the physicals will be available, which is where we’re releasing CD and Vinyl, and there’s actually two different versions of the Vinyl; there’s regular full artwork version which will only be available in Europe, and then the DFA version will be vinyl that will be a hand-screenprinted cover that comes with a poster.
BYT: No cassettes like the mix-tape?
NM: No, not this time, maybe we’ll do another mix-tape sometime.
BYT: How long the record actually been done?
NM: We finished the last mix a couple months ago, but it was basically done about a year ago or maybe even a little bit more. We basically finished it, and then after living with it for about a month or two, we wanted to one, re-record a bunch of the vocals, and two, re-mix almost everything. Which is something that if we had a bunch of free time, should have taken only two weeks. But, by the time we came to that realization, we had already committed to touring with LCD [Soundsystem], and touring with Chromeo, and going to Europe.
BYT: In doing those remixes, did it help you get in the right framset for the album?
NM: It was just re-mixing in the truest form. We weren’t doing any more production. It was just the final mix. It was literally just going in, and getting the levels right.
BYT: Do you feel like it’s done now? I heard in an interview that the toughest part is the last 10%. Are you happy with it?
NM: Yeah, totally. The way we did this, I think was necessary for the record, but I don’t think we would ever spend this much time on a record ever again. It was the first one, and when Alex and I released “Hold on”, we didn’t have any other songs. Most bands start a band, write an album, pick a single, release the single, release the album. We did everything in the opposite form. We wrote a single, and then we knew that we had to make an album, but we didn’t ahve a clear idea of what we wanted it to be.
BYT: Talk about “Hold on” for a little bit. How did it come about?
NM: After our old band Automato fell apart, Alex and I just kept working on music together. Not with any grand plans or very clear idea of what we wanted to do. Even in Automato, it was really collaborative between the six people, but often times there were kind of little factions in the group who would always start stuff together. Alex and I had always worked together. We lived together for awhile, and I actually initially started the idea of Hold On as something intended for Automato. It just started as a rough fuse, (hip-hop terminology). It was just the drums, the bass, the synth melody. We had that, and a bunch of demos, and eventually at some point, we played it for John and James [Murphy] at DFA, and they were always encouraging us to work on stuff, but James was always asking us about that one. The demo was the ringtone on his phone for awhile. Eventually, we just kept working on it off and on for awhile, and then finally finished it, and gave it to James, and John, and Tim at DFA, who then gave it to Tim Sweeny who played it on Beats in Space. Right away, people started contacting DFA about it assuming they were the ones to put it out. As was typical with DFA, everyone was just kind of like, “Alright. I guess we’re going to put this out.” There was no contract or big formal discussion. So they asked us “what do you guys want to call yourself”, and then we thought to ourselves, “Holy Ghost?”.
BYT: I came across a video of James Murphy giving Alex some direction on how to sing the hook on Hold On. How has James helped you creatively?
NM: James AND Tim, have been an enormous influence. When we met them and did the Automato record, we were totally clueless about working in a recording studio, and they basically taught us everything about engineering and production. And likewise, it was around the time we were making the Automato record, that Alex and I started getting into disco and looking for samples. They really encouraged our love of disco, and putting us on to records we didn’t know. They’ve been in the abstract sense, an enormous influence. Those guys really taught us how to work in the studios. I don’t have anything else to compare it to. The way we work; we’re definitely students of the DFA method. I didn’t know it was particularly unique until we started working with other people in other studios, and realize that the way we do things is kind of different. Directly, we’ll go to James throughout the record, and playing him demos, and getting his two cents. He kind of acted as executive producer on the record, but he wasn’t directly involved too much in making the record beyond Hold On, which he mixed. When we decided that we were going to release on DFA, we wanted to re-record the vocals. And James said, “I’ve got a free day” so we spent the day recording with James.
BYT: Is James pretty honest? If he doesn’t like something, he’ll straight up tell you?
NM: Yeah. All his critiques while we were making the record were all like bigger picture things. We’d play him the demos, and he’d be like, “Eh, these are great, but they’re too same-y. There needs to be something that’s slower, or something that feels slower, or something longer. More things like that.”
BYT: Tell us about your writing process. You guys make disco music, and it can get pretty cheesy fast. Do you guys deliberately avoid the cheese?
NM: I love a lot of the cheesier side of disco. A lot of the stuff from the 70’s that sometime went a little far. Something I’d call loveco-disco, with the big string sections. I think we just reference the records that we think are good, and I guess those aren’t the cheesy records, but I definitely like a bunch of stuff that people consider cheesy like Chic, or the Beegees. I don’t remember a time where we wrote something that we thought was cheesy.
BYT: There’s a video of you guys producing a Juan [McClean] track, and you were using a very cheesy 80’s horn sound, and that doesn’t come through on the record.
NM: There are definitely things we like and don’t like, but we don’t think in team of cheesy or not cheesy. There’s a certain palate of sounds that we like, and in that video you referenced, we were playing with this very silly synth from the 80’s, that has some actually great piano sounds that we were tracking for the Juan sound. We were just scaling through the sounds which were totally ridiculous.
BYT: What’s the interaction between you and Alex like? I know live you play drums, and he sings and plays Rhodes, but what’s it actually like in the studio?
NM: Alex grew up taking piano lessons, and a I am a drummer by trade. Generally speaking, I do most of the drums and likewise in high school, I got really into drum and bass lines, so I got really into programming. Alex is definitely a competent programmer, and I’ll also play keyboard and stuff. I will also play guitar and bass. The only thing I don’t do is sing. Alex will generally come up with all the vocals. There’s no element to writing a song, where somebody will come in with something and say “this is the way it is.” Alex may come up with a vocal, but he’ll come in and say, “Hey, what do you think of this?” There’s a lot of back and forth. Even though I do a lot of the drummer, if I do something that Alex doesn’t like, he’ll tell me.
BYT: How about Jerry Fuchs? How much of his drumming ended up on the record?
NM: Jerry played on “Do it again”, “Slow motion”, “Jam for Jerry”, and “Wait and see.” So he played on half the record.
BYT: What about “I know, I hear?” Even though that didn’t end up on the record? [ed note: it was on the Static on the Wire EP]
NM: Actually, that’s a sample. The drums on that song.
BYT: The hi-hat work sounded like something that Jerry would do.
NM: When we did that song actually, I did it for James. He asked me “who played drums on this?” I purplosely programmed them to be very DFA-ish. My favorite programmers, like Tim Goldsworthy and DJ Shadow were people who always programmed to make it sound like natural drums. James totally thought, “Is that you, or is that Jerry?” So you guys aren’t the first people to be fooled.
BYT: Other than drumming, did Jerry have any other creative input on the remix?
NM: Not really. He played on a couple of the remixes we did like the Cut Copy remix. Right before he passed away, we actually two days in the studio with him. We’re very fortuante to have done this, but we had a library of him playing different patterns at different tempos, and different feels and stuff. After he passed away, we ended up using his drums as the basis of the Monarchy remix we did. Jerry wasn’t involved too much beyond playing drums. As much as Alex and I do most everything that you hear on our tracks, we’re not precious about asking for help. I’m a totally adequate drummer. But still, we were always really stoked, or we thought there would be something better with Jerry drumming. We’d usually call Jerry for when it was something above my level.
BYT: Yeah, he’s pretty sick. I love that one-handed fill he would do when playing with Maserati.
NM: He was the best. That’s what made him such an amazing drummer. He was technically really incredible. He was on par with any of the flashiest drummers, but he also had taste which was very rare among people who build up their chops. He knew when to hold back. When it came to doing something a little more technicaly demanding, he totally nailed just about anything, which is why we thought of him for the live Holy Ghost show. There’s a lot of stuff on the record that may not sound it, but is technically trickier, and we always made the record with him in mind.
BYT: So how did you guys end up working with Michael McDonald, and did you guys give him any direction on how to sing the hook?
NM: It started as a fluke. We had this pipe dream idea of him singing the hook, and then we realized that we had a connection to him. A friend of our’s father used to be a session player who used to play with him and Kenny Loggins. Through her father, we sent him the song, which was a total longshot, but we told him “Hey, I’m sure you’ve never heard of us……and we don’t have any money,…. but is there any chance you’d want to sing on this song?” Right away, he got back to us, and said “yeah of course.” We didn’t actually work with him in the studio. He got back to us and told us “Yeah, I’d love to do it. I’ve got a window of time I can work on it in my studio with my engineer.” So Alex and I just sent his engineer the parts, and gave him vague directions on how to sing. Alex had recorded reference vocals, and we told him to sing certain parts in certain ways. Because we knew we weren’t going to be in studio with him, we just told him to do as many harmonies as you can possibly think of, and ad libs, and within a week of having the idea, we had his vocals.
BYT: I know that Grizzly Bear had done the same thing with Michael McDonald, and had a choir as well, both things that you had on that track. Who had the idea first?
NM: When we reached out to our friend, she said to us, “Oh that’s so funny, Grizzly Bear is talking to him right now”, and we thought to ourselves “Oh shit.”
BYT: So, tell us about playing live in DC. I know you’ve played at both 9:30 and U St. Music Hall. Do you prefer one to the other?
NM: They’re different. U St. Music Hall ended up being really fun actually. It was supposed to be an early show, and we were bummed, because we thought that nobody was going to come out, and it ended up being a great turnout with people getting into it. The owners are U St. Music Hall are really great people too.
BYT: When you’re playing live, do you use a backing track or is it all completely live?
NM: We use a drum machine that plays only a kick to keep the beat. Other than that, everything is live.
BYT: Have you ever thought about incorporating the Simmons hexagonal toms with your set like Jerry did when he was drumming with Juan?
NM: Haha yeah, I would love to do that. I love the sound of those Simmons toms. We’re in the process of acquiring some now.
Holy Ghost opens up for Cut Copy for a two-night run starting TONIGHT at the 9:30 club. Both shows sold out.