Holy Ghost!

Having a stamp of approval from New York’s famed DFA label is one way to turn heads in your direction. Another is to tastefully remix hit songs for bands such as Cut Copy, MGMT and Phoenix. But most of all, the best way to turn heads and keep them turned is to simply make good music—music that won’t rapidly vanish in the pile of hype-machined rubble. Remember when it was acceptable to take your time composing music and actually write those things called songs? Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser of Holy Ghost! sure do. We got a chance to sit down with them on the Vancouver stop of their tour with LCD Soundsystem.

How did your involvement with DFA come about?
Nick: We met them through our old band Automato—which was Alex and I and four other guys. James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy produced that band. After that band fell apart, we all just sort of remained friends and Alex and I started working on what became Holy Ghost! very shortly after.

What did your musical background consist of when you formed the Holy Ghost! outfit?
Nick: We’d both kind of been into dance music, as teenagers, but Automato was straight up rap. We both grew up listening to anything and everything. Meeting James and Tim was definitely a catalyst to start moving towards dancier tempo’s and sounds. It was also out of necessity after Automata broke up. We had been making rap for so long and thought that’s what we’d be doing, but we didn’t know any rappers [laughs]. So I guess we had to figure something else out.
Alex: Direction also came from searching through dollar bins at record stores. We’d stumble across disco records from the late Seventies and early Eighties with the intent to sample them for rap music but then sort of started to actually like those songs that we were looking to sample from. Those weird dollar bin records definitely had an influence.

What would you say distinguishes Holy Ghost! from other dance music out there? What’s your trademark sound?
Alex: Live drums. We were lucky enough to record a lot with Jerry Fuchs before he passed away. I’ve always said the drums are the most important thing in our sound. Live drums, not samples. Nick’s a good drummer and Jerry was obviously an amazing drummer. That combined with old kits, old mics, compressors, pre-amps kinda help us get as close to a Fleetwood Mac drum sound or whatever we’re after. We’ll often go to bigger studio just to do the drums because you can’t really do that in your bedroom.
Nick: Also, I think in general, along the same lines as using live drums, we use a lot of synths. A lot of the stuff we do is played by hand. Even if it’s just a really simple one- or two-bar loop, instead of programming it with midi and recording it back into the computer—Alex or I will play it and do a really long take, even if it’s the same thing over and over again,
Alex: You sometimes make weird mistakes due to human error and those accidents turn into the best parts. Like when you hit the wrong note or turn the phrase around on itself by accident and end up like “Oh shit, that’s it!” It’s just more fun too. It’s performative.
Nick: I think a big part of our love for older gear is simply hands on is more fun. But at the same time I guess there is a slight hatred of staring at a computer screen.
Alex: Pretending we’re controlling a spaceship is more fun than pretending to be an accountant at a tax office.

Being a two-man band, translating your recorded music into a live show was presumably a bit tricky given the abundance of old and delicate outboard gear you guys use. How did you manage to accomplish that?
Nick: It’s been really hard, but we’ve been fortunate. We got hooked up with this company called Dave Smith Instruments, which is a new company that makes analog stuff run by Dave Smith who ran Sequential Circuits in the Eighties when they created some of the most amazing and beautiful synthesizers ever. So we’ve been using a lot of their stuff which sounds really great but is also small, durable, affordable and designed to be taken on the road… We also had to find some awesome dudes to play with us. None of our stuff is super technically demanding, but it can be physically demanding.
Alex:. We’re still figuring it out. I think we’ll just keep adding elements as we go and live by the LCD motto: Start how you can and anytime you can get a little more money throw it back into the band.

How has it been touring with LCD Soundsystem thus far, both on and off the stage?
Alex: Amazing. On most tours, I assume there is usually a divide between the headliners and the support and they’re called that: support and headline. They travel separately, they don’t necessarily know each other’s songs and they’re kind of put together by a record label because they think it’s a bill that’ll work or whatever. But in this case, these are the same people we’ll be drinking with around the corner in Brooklyn if we weren’t all on tour. That, plus the fact they know our music really well. James knows the lyrics to our songs and of course we know their songs by heart. It’s pretty fun and relaxed and musically it’s really nice to have them all there to help and give us advice from their experience. I don’t think we’ll probably ever go on a tour this fun again… it’s all down hill from here [laughs].

To kick off the tour with LCD, you guys jumped into the fire with a series of sold out shows in New York. How was it playing some of your first live shows as Holy Ghost! in your hometown?
Alex: Scaaaaary!
Nick: As daunting as it was to playing in New York for our first shows, it’s also really nice to do four shows in a row with literally all your best friends standing right behind you.
Alex: Plus, being in New York you can take the subway home after the show!


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