The line of quintessential “New York” music artists is long, but there’s always room to welcome some new blood. Holy Ghost!’s Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser are working to prove their place with lush, melodic disco remixes (LCD Soundsystem’s “Drunk Girls,” Phoenix’s “Lisztomania“) and dreamy vocal-pop (“Hold On,” “I Will Come Back”) that evoke iconic images of New York sidewalks, subways, and skylines. With nearly 20 remixes and three EPs under their belt — in addition to earning a coveted place in the DFA family as James Murphy protégées — the guys are currently putting the finishing touches on their long-awaited debut album. Here, the two talk about taking their new live show on the road, being part of the “nu disco” movement, and a recent situation that called for “being dicks.”
The Holy Ghost! live show is pretty new. How do you feel about how it’s been going so far?
Alex Frankel: I think tonight was our 17th or 18th show. Our first tour was with LCD Soundsystem in America — not only good because we got to tour with our friends, but also good because we got to tour with our mentors and our idols in terms of sound. They taught us a lot about how to deal with monitors, the front of house, really educating us as we went along. So we feel OK now — not every show is great in terms of sound, but we probably we did a [year‘s worth] of touring in one month with them.
The normal lineup of the band right now is me and Nick and our friends Chris Maher (guitar) and Erik Tonnesen (keyboards). We’re hoping to add more members as we can afford it. In the studio, we bring people in all the time to play — we’re not Nazis about it — but generally the band is me and Nick.
Have you been incorporating new songs into your live sets?
Nick Millhiser: The set is like 50/50, stuff that’s been released and new stuff. We have not released a ton of our own stuff. We’ve done a ton of remixes, but we did two singles, then we did this EP that just came out. We’re basically playing everything we’ve released thus far and a couple songs that will be on the [full-length] record.
What’s the reception to the new songs been like so far?
NM: So far, so good. It’s always hard playing [new] songs for people. Even talking to LCD, they were really wary about playing too much of the new record before people had gotten familiar with it — though James [Murphy] could fart into the microphone and people would go crazy. I think that’s just something that everybody has to deal with. How do you get people stoked about something that they’ve never heard before?
Alex, is this your first time fronting a band, or have you done it in the past for other bands?
AF: No, no, I am not from the school of frontmen. Nick and I have played music together since we were very young, but it’s always been Nick playing drums and me playing keyboards. This is the first band I’ve ever sang in. And the thing about our frontman situation is, that’s not how we approached the band from the beginning. There’s singing, but that’s only one of 26 inputs, and they’re all important.
Playing live with a full band must be a big transition from DJ sets. When you started out making music as Holy Ghost!, had you envisioned playing the songs live?
AF: Yes. Nick and I always envisioned playing live because that’s what we grew up doing. But it’s very hard to put together a live band when there are only two people writing the music. We weren’t really ready to do it for a long time, but we always thought about it as a live thing.
Do you prefer playing live over DJing?
NM: It’s all related.
AF: One is not more or less fun. DJing is totally different: You know you’re good if people are dancing. Live, you have no fucking idea. It could just be a town where people don’t dance or whatever. They’re equally rewarding and equally fun to do.
But do you get a bigger rush from playing live?
AF: Yes! Obviously we sweat through our shirts when we’re playing live, and we don’t when we’re DJing. That doesn’t mean it’s better, but it’s certainly more physical. It’s the difference between running on a treadmill and running in a park.
You guys have been friends practically your whole lives. Is that the glue that holds Holy Ghost! together?
AF: Nick and I have known each other for 20 years, and we’re only 27. What keeps us working together is that we’re both very different and tolerant of each other. I think two is the magic number. We’re just copying everything James [Murphy] and Tim [Goldsworthy, DFA co-founder] did. It’s easy when you have a model to follow and it’s not shooting in the dark.
The music you create as Holy Ghost! is like a hybrid of pop and dance music, yet I’ve heard you originally started out making hip-hop in a band called Automato?
AF: Musically, we come from buying dollar-bin records to sample for hip-hop. When we were 17 or 18, we were both like, “Yo, I found this Vangelis record” or “I found this Jean-Luc Ponty record.” We’ve both always kind of treated music like, “Whoa! That feels good!” or “Eh ….”
NM: Even since we were kids, we’ve never been more into one genre of music than another. From the ages of 16 to 23, we played in a rap group, so that’s the music we made. We still listened to more or less the same stuff we listen to now, but now we happen to make dance music. We both still listen to all the hip-hop records that we listened to then as well. There’s only so much time — we can only focus our attention on one thing at a time to do anything worthwhile. In theory, I’d love to make hip-hop again, I’d love to play in a weird krautrock band. But this is totally a full-time job.
How do the musical responsibilities break down?
NM: We’ve known each other so long, but at the same time still have all these same reference points. I feel like we both kind of grew in different directions as far as growing into our roles. In high school, Alex was a piano player and I was a drummer and PC guy. As we’ve progressed, Alex has become more like “Songwriter Guy” and I’ve become more like “Engineer/Producer-y Guy.” It’s kind of like where one starts the other ends — there’s no reason for two dudes to be sitting at the desk fiddling with knobs. Not that this was ever a discussion we had — I think we just sort of grew naturally to be like, “All right, you’re gonna handle this shit, because that’s what you seem to be interested in.”
AF: It goes back and forth. I write all the lyrics and all the melodies for the vocals, but we choose together what the melody’s gonna be. Maybe only one section of one melody I wrote is gonna be the melody, and that’s a mutual decision. I mean, it’s like two dudes in a room seeing what sounds good and what doesn’t!
NM: Nothing happens without the two of us agreeing.
So that’s what makes it work.
AF: Neither of us smoke pot …
NM: That’s the recipe for success!
AF: We don’t do drugs, we like good music, and we like walking out of the studio feeling happy and not like someone got a very heady idea across. Either it’s fucking good or it’s not!
Do you feel a musical kinship with anybody out there today?
AF: I feel competitive with certain people. Like Aeroplane. I decided this is a good place to launch a war.
Even though they just recently broke up? Aeroplane is just Vito DeLuca now. Stephen Fasano left.
AF: Two against one seems unfit! They’re very nice dudes — we play their records all the time. When you asked who we feel a musical kinship with, obviously they’re the first name that comes to mind. Whether it’s one or two of them, they’re very, very talented.
But we don’t listen to that much new music. I mean, we like our friends’ music. We listen to James’ records, we listen to Jacques Renault, House of House, stuff that comes out on DFA, stuff that comes out on Ed Banger, Breakbot, Mehdi, A-Trak. But I think generally we listen to Chaka Khan and Michael Jackson, the same records my parents listened to. Give me James Taylor, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and some Doobie Brothers.
NM: Obviously we’re kind of biased, but we’re lucky in that we’re on the best label in the whole world. I can say in all sincerity I’ve been listening exclusively to three records for the past three or four months: Tusk by Fleetwood Mac, War by U2, and [LCD Soundsystem’s] This Is Happening — two records that I bought in high school and then [one by] James [Murphy], who made one of the best records, ever maybe.
Do you see yourselves as part of the whole “nu disco” thing?
NM: Yes and no. I mean it’s weird. I think we kind of exist in two different worlds. One is the world of being DJs, and when we DJ we tend to play a lot of disco records. Likewise, when we do remixes, by virtue of the fact that they’re remixes, we’re being hired to make something for the dance floor, and as far as dance music is concerned, disco is our favorite genre. Our remixes tend to be very disco-influenced.
But then with our own stuff, I think first and foremost they’re just pop songs. It’s kind of a weird thing. I can totally understand people who really love our Panthers [“Goblin City”] remix not liking “Say My Name.” They are very different things.
As far as being part of the nu disco thing, I don’t think any band likes being part of a genre, but I don’t hate it. And a lot of people who get lumped into that world: Lindstrom, Prins Thomas, Todd Terje, Aeroplane. It’s good company, you know? There are far worse people to have your name mentioned next to.
Your lyrics have a very personal feel. Are they autobiographical or are you merely telling fictional stories?
AF: To be completely frank, when we started, I didn’t know what I was doing, so I just picked random phrases. Some [artists] just write fake lyrics and then change them, but we didn’t change them. As we’re learning a little more and getting more comfortable in our roles, there are certain songs on the album that actually have honest, genuine lyrics that mean something, but a lot of them don’t mean anything, they just sound good to me. They’re not disingenuine; they’re just not premeditated. An idea comes and the lyric just happens to be there. I usually ask Nick, “Is that a bad lyric?” or “Is this embarrassing?” Our influences are LCD, obviously, but also the Talking Heads, Hall & Oates, Yes, Genesis — anything with that weird mix of being honest but also every lyric should be something you’d say in public.
NM: I think lyrically we’re not very different from LCD. James is someone who obviously writes some very narrative songs, but then there are songs like “Pow Pow” or “Yeah”: To your Average Joe, that just kind of sounds funny, but if you know James, you know they’re not literally about one thing in particular, they’re just about being him. I feel like Alex’s lyrics are kind of similar in a way.
Along those lines, I know you’re both New York born and bred. Does that mean you consider yourselves a “New York band”?
NM: Fuck yes. New York through and through.
AF: I had an idea — we have to work on cover art now. [To Millhiser, laughing] Check this out: You know the jazz musicians in Harlem [referring to the famed “A Great Day in Harlem” 1958 photograph]? Not staged like that, but in front of your house, all our bros. I’m into it. Just like Justin hanging the DFA banner out your window? It’s good, right? OK, good.
NM [to Frankel]: Why don’t we just do it at DFA?
AF [to Millhiser]: I thought about that. I don’t think it’s New York enough. It’s too like bourgeois over there. Shoot for like 10 hours — some composed shots, some not. “That’s the good one!”
NM: A really dear friend of mine, my drum teacher, just passed away. He was in the “A Great Day in Harlem” photo, so it would be a fitting homage.
You’ve put out a few excellent remixes lately, like the one for Monarchy’s “Love Get Out of My Way.” I imagine they were pretty happy with that one?
NM: Alex and I are not the type of people to talk shit, ever. We really don’t. [But] that remix was the biggest nightmare. We’ve dealt with the biggest major labels, [people like] MGMT and Moby. We’ve always had really good experiences. I don’t know the Monarchy guys; I’m sure they’re really nice guys. But the whole thing with that remix was, they straight-up rejected it. It’s a really long story, but they basically asked us to do something very specific. Ordinarily, if a label tries to tell us what to do, we tell them to fuck off, but the reference they gave us was something really we cool we could work around. We did exactly what they asked for — honestly, we never say this shit — what we both think is the best remix we’ve ever done. Our dear friend Jerry [Fuchs, who passed away last year and had performed with the likes of LCD Soundsystem and The Juan MacLean] plays drums on it, we had this dude Karl [Dixon] re-sing the vocals, we spent thousands of dollars out of pocket doing that remix. And they rejected it. It’s the only remix we’ve ever done that got rejected.
AF: The remix was rejected by the band and by the label. Annie Mac leaked it. We didn’t leak it — we just went on Twitter and said, “Please tell fucking Mercury Records to tell Monarchy to put it out.” In about an hour-and-a-half, we had over 1,000 responses. Within two hours, we got a response from Mercury Records saying the band and the label have reversed their stance. Honestly, no beef to them — it went to number one on Hype Machine in a day because of it. Also, after they paid, why would you not release it?
The issue was that to be rejected by someone in an office in London after we loved it, we put our hearts into it, we really cared about it. A lot of bands get bad reputations for being cunts with media or being dicks with labels. This was the first time we were like, “Jesus, this calls for being a dick.” Anyway, it turned out OK, and we’re very proud of that remix.
We’re working on what I think will be our last remix for a long time, for Mark Ronson and Boy George. It’s been a pretty awesome one to remix.
And finally, what’s the latest on the release of your debut album?
AF: The album will be out in January. It’s basically done. None of the EP will be on it. We’re not trying to fuck people over.