By Jessica Jordan-Wrench
Nick Milhiser and Alex Frankel make unabashedly danceable disco. They are all synth-soaked euphoria and infectious beats. Seriously, Holy Ghost! will shift your pivots. I was somewhat surprised then, to hear that they were named after a lyric from The Bark Cave - Thurston Moore’s improvised guitar project. What, I pondered, could possibly connect Moore's avant-garde dissonance with the DFA duo? After much deliberation, my conclusion was simple: 1980’s New York. Sure, the former favoured free-jazz over funk – but they both hold the city at their core. A tangible force, strutting through their contrasting sounds. The same city that can be listened through their debut album, “Holy Ghost!” (DFA, 2011), full of hedonistic pumping beats and a synthy approach.
But, I later find that I misheard him. He actually said The Bar-Kays, an R&B group from Memphis Tennessee. Admittedly, that makes more obvious sense. It’s about partying, and that’s what Nick told us about. So, watch them out, as they’re billed for the next Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona. You’re not gonna miss it.
You and Alex have known each other for twenty years. Have you always been this musically compatible? What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
Yeah, I started playing drums and Alex started playing piano when we were really little. Our parents both had good taste in music. We grew up on fairly standard fare for the eighties: Michael Jackson, Talking Heads. Also, there was a lot of Rolling Stones in my house. Yeah, normal eighties stuff.
Holy Ghost! is quite a shift from Automato. Is there ever a backlash from stalwart Automato fans towards Holy Ghost?!
Occasionally. Not too often. Every once in a while we'll meet someone who's like [adopts deep, dismissive voice]: “yeah, I really liked Automato better”. Where did the name Holy Ghost! come from?
It actually came from one of our favourite songs: “Holy Ghost” by Bar-Kays. We were about to release the “Hold On” 12 inch on DFA and we needed a name. And was the exclamation mark always there?
Yeah, we took the name from the lyrics. The first line is “Your love is like the Holy Ghost!” It is written with an exclamation point.
You were both born and bred in New York. How rooted in that geography do you think your sound is?
Very much. I guess I just took it for granted at the time, but as a kid growing up in New York, there was always music around. There was also a certain amount of freedom that I guess you wouldn't have in the suburbs, where you are always dependent on someone older to drive you around or take you to concerts and record stores. Alex and I had that freedom at a very young age.
Did you have quite lenient parents then?
Actually, not really: my parents were pretty strict! People think of cities as a dangerous place for kids... but you can only get into so much trouble with that many people around! My parents would let me go out at an early age and – I dunno – skateboard around my house or whatever.
Do you think it's as important now to be in a specific city, to belong to a specific scene and sound?
I think it's less important than it used to be, as everyone has instant access to everything via the internet. In the past, something like Detroit Techno could take years to trickle down to somewhere else. But being in New York is definitely still important to us and indirectly a big part of what we do. Being surrounded by all the wonderful and talented people we are surrounded by - the proximity to our label and all the other bands on the label - and other friends who aren't necessarily involved with DFA. Yeah, it's really important.
As a band, you seem to be very successful in utilising social media. What's your attitude toward things like Twitter?
That's more Alex. Alex is definitely more the “Social Media Guy” than I am. I think it's great. It's just so funny comparing the experience we had with Automato with the one we have now in Holy Ghost!. When we were in Automato Myspace barely even existed. All these things now – Facebook, Twitter – allow you to have an instant dialogue with people. It is immensely useful for a number of things. One sort of silly example: we were playing in Miami and one of keyboards broke. Alex put something up on Twitter and right away someone responded.
I know that you are releasing your album with a hand screen printed cover. How do you feel about physical releases as opposed to downloads? It seems to be something at the core of DFA.
I think DFA will always continue to do physical releases. It is really important to people on the label. We are all still record collectors, music nerds. I don't feel like I own a record until I can hold it in my hand. Having really nice packaging, is half the fun of making music! I remember when I was in Automato, it was such a big thing when we did our first 12 inch. It still is. We've done quite a few 12 inches now - remixes and stuff – but it never loses its excitement. To open a box and it's you record. But at the same time: we are not idiots. We recognise that it is less and less important to more and more people. Of course some people are just going to download it, illegally or otherwise.
You've done a lot of remixes. Do you ever feel nervous about how artists will respond to your work?
Not particularly. Really early on, when Alex and I started doing remixes, we decided we were just going to do what the fuck we wanted. If they like it, they like it. If they don't: fuck 'em. That said, we were kind on nervous – not nervous, that 's the wrong word – when we did a remix for LCD. Just because James is a friend of ours, so it was important to me that he liked it. In general when we do it for friends, it is really important that they are happy with it. I have tremendous amount of respect for my friends opinions. So I am always really flattered when a friend who's in a band I like asks us to do a remix – but at the same time, there is that much more pressure. When you do remixes for people you don't know, it is often a faceless experience. You do it, then you send it off into a black hole of record company people. As opposed to having to call up your friend and be like “hey... so? Where you into it?”
I saw you playing with Cut Copy recently. How is playing live treating you? It looks completely exhausting!
It is absolutely exhausting! But it's really fun. Alex and I grew up playing in bands, so it's something we always wanted to do with Holy Ghost! Definitely something we want to expand upon. We want the band to grow, more members, stuff like that. It's definitely super intense and really physically demanding. Just everything about it is ten times more demanding then doing a DJ tour. We're in the states now, just driving ourselves around in a van.
Still with Cut Copy?
Yeah. But they're in a bus. We're in a van.
You were relegated from the bus?
Yeah [pause]. No. We were never on the bus with them. They have a huge crew. Their touring party is like 12 people.
I see you recently collaborated with Michael McDonald, how did that come about?
It was kind of a fluke. We had written this song, everyone at DFA really liked it and we had a demo of it. But Alex wrote the vocal part in the chorus out of his range. And so on the demo, the only way he could sing it was in a really pitiful Michael McDonald impression. We just had the vocals there as a kind of place holder. One day we were all sitting around at DFA and someone jokingly said: “well, err, maybe you should just have Michael McDonald do it?!”. We were just all talking and we said: “yeah, well, it couldn't hurt to ask”. We realised we had an indirect connection to him - through a friend of a friend. It was a total long shot, but we asked him and very quickly he said yes. It was about a week later that he sent us his vocals. They turned out great, we couldn't be happier. Following all your remixes – do you feel you have stepped into the lime light at all with your album? There are some quite frank lyrics.
Yeah, a little bit. It's weird. From the outside, there is this perception of us as “re-mixers”. But Alex and I always thought of it as one thing. We had always intended to make a record, have a band, stuff like that. We've been working on the record - on and off - for about three years. There was never really a time when we sat down and thought, “are we putting a little too much of ourselves out there?” I am sure if I had time to think about it, I would get more freaked out about it!
PlayGround is a media partner of Primavera Sound Holy Ghost!’s debut album fulfils all the expectations: it’s vibrant, hedonistic and euphoric, mixes up 80s disco influences with an inspired synth-pop thrill, and they’ll be the band that will make you dance at each summer festival. Ready for them?
Review: " Holy Ghost!"
San Miguel Primavera Sound 2011 takes place on 25 and 29 May at Poble Español, and from 26 to 28 May at Parc del Forum in Barcelona. Tickets are on sale here.
“It actually came from one of our favourite songs: “Holy Ghost” by Bar-Kays. The first line is “Your love is like the Holy Ghost!” It is written with an exclamation point. ”
“All these things now – Facebook, Twitter – allow you to have an instant dialogue with people. It is immensely useful for a number of things. One sort of silly example: we were playing in Miami and one of keyboards broke. Alex put something up on Twitter and right away someone responded ”
“We are all still record collectors, music nerds. I don't feel like I own a record until I can hold it in my hand ”
“I have tremendous amount of respect for my friends opinions. So I am always really flattered when a friend who's in a band I like asks us to do a remix – but at the same time, there is that much more pressure .”
“We want the band to grow, more members, stuff like that. It's definitely super intense and really physically demanding. Just everything about it is ten times more demanding then doing a DJ tour ”