Interview: Holy Ghost!

For two people who have yet to release their first full-length album, Holy Ghost!’s Nick Millheiser (right) and Alex Frankel are more popular than you’d expect. But there’s a good explanation– they’re damn talented at what they do. They make the kind of music I wish I could make (but can’t, don’t and never will). Take a listen to any of their songs (seriously, just pick one, they’re all fantastic) and hear it for yourself. Even if you don’t love Holy Ghost!, your favorite musician probably does. It’s no accident they’ve been called on to remix the likes of Phoenix, Cut Copy and Moby.

But they’re not just talented musicians; they’re cool guys with a lot of interesting things to say about the themselves and the industry. We recently met in Brooklyn for coffee and pizza so I could ask them some questions. Read below to find out why DJing is less stressful than being in a band, the best places in New York City to buy vinyl, and why James Murphy always makes two albums at once.

Need a crash course in Holy Ghost!? They recently released a fantastic mixtape that groups their best remixes into an hour-long set. You probably can’t score one of the 200 old school cassette mixtapes they put out (try eBay), but don’t worry– the mp3 is available on the DFA website. Download it here, and cancel your plans for the rest of the day. You’re not going to be able to stop listening to it.

(NB: For clarity, I’ve occasionally “combined” their answers.)

How did you two meet?

We’ve actually known each other since elementary school. We grew up together in New York City.

When did you start making music together?

We played together in the school band for a while. You know, when we were kids. Then in high school we started a rap group called Automato. It was the two of us and some other friends we went to school with. Holy Ghost! came later.

What sort of musical background do you have? It sounds like you’ve got some formal training.

Alex: I took piano lessons from the father of a kid I went to school with. It was really informal though. And I probably had about five guitar lessons on top of that.

Nick: I took drum lessons from the age of eight until I was eighteen. Niether of us studied music in college, though.

Where did the name “Holy Ghost!” come from?

It’s the name of a Bar-Kays song.

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Bar-Kays – Holy Ghost (Disco Mix)

How would you describe the Holy Ghost! sound?

Nick: That’s hard to say. I don’t know. I mean, you tell me. (laughs)

It’s funny because the first time my friend played me your Lisztomania remix I said “this sounds like a Holy Ghost! rip-off.” I think it’s got to do with the warmth of the synths and the tone of the drums. The drums aren’t looped or stuttered or anything.

Alex: That’s all true. We always record the drums. Actually we record everything into Pro Tools. But that’s it with the computer. We don’t use any of the effects or anything.

And I know you’ve got more synths than you have room for.

Nick: But there’s still so many more to buy! (laughs). We definitely use a lot of synths.

What set-up do you use when you’re performing?

Alex: Right now we’re just DJing, but we’ve got a full-on live show coming soon. (More on that below.)

Nick: We just use regular DJing gear– turntables and a mixer. We’re pretty old-fashioned. Vinyl and CDs. We’re switching more over to CDs now, but still a lot of vinyl.

Is that because vinyl sounds better? Or because there’s so much stuff that’s only put out on vinyl?

Alex: Both. We definitely play a lot of stuff you can’t always find on CD.

Nick: I do think that when the turntables are properly set up that vinyl sounds better.

Alex: Also, it’s what we learned on. When we first started DJing it was only vinyl, so we’re more comfortable with it. But we use CDJs, too.

There’s also the fact that CDs are a lot lighter than vinyl.

Nick: That’s true. But the weight was never that big of a deal. Honestly, I think the only people who bitch about carrying vinyl are people who’ve never been in a band before. It’s just as hard to carry all that equipment around. Once you’re used to carrying around huge cases and moving a drum set it doesn’t seem so bad to carry records.

Alex: Plus when we DJ we usually play, at most, a two-hour set. It’s not like we’re playing one of those all night, midnight-until-dawn things. We’ll play two hours, tops. So that means probably between 30-60 records. Split between two people it’s not so bad.

Nick: Honestly the biggest problem is that some clubs aren’t set up to handle it. We’ll get booked somewhere and have to make sure the club can handle our vinyl.

Since nobody else is using real vinyl.

Nick: Right. So we’ll call and ask “Do people play records there?” And they’ll say “Yeah, of course. People play vinyl here all the time!” But you’ve gotta make sure to explain “No, not Serato records. Do they play actual vinyl records?” And then you’ll show up and no one’s played a real record in years. (laughs)

What’s your favorite and least favorite part about being on tour?

Nick: It’s fun to be on tour. The worst part is the flying. Just being in airports and being on planes all the time. It’s fun because you get to go all over the world. I like touring a lot, I really do.

What are some of your favorite places to perform?

Nick: There’s a place in Glasgow called Sub Club that’s great.

Alex: There was one place in Zurich; I can’t remember the name. New York City is always fun.

Nick: Honestly, a really good DFA party in New York City is pretty tough to beat.

Do you notice a big difference in the crowds?

Alex: Oh yeah, totally. It’s very different in other countries.

Nick: The whole culture is different. If you grew up in, say, Berlin, you grew up listening to dance music. And if you’re a teenager or you’re in your twenties you probably go to dance clubs all the time.

Dance music in America? I think it’s a much newer phenomenon. So in any given city in the states there are only a couple of dance-y places. And everyone plays at the same places.

So a lot of the time we’ll go somewhere and people come see us expecting to hear harder electro stuff. People just expect us to play that since the same venue has had it before. All “dance” music sort of gets lumped together in the same places. But if you go to Germany there’s one club that plays disco, and another club that plays harder electro.

I think it’s also the misnaming or misgrouping of genres. Like when I say “House music,” I mean the stuff they were playing in Chicago in the nineties. But most people don’t think that.

Nick: Yeah that’s definitely part of it. That’s why it’s so hard to describe our sound. I don’t know what genre we are.

I mean, I think first and foremost we’d be considered indie. Our sound draws heavily from different genres of dance music. I guess we make maybe neu-disco but we’re not authentically disco. I don’t know. For all our snobbery we just make dance music. I guess maybe electro.

Alex: But right now “electro” now just means literally “electronic music.” (laughs) It could basically be anything. It really has nothing to do with the feel of the music; it’s not a specific sound. People describe us as “electro” even though it’s probably misleading to say that.

Nick: And I mean I listen to a lot of electro and I like a lot of that stuff, but our record couldn’t sound more different.

How much preparation do you do for your DJ sets?

Alex: We don’t plan it out. Maybe like five minutes before we go on we’ll look at each other and say “So what do you wanna start with?” (laughs)

Nick: But we each know what records the other person has.

That’s another nice thing about playing with vinyl. You know your record collection really well.

Alex: Oh for sure. You really know your collection. Sometimes I’ll listen to a song online and the first thirty seconds will sound awesome so I’ll download it. But then I’ll burn it to a CD and listen to the whole song later and the rest will just totally suck. (laughs) But yeah, if you’ve got vinyl you know your music front-to-back.

Nick: Also, I think there’s something nice about sort of having to work within the restriction of vinyl. I think I’d be overwhelmed with Serato. It’s just too much music. Same with computers and all those effects. There’s just so many to choose from. I don’t like having too many options.

So when we DJ we’ve got maybe thirty records, and we have to find a way to make everything work. Sometimes we can’t (laughs) but it’s usually pretty good.

Alex: Whenever we play at a place with a computer in front of us I always flip it down. I just think it’s just distracting and gets in between you and everyone else. It creates a barrier so you can’t get a feel for the crowd.

How do you start when you’re making a song? Drums? Melody?

Alex: It really depends. Half-and-half. Good ideas can come from anywhere. Sometimes piano or vocals. Sometimes drums.

Nick: A lot the time when we’re doing remixes we’ll sort of strip out all the music. Literally take everything out. So we’ll have the bassline, the drums and the melody all separate.

The usual way it works is that one of us starts something then we’ll e-mail the other and say “check it out.” You know, it’s not like every Thursday at 3 o’clock we meet and get work done. We’ll just call and say “let’s work on this.” And then we’ll mess around with it.

How do you know when you’re finished working on a song?

Nick: We don’t. (laughs)

When I interviewed Jas Shaw he said something like “if you’re still changing stuff on a song and it’s not getting any better, you’re probably finished.”

Nick: That’s actually a really smart thing to say. Then I guess I would say whenever the final mix is done. There are a couple of songs on the album that are “done,” but it helps to have somebody else mix it. That’s why we’re working with a producer to do the final mix.

I’ve definitely driven myself crazy EQing that hi-hat nobody’s going to notice anyway.

Nick: Oh yeah, yeah. Little things like that will just drive you insane. It helps to take time off from it.

So maybe we’ll start late afternoon and mix until midnight. Then I’ll take it home. And even having like a little bit of time, that laundry list of things that you wanted to change, you can cross some of them out right away and figure out what’s important. You can narrow down the list of things that bother you.

So what’s the status on the LP?

Alex: The album is finished. We were actually just talking the other day about how it’s going to come out. There’s still some stuff to figure out but it’ll probably get released sometime in September or maybe as late as next January.

Nick: There will be singles before then though, for sure. And some remixes. And a lot of touring.

Here’s the thing: when “Hold On” came out, it’s not like we were sitting on another eleven songs to put on an album. You know? So we were really just starting a new record. And even after that single came out it wasn’t like “we’re going to go to the studio now and make an album.” We went on tour. It was more “Alright, see ya later. We’re going on tour for a year.”


Alex: Up until the last couple of months we weren’t always working on the record. But then the last few months we went to finish it.

Did you even want to make an album? Why not just keep releasing singles?

Nick: I mean I definitely like songs. I like songs that work within the context of an album. But I also like songs that stand on their own. Something good enough to be it’s own 12-inch. Yeah, we could’ve put out a shitty album really quickly. (laughs)

Alex: I think it was necessary. We were also sort of figuring out what we wanted while we were on tour and in the studio. And you sort of learn by doing. So there was figuring out what we wanted to do, and then taking six months to actually do it. But yeah, we’re excited for it. It’s coming out through DFA.

How did signing to DFA come about? They just approached you?

Alex: Well they’re friends of ours. The first band we were in, that rap group Automato, was produced by James Murphy. So he knew who we were back in 2003.

Nick: And I was drumming in The Juan Maclean, another DFA artist.

Alex: And then we sent James the beat to “Hold On.”

Nick: But it was really casual. Honestly, I think we were probably the last people to know DFA was going to put that song out. We finished it, or at least we finished the demo of it and gave it to Tim Sweeney who played it on Beats in Space. I mean we assumed it was coming out on DFA but we hadn’t really talked about it.

I remember very distinctly being over at Tim Goldsworthy’s house. He was talking about something and he made some mention about how “Hold On” was coming out. And I was like “Well, what is it going to come out on? Is DFA gonna put it out?” And he goes “Oh, yeah yeah.” (laughs)

Alex: That’s how informal it was. I don’t even think we signed anything until a couple of months ago. We really trusted them and they trust us so it works out really well.

The music industry keeps changing. What are your thoughts on the current state of the industry?

Alex: I think it’s much harder to be a star, to be a huge artist. It’s funny because I think if you’ve got a huge voice like Kelly Clarkson, but you don’t write songs and you don’t know anything about production then you’re at a disadvantage.

Nick: You’re not gonna get a big advance from a record label anymore. That’s for sure. It’s all changed so quickly though. When we were in Automato there was no myspace or anything. Everything was about the label and the publisher and we had almost no control over anything. It was totally different.

But when “Hold On” came out, almost instantly people would write to us via myspace and ask us to play at their party. So I guess it’s easier to get a following and get shows without needing to deal with labels and distribution. But it’s much harder to get really rich and famous.

I think that’s probably, on the aggregate, a good thing. At least in the sense that more people are making money by making music.

Nick: Oh I do, too. It’s definitely a lot easier to make a decent living. I mean don’t get me wrong, we’re not rich or anything. But we’re getting paid.

Alex: The funny thing is our old band Automato went through basically what was our dream situation. We signed a pretty big major label contract, we got a big signing bonus. We were seventeen years old at the time. But we never made a penny. We were always paying for tour support. And we only put out one vinyl-only single on a record label with two employees.

Nick: Yeah, after Automato I totally thought I would never make a living making music. I mean If I couldn’t make a living after that, it wasn’t gonna happen. And that was like ten years ago.

What specifically didn’t work out with Automato? The label? The group itself?


Nick: Everything.

Alex: I mean, yeah, everything. All of that. We had our own dysfunctions and obviously we’re older and more mature now. But I think now having more control over your music you’ve got a lot more responsibility, too. It was easy to say at the time “Oh that’s the label’s fault” whenever something went wrong.

What about the role of music blogs?

Alex: I think they’re good. I mean I think it depends on their own rating systems and all that. What I mean is that they’re sometimes bad in the sense anyone can write shit about you all the time. But they’re usually really supportive.

Nick: Most blogs serve a niche market. And they’ve got moderate readership.

Alex: They definitely can serve as tastemakers and help bands get popular. I asked my little brother what’s cool now, what do the kids like and he said, “Whatever’s on hypemachine.”

I said, “What does that mean?”

And he just said, “People listen to whatever’s big on hypemachine.” But I don’t know, I don’t use it a lot. For some reason it crashes my computer.

Nick: I don’t use it either. Alex actually just showed me how it works.

Are there any specific blogs you do follow?

Nick: Eli Escobar has a good one. I like A-Trak’s blog a lot.

Alex: DJ Medhi’s blog, too. On Twitter? I pay attention to Questlove, Hot Chip.

What’s coming up from you two in 2010?

Nick: A tour soon, that’s for sure. The live band, too. Not a computer or anything. Drums, synthesizers. We’re still sort of figuring out the set up.

Alex: Our drummer, Jerry (Fuchs), who played on half of our record was going to play live, passed away unexpectedly. So we’re still trying to figure it out. Will our live show be good? I don’t know. I hope so. (laughs)

Nick: We had a very complete plan of how to play live but now it’s going to change. Obviously other than losing such a good friend we had to change the live set-up.

Right, and it’s not like you can just go hire some studio drummer. It’s not just finding someone who can play drums.

Nick: Exactly. And Jerry was as good as a studio drummer, but he was also a great guy. You know, he fit in our group of friends and was a really great dude. He had all the same tastes as us and everything. And that’s obviously the most important thing.

You know, look at James. When James put together LCD Soundsystem he basically hand-picked people he wanted to hang out with. But Jerry was technically as good as anyone.

Alex: So we’re going to tour a lot. And we’ll put the record out in the fall or early next year. We just did this thing with Friendly Fires. They covered us and we covered them.

Nick: We’ve got a song from the album coming out soon. Not really a full-on single though.

What are your long-term career goals?

Alex: Tough to say right now.

Nick: Make a second album. LP2. (laughs)

What’t the best movie you saw last year?

Nick: Inglorious Basterds. I was surprised more people didn’t like it actually.

Alex: Get back to me. Can’t think of one right now.

Best book you read?

Alex: We both read Brotherhood. That was really good.

Nick: And almost the entire Richard Price catalogue. Lush Life was fantastic. That’s the last Richard Price book. I’ve probably read more books this year than I have in my entire life. At home I never read. But on tour when I’m at an airport or on a plane it’s a great was to pass the time.

Music recommendation?

Eli Escobar is great. The new Shit Robot is going to be awesome.

The new Jaques Renault.

Rub-N-Tug. Everything they’ve done. All of it.

That Still Going song, “Spaghetti Circus.”

A friend visits NYC for a day. Where do you take him/her?

Alex: Just a day, huh? And we’ve gotta do something? (laughs) Probably something local. Grab coffee and pizza. We’re pretty boring.

Nick: We’ll go record shopping. Take them to Turntable Lab, A1 and the Academy.

Alex: Then we’ll eat at Marlow & Sons. That’s our favorite restaurant in Brooklyn.

Is there any city other than New York you’d want to live in?

At almost exactly the same time: Paris.


Nick: I would do LA for like six months or so, I think that’s about it. I don’t know. We’re from New York and we like it here.

It seems like you guys are friend with a lot of the other DJs.

Nick: Yeah we’re friends with them. Unlike in rock bands where it tends to be sort of insular, DJing is different. A lot of it has to do with people who DJ but come from a background of playing in bands.

Which isn’t to say playing in bands is any less legit than DJing. But it’s infinitely less stressful being a DJ. You don’t have to do sound checks, you’re not lugging around a ton of gear or paying $1000 a flight for weight overages. I’ve gotta say: it’s a pretty sweet gig.

And you’re playing a lot of the same songs. Or each other’s songs.

Nick: Right. It’s different than a band doing a cover song. And then when  a DJ you love plays your song it’s like giving props to you.

Alex: You know, one of our favorite DJ’s played “Hold On” and we were like, “holy shit!” And there’s a lot of “here’s a song that rules, you should play it too.”

I gotta ask: Have you guys heard the new LCD Soundsystem?

Alex: Some of it, yeah. It’s going to be good.

I can’t wait. I feel like I’ve been waiting forever for new LCD. I guess there were those 45:33 remixes that came out last year.

Alex: Yeah, the thing is James has been touring a fair amount.

Nick: And it’s taken a while because while he was making the new album he was also doing the score for Greenberg. The same thing happened last time, actually. While he was making Sound of Silver Nike came to him for that mix. And that was basically an album unto itself. So he was sorta making two albums at once.

Same thing now, I guess, with the Greenberg soundtrack. He seems to always make two albums at a time. He works hard and he’s had a pretty prolific last seven years or so if you think about it.

Definitely. It must have been great working with him. If he wanted to produce my album I’d pretty much sign my life away on the spot.


Nick: You definitely get a great record made. That’s for sure.

Alex: When we first met him I don’t even think the label DFA existed. So maybe he wasn’t as big of a deal back then.

Nick: Yeah, we started to get to know him right before the first Juan Maclean album came out. So there was like that initial hype at the time around them. I’ll say this: he likes a good cup of coffee. (laughs)

Thanks again to Nick and Alex for taking the time to answer all my questions. Here’s a pair of my favorite Holy Ghost! songs. Enjoy.

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Cut Copy – Hearts On Fire (Holy Ghost! Remix)

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Van She – (Don’t Fear) The Reaper (Holy Ghost! Remix)

Video Wednesday: Disney Disco

Disney’s given us a lot of great animation over the years: Pinocchio. Fantasia. The Lion King. But I recently stumbled across the following and, well, I haven’t been this excited about a cartoon since I saw the trailer for Toy Story 3.

Here’s the backstory: in 1979 Disney tried to cash in on the popularity for all-things disco by releasing an album that included both disco-fied Disney songs and Disney-fied disco songs. Their plan worked; the album was a hit and eventually sold enough copies to be certified double platinum. It’s out-of-print now, but if you’re dying to listen to “Macho Duck” or “Watch out for Goofy!” in their entirety, all the songs are available on iTunes.

Disney also released an accompanying seven-minute animated Super 8 reel set to music. Watch a brief history about that video (and the video itself) below. (Hat tip to my friends over at Retro Thing for producing such a great piece.)

If DJ’s Aren’t Rockstars, What Are They?

I saw something the other day that really made me reconsider my perspective on musical performance. All the answers I once thought I had have suddenly become questions all over again. What makes a musician “good?” Or rather, what exactly is it that makes for a positive experience at a show? Having been brought up in a society that encourages us to pursue our dreams because “with enough practice anything is possible,” most of us would likely assume that it’s a musician’s musical talent more than anything that decides the outcome of his performance, and trust me, it is most definitely an arguable point. But now let me share with you my experience from a few nights ago.

The lineup (excluding the awful celebrity DJ’s) was A-Trak, followed by Steve Aoki. Now, I respect both of these men to infinity and beyond (I’m a nerd, I know), but let’s be honest, as DJ’s, one of them is just a little bit more talented than the other. That is, one of them won the DMC world championship in turntableism at age 15, and the other…. erm… knows how to beat match with Serato? That being the case, I fully expected A-Trak to steal the show–but I was wrong. Despite his incredible skill, and his massively superior set (which included the ridiculous Robot Rock jam he’s become so well known for), A-Trak‘s show as a whole paled in comparison. He played his entire set to a crowd that seemed to have forgotten how to do anything more than a reluctant shuffle to the beat. And even then, it seemed like the little dancing that was going on was more out of respect for him as an artist than an actual desire to dance. For some reason, the energy just wasn’t there, and I could not for the life of me figure out why. That is until Aoki took over.

Here’s the magic of it all: What did Steve do when he took control of the turntables? Did he put on some kind of miraculous display of musical prowess? Did he have a gnarly intro and a set full of never before heard tracks? Nope. He played Warp. He played Warp, and then proceeded to climb atop the DJ booth with his arms spread wide like Christ himself, whilst screaming “I just want!I just want!” at the top of his lungs, and the crowd lost it. It didn’t matter that we were all dancing to a tune we had heard a thousand times over, and it didn’t matter that the DJ wasn’t even standing behind the decks while we all went nuts. The energy was there, and that was everything.

Game over. Everything I thought I knew about music went into the trash can. If it’s not talent that makes a good show, then what is it? Am I even there for the music? Do I even like music? What is music? What is a musician? And for god’s sake, why is watching someone play records fun?

Have you ever had to explain to someone who’s new to the scene what a DJ’s roll actually is? People ask me all the time, and it never fails, after I finish my five minute breakdown on “keeping the energy high” and “reading the crowd” and all that junk us DJ’s use to justify our trade, the person I’m explaining it to says something along the lines of, “So wait, why wouldn’t you just put on an iTunes playlist?” I used to just shrug it off as ignorance, but having had this near religious experience, that question seems to carry a lot more weight than it used to. I’ve seen crowds go crazy for DJ sets that were literally worse than iTunes playlists. Does that imply that we could all have just a great of a time dancing to a computer? Probably not. But where’s the line? Why does watching a DJ play a track on turntables get us off so much more effectively than if he were to double click it in iTunes? After all, it is the same mp3 file, is it not?

Now, I’m not pretending to be the guy with answers, but one cannot be subject to such profound realization without being forced to draw a couple conclusions. So here’s my theory: All those people that take it upon themselves to convince the world that DJ’s aren’t rockstars? They’re flat out wrong. DJ’s couldn’t be any closer to rockstars. Think about it. Rock has never been about the musicians’ talent. Shit, take a look at ACDC’s frontman. There isn’t a chance in a million that a guy like that could even make it through American Idol’s tryouts, and yet he’s the pillar supporting one of the world’s most successful bands of all time. Their fame came not from harmonies perfectly complimenting melodies, but from random acts of insanity, colorful light shows, fireworks, and that strut thing that the guitarist always liked to do across the stage. That was it. They were gods, and the people who saw their shows were paying not to hear their music, but to experience what it’s like to be in the presence of a bunch of out-of-control deities who represent everything that a human being really wants in life: sex and carefree mayhem, and these are things that any musician, rockstar or DJ, can provide.

So what was it that made Steve Aoki’s party so much better than A-Traks? The same thing that keeps artists like The Bloody Beetroots and Rusko, and countless other charismatic DJ’s at the top of festival bills: they’re symbols that exist in an almost fictional world. They’re like that character in a book that everyone wants to be, and they carry with the the same weight that celebrities like Paris Hilton do. What are they famous for? It doesn’t matter. If they look right (long haired Japanese guy, italian punks with venom masks, mowhawked british bloke) and act right (front flipping into a crowd, pouring Greygoose down the tiniest little asian girls throat, wearing neon green glow glasses and shooting laser beams to the sound of the bass), worship is bound to ensue.

Anyway, that’s my little bit of existential bullshit. Take it or leave it. But even if you choose to leave it, make sure you don’t pass up this bit of UK Funky (which is in no way related to any of the above). It’s a groovy little jam, to say the least.

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Donaeo – Party Hard

Lest Ye Be Judged

A DJ’s primary job (or, if you prefer, “purpose”) is choosing songs. For a while it was his only job—back when turntables didn’t have pitch control and scratching was a surefire way to break your record player and destroy your vinyl all at once.*** A DJ was a one-trick pony, playing one song after another until the party ended. Hence, the only way to compare one DJ with another was by his song selection. A better DJ played better songs. (Of course, the argument “What makes a better selection of songs?” is even harder to settle. But the logic still follows that whoever played better songs was a better DJ.)

***Insert long David Foster Wallace-esque footnote here: A turntable is basically a motor that spins a metal disk at a constant speed. There are two types of turntables: belt-drive and direct-drive. A belt-drive turntable has the motor off to the side. That motor is connected to the spinning axle via an elastic band. This band isn’t strong enough to withstand any serious scratching, and over time the band deteriorates until it must be replaced. This was the standard for years, and it’s probably what your parents used when they first listened to the Beatles.
A direct-drive turntable has a motor directly underneath the spinning disc. This design makes a record reach the proper RPM much quicker; you need a direct-drive turntable if you’re going to scratch. Even better, there’s no elastic band to replace. The catch? For a long time turntable motors were loud and clunky; the motor vibrated during playback and made the needle jump. This shaking damaged the vinyl itself and created rough, irregular playback. But modern motors are quiet enough to keep the record spinning consistently and the needle firmly in the groove. Direct-drive turntables are preferred by every serious DJ, though they’re typically more expensive.

Back to the main point: DJs were choosing songs, and we were comparing them by those songs. But DJing evolved (along with the equipment) and there was another criterion by which to judge DJs: technical ability. The best DJs knew how to use the equipment. They could beatmatch perfectly; they could EQ songs with just the right amount of high, middle and low frequencies; they could use samplers or effects processors or any number of sequencers, drum machines and synthesizers. Learning to use this equipment was hard. But those who mastered the machinery were considered better DJs. Two DJs could play the exact same songs, but one could play a better set depending on how he played the songs. Technical ability mattered.

Today, software like Serato Scratch Live and Ableton Live make the technical aspect of DJing much easier to learn. Modern DJs aren’t learning to use hardware, they’re learning to use software (or some combination of hardware and software).

For example, beatmatching used to be the most important technical skill a DJ could learn. It took years to perfect that ability. Now it’s a breeze. I’m pretty sure I could teach anyone with a decent ear and a few hours of free time to beatmatch songs using Serato. Ableton literally beatmatches for you, assuming your songs are quantized correctly beforehand.

There are two main implications to the rise of software-driven DJ sets:

First, I think we’re all better off because amateur DJs don’t sound as amateurish. Nothing is more painful to listen to than shitty scratching or off-beat mixing. Software corrects some of that. It’s easier to be a mediocre DJ, and mediocre DJing is better than bad DJing. And the fact that DJing is easier to learn also means more people are doing it. That doesn’t mean they’re doing it well, but they’re still doing it. More people DJing is, on the aggregate, a good thing. Even if they’re bad DJs, they probably pay money to see other DJs or in some other way help “the scene.” On a more personal note, many of them also read this blog.

There are certainly purists (read: turntablists) who scoff at the idea of using anything more than two turntables and a mixer, but those people are in the minority. Most DJs use a laptop or, at the very least, CDJs (which, by the way, are still digital rather than analog and often have some sort of built-in software package that’s essentially just a scaled-down version of Serato). It’s both foolish and futile to oppose DJing software. If it makes the set better (“better” meaning “let’s the artist get the exact sound he wants”) then I’m all for it. But then again, there are also people who prefer an acoustic guitar to an electric guitar because that’s the sound they want. It’s just personal preference.

Second, DJs are again primarily judged by the songs they play. We’ve come full circle. Operating Serato/Ableton still requires a certain amount of “skill” (should I even include quotation marks there anymore?). But software helps level the playing field and, more importantly, adjust the learning curve. Once all DJs become the same in their ability to use the software, the only judging criterion left is—you guessed it—song selection. Technical proficiency isn’t a valid criterion for comparison anymore because everyone is technically proficient. Maybe we’ll eventually get to the point where all a DJ will be able to do is chose songs while the software takes care of the rest. Where do we go from there?

Kissy Sell Out

My favorite DJ right now? Tough to answer. But the first person who comes to mind is Kissy Sell Out. He’s got the technical ability that every great DJ has, but his song selection is top-notch. He’ll play a set with music from all over the place and somehow make it all work. For example, a recent performance of his included songs by Rusko, Cat Stevens, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, M83 and Machines Don’t Care. The tracklist reads like a total clusterfuck, as if he just hit “shuffle” and played whatever came up next. But if you listen to the mix you’ll realize he pulls it off like nobody else could.

My favorite thing about Kissy Sell Out is that he remixes songs exclusively for his live sets (appropriately titled “Kissy Klub Versions”). See him perform and you’ll hear a track that’s never been released and never will be; his hard drive must be loaded with homemade gems. It’s actually a little frustrating—much of his stuff is fantastic and the fact that I can’t get the individual songs drives me crazy. But it makes his live sets that much more exciting. I never know what he’s going to play and I’ll probably never get to hear some of those Kissy Klub Versions again. The songs add a thrilling sense of once-in-a-lifetime urgency to his performances.

Enjoy this original track from his album Youth and a fun R.E.M. bmore-inspired remix.

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Kissy Sell Out – Garden Friends

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R.E.M. – Nightswimming (Kissy Sell Out Remix)