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.
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?
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?
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.
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.