Holy Ghost! grows in confidence on the strength of Dynamics
New York City’s Holy Ghost! (consisting of Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser) is one band that’s keeping the spirit of the dance floor alive and well. For proof of this, go see the band in person. Whereas some electronica-tinged groups have the onstage charisma of watching your iTunes spit out songs on shuffle play, Holy Ghost! has an infectious energy that rouses even the most jaded showgoers into an undulating mass of humanity.
With a sound that harks back to some of the more progressive and futuristic music of the ‘80s, and a light show to match, Holy Ghost! has been touring on the strength of their most recent album (2013’s Dynamics for DFA) on and off for almost a year, according to Frankel. The group first made a splash with their first single, “Hold On,” which was released in 2007 and later appeared on their debut, self-produced, eponymous album four years then (also for DFA).
Dynamics once again saw Frankel and Millhiser at the helm production-wise; however, this time around, with the experience of their first album behind them, the duo had a better idea of what they could get out of the studio.
“The first time around we had our minds mostly focused on getting the drums sound or figuring out how to get the keyboards that we wanted,” Frankel, Holy Ghost!’s vocalist/lyricist said in a recent interview. “It freed up a little headspace for songwriting as opposed to just concentrating on sounds and stuff.”
This bolder mindset translated into more adventurous songwriting, Frankel said.
“On the first record, we wanted to have a long song like [“Dumb Disco Ideas,” which appears on Dynamics], but it never really happened,” he explained. “We were able to go where we wanted to go this time. We were able make the pop songs more pop or long and disco-structured. For some reason it was more facilitated. It might have been technical stuff. I don’t know exactly, but the first time we were just figuring it out, so everything was a battle.”
Frankel did go on to say that their greater confidence in the studio didn’t make the recording of Dynamics effortless. There were some missteps along the way; however, the band was able to more fully realize their ideas on their sophomore release.
“I’m making it sound like we were like, ‘Let’s do a long disco song,’ and then we did it in a day,” he said. “It was still a battle, but it was a lot easier to set out on goals and stuff…not that they all turned out well. There was plenty of stuff that was crap, but we were able to go down a road for a day and pretty quickly come to a decision. The first record, we might have to spend a longer time getting the backbone of the song.”
This growing confidence can certainly be seen on the band’s current tour. In the following interview, Frankel tells us how the live show has had a positive effect on his maturation as a vocalist and why he finds David Byrne of Talking Heads to be such a big inspiration.
You were talking about the song “Dumb Disco Ideas.” Was the title a tongue-in-cheek sort of thing? Like, was it crazy to even try putting together an 8-minute disco song?
[Laughs] No, it was the name of the file that Nick sent to me as a demo. It was a bass line and the drums. The reason we seem to title stuff things that are really hard to remember at times is because we got this email and that’s just what became the name of the song, which is a lot of times how we name songs.
I heard that you came up with the band name at the last second, too.
We had our first single, “Hold On,” that was going to come out on DFA, and Nick had been listening to The Bar-Kays’ song, “Holy Ghost,” and if you looked in the lyrics in the record’s sleeve, it was printed with an exclamation point, and it looked really cool with that, so we were like, it’s not bad, it’s not great…
It must be tough to settle on a band name…
Yeah, I think we got off easy finding a name like that. Sometimes with your friends, you’ll really like their band, and then they come up with a name that’s, like, painful.
Any time I hear something that’s dance-y, I wonder if it’s more difficult to get your ideas across lyrically when the groove of the music seems to take precedence.
No, I mean, with our remixes and maybe some of the songs we do, the music is intended to be played in a dance club; but when we’re writing, we’re not really writing for dance floors. I think people will be able to dance to it, but they’ll also be able to listen to it at home. Some of my favorite songs, music and vocalists are relatively dance. Whether it’s Talking Heads or something like that, I never felt constrained by the groove or whatever.
Are Talking Heads one of the bands that had a big influence on you?
I think me more than Nick for Talking Heads. I’m not a trained singer or anything like that, so when I was 16 or 17…I was like, wow, there’s another guy who can’t really sing, and he has a band, so that’s really encouraging.
David Byrne? Yeah, he can’t really sing a lick, but there’s a long tradition of great lead singers who can’t really sing, like Lou Reed…
Yeah, there’s a long history, but my mom was really against those kinds of singers growing up. Like, there was no [Bob] Dylan allowed in the car growing up. She was like, “If you can’t sing, you don’t belong on the radio.”
You’re not a trained singer, but your voice sounds really good on Dynamics. Were you feeling more confident this time around?
Do you feel like you’re coming into your own as a vocalist?
Yeah, for sure. I think touring a lot, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable that way—playing tons and tons of shows over the last few years and getting comfortable with the range.
Before, you mentioned remixes. What got you into doing those? Were you always interested in that kind of thing?
We wanted to get into remixes because we were buying them. We were starting to DJ, and we were buying early dance stuff…and early disco. Our friends had something coming out and asked if we’d liked to remix it, and we were really psyched to do it. That was the first one we did, and we took it super seriously and spent three weeks on it. We treat them like our songs, basically. They’re like making our own songs, but a little bit of the pressure is off because the vocals and lyrics are done, and we just focus on the dance part of it.
Being a songwriter yourself, does it affect the way you work with someone else’s material?
We always tell people that we’re not going to guarantee that we’re going to keep any of the elements of the song. Oftentimes, we just scrap 95 percent of the song…or sometimes we only need to scrap 10 percent of the song. For us, there’s no real rule as to how we’ll go about it. Ideally if there’s a vocal, the vocal will be good enough for us to keep. It’s a really subjective thing. Some people might really love the vocal, but it doesn’t work for you. We get hired to do what we would like. There’s already an existing version that people have had their way with. We just kind of do whatever we would like. We buy a lot of records, would we buy it? That’s kind of the litmus test for us. Did we do a good job? If both of us can agree that we would buy it, that’s how we know.
At the time of our interview, Holy Ghost! was scheduled to play one area show at Freeborn Hall on the campus of UC Davis on May 1. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the promoters have cancelled the show. ASUCD Entertainment Council hopes to bring them back for a DJ set in the fall. Keep an eye on their Facebook page for an announcement.