The abridged version of the story of Holy Ghost! – the one that begins in 2007 with the release of the duo’s highly acclaimed, revelatory debut single “Hold On” – is less than half the story. A full retelling begins far earlier – nearly two decades before either the duo’s excellent 2009 track “I Will Come Back,” their critically lauded 2010 EP Static on the Wire and their 2011 self-titled full-length debut, or the remixes they’ve done for a seemingly endless list of esteemed artists – MGMT, Cut Copy, Moby, Phoenix and LCD Soundsystem among them.
In fact, the unabridged Holy Ghost! story starts when 7-year-olds Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser met in their elementary school on New York City’s Upper West Side. Even then, the pair of second graders were beginning to make music, nudged on by the “artsy” environs at Manhattan’s Trevor Day School and their open-minded parents.
“First grade, I started playing saxophone and I hated it, and I wanted to quit,” says Nick. His mother told him he could drop the saxophone, but he would have to find another instrument. He started taking drum lessons and realized he’d found what he wanted to be when he grew up.
Alex also got an early musical start. He began lessons with jazz pianist Les Horan, a family friend, at age 6, and learned to play by ear and improvise instead of memorizing scales. By age 12, he had already started to work on his own songs.
Huge fans of hip hop as they moved into their teen years, Alex and Nick, along with four other musically likeminded friends, formed Automato, a hip-hop outfit with live instrumentation and an affinity for groove-based songs. The band of high school sophomores quickly made a name for itself, gigging all around the city and playing some of its best known, now defunct, clubs. In 2000, Automato – mere high school seniors at this point – were signed by Capitol Records. They met with a series of well-known hip-hop producers, most of whom Nick says “didn’t know what the fuck to do with a live drum set.” After countless fruitless conversations, the group was introduced to James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy, two young producers who were just starting a label called DFA. It was a pairing that, though they couldn’t have known it at the time, would outlast Automato.
Automato’s DFA-produced debut was released in 2004 to light fanfare: The UK’s Guardian called the release “The first essential hip hop album of the year.” But the band dissolved just a year later. Alex and Nick remained friends with Murphy and Goldsworthy, even lending their talents to DFA as studio musicians on recordings by the Juan Maclean and remixes for N.E.R.D. and UNKLE. Following a brief stint when Alex left the city to attend Upstate New York’s Bard College, and Nick toured with the Juan Maclean, the two again started making music together. They self-recorded some “ragtag” – Nick’s word – demos, including an early, bare bones version of “Hold On” which they shared with Murphy, who liked what he heard and encouraged them to keep working.
They finished the track a little over a year later. The two shared this early version with a few friends, including tastemaker Tim Sweeney, who liked it enough to play on his revered radio show, Beats in Space. Murphy heard as-of-yet unfulfilled promise in the single, and led the duo – now called Holy Ghost!, a name taken from a song of the same name by ’70s soul masters the Bar-Kays – back into the studio, where the LCD frontman produced and remixed the single. “Hold On,” released on DFA Records in 2007, gained the attention of some of the most esteemed names in dance music, including A-Trak and The Loft’s Dave Mancuso. Alex and Nick found themselves traveling the world as in-demand DJs, and by the end of 2008, they had remixed songs – by request – for Moby, MGMT and Cut Copy.
By the time 2009 wound to a close, the duo set to work on a batch of songs that would be a heftier offering than a lone single. The resulting four-song EP, Static on the Wire, which included “I Will Come Back” along with three new singles, was released on DFA in May 2010. It was only a taster of what was to come on the band’s full-length LP, which was released the very next year.
The 10-song self-titled album included a few guest appearances (Luke Jenner from the Rapture; Chris Glover from Penguin Prison; and – really – Michael McDonald) and though it certainly yielded more evidence of Holy Ghost!’s place at the top of the heap of dance music makers, this isn’t likely to be a collection of club bangers. It cemented an idea of what people have come to expect from Holy Ghost!: Riveting songs filled with analog warmth and wonderful, driving, catchy rhythms.
After a few years of relentless and successful touring with only a single album, an EP, and a couple singles to their name, Nick and Alex reconvened in the studio to start working on their newest batch of songs. The result of these sessions is the band’s upcoming sophomore release, Dynamics.
Though they were only making their second album, the experience they brought with them to the studio was a huge advantage. “There was a bit of a learning curve on the first record that slowed down the creative process,” Nick said. “We didn’t have to learn how to record an album at the same time as we were trying to make music this time around.” With the recording studio now tamed, the band felt they had more control and better instincts with writing their music. There were more musical casualties this time around as well, with more songs and musical ideas getting left on the cutting room floor as the band separated the wheat from the chaff.
During recording for Dynamics, Alex felt more comfortable with his singing abilities than the first time around, and the duo pushed themselves to record more single-track vocals, yielding a more personal, emotional response. “I tried to make more simple, personal ideas come across more effectively,” he notes. “When you’re doing up-front vocals, you can’t bullshit the lyrics, because you’re talking directly to your audience.”
The effect of these things upon the overall recording sessions for Dynamics is that the band are painting in bolder strokes, truly utilizing one of the most important aspects of music (dynamics) to open their songs up to entire new palates of color. “Dynamics is really a descriptive term we used to focus on contrast, but it’s also referring to a lot of Alex’s lyrics this time around, which deal with the dynamics of relationships,” reflects Nick. “It’s a good single-word descriptor of what we were trying to do with these songs, something we kept coming back to when writing and recording.”
At the end of the day, Holy Ghost! are making great dance music that is beyond passing trends, that gets to the very heart of why we love music, that touches our most simple, direct, inborn reactions to sound. “I’m trying to make music that makes me as unabashedly giddy as music made me when I was a kid,” says Nick. “I think that’s a big part of why we’re so obsessed with sounds. Because I think more abstract things, like sound, take [you] places. It’s a guttural, sort of ambiguous familiarity to things you grew up with that I think, when you get older, you come back to. And you’re like, “Oh – this really is the best.”