If you’re a sucker for synthpop, chances are you’ve heard of Holy Ghost! Growing up in New York City, Nick Millhiser and Alex Frankel spent their formative years cutting their teeth on the city’s expansive music scene, experiencing moderate success with the hip-hop band Automato before the group called it quits. The longtime friends then began producing music under the name Holy Ghost! releasing two full-length albums and a slew of remixes since their debut in 2007. The duo will be closing out 2014 and ushering in the new year at one of their hometown’s most notable venues, Irving Plaza, alongside labelmates Museum Of Love. Prior to the show, Millhiser took the time to discuss what sparks their creative sides, his personal New Year’s resolution, and Myspace’s role in changing music.
What do you guys have planned for the New Year’s Eve show at Irving Plaza?
We are having our friends That Work DJ with us, and our friends Museum Of Love are going to be playing live for us. So we’re very excited about that.
Are you working on any new material?
We’re both working on new material in the studio and we’re also going to try to figure out how to play a few songs that we’ve never played live before, so that should be a challenge.
What is the process when you guys begin writing new music?
It’s sort of different every time, so it’s hard to say a specific process. To a certain extent, Alex and I sort of show up and noodle around and throw a bunch of shit at the wall and see what sticks. That kind of has been the process as of late. Alex definitely approaches writing from a more traditional songwriting standpoint; he’ll sometimes come in with an idea or an outline for a song that he just kind of came up with sitting at a piano or something, whereas my approach is that I generally come at things from more of a production background. I’ll start working on a track and come up with a bassline or a groove idea or an outline for a rough chord change and we’ll just play stuff for each other.
It’s a constant process of trying to impress the other guy. If I’m working on my own, I’m trying to come up with something that will get Alex excited, but at the same time have enough room for him to expand on it, and sometimes that’s the challenge—coming up with an idea that is exciting yet simple and rough enough so that there is plenty of room for it to evolve.
Where do you draw inspiration from when it comes to writing and performing?
Well, writing it can be anything. Generally speaking I think we are at our most creative and productive when we are both excited listeners and consumers of music; when we’re both going record shopping a lot and finding new music that we like. Speaking personally, I find that when I’m not listening to a lot of music at home and not finding new stuff that I’m excited about, I’m less excited to make music myself.
Performance-wise we look to other bands that we admire. What we do, as far as being a live band, is relatively unique. We’re essentially a dance group but when we perform live we’re not running a bunch of stuff on track; it’s a lot of stuff being played by hand. We’re not using computers, so we’re constantly trying to find a way like, “How do we make that engaging?” Because as much as we make dance music, the music we make is not like hands-in-the-air Tiesto stuff. We reference LCD Soundsystem a lot, as far as the way the band executes things live. It was really impressive what Nine Inch Nails were doing on their last tour. We are pretty far apart musically, but as far as the technical aspect, what they were trying to do we’re actually coming from relatively similar places.
Besides just performing live, you do a lot of DJ sets as Holy Ghost! Do you prefer one over the other?
They’re apples to oranges. They’re two totally different things. But I think for some artists the lines have become blurred. I think if you go see somebody do a DJ set now you’re going to expect them to play their own music because they don’t perform live. Alex and I approach DJ sets in a much more traditional sense as in it’s a DJ set, we play other people’s music, versus when we play live, we play our own music. They’re very different art forms, to me. I think as consumer, as a guy who goes to concerts and goes to see DJs, what I want from those performances are different as well.
One thing Alex and I usually say is that when we’re playing live we just DJ (laughs) because it is just relatively simple; it’s just the two of us and we just bring the bag of records and the USB stick and you’re done. But there’s also something extremely rewarding about the payoff of performing our own music.
Both you and Alex have been working with music for so long, how have you grown as artists?
When Alex and I started working on music we both had particular skill sets individually that weren’t quite as formed as they are now, and I think with any good partnership you sort of grow into the strengths and weaknesses of the other person. For example, when we started out, Alex had never really sung before, nor did he have any ambitions of ever being a singer or a band, but he did start singing and thinking about writing lyrics. Obviously I didn’t need to worry about that, so I started focusing on production and learning engineering. And Alex didn’t have to worry about learning any of that stuff. So if I could pin point an abstract way that I think we’ve grown is that Alex has really grown as a songwriter and a piano player and I think I have gotten better as an engineer and a producer. But I think it’s almost sort of by virtue the fact that I don’t think those things would have necessarily happened had it not been for each other.
How have you seen the music industry change?
Our band while we were in high school were signed to a very sort of traditional, last of the old school, major label record deals while still in our senor year. So we got a very traditional big music biz experience, which sucked for us because it didn’t really pan out into anything. We had a major label and we had a big advance that allowed us to live modestly and make a relatively expensive record and had a lesson in marketing. We had all these resources that on paper, you think those are the biggest things you need to have a career in music. And it didn’t pan out.
But this is also a year or two before Myspace really became a thing. When Alex and I started Holy Ghost! with zero ambition of having any sort of want to make a living playing music, we had a Myspace page. And the second “Hold On” came out, the people who liked it could access us easily and do so immediately. So if some kid in Boston heard that song and liked it and threw a party—and that is what happened—they could just write us directly via Myspace and be like, “Hey, would you come DJ our party for $100?” Having that wall broken down is what, for us, was the difference between having a career or not. I think unless you’re making music that is extraordinarily commercially viable, having that direct connection to people who like your stuff is so valuable.
Had Alex and I started Holy Ghost! four years earlier, I don’t think anything would have happened with it. Without that direct access, it would have been such a niche thing, and there would be no way to sort of rally the few people that were excited about it. So that change is enormous. All the complaining people do about how nobody buys music anymore, while that’s awful in some aspects, the other side of it is that there is direct access that musicians have to their fans, which I think is responsible for a lot of careers that couldn’t have existed otherwise.
Do you feel being from New York City affects your music?
Absolutely. There was just so much available to us at a very young age. Growing up in New York at the time that we did there was just an enormous amount of music available to us. There were tons of all-ages shows, tons of venues that did all-ages shows which don’t really exist anymore, and most importantly for us there were tons of venues that would allow bands—teenage bands—to play. We weren’t making a living doing it, but Alex and I were essentially professional musicians when we were teenagers. We were in a band, we’d play shows at real venues, and we got paid. So I think having that at a very early age sort of made a career in music feel—for better or worse—like a very tangible, realistic goal. And I don’t know, I think there is just something about New York. It’s a tough city. It keeps you hungry. It’s one of those cities that always keeps you on your toes. You always have to work because it’s fucking expensive, and the weather is either too hot or too cold. As much as it is the best city in the world, I think it’s also a city that no one is ever 100 percent comfortable in. It keeps you moving and motivated to be on to the next thing.
What are your plans for the new year?
Oh man (laughs). I have no formal resolutions. I should probably quit smoking, but I’ve been saying that for a few years now. Alex and I have been really busy this past year with just steadily touring, and I think January is the first month that we’re going to take off and spend in the studio working on new music. We really haven’t had a lot of time to do that, and we generally work better when we block off a big chunk of time to work. So that’s the immediate goal, work on new music, maybe do some remixes. Spend more time in the studio—that’s my New Year’s resolution.
Holy Ghost! will be performing at Irving Plaza in New York City on Dec. 31. For more information, go to facebook.com/holyghostnyc and holyghostnyc.net.