Best of What's Next: Holy Ghost!
Hometown: New York City, N.Y.
For fans of: LCD Soundsystem, Cut Copy, Friendly Fires
Members: Alex Frankel (Vocals, Keyboard, Guitar), Nick Millhiser (Drums, Bass, Guitar)
Album: Holy Ghost!
Alex Frankel sounds like he’s getting over a cold. One half of the New York electro-pop duo Holy Ghost!, he sniffles and coughs every few moments, breaking the conversation as I speak to him over the phone on a sunny March afternoon. Four days later, he takes the stage on a Monday night at the Masquerade in Atlanta, Ga, kicking off a North American tour with Cut Copy. Not a single sniffle is heard all night.
Frankel met bandmate Nick Millhiser early in life, both growing up and attending school in New York City’s Upper West Side. The pair became fast friends, and soon began making music together. In their early teens, they formed a hip-hop outfit known as Automato and were soon introduced to James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy of DFA Records. Automato fell apart after their DFA-produced debut album, but the pair stayed together, maintaining a relationship with Murphy and continuing to produce music.
The duo originally wanted to remain a hip-hop group, but without a rapper, Frankel shifted to vocals in addition to keys and, with the encouragement of Murphy, the group shifted their focus to electro-disco revivalism. In 2007, the LCD frontman produced and mixed the duo’s first single, “Hold On.” The years that followed were filled with a smattering of remixes for the likes of Phoenix, MGMT, Cut Copy and friends LCD Soundsystem.
“It’s a lot easier to remix a bad song that it is to remix a good song,” Frankel says. “You would think that if the parts are really good and the song’s awesome that it would be really easy, but its actually really hard. I’m really proud of the one we did for LCD for ‘Drunk Girls’ and for Phoenix for ‘Lisztomania.’ We don’t see anything wrong with those songs really, so I’m very proud of those.”
Where the duo truly shines though is in the studio and on the stage. The music is infectious—a mixture of dance-inducing beats blended with disco melodies, every one topped with a catchy pop-inspired hook. “It’s pop music,” Frankel says, “but not pop like Katy Perry pop. They’re songs that reference a wide range of music in popular history. They sound kind of maybe what would have been on the radio in the late ’70s and early ’80s on the radio in America.” Frankel lists sources of inspiration Michael Jackson, Chaka Kahn, Gavin Russom and of course Murphy and LCD Soundsystem. Starting with a synth sequence or a chord progression or a bit of vocals, the duo begins recording and mixing over each addition, developing layers of depth with each pass.
They also try to ignore the dance-music question of developing club bangers versus album cuts. “On the album, that’s not in our head at all,” Frankel says in regards to making tracks specifically to be tools for club DJs. “We’re just writing songs that you want to dance to at home or maybe play out at a club, but really they’re supposed to live out in a different space. Execution is similar, but the focus shifts from format to format.” By the time Murphy invited them to tour with LCD Soundsystem in the summer of 2010, Holy Ghost! had released the four-song Static on the Wire EP and was nearly finished with a full record. Having made heavy use of old analog synths, the duo faced the transition to a live band. “In the studio, we have the benefit of overdub, so Nick can play drums, then switch to bass. I’ll sing vocals, switch to keyboard. So obviously in the live setting we have to figure out how we’re going to emulate some of those sounds on the road. Just now we’re getting comfortable with it to a point that we can concentrate on the performance.”
Comfort certainly wasn’t a problem Monday night. Their explosive Atlanta set had the entire crowd dancing and jumping, but now the group is rushing to pack up and Cut Copy is about to take the stage. “This tour is not glamorous,” Frankel says to me over PBRs after the show. “It can be brutal, but nights with excitement like this make it all worth it.”