Alex Frankel, one half of New York City electronic act Holy Ghost!, was kind enough to lend his typing fingers and answer some questions for me while he and his partner in crime Nick Millhiser are busy touring North America as support for LCD Soundsystem. The duo recently released their first “album” of material, the Static on the Wire EP, and they’re set for a summer full of shows and festival appearances. I ask him about how they got into recording music, his philosophy behind “good” dance music, and their recent cover of Friendly Fires‘ “On Board,” amongst other things. Have a read.
Mary Chang, PopWreckoning: I’ve read that you two met in grade school. Did you bond immediately over music, certain bands, in band class, etc.? How did you become friends?
Alex Frankel, Holy Ghost!: Nick was more skateboardy and I was more, sweat pantsy? We did play in a band in 5th grade (ages 9/10, respectively) that practiced in “The Cage” [a storage space in their elementary school] and was instructed by our social science teacher, Mrs. Preston, who was a very cosmic lady seemingly stuck in the late 1970s. But yeah, we always were doing some music here and there together.
MC: I’ve also read that you were members of a short-lived teen hip hop act in the ’90s called Automato. What instruments did you play, did you sing…? What happened with it?
AF: Nick played drums, I played keys. It started when we were 15 but we did it until 2005 actually. It’s how we met James [Murphy] and Tim [Goldsworthy, founders of independent label DFA Records], who produced the record. It faded out, too many cooks in the kitchen, too long spent on the same bunch of songs…we’re all still friends.
MC: How did you get involved with spinning and the making of dance music? Do you each have a personal philosophy towards dance music and what makes it great for you? Is this philosophy different when you yourselves are enjoying the beats in a club vs. when you’re DJaying or performing live?
AF: I like music that I have a pleasurable physical response to. I usually go “oooooooohhh” if I like something. And that means some wiring in my brain has been stimulated by the sounds or chords or whatever. But I guess what makes it GREAT is when the physical thing is there, but additionally there is also something emotional that I relate to on top of the music…like lyrics. Like LCD Soundsystem. Or Chic. Or David Bowie. Or Talking Heads.
MC: There are so many great clubs in New York. What are your favorites to spin at? What about when you’ve got a day off and you just want to hear good music and/or dance?
AF: This is such an interesting question because everyone asks it and here’s the deal: New York clubs rotate their musical style on a night to night basis these days. Meaning, one night the same club has techno, the next night is ska-fusion night. So, there are no clubs that are ALWAYS good. Like Paradise Garage once was. So I don’t know anyone who just “goes out to dance” and “hopes it’ll be good.” We go to places we know our friends or artists we like listening to will be at. But that venue changes every night. Places of interest are le poisson rouge, Santos Party House, Glasslands.
MC: As for dance scenes, do you each have a favorite? London? Ibiza? Berlin?
AF: I’m not sure how to answer that, I guess every place is different? I really love the classic sounds of New York City and Chicago and Detroit. The grit. But I also love the clean, sharp music from Germany, starting from Kraftwerk all the way up to today. We’re pretty open-minded.
MC: Your 2008 single “Hold On” has really taken on a life of its own. During an informal trawling of the Web, I found evidence that fans of dance music think it’s one of those tracks that will live on in dance music history forever (for one, check this link out). Did you have any idea that “Hold On” was going to blow up as big as it did?
AF: Absolutely no idea it would go beyond our circle of friends!!
MC: When you started writing and recording music as Holy Ghost!, did you already have an idea of where you wanted to go musically? Did you / do you feel influenced by any artists past or present, dance or not?
AF: We wanted to make something that didn’t embarrass our friends, and we wanted to make something that sounded like the music we liked. We wanted to make music that people could dance to but that also was in line with our love of pop music structures.
MC: Let’s switch gears and talk about your releases for this year. In March, you put out a split single with one of PopWreckoning’s favorites, Friendly Fires. The BBC and British music media did a pretty good job of covering their side of what happened on this came about. Is it true that the idea came up over a drunken haze at Calvi on the Rocks in Ibiza last summer? How do you guys know each other? Tell us more.
AF: Haha! Yeah, me and Ed [Macfarlane] met at Calvi last year during our DJ set, and I think about 30 minutes later we had agreed on a cover swap. Just clicked right off the bat. Good bloke.
MC: I really liked what you did with “On Board”, the DFA Celestial Choir was a nice touch, as was the bounce of “don’t stop, don’t stop” in the middle. How did you choose that track, and how did you approach doing this cover?
AF: Thanks!!! It took forever. There were a bunch of huge personal and technical setbacks during the recording, and it took about 6 weeks. In the end we were really happy with it, felt like we made it our own but kept their original ideas relatively intact. Really fun project.
MC: It must have felt really different doing a full-fledged cover than a remix, being so famous for doing remixes for such high-profile friends like Moby and James Murphy / LCD Soundsystem.
AF: Eh, not really. Our “remixes” are often times covers. See the Moby remix (“I Love to Move in Here”) for evidence, where not one sound from the original was used, including vocals.
MC: Your first album-type release, the Static on the Wire EP, was released last month (May 18) on DFA Records. Only four songs but I think it’s a great taster to get people into what Holy Ghost! the recording act is all about. How long did it take to record them? Was it quick from start to finish or have these ideas been percolating since the days of “Hold On”?
AF: I don’t know, it’s hard to distinguish things in retrospect. But we’ve been working on a batch of about 13 to 14 songs for 2 or 3 years. These are four. The rest are on the album.
MC: Last month you played your first live, non-DJ gig at Under 100 on May 15. I didn’t have the privilege of being there but some friends were there and really enjoyed the show. What was going through your mind before you went on?
AF: STAGE FRIGHT!!!! (Alex provided us with the below YouTube link)
MC: What’s it been like touring with LCD Soundsystem on your first “tour” of the continent?
AF: AMAZING AMAZING AMAZING. BEST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD. BEST BAND IN THE WORLD. WE WAKE UP SO HAPPY EVERY DAY.
MC: You have some high profile appearances in Europe coming up this summer – Calvi on the Rocks to do a live set, London appearances at [the now endangered] Fabric club and the Groove Armada-founded festival Lovebox, and a festival slot at Germany’s Melt. Are there any particular shows that you are most looking forward to? I know I’m looking forward to your appearance in DC at the U Street Music Hall in less than 3 weeks.
AF: Actually, aside from Calvi, I’m most psyched for U Street. I’ve heard unbelievable things about the club! Oh, and Summerstage in Central Park because my mom and dad can walk from their houses.
MC: When will your first full-length album hit store shelves? (Or maybe “available for electronic download” is a more appropriate phrase.) Anything you can tell us about it now?
AF: It’s not dissimilar from what you’ve heard already. Some shorter, “poppier” songs, but not really. It’s funky. I hope. January [2011 release]?
MC: Some last questions. Your name Holy Ghost! with the exclamation point – who came up with it? Were you ever concerned about the obvious religious connotation?
AF: It’s from a Bar-Kays‘s song [a soul, r&b, and funk band founded in the mid-60s that had a single called "Holy Ghost Pt. I / Holy Ghost Pt. II" in 1975], we needed a name. We think it looks cool too.
Holy Ghost!‘s Static on the Wire EP is available from DFA Records now.
Jun 04 – Hollywood Palladium / Los Angeles*
Jun 05 – Standard Hotel – Los Angeles
Jun 08 – Stubb’s / Austin*
Jun 09 – Palladium / Dallas*
Jun 12 – 88 Palace / New York City (DJ set)
Jun 18 – Sonar / Baltimore
Jun 19 – U Street Music Hall / Washington, DC
Jun 25 – Making Time / Philadelphia
Jun 25 – Vinyl / Denver (DJ set)
Jul 26 – 9:30 Club / Washington, DC#
Jul 27 – Trocadero / Philadelphia#
Jul 29 – Bowery Ballroom / New York City#
Jul 30 – MEG Festival / Montreal#
Aug 02 – Capital Music Hall / Ottawa#
Aug 03 – Phoenix / Toronto#
Aug 04 – Central Park SummerStage / New York City^
Aug 05 – Majestic Theater / Detroit#
Aug 06 – Lollapalooza / Chicago
Aug 07 – First Avenue / Minneapolis#
Aug 10 – Flames Central / Calgary#
Aug 11 – Commodore Ballroom / Vancouver#
Aug 12 – Showbox Market / Seattle#
Aug 13 – Roseland Ballroom / Portland#
Aug 16 – House of Blues / San Diego#
Aug 19 – Twilight Concert Series / Salt Lake City
Aug 20 – Ogden Theater / Denver#
Aug 24 – Stubb’s / Austin#
Aug 25 – Palladium / Dallas#
Aug 26 – Cannery Ballroom / Nashville#
Aug 27 – Masquerade / Atlanta#
* supporting LCD Soundsystem
^ with Hot Chip
# with Chromeo