Musical collaborators from an early age
Holy Ghost! released its debut album in April, a shiny and bouncy collection of indie-electro-pop confections. But the New York duo isn't exactly brand new; Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser have been making music together as Holy Ghost! since 2007. Before that, the pair played together in the short-lived hip-hop group Automato. And before that, they played together in Miss Preston's music class.
Holy Ghost! may be a band, but it's also the result of a lifelong friendship between its two principal members. Frankel and Millhiser met in elementary school (Frankel was 6, and Millhiser was 7) and instantly became best friends. Since then, Frankel estimates, they've spent "probably 80 percent of our lives in the same room." From an early age both were creative, which was fostered by their parents, their arts-leaning school and friends who didn't partake in usual youthful bullying.
"We grew up in this little group of kids who were always into making stuff, whether it was movies on our parents' cameras or taking pictures or playing piano," Frankel says. "Whatever it was, there was some reason that in this group no one made fun of each other [for being artistic]. No one was like, 'You [expletive], playing piano!' It was, 'Ooh, I really like that Tori Amos song, too!' "
The songs Frankel and Millhiser play now are far removed from Amos's soul-baring confessionals, but their music might actually have more in common with that of the piano-playing songstress than with the electronic music acts they toured with this summer. Besides a fondness for dance-floor beats, there were few similarities between Holy Ghost! and their tour mates on the all-electronic Identity Festival.
Frankel and Millhiser were fronting a six-piece band playing actual instruments, performing songs with verses, choruses, lyrics, subtleties. Often, there weren't many people watching. (Stuck with a 1 p.m. time slot on a Tuesday during the festival's stop at Jiffy Lube Live, the band played to roughly 50 curious onlookers.) Contrast that with the headlining house and dubstep DJs that packed the pavilion floor, armed with computers belching out irrepressibly mindless beats that inspired pandemonium among the young revelers.
"We do think of it as songs with narratives, or anti-narratives, with layers, lyrics and changes," Frankel says of the creative process. The aesthetic may be mostly electronic, but the approach is rooted in rock-and-roll - the same foundation laid by LCD Soundsystem. That's no coincidence, as James Murphy, frontman for the recently retired band, has been a mentor to Frankel and Millhiser since meeting them about a decade ago.
At first the relationship was mostly musical. Murphy helped produce Automato, an ill-fated hip-hop group. That band was signed to Capitol Records, but the experience left Frankel feeling wary about the major-label system and wanting to work exclusively with Murphy's homegrown DFA label.
"When we started Holy Ghost!, I just remember clearly thinking, 'We're going to do this totally different than with Automato.' We knew from Day One all we wanted to do was put out a [single] on DFA," he says. "We had to win them over first. It just worked out."
It's not hard to be won over by their music, which combines a light disco touch with rock flourishes. Songs are fun and funky with choruses that make you want to sing along while dancing.
Eventually Holy Ghost! was signed to DFA and spent time on the road with LCD Soundsystem, taking mental notes all along. As the gigs got bigger and the paydays increased, the money was poured back into production. That was the mind-set that helped Frankel and Millhiser decide to go on the road with the large-scale Identity Festival in support of their self-titled album, which follows a handful of promising singles and an EP.
"It was a good opportunity for us to build as a band, basically," Frankel says. "We were able to bring more people, hire a monitor engineer, stuff like that." And although some of the crowds were tiny, as long as they could connect with a few people that would make it worth it.
"Even if it's only five people that are going to notice it's a real piano and not a Nord piano, that stuff, to me, is important," Frankel says. "It's a long haul. I think that stuff pays off long term because I know for me as a kid when I went to shows those were the things I noticed."
And for Holy Ghost!, being on tour can't be that bad, anyway. It means getting to hang out with your best friend all day, every day.
--David Malitz, Nov. 18, 2011