Scene the Light
Interview with Holy Ghost's Nicholas Millhiser
As producers dive into their computers to make new songs from entirely digital resources, it’s fewer and further between that acts incorporate classic analog equipment and recording techniques. Holy Ghost! happens to be one of those acts, eschewing the digital in favor of analog warmth. Born out of a desire to recreate the sounds they were sampling as high schoolers, Nicholas Millhiser and Alexander Frankel—along with their Mentors at DFA, James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy—have slowly crafted a sound that pays deep respects to its disco influences while still forging new paths in dance music. In anticipation of their DJ set at Smart Bar Wed 10, we caught up with Millhiser to talk more about what makes them tick.
—Joshua P. Ferguson
JPF | You and Alex go way back to the playground days right?
NM | Alex and I met in the second grade. We grew up together and went to the same school. We were always really into music and started playing in bands when we were really young. Alex and I started a rap group when we were in high school. That became Automato, a project produced by James [Murphy] and Tim [Goldsworthy]. That’s how we met those guys. The band fell apart after one record, but Alex and I kept working on stuff with James and Tim.
JPF | Was Automato really straight up rap?
NM | It was a live six-person band. At the time, James and Tim were not well known at all and we were having a hard time finding a producer that could make the record sonically sound like samples, even though we were a live band. They were the first people that really got that and through the process of making that record, Alex and I learned about being in the studio and learned the foundation of all the stuff we do now.
JPF | Not a bad duo to have looking over your shoulder as you’re learning things. Was that your first inroads into making music in the style you’re doing now?
NM | It happened quite serendipitously. I was into dance music when I was in high school. Like everyone, when Homework came out, I got really into it. I think I went through an embarrassing drum ‘n’ bass phase like a lot of other people as well. It was around that time that we got our first apartment and there was this really great record store near by. We started buying disco records, looking for samples and drum breaks. Disco records were always the ones in the dollar been and they also had these long drum breaks. Through the process of buying records for samples, you inevitably stumble across you really, actually like. After we met Tim and James we’d be talking about records and Tim would reference some Loose Joints record and I’d be like ‘oh yeah. I have that record. I really kind of like that record.’ And Tim would be like ‘Of course you like that record. It’s an amazing record.’ That’s how we discovered that people liked that stuff.
JPF | Speaking of disco, people are really throwing that term around a lot; attaching it to their parties or their sound. I feel like DFA is trying to let it be known that it’s music is much broader than that. How do you feel about the term and where does it fit into your music?
NM | We definitely get pegged in with that ‘nudisco’ scene. That’s partially our fault because our music certainly references disco and when we deejay, we play a lot of disco. Even though there are a lot of references to disco I wouldn’t say that we’re a pure, 100% disco group. Not that I wouldn’t like to be! I say that with the greatest respect to the disco artists that I like. I don’t think we’ve been able to capture that ‘thing,’ we sort of do our own bastardized version of it. I think James would say the same thing. But at the same time there is a very sincere love of disco. I don’t think that term gets thrown around as much in Europe, which is interesting. In America, because the dance music scene is so much smaller, promoters—especially when we’ve been to L.A. or Vancouver or San Francisco—they’re like ‘yeah, yeah, the opening DJ, he’s a disco DJ.’ Disco has just become a catchall terms for hipster dance music. It could mean that they’re playing nudisco or electro or any of these things that really don’t have anything to do with each other.
JPF | That’s something that’s been trending up in Chicago as well. The term has become a signifier for promoters who want to get people out to their parties.
NM | It’s just a term that’s ubiquitous with general, hip dance music. It’s like electro, ‘electro’ doesn’t’ sound anything like electro. When I first started reading about it getting big, I got really excited thinking people might be making Nucleus records again. Not quite. I like a lot of the new electro, but it’s the same sort of thing, it doesn’t really have anything to do with the term itself.
JPF | You guys have really become big studio heads, working on many of the different DFA projects. Would you consider yourself part of a DFA house band?
NM | I wouldn’t say that. DFA has grown a lot since it’s inception, but when DFA started it really was just a group of friends. There’s James and Tim. Then there’s Juan, who is James’s best friend. Marcus, Shit Robot, worked upstairs and then there was Gavin, the synth repair guy, who does work as Black Meteoric Star. So the original core group at DFA was first and foremost a good group of friends. The way people at DFA work on records is just informal, you work on tracks with your friends. If James was out of town and Tim was working on a remix and needed someone to play drums, he would call me up. If they needed someone to play keys, they would call Alex. It’s the same way now. We were just working on a track and wanted big vocals so I called up Antony and asked if she would come over and yell. We’re no more a part of the DFA house band than anyone else in the group.
JPF | Is this how the cult of analog over there got started?
NM | For sure. For me it started right when Alex and I graduated from high school and we’d signed our first record deal. At that time we were totally obsessed with Radiohead and wanted to know how to sound like that. We spent the majority of our recording budget buying gear. Then we met James and Tim and we walk into their studio. It had everything we could ever dream of, all the stuff we’d only seen in pictures. It was all there, it worked and these guys knew how to use it.
JPF | So these days, where do Tim and James fit into the equation? Like, say on the new album.
NM | Their roles have definitely changed as they’ve become more successful. They are much harder to pin down. I don’t think anyone will ever get another James and Tim produced album like the way we did the Automato record. That was six months in a studio, coming in every day, and James and Tim are there. On our new record, we knew very early on that James was going to be too busy to be involved in any real formal way, so his role was more as an executive producer. We’d play him demos and give him ideas and we’d get his reactions. There involvement was informal, but no less important. Just as friends, over the past two years, I’ve definitely spent an enormous amount of time with them, picking their brains and getting their opinions on it. Some day I’d love to make a full record with them, but their just too busy with that little band, that adorable little LCD Soundsystem.
JPF | And sound tracking movies. I saw that James did the soundtrack to the new Noah Baumbach film Greenberg.
NM | I was with Nancy from the Juan MacLean when I saw that and I was like ‘Holy shit. He’s going to be insufferable now! (laughs)”
JPF | A blessing and a curse. At least the album is done now right?
NM | Yes, now it enters what I like to call record industry purgatory. It just sits there and waits while the label figures out how they want to release it. Which is fine with us, the past year has been really intense for us. Now, we get a little time to breath and figure out how to play live.
JPF | So you want to have a live band when you tour for the album?
NM | That’s always been the goal. It’s just such an enormous undertaking. Alex and I have always wanted to wait till the last possible minute so that when we’re ready to do it we can just block out a huge chunk of time and treat it almost like making a record.
JPF | Was it a conscious effort to wait this long to do your album?
It’s definitely something that worked out in our favor. When we put out “Hold On,” it’s not like there was this plan for what the album was going to be. I think most bands, when they put out a first single, there’s already this idea of what the project is going to be. Alex and I, we had just made this song and James and Tim were stocked about it and wanted to put it out. There wasn’t a second single ready; we were just noodling on a bunch of stuff. So we took a step back to think about what the project is going to be. But at the same time, due to of the success of “Hold On,” we got asked to do all these remixes, which we’d always wanted to do. In the process of doing those, we got a lot more comfortable in the studio and started to develop a clearer aesthetic for our own stuff.
JPF | I would have been really surprised if you’d told me that there was a 15-page marketing plan ready to be put into place upon the release of “Hold On.”
NM | Alex was a personal assistant and I was working in a wine shop. There was no grand plan whatsoever.
We're pleased to announce that our affiliation with the Chicago Workgroup has afforded us the opportunity to be part of the All Systems Go! with Holy Ghost! event on 02.10.10. Catch all the details below and see you on the dance floor.
Here's two mixes to get you in the mood:
Holy Ghost! - Headphone Highlights: http://redbullmusicacademyradio.com/shows/1434/
Holy Ghost! - Trainwreck Mix: http://redbullmusicacademyradio.com/shows/714/