A great song is one that you can slip on at a low-key party without the resident music snob having a spaz attack. Enjoying it is instinctual, on some level. So it’s no big surprise that one of the most lauded electronic albums of the year — Holy Ghost!’s Dynamic — was produced by two guys who’ve been making music together for 20 years and basically communicate telepathically. I tried to bust through their force field of silence a few weeks ago at Dune Studios in SoHo, just before the duo set out on their North American tour.
Coming of age under the watchful eye of DFA Records, native New Yorkers Nick Millhiser and Alex Frankel have been making beats together since the ‘90s – first as hip-hop group Automato. Their latest effort blends synth-pop singles with romantic mid-tempo riffs — perfect for both dancing in a basement with sweaty strangers and streaming through your headphones as you endure your commute. It's a combination any of their electro-predecessors would be proud of. (If you need proof of that, they toured with New Order this summer. And of course, there’s the whole James-Murphy-as-Godfather thing.)
As we stood under hot set lights while the group prepared for a photo shoot, I asked Alex about the transition from hip-hop to dance. (Nick, whose coif has lived to see many lengths and styles, was in the process of getting yet another game-changing haircut.) “We started Automato when we were in high school together. We recorded an album with DFA, which at the time was James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy. Because of them, we started getting into dance music, old disco, and house. When the hip-hop group broke up, we started naturally tipping our sound toward dance,” Alex said.
As I continued interviewing Alex, I noticed that it doesn’t make much difference who’s talking — he and Nick have been collaborating for so long that I’m convinced they communicate through a sophisticated series of head nods and eye blinks. I prodded, asking how they know when they’ve reached the ideal sound. Nick responded, “You just kind of know. I can’t think of a single time when one of us thought something was done and the other didn’t. I think we both have the same idea of what finished vs. not finished sounds like.” See? Told you.
Their entire workflow is both personal and intuitive: they record in a studio they built together in Nick’s house, Alex both writes and sings the songs (while giving Nick veto power on the lyrical front), and live shows are the rewarding culmination of the recording process. “Performing is kind of the payoff once a record has wrapped…when we’re performing, we’re only playing one role. Nick’s on bass and I’m singing and playing my guitar. It’s much different from recording in a studio. Once the show starts, it’s not like being in the studio where you can say, ‘let’s do that again.’”
Performing also plays catalyst to their next album, according to Nick. “Once I’m on tour long enough, I’m just like, ‘I am so sick of tour songs!’ I mean, I’m half-joking, but the second you play these songs live, I think you see holes in the batch of songs and it’s like, ‘Oh man, I wish we had a song to fill this space,’ or, ‘I wish we had another song that was more like that one we played live that works really well.’ We’ve been playing a few new songs, but we’ve also been playing a lot of festivals this summer and it’s a lot different than doing your own shows.”
Hence their upcoming tour, the perfect opportunity to figure out what holes they’ll fill on their next album. The conversation then turned to the band’s former tour-mate and member emeritus, James Murphy, and how he’s influenced Holy Ghost! as a mentor and an artist. “We were — and are — fans and friends [of LCD Soundsystem], and we take a lot of direction from what they’ve done with their careers. They’ve had a lot of fun with it, and James has stuck to his guns when painting in bold colors and broad strokes, which is what we tried to do on this album. His choices aren’t always safe, so we try to follow that… and we try to keep it fun,” Alex told me. Then he paused to film an Instagram video of Nick, mid-answer and mid-haircut. The video clip ends just before I say, “Wait...are you filming this?” Oh, the irony.
Stephanie Georgopulos is the Entertainment Content Producer at Gawker Media.
All photos by Michael Williams.