Holy Ghost!: Working 'Dynamics' and a Steady Career

Holy Ghost!
Harry McNally

A few weeks back, the audience at the Henry Fonda Theater in Los Angeles enthusiastically sang “Happy Birthday” to Holy Ghost! frontman Alex Frankel. It was a victorious moment right before the encore of a show that had the typically too-cool-for-school LA crowd dancing and singing along for nearly the entire set.

Since the release of their sophomore album, “Dynamics,” in September, Holy Ghost!, who played Manhattan’s Terminal 5 last night (Oct. 31) for a hometown Halloween show after taping an appearance for David Letterman, have been working hard to transition from buzzed-about electro band du jour to dance rock mainstay. But such transitions aren’t easy, and no one is more aware of the challenges before them than Holy Ghost! themselves.

Just before the launch of their Dynamics tour, the Brooklyn-based duo parked themselves inside a sushi joint on Hollywood Boulevard after an arduous day of rehearsals for, amongst other things, appearances on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic.” Playing with them that week are Nancy Whang of LCD Soundsystem and Tyler Blake of Classixx, though they deny that this is basis of an electro supergroup.

“A who’s who of who cares,” jokes Holy Ghost!’s Nick Millhiser. “Nancy sings a song on the record – ” “And Tyler is a really good piano player,” Frankel finishes.

“Dynamics” is the second full-length release from Holy Ghost! but in many ways it’s their first proper album. The band’s 2011 eponymous predecessor compiled a selection of previously released tracks, including their breakout single “Hold On,” along with some new material, recorded over a period of four years. During that time, they became mainstays on the hipster party circuit, playing brand-sponsored launch events, after parties, and other non-regular gigs, remixing indie darlings and collaborating with peers like Friendly Fires and The Juan Maclean.

As part of James Murphy’s influential DFA Records, they were instantly networked to and categorized with a generation of synthpop and nu-disco artists that oozed coolness and appealed to an audience beyond the urban scenester crowds from which they came. Still, their cultural currency alone hasn’t exactly lead to rock star resources.

“In terms of making the record, not that much as changed,” Millhiser says. “We’re still on the same label, which is broke as fuck.”

Both agree that being broke is likely a point of pride for DFA, though they acknowledge the expansion of their touring band is a definite improvement.

“We’re still not making any money,” Frankel admits. “But we have enough resources that we can bring a bigger band and crew out and play the songs like we always wanted to.”

“The only pressure that was there was self-imposed,” Millhiser affirms of the “Dynamics” recording process. “I can’t imagine the pressure that even a band like MGMT must feel. They have to deliver a record by a certain time; there are shareholders who are looking at this band to release a record so they meet some expectations. This huge company has based their projected quarterlies on them. I read an interview with Chris Martin once where he was like you literally can’t imagine the pressure.”

“That’s the blessing of being not nearly as successful as Coldplay,” he jokes.

Pressures aside, the sessions for “Dynamics” nurtured the duo’s desire to create a more enduring product and one that drew from their musical sources in unexpected ways.

“As soon as the last record was done we knew we wanted to make the next one bolder, brighter; paint in brighter, bolder colors,” Frankel explains. “We were cramming a lot of ideas in the last record. This one we really pushed ourselves to keep things more minimal.”

“We come from thinking in a very traditional pop sort of way and we pushed ourselves into thinking like ‘maybe there is no pre-chorus and maybe there is no chord change,’” Millhiser adds. “There’s nothing worse than being in a club and there’s [a track with] a massive chorus. We never play those records out.”

Their efforts in upending songwriting conventions are reflected in the lyrics of the album’s lead single, “Dumb Disco Ideas”–an eight-minute jam that recalls the free-flowing raw energy of LCD Soundstyem. Elsewhere on “Dynamics” the ‘80s influences the group frequently cites show more prominently, thanks in part to their frequent use of a DX7, Yamaha’s iconic synthesizer.

“It was a conscious decision to pay closer attention to the music that we listen to, Frankel says of his and Millhiser’s off-beat ‘80s influences. “We listened to a lot of Tangerine Dream, Bowie, Fleetwood Mac. I went through a period where I listened to [Bowie album] “Station to Station” a lot. “Mirage” and “Tango in the Night”–later Fleetwood Mac.”

While Frankel says “Don’t Look Down” is overtly Fleetwood Mac-inspired, the bassline on “I Wanna Be Your Hand” sounds as if John McVie played it himself. Elsewhere, as on “It Must Be The Weather,” the group conjures Peter Gabriel’s spirit of mortality and Talking Heads’ esotericism while “Dance A Little Closer” would be what Hall & Oates would sound like if they were friends with James Murphy.

The presence of Murphy looms large over the band. He’s not only their label boss, but also a source of inspiration. While Murphy is a scruffy everyman, the post-punk embodiment of the anti-DJ, Frankel and Millhiser, both 31, are handsome and well dressed, stylish and cool. Murphy viewed his own success as an aberration to his own counter-culture values, but Holy Ghost! makes no apologies for their ambition. Despite these differences, they look at Murphy’s career, one that didn’t take off until the LCD Soundsystem frontman was in his mid 30s, as a model for their own.

Yet the very thing that landed Holy Ghost! a DFA deal–the success of early singles within the bloghouse DJ scene–also threatened to pigeonhole the band as a one synth pony. Part of transcending that early profile includes focusing on their live shows. On their “Dynamics” tour, the group flexes a more muscular sound on older material–to varying degrees of success. “Say My Name” is crushed under the weight of itself, but “Do It Again” throbs with powerful excitement.

Overall, their show reflects the confidence both Frankel and Millhiser have in their craft as musicians, and the work they have done as a band to develop a performance worthy of their studio achievements and their critical acclaim – precisely the space a band on their second album should be in.

“Internally, the growth of this band has been so wonderfully steady,” Millhiser explains. “We weren’t MGMT, we weren’t the Strokes, we weren’t a couple of dudes in a room and then all the sudden being asked to play KCRW. It’s all happened very slowly. Nothing that’s happened to us in the past four or five years has ever felt like a huge shift. Then, looking back, it’s like, ‘Shit, we closed FYF Fest.’”

That hallowed headlining spot before a crowd of about 20,000 at the west coast indie festival this past August, according to the band, stemmed from FYF Fest founder Sean Carlson seeing the band play to a similarly large crowd in Barcelona and believing (rightly) that they were capable of handling an audience of that size.

After a year and a half in the studio making “Dynamics,” Holy Ghost! wraps up their headlining tour next week, before a brief hiatus and then a presumed return to the road in 2014, including North American and European festival season. While the rigors of a rock band lifestyle can distort some artists’ realities, Frankel and Millhiser take a broad perspective.

“Any friends that we’ve had who have been successful, like LCD, it happened very slowly for them, it happened later in life,” Millhiser says. “And even then you still got to work.”