Holy Ghost! Takes Us To the Disco on 'Work', Their First Album in 6 Years: Interview

Harry McNally
Holy Ghost

Back when Nick Millhiser and Alex Frankel were burgeoning beat-makers, the New York natives spent a lot of time digging through crates of cheap vinyl. Eventually they became the indie dance duo Holy Ghost! and their pastime became a musical education that ultimately led them to disco.

Today (June 21), Holy Ghost! releases Work, a disco-inflected, synthpop odyssey and the duo’s first full-length LP since 2013. While long associated with DFA, this time around the group is dropping the album via West End Records. Work is the first full-length release of new music to be released on West End in more than 30 years.

West End Records was crucial in the development of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s disco sound that would go on to inform house music. Founded by Mel Cheren, who also helped launch the legendary New York club Paradise Garage, the label's iconic releases include the 1980 single "Is It All Over My Face," from Arthur Russell's project Loose Joints, and Taana Gardner's 1981 jam "Heartbeat," which had been remixed by pioneering DJ Larry Levan that same year.

West End's history was also marked by activism and tragedy. In the early years of the AIDS crisis, Cheren, who died in 2007, lent space in his building to the Gay Men's Health Crisis, an organization helping those with the disease. Cheren himself later founded the charity 24 Hours to Life and was a supporter of sexual health organization LIfeBeat.

To honor the label's history, Holy Ghost! Is donating a portion of the proceeds from 12" vinyl sales of "Anxious," the first single off Work released in late 2018, to Gay Men's Health Crisis and LifeBeat. On June 27, they headline LIFEbeat's NYC Pride Week benefit at the Ace Hotel. Here, Millhiser and Frankel talk about Work, and the thrill of releasing it via an iconic label.

Billboard Dance: Tell me how you ended up releasing the new album via West End Records.
Millhiser: It came about very easily. We knew we weren't going to do it with DFA. The album was moving along. We wanted to get a jump. It had been so long since we were in a position where we needed to figure out how we're going to release it because we had been at DFA for so long. It was easy to move quickly and impulsively at DFA.

[We were considering] the dream label to see a Holy Ghost record on [and came up with] West End. West End is owned by BMG. We had a friend at BMG. We basically asked, ‘what are you guys doing with West End? Would you be interested in perhaps putting out a Holy Ghost! record?’ Basically, right away, they said yes.

We did the single "Anxious," and it was really easy. We really liked working with them there. Obviously, it’s a label and a catalog with an amazing history and one we feel really attached to.

What was it about West End's legacy that you connected with?
Millhiser: Honestly, I think Alex and I can both trace our interest in disco directly back to West End. Much of the earliest music he and I were making, with friends of ours, was working on samplers and making beats. We both got into digging for records at a pretty early age. Not in any sort of collector-y way. It was the '90s. The most affordable way to find samples was cheap records.

The dollar bins.
Millhiser: Yeah, the dollar bins. And the dollar bins were mostly classical and disco records. Much like a lot of music that I found through looking for samples-- whether it's David Axelrod or R&B/soul stuff that wasn't on my radar at the time-- just by the process of buying a record for a drum break or a cool, little string stab or something, these records are in your house and you're listening to them and you grow to like them. Some of the earliest disco records that I remember really, sincerely liking, beyond them being tools for sampling, were West End things, particularly Loose Joints.

Tell me a little bit about donating proceeds from "Anxious" to Gay Men's Health Crisis?
Millhiser: It goes back to West End. Another interesting part of West End is that, when you start looking into the history of that label, you can't tell the story of that label without getting into the story and the history of Paradise Garage. The main guy who founded West End, Mel Cheren, was very much involved. He was the money behind the Paradise Garage and one of the spirit animals of the Paradise Garage in many ways. He was also really a man on the ground at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis.

[In terms of “Anxious”], it felt like you couldn’t do something on West End without also having some charitable element as well. West End didn't necessarily have an intrinsically charitable element, but the guy who ran it for the longest time, that was such a big part of his life. It's not lost on us that two straight white guys are putting out music on this historically largely gay, largely people of color label. It felt like that had to be a part of it in some way.

It was this music that was part of the LGBTQ movement of the time and is tied to the AIDS crisis. There are a lot of people who made this music who died, sadly, really young. At the same time, a lot of the music was derided for super homophobic and racist reasons.
Millhiser: Like so many things, disco, it was co-opted by straight, white people and I think the memory of it is that it's this--

Frankel: Hedonistic

Millhiser: Hedonistic, crass, corny thing as evidenced by, people think, Saturday Night Fever. Tacky macho dudes from Bay Ridge. Sure, that may be what it became at the very end, or that was an element of what it became at the very end, but the history of it is much richer and sincerely complicated and fascinating. As you said, you really can't talk about West End, any disco music, without talking about the beginning of the AIDS crisis. It's a pretty remarkable moment in history that all of these things came together.

Frankel: It's the antithesis of Studio 54 and that culture. That's what West End and Paradise Garage was, outsider music.