Disco beat drops. Deep toms reverberate like the bridge of a Phil Collins song. Synth distortion and glitchy melodies set a tone where 80’s dance music meets the electronic production power of a digital era. Holy Ghost!, a synthpop duo from NYC, finds harmonious balance between Chromeo-esque funkstyle jams and Duran Duran-style pop to create dance anthems that could shine in even the darkest parts of a Donny Darko soundtrack.
Nick Millhiser and Alex Frankel grew up together on the Upper West Side of New York City, and have evolved together from their early days as wannabe hip-hop artists to a major influence in what we’ll call “modern indie funktronica.” They debuted in 2007 with the single, “Hold On,” but didn’t release their full “Holy Ghost!” album until 2011.
“Wait and See” was one of their biggest hits from the release, an upbeat lament about the pains in the waiting game called love. Two years later they released their second album, “Dynamics,” featuring “Dumb Disco Ideas” as the flagship song of the release. With only seven shows scheduled this year -- Cincinnati is their only stop in the Midwest, and their second-to-last stop on the tour -- Holy Ghost! caught up with us to talk puppies, hip-hop, musical evolution and the magic of music festivals.
CM: What’s new with Holy Ghost? How have you been spending your time this summer?
HG: Well, we have a five-week-old puppy pitbull, that’s pretty cool. We’re thinking about naming her Rudy, but Cookie and Doris are definitely contenders. Umm… we just finished a remix for Katie Perry -- “Birthday” -- so we’re excited about that. We also played Austin City Limits for the first time last month, and that was an awesome experience. But we don’t really have anything too crazy scheduled through summer.
CM: You guys have known each other since second grade. When did you know you had something big to run with? How have grown together?
HG: We’re still not sure that we know that now (laughs). At the beginning, our skillsets were less defined, but we’ve definitely grown more over time. In high school, we were making music with a bigger band… Alex and I realized that we saw more eye to eye. When the band broke up, we kept working together, and you know, the nature of a partnership is that if it’s good, you both grow in one distinct but opposing directions. Alex writes songs, sings, plays the keyboard. I write, but am more the technical, engineering production. It happened naturally, delegating responsibility. Alex wasn’t a singer, but it definitely wasn’t gonna be me (laughs)... and he’s grown to be a very strong singer, so it just happens.
CM: Since you dudes have a lot of musical history together, how did you shape your sound to be what it is now? What were your biggest influences?
HG: We’re kids from New York, so we were into a lot of b-boy stuff, rap growing up -- Biggie, Mos Def, The Roots, Talib, Black Star, Da Ruckus, DJ Shadow. We were into disco too, Excitement and Tangerine Dream. We were just rappers, digging through records, looking for samples to use as beats, making hip-hop… and when you’re trying to find samples, you gotta be a chameleon musically to find a bit that’s hot. You find yourself attached to sounds, producers… back then it was Windham Hill Records, Michael Jackson for us. It’s the same roots as R&B and hip-hop in the 90s. We’d meet up, put something together… 90 percent of it was not good, but there was always that 10 percent we got excited about.
CM: Seaking of your roots, you guys hail from NYC. Their music scene is quite different from ours -- how does a show at home differ from shows elsewhere?
HG: A show is a show, anywhere we go. New York City has a tendency to play the wall… the vibe can be a bit judgemental, so fun is definitely hard-earned. You’re up there doing the thing that everybody has purchased tickets for, but 10 to 15 minutes into the set, the crowd is like, “Ok. Prove it to me.” Once you win them over, it’s great. Everywhere else, we end up having great shows in the places least expected. In markets where our style doesn’t come through much, it’s always an awesome time… we played a county fair that no one even knew about, and it was an awesome experience, too. You just never really know.
CM: Can’t say that I’ve ever been to an electronic jam show at a county fair. How is playing festival atmosphere different from playing a venue?
HG: It’s hell. Like war. It’s a mini war, like storming Normandy… everyone is just “Go! Go! Go!” (laughs) Going over the dunes, we have lots of gear and refuse to scale down. We’re five to six musicians on stage, with lots of equipment and no musical track. At a festival. what makes it fun for the audience is to see all the bands in one day. That’s a lot different than playing a venue, when bands can show up at two in the afternoon, set up, sound check, and get comfortable.
Festivals can be frustrating for bands with a lot of stuff, but really rewarding if it runs smoothly. The difference is in playing to a group of fans at 700 to 1,000 capacity that already know you, versus a big crowd where 20 percent may not know you. At festivals, people will check out anyone because they bought the ticket for X amount and it’s like, “Ok let’s just go see Y.” We’re playing to a festival crowd that’s been listening to music all day, so it’s our job to convert them into fans. If everything goes right with the “hurry up, go,” it can be really exciting.
CM: As you grow and play bigger venues with bigger crowds, is there anything in particular you really want to make happen as a band?
HG: When we started, we’re kind of embarrassed to say that the goals were pretty narrow, expectations were low. At first, it was just to release a 12 inch. We had given up on the idea of working, living and playing music, so if we get to keep doing that we’ll be pretty psyched. So I guess it’s be careerist musicians. Playing shows like Coachella and Terminal 5 was incredible, so we definitely want to do more things like that. And as we keep growing, we have to keep redefining our music, ourselves as musicians, so we’re always curious to see where that goes.
CM: Bunbury should be another awesome experience for you guys then. What can we expect from your show?
HG: It’s a full live band, not a DJ set. It’s not two dudes telling you to put your hands up. It’s a show, like Chromeo or new-order LCD Soundsystem, so hopefully people will be excited to see a live band not the way they usually see it. It’s more exciting for us, the percussion is live. It’s definitely something to enjoy on a different planar level.
Holy Ghost! closes out the River Stage at Bunbury on Sunday night at 8pm. Dance party on the stairs of the river, sunset backdrop before Flaming Lips melt face? Yes please. Grab your tickets here while you still can.