Synthpop duo Holy Ghost! not haunted by convention

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Ashley Chen/Senior Staff

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Although many electronic artists perform onstage with just their laptops, New York synthpop duo Holy Ghost! chooses to perform using a live band to recreate its sounds. Originally in hip-hop, Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser switched over to disco electro-dance and released their first EP as Holy Ghost! in 2010.

Fresh off of their performance at the Treasure Island Music Festival on Saturday, the duo spoke to The Daily Californian on their transition from hip-hop to disco, DIY synthesizers and just how bad the latest Drake album is.

The Daily Cal: Coming from a hip-hop background, what got you to switch over to electronica?

Alex Frankel: We used to search through dollar bins for old vinyls to sample, and a lot of it was old disco that we got into when we were teenagers. James and Tim from DFA Records encouraged us down that path and also turned us on to a bunch of other stuff.

DC: Do you have any particular influences from the disco era?

Nick Millhiser: Stuff like CHIC, Tata Vega, BT Express, all the super cheap stuff that people were throwing away.

DC: You had mentioned before that you see your latest album as setting the tone for evolution down the road. Could you elaborate on that?

NM: We feel that the second record — for any band — establishes whether or not you’re the sort of band that makes the same record over and over again or the sort of band that makes a different record every time. I think we’ve always wanted to keep the option to be the latter rather than the former, just because we get bored so quickly (laughs).

DC: You guys normally perform with a live band, as opposed to just performing with your laptops alone. What made you guys want to utilize the live band?

AF: Ambitions to be very poor (laughs). Nick and I both come from backgrounds of playing in bands growing up, and I don’t think either of us really know how to be on a stage without stuff to do. We’re not that old, but maybe we’re just also from a generation where track and playback was the ultimate faux pas and just not something you would aspire to do.

We never aspired to be on a stage at a festival — we aspired to be on a stage at a festival playing music, and standing in front of your laptop is not playing music. And frankly, we’re not good looking enough or charismatic and don’t have good enough visuals to pull it off, so we’re kind of stuck with our instruments.

DC: Can you talk about some of the equipment you do use?

AF: Onstage and at home we have these modular synths that Nick built that we use both to run audio through as gates, filters and effects and also to produce sequences … Other than that, it’s just a bunch of cool analog synths stuff like Dave Smith, Prophet 8, Juno and some Moog stuff, those kind of things.

DC: So Nick, how did you get into building your own synths?

NM: Now it’s more a mini-industry in itself, but when I first got interested in modular synth stuff, there weren’t that many companies that did it. I build very specific, utilitarian pieces that we need, but most of the stuff that we use are kits that you buy from other manufacturers and assemble to your need.

AF: It was kind of cheaper in the beginning when he made the first one; it was like a pay-as-you-go sort of thing.

NM: With the nature of stuff that’s modular, you’re only buying and taking the elements of production that you need, so I learned some basic things that were suited for playing certain parts of songs. What we toy with live is very much about being able to make a specific set of sounds onstage.

DC: Do you guys have plans to integrate hip-hop into future records, or is that a part of you that is being left in the past?

AF: Never say never (laughs). We definitely like to keep our genres separate. Also, neither of us can rap.

NM: We’re waiting for post-disco rap to come back, like when Daft Punk makes a Sugarhill Gang record. Burn! (laughs).

DC: What are some hip-hop artists you guys are listening to right now?

AF: I listened to the Drake record. It was …

NM: I read the Ghostface (of Big Ghost Chronicles) review of the Drake record. I haven’t heard the record, but I’m guessing the review is better than the record.

AF: (laughs) Yeah, it was OK. I like Danny Brown. He’s really refreshing and doesn’t sound overthought and like an artist in his prime.

NM: Killer Mike and EL-P, as well.

AF: Yeah, we’re not that old. We still get down with the kids (laughs).

DC: What are your favorite tracks from “Dynamics,” and why do you like them?

AF: “Dumb Disco Ideas” and “Okay” have been really fun to play live, so right now it’s those two. They’re simple, drums and bass on the verses, and don’t rely on too many textures. Some of our recordings are very layered, and that’s much harder to translate to a live situation. Since you’re playing outdoors, you’re not going to hear the second pad come in on the second verse.

NM: The core of “Dumb Disco Ideas” you could more or less play on any shitty drum set and bass guitar, so any songs like that are always easy to translate into our live show.

AF: That’s how we’re writing our next record — nothing but a shitty drum set and a bass (laughs).

Ian Birnam covers music. Contact him at [email protected]

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