It’s 10 a.m. in Sydney, Australia, when Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser, better known as Holy Ghost!, jump on an overseas call. They’ve been on the road for about a week, DJ’ing classic house and disco tracks along with a smattering of new material from their labelmates at DFA. It’s the kind of performance that can catch fans of Holy Ghost!’s original synthpop output by surprise.
“I think we’re a confusing band for a casual listener,” says Frankel. Sometimes, people will request Holy Ghost’s original material, like the single “Wait and See,” from their self-titled 2011 debut. But playing their own hits isn’t something the duo do in the booth. “Those songs just flat out don’t work in our DJ sets,” Frankel says.
There are two sides to Holy Ghost. As musicians and songwriters, Frankel and Millhiser make catchy tracks that essentially follow conventional pop structures. As DJs, though, they want the audience to join them for the long haul of an all-night party. “I think when people come out to see us DJ, they’re expecting more of a concert and less of a traditional DJ set,” says Frankel. For those who want a concert, Holy Ghost are playing live on March 2 as part of the Armory Party hosted by MoMA.
Holy Ghost are also prolific remixers, turning pop hits like Phoenix’s “Lisztomania” or Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally” into Eighties-style disco pulsing on a midnight dance floor. And while that experience influences their own music, it’s not immediately apparent in their latest single, “Crime Cutz,” which is just over seven minutes long. Despite the length, it’s full of tension, an effect that would be lost in a DJ set, where the music bleeds together to become one behemoth piece.
“Crime Cutz” precedes the band’s forthcoming April EP of the same name, a four-track collection of retro-modern jams. For Frankel and Millhiser, who released their last full-length in 2013, finishing this batch of songs was a challenge. Holy Ghost were touring constantly, which made getting into the flow of writing music difficult, says Millhiser. “When you’re trying to look at the bigger picture, sometimes it’s hard to see exactly what you’re trying to say or what you’re trying to achieve.”
“It’s very subjective,” Frankel says of the duo’s process, which even after years together includes disagreement. “I might think it hooks and Nick might not. It’s not in an antagonistic way or anything, it’s just a matter of getting on the same page.” Sometimes they’ll start songs separately at their respective home studios, though just as often they’ll build a track together from scratch. Frankel tends to work on the vocals himself ahead of time, with Millhiser playing live drums that are later cut up to fit the tracks.
They had parts of the new pieces laying around for a while, but it wasn’t until last fall that they were able to nail the vocals. That sparked something of a domino effect for this batch of music. “That’s often how it works for us,” says Millhiser. “We’ll sort of have a bunch of things in an unfinished state, and once we’re able to finish the first thing, we sort of get some momentum and then bust through it.”
Frankel adds that, typically, this would mark the middle of the album-making process for Holy Ghost. “It’s always slow to start and once it gets going, it’s usually relatively painless,” he says. Still, they decided to stop at four songs this time around so that they could get the music out into the world sooner. A full-length should arrive this year. Until then, they’ll keep dance floors moving from behind the decks.
Holy Ghost! play live tonight at the Armory Party.