Holy Ghost! Talk Competing with My Bloody Valentine, Recording New Album ‘Dynamics’ + More
New York City duo Holy Ghost! had a definite goal with the release of their second album, 'Dynamics,' out this week. "I wanted to make a record that would allow for us to make more records," singer Alex Frankel says during a recent conversation with Diffuser.fm. "I think of the term 'sophomore slump' and that's been in my head for 15 years, and I'm not even talking commercially. I wanted to make something that would allow us to work fluidly into the third record, that we would be proud enough of to keep going." In the lead-up to the album, Holy Ghost! started playing bigger venues and stepping up their production values, as well as adding four onstage members. We caught up with Frankel and partner Nick Millhiser to discuss playing opposite My Bloody Valentine, the evolution of their childhood friendship and how they make a partnership work in studio.
You guys just played FYF Fest in L.A., and you essentially got to close out the festival, but you had to go up against My Bloody Valentine. Did you embrace the challenge, or were you feeling like you got the shaft?
Nick Millhiser: I think leading up to it we were a little worried, mostly because I wanted to watch My Bloody Valentine. But it went great; it was one of the better shows we played all summer. It didn't feel like we got the shaft at all. We had a really good crowd.
Were you able to hear MBV from where you were?
Alex Frankel: Not really, but people were saying that between our songs they could hear them pretty loudly.
I also caught you guys at the Observatory in Santa Ana when you first launched the touring campaign for this new album. The amount of instruments you have on stage is truly impressive. How has the process been from expanding from a duo to a six-piece band playing everything live on stage together?
NM: It's always been the goal. [It's] just when we started, we didn't have the resources to do it. And never mind the equipment -- just flying eight people around the world can be pretty expensive. So, in the beginning, it just wasn't possible. But every chance we got to add a person to the band or crew, we did. When the offers went from $500 to $700, we hired a guy. First we got a FOH [front of house] guy, and then we got Sam [Jones] to play keys. It happened slowly, but this is always how we've imagined it.
On your new album, did you set out for a bigger, more expansive sound to go with the range of the live show?
NM: Maybe not in those terms, but the goal was to have more dynamics, and that's where the name of the record came from. We also wanted to be more direct, straight-forward and clearly presented. So, maybe another way to say more expansive would be the radical shifts between big and small, quiet and loud.
AF: We wanted a greater diversity. One of the rules we lived and died by on this record was to let things be pop songs if a song feels like it will be a good pop song. And that is like 'Changing of the Guard.' Or, if it feels like it will be a weird, Bruce Hornsby outtake that never got edited properly, well then we'll make it really Bruce Hornsby. Or, like, with 'Dumb Disco Ideas,' we wanted to do a long bizarre thing like our remixes, so let's literally make it as long as we want.
Those are the things we really love in records. You listen to an old record and think, "How weird is song nine?" You get excited about the weirdest, most particular things and can tell whoever was in the studio, they didn't have a major label A&R person looking over their shoulder. So yeah, we wanted to get weird when it should be weird and poppy when it should be poppy.
Having known each other since you were kids, how has your songwriting relationship changed over time?
NM: Probably not all that much. Like, you certainly get better over time, but...
AF: I think we've both gotten better in our individual roles. Like, I wasn't a songwriter when we started. When we first we playing together at 15, I definitely had not written a full song. I just wasn't that kind of kid. That was a later thing for me than many others. And Nick was more of a drummer doing home production. Nick actually played more piano an keyboard parts on this record, where before I played all the synths and the Wurlitzer.
NM: I think the key in any good partnership that has any longevity, you evolve to compliment each other's shortcomings. I never had any ambitions of becoming a singer. It works for our benefit that I don't want to be a singer. Alex can focus on that, and he doesn't need to worry about obsessing over the drum sounds. We both have evolved to recognize that even though we don't have fixed roles, we do sort of have fixed roles, but neither of us could probably articulate what those roles are. You'd have to see us in the studio.
AF: And, I think it is a matter of where we both have the same end goal at this point, and it is a matter of us getting there, it is a natural thing. Like, in basketball, the goal is to win, and depending on what the defense is giving you, one day the point guard will have a big game, the next the power forward will have a big game. So, we have the same goal, to make something that we are extremely proud of and we don't really compromise. There is no song on this record where we settled. There might be songs that each of us is more fond of, but everything on the album, we wanted to make sure we were both really proud of.
I think we got there. But a big part of it was, like, saying at home, all I'm going to have is a microphone. I love drum sounds as much as the next guy, and in another capacity, in another band, maybe I could be really interested in it. But the labor needed to be divided, and we just let it sort of happen naturally.
NM: Obviously, there are other partnerships where it doesn't need to be evenly divided, but that's where bands fight all the time, or they have like two songwriters competing on the record.
In the studio, are there moments where one of you is not excited about something the other is and you sort of have to just nip it in the bud?
AF: Yeah, there are many versions of songs. Like, it's not like we are in the studio for months. We work largely at Nick's house or at my house. So, it's almost like having a day job in a sense, where I go over to Nick's house and we work for a few hours and some days end without us even saying goodbye. One of us just walks out the door, convinced we're screwing up, it's not right, it's not what it should be. But then, the next day you come back and hear it through someone else's ear or something. Rarely does it come to a situation like, "No, that guitar should not be on it; that part is not right." But if someone does say that, usually the other will acquiesce because they feel so strongly.
NM: And the process of making a song is a process. There is rarely a song that one of us writes or starts and the other is like, "Oh, it's done." Working through it is the process.
It sounds like a mature relationship, which probably stems from how long you've known each other and been a band, despite this being your second Holy Ghost! album. You aren't kids anymore. Do you guys think that has helped you through this second album and as a band?
AF: Yes. Trial and error goes down a bit, and we learn the language to get what we want from each other and how to get it.