Nick Millhiser and Alex Frankel have the uncanny ability to write songs with heavy themes and danceable grooves.
“We've always liked stuff that can feel kind of fun and carefree from a production standpoint, but lyrically not have to be totally innocuous, like New Order, Depeche Mode or even LCD Soundsystem,” said Millhiser over the phone last Thursday.
“On the last record, the song ‘Jam for Jerry' was about a really good friend of ours who passed away,” he said. “The only way we could've tackled that song lyrically was with something that wasn't so melancholy, brooding or on the nose with the subject matter.”
The two lifelong friends make up the Brooklyn-based synthpop group Holy Ghost! The duo, which headlines 9:30 Club tonight, released their sophomore effort, “Dynamics,” in September. Their eclectic, catchy sound is indebted to many sources, many of which are represented on the album.
“We were listening to a lot of random disco and Italo-disco 12-inches, and Bill Nelson, this guitar player from the '80s,” Millhiser said. “He made a lot of weird synthpop records and this soundscape-y, instrumental synth-driven stuff that's a lot of fun, too. His guitar playing always reminded me a lot of Robert Fripp's guitar playing with [David] Bowie.”
As opposed to the densely packed sound of its 2011 self-titled debut, the band made a conscious decision to trim a lot of excess on “Dynamics.”
“Alex and I have a bit of an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to production,” he said. “We can get a little carried away with ‘let's add this thing, and this thing, and this other thing,' which is something we definitely tried to tone down on this record.”
The band broke through with its prolific remix work, having been approached by acts such as MGMT, Phoenix and Moby for re-workings of their music.
“It started out as simple as hearing something in a song and saying, ‘Wouldn't it be fun to make a version of this that we can play out when we DJ?' We're always looking for some element that we can re-contextualize,” Millhiser said.
Most recently, the group covered Drake's hit, “Hold on, We're Going Home,” transforming it into a more dance-floor-ready single.
“Doing covers is just fun,” he said. “All the pressure is off. The act of doing a cover already establishes that it's a song you like. All you have to do is record it. It's like a vacation.”
The duo got their start in high school as members of a hip-hop group called Automato. After being tossed from producer to producer, they finally met DFA Records owners James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy and released their debut on the label. Once Automato disbanded, Millhiser and Frankel stayed with DFA and received studio training from Murphy, who largely influenced their early sound.
“From a production standpoint, James has a very fixed way of doing things,” Millhiser said. “He has a drum sound, a bass sound, a guitar sound and he generally uses that same palette on most things that he does. Obviously, we borrow from that palette pretty extensively, because we really learned how to engineer from him. The way I mic a drumset is the same way James mics a drumset.”
Being signed to an independent label such as DFA affords the band many freedoms that other groups signed to major labels rarely get to experience.
“People are really shocked at how hands-off and helpful DFA is,” he said. “We don't have to play anything for reps, or have people coming down to check things out and tell us whether the record is done or not. If we wanted to do an album of fart noises and dubstep drops, they'd be OK with it. I don't know too many places where we can do whatever we want.”
If you go
Holy Ghost! performs tonight at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. N.W. in Washington. Doors open at 10 p.m. Midnight Magic and Ozker will also perform. Tickets are $20. Call 877-435-9849 or go to 930.com.