The abridged version of the story of Holy Ghost! – the one that begins in 2007 with the release of the duo's highly acclaimed, revelatory debut single "Hold On" – is less than half the story. A full retelling begins far earlier – nearly two decades before either the duo's excellent 2009 track "I Will Come Back," their critically lauded 2010 EP Static on the Wire, or the remixes they've done for a seemingly endless list of esteemed artists- MGMT, Cut Copy, Moby, Phoenix and LCD Soundsystem among them.
In fact, the unabridged Holy Ghost! story starts when 7-year-olds Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser met in their elementary school on New York City's Upper West Side. Even then, the two second graders were beginning to make music, nudged on by the "artsy" environs at Manhattan's Trevor Day School and their open-minded parents. "First grade, I started playing saxophone and I hated it, and I wanted to quit," says Nick. His mother told him he could drop the saxophone, but he would have to find another instrument. He started taking drum lessons and realized he'd found what he wanted to be when he grew up.
Alex also got an early musical start. He began lessons with jazz pianist Les Horan, a family friend, at age 6, and learned to play by ear and improvise instead of memorizing scales. By age 12, he had already started to work on his own songs. Huge fans of hip hop as they moved into their teen years, Alex and Nick, along with four other musically likeminded friends, formed Automato, a hip-hop outfit with live instrumentation and an affinity for groove-based songs.
The band of high school sophomores quickly made a name for itself, gigging all around the city and playing some of its best known, now defunct, clubs: The Spiral, Wetlands ("We played with Big Daddy Kane and his assistant kicked us out of the dressing room for smoking," Nick says), Brownies, and the legendary CBGB and Coney Island High ("I remember that gig because I had a science test the next day and I had to beg my parents to go," recalls Alex).
In 2000, Automato – mere high school seniors at this point – were signed by Capitol Records. They met with a series of well-known hip-hop producers, most of whom Nick says "didn't know what the fuck to do with a live drum set." After countless fruitless conversations, the group was introduced to James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy, two young producers who were just starting a label called DFA. It was a pairing that, though they couldn’t have known it at the time, would outlast the band itself.
Automato's DFA-produced debut was released in 2004 to light fanfare: The UK's Guardian called the release "The first essential hip hop album of the year." But the band dissolved just a year later. Alex and Nick remained friends with Murphy and Goldsworthy, even lending their talents to DFA as studio musicians on recordings by the Juan Maclean and remixes for N.E.R.D. and UNKLE. Following a brief stint when Alex left the city to attend Upstate New York's Bard College, and Nick toured with the Juan Maclean, the two again started making music together. They self-recorded some "ragtag"– Nick's word – demos, including an early, bare bones version of "Hold On" which they shared with Murphy, who liked what he heard and encouraged them to keep working. They finished the track a little over a year later. The two shared this early version with a few friends, including tastemaker Tim Sweeney, who liked it enough to play on his revered radio show, Beats in Space.
Murphy heard as-of-yet unfulfilled promise in the single, and led the duo – now called Holy Ghost!, a name taken from a song of the same name by '70s soul masters the Bar- Kays – back into the studio, where the LCD frontman produced and remixed the single. "Hold On,” released on DFA Records in 2007, gained the attention of some of the most esteemed names in dance music, including A-Trak and The Loft’s Dave Mancuso. Alex and Nick found themselves traveling the world as in-demand DJs, and by the end of 2008, they had remixed songs – by request – for Moby, MGMT and Cut Copy.
In 2009, the two were approached by Green Label Sound – a new, Mountain Dew-backed label that had put out singles by The Cool Kids and Matt & Kim – and invited to put out a follow-up release on the nascent label. Alex and Nick had already recorded "I Will Come Back," an interstellar electronic pop jam featuring the cherubic vocals of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, old school synths and a drum fill homage to New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle." "We were apprehensive about doing anything with a corporate entity for our second single," says Alex, but the DFA/Green Label release turned out to be a perfect collaboration, and the timing couldn't have been more fortuitous. Holy Ghost! had just finished shooting the song's accompanying music video, a scene-by-scene remake of New Order's 1983 "Confusion" with Arthur Baker reprising his role as a record producer. Like "Hold On" before it, "I Will Come Back" quickly became a dance floor favorite.
As the year wound to a close, the duo set to work on a batch of songs that would be a heftier offering than a lone single. The resulting four-song EP, Static on the Wire, which included "I Will Come Back" along with three new singles, was released on DFA in May 2010. The highly anticipated collection of songs, which featured appearances by Juan Maclean and Caroline Polachek of Chairlift, showcased the depth of Holy Ghost!'s love for dance music across genres and again displayed their ability blend the old – from ’70s and ‘80s funk-inflected R&B to glittery disco to synthy new wave – and the new. Just ahead of the EP's release, Holy Ghost! released reworked versions of Phoenix's "Lisztomania" and LCD Soundsystem's "Drunk Girls." Both remixes and the EP earned high marks from critics and audiences, with the Washington Post noting that the duo made music that "has a sincerity that is as distinctive as it is cleanly rendered."
And yet playing live shows remained unconquered territory. So when longtime friend James Murphy offered Nick and Alex the chance to open for LCD Soundsystem on tour in summer 2010, Alex and Nick began the challenging process of translating the sounds they had created in the studio into music to be played live onstage. "All the sounds on the record are on old analog synthesizers that just don't travel well,” Alex says. “So, we had to find the best new analog stuff. It was a shitload of work,” but they somehow pulled it off. The band started practicing in April and, after a month of near constant rehearsing, began touring with LCD Soundsystem in May. They were nearly seasoned veterans by the time they set out again, late in the summer, with Chromeo.
Holy Ghost! Released their self-titled debut album on April 4, 2011 through DFA Records. The 10-song LP included several notable guest appearances such as Luke Jenner from The Rapture, Chris Glover from Penguin Prison and Michael McDonald. It consisted of riveting songs filled with analog warmth and wonderful, driving, catchy rhythms and was met with positive reception from dance music fans. Following the release of the album the band embarked on a US tour headlined by popular Australian dance act, Cut Copy. The tour marked the band’s very first completely live show, which was widely successful and led them to headline their own tour in the fall of 2011.
In October 2012, Holy Ghost! Broke their yearlong silence with a new single, “It Gets Dark.” The highly anticipated song was named Best New Track by Pitchfork, hit #1 on Hype Machine, #1 on Elbo.ws and broke into the Top 10 of the iTunes Electronic Chart upon its release. Holy Ghost! Is currently in the studio working on their sophomore album, which is set for release in 2013.
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