Holy Ghost!'s Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser were born around the time when disco was supposedly "dying," but Millhiser—along with many other musicians and DJs with the studio time and dubplates to prove it—maintains that the genre never perished.
Disco has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in recent years and has also made a remarkable critical comeback—going from one of the most scorned musical styles ever to a subject for doctoral theses, documentaries, and heavily annotated compilations by revered labels like Soul Jazz and Strut. But Millhiser points out that "parties like Body & Soul were going on way before us or DFA ever existed, and dudes like Daniel Wang, Morgan Geist, and Rub-n-Tug were playing all the records I'm just discovering now [that came out] when I was in high school shopping for Mos Def 12-inches at Fat Beats.
"Going back even further," he continues, "there was Harvey in the UK. So it seems a little unfair to those guys to call what's happening 'a resurgence.' But as far as its more recent, more mainstream appeal, I don't find it surprising at all. At its core, disco is about good songwriting and adventurous production that people can dance to. It's shocking to me that it ever went out of fashion."
Millhiser makes a sound point. All of those individuals' dedication and drive has enabled us to reach a point in the second decade of the 21st century where indie rockers proudly proclaim their love for disco on the internet, for all posterity. Steve Dahl (Google "Disco Demolition Night") must be shitting his Depends.
While Holy Ghost!'s principals are eyeballs deep in the disco world now, it wasn't always so. As high-school students, Frankel and Millhiser spent the first half of the '00s in Automato, a rough and raw live New York hiphop group that released a bruisingly head-nodding, conscious-minded self-titled full-length in 2003. One critic described it being "as groovy as a Curtis Mayfield sperm bank," and he wasn't hyperbolizing.
The album was produced by a couple of chancers of whom you may have heard: James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy, aka the Death From Above (DFA) brothers. Automato didn't rise very high on the underground-rap food chain and disbanded in 2005, but they left a compact, nice-smelling back catalog, and their association with Murphy and Goldsworthy led to friendship and then to prime-time studio and stage work with the Juan MacLean. (Frankel, who mostly sings and plays keyboards, and Millhiser, whose skills encompass drums, bass, guitar, and engineering/programming, also work as session musicians on myriad DFA productions and remixes.)
After releasing 2007's yearning, soaring club hit "Hold On," which graced many a DJ-mix disc, classed up many a venue, and earned props from luminaries like A-Trak and the Loft's David Mancuso, Holy Ghost! issued the Static on the Wire EP for DFA this spring. It's a slickly produced, impeccably arranged, melodically gorgeous work whose four tracks are poised between danceability and radio-airplay/home-listening pleasure; fans of New Order, Hercules and Love Affair, and Junior Boys should be sweating and swooning to this. Broodingly euphoric legends New Order especially appear to be the prototype for Holy Ghost!'s creative methods.
"I'd say we rip off their visual aesthetic more than anything too specifically from their [music]," Millhiser observes. "But in general, I'd say we're trying to exist in a similar world as theirs, where they were able to create music that worked as well in a club as it did on a home stereo. We also like heavily chorused baritone guitar."
When they're in the studio remixing others' tracks (such as those by Moby, MGMT, Cut Copy, and Phoenix), Holy Ghost! mainly strive to make something that will trigger dance-floor action. They find it hard to choose a favorite, but Millhiser says, "Standouts would be the Panthers mix, largely because that was the first one we ever did, and the Monarchy one because Karl Dixon's vocals are out of this world and [the late] Jerry Fuchs's drum solo is bananas. And the Curses! one and the new one we have coming out for Mark Ronson."
As for their own productions, which seem to be bathed in a somehow noncorny angelic glow, Millhiser notes, "Generally, we're trying to make stuff that people will enjoy listening to at home or in their headphones."
Disco traditionally has been viewed as something that breeds and/or soundtracks decadence and debauchery. But maybe this music can be put to "loftier" uses (Mancuso pun intended). If anyone possesses the sparks to write the next number-one song in heaven, it could very well be Holy Ghost!