Interview | A Conversation with Nick from Holy Ghost!

Ahead of this weekends’ Blisspop Disco Festival, I sat down with Nick Millhiser from Brooklyn-based synth-pop duo Holy Ghost!. The duo consisting of Nick Millhiser and Alex Frankel has been performing since 2007 and are most known for their popular remixes of tracks by Moby, Cut Copy, and MGMT and the success gained from their debut album Holy Ghost!.

After the duo’s debut hip-hop album under the group name Automato fell apart, the duo continued to release with DFA Records that included more vocals and dance-oriented arrangements. I had a chance to talk with Nick and discuss his thoughts on the state of the “nu disco” music, Holy Ghost!’s production techniques, and the diversification in genre preference among younger generations.

Purchase tickets to see Holy Ghost at the Blisspop Disco Fest at U Street Music Hall on Saturday, 9/1 here.

It’s great to meet you Nick. Thank you so much for taking the opportunity to chat with me!

You as well!

Are you exited to play the Disco festival this weekend?

Definitely! Looking forward to it!

Do you and Alex get down to play DC often?

As often as we can. Always look forward to coming!

As a group that’s been known for cultivating a “nu disco” sound, how would you define the “nu disco” genre?

Nu Disco is one of those terms that had been created by journalists and not by musicians themselves as a “catch-all” term for those artists whose productions pull from disco in different ways. House producers have always been known to sample from disco records and there have always been popular artists like Daft Punk pulling from disco, but the term “nu disco” wasn’t something that musicians had invented. It’s become a new descriptor recently applied to bands, and I’m not exactly sure what it means, but it’s been used to define music that references records from the 1970s and 1980s.

Over the course of your career, you’ve been known for making notable remixes in addition to your popular original tracks. Would you say you use similar production techniques to make both originals and remixes, or are there subtle nuances in how you and Alex make both?

There’s a difference between composing and producing. Whether an artist loves or hates the song they’re remixing, as a remixer, one is often committed to referencing the original piece of music as a starting point and frame of reference for their remix. With that said, Alex and I may say when making a remix “we’re definitely going to use these vocals or this guitar part.” However, production-wise, we treat remixes exactly same as our original compositions with the same studio, equipment, and mixing resources. I may play drums on a remix, but I’ll use the same care on the drums for that remix as I would on an original. We’ve even hired mixers sometimes with our own resources to mix our remixes, so from the production-side, it’s an identical process, but the writing side is different.

Why do you feel that disco’s popularity was so short-lived, and do you think there will ever be a resurgence of disco music in the mainstream?

Disco’s popularity wasn’t short-lived, it just ebbed and flowed. Disco became an enormously popular brand that maybe became too popular and was highly popular among gay and African American communities. With anything that gets to be too big, there’s going to be a natural backlash, and big songs that came after the disco era like “Thriller” or tracks by Whitney Houston would have easily become “disco records” had the term not grown out of style. Similarly, Dance music was once mainstream, but then fell out of style in the 1980s and 1990s before re-entering the mainstream in the 1990s through today. There are still hints of disco music is today’s popular music, and I think it may have fallen out of fashion for a minute because of racism and homophobia but continues to live on. People won’t ever get tired of dancing to Donna Summer or “We Are Family.”

Do you guys ever drop old disco records at the end of your sets or when you’ve run out songs to play?

Of course! All the time!

You are one of the pioneering bands that’s been released on DFA Records. As a label that’s also been home to bands like LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip, and Arcade Fire, where do you see the future of DFA going and do you see DFA moving into a new direction?

I can’t image that DFA is going to continue going the same way it has for the last 15 years, but Jonathan Galkin has some eclectic tastes. Sometimes DFA gets lucky and something that starts as eclectic gains mainstream success, but the label has recently attracted some weirder records. The label always seems to release something on the pop side, but for every artist like us on the label, there’s maybe five more artists that have some weird musical taste. The music from these artists isn’t particularly difficult, I just don’t image it will get played on pop radio. As long as DFA exists, there will be some weird stuff mixed in with their pop records.

You and Alex first started in music as part of the hip-hop group Automato. What do you see as the relationship between hip-hop and disco, and do you think we’ll see a closer tie between the two musical forms as hip-hop shifts into more electronic production?

If you travel to the late 80s (the dawn of hip-hop), where you’d find the likes of R.E.M. or the Sugar Hill Gang, you’ll notice that many of the songs these artists released were disco records and disco became a catalyst for beginning of hip-hop. Today, it’s hard to distinguish between modern hip-hop and modern dance charts because of the nature of how popular music works. When I was a kid, being into multiple genres was a bit weird, but now with streaming services, you like what you like. Based on how young people are listening to music, you’re hearing less and less division between genres. In 20 years, hip-hop could be to us what rock or disco was to our parents, and because of the internet, now everyone has access to everyone else’s music. In the late 1970s and 1980s, people could be doing something in Brooklyn or the Bronx and it could come up fully formed. Today, if that same thing happened, it would be all over Facebook and Instagram, and people would know about it as it was happening. I could see music becoming a trend of slowly morphing and ever-changing things. We discussed how we think of disco as music that had a light and died and then hip-hop came into the picture, but today, the way that music is moving is more fluid and the way that music is morphing is moving more fluid as well.

When I was a kid, being into multiple genres was a bit weird, but now with streaming services, you like what you like.”

I remember for this year’s 20th Anniversary of Ultra Music festival, Ultra made a series of promotional videos to promote the anniversary that discuss the popularity of EDM in accordance with the history of the festival, and sort of marks 1999 as the beginning of modern EDM music. However, it’s not that way. Electronic music has always existed, but just like disco, it’s had its ebbs and flows. Do you think that the way that genres are being formed has become easier?

Exactly. I don’t know. People are going to create more and more things as music moves forward. Your average kid now has way more control and power over the music they listen to, and the average kid listening to Spotify has way more power over their musical tastes. Pre-internet, one was at the whim of the powers that be. MTV had 120 minutes of one show dedicated to rap and hip-hop and another to rock, and on pop radio, different shows leaned towards different genres. Now, the radio stations play whatever’s popular, and to me, I may hear a song, and think “I’m listening to a song that’s country and house,” but kids aren’t making those same distinctions between genres. Kids don’t care to define music along genre lines as much as they used to. They’ll say things like “I don’t like trap, but I like Drake.”

“Kids don’t care to define music along genre lines as much as they used to.”

Ok, now here’s the portion of the interview where I ask all the artists that I interview a few fun questions. When are we likely to see Daft Punk return on tour?

Gosh! I don’t know! It could be any minute. It could be next week or in 20 years. They purely like to do what they like to do, and they seem to only do stuff they know will be relevant.

That’s so true. As a Brooklyn-based group, do you have a “go-to” deli?

I used to live on top of a fantastic Bodega, but I sadly don’t live there anymore. I would now have to say Natalie’s Deli on South 4th or Frankel’s deli, which is Alex and his brother’s deli.

Oh wow! That’s so cool! That’s Alex and his brother’s deli? I think I’ve been there before. And finally, do you have secret plans to open the next great disco club in Brooklyn?

That’s always the aspiration! Not yet, but you’ll have to let us know!

Thank you so much Nick. It’s such a pleasure chatting with you and look forward to seeing you and Alex in DC over the weekend!