For every tired conversation about the state of 20-something New Yorkers, much less has been said about the transition to the next decade. On Holy Ghost!’s new album Dynamics (DFA), lifelong residents Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser offer up their take on getting older in a city that’s obsessed with youth. The childhood friends turned DJs turned disco-rock duo have followed up their 2011 self-titled debut LP with more dance anthems that are made to mature well.
As the title implies, Dynamics wrestles with a search for balance—whether it’s mental, within a shaky relationship, or with New York City. Where their first album’s opening track "Do It Again" was made for kicking off a night out, "Okay" starts Dynamics closer to closing time. Thanks to Holy Ghost!’s penchant for crisp production, a drunk dial at 3:30 a.m. has never sounded less sloppy. "Bridge and Tunnel" shows off Frankel’s ability to sing warmly about his often-cold hometown, while "Dance A Little Closer" puts a bittersweet twist on what sounds like a simple come-on at first listen. First single “Dumb Disco Ideas” clocks in at eight minutes and uses every one of them well, turning the defeat of a heat wave into into a triumphant, tightly-controlled sprawl. It’s a calling card for the ambition of this record, sharply self-aware and reaching outward.
I called up Frankel and Millhiser to talk about aging, getting kicked out of Manhattan, and being able to laugh off having the worst summer ever.
What was the biggest challenge you had while making Dynamics?
Nick Millhiser: I can’t think of a single thing. Writing a record is always difficult–that’s not to say that it’s painful, but there’s always stages in making a record that are tough, and that’s for different reasons. One day, it’s because you can’t make the vocals sound the way you want them to. Another day, it’s because the groove of the song feels wrong in a way that you can’t articulate. But I can’t think of a single obstacle, it’s not like we felt this great pressure to make a great album after the enormous success of our first record, our first record wasn’t enormously successful. We didn’t really feel any crazy pressure to one-up ourselves. Internally, we wanted to, but we weren’t really worried about mass disappointment, you know?
You guys took the process pretty slowly, right?
NM: I think it was faster than the first record, by a lot, but I think relative to the way that other bands make records, I think we work pretty slowly. We take our time, we never compromise, we never say, "It’s good enough, we gotta get this done." That’s one of the other nice things about being on a small label. There’s no A&R guy standing over our shoulder being like, "You need to get this record done by this date or you’re not going to get it out in the first quarter" or whatever. It’s more like, "When you guys get this done, let us know and we’ll put it out.” So it still took us–how long did it take, Alex?
Alex Frankel: A year.
NM: On and off, a year and a half. It’s not a short amount of time for twelve songs.
"Dumb Disco Ideas" was a big summer song for me, but I like how you don’t romanticize the idea of having to have the best summer ever.
NM: We didn’t set out to write a summer song, it sort of happened that way by happy coincidence. I think think the goal was much more broad, if there was a goal with that song. Alex and I were saying to ourselves, "Let’s do something long and weird, like we used to do with our remixes."
AF: Lyrically, the summer reference was to last summer, which was like the worst summer ever. There’s no real narrative to that song or anything, but those words were just what popped into my head when I thought about summer being cruel. New York summers are kind of cruel and oppressive. If you’re going to the beach every weekend, okay, that might be nice. If you’re stuck writing a record in Brooklyn in July, it’s a bit sticky.
You seem to be dealing a lot with the themes of wasted potential and people not knowing their own shortcomings on this record. Is that an okay interpretation?
AF: I hate to say no, but I think that’s what’s nice about pop music, and why we don’t put our lyrics in the albums is because it’s a good interpretation if that resonates with you. But it’s kind of like looking at a Rorschach test. It probably says more about what you hear, unless it’s super direct that the lyrics are very obviously about one thing. If anything, it’s really self-deprecating, so it wouldn’t be about other people having shortcomings, really. Like in "Cheap Shots," to me what it means when I say "Your friends will hurt you," I’m kind of saying that universally. That’s what friends do to each other, not saying that’s a shortcoming or a pro, that’s just what friends do. It’s up to you, it’s a choose your own adventure.
"It Must Be The Weather" sounds like it must be one of your most personal songs.
AF: Yeah, I’d say so.
What was the process like behind that one?
AF: That one started in the studio on a day when Nick was sick or something. It was based on this track that I was playing out a lot, really slow, this Revenge track or something that has that same groove. So I just copied the basic groove and tempo of that, and it just seemed like an easy song to sing, because it’s slower. A lot of times, it’s hard to be articulate and to do anything personal when it’s really fast, you’re a bit more slave to the tempo. When it’s slow like that, it allows a little more space for the vocals and for you to hear them and to get more words in. When I wrote the lyrics to that song, that’s the song that has the most lyrics because it has the most space. Again, last summer was a kind of a fucked-up, weird, depressing summer, and that wasn’t supposed to be about the weather being bad. It’s kind of the opposite, the weather was great, but internally, the weather was awful. So I guess that’s what that’s about, too much excess of everything.
Another thing I noticed about "It Must Be The Weather" was the "I think about my age" line. You also put out a new non-album song called "Teenagers In Heat." Did you think a lot about maturity and the perspective you have now?
AF: Or lack of it. First of all, in this line of work, there’s too much time to think about yourself. We don’t have kids, we don’t have jobs, we don’t have retirement plans. You’re kind of stuck in the moment. Nick and I have known each other so long, there’s like a mirror thing happening where I’ve known Nick since since he was six, and I can’t see myself getting older, exactly, but I can see Nick getting older, and vice versa. Knowing someone that long, it’s kind of like having a brother you’re watching get older or parent or something like that. There’s also a reality where we’re getting to an age where almost all my friends from high school are married, pregnant, working their way up in some job somewhere, and they have lives. That’s something you kind of throw away when you do music, to some degree. You’re not a part of this structure. When you’re a kid, imagining yourself getting older, I imagined that certain things would have happened by 30. And it turns out that they didn’t happen the way I thought they were going to. So I guess that plays into both looking back at what I thought it was going to be like now, and looking at now, and then looking at the future and where it’s going. It’s pretty vague, but those are things we both definitely think about and you’re reminded of when you bump into your friend on the street and they’re pushing a stroller and talking about this life that is slowly slipping away. Maybe later, maybe at 40, maybe at 45, but there’s no way to be a touring musician and have a typical family structure.
NM: Maybe it’s because of the nature of where we live in Williamsburg, which is like living in a big college dorm, but 30 was right around the time that I started to feel my age a little bit, if only by comparison.
AF: You go to a bar, and for the first time at 30, you’re like, "I’m not just a year older than these kids, I’m five years older, and I look older." 30 is by no means old man territory, but it’s all relative. At 30, that’s the first time you start having realizations about your age, and I think you continue for the rest of your life. I’m sure in five years’ time, we’re going to look back and be like, "Look at these 30-year-olds." When you’re 45, you’re going to be like, "Wow, what would it be like to be in your 30s and living in Brooklyn?" It keeps going like that. In your 20s, you’re not really thinking about your age and you’re still really connected to your teenage self.
"Bridge And Tunnel" is another favorite of mine. As native New Yorkers, how has your relationship with the city changed, particularly recently?
AF: We were kicked out of Manhattan long ago. We both moved to Brooklyn when we were 17, Nick moved then to Williamsburg and I followed about four years later. I think Nick usually says that everyone in New York says it was better ten years ago. So in the 80s, they were saying it was better in the 70s, 90s it was the 80s, and now they say it was better in the 90s, whatever. We love the city, Manhattan’s kind of been yuppified, but that could change again, too. It’s been economically booming in the last bit. We’ve lived here so long, we don’t really know anything else. My relationship hasn’t changed that much with the city other than trying to avoid Manhattan on Friday or Saturday nights.
You also have some of the best album art of the year. Who did you work with, and how did that come about?
AF: You can finish an album, but if you don’t get the artwork in, then albums get delayed. That actually happened with the last record, and the classic thing we say to each other is that we need one simple image that will translate all media, which is probably the hardest thing to do. I was searching on Google image search, literally just for hours, just searching images to make an idea board or whatever. Nick had been mentioning Robert Longo, so I decided to go through all of his stuff, even though I didn’t think we’d actually get to license one of his images because he’s such a famous artist. There was one that really stuck out to me, which is the one that’s the cover, and it occurred to me that I knew someone who knew him. But it was a long shot, as Nick said. So I called my friend Hans, and Hans asked Robert, and Robert wanted to hear some of the music. I sent him a few of the tracks I thought he might like, he liked them, and that was it. He said "Sure," he didn’t charge us a lot of money, and he was very cool about it. So we got really lucky. It was also kind of serendipitous–I didn’t realize this at the time I saw the image, I saw it and I liked it because of what it was, but looking at it next to the last album, it kind of continues a nice aesthetic. It kind of looks like the first record cover, of Nick and I. It’s such a strong image, there’s nothing on the cover except for the image. It doesn’t say Holy Ghost! on it or anything.
Anything else you think people should know about this record?
NM: It’s made to be listened to loud.
Dynamics is out this week on DFA Records.