Holy Ghost!'s Nick Millhiser on their new album Work
Six years since their last record, Holy Ghost! are emerging from hibernation – and resurrecting one of the pillars of New York disco in the process
"We were sitting around and brainstorming: like, 'what would be the dream label, from any era, to put out a new Holy Ghost! record on?'"
Nick Millhiser is recalling the state of flux that he and Alex Frankel found themselves in as they geared up to release the first new Holy Ghost! full-length in six years. They’d already decided, for "nuanced reasons that wouldn’t translate well to being talked about publicly," that they would make a clean break from DFA, the label that had put out their entire catalogue to date and nurtured them pretty much from day one. "Without them we wouldn’t have a career" is Millhiser’s straightforward analysis. In many ways, you’d think James Murphy’s imprint would have fit the "dream label" bill as neatly as anybody else; Holy Ghost!, after all, share the same ferocious appetite for melding their disparate influences into something modern and danceable, just as LCD Soundsystem always have.
It was time for a change after a decade with their fellow New Yorkers though, and so the duo began to cast their minds back; if they could settle on a perfect home for the band from days gone by, they reasoned, they could set about finding the modern equivalent. "It was actually our manager Justin who said, 'It would be sick to see Holy Ghost! on a West End record'," Millhiser says of the 70s label that, in its prime, was at the forefront of the New York City disco scene. "He looked up who owned their catalogue and it was BMG, where he has an old friend. He asked them what they were up to and it turned out not much, at least in terms of new music; there were remixes and reissues happening, but there hadn’t been an original West End album in over 30 years."
Until now, that is; later this month Work will arrive via West End, making it a remarkable double comeback after the band’s own lay-off, with just the one EP since 2013’s Dynamics. It’s no gimmick either; it’s an album that genuinely sounds at home among West End’s illustrious alumni, not because it sounds particularly retro – like its predecessors, Work comes complete with enough modern polish to see your face in it – but instead because it’s a dance record with soul, one that burns with a genuine passion for the genre in the same way that the best joints from the likes of Taana Gardner or Raw Silk did.
The deal with West End was one of a series of serendipitous twists of fate that came to define the making of Work; on reflection, it feels as if the six-year gap between albums was merely a case of waiting for everything to begin falling into place. "It’s always been the way for us that things are a little bit slow to get started," Millhiser explains. "And there was a lot of other stuff going on in our lives, independent and together. We were working on a score for a documentary (Chef Flynn), Alex opened a couple of restaurants with his brother, I was working on a Juan Maclean album in there somewhere, and I was building gear for LCD when they started playing again. We were keeping busy, and we don’t tend to push the Holy Ghost! stuff too hard if we don’t have any ideas."
The pair weren’t truly struck by inspiration until fate intervened; when Millhiser was forced to dismantle and move his studio (which previously operated out of his apartment) across his native Brooklyn a couple of times, he and Frankel ended up working in a shared space – forcing them to either leave much of their impressive array of gear in storage or sell it off. By the time they came to piece together Work in earnest, they were working with, by their standards, a limited set-up – two synthesizers, a Minimoog and a Yamaha CS80.
"It ended up working out really nicely," says Millhiser. "On the last album, our whole mission statement was kind of, 'everything but the kitchen sink', so I’m glad that we were forced to pare it back; it makes the songs feel a little bit purer somehow. Plus, I’d spent my whole life, ever since I was a teenager, dreaming of owning a Minimoog, and I finally managed to get hold of one right before we moved in to the new space. I would have been happy just working with that, with this new toy I’d been wanting to make music with for years."
Working out of a shared studio space came with some perks too; when they needed a piano to add some colour to a handful of tracks, they borrowed one from the next room, and the fact that they weren’t secluded in Millhiser’s basement was advantageous when it came to bringing in an impressive array of collaborators, which has ended up including Nancy Whang of LCD, Ahmed Gallab of Sinkane, Neon Indian engineer Alex Epton and multi-instrumentalist Rob Moose, whose CV includes work with everybody from Bon Iver to David Bowie.
"Alex and I have never been precious about bringing in a different player or vocalist if we felt they could do it better than us," explains Millhiser. "And truthfully, we’re lucky to have a broad, talented circle of friends. It means you can just call up Nancy or Alex or whoever else and see if they’re into it; usually, they are. In fact, we only had one knockback this whole album. One of the songs has a big Fleetwood Mac vibe, so we thought it’d be very cool if we could get Lindsey Buckingham to play a solo on it. No harm in asking, right? He never got back to us though, so I played something on it instead. That’s why it’s called Nicky Buckingham!"
Even with a relatively simplistic instrumental foundation, Work remains a dense affair defined by the complexity of its construction; so encyclopaedic is Holy Ghost!’s knowledge of disco and dance that it feels as if they’re trying to cram in as many nods and winks as they can to the genre they've had a decade-plus love affair with. Accordingly, it might be a while before they figure out how to take it on the road extensively. "We’re just starting out now, playing a few shows," says Millhiser. "It’s a pretty complicated live set-up, so we’re easing ourselves back into fighting shape. We just played Corona Capital in Mexico this past weekend and it was nerve-wracking enough just to be doing 45 minutes there. We’ll play a few clubs that we know and love, I think, and then look at committing to something bigger and broader next year. By then, it’ll be good to be back."
Work is released on 21 Jun via West End Records