“We really didn’t know what the fuck we were doing,” blurts Alex Frankel, one half of Brooklyn synth pop duo, Holy Ghost! Nicholas Millhiser, roundly agrees: “We were both making it up as we went along!”
Debut album time for this pair meant learning on the job, and enlisting the help of anyone sucked into their orbit. And that started with DFA co-founder, James Murphy.
As session players for his and Tim Goldsworthy’s label, they had his ear, and played him a demo of a track they’d been tinkering with. That was Hold On. Liking what he heard, he sat in to mix the record, and give it the extra boost it needed.
The track blew up. And DJ tours, remixes, and EPs followed. But, for their LP, they needed more bodies in the room.
Producer Juan MacLean swapped skillsets, as dearly departed drum god, Jerry Fuchs, thumped tubs. Other vital players included mix engineer, Eric Broucek. And, more than most, album co-producer Chris Zane, who added much meat to the bones of any new demos the band cooked up at home, and on the road.
“We had a lot of help,” says Millhiser. “Way more so than anything else that came after. James and Tim were monumentally instrumental and influential from afar – their general production ethos was the blueprint for this record.
“But, Chris Zane, whose approach could not have been more different from James’ and Tim’s, was instrumental in helping us finish, and really encouraged us to get out of our own heads and just make stuff.”
That “stuff’ would be 10 tracks of hip-hop influenced sampling, club-banging and DJ-ready dance and electro and power pop synth, loose in form, and less linear than anything they’d attempted in bands before.
Frankel wrote lyrics, taking a little swagger from Talking Heads and Stevie Nicks, and worked keys. As Millhiser took on the bulk of the guitars, basses, ‘programmy’ synth stuff and engineering.
“We were so green,” he says. “But, it really felt like we were learning something new every day.”
Do It Again
Alex Frankel: “I started to make this one at my house. It all started after a trip to the A1 record store – I had been digging around for hours and found a song with an intro in that excited me, so went home and that inspired a groove.
“Then, after listening to the DFA group, Still Going, who had this song with an arpeggiated piano in, I hooked up my Prophet-5. Then the vocal was like my Talking Heads impression – just matter of fact and cool. I played it for Nick and we both loved it.
“We ended up re-recording the drums with the late great Jerry Fuchs at Gigantic Studios. I remember, we couldn’t figure the chorus out. So, Nick sampled my vocals and put them through an [E-mu] Emulator.
“Nick also says that a combination of the Roland Paraphonic synth and a custom-designed ‘Sound Strobe’ can be heard on the chord progression in this track.”
Wait & See
Nicholas Millhiser: “This started off with me trying to make something out of an iPhone recording that [album co-producer] Chris Zane had made of Jerry just messing around in the studio. I chopped it all up quite a bit and then supplemented the kick with an LM1, but the drums on that song are basically just an early iPhone recording.
“Now that I think about it most of the live drums on that record are Neve recordings. Totally not by design, as neither of us has ever been particularly partial to Neve stuff, but every studio we were doing drums in just happened to have lots of Neve stuff.
“Zane with the 1091s. Metrosonic had a 5315 console, and Flymax in Woodstock, where we did Static on the Wire, had a bunch of 1073s, if I recall. But Wait & See is just audio exported from an iPhone movie. So, high brow versus low brow would definitely be a sonic theme of the record.”
Hold My Breath
NM: “This one was started very quickly with our friend, Wolfram, and was written around his song, Hall of Shame. The basic meat of the song came together in a single drunken night with the three of us at my house, but Alex and I always felt like we never got it quite right, and returned to it many times – both with Chris Zane, [mixer] Eric Broucek, and on our own, all without luck.
“Then, the day before Eric was scheduled to re-mix it with Alex’s new vocals, I borrowed a TR909, re-did all of the drums, re-tracked the main guitar melody, added a Moog/Realistic MG1 and an Omnichord, and wrote the bridge section.
“I think the only things that we kept from the original production were the white noise hi-hats, the Juno-106 bass and the handclaps. The song, as it existed one day before Eric mixed it, can be heard on Wolfram’s LP.
Say My Name
AF: “This was one of the first ones we finished after Hold On. At the time we were in the mindset of DJing, and making things theoretically playable on a dance floor, you know? Even though we knew there were too many vocals and stuff. That’s why it’s that length, and has those kinds of pianos and chords.
“I remember writing it on the piano, and coming up with the big changes on the chorus. It went through a bunch of versions, too.
“It’s Nick playing the drums. And we recorded that at a studio with [DFA label co-founder] Tim Goldsworthy. He was actually going to produce that record.
“Basically, when we signed to DFA, part of the deal was that Goldsworthy was going to produce. I think we did two days with him, and then he didn’t show up to the studio again. So, that was that [laughs], but hey, in those two days we got those Say My Name drums.”
Jam For Jerry
AF: “Speaking of drums – this was a tribute to Jerry Fuchs. It was just hard to get the tone of that sentiment right. We wanted to put something down about what had happened, but not be a sad song. Yeah, more of a celebration. It remains one of my favourite songs off the album, and always my favourite song to play live.
“Production-wise there was always a disagreement between me and Nick. He didn’t want any changes, and just wanted it to stay on one note, basically. I wanted lots of movement in it.
“Me, him and Chris Zane were in the studio and we’re like, ‘Let’s just take a vote.’ Nick lost that one. Then I went home and wrote some uplifting lyrics.”
NM: “Jerry Fuchs was probably the real secret weapon of the record. He played a really nice 1965 Slingerland drum kit on Do It Again, Slow Motion and Jam For Jerry, which was recorded by Chris Zane. He was the best drummer, ever.”
AF: “This was very much started by Nick. He took a break, and then we had the Paraphonic doing the melody, [hums it] and then a Realistic Moog bass from Radio Shack, doing whatever that is.
“It was mainly melody, drums, and bass. And James [Murphy, DFA label co-founder] made Hold On his ringtone for a year and a half! He kept saying, ‘You gotta finish it!’
“That was like 2005. And it was just sat around. And we always thought, ‘OK. How do we finish it?’ And, ‘How do I sing on it?’ Once we figured out how to sing on it, that came together.
“The most interesting thing about this one would be the chorus. It now falls ‘on the one’. But, in the demo version, it fell on the two. James moved it. He was like, ‘What the fuck are you guys doing? You know how wrong that is? It should be straight!’ So, that was that…”
It's Not Over
AF: “I remember writing the vocals. I think I was doing my best Stevie Nicks impression. It was cool, but I didn’t really love it until Nick put the intro through a [Korg] MS-20. Then it had that filter opening up at the top, and the harmonic guitar parts.
“Then it all really came together at Gigantic Studios, with Chris Zane. That one was not like a home recording. Far more like something that we did all together.”
NM: “Chris really was instrumental in helping us finish. An amazing producer and engineer, he was capable of being both a heavy hand and strong guiding force behind songs like Its Not Over and Jam For Jerry. And could also just get out of the way and cheerlead for things like Do It Again and Say My Name, which were already pretty full formed, but just needed us kicked out of the drivers’ seat to cross the finish line.”
AF: “I’d got a sample, and made a beat out of it. I forget the name of it… I basically have a horrible habit of doing that. Sometimes I’ll take an entire song, or edit a song, and basically make a complete beat out of it, and then sing over it, which gets me into a lot of trouble. That was one of those, right there.
“I didn’t even add music to it. I just wrote the whole song over this beat, and then I played it for Nick, who’s like, ‘This is dope. But this is not our song’. So, that one almost didn’t make it.
“We basically painstakingly replayed it. Including, and figuring out, these string parts, and stuff like that. We did that at Gigantic. It was basically a replay of the music, or an interpolation, and then new vocals.”
Static on the Wire
AF: “Right after Hold On came out we told DFA that we didn’t really have any instruments or a studio. So, they gave us a few thousand bucks, and told us to take some demos to work in a studio with Juan MacLean and Eric Broucek.
“The idea was we’d be working on Juan’s record, which me and Nick played and wrote a lot on, and would switch and get Juan, and he would be our engineer and help us out. So, you know, DFA was killing two birds with one stone. This track came out of that.
“I played the clav on this, and then the vocals came together very easily. I remember those chords, and figuring out that there’s a disco chord in there. I love this song. The drums are Nick and super compressed, and I love the way it all sounds.”
AF: “This features [Steely Dan’s soulful vocal legend] Michael McDonald. We got his email through a friend, and sent him the track when we were DJing in Mexico. Two hours later he wrote back saying he’d sing on it, asking what we wanted.
“I had to send a quick guide recording. But, the only way I could hit his high notes was to do this impression of him. Nick was like, ‘Do not fucking send that! He’ll think we’re insulting him.’ I did.
“Luckily Michael got it and killed it. We could not believe the quality of the vocals that we got back from him. We only used a fraction what he sent – maybe two or three harmonies. I’m sure I have the whole stack on a hard drive, somewhere.
“He was very cool. And working with him did make my mother very proud.”
In the studio with Nicolas Millhiser
“Early on we used an MPC for drums. A Prophet-5 was used throughout the single I Know, I Hear. A Yamaha CS60 for bass and big swells in Do It Again. The most used synth was the Roland Paraphonic 505 – which was often used with a custom Gavilan Rayna Russom-designed ‘Sound Strobe’. But, the Juno 106 was used quite a lot, as was my Synthesizers.com modular synth.
“All of the vocals, except Say My Name, were recorded on a Neumann TLM193, which was Alex’s main vocal microphone, and our main snare drum mic, throughout.
“Everything done at home was recorded with a Universal Audio 610 preamp and DBX160s. 162s and 165s were used very heavily – vocals and drums mainly, but also guitars and keys and as parallel compression on the whole mix.
“Chris Zane, who produced much of the record with us, had a crazy rack of old Neves – 1091s, I think? All the markings were in Afrikaans. Those were used a lot at his studio, Gigantic, which would include all of Jerry Fuchs drumming.”