“Some artists make music really rapidly—they put out mixtapes on SoundCloud, like, every few months,” Alex Frankel ruminates. Of course, Frankel and his Holy Ghost! bandmate Nick Millhiser do not fall into this category. “We’re so envious of that.”
The duo may be methodical in their output—shimmering bursts of disco, synth-pop, and lingering grooves—but that doesn’t mean Holy Ghost! is not prodigious. Over nearly a decade, they have gone from being DFA’s rising sons to triple threats. They are indefatigable DJs WHAT HERE. They’re producers frequently recruited to remix new life into tracks like Cut Copy’s “Hearts on Fire,” LCD Soundsystem’s “Drunk Girls,” and even Katy Perry’s “Birthday.” And they’re inventive musicians who’ve released countless original singles (such as 2010’s critically lauded “Hold On”) and albums (beginning with 2010’s Static on the Wire EP). They are once again adding to their thinking-man’s dance repertoire with the vibrant Crime Cutz EP (out WHEN, DFA Records). The objective, Nick says, was singular: “Aesthetically, Alex and I were musically, melodically trying to do something that felt like fun.”
Holy Ghost!’s release last year, Work for Hire (DFA Records)—their second mix album, after 2009’s The Remixes Vol. 1 (DFA Records)—was a mesmerizing time capsule of remixes that boldly traced the group’s aesthetic from their nascent days dabbling in groove to radical rethinkings of songs. It was, in certain ways, a necessary stepping stone to Crime Cutz. “Work for Hire was a good breather from working on original music,” Alex says. “It was a good way to get back into the studio. There’s a lot of pressure when you’re writing original stuff. We were able to focus more on groove and arrangement, rather than trying to write formative pop songs.”
For instance, the EP’s title track, an 8-bit beat shimmied over an expanse of futuristic synths, started as a drum break from the Wild Style soundtrack. It organically morphed into, Nick says, “something radically different. It was a jumping off point, the impetus for the music being written.” As with most of Holy Ghost!’s catalog, they ultimately turned to more tactile instrumentation, recording live drums over the track to accelerate its tempo.
In the case of “Compass Point”—started roughly four years ago during sessions for their second album, 2013’s Dynamics (DFA Records)—they tightened up their own creation. “It didn’t really feel like something we’d put on Dynamics,” says Alex. “We’re both very proud of it, but it was a very intense, grueling record for us to make. It felt very serious to a certain extent.” So when they began working on the lighter Crime Cutz, they revisited “Compass Point,” stripping it down to just the original drums and rewrote an almost entirely new song to better capture what Nick describes as an “off-the-cuff approach. “
A genuine curiosity to step out of comfort zones drives much of Crime Cutz. “The other songs are kind of intentionally action-packed,” Alex says of the loops and samples. “But ‘Footsteps’ was more of a song: drums, bass, vocals.” The title-track “Crime Cutz,” meanwhile, captures an actual choir (“Believe it or not there’s a Yelp for musicians to find a choir,” marvels Alex). And a shuffle steeped in live bass drives “Stereotype,” which features some synth work from Oliver Goldstein of Fool’s Gold production duo Oliver.
For a taste check, they pulled in producer Alex Epton (Spank Rock, Neon Indian). “He gave us the push forward that we needed to get it finished,” says Alex. “That perspective is really helpful….” Adds Nick: “We do that for every record. At the very end of the process.” Because as much as Holy Ghost! are now vets in the studio, they’re still, at heart, music geeks.
“Nick and I were both musicians before we were producers,” explains Alex. Growing up, Nick learned the drums and Alex, the piano. The duo started making music together in high school, bound by their mutual love of hip hop—eventually forming Automato, which landed them their DFA Records deal. “But we were also into Sunny Day Real Estate or Michael Jackson or Nirvana,” Nick points out. “Rap was a gateway drug to disco and soul and funk, because of the breaks. To make rap music, we were buying a lot of disco music to sample, then found out that we kinda liked that stuff, too.”
Crime Cutz’s artwork, by frequent collaborator NAME HERE, is a nod to those roots. Says Nick, “The reference for the artwork was this old Italian architecture firm called Superstudio. They did a lot of purely conceptual architecture, drawings that looked very collage-based.” That aesthetically fit with their record. “Working on stuff for this EP, much like with our first record, we were trying to do things that felt more collage-based, sample-based hip-hop records that we grew up on,” Nick says, referencing their self-titled DFA release from 2011. “We’ve always gravitated towards that: where the different elements of a song feel like they’re pulled from different sources.”
Come Spring, Holy Ghost! will bring Crime Cutz’s meta-art full circle when they play a Museum of Modern Art party to kick off New York City’s Armory Week. “We’re continuing to work on an album. We just haven’t played live in a long time,” Nick says, reassuringly. Continues Alex: “We don’t work that quickly. But it is fun to get music out while it’s still fresh, and not have to wait a year. When we have an impulse to do something, we do it.”
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