Holy Ghost!'s Sound Gets More Tangible On 'Dynamics'

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Led by such rambunctiously sticky tracks as “Do It Again” and “Hold My Breath,” Holy Ghost!’s self-titled debut was undeniably a good time, an ‘80s-tinged soundtrack for an old-fashioned sweaty night out. And while their sophomore effort Dynamics, out Tuesday on DFA records, is an equally fun affair, it takes a few sips between its whiskey sodas, resulting in what the Brooklyn-based dance-pop duo consider a more focused sound.

That balance between “loud and quiet, sparse and full” is the reason Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser decided to call it Dynamics after all --- and it’s something admittedly missing on Holy Ghost! A project Frankel considers “sort of all over the place,” it was composed primarily of singles, the first of which was released four years before the album. But the “300, 400, 500 live shows” they’ve played have taught them to rely on their audience to check the pulse on their music.

“Playing live helped reinforce something we already knew before --- having triple track vocals and a million things going on at once is really only effective if it's not happening all the time,” Millhiser told us.

And as each song pulsates between frenzied and subdued, the album balances the raucous – like funky eight-minute “Dumb Disco Ideas” -- and the reflective, like multi-layered “Okay,” which puts the strains of a withering relationship over an appropriately tension-building beat. Perhaps the biggest departure from their debut is “Dance A Little Closer,” which tears down instrumentation to focus on a sultry groove and removes the double-tracking from Frankel’s vocals.

It’s all part of their effort to make their music “a little more honest and a little more intimate.” Read on for more from our interview with Holy Ghost!

How did the success of your debut album, Holy Ghost! affect how you approached your second album? Did it put more pressure on you to outdo yourselves, or did it give you more freedom to do what you want?

Alex: We didn’t really perceive [Holy Ghost!] as a success. We were happy with it, but almost as soon as we were done making it we knew we wanted the next record to be different, and we knew we had acquired the tools to make a record closer to what we really wanted. We were able to focus on our vision of what we wanted. On the first record, we were kind of all over the place, trying out a lot of different stuff, and this time we kind of distilled both what we wanted and our ability to achieve that.

Nick: We tried to make the ideas more concise aesthetically and direct. There was also a feeling that -- although some people seem to like the first record -- there wasn’t a sense we had to live up to anything but there also was a feeling of if we don’t do something different now we won’t ever get to do something different. If the second record is exactly the same as the first record, it's just what we do. Or it can be established now that we would like to do other things -- it sort of sets the tone for evolution down the line.

Why do you think this album was so much faster to make?

Nick: Even if at times it was difficult achieving the goal there was a more clear goal in sight... first record we were stabbing in the dark.

Alex: There really is no easy song to sing, and vocals are always a pain in the ass because it’s a physical thing. It's kind of like getting naked, I don’t really like looking forward to doing it... but musically this record came super quickly because we tried not to overthink stuff. Once we had the groove or something we really liked, we just kind of refined it and waited for the vocals to get done. "Dumb Disco Ideas," we did the basic music for the bass and drums in probably two hours. "Weather" was a jam in the studio for the day. And it changed, but not really; it always maintained the same core.

What track do you think is the best example of you doing something “different” on this album?

Alex: I can hear it in all the songs. The most that you can hear it in is for me a song like "Dance a Little Closer." We really forced ourselves to tear down the instrumentation and focus on a groove that we really liked and a vocal that we didn’t double. In the chorus, there's a gang vocal, but in the verses of the song it’s just a guy singing. There’s no doubling effect. There’s no crazy reverb. It's quite upfront.

The last album I was still so insecure sometimes with the vocals that we would just double-, triple-track them, which sometimes is great -- John Lennon double-tracked all his vocals. It’s an amazing sound -- but I wanted to kind of put more pressure at least vocally, forcing myself to perform and to do something a little more honestly and a little more intimate.

Before your first album, you hadn’t done many live shows. How did touring affect the music you made in the studio?

Alex: The first album was essentially done before we had ever played a live show, and then from then until now we've played 300, 400, 500 live shows. So we knew what worked live and we tried to kind of do some of that in the studio. The reason it's called Dynamics is we were talking about the importance of dynamics. We had to have dynamics; it has to get quiet and loud. We noticed when playing live that it’s the songs like "Do It Again" that have big dynamic drops and builds and peaks -- those are the ones that felt the best live.

How was it working with [LCD Soundsystem’s] Nancy Whang and James Murphy?

Alex: [Whang]’s kind of a pro. We lucked out that they broke up because she was available to come over and do vocals and give feedback. She was integral to making the record. James spiritually worked on the record, but he wasn’t in the studio in person. He taught us -- him Juan Maclean and Tim Goldsworthy -- those guys taught us literally everything. We didn’t know what a studio was when we came to them at 18, we didn’t know what a progressor did and all that stuff. James taught us all of that. Introduced us to a lot of music we didn’t know. We were always thinking, "What would James do?" in the studio. James is really good in the studio. One of his strong points as a producer is to be OK doing those things you read about that you don’t believe actually came true. OK, we're stuck, take everything out except for the cowbell and let’s build from there -- drastic things to get you excited about the song again.

Dynamics is out September 10 via DFA.