For the electro-pop duo Holy Ghost, a fixation with disco music began in the dusty corners of record stores — more specifically, inside dollar bins.
Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser, two New York City natives, were raised on the Upper West Side, where there were a few places they’d frequent as teens seeking tracks to sample for the hip-hop group they were in at the time called Automato. There was the Salvation Army on 96th Street and Broadway; there was Westsider Books and Records (which is still there today); then later, when the two moved to Brooklyn, there was the place in Cobble Hill by their first apartment called Don’s. On any given day, Millhiser would be the only person in the store for hours. The owner, Don, taught him a lot about the records he’d put in bins out front of his shop. El-P, one-half of the rap pair Run the Jewels, lived in nearby Red Hook and would also look around Don’s.
“We didn’t have a lot of money at the time,” Millhiser, from inside his and Frankel’s recording studio, explains. “We were always after cheap s–t. Dollar bins at that time were, by and large, 90 percent disco records.”
One thing, though, that Frankel says he searched for in particular among those crates — records from the label West End, which put disco on the map and helped invent the 12”, then went radio silent 30 years ago. If he saw a sleeve that bore the West End emblem in the bin, he’d grab it.
“It most likely had a really good drum break on it,” Frankel says. “Or, at worst, it was just gonna be a very good song.”
Now, things are coming full-circle. For the first time in two years, Holy Ghost is releasing new music — and bringing West End out of retirement, bowing their four-track 12” “Anxious” through the label. It’s the first original music West End has put out in 30 years. Frankel and Millhiser are also mixing a new full-length album that’s slated to drop in 2019, signaling the label’s return.
In the past couple of years, the duo has toured and worked on side projects (including the score, which they created in its entirety, for the documentary “Chef Flynn”). With the West End releases, they’ve discovered a new raison d’être.
Their studio is on the third floor of a nondescript building in the Greenpoint neighborhood, but inside, it’s bursting with stuff, packed with original instruments from the late Seventies to early Nineties: stacks of Casio FZ-1 synths, a Prophet 600 analogue synthesizer and a mustard yellow Wurlitzer that belongs to the band Unknown Mortal Orchestra, with whom Holy Ghost shares the studio. Millhiser’s bass drum is filled with pillows and chords and has a cinder block placed right in front of it. Pieces of paper with lyrics and chord progressions written on them are taped up on the walls and windows.
“As far as technology has come, I do still think this stuff sounds better,” Millhiser says, motioning toward a pile of pedals.
“It seems like a precious, sort of elitist [attitude]. ‘We only use the original thing,’” Frankel notes. “But it’s really a matter of how we learned and what we grew up on.”
Although what they grew up on wasn’t a diet of pure disco pumping through their neighboring apartments on the Upper West Side, Frankel and Millhiser note the seeds of an obsession with the genre were certainly there. Frankel’s mother listened to what he describes as “typical Jewish, Seventies and Eighties. She likes funky, smooth stuff. Michael McDonald, Steely Dan, Aretha Franklin, The Doobies, all that.” His dad was a “little bit more nerdy” and leaned toward the Talking Heads and jazz. Frankel picked up the piano.
“Neither of my parents were really technical, musically — my dad particularly can’t keep a beat,” he says. “But I was very early on with an instructor who had an unusual way of teaching that got me into music.”
Millhiser’s folks, meanwhile, were into tunes. His mother was a diehard Rolling Stones fan, and his father played the piano — which his dad tried teaching to Millhiser and his sister, to no avail. Instead of letting them quit, he just insisted that they switch to other instruments. As a result, Millhiser turned to the drums.
“I think growing up in New York, half the records we’d discover — somewhere in your subconscious, you’d be like ‘I’ve heard this before,’” he says.
But they came up during a time when disco wasn’t exactly en vogue — this was the early Aughts, and hip-hop and pop reigned. That is, until Frankel and Millhiser met James Murphy, of LCD Soundsystem, and Tim Goldsworthy. They were the founders of DFA, the label to which Holy Ghost was formerly signed, and acted somewhat as mentors to the two young musicians.
As Frankel and Millhiser explain it, so many disco records populated the dollar bins because the music was mass produced, but hadn’t quite come back yet. It wasn’t on the radio, and no one was playing it in clubs, at least, not then.
“When we met James and Tim, they were like, ‘That’s Larry Levan. Oh, you don’t know about Paradise Garage? Let me play you these other records,’” Millhiser says. “Then that gave us some context,” Frankel adds.
There were two overarching lessons Murphy and Goldsworthy bestowed upon Frankel and Millhiser about the music business and the art of creating music itself. First off, when making songs, don’t overthink it. If it sounds cool, if it feels cool, just go with it. At that time, Frankel and Millhiser saw a tiny team comprised of Murphy and Goldsworthy, along with one or two other people, doing everything themselves. They’d just started DFA, and seemed like they were actually having fun.
“They were pressing 12”, they were pushing along their own careers,” Frankel says.
“Doing in-house producing, label management, all, essentially, with three people. When they wanted to do something, they did it. They found a way,” Millhiser says.
“We wanted to do stuff more like this,” Frankel chimes in.
“And we have,” Millhiser concludes.
Perhaps it’s that credo, which ultimately led Holy Ghost to reach out to West End and ask what was happening with the label, which they did earlier this year. According to Frankel, nothing was happening. Many of the songs from West End’s catalogue were held in a virtual vault. What didn’t exist digitally was sitting dormant. So they decided to bring it back.
Frankel remembers in college, he’d drive around in his car, alone, listening to disco tunes. No one else really liked the music, or shared his obsession with the era.
“But I listened purely for enjoyment,” he says.
“If we were gonna make dance music, probably the most musical dance music is and was disco,” Millhiser adds. “I think we were both always drawn to that piano solo, or that bass line, whatever it was. And in awe of the musicianship in it.”
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