Artist Spotlight: Holy Ghost!
L-R: Nicholas Millhiser, Alexander Frankel. Photo: Ruvan Wijesooriya.
Holy Ghost! is me, Nicholas Millhiser, and my partner Alexander Frankel.
Well we’ve been together since we were like 8 or so and we’ve been playing music together since our early teens. Holy Ghost! specifically, however, started in the wake of our old band Automato which broke up around 2005. He and I kept working on stuff together and eventually it became it’s own thing. Hard to put an exact date on it but I just checked on Discogs which says our first single, “Hold On” came out in 2007. So lets say since 2007.
There was always music in my house growing up and my parents both have good taste. My dad plays the piano very well but neither were really encouraged to pursue music as kids and as a result I think they were determined to have musical children from the outset and my sister and I both started taking drum lessons from a family friend at a very early age. I started playing in bands around the sixth grade and growing up in New York in the 90s there were plenty of all ages venues – you could be 12 years old and have a band and play “real” shows. So, very early on, I sort of assumed that I could play music professionally, which in retrospects is obviously nuts.
As far as influences, there are lots over the years. My teenage years were dominated by hip hop and trying to master the MPC so Premier, Dilla, Pete Rock, RZA, Hi Tek, etc were hugely important. Man, so many. Here’s a random list…Talking Heads, James Murphy, Tim Goldsworthy, Gavin Russom, Giorgio Moroder, Gino Soccio, Patrick Cowley, Klaus Schultze, Tangerine Dream, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Joy Division, New Order, Martin Hannett, Pixies, Dj Shadow, Beastie Boys, Laurie Speigle, Depeche Mode, Daniel Miller, Radiohead, Portishead, Nigel Godrich, Sylvester, Nile Rogers, Tony Thomspon, Bernard Edwards (Chic)…and on and on and on
Probably around 2007/2008 or so. There were a few records I was listening to a lot of at the time and when I’d inquire about how they got this sound or that sound to more technically inclined friends of mine the answer always seemed to be “modular synth.” At the time I really didn’t know anything about them, and I certainly didn’t have any first hand experience with them so it was intimidating to take the first step as there weren’t too many people I knew who I could seek for council if I couldn’t figure out how to make them work. Like I was really into “Days of Mars” by Gavin Russom and Delia Cruz, and I knew Gavin, but his modular was all homemade and it lived at the DFA studio where, in theory I could have used it, but it was an intimidating unlabeled wall of knobs on very utilitarian looking brushed aluminum panels. But I took the plunge with the module of the month plan with synthesizers.com and haven’t looked back since.
Why do I like them? Well, they sound awesome for one. And the modular form factor—of anything really—has always appealed to me. I like that you as the consumer are sort of in charge of adding exactly what you need and ignoring what you don’t. Whenever I play a consumer synth there inevitably comes a moment where I think “this is awesome, but I really wish I could make it do…” and with modulars you can always do whatever that is. There’s always a solution for your nerdiest desires.
Well, namely because of the size really. I spend enough time at the computer so whenever I’m buying hardware I look for things that as objects in and of themselves are sort of fun and engaging to play with and the smaller form factor seemed a little precious and delicate to me. I don’t want to squint or get really close to panels when I’m playing it. Likewise, when I was starting, all of the boutique manufactures and esoteric names of modules offered in eurorack intimidated me. Synthesizers.com/5U seemed much more utilitarian which I liked. There’s an oscillator, a filter, an amp, an envelope…that’s it, which seemed like a less intimidating place to start. Fewer options can be a good thing.
A Matrix Mixer! Either simple four in/four out like we use or something bigger like old Moogs with EQ would be cool. Simple, effects units, even DSP based like the strymon stuff – a nice reverb, more delays, chorus/flangers with CV i/o. Arpeggiators! Why hasn’t anyone basically made a clone of the SH101 arp/sequencer section?!!?! A simple 5U synth voice, almost like a Moog Taurus or Minitaur. A simple drum machine. More sequencers that pick up on what Moon is doing that offer some form of memory/recall. Lots and lots and lots.
We use it for anything and everything from basslines to lead lines, to making drums sounds, to filtering/effecting external synths, as an eq, as an insert on our console. Anything. Since I got my first few modules there is not a single track or remix we haven’t used it on since.
Well they are such a critical part of playing the show that if something goes wrong with one, or one doesn’t make it we are pretty fucked. We travel with 4, packaged as pairs so if the TSA looses one it’s kind of a show stopper as they are all important, and each is unique to the station they occupy on stage. I’m actually redesigning them now to be 4 identical units so if one or two goes missing, every modular is essentially a backup for the other. So, long winded answer but the risk is really in how dependent we are on them. I can only think of two shows where a pair didn’t show up at baggage claim and in both cases they showed up to the venue just in time but I would say it’s the equivalent to a guitar player in a shoegaze band losing his pedalboard. The modulars kind of ARE the show.
The reward is that they are incredibly fun and, for us, practical to use live. The sheer amount of stuff we are asking our gear to do on stage is pretty nuts which is the result of the sheer amount of gear we use to make records. And the more records you make, the more songs you have to play live and the pallet of sounds you need on stage becomes immense. Though they are large, the amount of stuff we can do with each is pretty amazing. For example, with one modular we can send any four synths to reverb, delay, and/or a filter voice which can be modulated by a trigger sequencer. We could do all of this without the modular but it would either require a large mixer, or basically a dedicated line of effects and filters for every synth on stage which would insane.
All are clocked together and locked into the click the drummer plays to. It also allows us to use analog clock for all of our syncing which is immensely more reliable than Midi clock. It can run long distances with a basic guitar cable, requires no menu diving, you plug it in and it works. Midi clock is the bane of my existence. As anyone who has ever tried to figure out how to sync an arpeggiator on a modern synth to a DAW without lag can tell you, Midi clock is a pain in the balls.
Yeah for sure. People ask about them all the time. I’m not sure what the perception of them is, but part of the idea behind using them isn’t dissimilar to having a bunch of Marshall stacks. Playing keyboard based music live is very difficult to make engaging. I believe it was Elton John who said “It’s impossible to get laid from behind a Piano” or something to that effect. Keyboards aren’t sexy. When we started playing live—albeit with a much simpler setup—Erik’s rig was built into a flat mixer case. And while it was very neat and efficient in it’s own way, one day while we were on tour with Chromeo, P was like “It’s a shame you cant see everything Erik is doing because he’s doing so much. As far as the audience is concerned he might as well be looking at a laptop.” So the idea is, if we’re going to go through all the trouble of playing this stuff live and NOT using a laptop, we want that to be obvious.
So part of the idea behind the modulars is visual – to get the noodling which is such a big part of the set off of the horizontal plane so people can see what’s happening. I doubt most people have any idea about the specifics of what’s going on, but having some visual correspondence between a sound and the physical movement of having to reach for something vertically is more engaging. Certainly more so than just looking down at a table top. If you look at Chromeo, P sort of does the same thing with all his synths set up perpendicular to the crowd and sort of purposefully far apart and high so the act of playing them demands that he jump around a little more.
In the live rig, most are DIY — either by me or analog craftsman — or converted and modded Eurorack modules which I do because they don’t exist elsewhere – or don’t exist exactly how I want them elsewhere. I like doing DIY stuff, but I’d be much happier to spend the money to buy something off the rack if I could.
Yeah, that makes sense. I think of Moog/East Coast—and I would add Berlin in there—as being more “musical” in the traditional sense, but also very stoney. Dudes listening to an unchanging sequence for hours on end and being totally content which is definitely right ‘up my strasse’ as well. West Coast is definitely more avant garde and antagonistic for sure. Both have their place, but I’m east coast born and raised and though I don’t smoke weed I’ve always gravitated towards stoney stuff.
Well, they are expensive. But in this day and age EVERYTHING is expensive relative to the $0 you have to spend to use soft synths and plug ins. So I get how it’s hard to rationalize and afford for some people. But as my partner Alex is fond of saying, there’s an inherent value in spending money on yourself and investing in your talent. Aside from the fact that they sound awesome and better than any soft synth, look beautiful, and are just incredibly rewarding instruments to play, the act of BUYING something and being literally invested in it makes one more prone to learn it very well and develop a “sound.”
So, money well spent for sure, but, yeah, still expensive. That said, there are certainly more affordable options available now than there were even a few years ago, especially in DIY. Likewise, the resources available to DIYers is pretty incredible. God bless the internet. There are so many cool, fun and GOOD little kits with great instructions out there these days. So maybe start with something simple for DIY like an LFO, and then add little bits and pieces as you can afford it. That’s the fun of modular too – you don’t need to buy it all at once. You CAN’T.
It depends on what you want to do. For me, half the fun of using modulars is using them to process external stuff. So as much as we use VCOs in our system much of the time we are running other synths through it. So maybe starting with something that would work with the thing you already do/the pieces of gear you already have is good. Like if you’re a guitar play, make something you might want to play guitar through. Build a nice filter with an envelope. Now clock the gates of the envelope to MIDI and play guitar through it. If you make beats on an MPC or Ableton, build a filter and an envelope follower.
I think that’s true, but for sure there’s room for more interesting stuff in large format. I like a lot of the Eurorack stuff but the size drives me nuts. I’d love to see more people making weirder stuff for large format. I guess CotK is starting too which is cool. But, yeah, the more the merrier.
Nicholas Millhiser in his studio.
Watching Gavin Russom and Delia Cruz live at a now defunct bar/gallery called Passerby comes to mind. It was right around the time that record came out which I loved so just getting to see them play the music in person was pretty great. I think they played two songs in an hour and 15 minutes. But it was the first time I’d seen someone really use a modular in the flesh. I had no idea what was happening or how exactly they/it was making the sounds that were happening – like was this big box playing itself? Does it just make music for you? Or are they playing it? What are the keyboards doing? Because the movements of their hands don’t match the rhythm I’m hearing. It was pretty confusing, but also awe inspiring and loud as fuck.
Hard to choose. If I could really only have one and that’s it? A Stratocaster I think. Boring I know. Maybe a piano?
Well I’ve just been messing around with the new VCOs which are awesome. The soft sync/wide range tuning knob is lots of fun. But we couldn’t live without the Matrix Mixers ac built for our live rig. Not sure why nobody’s made one in 5U yet but they’re super practical. Not particularly sexy or crazy but they save us a ton of space in our modular allowing us to route different parts of the rig to a few common modules which is pretty huge and it acts like a mini studio console which is very fun because you can do throws and stabs like you would with aux sends. Indispensable. We have four.