Active since the beginning of the decade, NYC born and bred synth pop duo Holy Ghost has been able not only to remain relevant in an ever changing musical scene, but also to deliver new memorable singles with every new release. Their songs showcase two accomplished pop songwriters, something quite rare among electronic musicians. The following interview sheds light on their creative process and what seems to be their main font of inspiration: synths.
What motivated you to start making music?
NICK: Mom, Dad, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, friends…
You guys have a past in hip hop, but your music sounds nothing like hip hop. Has that experience shaped your current sound at all?
NICK: Absolutely. We reference hip hop and specific producers all the time in the studio. We really learned about production and engineering through hip hop and working on an AKAI MPC2000 and shitty loop samplers so that heavily informed the way we think about work flow – finding loops and samples and how exactly you edit a loop or a drum hit or whatever – it all stems from what we learned picking apart the beats of Pete Rock, Premier, DIlla, Hi Tek, RZA, El P, Geology, ETC., ETC., as kids trying to learn how to make beats on the MPC.
Have your sources of inspiration and musical influences changed during the years?
NICK: Sure. Or more specifically the pool of inspiration and influences just grows and grows as you get older and discover more and more stuff. Like I said, we still reference a lot of the same stuff we were referencing in my bedroom as kids but every time we find a new record we’re stoked about that gets added to the pile of references. I think it gets back to being somewhat stuck in a hip-hop production frame of mind. We think about things in terms of digging and samples and we’re always looking for new stuff to pull from even if we’re not literally taking samples from records. We are thieves and pirates at heart.
You’ve been making music for more than a decade now. Have you ever felt “creatively bound” by the sound of your old records?
NICK: Ha, no. Perhaps problematically so. Alex and I remain excited about making dance music but if we ever stopped being excited we’d probably do something else.
Is inspiration some kind of random blessing, or is it possible to set it in motion?
NICK: For me it’s both. Sometimes ideas seem to come out of nowhere and sometimes they come as a result of staring at a computer screen/mixing console and banging my head against the wall for a week while exhausting every possible idea until I find the thing that works best.
Do chemical substances of any kind have a role in your band’s creativity?
NICK: Honestly, no. Neither of us really smokes weed nor were we ever heavily into psychedelics. Never tried heroin and coke seems like it would only inspire bad ideas. We drink occasionally in the studio. Does that count? We’re kinda squares I guess.
Looking at the band’s Instagram photos, and reading the rest of this interview, it’s quite likely that these guys get high on gear.
How does the chemistry in the band work, do you guys specialize in different things or do you wear different hats depending on the song?
NICK: Both. We definitely each specialize in different areas but with the exception of vocals (I never sing) there isn’t much that one of us does that the other can’t do or doesn’t do on occasion. For example I’m a drummer, so generally I play all the drums and percussion and do all the drum programming but there are certainly plenty of songs where Alex has played percussion and done drum programming. Likewise, Alex is a far superior piano/keyboard player than I am so generally he does anything remotely complicated in that arena, but I have also played plenty of keyboards on our stuff. So put another way, we don’t have rules about who does what except vocals. Nobody wants to hear me sing.
I try not to tinker with something unless I have a specific idea. If I don’t and I just feel like we’re trying different stuff for the sake of trying new stuff, then it’s probably a good time to put that song away and live with it for a minute.
Do you guys work on the samples/sounds during the compositional process or do you have sound design sessions during which you just focus on creating new sounds/patches that can then be used in future tracks?
NICK: They kind of go hand in hand for me. I usually get excited about a sound/patch and that usually leads to some sort of musical idea. Sometimes the same is true for Alex but often he’ll work on something without thinking about the sounds at all and then we’ll go through and replace everything and flush it out together. Some of the stuff on the last record stemmed from rough things Alex started on his iPad. But I don’t think I’ve ever had a “sound design” session where I make a bunch of patches to be saved and used later. I know some people who do that though.
Electronic music opens so many sonic possibilities that some musicians find it hard to know when a sound is “the best it can be.” How do you refrain from constantly trying new options for the various sounds in your arrangements?
NICK: Oh man. Good question. I try not to tinker with something unless I have a specific idea. If I don’t and I just feel like we’re trying different stuff for the sake of trying new stuff, then it’s probably a good time to put that song away and live with it for a minute.
MUSICAL TOYSWhat is your DAW/Sequencer of choice and why do you prefer it to others?
We use Pro Tools. Mostly out of habit as it’s what we learned on many, many moons ago but in my limited experience with Logic and Ableton it’s still second to none in the ways it handles audio. The MIDI functionality on it sucks which is annoying so I see why others hate it, but we really don’t use that much MIDI nor do much in-the-box sequencing so it’s not that big of a deal for us and again, we like the way it deals with recording and editing audio.
What inspires you the most sonically? Pads? Samples? Loops? Filters? Arpeggiators?
NICK: All of the above. Could really be anything. An arp on a synth, a patch on the modular, some chords on the piano, a drum sound… anything.
Are there any pieces of gear or musical toys that lately made you rediscover the playful side of creating?
NICK: Alex just got into Komplete which I know he’s been having a lot of fun with at home.
What are the plug ins and “in the box” tools you abuse of?
NICK: We really don’t do very much in the box but we bought two UAD Appollos when we moved our studio last year so I’ve found a few of their plugins that I think are pretty great. I wouldn’t say we abuse them, but the AMS Reverb, the Dimension D Chorus and the Ampex Reel To Reel are all pretty awesome. Oh and the Pultec EQ one is is very nice too.
What synths (real or virtual) do you use in your music and why do you love them?
NICK: Too many! Our current favs are my trusty old Yamaha CS15 which is wildly versatile and super fun to use. It can do anything from mean and scary to super funky, poor-man’s Minimoog sort of stuff. It’s one of the first synths I owned and has been heavily used throughout our remixes and both records. Alex recently bought a Roland VP330 vocoder which we’ve been using a lot. Beyond that I’d say our most used synths are my modular ones, the Yamaha CS80 and a Roland Juno 106. All incredibly versatile synths.
What are your favorite guitar pedals? (I don’t hear electric guitar in the tunes but you never know…)
NICK: We use a lot of guitar but are pretty boring when it comes to pedals. Generally we either just go direct or get whatever color we need out of an amp but we make heavy use of the Ibanez CS9 Chorus and the Maestro PS1 on guitar and used a lot of Big Muff on the last record for Fripp style guitar leads. Oh and we love the Strymon stuff and Moog stuff and make heavy use of the Big Sky and Moog delay but not necessarily on guitar. We likewise have tons of rackmount and modular effects that we use a lot like tape delays, older Moog and Roland rackmount stuff but they aren’t pedals per se.
RECORDING SET UP AND MIXING
I’ll assume you do all the recording in DIY fashion… what’s your Mic/Preamp/Digital converter chain?
NICK: Neumann TLM 193 – UA-610 pre – DBX 162 Compressor – UAD Apollo interface. The interface is relatively new but that signal chain gets used for lots of stuff. Every one of Alex’s vocals has been records with that mic, that pre and that compressor. Obviously we use different mics and pres or a variety of mics pres if we are, say, recording a drum set. But that is our workhorse go-to signal chain for sure.
What do you find to be the most challenging aspects of the recording process? On the flipside, what aspects are the most rewarding?
NICK: The most challenging? Finishing. The most rewarding? Finishing.
Many recording musicians find mixing extremely frustrating, do you deal with it or do you rely on a “fresh set of ears” (i.e. external mixing engineer)?
NICK: We’ve almost always had another set of ears for the final stages of finishing our own stuff. Sometimes that means handing over the material completely for someone else to mix (as was the case with Eric Broucek for much of the first record, James on “Hold On”) or sometimes it’s just bringing in someone to help and give perspective as was the case with Chris Zane on “It Gets Dark” and then all of “Dynamics.” But usually I find it very helpful having someone else to help with the last stage of the process.
We’ve almost always had another set of ears for the final stages of finishing our own stuff.
What one piece of hardware/software would you most like to add to your recording setup?
NICK: I’m pretty content with our studio as is gear-wise though there’s always a laundry list of gear I want. I’d love to own a real LA2A one day and I recently used some Steve Albini designed mics (the name of which escapes me) that I really liked. Honestly though the most pressing thing at the moment is probably a new studio space. We both really miss having windows and fresh air.
THE LIVE SHOW
It’s often challenging to translate programmed music to a live setting, what’s your approach to it?
NICK: Oh, it’s a headache. For us the biggest problem is we do all sorts of elaborate, specific stuff in the studio with fussy proprietary old gear and then have to figure out a way to do it live without using ANY of the gear we used in the studio WITHOUT using any backing track. Most of it is old and doesn’t travel very well or is too big and its functionality too specific to warrant bringing on the road to use on only a song or two. So we really look for modern gear that gets close soundwise, and that’s functionally in the ballpark of what we used in the studio. Often that search comes up empty so we have custom stuff made or personally make or modify a lot of the gear on stage to bend it to our will. So, yeah, it’s a tricky one.Do you consider the live show as a faithful translation of your recorded material or simply an opportunity to let your songs free to follow new directions?
NICK: Somewhere in between. We try to do them as faithfully as possible and usually use that as a starting point but often find that there’s something about the recorded version which doesn’t translate live or would just better if done differently so we change it to suit the setting. The songs that are best and most fun to play live are usually the ones that have the most space and deviate the most from the recordings.
What pieces of equipment do you find particularly useful on stage?
NICK; Again! Too much! We use a lot of Dave Smith Instruments stuff like the Mopho and the Prophet 08 are thus far the most practical poly synths we’ve found for live use in terms of both reliability, functionality and versatility. We’ve modded them with chorus and ribbon controllers so we can get some pretty faithful CS80 sounds but it can also get us pretty close to a Juno, Jupiter , an OB8 or a string synth. We also use a lot of Moog stuff like the Voyager which is great and a feature packed as well as the Sub Phatty which gets you a lot of bang for your buck and doesn’t take up a lot of stage or flight case real estate. The “hub” of our live rig is a series of modulars that are equal parts home made, DIY units from synthesizers.com, STG soundlabs, Moon and Analogue Craftsman.