“The phone lines / the street lights / led me to you / and if you sit tight / I’ll be there soon” – “Green Aisles” from 2011’s Days
“We can talk for hours / but the line is still engaged / we’re not getting any closer / you’re too many miles away” – “Talking Backwards” from 2014’s Atlas.
Real Estate seem like a fairly content with their lot kinda group. They’ve a sound that doesn’t change much – well, they are that rare thing, a pure and simple guitar band – and as you can see through those lyrics, from records separated by three years, there’s a certain yearning and keening quality to the music produced by the New Jersey quintet of Martin Courtney, Matt Mondanile, Alex Bleeker (high school friends) and newer members Jackson Pollis and Matt Kallman.
From their debut Real Estate to the gorgeous Days, Real Estate had an air of nostalgia about them: Courtney, Mondanile and Bleeker seemed to make music that tried to push back towards their teenage years, filtered through hazy and languid guitar lines, influenced by Galaxie 500, fellow New Jersey band The Feelies and every jangling guitar band since early period R.E.M, beautiful melodies and song writing which was honest without ever being mawkish.
Touring throughout 2012 changed the band in one way at least. They started to grow up and settle down, men approaching their late twenties who decided to let go of that teenage nostalgia and write in and about the present. Singer and guitarist Courtney got married, and new album Atlas sort of straddles that world between being a teenager and a grown up with responsibilities. Yet a new found maturity doesn’t change what Real Estate sounds like: they’re still a guitar band, still writing songs that chime in both those worlds; intricate and interlocked guitar lines meet motorik drumming and lush, slightly ambient keyboards on an album that begs to be listened to as a whole. On the phone from New York, sitting in his car, Courtney explains to me how Atlas started to come together: “Well, y’know, we toured through a lot of 2012 on Days and in the fall we took some time off and that’s when I kinda started writing,” explains the 28-year-old. “Matt and Alex were working their own stuff; Matt finished his Ducktails record, and they did some touring while I was writing. We spent most of winter and spring working on the songs, and we spent a good eight or nine months just writing the record before actually recording it! It was a year-long process.”
Going back to those lyrics from lead single “Talking Backwards” and also taking into account other songs that sing of separation, dislocation and distance, it sounds like Atlas is a road record. I ask if these songs came together while on tour: “I have a hard time writing when we’re on the road,” says Courtney, revealing that he can’t really write while on the road. “Sometimes during soundcheck I’ll bring a little nylon stringed acoustic just to have something to play with…sometimes I’ll come up with a chord progression, or a little riff that I try and file away for later but for the most part I have to have dedicated time to really write. So no, it wasn’t written on the road but there’s definitely a lot of lyrics reflecting on being on the road, and that’s been a large part of my life for the past couple of years. That and with my personal life…a kind of balance between the two so maybe that’s what comes through in the lyrics.”
Atlas is that rare thing: a proper album with a thread of a mood right through from start to end, musically and lyrically. It works as a whole rather than a collection of songs, so I assume it’s a fair question to ask if one particular song sparked the process. Courtney bursts my bubble straight away: “ Umm, no not really! Maybe like one of the older songs, one of the ones that made it on to the record was “Past Lives” but lyrically I didn’t sit down intending to write all these songs or there to be a theme between them…if there are themes that tie them together it’s just because that’s where my head was at rather than it being a decision I made to write a certain way or anything like that.” The New Jerseyite continues to explain the actual process: “We ended up with about nineteen songs so there was a sort of process in whittling them down to make the most exciting and, like, solid record that worked well from front to back. But even then that wasn’t a decision based on lyrics – that was on the sound of the song and making sure each flowed into the next well and had a cohesive sound.”
Three years is a long time to be off the scene, especially in these days when artists are making music in a variety of exciting styles away from traditional guitar music, so Courtney must have worried about the possible reaction to new Real Estate material. “Oh yeah definitely!” he exclaims. “I was kinda worried going into this record as we’d been off the radar for a while as far as indie rock or music in general goes. People move on pretty quickly and it’s true that our particular sound is maybe a classic sound but not necessarily what’s popular right now, not like the trendiest thing. So I was worried that people were gonna think that we were stagnating, or just not care at all….and you know people haven’t really heard the record yet.” It’s the Pitchfork effect I worry about, and how much influence that site has when they decide there’s a certain act or genre that everyone needs to hear or be like, and any act that’s not making music in the style of the flavour of the month suffers and is forgotten about. I ask if Real Estate was concerned that they’d miss out on Pitchfork’s seal of approval (in any case “Talking Backwards” did get the Best New Music approval) given their general style hasn’t obviously changed and they’re essentially a classic guitar band.“It was surprising and obviously really gratifying and exciting to know that when the single came out and it got a good review and Pitchfork gave it whatever it was,” says Courtney. “I definitely was worried about Pitchfork’s reaction; they’ve been mostly covering stuff that didn’t necessarily sound like us! But it’s the most we could have hoped for, to pinpoint us as…the guitar band now, which is cool. I think it’s great!”
We continue to talk about the influence, pernicious or otherwise, of Pitchfork and its ever-expanding empire. I say that it’s not healthy to have such domination, to which Courtney agrees but explains that Real Estate are not the only act to have these concerns: “I think that’s true for all bands – I think everyone hates that! Because it sucks when there’s one sorta institution that dictates a culture…like the culture of indie music or whatever, or young people that are into a certain style.” Is there anything he and the band can do to change that? “I mean…maybe. I think that one of the goals for us – I mean obviously it’s nice that they still say nice things about us – is to branch out beyond that and not have Pitchfork as the biggest thing or the be-all and end-all of our coverage. There are a lot of bands that don’t need Pitchfork, or get a shitty review on Pitchfork and still do well. Like Wilco, for example. They don’t need Pitchfork. That would be our goal; that we could get a bad review and it wouldn’t matter. Saying that, if they wanna give us a good review we’re not complaining.”