Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Martin Courtney of Real Estate: “We wanted to make a really clean record”

Martin Courtney of Real Estate: “We wanted to make a really clean record”

07 March 2014, 14:00


“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.”


Real Estate

Okay, let’s leave Chicago’s “finest” behind and talk about Chicago’s real finest as Courtney just mentioned them: Wilco. Atlas was recorded at Wilco’s studio in Chicago, so what took this bunch of guys from New Jersey across country? “It was kind of a weird progression of events that led us there,” explains the singer. “Originally when we were recording this album we were talking about dream producers and somebody brought up Jim O’Rourke as somebody who would be incredible. But it was also an impossible dream as I’m pretty sure Jim’s retired as a producer or something, or a little bit off the radar anyway.” Was it about getting O’Rourke, or getting his signature production style? “We wanted to make a really clean record,” says Courtney, “and in his style, so obviously Yankee Hotel Foxtrot got brought up and I think through that someone at our label mentioned Tom Schick who had been working with Wilco in recent years. I’ve always admired how their records sound, especially most of their recent shit. It’s so clean and lush; you can hear every part, you can hear every instrument and where it is in the mix and it just sounds like a bunch of people playing music in a room, and I think that’s what we wanted out of this record. We also really wanted to get out of New York City to record as we’d never done that before!”

As well as recording someplace new, Atlas is the first Real Estate record to feature drummer Jackson Pollis and keyboardist Matt Kallman, formerly of Girls. I ask Martin what the new boys have added to the band’s sound: “Jackson’s been in the band for a while now,” he begins, “and he’s got his own style. He brings his own influences to the table; he’s into all different music but I think he brings a bit more of a Krauty influence…kind of a Michael Rother situation and that comes into play in some of the songs. Not only on drums but he was part of the whole writing process so I’m sure he informed a lot of the stuff that ended up on the record.” With Kallman, it turns out he was something of a late addition to the Atlas sessions: “Matt came in right before we finished the album; we spent a bunch of time just as the four of us working on Atlas and right before we went into the studio I decided it would be really nice to have – I guess a bit with the Wilco influence – some actual really good keyboard parts. For the most part I’d written the keyboard parts in the past but I’m not a piano player! So we figured it’d be nice to bring someone in to the equation that could actually play really well, and Matt Kallman is definitely a really good piano and organ player. So we had him write his own parts with a little direction…and he did a lot of great work!”

A lot of press releases for forthcoming albums can be a chore to read, be it due to being overly-wordy and highfalutin, or down at the opposite end of the scale and outright boring. So it was a relief to read the words accompanying Atlas’s release and be fascinated by some of the names mentioned when it came to album influences. Away from music, the names of artists Fairfield Porter (a new personal favourite now), Milton Avery and Albert York are cited as influences on the sound. Expecting to hear some words on colour, perspective and sound, I ask Martin what it is about those three artists that inspires what we hear on the record….but it turns out the story of the press release isn’t quite that simple. He explains: “Well, I guess to be honest they’re new names for me as well! We had our good friend from high school write our bio for us; his job is as an art critic and works for various websites, so he wrote it and those were his sorta insights when he mentioned those artists and I think….I mean, I like it and when we read it we could have chosen to not keep that…but I like having that outside perspective on our music.” So it’s more about what the listener imagines when listening? “I definitely wasn’t thinking about their art when I was writing the music or anything, it was more just like ‘what does someone else see when they listen to our music?’ And I think it’s kinda neat to have that inform other people’s preconceived notions when they’re listening to our record for the first time.”

Right, so let’s leave that behind and talk musical influences: “It’s funny during these interviews, mentioning the same people,” says Courtney, “but I guess it’s true . Writing the record for some reason I went back into listening to Nick Drake a lot. I admire the way his records sounded too. In general production-wise I was listening to a lot that came out of the 70s especially that drum sound. To me, that’s the pinnacle, that’s the best possible drum sound – that kinda dead, muted 70s drum sound.”

Courtney goes on to reveal he was tempted to add a lot more to the Real Estate palette: “At a certain point I really wanted to include a lot of flutes on the record, really orchestrate it and make it really lush…” What stopped him, I ask? “As we progressed we realised that our sound, just the five of us, is already pretty lush and it would be a little overkill to add too much other stuff. But the general Nick Drake vibe – not necessarily the sad aspects! – Those melodies are so great. Joni Mitchell – I really got into her for the first time last year…and there’s a lot there so that’s really rewarding! To just start listening to her music at this point in my life…it’s really great.” Martin then begins to tell me about Californian Kyle Field, and his Little Wings project: “I’d been a fan of his for a really long time, since high school and we all have in the band. Recently he sorta came back into my life in this pretty crazy way – he played a show in NYC and we got in touch with him just because we were big fans. Actually, we covered one of his songs at a show and a person in the audience texted him to say Real Estate were covering one of his song. It turns out he knew our music and was a fan so we got in touch through that.” Field’s influence over Atlas started in collaboration, as Courtney continues the story: “He didn’t have a band for a show in New York, so he asked Matt and I to play with him and that was the first time I got to meet him! So over the course of the last year we’ve been in touch a lot, I went to California and played guitar with him…and that led me to be listening to his music a lot, he definitely has some pretty direct influences on this record.”

As we come to the end of our time talk turns to what’s next for Real Estate – touring, I’m guessing? “Pretty much!” affirms Courtney. “There’ll be a lot of that, touring, travelling. But like I said, we have all these songs left over, we’ve a bunch of extra music and I’ve also been writing a lot just recently. Some of the songs might not ever see the light of day, or maybe we’ll go back and tweak them…but there’s definitely a couple of songs out there that could have made the record but didn’t fit in…” So can we expect some new music very soon? “I think, hopefully, later this year we’ll be able to put out an EP, a companion to the record, of another five or six songs. That’d be really nice….that’s one thing to look forward to!”

And so there we have Real Estate. Not much changes musically, but this is a band suddenly dealing in the now, simply and effectively. Atlas works because it deals in immediate and familiar emotions. We can all relate to a line like “If I may be so bold / Will you go straight with me?” Pure and unadulterated, like the music. And if there’s more of that to come, then let’s not stop Courtney and company growing up.

Atlas is out now on Domino Records.

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