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Martin Courtney's Personal Best

22 February 2024, 09:00
Words by Ashwin Bhandari

Original Photography by Sinna Nasseri

Ahead of the release of Real Estate’s sixth full-length album, Martin Courtney talks Ashwin Bhandari through the band’s departure from jangle pop as he selects his favourite songs from the group’s career so far.

It’s 10am on a foggy morning in Shoreditch and Real Estate’s Martin Courtney sits across the table in his best jumper; the bright lights of the cafe reflecting from the rim of his glasses.

It can certainly be a daunting task selecting only five songs from a 16 year career, two of which he’s happy to lift from Real Estate’s latest offering Daniel. With the band’s name a reference to his back-up plan if the whole music thing didn’t work out, Martin is eager to discuss what the band has in store prior to their stripped-down show at Rough Trade East later in the evening.

Before we begin, it’s clear his mind is on the upcoming album as he dives into discussing one of the recent singles from Daniel, “Water Underground”. It’s release was accompanied by a music video inspired by ‘Adventures of Pete & Pete’ he explains. While the early 90s’ live-action Nickelodeon TV show never specified its real life geographical location, many local viewers could easily recognise that it was filmed in and around Leonia, New Jersey, close to Real Estate’s native town of Ridgewood. “It definitely resonated with me as a kid,” he says with a warm smile, “and for a tonne of people that lived in New Jersey at the time.”

Segueing back to music, Courtney notes R.E.M as one of his biggest influences, and how, in a way, they’ve come to embody the notion of ‘dad rock’. Several members, including Courtney himself, are now dads themselves, but what they really wanted to achieve he explains, was to make something that steered away from that indie rock sound and all the signifiers that come with it. “We wanted to experiment more with acoustic instrumentation,” he confesses. “We weren’t intentionally trying to sound 90’s but there’s not many other artists doing that type of overtly pop sound anymore, so it’s coming from an indie rock place but not sounding super stylized in any particular way. I guess [that’s] what we were trying to go for.”

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Outside of their critically-acclaimed success over the course of their career, Real Estate also contributed original songs to the 2019 romantic comedy ‘Plus One’. As Courtney revealed on a podcast in 2021, he’s been fairly interested in scoring films and TV series. “To me it’s like, ‘how do you take my melodic sensibility and translate it to something else’,” he muses, “it’s fun to fuck with arrangements, to take one element away and replace it entirely. It definitely takes me out of my comfort zone.”

Elaborating, he continues: “I was helping out a friend and recently made a theme song for their TV pilot sitcom which sounds very 90’s. I absolutely want to do more of it. Removing drums and adding string parts, for example, to me has always helped elevate things as opposed to a traditional band or rock and roll stuff. It’s still a new thing for me but I am very much hoping that it turns into something!”

As he ponders the future, we return to the reason he’s here; turning the clocks back over a 16 year career to discuss Martin Courtney’s hand-selected personal best.

"Green Aisles" by Real Estate (2011)

BEST FIT: On “Green Aisles”, a standout lyric for me is where you talk about blacking out on a bicycle. Is that something that actually happened?

MARTIN COURTNEY: Definitely a few times! At that point I was 23, singing about college and writing about coming home from parties or visiting a friend and cycling home. It’s a nice, warm feeling.

Was this written around the time you had all finished high school?

Yeah for sure. The rest of my band members all went to different colleges, I went to one that was very far away from home but we would meet up in our hometown over summers and gradually share ideas with one another. To test out the material, we used to host parties in people’s basement and play to our friends, sort of like an impromptu little dance together. At that time it felt like all of our friends were so creative and wrote songs so ultimately it was about sitting around and playing what we had to each other.

Cover of the 2011 Real Estate release Days

"Hard To Hear" by Real Estate (2014)

BEST FIT: So this song is clearly about being away from the ones you love, does that ever get any easier?

MARTIN COURTNEY: It's sad, like, my kids are getting older and every year it gets harder to leave because there's more responsibility at home. That song is pretty much about what I still experience if I have to travel. It's about being on the road and it is very hard to communicate with somebody with missed connections. It's gotten much harder, actually. My wife works, she's got a pretty demanding job at home and so when I'm not doing this I’m driving my kids to school, like making dinner and stuff, your typical stay-at-home dad.So then, when I leave to do stuff like this, there's a gap there to be filled by grandparents and stuff gets harder. So yeah, “Hard To Hear” still rings true. That whole album [Atlas] was about trying to maintain relationships whilst on the road and that was where my head was at.

I’ve always loved the music video you put out for it, Richard Law did a great job with making your travels seem so wholesome.

He was one of our friends growing up, so we got the label to pay to fly him out to Mexico City before one of our biggest shows. We had no idea what the concept was going to be other than following us around, going on a riverboat and wearing all white. It felt like a home video and would have been very different with a whole film crew – I feel like there would have been more of a standoffishness to it.

Cover of the 2014 Real Estate release Atlas

"Gone" by Real Estate (2020)

BEST FIT: Again, this is another track with a really great music video, I love the way the metronome becomes more and more distorted as the track goes on. How did that ‘live from a refrigerator’ session come about?

MARTIN COURTNEY: So that was on the record that we recorded in 2019 and then the pandemic happened. Our keyboard player Matt’s older brother makes television commercials with his partner, Craig Allen, they were very successful. They did the Old Spice ads and Skittles ads, almost inventing the genre of weird, surrealist ads. But his partner, who also happens to be friends with Matt our keyboard player and comes to shows all the time. He was always like, ‘I wanna do something for you guys,’ and he's a supremely talented creative guy – always seems to have a million ideas. So we were like, ‘You should just work with us on this whole album.’

One of the things he did was the insane squirrel video that we made for Paper Cup. He had this idea where we could do an augmented reality type thing where we would shoot a live set in front of a green screen,and then there could be an app or website on your phone where it's like, ‘oh, we're playing on this [points to table] plate here.’ So he edited one where you were in a refrigerator that he made in a funny creative way where the big fridge that we were inside would close and the music would get muffled and stuff.

Can you remember what you were referring to in your life with the lyric “life in the mirror is all I want to get back”?

That’s another touring reference. I don’t even know what I meant by life in the mirror, maybe physically looking through glass? It just sounded cool to me, but what I was getting at was needing to get out and wanting to go home.

Cover of the 2020 Real Estate release The Main Thing

"Interior" by Real Estate (2024)

BEST FIT: Out of all the new songs from Daniel, what made you choose “Interior” as a personal best pick?

MARTIN COURTNEY: It was one of my personal favorites when I wrote it, and quickly became a favorite for the rest of the band in the studio. I also realized very quickly that it sounds like “September Gurls” by Big Star with the turnaround stuff at the beginning. But I loved the way that it came together, building up to a big guitar solo, and it felt very classic.

Initially Daniel Tashian [who produced the record] said it needed more energy and found the song in its current form a bit underwhelming. My reaction to that in my head was ‘no, that’s not what the song is,’ and other people in the band were like ‘you can’t fuck with this song, it’s perfect!’ But Daniel ended up doing this thing during recording that I never would have thought to do, and our drummer was eventually like ‘I agree, I want to fucking rip!’ which made the end result sound quite funky. I just love the way it ended up coming out and it sparked this new energy that it didn’t have before.

On that very first lyric “Get in the car, I’ve got a song I’ve been dying to show you,” was that in reference to showing someone the demos from Daniel or just yearning to share a new song you’ve heard on the radio that’s stuck in your head?

It’s a feeling of being obsessed with a new song, putting it on 20 seconds before you leave the house in your car and then playing it like it’s no big deal!

Cover of the 2024 Real Estate release Daniel

"You Are Here" by Real Estate (2024)

BEST FIT: Lyrically, “You Are Here” feels like the most existential Real Estate song you’ve written to date, especially with the line “we are all darkness, we are fire and rust, we are all made of dust.” What was your thought process in tying the whole song together?

MARTIN COURTNEY: I think initially the starting point of the song where I say ‘what is it that you want to hear, what can I say to you’ links back to miscommunication during arguments and not knowing what to say. So then I went on a hike and I was definitely in this headspace where in the long run we are all completely insignificant and nothing matters. At the same time though, whilst that might be true, it doesn't mean you should stop caring and you still need to treat people right.

I wasn’t expecting this song lyrically to go in this direction, it’s not meant to be ultra deep but it feels like I was able to work out some stuff in my head. I knew immediately what I wanted the melody to be which is weird because the way I had it mapped in my head was going to be almost like a fast punk song that I felt we needed because the record was so poppy. But, I mean, the end product is very strange, doesn't sound like Real Estate at all, more like “Autumn Sweater” by Yo La Tengo or something. I’m only playing piano on this song and the final version ended up being a lot more psychedelic and feels much better as a closer. So the last bit of the song is kind of like a jam where we all stopped playing one by one rather than having it fade out, it made the closer a bit longer but at the end of the day, who cares right?

Cover of the 2024 Real Estate release Daniel

Daniel is out 23 February via Domino

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