Nine Songs: Real Estate
Before the words ‘existential crisis’ took on their newer and grander meaning, it seemed that New Jersey’s indie icons Real Estate had already begun facing up to the questions threatening their own reality of being a band for over a decade.
As they prepared to release their fifth full-length The Main Thing in February, they wrote an Instagram post promoting their summer European tour with unconventional honesty: “GETTING TO EUROPE IS DIFFICULT AND ($$$) THESE DAYS SO IF YOU DON’T COME THIS TIME WE MIGHT NOT BE ABLE TO COME BACK! WHO KNOWS!”
I remember being both tickled and a little moved at the frankness of this joking-not-joking admission. As I speak with founding members Martin Courtney and Alex Bleeker from their homes in Upstate New York and Marin County, California, respectively, Courtney admits that the self-deprecating humour was Bleeker’s work. “Bleeker likes to be brutally honest, he thinks it's a nice antidote to other artists who basically like to brag about their sold-out shows. If anything, it's kind of nice to be like, 'This show's struggling. Please buy tickets to this show.'”
Reflecting on the changing pressures and responsibilities of being both a professional musician and simply an adult - Courtney now has three children - came to inform the writing of The Main Thing. “Try to hold onto the whole illusion of control,” he sings on the chorus of opener “Friday”, “You made it so that now you hold the only role you know”. But it also helped Courtney reconnect with his old-time friend Kevin McMahon, who produced 2011’s Days. Whilst working together on a project for a film, Courtney explains how it felt surreal but gratifying to be back in McMahon’s studio after eight years.
“We connected in the way that old friends do, and we were in the same space in terms of what I was thinking and writing about for the new record. This weird headspace of feeling a bit lost in terms of where I wanted to go with music, and unsure if this was what I wanted from my life. I’d been doing it for a decade or more and now my life has changed so much, so it was just stopping to think about all that. And then with Trump being elected and everything, it felt like things were falling apart in a way, and it felt weird writing songs - how do I keep making music and have it feel like something that’s worthwhile?”
Bonding with McMahon and perhaps being reminded of a place and time when Real Estate were a little more fresh-faced and impressionable, Courtney floated the idea of demoing new material at the studio with the rest of the band. “I thought Alex would be less into it, because we've tended to use a different producer every time. Going into making a record is really exciting, because there's a lot of potential, so going back to a place where we'd made a record previously wasn't as exciting as going to London or whatever. I was surprised when everyone else was not just down with it, but excited to give it a try. I was even more surprised when it went so well after the first day. We were like, 'This feels really good, we should make the whole record here.'”
Both Courtney and Bleeker give the impression that the release of The Main Thing was significant personally and admit to learning to pay little attention to critical reviews over the years. “We were pretty psyched,” Bleeker tells me, “but I really find out how the fans are responding when we get on the road, so we obviously haven't had that litmus test yet.”
As the coronavirus pandemic spread more vehemently than the Australian bushfires that preceded it, touring was stopped in its tracks, along with almost every other token of normality, and the band’s sustainability faced a crisis of its own. “Honestly, it was a life or death moment for us”, admits Courtney. Continuing in his candidness, Bleeker explains how most of the band’s significant revenue comes from playing live, a reality the music industry has found itself in for many years now.
“We don't know what the future is going to hold. I am curious, just on an intellectual level, how this changes the industry at large over the next year or so, because as we've all kind of known, bands our size - and smaller and much larger - have to tour constantly in order to make a living. It's been a thing to talk about but nothing gets changed, and now it's ‘OK, how do we continue to support artists?’ because obviously people still want to listen to music right now.”
Real Estate fans could at least take some solace in the band’s so-called Quarantour, an augmented reality experience created by their friend and collaborator Craig Allen, which allows users to see the band perform tracks from The Main Thing wherever they point their phone. The project had actually been planned before any mention of lockdown as a new way to promote the record. “We had it in the can and were going to put it out around now anyway,” Courtney explains, “and then all this stuff went down, so we thought about shelving it, maybe it’s a little insensitive. We went back and forth with it and then were like, ‘No it's a good thing, people are looking for different ways to connect with their fans.’”
“We realised pretty quickly it could be so much more resonant given the situation that's going on,” Bleeker continues. “We retooled and rebranded it to encourage staying home and to bring people doing a little bit of entertainment and a way to feel connected. You've seen people doing live streams, which we've done a little bit of too, but I'm interested to see what else we come up with throughout all of this. Things will start to ease up within the next few months, but I don't know if we're going to have concerts for a while, so what are we going to do? How do we keep operating when we can't play shows? I'm optimistic. Call me cautiously optimistic.”
As the U.S. looks to ease lockdown in the coming weeks and months, with the support of their label Domino, Courtney teases the prospect of another album in lieu of a tour. “The conversation is still ongoing. It seems like we'll be able to get together in the same room and work on music well before we're going be able to actually tour. Even before this, I’d been writing a bunch of songs and we were already deep into the conversation about the next record. Maybe by the time we're able to tour again we'll have another album.”
In the meantime, how have they been staying sane under lockdown and maintaining this admirable sense of optimism? For Courtney, it’s been about spending more time with his family and sneaking in any time he can in his newly built studio, whilst working on the yard and keeping a sense of order. Bleeker has been counting his blessings in the beautiful, rural Californian town he lives in and its ample space for walking.
“I'm pretty lucky to be where I am. I put out this thing on Instagram 'Hey, send me cover requests and I'll try and make them.' I'm doing one of those every couple of days. I just finished one today that informed one of the tracks that I chose, because I realised how influenced I was by his songwriting. Someone asked for a Bruce Springsteen song off of his new record, which I hadn't heard, called ‘The Wayfarer’. It's actually pretty good!”
Both Bleeker and Courtney’s song choices reflect the pair’s early years, with the former detailing his first years of getting hooked on music, and the latter taking a route through high school in his later teens. “I think Alex grew up in more of a musical household. His parents played music more in the house growing up, so his musical horizons were widened a little earlier. There are things I could have picked from a younger age - like Weezer - but I focussed mostly on this period in high school, where I started discovering indie music and started forming my musical identity in a way that still stands to this day.”
Interestingly, both also use their selections as a way to springboard into a specific time of their life, rather than picking apart the details of each song. For Bleeker, there’s a running theme of home, brought on perhaps by yearning and empathy for his home state of New Jersey.
“New York and my part of New Jersey are the hardest hit areas in the country right now, and it's like feeling for a sick friend. I feel lucky to have moved away and not have to be there for this, but I also feel almost bad. I see New York on the news and my heart kind of bursts open.”
Alex: “A number of these songs are from when I was pretty young; the first times I can remember really feeling that 'thing' for music, where it really gets its hooks in. So with The Beatles it was obviously hard picking just one, but I remember being so enthralled by "Paperback Writer" as a kid.
“A lot of these songs are songs that my Dad would play in his car driving around the neighbourhood, and the whole Beatles catalogue only got deeper and richer as I got older. But as a kid this was one of a couple of songs that really thrilled me, a 'play it on repeat' kind of thing.
“I don't know what it was that struck me about it, maybe that it's just so catchy and upbeat with that riff at the beginning, it's just ‘Rock and Roll’ man, ha ha! I had no idea what the song was about at the time, I think I remember hearing the lyrics as 'Pay the black writer,' or something about that.
“My Mum and Dad were into music, and still are, but much more casually than I eventually became, but I sang Beatles songs in the crib as a baby, so it just seems ubiquitous to me. It's the plot of that silly movie,Yesterday, but I can't imagine a world without their songs. It's like they've always existed, like nursery rhymes. This melody is so core to pop music and my understanding of it, and that comes from our parents watching them on Ed Sullivan and pumping them into us.”
Alex: “Heck yeah! It's not a joke, it's really good. I listened to Dookie again recently and it definitely is pretty amazing. It's from a similar time period we're talking about with "Paperback Writer" in my life, but kind of for the opposite reasons. “Basket Case” was one of the first songs that was mine, that was devoid of my parents and that I remember being obsessed with.
“This was the ‘90s, early pop-punk and all those other cool ‘90s alternative stuff. I remember hearing Oasis around the same time and hearing "Wonderwall" or something whilst I was waiting for this Green Day single. Then I got the Dookie cassette and then the record, and it resonated with me as one that didn't come from my parents.
“I went back and forth to choose which band to reference for this time and I chose Green Day, because at this time it was the one for me and it lead me to Weezer, but I will say that Weezer's first two records are massively, massively important to the members of Real Estate. We actually had a band called The Blue Album Band that just played those songs. But “Basket Case” was the first one I remember becoming obsessed with as a pretty young kid.”
Alex: “I'm from New Jersey, so it's like a requirement to like him - he's like the patron saint of New Jersey. He's another artist that came down from my Dad and its quintessential Dad-rock. Dad would play him in the car, but then I hit the ground running and became completely obsessed.
“The way that his music hits you is just so emotionally evocative and kind of dramatic, but there was this added thing for me, that I knew he was from New Jersey and had similar circumstances. I was a young kid and I was kind of struggling in school, but I believed in the power of Rock and Roll and he's just right in there. It was exactly what I wanted to hear at the time. Look at "Thunder Road": "It's a town full of losers / I'm pulling out of here to win". What 12 or 13-year-old can't get behind that in the suburbs of New Jersey?
“This one is just the Bruce Song for me. It's kind of this holy nucleus, it's got everything you want from a Bruce song. It's got this huge rolling build that eventually explodes; it's got really evocative lyrics; I love the piano part at the beginning; it's got imagery of being in New Jersey and wanting to bust out.
“One of our friends, Dave Harrington, who was one half of the band Darkside, puts on a holiday show, a sort of Christmas spectacular in New York City every year, and he gets a bunch of people to come and sing Christmas songs. One year I sang "Thunder Road" and he was like 'It's not really a holiday song', but it is! There's bells, and it's special, like holiday time. It's not a Christmas song, but it almost works.
“I don't listen to it enough, to be honest with you. That's what was cool about someone asking me to cover the "Wayfarer" song, because I can say, 'Oh yeah I'm a huge Bruce fan, huge Bruce fan,' but I don't throw it on that often because I think I know what Bruce is and whatever. But every time I go back I wonder why I don't, you know?”
Alex: “If I could draw an analogy: The Feelies are to Green Day as Bruce is to The Beatles, in my overall thing. Bruce is the guy from Jersey but he's this mega superstar, and however he is seen, and still seems, completely unattainable, and like some person from another planet kind of thing. But by the time I was in high school and I was getting into more obscure music, listening to indie rock and edging closer to what Real Estate would become, I learned about The Feelies.
“They're this beloved, post-punk and jangly band and very proto-Real Estate; we're super influenced by them. I found out that they were from exactly where I was from, and they have this modest cult status and were so cool, and it was so attainable. This was real, this was mine, this was my version of what it could be. It was this gateway of thought for me, of what could be possible.
“If you told me back then that we would play with The Feelies and later forge this intergenerational friendship with them, I would be like, ‘Well, that's enough.’ What else do you need? I always try and keep that in perspective, because we're still trying to grow as a band, and then I think of what we've been able to do already and it feels crazy.
“It's funny, the lyrics to this one are a little apt to the current time, but I didn't choose “Moscow Nights” for that reason, I chose it because it was the first one of their songs that I ever heard. I found out they were from New Jersey so I downloaded it. It was the only song of theirs I could find on Napster, which I thought would be a funny thing to talk about, ha ha!
“This one probably means the most, because there's such a personal twist to them and their story and what ended up happening with Real Estate. The other songs are bigger songs that everybody knows, but I would highlight The Feelies' influence as being the most important twist in that combination.”
Martin: “I think with all the songs I picked, I at least wanted to be able to remember the first time I heard them!
“With “We’ve Been Had”, I think my friend had it in his Walkman in high school. Actually, I remember who he was: he was this dude who liked music, but he wasn't one of my music friends, you know? He was really into cars, and he was like, 'This song's so good! It's in a Nissan commercial,' or something.
"I was familiar with who they were at the time, through reading Pitchfork or something like that, but I hadn't heard their music yet. The way the pianos sounded and just the whole production of that song was mind-blowing. It sounded so cool, especially when you're wearing headphones.
“There's a lot of undercurrents to The Walkmen to my musical history, because they're the reason I know Kevin McMahon. When I was in high school, I was in a number of bands, and with one of them we took it more seriously and we wanted to record an album. I wrote a few songs and one of the other main songwriters was Patrick Stickles - the guy from Titus Andronicus - and this guy Andrew Cedermark, who's also still putting out great records.
“We saw on The Walkmen website that their studio was available to rent and we made an album there. We didn't meet any of them, but their in-house guy was Kevin, so that's how we met him and we kept in touch over the years. Recently, because of Kevin's connection to them, we were able to have the drummer Matthew Barrick play some stuff on our record and now he and I are pals. It's really cool, because that guy's a legend in my mind and an incredible drummer.
“The Walkmen were also the reason we hired our manager, because he was managing them at the time. We were vetting different managers and we were like, 'Well Jonathan managed The Walkmen so he's gotta be cool, let's go with Jonathan.'"
Martin: "I remember when Julian, who now plays guitar in Real Estate, played me that song for the first time. This would have been sophomore year in high school, I was fifteen or sixteen and we used to have a band that he wrote the songs for. It was me, Alex, Julian and our friend Dave, and it was called The Enormous Radio.
“We used to practice in Julian's Mum's basement, and I remember he'd probably just discovered it too, but he played Pet Sounds for us. It's one of those things again where I remember specifically where I first heard it.
"That album became very important to me, and then I went down this rabbit hole. I discovered the Smile album, this lost album that had such a good story, especially when you're a kid and you're like, 'Woah there's a lost Beach Boys album?' and trying to piece together my own version of it by finding MP3s online. I guess I chose Pet Sounds because it was the entry point for me, but “Wouldn't It Be Nice” was the one that I connected to the most.
“With any stuff that I've been into this long, I go through waves where I can't listen to it for a while because I've played it too much, but actually I've been getting back into this. I was listening to Smile a lot recently, I found myself craving it."
Martin: “One of the reasons I picked The Microphones is because Alex and I definitely bonded a lot over that album. It was my first experience with home recorded music. It sounds so good and not lo-fi at all, which made it more impressive to me.
“I was shocked to find out that Phil Elverum recorded it himself, but that opened up a doorway for me and my friends to want to find out how we could record our own music. We got a cheap interface and some microphones and started recording songs. It was just for fun, but it was definitely an eye-opening experience.
“Through The Microphones I discovered the whole K Records world and that was one of the reasons I ended up moving out to Washington State for college. I lived in Olympia for a few years, which is where K Records was based and where Phil Elverum recorded those records, or some of them. I just had to be there, you know? Then I got there and I discovered that the scene wasn’t there anymore! But it was definitely a big chapter in my life, which was spurred in a way by discovering The Microphones.
“Lyrically I think I'm indebted to him in a lot of ways, especially on those early records, where he sings a lot about nature and it's very descriptive. To me it was like, ‘Oh, you can write songs and just describe a mental image that describes the thing that you find evocative,’ or at least that's a good starting point for a song.
“That's how I start a lot of songs, I'll describe something, see where that leads me and usually a theme will emerge. And also, it’s the idea of recurring images, he'll describe the same things over and over again in multiple songs. That’s something I find myself doing as well.”
Martin: “The first time I heard this I was in Alex's Mum's living room. OK, I'm just gonna say this story, it may have not been this record, but it was definitely Built To Spill, and I'm pretty sure it was There's Nothing Wrong With Love, although it may have been the previous record.
“But anyway. there was this one afternoon back when we were probably 14, and Alex was like, ‘We're getting into indie rock’, and he had a Pixies CD, and a Built To Spill CD. He must have read about these bands somewhere, because none of us had heard of them. We sat in his Mum's living room and listened to these CDs and were like ‘This music is amazing! What is this? This is so different to anything we'd ever heard!’
“This one was my favourite from that record. It was just learning that you can make pop songs that sound weird or sloppy, but are still well crafted. There's a lot of thought that's gone into it, but it's really loose. It's like the way you hear people describe hearing punk rock for the first time, like 'I can actually do this! I don't need to be a rock god to play shows, I can do this thing my own way.'
“His lyrics are good enough to keep everything together, but the thing that I connected to with Built To Spill was more that big-small thing they did, where it would get really quiet and then it would explode into these crazy guitar solos that sounded like a vacuum cleaner or something."
Martin: “One of the main reasons I picked “Rain On” was because it was from the era of Woods when we met them. We were just starting out as a band and they were relatively established, although it's funny looking back on it, they'd probably only been around for maybe two or three years, but they felt like these super cool, older brother types and we became really good friends with those guys.
“We were probably on the same bill a couple of times and then we started talking to them. Obviously, we put out our first record on Jeremy [Earl]'s label, Woodsist, which was our goal, our dream. We were super, super excited. We ended up touring with them a bunch of times and later I made a solo record with Jarvis [Taveniere], but he also recorded a number of tracks on our first record; I always forget which ones, but he also recorded "Out of Tune", which is on Days. So there's that and we still play their Woodsist festival every year that we can. It's almost like a philosophical connection that we made with them, in terms of how we choose to approach making music.
“When I hear this song it takes me back to that time, which was such an exciting time for me, my friends and this band. It was right when we were just starting to take off and doing our first tours and there's a lot of fond memories of that time. We booked the first tour we ever did ourselves and we played house shows on our way down to Austin, Texas, for South By Southwest in 2009. We played all the unofficial showcases, because we didn't have a badge or whatever.
“We played this Todd P showcase, which was pivotal for us. Todd P was, especially about a decade ago, the show promoter in Brooklyn. We used to go to Todd P shows in high school and there was a whole scene around his shows. When we did his South By showcase and that was our first time meeting him and his first time seeing us, and after that he put us on a ton in New York, which was obviously helpful for us. But at the end of that showcase, us and Woods sat under a tree with acoustic guitars and played a bunch of Woods songs, and I specifically remember playing that song.
“Of all these songs, this is the one that means the most, because it also conjures friendships and physical memories and really affected the trajectory of my life in a positive way. We called it 'Real Woods'! And whenever we toured after that we'd do some covers together. We even covered "No Rain", the Blind Melon song, which is quite interesting and we'd all be like 'Real Woods! Real Woods is coming out!'
"You know, it was a joke, but it meant a lot, maybe more so for us in Real Estate, but it was exciting to get to do stuff like that with people we respected.”