In Conversation: Real Estate

In Conversation: Real Estate

“I wanted to make sure these songs were bulletproof...”

Martin Courtney is driving across Connecticut, on a last-minute journey to collect his two young children's passports for an upcoming trip to Mexico. "We’re going to Mexico City on a promo trip for the band, so I decided to turn it into a family holiday."

For Real Estate's principle songwriter and founder, family is never far from his mind in his musings and meditations on the band's fifth studio album 'The Main Thing', released last week. "Going into this record, I was trying to keep in mind how lucky we are, still being in this band and having built the audience we have... to be able to keep doing this and to have people still come out to see us."

Now in their second decade as a band, Courtney is feeling more reflective than ever before. "I wanted to make sure these songs were bulletproof. I wanted to make this record good."

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Since their formation in 2009, the indie rock band from New Jersey have released four critically acclaimed albums, solo projects, and a Real Estate signature red wine. In tune with such fragmentation, revolving band members, and ageing, their sound of hazy rock, relaxed vocals and jangly guitars has new aspirations on their latest project.

"There was a lot of anxiety going into this record. Largely because I've been feeling a lot more anxiety, feeling that this could all go away. Being in a band is fragile and fickle... or I guess people and audiences are."

And it’s not like Real Estate haven't had their fair share of fickle audiences; he tells me they played Coachella a couple of years back to a crowd of 25 people. Due to unfortunate scheduling, Kendrick Lamar had been on at the same time. "It was incredibly depressing. It is a horrible feeling, thinking you’re just completely irrelevant."

The new record has taken three years and showcases only a slight departure from their quintessential jaunty, indie rock. Whilst stomping familiar ground, the album is a conscious attempt to avoid Courtney's dreaded irrelevancy for the band. "We thought it has to be special. We’ve been a band for over ten years, and this record felt different," Courtney tells me. "It just felt like I needed to take it more seriously, because the rest of my life has become more serious. The world has become more serious."

Alongside other bands of longevity such as The Strokes or Radiohead, Real Estates founding members and newcomer Julian Lynch were childhood friends. "Alex (Bleeker) is one of my oldest best friends, I met him when we were 12. it definitely makes the band feel like almost a family, it becomes more than merely a creative project."

Courtney, Bleeker and Matt Mondanile played in bands together growing up in New Jersey, forming a bond over their mutual love of Weezer, Pavement and PIXIES. Courtney seems anguished in nostalgia, "it’s kind of hard to listen to those bands now. When I was 13, there was nothing better in the entire world. They were the coolest thing imaginable. They blew my mind."

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For a band such as Real Estate to continue hoping for such longevity, experimentation and change in sound is both inevitable and something they have always stubbornly resisted. During 'The Main Thing's preliminary stages Courtney had no intention of collaborating. "I just initially didn’t look at Real Estate as the type of band to work with outsiders. I thought of us as a sealed-up unit, it’s kind of awkward or uncomfortable opening up the creative process that way."

'Paper Cup' is a standout on the record, a collaboration with Amelia Meath from synth-pop duo Sylvan Esso, a collusion strongly encouraged by Real Estates producer Kevin McMahon. "He just kept bringing different collaborations up. He was like, 'what if my friend played bongos on this track?' We assured him we could play the bongos ourselves."

Finally conceding to collaboration gave Real Estate room for much needed experimentation and to explore new techniques. The result is a more expansive and vaster record, with Courtney agreeing that their arrangements benefitted from the ‘outsiders’ he once so feared. In 'Paper Cup', Courtney croons anxieties of being ‘stuck in a rut’ after 10 years of musicianship.

'The Main Thing' is evidence of them opening up their creative inner circle, reigniting the band whilst making sure to not alienate their fans. Real Estate previewed new songs last year on tour, an attempt to gauge fan reactions prior to the official release.

"Our fans are really cool, they definitely humoured us. After a while, people started to know certain unreleased songs. That’s really something for us... we used to love how Animal Collective and Radiohead did this. They’d always play unreleased tracks and fans on the internet would connect the dots trying to figure out which song was which."

They recorded much of the record on the road and playing the new songs live helping them work out what did and didn’t work. Real Estates recording process has changed over the years with band members now displaced across the US. This of course carries the danger of the record sounding disparate but is an inevitable consequence of a band growing up, maturing and entering family life.

Whimsical nostalgia has always threaded through Courtney's lyricism. 'The Main Thing' however has Courtney feeling a little more existential. "When we first started the band, I was 22 years-old and right out of university. Now I'm 34 and I've got a family. My life has changed so much and I just found myself taking an aerial view of my life. I wanted to examine what is important to me. I love making music and want to continue... but I don’t want it to feel silly."

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Anxieties seep into the record with 'You' standing out as an existentialist, pondering song about the world Courtney fears his children will grow up into. "Trump was elected, things just feel darker this time... the world we are living in and the way that it’s going. That song in particular is me coming to terms with the fact that you are responsible for the environment that your child is going to be cognisant in, you are responsible for their first memories."

Anything less than a more serious tone would have been out of place in recent years, following Matt Mondanile’s shock exit from the band in 2016 due to allegations of sexual misconduct. Real Estate’s subsequent maturation and the politicisation of Courtney’s lyrical topics reflect a conflicting desire by the band to strive for a new kind of perfection, break out their old mould, but remain true to the fans that have stuck by them.

"I wanted to write songs that feel meaningful to me, because for a lot of people this music is meaningful. I guess I was just feeling the weight of it, having met people on tour who tell me how much our music means to them. That's a really special thing that I wanted to take seriously."

Yet, they are still battling that age-old dismissal of their songs as ‘chill’ or ‘background music’. He feels warranted fatigue at this critique. "The people that say that - journalists, reviewers, super casual listeners - they only have a surface read of our music. If you look on the surface, you can be forgiven for understanding it as chill."

Courtney’s learnt to justify it to himself, "if people listen as background or study music, that’s cool. There's a lot of music that works for me on that level."

What Real Estate are, is reliable; and Courtney's passion and commitment to making what he believes to be their best record yet is palpable. Whilst satisfying fans, they’ve made an introspective record that asks you to delve just that little bit deeper.

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Catch Real Estate at the following shows:

June
11 Leeds Brudenell Social Club Sold out
12 Leeds Brudenell Social Club 
13 Dublin Vicar Street
14 Glasgow Queen Margaret Union
20 London Roundhouse

Words: Daisy Lester
Photo Credit: Jake Michaels

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