How Real Estate Blew Jeff Tweedy's Mind
Matt Mondanile and Martin Courtney of Real Estate perform in London.
After finishing his band's newly released third album Atlas, Real Estate singer-guitarist Martin Courtney felt a sense of dread. It's not an emotion you'd expect from a group who just wrapped up the recording process, nor is it one you'd peg to the New Jersey band's laconic, guitar-dappled melodies. "I was worried about how people would react," Courtney explains over the phone. "I could see the landscape shifting away from our style of music between [the band's previous album] Days in 2011 and now, and that was worrisome."
Courtney was also anxious that his band would be forgotten after spending a few years away. "We took a lot of time to write this and didn't play any shows so you worry if people are going to remember you," he says. But Courtney had little reason to fear: Atlas is the band's best album yet.
In between a two-night run of shows in San Francisco, Courtney spoke about recording at Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy's Chicago studio and indie rock's attitude towards the electric guitar.
There aren't a lot of rock musicians who write about being settled in a relationship and the effects of touring on domesticity. Is that what's most interesting to you?
I was trying with this record to be a little more within my own head and write about what was going on in my current life as opposed to telling stories about the past. My exercise when writing was to try to erase any possibility of people calling us nostalgic because people tend to call us nostalgic a lot. I was trying not to be as wistful but it still comes through in the music. That's just the style that we play. It's not afraid of being pretty and not trying to do anything other than make a nice melody.
You've said that you struggle with lyrics. When you were writing Atlas, were there any topics that you didn't feel ready to explore?
Yeah definitely, but that's the thing I found myself writing about. I'd find a way to obscure [a subject] so that it means something to me but could mean something else to someone else. I try to do that a lot with the lyrics, to have them be broad enough so that they could apply to somebody else. I don't mind if people misinterpret the lyrics. I think it's cool.
I heard that Jeff Tweedy stopped by while you were recording at his studio. What were you playing when he was there?
We were tracking a song that ended up not making the record, so that was kind of weird. We were all sitting in our little stations when he walked in, said hello, and shook our hands, and then he sat in the control room while we did a few takes. It was funny because the song had a weird jammy outro. The first part was structured with verse, chorus, verse and then jam. We were figuring out the jam as we went along and after the first take we heard him yell across the room, "That was crazy. That totally blew my mind, like time was slowing down." We were like, "Whoa, thanks," but not really confident in what we were doing because we were just experimenting.
Why didn't that song end up on the album?
It wasn't up to snuff. We recorded so many songs for this album and only 10 of them ended up on the record. A lot of them could have but we chose not to put them on because I was pretty adamant about wanting [Atlas] to be a 10-song record. I like when an album is over and you're wanting to put it back on because it wasn't quite enough. I'm not sure if that song will ever see the light of day. We played that live a couple of times. We played it as far back as summer of 2012. You can find it online because we did it at Webster Hall for 12 minutes and someone posted it on YouTube and then Pitchfork posted it like, "Hear Real Estate debut a 12-minute new song." We were like, "Why did they post that?" It's just an audience member shooting a video and it's not a 12-minute song. It's a five-minute song that we jammed on for an extra seven minutes.