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Q&A: Real Estate’s Martin Courtney on His Band’s New Album and Being Stuck on the ’70s

Talking with the Real Estate guitarist and songwriter about marriage, Yo La Tengo, Pitchfork, ’70s soft rock, and the band’s great upcoming third album, Atlas.

On Tuesday, the Brooklyn-via–New Jersey jangle-pop band Real Estate announced that its third album, Atlas, will be released March 4. The record was recorded in just two weeks in Chicago at Wilco’s home studio, The Loft, with producer Tom Schick (who is perhaps best known, in my mind at least, for his work on Ryan Adams’s Cold Roses). The Wilco association isn’t purely one of professional convenience — on Atlas, Real Estate openly aspires to the relaxed gravitas of the well-respected, trend-averse legacy rock band. The record’s consistent excellence suggests that Real Estate is well on its way to achieving that kind of status.

After touring extensively in support of 2011’s Days, Real Estate entered the studio to make Atlas in peak performance shape. Befitting a band that draws on the lineage of classic guitar-pop bands — the Byrds, Beach Boys, Good Earth–era Feelies, and Weezer have been hardwired into its DNA from the beginning — Real Estate essentially plugged in, banged out the tracks, and, after some light overdubs, came away with its most organic album to date. (The additions of keyboardist Matt Kallman and drummer Jackson Pollis aided greatly in giving Real Estate a fuller live sound.)

I was lucky enough to receive a promo of Atlas in December, and just as 2009’s Real Estate and Days did upon first listen, Atlas quickly came to dominate my iTunes play counts. It’s hardly a radical reinvention of the Real Estate formula — the focus on Atlas remains on Martin Courtney and Matt Mondanile’s chiming guitars, Alex Bleeker’s subtly incisive bass lines, and unadorned songs with stunningly beautiful melodies. But in terms of tone, Atlas is very much a “mature third album,” moving on from the youth-obsessed themes of the first two records to ruminations on reconciling the responsibilities of adult relationships with the life of a touring musician. This is Real Estate’s “road” album, in other words.

Last week I spoke on the phone with Courtney, Real Estate’s principal songwriter, about Atlas and how he sees the band evolving. Other topics included marriage, Yo La Tengo, Pitchfork, ’70s soft rock, and the power of a groovy rhythm section.

Lyrically, these sound like road songs to me. There are allusions to feeling dislocated, lost time, and being away from people that you love. Is that an accurate assumption on my part? Were these songs written on the road?

A good amount of them were, for sure. With our last record, we definitely were on the road a lot more than we ever were before, so that’s the thing that you find yourself writing about. It’s funny, though, because I didn’t write them on the road. When you’re touring, it’s really hard to find the time to sit down — well, I guess we have nothing but time, but I’m not very inspired when I’m sitting in a van. So, it was all really written after the whole Days cycle was over with. I think it was sort of looking into the future, like, Well, here we go again. I’m going to make another record. That is where these songs were going to end up once they came out.

Real Estate songs often have a nostalgic tone, but on this record you seem to be deliberately fixating on the present and future. Is that a reaction to how the band has been perceived?

Yes. Musically, we are who we are. We’re not going to sit down and decide to make some drastic change in our instrumentation and change our sound, really, because we all see ourselves as the kind of band that just stays with a guitar-heavy, timeless sound. I wouldn’t want to change that. If anything, I personally did not want to fall into a rut. The things that people said about us — “Well, they’re very nostalgic” — that became a cliché with a lot of bands.

I got married right after we finished the Days cycle — living in Brooklyn and not really being happy with living in Brooklyn because it’s, like, I have an urge to live in the suburbs and settle down like an old man or something. That’s kind of who I am deep down.

That happens when you get married.

Yeah, I think so.

That happened to me when I got married. When you get married, it’s like, Well, I already found the person I want to hang out with all the time, so I don’t need to go out and try to find that person.

Yeah. Like, I love it here. I still live in New York, and this is where all my friends are, and it definitely makes it easy to do the band and all that stuff. I’m not complaining too much, but I think there’s this part of me that’s like, you know, I would love to have a yard and a dog. So I think, in a way, it’s a conscious choice to not be writing about high school. That stuff is sort of where Days was at. I was writing about a specific time. I think I’m maybe a little bit more confident in my songwriting, because it’s scary to want to write about your current situation. It’s a little more personal, I think.

You were talking before about how Real Estate essentially has a signature sound, which is a very “classic guitar-pop” oriented. There aren’t a whole lot of new bands like that in indie rock right now. It’s much trendier to go in a more retro top-40 pop direction. Do you think at all about where you fit in right now with other indie rock groups?

I mean, it’s weird. I definitely think about that a little bit. I think about how I don’t really listen to a lot of new music, like it doesn’t really appeal to me. I don’t know how that sounds, but that’s just the truth. The only music I really listen to is — especially these days for the past year — has just been music from the ’70s, pretty much. And the ’60s, but mostly the ’70s for some reason. I’m just really into that zone. I definitely pay attention to new bands and all that stuff, and we’re still young as far as bands go. We’re, like, midlevel for indie rock. We’ve got two records out. We’re not Deerhunter, you know? They’ve been around longer than us, and there’s bands that have been around much shorter than us, so I feel like we have that perspective.

I feel kind of old sometimes when I listen to new bands, and they’re probably the same age as me or maybe a little younger. But I’m like, Well, we’re never going to sound like that. We’re never going to have super ’80s reverb snare drums. That’s not our vibe at all. So, yeah, it’s kind of funny. I know the path that we’re going down and it’s not to say that we fear change or anything, it’s just I think I like this sound. If anything, we have other outlets to do other things if we really wanted to make a huge change. But I think it’s a good thing for a band to feel comfortable. This feels comfortable to us.

It does make me feel a little out of touch. Seems to me when I read Pitchfork these days, they’re covering R&B and hip-hop and stuff and we’re this outlier of — if and when they cover us — we’re going to be this little jangly thing. Like, we’re back! [Laughs.]

Wilco is a band that has stuck around for a long time no matter what was happening elsewhere in music, and now they’re like an island unto themselves. You made this record at Wilco’s loft. Is Wilco a role model for Real Estate going forward? Do you think of Real Estate in those terms?

Yeah. I mean, who wouldn’t say that? Who wouldn’t want that? But I think that’s definitely something I’ve thought about a lot. Those are the bands that I admire the most. The band that has fully defined itself and stands alone in a field and Wilco’s a good example. Yo La Tengo is like my all-time favorite band, and they’re a good example of that. Basically after the first record, when I saw that maybe this could be something that’s viable, that we could keep doing, I always saw us as a career band. When we made this record, you go through phases of — like, I’m really proud of this record — but you go through phases of self-doubt. When I feel that way, I try to remember like, well, this is just one record in what will eventually be a long line of records that we’re putting out. We’re building a repertoire here.

You mentioned that during the making of this record that you were listening to a lot of music from the ’70s. Is there anything in particular that was sticking out for you?

When I was in high school, I think a lot of kids go through a phase of being really into Nick Drake. I don’t know, I did. I sort of rediscovered him last year. I don’t know if that necessarily comes through in the songs. I mean, we’re not a brooding acoustic guy, but that’s one thing. Especially the one record, Bryter Layter, that’s a little more orchestrated. It’s got a full band playing with him. I think a little bit of that made its way into my head, for sure. I got really into Joni Mitchell for some reason. I always liked her music, but I listened to her a lot. There’s another one. I guess sort of the obvious stuff. Like, I’d never really listened to CSN — that’s obviously pretty great. Just revisiting a lot of stuff. You know, like Dylan, when that Self Portrait reissue came out, that’s good stuff.

We’ve always sort of fancied ourselves as a soft rock band. I feel like our spiritual ancestors are like Jackson Browne. We’re trying to be this smooth, groovy-type band. If we had our way that’s exactly what we’d sound like, ’70s soft rock.

Like Bread.

Yeah, exactly. Like Bread through the prism of people that can’t really play as well.

Is there anything in particular that you hear in those older records that you’re not hearing now and that you’re trying to put into your own records?

We’re trying to use a lot of acoustic guitar. Just texturally, it really, really adds a lot. It’s not even necessarily ’70s — like if you listen to a lot of records that just sound really good, you realize there’s a lot of acoustic guitars in it and you don’t even notice, but it’s there and it’s adding this great textural quality. There’s that. We got this new keyboard player, this guy Matt Kallman, who used to be in Girls. He came out and played on the record with us and he’s a really great player. I think a lot of bands, myself included, it’s like, “Well, we need some keys. I know how to play some basic chords, so that’s good enough. Let’s just get a Casio and I’ll repeat the melody.” But actually having a really nice piano part that really complements the song, or a really nice organ part where you can actually have it stand alone in the mix and have it really be like a nice addition to the song, that’s a little more rare these days, I think.

When we made Days we were between drummers. Matt [Mondanile] and I played drums on that record and our friend Sam played some drums. We were just trying to have the most basic drum parts possible. They’re holding down the beat, but it’s not necessarily adding anything to the song. I think for this record, definitely having Jackson [Pollis], who’s a really great drummer, write his own parts [made a difference]. That’s another thing: I think just having a tight, groovy rhythm section is important. We played together for two years after Days came out. We know how to play together well.

This is certainly the most live-sounding record that Real Estate has made.

That’s definitely a huge part of it. Pretty much every take on the record is a full live take — like guitar, bass, drums, all playing together in a room. That was a big part of it for us, trying to capture that feeling. Because we knew going into the studio we had spent so much time on these songs, we would sit there in the practice space and be like, well this sounds pretty good. We don’t want to mess with this too much. With Days, it was like we did it piecemeal and so for my rhythm guitar parts, I was sitting there in the control room playing a guitar with headphones on, just trying to play it as perfect as possible, trying to get every little arpeggio right. With this record, I wasn’t really focusing on that as much, and I think it comes through in a way that it’s less rigid. It feels a little more organic, I guess.