Real Estate, “Images Of Growing Up”

A conversation with Martin Courtney on memories, songs and (erm) real estate

The music created by Real Estate is infectious company. Like an old friend who can disarm with a succinct, yet brilliant observation; it is both charmingly restrained and fiendishly astute. We spoke to Martin Courtney – the bands singer and guitarist – ahead of Real Estate’s performance at San Miguel Primavera Sound.

Martin Courtney, the singer and guitarist of Real Estate, grew up in Ridgewood; a wealthy New Jersey town about half an hour from Manhattan. He now makes glorious guitar-driven pop, alongside four of his childhood friends. These admittedly elementary details are in fact fundamental to the band, perhaps even its defining feature. Their friendship rings through the perfectly-poised melodic lines, weaving in and out of sync. Meanwhile, the carefree ease of childhood in suburbia is absorbed into their warm textures and rolling rhythms – as they loop, sigh, and exhale. Courtney recognises the significance of their friendship within the group, citing not only the importance of mutual reference points but also a kind of inherent understanding: “in terms of writing songs, they can understand the feel that I want for a song before I have to even really understand it myself”.

The music created by Real Estate is infectious company. Like an old friend who can disarm with a succinct, yet brilliant observation; it is both charmingly restrained and fiendishly astute. We spoke to Martin Courtney, ahead of Real Estate’s performance at Primavera Sound. His words are buoyed by laughs and pauses, his speech is peppered with “you knows” and he often seems to decide on his answer half way through making it. Yet, behind the laid-back lilt he is perceptive and intelligent. Much like his music, he is engaging company.

You received a lot of praise for your first LP and I assume because of that a lot of label interest. What led you to go with Domino? Do they hold a particular appeal to you?

Yeah, for us we were just really excited to even have that be a possibility that we would be on Domino. It’s a much bigger label – I guess – from our previous label, but also they’ve put out so much good music that we are all really big fans of: the older stuff that they put out in the 90s and then all the records that they are doing now. It was an honour to possibly be counted among all those other bands that we are big fans of.

Is there anyone specific that you can cite within their roster?

Yeah. Currently Cass McCombs, Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors … and then in the 90s they put out so much stuff. In the UK they put out a lot of stuff that was released by other labels in the US. Like Pavement and all the stuff that is put out on Drag City over here, all this music that we are big fans of.

"We share all the same influences, we all grew up listening to the same music, we all have the same reference points"

I understand some of the band has been playing together for over 10 years; how do you believe that affects the dynamic of the work that you produce?

I think just the fact that we have known each other for so long helps us. I think we understand each other’s styles and it helps them to understand the way that I write. In terms of writing songs, they can understand the feel that I want for a song before I have to even really understand it myself. It becomes much more natural I think for us because we have known each other for so long. We share all the same influences, we all grew up listening to the same music, we all have the same reference points.

What kind of stuff did you grew up listening to?

Pretty typical indie-rock. When we were in High School we were all really big fans of Built To Spill, Pavement, The Microphones, bands like that. I was really in to Elliott Smith too. All sorts of different things. Even the nerdier stuff; we all became friends because of our liking of the band Weezer – we all really like Weezer – and we all really liked The Stokes when they first came out. I think that kind of thing helps us to remain friends and understand each other’s musical styles.

Do you find it means you have a short-hand within the group?

Yeah. I wouldn’t even know if I’d call it that. It’s unspoken. It’s like a musical language, I guess, that we all understand. But I think anyone of a similar age to us can understand where we are coming from.

Are there any perceivable cons of you being such close friends? Do you bicker on tour for example?

Yeah! [ Laughs]. We Definitely do. The easiest thing would be to compare it to being like brothers. We are like a family. So we definitely fight, almost as much as we get along. We get on each other’s nerves because we have known each other for so long we feel like we could say anything. But that’s because we are such good friends that we are able to be that way.

And how did having new members join effect the dynamic?

Really, not that much. We’ve known Jonah, who plays keys and guitar, and Jackson, who plays drums, for years. They are both a couple of years younger than us. Matt went to High School with Alex and I. Then he went to a different boarding school; that’s where he met Jonah. So we have all basically known Jonah since we were High School age. Jackson we met during college … but we still feel like we are old friends with them as well. The same kind of thing where we all have the same taste in music … and they are both really easy going guys!

Good job! You all grew up in New Jersey. Do you feel that has affected your output in anyway? Do you feel part of a particular trajectory?

I don’t think particularly. But there are a lot of good bands from New Jersey. The Feelies for example have had an influence on us. We allowed ourselves to be influenced by them because we really liked their music. I guess the same thing goes for Yo La Tengo. I am a huge fan of them and I definitely take things from both those bands. But I don’t think we are trying to sound like a Jersey band. It’s more … I mean, I am proud that we are associated with that because I want people to know that that’s where we are from. I am proud to be from there. And also, I think it’s really neat that at this point – in a way – we’ve sort of inserted ourselves into that lineage. I mean just in the fact that we are a band and we are from New Jersey. So, that’s kind of exciting to me … that’s pretty cool.

"Some people think our music is summery. I don’t necessarily think that; I’m not necessarily writing about a specific season"

There seems to be quite a scene simmering in New Jersey – with bands like Titus Andronicus and Vivian Girls for example – is that something you recognise?

Yeah, I mean a lot of them are our friends from High School. We are friends with a lot of people who are in Cornell, making music, but for us they’ve been making music for a long time. We’ve known them almost as long as we’ve known each-other. So it’s the kind of thing where that scene has always been there for us. It’s just really cool that everybody kept making music because I always knew that they were so talented. When I was in High School and we were just messing around and starting to write music, I was really impressed. I didn’t really write that much until later on in college. I usually just played in other people’s bands. But I remember thinking: this is so cool that there are all these bands that are from here, everybody is really good, this is really special, I hope someday that people … [ laughs] … recognise that. And it kind of has come to pass, which is really exciting I think.

It often seems that a “scene” is labelled from the outside whereas on the inside it’s just people buoyed and inspired by each other.

Yeah I think that’s definitely true and I don’t think people realise that that’s the case. All these bands that have emerged in the last couple of years, I don’t think people realise – you know – that we’ve all been working at it for many years. We’ve all played in each other’s bands. It’s not just what’s going on now; there have been many bands before this.

Real Estate seems to conjure up a very specific image to a lot of people – sun, sea, summer. Do you feel your work is rooted to a specific time, season, or place?

I can see that on our first record - well actually basically all the music we’ve put out – does sort of conjure up certain images. We didn’t set out to do that; it’s just my song-writing. As we kept making music and kept writing songs I guess a theme did start to emerge. To me that’s just images of growing up: my youth and where we are from. Because I find that that is just where my mind goes when I am trying to write lyrics, I end up thinking about our home town and stuff like that. Maybe because – you know – the three of us in the band have been playing together since then. And thinking of them makes me think of growing up. So, yeah, I guess I can see how some people would think that. Some people think our music is summery. I don’t necessarily think that; I’m not necessarily writing about a specific season.

Would you say your work is autobiographical then? You say it is about growing up.

Yes, it’s definitely rooted in personal stories I guess. Not even stories – memories, images of growing up. For the most part.

To continue on the track of images, if your music could be the soundtrack to any film – what would you choose?

You know I don’t know! [Laughs] But that’s funny, because I love the idea of making music for movies. I really want to do that, so I don’t know … I have friends, old friends – again, you know, from when we were younger – who are filmmakers. I would love to see them succeed and make a movie. I guess if I could make music for any film it would be that film. I would love to make the music for that movie and have it sort or reflect all of our experiences growing up and things like that. Yeah. That’s an interesting question for me. It’s something I feel like I couldn’t get at, but I want to do that!

Fingers crossed! What was it like working with Tom Scharpling on the video for “Easy”? How did that come about?

Well, we’re just kind of fans of his, of his videos. And he’s from New Jersey as well. We just wanted to make a video that is kind of like a classic 90s indie rock video that’s funny. You know? We wanted to have a funny narrative because that’s the kind of videos that we all really like so we inquired to see if he was interested in working with us and he said yes. Although personally we didn’t actually get to work with him as we were on tour. The time that he was free to work on the video was the one week that we were gone. That was the one kind of bummer thing about him making our video, that we couldn’t be there. You know? We wanted to be in it, but it is, what it is. We’re just glad that he was able to do it. It turned out pretty good. We’re happy with it.

It’s funny you cite the 90s indie rock videos, it really reminded me of “Cut Your Hair” by Pavement.

Yeah, we love that video. I don’t want to – or I don’t see the point of – making a really serious artistic video. Unless it’s really pretty. For me I like videos that have a narrative. I just think it’s more interesting.

Moving on to your song-writing process. Is it a purely collaborative thing, or do you come in with an idea and then expand it from there – how does it work?

It really depends … song by song. For the most part I’ll come in with a song written. You know – a verse and a chorus, parts of the song. Possibly even a guitar part, or a bass part, or an idea for the drums. I’ll come into a practice with varying degrees of things like that. Sometimes a song will be fully formed; sometimes it will just be the verse and the chorus. Then we’ll usually work together to put the song together. Decide how long each part will go on for, where we’ll switch and things like that. The dynamics of the song. And also, I don’t write all the songs. I write most of them, but other times either Matt or Bleeker will come in with an idea as well. So yeah, for the most part it’s a “semi-collaborative” process. I guess that’s what I’d call it. As much as any creative process can be. You know, one person comes up with the core of the idea but then to varying degrees they all … we all … everybody contributes.

Finally, your name: it’s pretty un-google-able. How did it come about?

[ Laughs] Well I guess the short answer is that we weren’t thinking about google! When we formed – back in 2008 – it was the summer we had all just graduated from college and we were all looking for jobs. My parents work in real estate and I was planning to go to school to get my real estate licence so I could, you know, work for them. One band practice we joked that we should just all go to real estate school – my Mum joked she would give us all jobs – and work in real estate. It’s not very funny really, but we thought it was: real estate by day, Real Estate by night!

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