Real Estate: _Atlas_ Orgins
Since their self-titled debut dropped in 2009, New Jersey band Real Estate have straddled a line between two worlds—one foot in the more buttoned-up, taste-making indie rock universe, and one planted firmly in the anything-goes territory where so many psychedelic and jambands plant their flags. The band’s third album, Atlas, isn’t going to push them either way, but it’ll certainly help them gain wider-still audiences in both camps. Recorded in Wilco’s Chicago studio and produced by Tom Schick, who’s worked with Ryan Adams, Sean Lennon and more, Atlas maintains the be-easy, daydream quality of Real Estate’s first two albums, but blows off some of the dust to reveal some truly gorgeous sounds, twinkling guitars, hushed acoustics, swaying melodies.
With two founding members playing in successful side projects (both Matthew Mondanile’s Ducktails and Alex Bleeker and The Freaks released albums last year) lead songwriter Martin Courtney newly married (and working on his own project…. more on that soon), new keyboard player Matt Kallman—formerly from Girls—and drummer Jackson Pollis rounding out the lineup, the Real Estate universe has never been more full of stars.
Relix spoke with Courtney and Bleeker about playing Wilco’s guitars, forgetting about ‘lo-fi’ and rocking out to Huey Lewis.
I know Atlas was recorded in Wilco’s studio. How did that come about?
Martin: We had talked about how we really wanted to record with Jim O’Rourke, who did Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. We knew that wasn’t possible, but it got us thinking about Wilco, and we heard about (The Whole Love engineer and mixer) Tom Schick. So we got in touch with him. He mentioned he works with Jeff Tweedy all the time – one thing led to the other.
Alex: Tom is the house engineer of Wilco’s studio in Chicago. At first we said we’d work with him in New York, but it dawned on us: let’s do it in Chicago. In addition to all being Wilco fans as kids, the cool thing is you can work on their gear. Jeff has literally hundreds of guitars. It’s a magical place. You don’t get that kind of thing in a New York studio. There, you just pay for room and console. (Wilco’s studio) is not a public place — they’re beginning to open up to the idea of more bands recording there, but its not like anybody can just show up.
Were the members of Wilco around during your two weeks in their studio?
Alex: Wilco was on tour with Dylan at the time (during Dylan’s 2013 AmericanaramA Festival tour, along with My Morning Jacket). Bob Weir was on some of those shows. The tour had a few shows at home in Chicago, and so Tweedy came by one day when we were recording and hung out. He just came by to say hi and give us his blessing, as we were using so much of his gear. Which was good, because it’d felt weird using his guitars without him there.
Martin: (Tweedy’s) presence was a little intimidating, I think. There had been talk of him maybe producing… He’s obviously very talented. It honestly made me a little glad he wasn’t producing — it would’ve been a lot of pressure.
When were most of these songs created?
Martin: I started writing a little bit before we finished our last tour, for (2011’s) Days, around September 2012. With Days, I’d written 60 percent of the record while we were still touring on our first album. We then recorded over the course of 6 months or so; we really took our time, a weekend at a time. But with Atlas, we took the time off so I could get married, and Alex and Matt could do their own projects. They both toured; it was a break from Real Estate. And in that time, I was still focused on Real Estate, but just on the process of creating.
These tracks were recorded live, with everyone in a room. How did that change the vibe of the album?
Alex: There are a fair amount of overdubs on the record, but all the basics are live, just like we’ll play them on the road. That’s big for me—we hadn’t done a Real Estate album that way up to now. I’m a big Neil Young fan; he’s got an ethos about capturing the vibe, playing right on tape. You can feel that it’s a live record at points, without sacrificing sound quality. Plus, it was just good practice. We’d do five takes in a row and just choose the best one. We sat around playing songs over and over; it was great to get inside those songs. We’ll be a better live band because of it. The songs are in our muscle memory now. We’re road ready.
Martin: It was really a result of us spending all that time writing. I mean, I wrote by myself, but then we practiced and worked on the songs as a band. So we entered the studio confident in our ability to play the songs; the arrangements were already thought out. And we took that opportunity to play and record them live, instead of recording it piecemeal.
Though Martin took months to work on the songs more or less by himself, you still call the album a collaboration between all of you.
Alex: There are 10 songs on record — Martin is the chief songwriter on eight; I’m chief on one and Matt on one. But we all contributed to writing of all of them. None are black and white, recorded just like the songwriter put down on paper. Writing was pretty long and experimental and detailed. We’d work on the songs together, everyone would write their own parts. I feel like I can safely say that 100% of the songs on record are full band record.
Alex, how do you decide which songs you’ll take to Real Estate and which you’ll keep for the Freaks? Do you write with the different projects in mind?
Alex: In the past, I’ve written one song per record. I imagine that will continue. This time, my song was “How Might I Live.” I provisionally wrote it thinking it’d be a Freaks song. That’s a good example of what I’m talking about. We didn’t change the notes or lyrics or chords, but gave we gave it a Real Estate-feel. The demo of the song is a plucky, finger-picked country song.
Real Estate has often been described as ‘lo-fi.’ But here you are, recording in Wilco’s studio, on very nice equipment, and the record sounds clean and crisp. Is it time to cast aside that tagline?
Alex: The description I’d really like to leave behind is ‘beachy.’ But yes, each record has gotten more and more hi-fi, sure. That’s largely owing to our means. This was by far the nicest gear we ever recorded with—that affords you the ability to make more nuanced decisions about how things sound.
Martin: With the first record, we were embracing the limitations we had. We were recording at friends’ houses, by ourselves. I’m still a fan of music that sounds home-recorded. There’s a charm and magic there. But yeah, anytime some description becomes a crutch for journalists, it can be annoying to read. We wanted to take that crutch away from people. I mean, we’ve always wanted to make nice sounding records.
Alex: I think ‘lo-fi’ means a lot more than fidelity. It’s an attitude. This homemade, patchwork feeling. I don’t think we’ve lost that approachability. We’re like a high school band from the garage that grew up and kept going.
Atlas sounds a lot more spacious and wide open than your debut or Days. There’s real warmth to the sound. Were there pointed changes you hoped to make from Days to Atlas?
Martin: That was one of the ideas we had going into this record. We wanted it to feel more spacious, like you could hear each part being played, where everything was in the mix. A little more clean and clear.
Several of you guys are also involved in other projects. How do you think that affect both the music of the band, as well as the way you operate as a band?
Alex: The three founding members, we all have big personalities and creative outputs to dump those personalities into. I have musical desires and persuasions that don’t necessarily line up with Real Estate. In the Freaks, I can dive in without restraint. If I want to cover a Huey Lewis song, I can do that. Sure, we can do that at practice with Real Estate, but with the Freaks, we’ll actually play it. Just because I think it’s funny! If I want a song that sounds country, it might not vibe with Real Estate sound. So having this other outlet really ensures that my other needs as musician are being met. There’s no frustration in Real Estate because we can all bend to each other’s feelings enough, but it’s still us.
Martin: We’re all very invested in Real Estate; we feel like we own it. Real Estate is us, and side projects are the band members expressing themselves however they want individually. For all of us, music is life. So to just stay busy doing different things during the inevitable downtime between records is important.
Martin, of the three founding Real Estate members, you’re the only one who hasn’t yet released a side project album. Anything in the works?
Martin: I have started one, yeah. It’s just me and a friend of mine, Jarvis Taveniere from the band Woods. It’s just for fun; I look at it as a band that maybe will finish a record, and we’ll be a one-album band, just one special thing. It doesn’t even have a name yet.
As the main songwriter for Real Estate, did you have a lot of extra material after Atlas?
Martin: When we finished the album, it suddenly became a lot easier to write. I wrote a few songs in that time, and we have leftover stuff from Chicago. We’ll probably put out an EP later in the year. That’s the goal.
At this point, Real Estate’s sound is pretty recognizable as Real Estate: that high-pitched electric, a shuffling beat. Do you remember the first time you guys created that sound? Did you know you were on to something?
Alex: It happened in the basement of Martin’s parents house in the summer of 2008. We’d just graduated from college, and we were all living at our parents’ places in New Jersey. That’s already written into the narrative of this band. (Original drummer) Etienne (Pierre Duguay) was there. We were drinking a lot of vodka in Martin’s pool, for some reason. We’d been away at college for years, and we were having this no-parents night back at home. It felt weirdly liberating.
We had gear set up in the basement, and decided to go jam. We started playing what wound up as “Suburban Beverage” (from their self-titled debut). That was the moment Real Estate started, the moment we found that sound.
Martin, I understand you’re expecting your first child. First off, mazel tov. How important will music be to the way you bring up your son or daughter?
Martin: You don’t want to force anything on anybody, but of course — I like to play music for my wife and for the child to hear. I didn’t necessarily grow up with too much music; my dad loves classical, but I didn’t grow up where music was playing all the time. I discovered my type of music by myself. Everyone finds his own way. But I won’t stop playing whatever music I like in my house. And hopefully, my kid will like it too.
Alex, I know that you have long been into the Dead, Phish and the like. Do you feel like the spirit and freedom of those bands shows up in your music?
Alex: I try to frame that sense of possibility in the live performance. Not that we’ll jam quite as extensively. We’ll have moments of spontaneity on stage that those bands bring, but what puts it over the top for me how special and completely unique all the live shows can be from one another. Each show is a live event. I never want us to play the same set twice in a row. There are a lot of bands in our indie realm that make a set list for the tour, and just play it every show. Nothing could be worse for me — it’s like a play. The lines are written, composed. I won’t stand for that.
And everyone agrees, it’s not just me pushing. I don’t want to regurgitate what we do on the record. I want fans to experience it with us. We have the ability to land on special things some nights. When that happens, like a great Dead show, you can tell. Maybe Bobby did a little extra run; you can tell when the band is feeling it. That happens with us too. Even if it’s imperceptible to the crowd, we can feel new things happening. That’s the whole thing for me — that makes it all worthwhile.
There’s a song on this record that we called “Phil ’72,” its informal title. The bass line reminded us so much of a Dead song. In songwriting, we see a bit of influence from the Dead. But the spirit carries over to the live show.