Real Estate’s latest LP, Atlas, is a record steeped in place. The shady, west-coast suburbs that provided a backdrop for the first two efforts are still here, much as they were; the new record, though, is a wearier look at them, and the voice of experience – rather than innocent escape – sings through. It’s a record for the morning after the night before.
At least that’s what the band’s singer and guitarist, Martin Courtney, tells us when we ask him when’s best to digest their latest full-length LP, Atlas. “In the morning when you’re making breakfast and you’re just in your house and it’s quiet and you’re drinking coffee – that’s a nice time to listen to music,” he explains. “Just not in a Starbucks. That’s never a good time.”
Where he and Real Estate call home – Ridgewood, in North Jersey – is just 20 minutes outside of Manhattan. “It’s the most 80s, teen movie-style suburb,” Courtney jokes. “I think the proximity to New York was helpful for us – just being able to go see shows once we got to a certain age. I remember going and being like I wish that was my band.” Real Estate’s first, self-titled album, he explains, was written while hanging around Ridgewood after moving back in with his parents, after college took him to the other side of the country. “It was written about feeling nostalgic, but since we were living there it was kind of an ironic detachment from it because I didn’t really feel like I fit in there. I was 22 years old living with my parents, which is totally normal when you graduate. It was thinking I’m back in the place I grew up in and you kind of fall in love with it in a way you didn’t before.” And that same nostalgia runs through Courtney’s memories of childhood on the east coast. “When I moved back and saw all my old friends, my old neighborhood and heard all the sounds and smells in the nighttime and summertime, it was just really powerful.” A sentiment that is synonymous with the soundscapes Real Estate provide – a crippling recollection of lives past, but with the optimistic progression of a new future.
“I’m not really – what’s the word? – a prolific writer.”
School, in particular, played a formative role. “I don’t really know why. I think it had to do with our group of friends and it became almost like our hobby,” he reminisces, with a muted crack in his voice. “It was something to do besides playing sports like soccer or baseball.” Evenings as kids were spent forming myriad bands, sitting in each other’s basements, talking through and listening to music – and while this seems like an all too common formula, the shimmering isolation of living in a suburban town so close to the biggest city in the world prompted a response. The town across from Ridgewood, called Glen Rock, was host to another burgeoning musical community, and a bunch of kids who would later become Titus Andronicus. He tells me was bowled over at “the sheer number of different people trying to write” and the sense of camaraderie between them. “I was definitely aware of how cool and rare it was,” he adds. “It was kind of like why are there so many bands? Why are all my friends really talented? I hope some day this is recognized as a movement that happened.”
Atlas is an opportunity to reconsider these memories, and Ridgewood itself. Though there’s still the washed-out, pop-influenced songwriting that makes Real Estate such a pleasant – but nuanced – listen, the new record is a reaction to the “super poppy” moments on previous outings. “That reaction was to write a lot of complex” – he laughs – “but weird melodies I hadn’t heard before. It was just like we need to be so pro, we need to prove we’re a real band and make the most professional sounding album possible; not only with the way we’re playing, but also production-wise, and make it sound really clean because I feel like we were getting lumped into this reverb-y, washed out, skuzzy thing.”
That exact sound, with all its sun-tinged, sepia-toned reminiscences, is what makes the new record so powerful on first listen, but might distance it from new listeners. “We have a sound that is hard to get away from. It’s funny because I think a lot of people are more attached to Days because it’s older and kids that were a certain age at the time might look at it as a classic,” he explains. “They might not be as in love with Atlas yet – or maybe not ever. It’s fun to have that perspective and distance to see what makes Atlas unique. To me, it’s the weirdest record of the three.”
‘Talking Backwards’, one of the standout tracks from the album, is a clear treatise on the difficulties of distance. “It’s about touring and being on the road and how it’s hard to communicate and how talking on the phone doesn’t necessarily do the trick,” he concedes, as the conversation quickly turns somber. “I have a lot of songs that are about that.” I ask if touring has taken it’s toll over the past two years, with a schedule that’s seen them traverse Europe and North America, culminating only in a slew of festival slots later this summer. “It’s been a lot this year, so I’m pretty done”, he admits. “We have a little bit more left to go but it gets hard because I would rather be home with my family than away all the time. I have a baby so I feel like I’m missing a lot, which is a bummer. That’s pretty much the hardest part.” What’s most frustrating is that being on the road is “a pretty dead time” for writing new songs. “You go into this Twilight Zone where time doesn’t really progress because it does on the outside world and you’re doing the same thing every single day and being the same five people all the time. Playing shows is fun – I appreciate the fact that I can play in different cities and it helps and its great that people want to come to shows, but on a personal level it’s not the greatest way to live your life. I’m looking forward to the tour being done for a while.”
Luckily, the end’s in sight and there’s no pressure to get moving again. The band have agreed to take a long break – six months, he tells me – to recharge their batteries and get pure, unadulterated writing time in. “It’s up to us to do what we feel is necessary,” he adds, with the relief in his voice almost audible. “We need time to make something’s we’re happy with. I’m not really – what’s the word? – a prolific writer. It takes me time to write stuff that I’m happy with.” Being a new father means that time’s at even more of a premium – “with the baby its kind of hard to come by – you know, time to sit in a room and work on music” – but ideas for the new record are already forming. “I want the next record to be very concise and work as a whole that you can listen to front to back,” Courtney enthuses. “We’ve been talking about this for the next record – to make like a White Album style record” – he laughs again, almost acknowledging how ridiculous that sentence sounded out loud – “where we just throw everything against the wall but make sure it’s all good.”
The key to a good album, after all, is for it to be both memorable and capable of stirring old memories; both evocative and breaking new ground. But Martin Courtney has a different idea. “To make something weird,” he says, with an unsettling intensity. “That’s the general idea.” It seems like he’s ready to peel off the dim sheets of white noise and face the light pouring in.
Words by Laurie Havelock