(Real Estate. Photo by Ebru Yildiz)
They say that when it comes to real estate—buildings, houses, land—it’s all about location.
But when it comes to Real Estate—the band—the same holds true. The group was founded by three friends who grew up together in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and across three full-length albums, the first released in 2009, they’ve frequently waxed nostalgic for their idyllic suburban upbringing.
But with their newest album, In Mind, released last week, the band is no longer as rooted in the past as they once were. Location, however, is still important. But this time around it’s both an obstacle for the band to overcome, and a structure for the musings their music encapsulates. And as it turns out, that’s given the band rejuvenated purpose—at least it did for lead singer, lyricist, and guitarist, Martin Courtney.
Courtney has said in the past that, at the time he was writing 2014’s highly listenable Atlas, he was living in Brooklyn but not exactly loving his life in the city, which is why he kept harkening back to his younger, less-complicated days. Among the many changes Real Estate has gone through since then, one of the more significant is that Courtney decampment from Brooklyn to Beacon, a small town off the Hudson river, in the Hudson Valley. Just a fifteen minute drive in any direction from his new home gets Courtney out to farmland—a stark change compared to his life in Brooklyn.
(Martin Courtney. Photo by Ebru Yildiz)
“I do enjoy living here [in Beacon], in comparison to a place like Brooklyn, even though I really did enjoy Brooklyn, too,” he says. “There’s a lot of tradeoffs. You’re giving up life in the city, you know? I think of course no matter where I am, in terms of writing lyrics, I’m always reflecting on my surroundings, where I’m at, whichever point in my life, for sure.”
Courtney now is a father of two, so it’s fair to say his life is much busier, and leaves less time to reminisce about the past. That change is reflected lyrically on In Mind, such as on the album’s closing track, “Saturday.” Courtney sings: “When a stranger is living in your old house / What does where you were born still say about you? / It’d be best to jettison what you can’t redo.”
In fact, if anything, Courtney at times seems eager to get on with life, rather than ruminate in the past. On “Same Sun,” he asks “Where does one thing ever end and the next begin?” before declaring, “I do not wish to retrace the steps I’ve taken / All that matters now is where I’m going.”
(Photo by Ebru Yildiz)
“I definitely feel like maybe there’s just more going on in my life now, and it’s easier to focus on the present, as opposed to previous records, when it was easier to be a little more nostalgic because I was in a period of my life, my 20s, when I maybe wasn’t sure where I was going, what the future was holding,” he says. “It felt kind of transitory, I think, for a certain amount of time. I don’t know, maybe that’s just in hindsight. I think now I feel definitely a lot more settled, so I think it’s easier for me to write about the present.”
Another thing on Courtney’s mind while he was writing songs for In Mind was how the cycle of releasing and touring an album was going to pull him to many different locations, and none of them would be close to his kids.
“When I was writing all the songs for Atlas, my wife wasn’t pregnant, it wasn’t even on the radar,” Courtney says. “By the time Atlas came out, I was imminently about to be a dad. I think my daughter was born two months later. Now the whole time I was making this record, I think, my wife was pregnant, so I was definitely aware of being a dad, and the fact that I was about to be a father of two. Definitely a different experience.”
(Photo by Ebru Yildiz)
In some ways, Courtney says, he almost feels a little less “gung ho” about the idea of being a musician, as much as he loves it. “I think a lot of the lyrics are kind of meta, thinking about, ‘I’m making an album right now, as I’m writing these lyrics, I’m in the process of making another album, and that means recording and touring, it’s going to be this thing that’s going to take over my life for the next year and a half. Do I feel like I want to make another big commitment like that?’ That was definitely something I was thinking about while writing the words to a lot of these songs.”
Courtney wasn’t the only member of the band with big life changes between albums. Bassist Alex Bleeker moved to California, and lead guitarist Matt Mondanile—the other co-founder of the band, together with Bleeker and Courtney—left Real Estate all together to focus on his other project, Ducktails.
(Alex Bleeker. Photo by Ebru Yildiz)
While Bleeker’s move to the West Coast creates new logistical hurdles for the band, it didn’t prove a major roadblock to the creative process. In fact, in some ways, it helped, because the band was forced to dedicate time specifically to working together on their next album.
“In demoing the songs they had for In Mind, the band actually found the absence of a lead guitarist to be somewhat freeing—so much so that it drove their sound in new directions.”
The majority of the songs for In Mind were written by Courtney up in Beacon, with Bleeker contributing a couple more. Real Estate then convened in Beacon as a four-piece in early 2016. Drummer Jackson Pollis has been in the band for years, and keyboardist Matt Kallman joined in time for Atlas and the subsequent tour. In demoing the songs they had for In Mind, the band actually found the absence of a lead guitarist to be somewhat freeing—so much so that it drove their sound in new directions.
(Jackson Pollis. Photo by Ebru Yildiz)
“The change in lineup just made sense, it felt really good, I think, for us. It was the right thing. It was really positive,” Courtney says. “I had recorded some of the demos with lead guitar parts, so it’s not like every song felt like it was missing a lead part. We kind of knew what the lead part would be on some of the songs. But on a lot of the other ones we kinda forgot about the lack of a lead guitar player, we kinda forgot to leave space for a lead guitar. It changed the vibe of the record, brought the keys a little more into the foreground, and kind of opened space up for different things: even more melodic bass parts and little synth leads and stuff.”
(Matt Kallman. Photo by Ebru Yildiz)
The band spent two weeks as a four-piece in Beacon working on these songs, during which time they formally asked guitarist Julian Lynch to join the band. Again, location played an important part in the decision: Lynch is also from Ridgewood, and Courtney and Bleeker have known him just as long as they’ve known Matt Mondanile, which certainly made the transition easier.
A month after the two-week session as a four-piece, Real Estate met up in Beacon once again and spent another week working on the songs for In Mind. “Without even thinking about it, we kind of created the album without a lead guitar player, and then when Julian joined, he’s just such a good musician that he knew when to step up and play more melodic parts or more traditional lead guitar parts. But a lot of the time he could tell that the song already felt pretty full and he added these really, really nice textural elements.”
(Julian Lynch. Photo by Ebru Yildiz)
In the past, Real Estate songs were always written with a lead guitar in mind, so there’s a lot more prominent guitar leads on previous records. “I think on this record it’s obviously still guitar pop, we’re still a guitar band, but it feels very different to me. Or at least the process felt different,” Courtney adds. “We feel renewed, in a really nice way. I think it feels fresh.”
Real Estate went on to record the album in Los Angeles with producer Cole M.G.N., who has worked with Beck, Snoop Dogg, Dam-Funk, and Julia Holter. “We had talked a lot about wanting the record to feel more made-in-the-studio, trying different ideas,” Courtney says of the experience. “So there’s a lot of electronic drums, a lot of guitar that was played directly into the board, so it’s got this air-tight feel to it, whereas Atlas felt more like a band playing in a room. I think we wanted intentionally to make this record feel a little weirder, a little bit layered up and built up in the studio.”
With his eclectic experience, Cole M.G.N. proved to be the perfect choice to shepherd the new album through the recording process—to the point where Courtney, for the first time, felt comfortable giving up creative control to someone who wasn’t a member of the band.
(Photo by Ebru Yildiz)
“Cole played more of a traditional producer role, where we would talk about the arrangements of the songs, and we would talk about song structure and stuff together,” he says. “He would give us pointers or ideas about, like, maybe we don’t have the guitar during this section, or maybe the drums drop out here, maybe we should play this song at a super slow tempo or a super fast tempo, or what if we change this or that. That’s something that I’m not used to hearing from somebody outside of somebody in the band.”
Despite all the changes and new outlooks represented on In Mind, it is inarguably a Real Estate record. No other band today could have, or would have, made this record. The one thing that seems to keep Real Estate’s sound consistent is the band’s focus on the time and place they find themselves in, at the moment of its creation.
“I kept saying to the other members of the band and to myself, ‘We’re making an album right now, so we have to really try and be in the moment. How many albums are you going to make in your life? This is a very special time.’ Not to get too cheesy, but it’s like, it’s true,” Courtney says. “I can remember when I was making Atlas, we were in Chicago, it feels like a unique time. Two weeks in your life where you’re recording something that you’re going to then live with for the rest of your life. And it’s going to have an impact on your life, one way or another.”
(Photo by Ebru Yildiz)