The New Jersey band's second album 'Days' is a dream realised for lead singer Martin Courtney, discovers Aimee Cliff.
Martin Courtney, the sleepy-voiced lead singer of New Jersey’s Real Estate, is full of excitement as he talks about how it felt to hold the actual CD of their second album, ‘Days’, in his hands for the first time the night before our interview. “It looks amazing, I’m really excited,” he gushes, with barely contained relief. “It feels good that it’s coming to the end of all the work that we put into it. We’re all really proud of the result.”
The glee that the group – consisting of Martin, guitarist Matthew Mondanile (who also records as Ducktails), bassist Alex Bleeker, keyboardist Jonah Maurer and drummer Jackson Pollis – clearly felt when turning the record over in their hands is an echo of the intrigue and magic that they give to familiar places, names and events in their music. Anchored and rooted in their hometown and personal experiences, both Real Estate albums (their self-titled debut was released in 2009) rest on a reverence of the everyday, and a need for stability. The artwork of ‘Days’, a photograph taken from Dan Graham’s 1965 series Homes For America, shows a whitewashed row of clean, precise American suburban homes. On any other record, this could scream claustrophobia, repetition and tedium. In the hands of Real Estate, though, it fits like a cosy glove, shrouding the listener in that sense of being at home, and being at ease. It’s all about having something to fall back on, something dependable, and being part of something bigger than yourself. Martin’s apparent surprise, and joy, at just how “real” his record looked in CD form, seems to fall in perfectly with the band’s aesthetic of reliability, and the satisfaction you feel when your reality fits your expectations.
Martin admits that he hasn’t really thought in great depth about the metaphors that might cling to the suburban artwork of ‘Days’ – the main thing that he’s proud of is the fact that the band have been allowed to use the prestigious conceptual artist’s work. “It was exciting that we got to use his artwork, like, woah, we have a real artist’s photograph on our album cover….It helps us feel like it’s a real album,” he tells me, as he reveals that they didn’t strictly have permission to use the art that appeared on their debut LP. He’s quick to say, though, “I don’t know what the artwork means for the record. It’s a nice image, and it was exciting that we got to use it.” Regardless of its subtle nuances, the image is one that, to the group, simply means authenticity.
The music of ‘Days’ is anchored firmly in everything that’s indisputable and dependable to the group – when I ask about the influence of Martin’s hometown New Jersey on Real Estate’s music, he says candidly, “I don’t know anything else to write about, so that’s what all the songs are about.” The second album springs both from the group’s shared home experiences as well as their time on the road as a band, during which Martin admits they were pretty much “thinking about being at home”, and so the call to New Jersey rings vibrantly through each song. Easy and safe, they stick to the most basic thing they have in common, and they wring it through their music with an expertise that seems to unfold naturally out of their love of working together. Unquestioning and smooth, the experience of listening to ‘Days’ is one that takes you home, and assures you of a stable journey.
The process of song-writing, too, is a literal, step-by-step activity. Usually springing from the kernel of an idea, the band puzzle their bits of music together until they form sprawling, yawning expanses of melody, and tend to funnel their lyrics into the spaces later. Most of the time, Martin explains, this is how it happens, with him bringing an unpolished idea to the band and letting them round it off into a song: “Each member will obviously put their own spin on the part that I came up with, but for the most part I’ll have an idea of how I want it to sound,” he says. “Sometimes, it’ll be like a sketch I bring to the band and we’ll write the song as a group. Other times, songs just come out of spontaneous jamming, like no-one in particular wrote it.” The suggestion that ‘Days’ seems like a darker, more autumnal record than ‘Real Estate’ grates a little with this blow-by-blow account of the song-writing process, as the band profess themselves to create music out of the adrenaline rush of an abstract idea, rather than sitting down with a manifesto to go through. “There are some darker songs on there, but it wasn’t intentional at all…honestly, I don’t think that my song-writing has changed that much. Hopefully the songs are better, but it’s the same feeling, a similar vibe.”
One thing which Martin is keen to emphasise has changed is the technicality of the record’s sound. With a firm voice, he deflects the word “lo-fi” like a hapless fly, outlining the reasons that the sound of ‘Days’ is fleshier, weightier and richer than Real Estate have ever sounded before. “To me, the first album doesn’t sound cohesive at all. If people hear it, and think it sounds cohesive, that’s kind of an accident,” he says, with an audible wince, admitting that he cringes when he plays it back. “I’m super proud of that record, but to me, when I listen to it, all I hear are the faults.” Each song on Real Estate’s eponymous debut was recorded in a different location, and none were crafted professionally in a studio. With ‘Days’ it’s the wholeness, the completeness of the sound, that excited Martin. “We didn’t want it to be all shiny, or really digital-sounding; the original idea was to record it all on tape and have it be all analogue, but that would have taken a really long time, and cost way too much money. We did the drums and the bass on tape and the rest on computer, but we made sure we were using old microphones and old equipment. The whole time we were mixing it, we would switch back and forth between our album and like, ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ or something. Lots of old 70s albums – that was the kind of feeling we wanted. We wanted to sound timeless.”
Even the concept of timelessness, for Real Estate, seems anchored in a solid era rather than floating around in uncertainty. Comfortable with the classic sound of 1970s rock, the group tried to strike the same chord in the process of recording ‘Days’, not attempting to be particularly lo-fi or hi-fi but simply in tune with what they knew, and what they admired – as Martin puts it, “hi-fi for a different era”. Several times, he comments on his own experience as a music fan, and how that feeds into his attitude as a musician – after listening to this album, he wants people to feel “the way I feel after I listen to my favourite music”. Informed by musical heroes and elevated on the shoulders of good memories, the songs carry the listener through an experience built on the foundation of Martin’s own. Even the actual, physical process of creating the music is something that Martin hopes that listeners will be engulfed by, and feel through the chords. “We write these songs that could just be recorded as really straightforward pop songs, but we want to give it this sort of weirdness, that helps people identify with it.” Real Estate’s aesthetic, he explains, rests partly on the hypnotic, euphoric sense of “getting lost” in the jams which find their way onto the record, and the instrumentals which crash their way straight from the artist’s frenzied nervous system and into the sensual overthrow of the listener.
It’s for this reason that Martin tells me that “the music is more important than the lyrics.” He’s blunt and assured on this point, referring flippantly to lyrical content as something which helps the listener connect with, or get inside, the music, but which is ultimately inessential to the music itself. This surprises me, in the wake of perfect, life-like lyrics that bloom through the new album, such as “I’m not okay, but I guess I’m doing fine” – then again, this idea of the lyrics being somewhat transparent makes sense. The frankness of the words, portraying beauty and destruction harnessed by normality, makes them the perfect window through which a listener can peek into Real Estate’s songs, gaining easy, natural access to the core of the music. They never detract from the underlying action, though, and they certainly never take over the reins of a Real Estate song. Subdued and sulky lyrics meander their way through a jungle of sound in ‘Days’, but take a step to one side for the album’s euphoric instrumental moments. It’s easy to understand what Martin means about the unnecessary quality of language, when the jams you can hear on the record are so expressive, and so full. “I like having instrumental tracks on the album, it sets us apart,” he tells me, adding that it’s a “bygone thing.”
Obsessed with retaining a quality that he hears in music of the past, Martin’s approach to lyric-less music is one of reverence for the timelessness of a track untarnished by individual ideas or an imperfect bit of poetry. He’s uninspired in conversation about words, and yet instantly rocked with enthusiasm when describing moments in which he heard music for the first time. Green Aisles, a stand-out track from the record, apparently came from the “fragment of an idea”, which was moulded diligently by the group into a powerful track; after recording eight to ten versions of Matthew Mondanile’s guitar solo, Martin describes the first time he heard the version which ended up on the album, summing it up by telling me, “it sounded like Felt. We were like, woah.”
That woah feeling is one that ricochets like an echo through ‘Days’. Real Estate have made an album that harnesses the wordless, overwhelming experience of making the music they love, and stuff that feeling into an LP. And this time around, Martin couldn’t be happier: “We’ve been dreaming of making something like this since we were little kids.”