Real Estate face the challenge of simplicity

Real Estate interview

You know those suburban neighborhoods? The bedroom communities where old, gnarled trees sit between lazy unmarked streets and uneven sidewalks? The place where bikes sit abandoned on front lawns and teens find secluded alleyways to smoke weed from apples? Those loosely gridded blocks where birds and barking dogs break the long silence? Real Estate have been around those blocks, dozens if not hundreds of times. In their over 15 years as a band, the Ridgewood, New Jersey natives have, perhaps more than any other band of their generation, been defined by the kind of suburban malaise they seem to represent.

The band’s sole consistent creative forces, Martin Courtney and Alex Bleeker, met back in high school and have now released six records with a rotating cast of bandmates. While their breakout was swift—collecting raves from Pitchfork and the like—they’ve met some challenges in escaping the perfectly manicured, hedge-lined lawn in which they’ve been placed, many convinced they know exactly what to expect from Real Estate, despite evidence to the contrary. Though, truthfully, it’s easy enough to see why. Real Estate have always made it look easy. Even their latest record Daniel, an airtight, affecting, pitch-perfect pop record out now via Domino, has the band sounding more comfortable and self-assured than ever. But, as it turns out, making it look easy is hard.  

Courtney and company released their last album, The Main Thing, during one of the most cursed months in recent memory: February 2020. In many ways, this is the album that most challenged the assumptions surrounding Real Estate as a band. Big, sprawling, and bursting with ideas, The Main Thing sticks out as the logical endpoint to what the band had been moving toward over the last decade.

“Over the course of the career of this band, I was trying to make the songs more complex with each subsequent album,” Courtney tells me during our recent phone call. “To me, this constituted growth as a songwriter. I wanted to write songs that had more parts or more complex arrangements.”

This instinct is easily understandable. The tenth time writing a perfect little jangly pop song might not hit quite as hard as the first, especially when the listening public kind of only associates you with that perfect little jangly pop song. 

The Main Thing, for a lot of reasons, didn’t really get the shine it deserved. What would have been probably their most engaging album to hear played live—with its instrumental asides and long, winding arrangements—was not one they were able to properly tour. Ultimately, it left a significant gap for a band who had been at it for over a decade. When I ask Courtney how the role the band has shifted over the years, he describes a push/pull that was likely put into starker relief during the COVID-forced hiatus.

“As our lives have changed and evolved, the band has necessarily had to evolve with us,” he tells me. “But, to be honest, I look at this band as this immovable object in my life that I have to mold my life around. When I sit down and write the first song for what might be a Real Estate record, I know the commitment that is going to entail. It can feel monumental, in a way.”

Daniel is a very different album from The Main Thing. From the first moments of the record, it’s clear the band are embracing something cleaner and more streamlined this time around. Even on the first listen, a song like “Somebody New” feels familiar, a spring thaw of a pop song that warms quickly. For Courtney, Daniel wasn’t necessarily about making some grand about-face in style but finding a way to honor the other side of the coin. In his view, Real Estate has always been made up of two halves; the extended, instrumental jams and the tight and direct pop songs. He’s not sure entirely where it started, but it was clear early on that Daniel was going to embrace the latter, a task that ended up being harder than you might imagine.

“Some of the best pop songs, when you really listen to them, are so simple it is crazy to me,” says Courtney. “It’s hard to make something simple.”

Perhaps the most consequential moments came when the band decided to bring on Grammy-winning producer Daniel Tashian. Up to this point, Courtney had never been one to seek out what one might call a hands-on producer. The hesitation is justifiable; studio time in general is limited, and you can meet, discuss, plan and strategize, but if you get into a room with someone and the vision simply doesn’t match-up, it isn’t hard to enter into a nightmare scenario. Find someone willing to stay behind the boards and work mostly as a technician, and the chances for butting heads goes down significantly. 

Tashian is not that kind of producer. He is, rather, the kind to directly suggest significant songwriting ideas, coming up with the kind of vocal melodies heard most prominently on the record’s best song, “Water Underground,” and guiding the band’s vision throughout.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do that in the past,” says Courtney of the arrangement, citing a level of control he ceded during the process. “It took years of making records and getting out of my own head and becoming less precious about the songwriting to allow me personally to open up to other people’s input.”

The general mood of Tashian’s Nashville studio, as well, directly shaped the record. Things move fast in the Music City—Courtney and company were laying down at least two songs a day, a pace they were not used to. This removed the down time they’d usually have to tinker with the songs, adding an instrumental section here and melodic flourish there, inherently tightening things up a bit in a way that felt right for these songs. 

It’s in this we find the great energizing conflict at the center of Daniel, one that seems essential to understanding Courtney and the band as a whole. Courtney talks a lot about the fact that, despite any overarching themes that may arise on this or any other album, he can only really ever write what comes naturally. Daniel is a pop record because the first handful of songs he wrote for the record were pop songs—it is as simple as that. And yet, he did make the distinct decision to lean into this being a decidedly different record than their last one, a fact he is acutely aware of.

“The one criticism that is so annoying to me that I read all the time is that people always say that our music sounds the same,” says Courtney. “It doesn’t sound like that to me.”

When asked whether the band’s next record might veer drastically in the other direction, making the overstuffed, instrumental opus they’ve always dreamed of making, Courtney is largely noncommittal. Whatever happens might not come easily, but you rest assured they’ll make it look that way.

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