Now signed to the mighty Domino label, New Jersey's Real Estate have just released their second album, and what a beautiful piece of shimmering, melodic, lo-fi indie pop it is. Drawing comparison to Felt and Television, the Strokes and The Stone Roses; they owe as much to the UK's C86 sound as they do to New York new wave. With greatness and mainstream success beckoning them forth, we caught up with frontman Martin Courtney for an interview as he prepared to take the band on a world tour.
Real Estate. Alex Bleeker, Matt Mondanile and Martin Courtney. Photograph by Shawn Brackbill
So you've just signed a worldwide deal with Domino. How's that working out for you?
I guess it's been a really big change, but it's nice- everybody's really cool. I guess it was kind of a goal of ours to be on a bigger label. The different thing with Domino is that it feels like we now have a career or something! There's like a team of people there to help you out with stuff. They're just excellent. For us to just be doing what we're doing, it's great.
Was the new record recorded with Domino in mind? Even subconsciously?
We'd already decided we wanted to go with them when we started recording, and to be honest, we wouldn't have been able to record in a studio if we didn't know we were going to be getting some money from a label. We didn't actually announce that we'd signed to Domino until a couple months after we did sign. We just wanted to have the record done. We started talking to them about November- pretty much a year ago.
Had you already started writing when you were speaking to them?
Yes. The album was about half-way done. We'd been touring so much over the last couple years that we didn't really have time for writing. We did a tour with Deerhunter which finished in early November, then we just spent three months writing the album, and February was when we started recording. I spent January waking up every day and trying to record a demo or something, like it was my job, which was pretty cool.
What's the difference between the Real Estate that recorded the self-titled debut, and the Real Estate that made this new album?
We definitely have more of an identity formed as a band. Some of the songs on the first album were recorded before Real Estate was even a band. The first record was much less of a group effort, more like just trying to get some songs down. Almost like demos, y'know? And then we sort of coalesced into a four-piece rock group, and we toured a bunch. Right before we recorded this album we lost a member. We recorded this album as a three-piece, without a solid drummer. I played drums on some of it, Matt played drums on some of it and our friend Sam who plays in Big Troubles played drums. He was just helping out, so we didn't even know who was going to be our drummer live.
Yeah, I've heard you described as a 'jam band'. To what extent is that true?
I guess we like to 'jam', extend sections of our songs, or have them not be as planned out as maybe some bands. Our songs aren't always the same length! But it's only certain songs where we do that. With some songs we can be "We're gonna play this section for a long time" and maybe just improvise a little, but it's mostly because I really like repetition. I really like playing something over and over again until it becomes sort of hypnotic. On the new album we do that on the last song. It's a seven minute song, and the last four minutes are just the same thing over and over again. It's kind of like a Krautrock kinda thing.
Yeah, I guess as part of our identity as a band we always did that. That's what people latch on to and call a 'jam band' I think. Our bassist is like a closeted hippy. He likes to go and see Phish and stuff, so he's actually into jam bands. And we all the the Grateful Dead.
What were you listening to when you were putting the record together?
When we were making the record we were listening to a ton of Television. Television has always been a favourite of ours, and Felt was one we were listening to a lot.
If you're on Domino you're going to be obliged to listen to Felt.
Yeah! Definitely. This thing Cleaners From Venus was one that we listened to a lot.
Who? Spring Cleaners From Venus?
No, no- Cleaners From Venus. They're great. I feel like Guided By Voices listened to Cleaners From Venus a lot. Robert Pollard probably listened to them a lot. His voice sounds like this guy. They're cool. They're this home-recorded thing from the eighties. And we were listening to The Strokes a lot. It's funny, I was kinda reminiscing about high school. I dunno if that came through in the music, but we were going through this weird obsession with The Strokes. But I don't think you can hear it. Hopefully not (laughs). Stuff like Cass McCombs too...
Who's on Domino too.
Yeah, sure. That's what was funny about talking to Domino, they put out so much music that we really like. We were talking to a couple other labels too, but we thought how great it'd be to be associated with these acts that we love! Now that we're on the label I'm listening to all this other music they put out that I'd never heard before. Like Robert Wyatt. The re-issued all his older stuff, it's great!
His new stuff's good too.
Yeah, I don't think I've actually heard any of his newer stuff. I've only really been listening to 'Rock Bottom' and 'Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard'. But yeah, anyway- I'd say that probably the two biggest things for us was Television and Felt. Not that we were trying to sound like anything. With Television- we're a totally different band- but I do idealise the way that their arrangements were so melodic. Everybody's playing something different but it all fits together so well, and it's so rhythmic.
Real Estate. Photograph by Shawn Brackbill.
Your first album was extremely well received. Did that put pressure on you, or do you think that helped?
There was definitely a little bit of pressure. It was a different experience. Recording the first record, I wasn't expecting that anybody would hear it. That was definitely in the back of my mind. I tried to not let that ruin it for me, but it was definitely there. The fact that the first record was so well received almost made it easy for us. It's not like we didn't try with the first record but it, it wasn't like it was hard to make and people really liked it, so I was like "Well, if people liked that..." All I can hear is mistakes when I listen to it, but if people really liked that they're gonna love this one. When I listen to the new album I feel really good about it, so I'm not too worried I guess.
The track 'Out Of Tune', which was a single last year, is on the new album. Did you not want people to miss that one?
That's the only track on the record that wasn't done at the same time as all the other ones, and it's the only one that still has our old drummer on it. We thought about redoing it, but it was really hard to get someone to replicate his drum track. That drum track was like his crowning glory, and we can't figure out what he was doing there. We can't replicate it, and the recording sounded really good. I don't like to re-use songs, but everybody around us said we should put it on the record, because not enough people heard it. It was really just released as a seven inch, and it never came out outside the US. And I like it.
The album's coming out on CD, LP and cassette. Did you have a format in mind when you were making it?
We were always recording with vinyl in mind. And CD obviously too, but we were sequencing it for vinyl, because of course you can only fit a certain amount on a side of vinyl. We toyed with the idea of doing a double LP...
A bold move for your second album.
Yeah, yeah, so I was like "I guess we can't do that!"
The Stone Roses did it!
Haha, yeah. But it would've been a stretch! But with the cassette, we were excited about it. It wasn't really our idea, it was kinda Domino's idea. It's obviously gonna be a bit more limited, I think they're only gonna do 500. I doubt more than 500 people are gonna buy the cassette, but I know a lot of people who still listen to cassettes in their cars or fetishise it or whatever.
Your guitarist player Matt will be known to a lot of people through his Ducktails releases. Did his work there inhibit the making of the album at all?
I guess in a way... When we were mixing the record he had to go on tour. He couldn't be around for certain things that maybe he would have wanted to be around for. When we got the record mastered, he had just come back from tour. We went to this really nice mastering studio in Manhattan. The guy who mastered our record mastered Marquee Moon, and he did Born To Run. He had a note from John Lennon, because he mastered Walls and Bridges. This handwritten note from John Lennon with his phone number on it.
How did you get hooked up with this guy?
Our producer knew him. He did the new Titus Andronicus album, which our producer did, and he did the new Kurt Vile record. He does indie stuff as well, y'know? But they're this big famous mastering studio called Sterling Sound. His name's Greg Calbi. He did some amazing stuff. But yeah, Matt couldn't be around for that, and he wishes he could have been. But we factor it into the band. We schedule it, almost. Like we know when for the next couple of months Real Estate is going to have to be a focus. Like now we have to tour, but Matt's working on an album now, so that'll probably come out when we take a break from touring. Maybe when he's doing that I'll have time to write material for the next record.
Do you find yourself drawn to a certain an era of music? A certain time and a place?
Not really. I dunno. Yeah, late sixties, early seventies music... I mean I love Television but I don't necessarily love...
Yeah. Or like the New York Dolls or something. It's not like I'm obsessed with that area of New York music. I went to school in Olympia, Washington, and I was really excited to go there- although it wasn't the reason- because I knew that in the late eighties, early nineties, it was this really great place for indie rock. Like K Records and all that stuff. But pretty soon after I got there I realised that that's not what it's like anymore, it's just like any other college town. Except you seen Calvin Johnson around now and again. I don't find myself drawn to a particular time or place. I just like the music I like. I think that's probably the same with most people.
Your press release described New Jersey as one of America's "less cool states". What do you think of that?
It gets a lot of shit from people in New York. People in New York like to pretend they grew up in New York, even thought they're probably from Ohio or something. New Jersey is close to New York, but it's not New York. It's like the suburbs, so it's not as cool. There's a lot of industry there, so it's ugly. The highway, the I95, runs through New Jersey and it runs through this industrial part that just smells bad, 'cause there's all these oil refineries there. There's this huge swamp there called the Meadowlands that they've never been able to build on, and it releases this natural gas into the air, and it just smells bad. It smells like farts. People just get this bad impression when they drive through New Jersey. But there's some funny people that come from there. Like the whole Jersey Shore thing. Those people do exist, but it's a very small aspect of what New Jersey is. We were lucky where we were, because we were able to go to New York for shows and stuff.
Was there a show you saw that stands out? Anything you look back on that meant a lot to you?
There's a lot of them... I saw Television, which was kind of amazing. They reunited for a couple of shows, and I saw them when I was 17, which was kinda cool. I was even thinking recently, "Did I imagine that? Did that happen?" but it did! It got really bad reviews, but I remember it being incredible. If anything it's probably that we saw so many shows. I saw Built To Spill three or four times, I saw Yo La Tengo a bunch, we saw the Pixies when they got back together, but we became aware of this other scene in Brooklyn, all these loft shows that this guy Todd P put on. He's this DIY promoter guy who's put on shows for years. He really helped us early on in our time as a band. He booked us for a lot of shows. I think if you grow up in a place where you're not really exposed to a lot of live music you don't really think of it as a reality, or as an achievable goal.
What are your plans for the band in the next while?
We're doing a lot of touring. We're coming to the UK. We'll be touring all of November and a little bit of December. I'm writing some songs right now, and we're planning on doing an EP when we get home. I really want to get back in the studio and try to fire off a couple more songs.