“We’re cursed!” says lead singer/guitarist Martin Courtney of Real Estate’s tour so far. “All sorts of weird shit happened that never happens. Like, really messed up stuff. Alex [Bleeker, bassist] came in on the wrong note on a song that we’ve played forever”. So, not that mental really, but still enough to unnerve the mild-mannered Courtney. Since releasing their eponymous debut in 2009 though, indie revivalists Real Estate seem to have had nothing good omens.
In 2008, from the comfort of suburban New Jersey, Martin Courtney, along with Alex Bleeker, guitarist Matt Mondanile and then drummer Etienne Pierre Duguay were drawn into the creative hotbed that is Brooklyn. “None of us even lived there [Brooklyn] when we started the band” says Courtney. “We lived in Jersey still, but it was almost immediately like we were a Brooklyn band just because that’s where all the shows are. We’d be playing there twice a weekend and we’d meet all these other people that were in bands from Brooklyn, so it’s just a really fertile ground for people to start bands. There’s no way you can become a known indie band and only play in New Jersey”.
Indeed, somewhat of a critical fascination has amassed around the fact that, despite the subject matter of their songs including beaches, swimming and general seaside merriment, Real Estate hail from New Jersey; the supposedly grim backdrop for much of Bruce Springsteen’s comment on working class America. “A lot of people don’t understand aspects about where we’re from,” says Courtney. “They’re like [moronic journalist voice] ‘What’s it like when you grow up in Jersey?’ but it’s really similar, I think, to a lot of places in the States and also the UK. Anybody that’s grown up in a suburb of a larger city can understand where we’re from. It’s just a bunch of nice houses and yards and fields you can go hang out in. It was just cool because we were close to New York City and we could go to shows and see cool music all the time and it was inspiring”.
With song titles including 'Suburban Dogs' and 'Suburban Beverage', Real Estate clearly embrace their collective adolescent roots, so how did it feel when Arcade Fire came along with a whole record devoted to life in the suburbs? “It was weird!” says Courtney, “I like their first record a lot. I remember going to see them and thinking they were really good, then I stopped paying attention to them for a while. Then they put out a record, like, a year after we put out our first record, called The Suburbs and we were like ‘What?! That’s our thing!’” How does your suburbia compare to theirs? “I’m not really familiar with the concept, but I’m sure it’s a little more high-brow than ours” he continues. “Some of the songs on our record are about feeling almost guilty when you were young because, at least for me, I didn’t really have any responsibilities. I gradually matured, but then, when you look back on that, you think that’s what made you who you are”.
Real Estate’s new album, Days, may share similar lyrical themes to their debut, but there is a greater sense of focus and song craft to the music itself. What is most impressive is that, following a homemade debut, Days is the product of Real Estate’s first foray into the studio. “We wanted to do it all at once and do it in the studio” says Courtney. “That was what we always wanted to do, but with the first record we just couldn’t, so we just did it with our friends”. What was your vision for the follow up? “The idea was for it to be more cohesive, to sound more like an album,” says Courtney, “we wanted it to sound old, like it was recorded thirty years ago. So, timeless, I guess”.
Days certainly harks back to the jangly '80s indie of early REM and fellow New Jersey natives The Feelies. “We went into the studio being like, ‘we want this to sound like The Feelies a little bit, minus the reverb on the snare drum’” admits Courtney. “We didn’t want it to sound too '80s, but they [The Feelies] used so much acoustic guitar and they were our inspiration for bringing in some distortion”. Echoes of The Feelies’ magnum opus, The Good Earth, are especially apparent in the buried, wistful harmonies and acoustic strum of 'Wonder Years'. Buried, in fact, is undoubtedly the correct word to describe the vocals. “I have the hardest time with lyrics” says Courtney, “I’ll sit on a song for two months and not finish it because I can’t write words for it. It’s super frustrating. The music and the melodies are more important than the lyrics to me. Not that I would be happy to put out shitty lyrics, y’know, but I’m more interested in writing music than lyrics”.
The critical response to Days has, on the whole, been positive, but some press comments have clearly irritated Courtney: “It kinda bums me out,” he says, “because I’ll read a review of the new record it’s like [same moronic journalist voice] ‘It really doesn’t sound like they’ve changed much from the first record, but it’s good anyway’. We can experiment, we can try new styles of songs and stuff like that, but it’s never gonna be that different. People say our first record’s more summery and this record’s more autumnal or something, but I think they both work for any season”. Talking of seasons, what do you think are the ideal conditions for listening to Real Estate? “I’m not sure” says Courtney. “My ideal conditions for listening to music are driving around alone in my car, or walking around with headphones in this kind of weather. Windy, fall, brisk, leaves swirling around on the ground”. Not exactly beach weather then? “Yeah, that’s for sure!”