“The question is, why?” says Real Estate bass player Alex Bleeker, as we discuss the band’s new album The Main Thing. “Why are we doing this?” He’s about to head to out and soundcheck for an acoustic showcase, during which he’ll tease songs from the act’s fifth album alongside frontman and lead songwriter Martin Courtney.
“We were wondering whether we would do it at all,” says Bleeker. “I think we always knew we wanted to make another album – but why? What does it mean to make an album in this context? We discovered that it motivated us to make something that we thought was as good as we could possibly make it, that was meaningful to us and that could maybe be meaningful to other people.”
Courtney, Bleeker’s bandmate of more than a decade, listens intently before politely interjecting. “I think our music has, hopefully, become more complex as we’ve become more complex as people. With this record in particular, it really felt like we had come to a fulcrum in our career as a band. It felt like something we had to take more seriously.”
The sincerity on The Main Thing is discernible from the get-go. Things have changed for the group over the past decade. They have developed from a college indie band into well-respected veterans of the scene, with five consistent and well-crafted guitar-driven LPs to their name.
The new album sees them both discover and attempt new ideas and approaches, as a result of a number of changes to both their collective and personal lives. Courtney became a father at about the same time founding member Matt Mondanile left the group, and Julian Lynch joined the line-up just in time to play a pivotal role on In Mind, another entry in Real Estate’s exemplary back catalogue, which happened to feature one of the best guitar riffs of the past five years, heard on the song Darling. Lynch’s integration into the fold was seamless, and he even penned and sang on the track Also A But, from the new record.
Let’s Get Together
Now a more stable and tight-knit outfit, the band found the courage to embrace external collaboration on this LP, heard immediately in the lead single Paper Cup, which features Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso on backing vocals. Other collaborations come in the form of Matt Barrick of The Walkmen, and Aaron Johnston of Brazilian Girls, alongside a plethora of new musical influences, culminating in the inclusion of a string quartet.
“A lot of that came by way of our producer,” says Courtney. “I never really saw us as the type of band that would collaborate with outside musicians. I just felt like all the sounds on the records would come from the five members of the band, so I was actually kind of resistant to even putting strings on a song.
“We hired Jane Scarpantoni, who’s an accomplished string arranger. She did an incredible job at just complementing the songs. She’s super old-school and she handwrites all the parts – she doesn’t use a computer! I didn’t hear anything before the day that we were in the studio with the strings. I was hearing those parts for the first time as they were being played. It was a bit of a shock but I loved them.”
As Courtney alludes, the inclusion of Kevin McMahon, who produced the band’s 2011 album Days, really pushed Real Estate to write and record with a new sense of creativity and purpose. “Kevin wanted to push us into doing things that maybe we hadn’t done before, or may have made us uncomfortable,” says Courtney.
Bleeker, on the other hand, saw this renewed rapport with McMahon as a way to further develop the band’s musicianship. “That’s growth, trusting people besides yourself to come in and offer a new perspective. It’s a good thing to do to make a new kind of record, to turn to others for perspective and help. I think it’s really cool to build a community of musicians around you. It helps make a greater record.”
Being only Julian Lynch’s second full-length with the band, his guitar sound caught McMahon by surprise. “He and Kevin went to war a bit because he uses very small picks and very heavy gauge strings,” says Bleeker. “He talks about wanting to sound like a synthesiser and a human voice.
“I think Kevin was thrown off by it because it’s a totally different guitar sound to what he recorded with us on Days. So he was like, ‘Why are you doing this?’ and Julian was like, ‘I’m doing this because I thought about it so much.’ Then Kevin was immediately like, ‘Holy shit, okay that’s the guitar sound!’”
The Thing Is
The ethos during the recording process of The Main Thing brings us right back to the band’s collective mindset when setting out to write the album. After performing and writing records for more than a decade, alongside young families and the like, did they really believe they had more to say?
As Courtney says, the title track – the last to be penned – tells all. “The song The Main Thing kind of encapsulates it – intentionally trying to make a super-overblown pop song and then also have a very tight and specific message within that song.
“In a tongue-in-cheek kind of way,” he says, “when your life feels really complex and overwhelming and you start to feel, from a personal perspective, like maybe being a musician and making indie-rock records is not the most responsible thing to be doing when you’ve got three kids, the best thing to do is double down and keep going.”
Bleeker agrees, noting that the responsible thing isn’t always the most appropriate. “What’s beautiful about that message is quite candidly having those thoughts and then saying and discovering, ‘I need to set a different kind of example for my children,’ which is that they should follow their passion totally to the end. Sometimes doing the responsible thing is soulless and awful – and that’s irresponsible.”
“Totally,” says Courtney. “It was also coming from a more broad social and environmental thing. We’re sitting here making art but how much are we really benefitting the world by what we’re doing? I guess the answer to that is to make art that’s important and, as Alex has been saying, touring, bringing people together is a special thing that we get to do. Creating the community is a good thing.”
Though they cover some arduous and adult topics on their newest long-player, the guitar tones and melodies are still reminiscent of Real Estate’s signature warmth.
Despite having an instantly recognisable tone, Courtney admits that he doesn’t put much consideration into his guitar sounds. “My thing hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s chimey. I use Telecasters a lot in the studio and, although I used a ’65 reissue Jaguar on this record, it’s still mostly clean. On certain songs, I was trying to overdrive the amps just a bit, but that’s the most evolution that I’ve made over the years – to use smaller amps and try to crank it and get a bit of warmth and distortion out of it.”
Bleeker believes that the key to Real Estate’s guitar sound is more in the melodies and compositions rather than the guitar tones themselves, which allows him to fulfil a more frontal role as a bass player than in most contemporary rock outfits. “I think a lot of the basslines are kind of counterpointed melodies. That’s another fun thing about this band. You’ve got two guitars doing it but you’ve also got the bass doing it and also the keyboards doing it, to a certain degree. There is definitely a focus on melody for me there. And then from that I’ve gotten sort of obsessed with different nerdy basses and effects.
“Dave [Hartley] from The War On Drugs got me onto this particular line of basses, from the Fender Fullerton era. I’m not that knowledgeable but it was during the process of moving the factory to Corona or whatever. Basically, it was the first time that they made reissue guitars. It was 1982 to ’85 in Fullerton, California. So, I have one of the very first 1950s P-Bass reissues. I played it on the entire record.
Listen to their fifth album and you’ll see that it’s no surprise a band as meticulous as this set of New Jersey natives are willing to try new and left-field things. As with each album, on The Main Thing, Real Estate seem to develop in complex and rounded ways, something that Courtney seems acutely aware of. “Our last record was so clean or tight or dry, which was almost like a reaction to being pegged as this ‘reverb band’. I definitely wanted to make a messier-sounding album or something that felt more dense.”
Real Estate don’t plan to return to being a ‘reverb band’ just yet, and The Main Thing saw its members dissect each aspect of their writing process and allow themselves more time with each element. The resulting record might be their best yet.
The Main Thing is out now on Domino Records.