Real Estate: Settling In

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It is unlikely that having a conversation of any decent length with Martin Courtney or Alex Bleeker of Real Estate would result in assessing the two as “boring.” Bleeker is energetically upbeat, the kind of guy you can imagine likes hugging his pals after a couple beers. He’s also always thinking while he’s speaking, meaning he takes in the subtleties of a conversation and manages off-the-cuff humor within generally stoic Q&As.

Courtney is a little more formal, with a little less of a smile apparent in the sound of his voice. But he is also fully engaged with the moment, even if he’s not going to make his work easy. He displays what Bleeker also showcases: confidence. And why shouldn’t Real Estate be a confident band? Their career has allowed the four-piece to steadily visit larger venues, increase their festival poster font—including the top line at Noise Pop this year—and see fans become rabidly devoted to music that others label as “boring” because it is easy to push into the background in a chattery room. Real Estate (and particularly their lovely third LP, Atlas) requires patience and focus in a time where those are more precious than gold.

Reading a negative Real Estate review is fascinating in how enraged the argument can get, particularly for a band that seems so inoffensive and is beautiful and subtly intricate often. Arguments against Real Estate are usually arguments against guitar bands or mid-tempo rock or white males in general. And it’s something that both Courtney and Bleeker don’t let get to them.

“How would we stop being boring?” asks Bleeker. “Would we get a gimmick? Would we dress differently? Would we make different music altogether? I don’t worry about that too much because I realize we are blessed from the amount of people that do listen to us, so I don’t worry about the people that don’t.”

“We work really hard on our songs, so what do you say to that?” Courtney wonders in a separate conversation. “We don’t rock really hard, and we don’t write really fast songs. We aren’t using particularly modern equipment. You can hear our slower songs that use guitars and have melodies and think they sound muted, or you can just see that as a style of music we play. So, people that call us boring should probably just not listen to our band. It’s not like it has no substance. When I hear ‘boring,’ I think they are referring to it being mellow.”

Childhood friends from Ridgewood, N.J., the boys of Real Estate have seen their circle receive acclaim and attention beyond typical expectations, including friends in Titus Andronicus and Julian Lynch. Real Estate alone has three accomplished songwriters in tow, with the band generally considered Courtney’s vehicle for his songwriting, while Bleeker has his Freaks for his songwriting output and Matt Mondanile releases most of his songs under the name Ducktails.

“We’re coming to terms with the fact that we are a full-time band,” Bleeker says, going on to explain that Atlas is their most collaborative work yet, with the whole band—rounded out by Jackson Pollis and Matt Kallman—involved in the early stages of the song’s development, allowing the members “to put their own stamp on each song.” And Bleeker and Mondanile also each offer one of their own songs to the collection, a tradition that is not a hard-and-fast rule but also is acknowledged as not random or accidental.

“Martin kinda wondered if it would be weird to have someone else sing in the middle of the set,” Bleeker says. “And I’m like, ‘who are our favorite bands? Start with the prototypical rock band, The Beatles. Or more recently, bands we admire like Yo La Tengo and Animal Collective.’ And not just because of the music. We are inspired by those bands because of the way they do things, the way their careers have gone. There are usually some common threads, like they were buddies growing up, but also, they had multiple songwriters.”

“I think it’s hard for them to know how to do it,” Courtney admits, “because they want to have their solo side things too, and they want to contribute to Real Estate. There have been times where Real Estate will learn a song by Matt, and then it will end up on a Ducktails record. And it might be disappointing because I liked the song and thought it would be a cool Real Estate song, but it’s cool for him to have his own thing, too. If he and Alex wrote more, it would be just different. Part of Real Estate is that I do write and sing the majority of the songs, and that gives us our sound. Maybe in the future there will be more of an even split, but it just depends on how much they want to contribute to the process. At any time if they come to practice with a song, we’re like, ‘Alright, let’s do it.’ It’s not something that there are restrictions on.”

It’s also hard to change a formula that has seen success three releases in a row, at least creatively. And with Atlas reaching and pleasing their core audience at the very least and likely earning them even more new fans, questions about what Real Estate stands for as band will begin to gain more traction. Likewise, detractors seeing them as a group of white males continuing the patriarchy are also growing more vocal.

“It’s not a healthy way to live your life,” says Bleeker about pondering whether the world needs more white guitar bands. “I don’t have white guilt, or I deal with it in such a way that I don’t think that is valid. I think you should do what you can to make the world a better place for other people, but I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with my background. The best for us to do is to respect the luck and good fortune of being in a successful rock band by honoring that and living that life responsibly and fully.”

Even with three albums, Real Estate still feels like a young band still figuring out exactly how it wants its future to look. The good news is that for Courtney, the songwriting is coming easier, with him continuing to write after the Atlas sessions and having a surplus of material for the first time. But as the accolades and attention become less surprising over time, Bleeker keeps the experience from being boring by finding his joy in unexpected places.

“Feeling routine about things is now blowing my mind,” Bleeker says, laughing. “Like, we just did this trip where we were over in Europe and I was in Paris and was like ‘it’s not that crazy that I’m in Paris.’ The fact that is not crazy, is pretty crazy.”

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