There’s a hermetically sealed purity—they’re too old to call it innocence—about New Jersey’s lethargic, guitar-jangling Real Estate. Even in these ultra-eclectic, meta times, tongue-tied frontman Martin Courtney insists he “doesn’t know how to write any other type of music” than the hazy indie-folk he puts forth.
“That’s the stuff that comes out,” Courtney says.
He covered Weezer in high school but has barely touched a distortion pedal since (“We only use it on one song”). His interest in pop goes as far as Built to Spill, and he doesn’t seem particularly interested in being self-aware or cultivating an image from behind his guitar. Any mystery gathered by Real Estate’s songs is probably just shyness, if not all-out hypnosis. Bring up Real Estate’s “psychedelic” reputation and he jabbers excitedly about guitar effects.
“If we didn’t [use delay and phasers], the songs might be what they are, but just a little more straightforward.” He sounds like he’s making a face at the s-word over the phone. “I think that’s where maybe we put our own stamp on the tunes.”
The Ridgewood, N.J. four-piece share one aesthetic with their fellow pastoral-sounding neighbors Yo La Tengo and The Feelies though: more getting high on geeking out than getting high to do it.
“I don’t know so much about the drug thing so much as like, when we take a section of a song and try to jam it out, improvise on it, for us, it’s to zone out and alter your consciousness without drugs. Playing the same chord progression for five minutes over and over again can sort of do the same thing.”
But when asked if “zoning out” has caused him to lose his place or forget to come in singing again live, Courtney turns professional.
“I’m sure that’s happened,” he laughs. “A lot of times the sections that are sort of ‘jammed’ are pre-written in length. Nobody ever said out loud that that’s what we’re gonna do but it just like, organically occurred.”
Organic is a crucial process for Real Estate, and first-timers might liken their somberness more to Bert Jansch-style English folk. But their connections to the inescapable “chillwave” sound are curious. (Guitarist Matthew Mondanile also plays hazy guitar music as Ducktails, who sound only mildly more technologically-treated than Real Estate, yet get lumped in with the more ‘80s-indebted Washed Out and Neon Indian.)
“From my understanding, we’re not chillwave. We’re not slowed-down italo-disco with sampled singing over it,” says Courtney, who’s more confused than peeved. “I feel like people have a hard time giving us a name, but if it’s inspired by anything, it’s classic rock music, the Beatles. People think of classic rock as loud, rock music, but then there’s Pink Floyd.”
It’s almost jarring to hear him blurt out the Beatles and Pink Floyd after struggling for a second to compare his roots to something. But Courtney’s just not the guy who thinks about this stuff. And after some badgering, even he agrees that “chillwave” would be an apt term for what they do if it didn’t already mean something else. Pressed about the wobbly, hazy, out-of-focus state of indie, Courtney gets protective of the intricacies that make his critically acclaimed band more than a private project.
“I think you can’t just rely on having reverb and delay all over everything,” he says. “It is overdone but—no I take that back. But it has to be used correctly. Reverb’s been used forever. People want to put reverb on their vocals because a lot of music in the ‘60s has reverb on the vocals. I wonder if people will look back to now similar to when they did in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s like, ‘This music is so good but I wonder why they have that cheesy-ass reverb on the snare drum.’ It gets old or overdone a little bit, but I’d hope the focus is more on the songwriting.”
If the name of his band’s new album sounds expedient—Days, well, his college idol was John Fahey, another guy who made countless records with little explanation or interest in his own myth. He’s just playing, and you’re just listening, and that’s the bond between Real Estate and an audience who they don’t really address being there. “Some of the songs are as old as the first album,” Courtney notes, as if anyone could tell.
One song on Days does stand out remarkably: the tightly-drummed and almost relatively forceful “It’s Real,” which could pass for an R.E.M. song off Fables of the Reconstruction. But as with most he does, Courtney shifts the blame for anything good or bad to interfere with their sound.
“I almost thought that song was too poppy or something,” Courtney admits. “I knew that was a different style for us than almost anything we’ve done before. When we were learning it, I was almost embarrassed by it, but then we came up with a really good arrangement. As with the rest of this album, nothing was really written with any intention in mind.”
They’re just playing, and listeners are just passersby in Real Estate’s musical equivalent of a sunny, foggy park.
“We didn’t really make any decisions for what we were going to do,” Courtney insists.