Real Estate’s Martin Courtney Settles Down—But Never Settles

The Real Estate frontman on trying new writing techniques and what it’s like raising children in an uncertain world

Music Features Real Estate
Real Estate’s Martin Courtney Settles Down—But Never Settles

“I wanted to do things differently this time,” Martin Courtney says while an orchestra soundchecks behind us. His band Real Estate is getting ready to play an episode of Chris Thile’s Live From Here alongside Indigo Girls and Ken Burns at the historic Town Hall on Broadway in New York City. Things have certainly changed for the group over the years, and Courtney’s definitely still not the aimless 19-year-old he writes about on “November” or the 25-year-old holding onto youth in 2010 on “Shallow Sun,” both tracks from the band’s newest album The Main Thing. Courtney now has three children and talks about “small-town life” in Beacon, N.Y.

The Main Thing sees the indie vets trying new things, and a lot of that is a result of intense life changes that occurred a few years ago. Around the time Courtney became a father for the first time, founding lead guitarist Matt Mondanile was ousted from the band, a move that was later linked to horrific sexual misconduct allegations. They brought in Julian Lynch, who like Courtney and bassist Alex Bleeker, didn’t live in New York City (Lynch is in Madison, Wis., while Bleeker resides in a small town north of San Francisco). On top of that, Courtney was coming off of touring his debut solo record Many Moons, which didn’t really change the way he wrote songs, but he enjoyed having more control over the end result than he was typically used to.

That all led to 2017’s In Mind, another excellent release in Real Estate’s glowing discography that reflected those life and career-altering events.

In Mind feels like a more transitional album for me,” Courtney explains. “I’m really proud of that record, it sounds really good production-wise, and there are a lot of really good songs on there. But it feels like a record where we were in a state of flux. We felt really comfortable with Julian right off the bat because it’s someone we’ve known for a really long time. I was just excited to have him in the band, and it felt really good to me. But I think he was still kind of finding his place within the group. Even though we’ve known him forever, it just took him some time to really feel like a full member.”

Three years later on the eve of their fifth record’s release, those changes are now permanent. They’re used to not all living in their native New Jersey or Brooklyn, where the band blew up a decade ago. (“At a certain point, you realize that we don’t need to be together to be a band,” Courtney says.) Lynch is so integrated into the band’s lineup that he wrote and sang a song on the new album, “Also A But.” A more tight-knit group, Real Estate members try on new hats this time around, unafraid to add elements of disco and elongated groovy jams to their trademark laid-back indie rock. Much of their willingness to experiment stems from bringing back Days producer Kevin McMahon (Titus Andronicus, Swans, Widowspeak), who really pushed the band to write and record with intention.

“There’s a whole philosophy on this record, not that we’re going to do things differently for the sake of it, but really just being thoughtful and really thinking about each step of the way, each part that you’re playing,” Courtney says. “It was almost annoying, but, in a way, you have to keep your head in this space and hold this thought in your mind. He’d be like, ‘What is this? What are you playing right now? Why are you playing this right now? I’m not judging whether or not I like it, but as long as you have an answer for why you’re doing this, then we at least know that it’s not the first thing you thought of. Or if it is the first thing you thought of, at least you know why you’re doing it and there’s a reason and a purpose.’”

That mindset also forced the quintet to really think about why they were doing any of this at all. With their own separate lives and over a decade of existing as a band, what else did they have to prove?

“This is our fifth record and we didn’t want to just make another album and sleepwalk through it,” Courtney explains. “To me, it felt like it needed to have some weight to it, and it felt like an important record in a lot of ways while we were making it.”

A lot of that weight came from McMahon’s insistence on considering every word on the record. Subsequently, Courtney dug deeper and wrote about his children and the world they’re growing up in. It’s a prominent theme throughout the record as a whole, but most obvious on album highlight “You,” in which Courtney sings “I can’t imagine what will be / In your earliest memories” in the chorus. Elsewhere, he contrasts his own childhood with that of his children and his parents on “Procession,” while the Lynch-penned “Also A But” adds widespread climate catastrophe to the equation: “I could easily imagine any manner of disaster / Couldn’t you?”

“Silent World,” like “You,” addresses many of these worries about raising children in the Trump era: “Imagining the first memory your child will have, you’re kind of responsible for creating that environment and creating a safe environment for kids to feel safe, trying to basically maintain this bubble,” Courtney says. “[‘Silent World’ is about] feeling like we have our home and our family and our friends in this little town we live in, and it feels safe and protected and that’s what you want to maintain. But I’m looking around at the world and being like, ‘I am experiencing all of these anxieties and my kids are completely unaware of that, but eventually, they will be.’ It sucks. It’s a heartbreaking concept. Eventually, they’re going to be confronted with all of this stuff.”

Though The Main Thing deals with a bevy of heavy topics, it’s not like Real Estate have become a band full of downers (though, to be fair, their music has always been a bit melancholic behind those sunny guitar riffs). It’s actually quite the opposite: Their experimentation with sounds led to lead single “Paper Cup,” perhaps the most fun and danceable track Real Estate have ever released. It features glistening synth and a playful string section (“Our producer was like, ‘What if you sped it up a lot?’”). Album opener “Friday” is even a nod to The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love.” Five albums in, they’re willing to try new things and be a bit unpredictable—all in moderation, of course.

“We were trying to accomplish making the best record we’ve ever made,” Courtney says. “We’ve always felt that way, but we really, really wanted to do it this time, and we really wanted to take it seriously this time. It’s why it took so long: It took a lot longer than every record we’ve made. It took us a whole year to record this thing.”

Because they wanted to deconstruct the ways they wrote and record new music, Real Estate more than took their time on The Main Thing, a record that Courtney began writing “pretty soon” after In Mind. But The Main Thing proves that over-analyzation can lead Real Estate down a fruitful path to some of the best music of their career.

Revisit Real Estate’s 2010 Daytrotter session:

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