Real Estate: The Atlas of New Jersey

The band opens up about being called a beach band and how the internet is ruining our lives.

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Mar 4 2014, 8:05pm


Shawn Brackbill

In their short career, Real Estate has become one of those few bands who’ve discovered how to capture a peculiar feeling, one that’s both very specific and yet somewhat impossible to define. They're self-aware, shameless, charmingly smartass—like drinking coffee, wearing slippers, and reading the book review section of the Times while wearing a shit-eating grin at what a horrible cliche you've just embodied.

This week, the New Jersey band releases their newest album, Atlas, one of the most anticipated records of the year. Following their 2011 sophomore effort Days—a record with so much hype that they ended up on the cover of the FaderAtlas is a record that sonically travels down the path that’s come before it, but one that pushes itself lyrically. Frontman Martin Courtney’s about to become a father, an unquestionably weird and inherently strange moment in anyone’s life, and is highlighting the uncertainty of his future by reminiscing about the past. “I don’t need the horizon to tell me where the sky ends,” he sings on the record’s opener “Had to Hear.” “It’s a subtle landscape where I come.”

Tree-lined streets. Matching houses. Friendly mailman. Fuck Arcade Fire, this is the suburbs, man.

A couple weeks ago, band member Alex Bleeker called me up to talk about all of this weirdness. We chatted about the group’s new record, how the internet is ruining our lives, and what it’s like when everyone just wants your band to be the music they listen to while cracking a Bud Light and chillin’ on the beach.

Noisey: With Atlas, what are you most proud of?
Alex Bleeker: The first and probably most obvious one is just the general fidelity of it. In terms of sound quality, it’s our best. And a lot of that is just because of our resources, really. We were able to record it in a pretty professional studio situation. We did a lot of the basic tracking live, which is pretty new for us. We have been pretty heavily reliant on overdubs on the first two records, and that’s not to say there aren’t overdubs on this record—there are, and we like doing those—but like every song has a base of all the band members playing the songs together, like you’d see it at a live show. We are excited about the result that’s yielded. And another thing to mention is that it feels more collaborative than ever.

There’s always a stock answer about how we write songs, and it’s like, well, Martin or myself or whoever it is will write it—Martin writes about 80 percent of the songs—and will bring it into practice and we fill it out. There’s always varying degrees of truth to that, but this time around, it’s really, really true. Everybody brought their own individual style to the table and collaborated.

Did you face any challenges in the studio during the recording process?
It was cool, really smooth. Probably the least challenging so far, because we had this dedicated time to go and make a record.

Did you not have that with previous records?
Well, you know, I’d be interested in how many hours it took to make it compared to other records we’ve made. In terms of actual linear calendar time, this one was so much quicker because we had this really intense ten-day period of recording in Chicago, and then we came to New York and worked on the record for another week or so, mixing it. But the initial tracking period was just fully dedicated time. All we were doing was waking up every day and spending 12 hours in the studio for ten days straight, which is something we’ve never done before. And it was awesome. That’s the way I want to do things from now on. It’s so much better than being touch and go, like, “Oh, we’ll go in for two days or we’ll go in for the day and we’ll come back next Tuesday,” you know what I mean? It was really cool to get into a headspace for ten days that’s like, “Okay, we are making an album right now.” I really liked that.

How do you feel that’s reflected in Atlas?
Specifically, I’m not sure. But it sounds like a natural evolution of what Real Estate is. It reflects where we are at as a band and as people. We’re more professional and mature, to borrow a cliché term about musicians. But I do feel that way about this record, you know?

Do you think this is your best record?
That’s hard for me to judge. Everyone is going to have his or her own subjective or objective opinion about that. I like them all at this point. I’ll put it this way: I think we made the best record we are capable of making now. [Laughs.] I don’t think we messed it up and we did our best. We went for it and it’s as good as it was going to be. I don’t have any regrets or feel like we missed anything.

This is your first record in about two and a half years, which is an eternity on the internet.
It happened at our own natural pace. We put Days out and we toured on it really heavily for like a year. So that whole time was not going to be time spent making another record, you know? [Laughs.] It’s sort of built into the whole process of putting out an album: touring, promoting that album, etc., especially nowadays. It’s funny because the pace of music is so fast and things come out on the internet really, really quickly, but also to be a band, you have to be playing live shows. That’s our bread and butter. And we don’t even tour as much as some of our friends do. But after all of that—touring on and off for like a year or so—we all just needed some time to chill, you know? We needed to take a break and get to a point where we wanted to be making music together. We’re pretty good and careful to not burn out on each other, and when it feels like we’re getting to that point, we step back and step away from this thing in the interest of health and well-being and longevity. And we all want that, so we don’t feel any pressure to rush out any kind of record on any type of super intense timeline. We didn’t make a decision to wait a super long time, and it doesn’t feel like that long to me; it happened organically, I guess.

Speaking to that, what’s it like to create music in an environment on the internet that’s so incredibly fast-paced?
I think it’s mostly a good thing for us, or it has been for us. If we were a band this popular in the ‘90s, we’d all be a lot richer. [Laughs.] But if it were the ‘90s, we’d have a very little chance of being a band this popular. You know what I mean? We are a literally band that has based ourselves on giving away our music for free on the internet and having people trade through that digital word of mouth, you know? In terms of that, we owe a lot of our success to this new modern era of music and things being immediately available and available largely for free.

That’s something I feel pretty good about because, not just us, but everyday musicians and people have more of an opportunity to be heard by a pretty wide and specified community. There’s this little corner of the world that is into Real Estate right now, and that’s awesome. And that’s our whole world—so that maybe feels big to us, but there are other factions within the world of music that don’t care about us but coexist harmoniously and it’s fine, you know? People have so much freedom to pick and choose and that’s cool and there’s more music being heard because of it, and that’s awesome.

This weird thing happens where trends come and go really quickly, which is the downside of it. People kind of marvel out how our sound hasn’t changed that much, which is not even a reality. If you listen to our first record straight into this one, it sounds pretty drastically different. We’re still in the world of making melodic guitar pop songs, but that’s because that’s what we are still interested in making. Sure, Real Estate has been a band for five years, but that’s not that long. We’re still interested in making the same kind of music with this particular group of people. Often times, with press, they’ll be like, “So you guys haven’t changed your sound that much. You didn’t put out a witch-house record in 2011. You didn’t go for this minimal house experiment,” or whatever the flavor of the internet month is at the time. [Laughs.] I think that’s a product of the pace at which things move, and what happens to be “cool” in whatever underground music circle at whatever time. We’re glad we don’t chase that around and try to appeal whatever those are, because those things tend to be so fleeting—and trends die so hard. People are always like, “Oh, I’m so over that.” So we’re conscious of that too and not really interested in dating ourselves, because with the internet, you can be dated so fast too. If you try to keep up, you’ll just end up showing your age.

Yeah. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about your music is that it feels a bit timeless.
Yeah. I mean, that’s what we hope for.

Is there anything you feel Real Estate is misunderstood about?
This is something I understand because it has to do with the group of bands that we’ve been lumped in with and played with a lot and that we were friends with when we first became a band, but there’s this whole perception of us being, you know, sunny-beach-vibe-porch-toe-tappin’-chillers. It’s fine, and you can worse associations with your band than that, ha, but we roll our eyes and we could make any type of record and it would be tagged as that. And that ties into the internet thing too. You have a lot of writers—and I’m sure you’re aware of this—who just need to find an assignment. Like, oh we need 60 words on Real Estate for the backpage of Rolling Stone, and 12 other bands you have to get to me before the end of the week. What do people do? Now the internet is this communal encyclopedia, you know? That’s where things get dangerous. History is collectively written and people aren’t making their own judgments until they google something about our band. And all of the sudden, there’s this exponential amount of wealth of info that says we are a sunny beach band, so the immediate response is, “Okay, these guys are kind of beachy. Cool.”

Does it bother you?
I mean, it doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t make me mad. We definitely played it up. It’s not like, “Where did this come from? How did this happen?” It was definitely a thing at one point, but it’s not really much of a thing for us anymore. It’s funny. We’ve said this in interviews for years now, but I feel like the only way we could change that is if we got like really agro and hardcore. Like, “Look, we’re not a fucking beach band!” [Laughs.] If we made a big stink, there’d be a big headline, like, “VICE Says Don’t Call Real Estate a Beach Band.” And then what happens when you say you’re not a beach band? That makes you a beach band. [Laughs.] So we’re a beach band, I guess.

Eric Sundermann can't wait to chill on the beach, bro. He's on Twitter @ericsundy

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