Q&A: Martin Courtney On Marital Contentment, Guitar Tabs, And Real Estate’s Signature Sound
Atlas, the album Real Estate releases today, finds the Jersey-bred, Brooklyn-based guitar-pop combo settling comfortably into adulthood as individuals and as a musical entity. On the personal front, lead songwriter Martin Courtney got married after wrapping up touring behind 2011’s Days, so the nostalgic longing that defined Real Estate before has given way to glowing contentment and a steadfast fixation on the now. The band is growing up musically, too; three albums into their career, they’re firmly established as one of indie rock’s best-loved entities and are seemingly well on their way to a lengthy career. In keeping with that trajectory, Atlas, recorded last year at Wilco’s Loft studio in Chicago, is a classic “mature third album.” Nobody will mistake this for anything but a Real Estate record — it’s a refinement of the band’s signature sound rather than an overhaul — but its sunbeam melodies and patiently sighing arrangements exhibit a band in complete control of its dreamy guitar jangle, seemingly able to conjure placid beauty out of the sweet suburban air. I spoke with Courtney about the stories behind Atlas, his future aspirations (Jim O’Rourke and a front yard factor in), and his response to the notion that Real Estate keeps repeating itself.
STEREOGUM: Let’s talk about Atlas. Your music has always been light and easygoing and dreamy, but it seems to be getting progressively more chilled-out with each album.
MARTIN COURTNEY: The first record was pretty mellow. I almost think a song like “Talking Backwards” is more aggressive than anything we’ve done before. So I’m not sure if I agree. There’s definitely more mellow than upbeat during this album.
STEREOGUM: You’ve talked about moving from a nostalgic focus to a present-tense focus with these songs.
COURTNEY: Yes that’s definitely one thing that I was thinking about when writing these lyrics, to try and not think too much about the past.
STEREOGUM: Did some of that stem from getting married before making the album? Was there less reason to long for the past?
COURTNEY: Yeah, that plays into it. And once that happened, I found myself thinking more about where my life was going and where it was at, thinking about plans and kids. That definitely comes into the lyrics.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel a sense of contentment more than when you were making the last couple of records?
COURTNEY: (Laughs) Yes, I think so. Things are a little more in place. As you progress, you hope things click a little bit into place. That’s kind of what’s happening for me, and that’s a good thing. Personally and professionally with this band I’m a naturally anxious person. Things definitely are well set-up right now, but I still find myself worrying about everything constantly. Worrying about how this album is going to be received, whatever it may be. I’m definitely a worrier at heart. That hasn’t changed, but things are in a good place right now.
STEREOGUM: I think the clearest indicator of contentment was “Navigator.” It feels like the kind of song that you write when you’re happily married.
COURTNEY: Yeah. I wrote those lyrics while we were in Chicago. That was one of the only songs that wasn’t finished when we went into the studio. I was definitely feeling happy to be there in Chicago, and also I think the thematic content reflects the vibe of the song. That song is definitely a nice, mellow tune. I wrote that song walking around where we stayed in Chicago, which was really beautiful, summer time and pretty, and just being happy to be making this record with my friends. It’s not what the song is about, but it comes through, the way I was feeling at the time — lucky. Lucky to be doing what we were doing.
STEREOGUM: One of the songs that would be less indicative of peacefulness is “Talking Backwards.” Is that about trying to maintain a relationship on the road?
COURTNEY: That’s part of it, and communication in general. There’s the cliché that communication is a big part of a relationship, which obviously rings true for anyone who has been in a long-term relationship. So that plays into what that song is about as well. Personally for me, it comes through having toured a lot for the last record and knowing that was going to happen again when this album came out. It’s a frustration thing, where that song is coming from.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting that in the world of Real Estate, even the sound of frustration comes out sounding light and poppy in a major key.
COURTNEY: (Laughs) There’s one minor chord in there. But I know what you mean. I guess it relates back to the vibe of the song dictating the lyrical content. It doesn’t always ring true, and sometimes it does. To me, the chorus reflects the lyrics. I don’t know why, but it seems right to me. It’s a hard thing to put into words, but it made sense to me when I was writing the words. A lot of great songs are happy songs with unhappy lyrics. That’s something that comes through a lot of good songs, really. I used to think about that a lot with the Pixies. Their songs seem so happy but the lyrics are extremely dark. That’s really cool. I love that. Being in high school, that blew my mind.
STEREOGUM: A lot of Elliott Smith songs are like that too.
COURTNEY: Oh, for sure. That’s a deep influence. He’s not really on the surface, or maybe he’s on the surface, but I haven’t listened to him in an active way in a while. It’s very formative. When I was learning how to play guitar I was learning on Beatles songs and Elliott Smith songs, when I was 19 and learning. Just learning about song structure from him — he is kind of a genius.
STEREOGUM: I read another interview where you were talking about the desire to have a yard and a dog. When I go back and listen to something like “Suburban Beverage” there’s an appreciation for that, but it’s almost winking at it.
COURTNEY: Yeah, a little tongue-in-cheek.
STEREOGUM: Do you think some of that ironic distance is gone now?
COURTNEY: I haven’t thought of that. But yeah, it’s probably true. At this point it’s not ironic. I want to live in a house in the suburbs and have a dog. I really want to do that. Whatever, I’m not even that old. But I feel old. I feel like I want to get out of the city. Maybe if I did actually move out and live in a quiet place in this idealized situation that I have in my head I would feel bored or miss the city. But my wife and I aren’t the type of people that go out that often. We are kind of homebodies. I know she likes the city. We both do because it’s nice to know that you have all of these cool things at your fingertips and places to go. All of our friends are nearby. That’s the most important thing, I think. I’m going to be touring so much in the near future that it would suck to be isolated, especially for my wife. I do idealize that in a way. I think on the first record it was a little ironic.
STEREOGUM: How did you guys end up recording the at the Wilco loft?
COURTNEY: Through the producer Tom Schick. We basically had a label-arranged marriage, but not in a bad way at all because we truly trust the people who work at Domino. We weren’t really sure what we wanted to do with this new record. We had mentioned as a dream that we would love to work with Jim O’Rourke. We had brought him up, which had brought Wilco into the conversation because he did Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I was talking about how I wanted to make a really clean sounding record, sort of strip it back and bring out the arrangements of the songs themselves, take out some of the reverbs and ’80s snare drum hits but clean everything up in a way. But Tom Schick came up with the label, and we looked at what he had done. We knew he worked with Wilco. We also figured out he produced the Sean Lennon Into The Sun record, which we are all big fans of from high school. And a bunch of stuff. He works with Wilco all the time, and we wanted to be able to focus our attention on just making the record. So Tom mentioned that he had access to the Wilco studio. Usually Jeff [Tweedy]’s in there all the time making demos or recording things. So they happened to be on tour right when we were looking into recording and gave us their blessing to use the space.
STEREOGUM: I love how this album sounds, but I’m definitely crossing my fingers for the Jim O’Rourke-produced Real Estate album.
COURTNEY: That would be amazing. That would be album five. (Laughs) That would be cool. We’ll see.
STEREOGUM:: I know [guitarist] Matt [Mondanile] lives in L.A. now. Has that affected how the band operates at all, being spread out like that?
COURTNEY: No, not yet. He moved relatively recently, pretty much after we finished the record. We were basically at the tail end of mixing. The record was done. He’s been gone but he’s around now. He’s around often. He was home in Boston and a month and a half later he was home for Thanksgiving, then he was home for Christmas. During those periods of time we did the things that we needed to do like get photo shoots or whatever stupid things you have to do as a band. Press and all that, video shoots. We were able to get everything done that we needed to do as a band. Other than that we were in between finishing [the album] and it being released. It really hasn’t affected anything. The way I see it working is that before we go on tour, he comes a couple of days early and we practice, get the songs together as a band, and go play these shows. That seems to work fine. Once we start getting serious about making the next record — which isn’t going to be for a little while, obviously — we’ll have to figure out how that’s going to work. Lots of band’s do it. Animal Collective are spread all over the place, and I think even Wilco, not all of them live in Chicago anymore. It should be fine. It’s been fine so far, and I’m not too worried about it. It’s basically, I’ll write the songs, we can all write and get together for a couple weeks and rehearse them as a band and come up with arrangements. We make it work.
STEREOGUM: How did you guys come up with the idea to do that guitar tab video?
COURTNEY: I’ve got to give credit to Jack Shankly, our friend who works at Domino in the UK. It was his idea, although he said he actually stole the idea from somebody else with their blessing. Honestly, when they first presented it to us, I was like, “This can be really good or really bad.” I don’t know how to write out tabs, so we’re going to have to get someone else to do it. I liked the idea, but if we were going to do it had to be done right. I was really worried that it wasn’t going to be done right because Matt was in Australia doing a Ducktails tour. We put this together two weeks ago. So it really came together very fast. But we were able to do it. Matt recorded his part on his laptop. The actual images on the video are from Photo Booth on his laptop, and then my footage was taken by our friend Charles. Matt’s video was shot in Sydney, Australia, mine was shot Brooklyn, and then this person in the UK made the tabs, and then somebody else animated them so they scrolled across the screen. There was all of these moving parts, and I was really worried that it wasn’t going to work or it was going to look really bad. But it turned out really well. Especially for what it is, our answer to the lyric video, which all these bands are doing. But that was what I really liked about it, the “placeholder non-music video” video that everybody does, but we’re doing it a little differently. It’s just cool to give people who play guitar to have the official tab be out there, as a person who plays guitar and has looked up tabs and has noticed they couldn’t be more wrong. I usually have a good ear where I can listen to a song, but if I can’t figure out the first chord is or whatever and then I look it up, I wonder why I even tried. Usually tabs are garbage. So this at least is pretty much accurate.
STEREOGUM: If there is a rap on Real Estate — some people view it as a critique and others view it as a positive thing — it’s that you’re repeating the same song over and over again. Are you sensitive to that critique?
COURTNEY: It doesn’t really bother me because I put so much work into these songs, and I think it’s just nonsense. I think they’re obviously different. I can see someone listening to an album and not paying attention to it. I can see it maybe. But that can happen with any record. The best albums can sound the same to you. We’ve spent so much time writing this record, and to me one of our strengths is that none of our songs do sound the same. I really couldn’t disagree more with that statement. I think each song is an island. Obviously we have a sound, and it’s us playing, and my voice sounds a certain way, but in short I couldn’t disagree more. I do think this album is a grower. If you haven’t spent enough time with it then you’re not fully getting it. It’s not really an immediate pleaser. I mean, some songs are. And hopefully it is, and some people are listening to it and loving it right away. But I do think that it reveals itself upon repeated listens. There’s a lot more to it than surface value. I’ve always thought that the best music is the stuff that you don’t totally like at first. But one day you’re listening to it with the right set of ears and you hear it for what it is. I think maybe you need to spend more time with it if you feel that way. Or don’t and just listen to something else.
STEREOGUM: I would say what you described about spending time with the record has been true of all of your records, in terms of details emerging in time. Even in the shorter time I’ve had with Atlas, my appreciation for it has grown.
COURTNEY: I think that we really spent the most time on this record. I really worked the hardest on these songs than anything I’ve worked on in the previous records. We’ve put a lot of thought into it. There’s a lot there to dig into. Obviously I’m just proud of it. I’m happy with the record. I hope other people are. Or at least give it the chance it needs. That’s the only thing I’m worried about, that people won’t give it enough of a chance.
STEREOGUM: It does seem like there’s a habit to stream a song on YouTube once and that’s the end for many people.
COURTNEY: It’s the culture now. There’s a lot of people who love music still and will spend time with a record. But it’s true that there is often the short attention span thing. Whatever, I have faith — at least in our fan base. If people have stuck by us long enough to want to hear this record, I think they’re the type of fans to appreciate this. Hopefully we can make some new fans, though.
Atlas is out today on Domino. Read our review here.
[Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty]