Martin Courtney is at a crossroads, in more ways than one. To begin with, he’s stuck in an Atlanta hotel room, semi-stranded after a flight back to New York got cancelled in the midst of early January storms. His biggest concern is “not spending any money” while he’s rooted in limbo. Still, he’s missing home. In fact home - and what exactly constitutes a place to live in - is at the forefront of his band’s new album ‘Atlas’, which shows Real Estate linking their lazy-day wooziness with all eyes ahead. Instead of being muddled up with nostalgia, it’s the future that’s playing on their collective mind.
‘Atlas’ - the band’s third record, and second since being freed up financially and creatively since signing to Domino - is a continuation from breakthrough ‘Days’. At least, that’s the case musically. Sharp, refined takes on classical musicianship are given an even greater boost, with the big difference being Jackson Pollis. Last time round Real Estate didn’t have a drummer. The parts on ‘Days’ were written by other members with simplicity firmly on the agenda. This time round they’ve switched things up (“he brought his own thing to the table,” says Martin), but that hasn’t exactly led to a dramatic shift in their drifting, melodic springtime pop.
Instead, the change comes in perspective. As a lyricist, Martin purposefully decided to switch things up, turning his focus to the years ahead instead of peering back into the past with a hazy filter. He’s at a stage where he wants to start a family, a process that’ll involve moving out of the busied, up-all-night-to-get-coffee nature of New York.
The bulk of ‘Atlas’ was written in the Big Apple (“I’d just got married - we were both getting a little bit sick of the city”), and attention turned to a life elsewhere. “The career that I’ve found myself in… there’s uncertainty,” Martin admits. “It’s a lot less stable than a 9 to 5 office job. You think a lot about where each record is gonna go, where it’s gonna take you. [‘Atlas’ is] thinking about where I’d like to be, where I’d want to start a family.”
His current surroundings are a “populist neighbourhood” in New York. He can’t shake off the fact that for starters, the place is “expensive”, and ”it seems frivolous to be living here,” and if he’s finally thinking of settling down, it shouldn’t be here. “I’d love a yard, some outdoor space. I would like to have the life that I had growing up.”
Couple this with the distance and the dislocation of touring. Here’s another subject that’s wound its way into ‘Atlas’, a record that’s sweet on the surface but bubbling up with frustration just beneath. Lead track ‘Talking Backwards’ is all about the dodgy connections and misinterpreted texts that define long-distance relationships. “We’re not getting any closer / you’re too many miles away,” Martin sings. Psychologically he’s ready to explode, but as is customary with Real Estate, the whole thing’s coated in a cosy, tuneful warmth.
Martin renders touring a “struggle and a balancing act, trying to bring in a personal life and start a family.” Asked if there are any coping mechanisms for being on the road, he struggles for a minute (“Ugh. There’s really not much you can do… “) before replying, “sorry, I don’t have a good answer for that.” The only upside is the shows themselves. “It sounds cheesy but that’s what makes it fun and worth it.
“You’ll be sick and tired all day, or even literally sick because it’s hard to stay healthy. But the shows are usually pretty fun and that gives you that one thing a day you can be excited about.”
If ‘Atlas’ is a record concerned with misheard messages and loose ends, on the flipside it’s the sound of a band getting their point across more successfully than ever. ‘Days’’ directness is applied with even more depth, and anyone remotely caught up in the last album will find perfect solace in the follow-up. Matt Mondanile (of Ducktails) pens an instrumental for the heart of the record, ‘April’s Song’, that sums up Real Estate’s appeal in 3 sweeping minutes. No words required, it somehow takes liftoff, potentially sticking out as the record’s best track.
“We’ve always wanted to make a great sounding record,” says Martin, dismissing any previous “lo-fi” intentions by stating his surprise that previous label Woodsist even put their “patchwork” debut album out. On ‘Atlas’, they seem to have reached a new level of refinement, and indeed contentedness. Despite frustrations with life both at home and on the road, the band are in rosy confines.
“We grew up together. We find ourselves in this amazing position,” admits the frontman. “It’s funny because on the new album, I didn’t necessarily sit down and decide to write a bunch of extremely catchy songs. This wasn’t a decision to make a radio record. We’re just going to keep doing what we do. Hopefully it will keep working.”
Real Estate’s ‘Atlas’ is out now on Domino.
Taken from the March 2014 issue of DIY, available now. For more details click here.
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