Interview Real Estate: Growing Up & Feeling Old

El Hunt found a gap in Real Estate’s rather hectic schedule to talk with lead singer Martin Courtney.

Writing a brilliant second album is notoriously tricky, and indeed, Real Estate had it tough following on from their self-titled beauty of a debut album. That appeared to pose no problem however, and the lo-fi, sun-drenched effort ‘Days’ is out and just about to hit the tour circuit. El Hunt found a gap in Real Estate’s rather hectic schedule to talk with lead singer Martin Courtney about recording, touring, and Kevin McMahon’s equipment.

Hello Martin, are you having a nice day in sunny London?
Yeah, pretty busy, but feeling good.

‘Days’ is out and getting a really great reception, how does it feel to have the new album out there?
It feels amazing, it’s really great. We’ve spent so long putting this record together, it almost felt like it was never gonna come out or something. It felt like we were recording forever [laughs] it’s kind of like what we do with our lives. When you spend that much time on one thing you kind of forget that there’s also touring, you know, the other side of things. It’s really cool to have other people hear it, and it’s amazing that people are really into it, so yeah, it’s a very good feeling.

You didn’t record the album in a normal studio - whereabouts exactly did you go?
We recorded in a converted barn in New Paltz, New York, kind of like a really big wooden structure, with a couple of rooms built inside of it that were insulated. We’d be recording in the winter time in the actual studio and it’d be heated and everything, and then if you wanted to go out to get fresh air you’d be out in the actual barn, and it would be so freezing outdoors [laughs]. But yeah, it’s an old farm, this guy rented the barn to us and converted it into a studio.

So how long were you there for?
We started in mid February, and finished mixing in June, so a while, but we weren’t up at the studio every day. We probably spent about 30 days there altogether, we would go back and forth cos it was 2 hours from our home. We would go up for a couple of days at a time then come back, and we were playing shows in-between. At one point we flew down to Texas, so I mean it wasn’t like a straight shot, but yeah, it still took longer than we thought it would, about 5 months.

Kevin McMahon produced the album - what was he like to work with?
It was cool, we always wanted to work with him. I was in a band in high school, when I was 18, and we took ourselves pretty seriously, you know, we were alright, and we wanted to make a record. We were all big fans of The Walkmen, and they had a studio in New York city, and we thought it would be really cool to record there but it was always just a pipe-dream. Anyway, we all had jobs delivering pizza or whatever, and got the money together to go up there 2 weekends in a row to make an album. Kevin McMahon was the house engineer there. That’s how we met him, and we stayed in touch over the years, he recorded the Titus [Andronicus] record, who we’re buddies with, so he’s always been there in the back of our minds for when we had the money to actually record in a real studio.

We went up to his studio last winter, and recorded an early version of the song ‘It’s Real’ to see how it would sound, and how the studio felt, and it felt really cool. It’s really nice working with someone that you’ve known for years as opposed to being thrown into a situation where you’re working with some random guy in a fancy studio. It’s really neat cos the studio we recorded in has all Kevin’s stuff that he’s accumulated over the years, you know, he’s 12 years older, he’s been around for a little longer, and he has all this really nice equipment, his studio doesn’t feel shiny. It’s got a homely kind of vibe. We wanted to make a record that felt old, like it could’ve been recorded 30 years ago. He’s got all this analogue vintage equipment, and it’s not that he dulled it down, he just kept it from being too hi-fi. He pretty much nailed the sound that we wanted.

‘Days’ has got the same laid-back feel as ‘Real Estate’, but do you think your sound has matured since the debut?
Yeah, I think so, but mainly because we’ve been playing together 3 years. We’ve been touring, and we’re better at our instruments, and we’re tighter as a group; you know, hopefully we’re better songwriters. This band has been our focus for a while now. But yeah, I don’t know that we’ve really changed, I think people can hear that we haven’t so much as changed our sound, but it’s grown up definitely.

Your songs seem to build up around riffs, and it feels kind of effortless, a bit like you’re jamming. Is that how you write?
We’ll come up with something, maybe Matt or Alex will but I mean mostly it’s me, and we’ll sort of like play the verse over and over and over until it sounds right, and we’ll jam on it basically until we have a good arrangement. Then we’ll do the chorus over and over again, and that’s pretty much how we come up with it - maybe that’s why it feels loose. I guess it also stems from the fact that we understand each other pretty well, because we’ve been playing together long before Real Estate, we’ve known each other for much longer than that. We’re familiar with each others styles, and we share a lot of the same taste in music, so yeah, it just makes it easy.

What kind of stuff did you listen to when you were making the album?
Too many bands to name, you know, just because we’ve known each other forever, but we were definitely thinking about The Feelies, we liked their breezy guitar sound, you know, like 12-string acoustic in the background, an open strummy kinda sound. When we were touring our last album we listened to Filth a lot in the van, and we weren’t thinking of them when we were recording, but once it was done we could hear these influences kind of springing out of the music.

A lot of people have talked about ‘Days’ as having themes; being all about growing up and suburban life, but did you set out with an overarching concept in mind?
There’s not a concept per se, but there are themes, kind of reflecting on my life, our lives. We did a lot of touring, so I feel like thats come through, there are a couple of songs about being on the road, being homesick, the kind of weird mentality when you’re on the road. Like in the song ‘Out of Tune’, you’re not thinking straight cos you’re not at home. Also there’s the stuff that’s similar to the first record, reflections on what it was like for us growing up. That’s just what comes easiest to me, writing about my experiences growing up, high school and formative years I guess. So yeah, there’s not one big concept, but there are definitely themes that I like to write about.

You’re setting off on a pretty extensive tour later this month, what changes when you guys play a live show? Do you have to switch things up, or does it translate pretty easily?
This new record actually translated very easily, mostly because we wrote a lot of it on tour. It was a bit different because our friend is in our band playing keyboard now, so it’s just an added bonus at shows. We had keyboard parts on our first album, and there’s piano and keyboard on this one - we could definitely play the songs without them, they’re just there to kind of flesh it out - but it’s nice that we can do them live now. With the first record we’d maybe use drum loops instead of live drums, but this time we were writing live drum arrangements, and yeah, it was much easier on this one, it’s really suited to being played live.

Real Estate’s new album ‘Days’ is out now via Domino.

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