Martin Courtney (Real Estate) on the Benefits of Lo-Fi
In Mind is the latest album from New Jersey’s Real Estate, champions of guitar-jangling, sun-soaked vibes. We sat down with guitarist and singer-songwriter Martin Courtney to discuss the new record, the band’s lo-fi beginnings and the importance of aesthetics.
Real Estate began in Ridgewood, New Jersey, when then-college students and childhood friends Courtney and Alex Bleeker met and bonded with Matt Mondanile over a mutual love for harmonic, guitar-driven power-pop melodies. The three would jam in Courtney’s parents’ house, inviting friends over for house shows, and eventually became known as Real Estate. They began recording their lo-fi sessions, and after releasing material on various independent labels, the band was signed to Domino in 2011.
Earning widespread acclaim for their albums Days (2011) and Atlas (2014), the band hit a temporary bump in the road when, in 2016, Matt Mondanile decided to leave the band in order to pursue his other band, Ducktails. Real Estate took a break, giving Courtney the time off to record his first solo record, Many Moons, while Bleeker also toured and recorded with his folk-focused side-project the Freaks. Real Estate then brought long-time friend and guitarist Julian Lynch on board to write and record In Mind, released in March.
The album was recorded in L.A. with producer Cole M.G.N, former member of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, an artist whose production resume includes people like Snoop Dogg, Beck and Dam-Funk.
Read on for our conversation with Courtney:
Cole is an interesting choice of producer, how did you end up recording with him?
We always find it exciting when we’re working on new material, considering the possibilities of where we could record and different studios we could use.
It was actually kind of a big discussion with the band. We had a lot of ideas, but honestly none of them seemed super exciting to us. Then somebody mentioned Cole, and we all knew of him — and had met him a few times. We just liked the fact that he’s not really a household name in the indie world. There are a lot of producers that work with acts that are similar to us, but I wanted us to go for someone not super obvious.
I’d say you succeeded in that — his resume is certainly varied.
Exactly, his resume is a little all over the place. Although, to me, that’s obviously a positive thing because it just means that he’s got experience working with a lot of different sounds. He’s also experienced with music that’s a little more similar to ours, like in the vein of melodic guitar pop. So it just seemed like an exciting possibility.
Did recording in L.A. affect the sound in any way?
It’s hard to tell. We rented a house, and we were all living together for two weeks. That was definitely a great experience, and I think that had more of an effect than the actual location of the studio. I mean it’s funny, that [Paul McCartney & Wings] album Band on the Run was recorded in Nigeria, and it doesn’t sound like that, you know what I mean? It doesn’t matter where you record your record. I just like recording somewhere that’s not home. It gives you the chance to focus more on the task at hand and you’re not distracted by other obligations.
Also, the guy that owned the studio [Pete Min at Lucy’s Meat Market] made his living in the ‘90s as a guitar player in different bands, so he has a really amazing collection of guitars, keyboards, nice amps and just generally really nice equipment.
Speaking of equipment and recording, I initially came across your music when I discovered and fell in love with labels like Woodsist and Underwater Peoples. What really stands out in those recordings, apart from the beautiful pop melodies of course, are the great lo-fi aesthetics. What role did easily accessible home recording technology play in early day Real Estate?
Our earlier recordings are all fairly lo-fi sounding, but that was just due to monetary limitations. If we could have at the time, we probably would have made recordings that sounded more like our later stuff. But going to the studio costs a lot of money, so we recorded everything ourselves on cassette. Of course, we could have recorded on our laptops using Garage Band or something, and that would have been equally as cheap to do. I’m sure that would have sounded better in a certain way, like clearer, but to me it wouldn’t have the same charm.
It’s almost like if you don’t have the money to record in a studio, you might as well embrace the lo-fi and use that as an asset, rather than try to do something that you are not necessarily capable of doing.
What were some of the sounds that initially inspired those earlier recordings of Real Estate?
There were definitely certain things that we all listened to at the time that we became somewhat influenced by. Starting in high school, the earlier Ariel Pink stuff was definitely a big impact on us. As were some of the early Kurt Vile records.
How did the process of writing and recording your solo record Many Moons differ from working with the other guys in your band?
That was a project that I did with a friend of mine called Jarvis Traveniere, who’s in the band Woods. We weren’t really planning on making a record; the songs just started to add up. It was kind of like a learning experience for me, and by the time I was done making that record, Real Estate had been on a long break and I was pretty excited to get back and play music with these guys again.
How did the recent changes in the band, with Julian Lynch as your new guitar player, affect the writing and recording of In Mind?
We’ve all known Julian for a long time, so working with him wasn’t really anything new. But making a whole album with him — making a Real Estate record where there’s an actual budget — it was really exciting. I think we as a band felt kind of refreshed and energized, both because of the break, but also from having new ideas from Julian. It kind of felt like a fresh start. I had a lot of fun all throughout the process of making this record, and we’re ready to make another record soon — hopefully next year. We’re just excited as a band right now.
Your album artwork is always beautiful, particularly the fonts. Would you say that visuals are important to Real Estate?
Definitely, it’s a big part of what’s exciting about making a new record. I used to make collages for some of our early stuff, but there are definitely people that do it better than I do. So it’s fun reaching out to different designers and illustrators that I’m a big fan of. It’s great to have a band and a reason to be able to be like, ‘Hey man, I love your work, let’s work on something together.’ Like this guy Robert Beatty, who’s done work for bands like Ariel Pink and Tame Impala — he did all of our logos and fonts. Then this other guy Rob Carmichael did the layout for a few of our records, too.
What are some of the bands or artists that you really enjoy that people would be surprised to learn that you like?
There are five of us in the band, so all of our collective influences, I think, come through in each person’s parts and in their playing. On this record, there is a lot of stuff with drum machines, kind of jamming and stretching things out. The repetitive nature of a lot of the songs definitely comes from Kraftwerk and Can.
Then there’s the more obvious stuff like ‘70s folk, Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake. For me a huge influence is John Fahey. Our music doesn’t sound like him necessarily, but his music was a big influence on me in terms of my writing style.
(Photo credit: Håvard Engedal)
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