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Real Estate: ‘Talking Backwards’ Down The Number Line (An Excerpt)

June 02, 2014

Real Estate's blend of jamband and indie-DIY sensibilities makes them a perfect fit for the the new June issue of Relix, which also features our 14th Annual Festival Guide. We're very excited to have them on the cover--so much so that we're offering a special discount on subscriptions for fans of the band. Check out a preview of our cover story, Real Estate: 'Talking Backwards' Down The Number Line, and then head to our subscriptions page, where you can get a discounted year of Relix by entering the promo code: Talkingbackwards.

Real Estate: 'Talking Backwards' Down The Number Line (An Excerpt)

Unlike their previous two efforts, Atlas was largely recorded live. Helmed by Tom Schick and tracked mostly at Wilco’s Loft in Chicago, Atlas only has a few overdubs. That’s mostly because band, which now includes drummer Jackson Pollis (who replaced Duguay in 2011) and former Girls keyboardist Matt Kalman (who came onboard shortly before the recording sessions), spent roughly six months learning approximately 19 songs before entering the studio. Bringing things full circle, Lynch also makes a cameo on the record.

“I don’t know if they’re the most publicly appealing songs but I feel the most proud of the lyrics and the arrangements,” says singer/guitarist Martin Courtney. “I find the melodies to be complex, new and different.”

Bassist Alex Bleeker has tried to dispel the myth that band’s sound should shift radically from album to album. “We’re not trying to change, but we’re not trying not to change,” he says. “I’m playing basslines on this record that I was incapable of playing on the first record because I’ve had so much experience playing live that I’m a much more confident player. If you listen to a song like [languid and fusion-laced] ‘The Bend,’ that has weird, complex, jazzy composition, that’s all five of us collaborating and fusing together in this new way.”

The group never played more than three to five takes of a song in the studio and fixed any small errors in post-production. “It was the simplest, most easygoing, least stressful studio experience [I’ve had],” says Kalman.

Atlas is a further refinement of that original idea from that summer night in Courtney’s parents’ basement. To that end, Atlas is, on the surface, very similar to Days. But a little deeper, differences start to reveal themselves. The production, for one, is far more spacious and gives each instrument room to breathe. It feels less poppy and the interplay between the group’s members is more complex and subtle. “The greatest naysayers of our band are the ones who say, ‘This is boring,’” chides Bleeker. “Maybe they feel it’s boring because the music we’re making is not in your face. It requires an attention that we don’t have that much of anymore in America. It’s not easily definable. These are songs that are kind of classic, kind of ‘70s, kind of ‘90s heyday indie rock.”

For most of the band’s songs, Courtney builds a skeleton that the band fleshes out. “That’s never been more true than on this record,” insists Bleeker, who has also written songs for the band’s past two albums. “‘Hey, guys. I’ve got this. What have you got? Help me put it together.’”

Collectively, the band built the songs—save for “Past Lives” and “Talking Backwards,” which Courtney brought in fairly complete—and slowly constructed them part by part, riff by riff. Guitarist Matt Mondanile, who is responsible for many of the band’s best instrumentals, says that the collaborative nature of Atlas’ writing was the biggest way the band members challenged themselves.

Courtney’s lyrical bent has also shifted. If the Millennial angst remains (the dreamlike “Past Lives”) along with the suburban sense of place (upbeat album opener “Had To Hear”), then newer themes such as the difficulties of maintaining a relationship on the road (“Talking Backwards”) and commitment (“Crime”) are on full display.

“Martin made a very deliberate decision to get away from [the nostalgia-based lyrics and chose] to write about the forward, present situation and the future,” says Bleeker.

Courtney continues to write lyrics largely from personal experiences. For instance, the story of “Crime” is that of a couple living together before being married much to the consternation of the woman’s parents: “This crime is growing old/ If I may be so bold/ Will you go straight with me.” Adding a further wrinkle to the story, however, is the fact that as he inches toward 30, Courtney’s sights are shifting back to a life in suburban Jersey.

The collaborative writing process for Atlas was successful enough that Courtney has suggested, according to Bleeker, that “‘Maybe the next couple times will be all of us; maybe it will adapt into a place where it’s not my baby as much.’ At a time when the festival landscape is littered with electronic and acoustic acts and many of the indie world’s biggest names are essentially singer-songwriters who use their groups as something of a nom de plume, Real Estate are refreshing torchbearers of the classic-rock band mentality: friends with enough shared history to connect on a deep, personal level but different each offstage to add their own individual personalities to the band’s overall feel.

They built their audience on slow-burn during the past five years—an eternity in modern blog culture—using the old-school model of touring and grassroots promotion to nurture a devoted, dedicated fan base.

“He won’t publicly say, ‘I’m the leader of this band,’ which is cool because we are a band, but he is the leader and a lot of it is his vision,” says Bleeker. “But he needs us and we need him.”

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