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Real Estate: Atlas Orgins

by Justin Jacobs on February 11, 2014

Real Estate has often been described as ‘lo-fi.’ But here you are, recording in Wilco’s studio, on very nice equipment, and the record sounds clean and crisp. Is it time to cast aside that tagline?

Alex: The description I’d really like to leave behind is ‘beachy.’ But yes, each record has gotten more and more hi-fi, sure. That's largely owing to our means. This was by far the nicest gear we ever recorded with—that affords you the ability to make more nuanced decisions about how things sound.

Martin: With the first record, we were embracing the limitations we had. We were recording at friends’ houses, by ourselves. I’m still a fan of music that sounds home-recorded. There’s a charm and magic there. But yeah, anytime some description becomes a crutch for journalists, it can be annoying to read. We wanted to take that crutch away from people. I mean, we’ve always wanted to make nice sounding records.

Alex: I think ‘lo-fi’ means a lot more than fidelity. It’s an attitude. This homemade, patchwork feeling. I don’t think we’ve lost that approachability. We’re like a high school band from the garage that grew up and kept going.

Atlas sounds a lot more spacious and wide open than your debut or Days. There’s real warmth to the sound. Were there pointed changes you hoped to make from Days to Atlas?

Martin: That was one of the ideas we had going into this record. We wanted it to feel more spacious, like you could hear each part being played, where everything was in the mix. A little more clean and clear.

Several of you guys are also involved in other projects. How do you think that affect both the music of the band, as well as the way you operate as a band?

Alex: The three founding members, we all have big personalities and creative outputs to dump those personalities into. I have musical desires and persuasions that don't necessarily line up with Real Estate. In the Freaks, I can dive in without restraint. If I want to cover a Huey Lewis song, I can do that. Sure, we can do that at practice with Real Estate, but with the Freaks, we’ll actually play it. Just because I think it’s funny! If I want a song that sounds country, it might not vibe with Real Estate sound. So having this other outlet really ensures that my other needs as musician are being met. There’s no frustration in Real Estate because we can all bend to each other’s feelings enough, but it’s still us.

Martin: We’re all very invested in Real Estate; we feel like we own it. Real Estate is us, and side projects are the band members expressing themselves however they want individually. For all of us, music is life. So to just stay busy doing different things during the inevitable downtime between records is important.

Martin, of the three founding Real Estate members, you’re the only one who hasn’t yet released a side project album. Anything in the works?

Martin: I have started one, yeah. It’s just me and a friend of mine, Jarvis Taveniere from the band Woods. It’s just for fun; I look at it as a band that maybe will finish a record, and we’ll be a one-album band, just one special thing. It doesn’t even have a name yet.

As the main songwriter for Real Estate, did you have a lot of extra material after Atlas?

Martin: When we finished the album, it suddenly became a lot easier to write. I wrote a few songs in that time, and we have leftover stuff from Chicago. We’ll probably put out an EP later in the year. That’s the goal.

At this point, Real Estate’s sound is pretty recognizable as Real Estate: that high-pitched electric, a shuffling beat. Do you remember the first time you guys created that sound? Did you know you were on to something?

Alex: It happened in the basement of Martin’s parents house in the summer of 2008. We’d just graduated from college, and we were all living at our parents’ places in New Jersey. That’s already written into the narrative of this band. (Original drummer) Etienne (Pierre Duguay) was there. We were drinking a lot of vodka in Martin’s pool, for some reason. We’d been away at college for years, and we were having this no-parents night back at home. It felt weirdly liberating.

We had gear set up in the basement, and decided to go jam. We started playing what wound up as “Suburban Beverage” (from their self-titled debut). That was the moment Real Estate started, the moment we found that sound.

Martin, I understand you’re expecting your first child. First off, mazel tov. How important will music be to the way you bring up your son or daughter?

Martin: You don’t want to force anything on anybody, but of course — I like to play music for my wife and for the child to hear. I didn't necessarily grow up with too much music; my dad loves classical, but I didn’t grow up where music was playing all the time. I discovered my type of music by myself. Everyone finds his own way. But I won’t stop playing whatever music I like in my house. And hopefully, my kid will like it too.

Alex, I know that you have long been into the Dead, Phish and the like. Do you feel like the spirit and freedom of those bands shows up in your music?

Alex: I try to frame that sense of possibility in the live performance. Not that we’ll jam quite as extensively. We’ll have moments of spontaneity on stage that those bands bring, but what puts it over the top for me how special and completely unique all the live shows can be from one another. Each show is a live event. I never want us to play the same set twice in a row. There are a lot of bands in our indie realm that make a set list for the tour, and just play it every show. Nothing could be worse for me — it’s like a play. The lines are written, composed. I won’t stand for that.

And everyone agrees, it’s not just me pushing. I don't want to regurgitate what we do on the record. I want fans to experience it with us. We have the ability to land on special things some nights. When that happens, like a great Dead show, you can tell. Maybe Bobby did a little extra run; you can tell when the band is feeling it. That happens with us too. Even if it’s imperceptible to the crowd, we can feel new things happening. That's the whole thing for me — that makes it all worthwhile.

There’s a song on this record that we called “Phil ’72,” its informal title. The bass line reminded us so much of a Dead song. In songwriting, we see a bit of influence from the Dead. But the spirit carries over to the live show.

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