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Real Estate: Atlas Orgins

by Justin Jacobs on February 11, 2014

Since their self-titled debut dropped in 2009, New Jersey band Real Estate have straddled a line between two worlds—one foot in the more buttoned-up, taste-making indie rock universe, and one planted firmly in the anything-goes territory where so many psychedelic and jambands plant their flags. The band’s third album, Atlas, isn’t going to push them either way, but it’ll certainly help them gain wider-still audiences in both camps. Recorded in Wilco’s Chicago studio and produced by Tom Schick, who’s worked with Ryan Adams, Sean Lennon and more, Atlas maintains the be-easy, daydream quality of Real Estate’s first two albums, but blows off some of the dust to reveal some truly gorgeous sounds, twinkling guitars, hushed acoustics, swaying melodies.

With two founding members playing in successful side projects (both Matthew Mondanile’s Ducktails and Alex Bleeker and The Freaks released albums last year) lead songwriter Martin Courtney newly married (and working on his own project…. more on that soon), new keyboard player Matt Kallman—formerly from Girls—and drummer Jackson Pollis rounding out the lineup, the Real Estate universe has never been more full of stars.

Relix spoke with Courtney and Bleeker about playing Wilco’s guitars, forgetting about ‘lo-fi’ and rocking out to Huey Lewis.

I know Atlas was recorded in Wilco’s studio. How did that come about?

Martin: We had talked about how we really wanted to record with Jim O’Rourke, who did Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. We knew that wasn’t possible, but it got us thinking about Wilco, and we heard about (The Whole Love engineer and mixer) Tom Schick. So we got in touch with him. He mentioned he works with Jeff Tweedy all the time – one thing led to the other.

Alex: Tom is the house engineer of Wilco’s studio in Chicago. At first we said we’d work with him in New York, but it dawned on us: let’s do it in Chicago. In addition to all being Wilco fans as kids, the cool thing is you can work on their gear. Jeff has literally hundreds of guitars. It's a magical place. You don't get that kind of thing in a New York studio. There, you just pay for room and console. (Wilco’s studio) is not a public place — they’re beginning to open up to the idea of more bands recording there, but its not like anybody can just show up.

Were the members of Wilco around during your two weeks in their studio?

Alex: Wilco was on tour with Dylan at the time (during Dylan’s 2013 AmericanaramA Festival tour, along with My Morning Jacket). Bob Weir was on some of those shows. The tour had a few shows at home in Chicago, and so Tweedy came by one day when we were recording and hung out. He just came by to say hi and give us his blessing, as we were using so much of his gear. Which was good, because it’d felt weird using his guitars without him there.

Martin: (Tweedy’s) presence was a little intimidating, I think. There had been talk of him maybe producing… He’s obviously very talented. It honestly made me a little glad he wasn’t producing — it would’ve been a lot of pressure.

When were most of these songs created?

Martin: I started writing a little bit before we finished our last tour, for (2011’s) Days, around September 2012. With Days, I’d written 60 percent of the record while we were still touring on our first album. We then recorded over the course of 6 months or so; we really took our time, a weekend at a time. But with Atlas, we took the time off so I could get married, and Alex and Matt could do their own projects. They both toured; it was a break from Real Estate. And in that time, I was still focused on Real Estate, but just on the process of creating.

These tracks were recorded live, with everyone in a room. How did that change the vibe of the album?

Alex: There are a fair amount of overdubs on the record, but all the basics are live, just like we’ll play them on the road. That's big for me—we hadn’t done a Real Estate album that way up to now. I’m a big Neil Young fan; he’s got an ethos about capturing the vibe, playing right on tape. You can feel that it's a live record at points, without sacrificing sound quality. Plus, it was just good practice. We’d do five takes in a row and just choose the best one. We sat around playing songs over and over; it was great to get inside those songs. We’ll be a better live band because of it. The songs are in our muscle memory now. We’re road ready.

Martin: It was really a result of us spending all that time writing. I mean, I wrote by myself, but then we practiced and worked on the songs as a band. So we entered the studio confident in our ability to play the songs; the arrangements were already thought out. And we took that opportunity to play and record them live, instead of recording it piecemeal.

Though Martin took months to work on the songs more or less by himself, you still call the album a collaboration between all of you.

Alex: There are 10 songs on record — Martin is the chief songwriter on eight; I’m chief on one and Matt on one. But we all contributed to writing of all of them. None are black and white, recorded just like the songwriter put down on paper. Writing was pretty long and experimental and detailed. We’d work on the songs together, everyone would write their own parts. I feel like I can safely say that 100% of the songs on record are full band record.

Alex, how do you decide which songs you’ll take to Real Estate and which you’ll keep for the Freaks? Do you write with the different projects in mind?

Alex: In the past, I’ve written one song per record. I imagine that will continue. This time, my song was “How Might I Live.” I provisionally wrote it thinking it’d be a Freaks song. That's a good example of what I’m talking about. We didn’t change the notes or lyrics or chords, but gave we gave it a Real Estate-feel. The demo of the song is a plucky, finger-picked country song.

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