Track By Track: Real Estate’s ‘In Mind’
by Dean Budnick on March 16, 2017
In Mind, Real Estate’s fourth full-length LP, marks something of a new beginning for the band. The follow-up to 2014’s Atlas is the quintet’s opening salvo with new guitarist Julian Lynch, who joined the group after the departure of Matt Mondanile. As vocalist and primary songwriter Martin Courtney—whose bandmates also include co-founder and bassist Alex Bleeker, drummer Jackson Pollis and keyboardist Matt Kallman—explains, “He’s our old friend so, as soon as we thought of it, it made so much sense. I was on tour for my solo record, and I saw Julian in Wisconsin. We were hanging out, and I floated the idea to him, but I was assuming that he was going to say no because he’s working on getting his Ph.D. right now. He seemed interested when we were talking about it and then, toward the end before we were making the record, I gave him a call and was like, ‘Hey, were you serious? Would you really want to join the band?’ He said yes, and that was very exciting.”
The album features another new collaborator, producer Cole M.G.N., who has worked with Beck, Snoop Dogg and Julia Holter. The band knew Holter from his time with Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and entrusted him to take on a role unlike that of any of their prior producers. “We wanted to work with Cole,” Bleeker explains, “because overall on this record, our goal was to use the studio as an instrument a bit more than we had on previous records. We wanted to have the production element of the album have more character than on Atlas, where the goal was to capture what the band can do live in a really succinct, clear and separated way. We decided to go a little bit the other way with this record— ‘Let’s get in the studio and make some production choices to enhance these songs.’ Cole has a varied musical history that we like, and he’s the first person that we gave true producer authority to—where he had a lot of license to make decisions. We put a lot of music down on ‘tape’ and, when he mixed it, he cut things out and pieced things together. He helped with structuring the arrangements in that way. We trusted him to do that, and we knew he’d be a good candidate for that, and that’s why we chose him.”
MARTIN COURTNEY: Seventy to 80 percent of the songs on the record were demoed out first by me, and then we got together, learned the demos, expanded on them and worked on the arrangements. “Darling” was one that I hadn’t demoed. That main riff in the song as something that I played a lot with Jackson, our drummer, during soundchecks. I would start playing it and then he would come in with the beat. He would do that thing where it turns around, goes into the off-beat and then everything would fall apart because we would get confused at that point. Anyhow, after we learned all the demos, I started just going through the voice memos on my phone. I had a recording of us playing this little riff and I was like, “Let’s turn this into a song.”
ALEX BLEEKER: “Darling” always felt to me like it would be the lead track from the moment that it came together. It felt best suited to share first because, while the chord progression was Martin’s, the structure and the way the song was put together felt like a group, collaborative effort almost like the feel of the song was something we discovered together.
SERVE THE SONG
COURTNEY: This is one of the only songs where I wrote the lead guitar part. A lot of what ended up on the record is similar to the demo that I made, but then Alex changed the bassline and Julian obviously wrote that really cool solo that he does. He brought the “wah” idea in— that was something that I had not done. The actual texture of his guitar—to have a more distorted-sounding lead guitar sound—is something different for us. Lyrically, it’s one in a number of songs that are about being in a band. That song is kind of about, “Do I really want to make another album of music and continue this cycle where we put out a record, tour and I’m away from my family?” It’s about just deciding to do that again, making the decision to keep playing music. As much as I love doing it, it’s a very strange way to live your life.
BLEEKER: This tune is a real grower. I think what really sticks out in “Stained Glass” is the chorus. It’s a super Birds-y melody. Julian wrote a beautiful counter-melody on his guitar to the part that Martin had brought to the table and, when that happened, it was like the writing process just opened up for everybody at that moment because the harpsichord intro is a different vibe than I’m used to for Real Estate. It’s intricate and a different mood. I love that— how it contrasts and then opens up into this bright, super airy, melodic chorus.
AFTER THE MOON
COURTNEY: That was one of the early demos I made, using a drum machine that I bought off Craigslist. I just let it run on this little waltz speed. We called it “Waltz” forever—that was the working title of it. I’m just really happy with the way it’s turned out, and it reminds me of the music that I loved in high school—classic indie-rock. It sounds like Built to Spill to me.
BLEEKER: This one I’m really fond of, production-wise, and it sticks out to me in terms of using the studio as an instrument. It’s a really good headphone listen. There’s interesting stuff going on with the panning. There are all these structured, subtle textures that are happening underneath the vocals. There’s a little bit of the drum machine that both comes and goes, and there’s this disorienting rhythmic pattern. It’s subdued, but it may be a contender for my favorite because of all of those elements.
COURTNEY: That’s another one that came out of a voice memo on my phone. We were trying to figure out more songs to work on, and I came upon this little jam that I had forgotten about. It was basically the main cyclical verse riff. I couldn’t remember where it was from, and then it finally dawned on me: We were in Paris recording something for La Blogothèque in someone’s apartment. There were all these people sitting around us waiting for us to start playing a concert, and we were just jamming on this little thing.
We took that and I wrote a chorus for it, but then that whole long outro section actually came from a different voice memo. It was me and Jackson at a festival in Germany, Immergut Festival, which is this really beautiful festival that happens north of Berlin—up in the forest, basically. We were joking around, calling it “Upstate Berlin.” It felt like Upstate New York. Anyway, the outro came from this separate voice memo, and we stuck them together and it seemed to really work. The original demo that we made—the way we had learned it and written it—we played it at this mid-tempo pace, definitely a lot faster than it is on the record. Then Cole said to us: “You guys have a lot of mid-tempo songs; I think things are sometimes more interesting if they are either weirdly fast or weirdly slow. Why don’t we try this one super-duper slow?
BLEEKER: Well, obviously, the massive outro, that’s the thing to talk about, which has been really fun to play live. If people come out and see us, then we’re just gonna get further and further out with that thing. It’s repetitive, but there are also variations within the repetition. It was fun to record, and there are hours of that stuff. So that’s the first thing that comes to mind with that track, but I like the harmony in there, and it’s got this very thick, syrupy, enveloping quality. The outro was fun to put on record, but it’s gonna be even more fun to see how that thing evolves live over the years. I think it’s definitely going to be a big jam-out staple—speaking to the Relix crowd.
COURTNEY: “White Light” is an older one. That’s the only one that’s a holdover from Atlas. We recorded it and, for some reason, I just didn’t ever really like the recording that we had, even though other people liked it. We decided to try it again during the writing sessions for this record, and the way we played it this time just felt good. Julian came up with a nice part for the song, so I’m glad we brought it back. Also, I feel like it’s got this brightness to it that fits nicely in the context of the rest of the album.
BLEEKER: This one seems, to me, to be the biggest stylistic departure for us; we had fun with it. The working title for this song was “Sleaze” because we thought it had sort of a sleazy kind of feel, especially with the synth. There’s a little bit of a bass synthesizer in there, and I think you can hear us having fun exploring new territory—both the way that it’s recorded and also just the music in general.
COURTNEY: That’s actually another one of my favorites, if not my favorite song on the record. I love how the recording turned out. Matt went in and improvised on this Sequential Circuits Prophet synthesizer. He was playing weird little stuff, messing around with the oscillators and whatever. I don’t know too much about synthesizers, but he was doing all this crazy stuff. Cole mixed it in, and it added a lot of nice texture to that song. It just feels surprising to me, and different from a lot of stuff that e’ve done before. I feel like that’s the most synth-y song on the record. I’m pretty happy with that one.
COURTNEY: “Time” is kind of an outlier in terms of the vibe. It was the first song that I wrote for this record, other than “White Light.” It was hard to learn because it has a very unusual structure—it’s got that Kraftwerk drum-machine sound. Then Jackson added these mallet hits on the toms. It’s got a nice rhythm to it. I’m happy with the percussion on that song.
After the second chorus, the chorus repeats again and there’s a solo section that sounds really Steely Dan to me. It’s like, “We’re just going to go full Steely Dan on this one.” We’ve got the Rhodes solo followed quickly by the shredding—no reverb, no delay. It’s a super clean, distorted guitar solo.
A lot of the parts that Julian wrote for this album are very textural and not very show-offy— not that I thought our lead guitars in the past have been show-offy, but they were definitely much more melodic. A lot of the parts that Julian wrote are a little bit less melodic on this record. He is capable of shredding the guitar and he’s an incredible guitar player, but he doesn’t like to shred—he doesn’t like to show off as much. t’s not even that what he’s playing on this song is that tricky, it’s just not the first thing that I would think to play. I feel like it’s very Julian.
COURTNEY: “Diamond Eyes” is Alex’s song. He wrote that one. I like it a lot. It’s stylistically very different from a song that I would’ve written. It’s almost a nice little breather on the album. In its arrangement, it’s got the acoustic guitar and the brushed shuffle beat. t feels like there’s more air in the song, whereas on a lot of these songs we were purposely trying to make the sound very “made in a studio.”
BLEEKER: My natural songwriting tends toward the rootsier, the folkier—the stuff that really comes out on the Freaks records. But something will come out every once in a while where I think, “You know what? The way that song sounds, the sort of melodic structure could work for Real Estate. Let me present it and see if it catches on.” Of course, with “Diamond Eyes,” we significantly “Real Estate-ified” it, but I went into it open to the idea that this was going to happen—that it would sound totally different than it would on a Freaks record—which is an exciting thing.
COURTNEY: “Same Sun” was the last demo that I wrote before everybody got together. It’s also a tricky one in terms of the arrangements. I liked it, but I hoped that we were going to do a good job of recording it because I just couldn’t quite get a handle on it. Everyone’s playing something very different from everyone else. The rhythm is super bouncy and, at first, we were just having so much fun playing it because it was so different for us, and everyone has to focus because everyone’s part is pretty challenging. I was pleasantly surprised by the end result. Cole did a lot with it in terms of editing. We got a good performance and then he was able to tighten it up.
BLEEKER: The bridge sort of changed around. It was twice as long when we recorded it, and Cole cut it up. It’s catchy and melodic, but kind of strange. It might be my sleeper current favorite song on the record.
BLEEKER: I love the intro to this song, and I also love that this song, to me, is quintessential Real Estate. That’s cool because we explored this other territory on the record. For me, I love that it’s the closing track because it’s this sentimental, very nostalgic, wistful return to Real Estate form. In a lot of ways, if you were to point to one song on this record and try to tell somebody what you think Real Estate sounds like, then “Saturday” illustrates it really well. I love that we elongated the intro and gave Kallman this big piano intro because we dramatize that moment, in a way. None of this was intentional; it’s all looking back on it and realizing it. The other guys might not feel this way about it at all, and maybe I’m just being dramatic, but it almost feels, to me, like a curtain call: “Hey, we explored these other territories, but at the end of the day, here’s Real Estate. This is what we do.”