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How Real Estate Blew Jeff Tweedy's Mind

The band's frontman, Martin Courtney, talks about the making of the sterling new 'Atlas'

Matt Mondanile and Martin Courtney of Real Estate perform in London.
Phil Bourne/Redferns via Getty Images
March 5, 2014 9:45 AM ET

After finishing his band's newly released third album Atlas, Real Estate singer-guitarist Martin Courtney felt a sense of dread. It's not an emotion you'd expect from a group who just wrapped up the recording process, nor is it one you'd peg to the New Jersey band's laconic, guitar-dappled melodies. "I was worried about how people would react," Courtney explains over the phone. "I could see the landscape shifting away from our style of music between [the band's previous album] Days in 2011 and now, and that was worrisome."

Courtney was also anxious that his band would be forgotten after spending a few years away. "We took a lot of time to write this and didn't play any shows so you worry if people are going to remember you," he says. But Courtney had little reason to fear: Atlas is the band's best album yet. 

In between a two-night run of shows in San Francisco, Courtney spoke about recording at Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy's Chicago studio and indie rock's attitude towards the electric guitar. 

There aren't a lot of rock musicians who write about being settled in a relationship and the effects of touring on domesticity. Is that what's most interesting to you?
I was trying with this record to be a little more within my own head and write about what was going on in my current life as opposed to telling stories about the past. My exercise when writing was to try to erase any possibility of people calling us nostalgic because people tend to call us nostalgic a lot. I was trying not to be as wistful but it still comes through in the music. That's just the style that we play. It's not afraid of being pretty and not trying to do anything other than make a nice melody.

You've said that you struggle with lyrics. When you were writing Atlas, were there any topics that you didn't feel ready to explore?
Yeah definitely, but that's the thing I found myself writing about. I'd find a way to obscure [a subject] so that it means something to me but could mean something else to someone else. I try to do that a lot with the lyrics, to have them be broad enough so that they could apply to somebody else. I don't mind if people misinterpret the lyrics. I think it's cool.

I heard that Jeff Tweedy stopped by while you were recording at his studio. What were you playing when he was there?
We were tracking a song that ended up not making the record, so that was kind of weird. We were all sitting in our little stations when he walked in, said hello, and shook our hands, and then he sat in the control room while we did a few takes. It was funny because the song had a weird jammy outro. The first part was structured with verse, chorus, verse and then jam. We were figuring out the jam as we went along and after the first take we heard him yell across the room, "That was crazy. That totally blew my mind, like time was slowing down." We were like, "Whoa, thanks," but not really confident in what we were doing because we were just experimenting. 

Why didn't that song end up on the album?
It wasn't up to snuff. We recorded so many songs for this album and only 10 of them ended up on the record. A lot of them could have but we chose not to put them on because I was pretty adamant about wanting [Atlas] to be a 10-song record. I like when an album is over and you're wanting to put it back on because it wasn't quite enough. I'm not sure if that song will ever see the light of day. We played that live a couple of times. We played it as far back as summer of 2012. You can find it online because we did it at Webster Hall for 12 minutes and someone posted it on YouTube and then Pitchfork posted it like, "Hear Real Estate debut a 12-minute new song." We were like, "Why did they post that?" It's just an audience member shooting a video and it's not a 12-minute song. It's a five-minute song that we jammed on for an extra seven minutes.

You guys have received a lot of positive attention at a time when guitar rock bands aren't exactly dominating the indie discussion. How do you feel about your place in the genre?
It's kind of weird honestly because it's the most obvious form of music. 10 years ago we would be one of a million indie rock bands and for some reasons, these days, tastes are shifting away from that. So it's great for us to come back and for people to think that we're special in some way. It's not like there aren't other bands doing the same thing. We're touring with the Shilohs, that are amazing. They're a great guitar pop band. I don't know why they aren't getting more press. They really should be. So guitar bands are still around. I don't know why we're being pinpointed for some reason.

Do you think there's any reason in particular that certain people have moved away from guitar music?
It's not just like one style of music that has come and taken over. I feel like that band the xx that were really popular in 2009 — one or two bands come along and there's a shift and then people try to emulate that. There's a lot of Eighties bands going on, like chillwave. People called us chillwave for some reason. People go down different paths and we're playing a style of music that's been around for a long time so I guess people find comfort in that.

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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