Songs don’t always reflect their writer’s personality. For all the sweetness of Phil Spector’s music, the guy was still a murderer, while Dave Grohl appears much less aggressive than his records suggest. Martin Courtney, however, comes off as laid-back as both of Real Estate’s albums. Their third, Atlas, drops this week, so we caught up with the band’s chief singer-songwriter to discuss recording at the Wilco Loft in Chicago and how even Led Zeppelin is a bit too heavy for him.
On Atlas, “Past Lives” seems to look back on the town where you grew up. What are your feelings toward Ridgewood, New Jersey? Do you remember it fondly?
Yeah, I do. I’m back there frequently. That’s where my parents are, and where my wife’s parents are. We’re there maybe every other week. I feel like I’m trying to get away from writing about it a little bit, but it definitely pops up on some songs. It’s a nice place for sure.
Did you and your wife meet while growing up?
I watched the SPIN video where you give a tour of your apartment in Brooklyn. You played a bonus 7-inch from Atlas that you likened to Todd Rundgren. Are you a fan of his?
Yeah. I mean, we all are to varying degrees. Our drummer [Jackson Pollis] is probably the biggest fan.
Do you guys dig his later, more proggy stuff?
(laughs) I don’t know. I guess I don’t go that deep. That would definitely be a question for Jackson.
What’s the title of the song?
It’s called “The Chancellor”.
That’s a very Todd Rundgren-sounding title. As far as taste goes within the band, do you guys listen to pretty similar things?
There are a lot of different tastes in this band. There’s a lot of stuff that Jackson, or [bassist Alex] Bleeker, or [guitarist] Matt [Mondanile] are into that I don’t really know anything about. I probably know the least about obscure music out of the band. Jackson’s really into third-world reggae, and dub reggae, and stuff like that. Bleeker’s getting really into house music, and Matt’s kind of been into that for a while. I think it’s cool to have different influences that might not necessarily influence my songwriting.
What’s the heaviest thing you listen to? Are you a Pantera fan?
(laughs) No. I don’t even know. Led Zeppelin. But even then, I only like their more wussy tracks. (laughs) I probably have a better answer for that. I definitely, for the most part, listen to more mellow music. Probably not exclusively. But that’s probably my everyday… Just mellow stuff.
You guys recorded Atlas at the Wilco Loft. I know you were essentially just renting the space, but was Jeff Tweedy ever around?
They were on tour, so they weren’t in town most of the time. But there was one day they played in Chicago. So, Jeff Tweedy came by for a couple hours and just kind of hung out to say hello. He sat in the control area while we were tracking a song. It was one of the weirder songs that didn’t make the cut. I was like, “We have a lot of better songs than this.” I mean, I didn’t say that. So, he was around. And one of the other guys… I think his name was Pat. I can’t remember.
Yeah. He came by and was really nice. They were both super nice. But yeah, they weren’t around all the time because they were out on the road.
Did you get to experience Chicago a lot while you were here, or were you pretty much confined to the studio?
We were definitely in the studio 12 hours a day. But we did have one day that felt like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or something. Somehow through our management, somebody had a connection to the Cubs and was able to get us really good tickets to a game. We were able to go on the field for batting practice, which was really cool. Our friend who lives in Chicago kind of drove us around.
Then our friend Andrew Cedermark and his band were on tour, and they were playing a show that just happened to fall on our day off. And they asked, “Would you guys want to jump on, do kind of a last-minute surprise show?” So, we did that, too. We went to the game, played a show, and just kind of drove around the city.
Also, all the other days we were there, I would wake up and go for a walk. We were staying in the Lincoln Park area, which was really pretty. It’s definitely the most time we’ve spent in any city for a block of time, ever, other than the city where we live.
Where were the first two albums recorded at?
The first one was recorded in Jersey and a little bit in New York. But it was home-recorded at my parents’ house and my friend’s house, where he had a 16-track reel-to-reel setup. Kind of DIY style. The second record was recorded in New Paltz, New York, in a studio called Marcata, which is a renovated barn that was run by our friend Kevin [McMahon], who we’ve known since high school. His studio used to be in Harlem and was owned by The Walkmen. And he was kind of the house manager. Eventually, he had to give up the lease because the building got bought or something. So, Kevin just moved everything upstate. It’s similar to The Loft in that it’s not professionally set up to be a hi-fi studio, although you get really nice-sounding recordings out of it. It’s just a little more homey feeling.
Your first two albums caused a lot of people to associate you with the beach. Did you go to the shore a lot growing up?
I mean, as much as the next guy. Not really. That’s a good thing that caught on with the first record, because we definitely talked about it a little bit. It’s kind of something that we’ve tried to get away from, just because it’s not really indicative of who we are.
You’re not surfers or anything like that?
No, not really.
Do you associate Atlas with any specific place or, as the title suggests, is it more about being on the road, traveling to a lot of different locations?
If anything, I would associate it personally with my neighborhood in Brooklyn, where I live now. I think about writing it in the spring of last year, sitting in a park with a notebook. So, when I think about the songs, that’s what I picture in my head. But also, they take place in all sorts of different places. Definitely on the road, out in the desert.
On “How Might I Live”, the one song that Alex Bleeker sings, he starts a line with “Down in my home/ Louisiana.” Does he have any ties to there?
No. (laughs) We have friends there. I think he was just getting creative.
He also sang one song on Days. Does he have more tunes that just didn’t make the cut for each record? Or does he just prefer to do one for each album?
[“How Might I Live”] was the one he brought to the band. It’s not like he’s discouraged from writing more. That’s how it was with the last album, too. So, maybe he’ll write more in the future. Maybe not. It’s kind of fun to have him sing one song on the album. But it’s not like a limitation we’ve placed on him.
This is a pretty childish question, but do you have a favorite song on the new album? Mine’s “Crime”.
I really like “Had to Hear”, the first song. The way it came together was unexpected. It’s one of the only songs I’ve written where the verse and the chorus are the same chord progression. And I just think it’s a nice song. It came together really naturally, so it almost feels like I didn’t write it, but I did. I just feel pretty detached from it. I know the consensus from the band is that “The Bend” is their favorite song, and I like that one, too. I think that maybe in terms of recording quality, that’s probably the best-sounding song we’ve ever made.
When you write a song, do you have a really specific time and place in mind in terms of story, or is it more just about what comes out naturally?
Definitely the latter. I’ll usually just start with a phrase that I hear, whatever pops into my head. And then I’ll try to build a song around that. It eventually ends up being about something. But sometimes it takes me a while to even figure out what I’m writing about. It’s kind of a weird process.