Ever since the members of Real Estate began playing music together in high school, they’ve been on one long quest to write the perfect album. Err, the perfect album to their ears, at least.
But, since their humble beginnings as school-mates, Real Estate has grown, evolved and changed radically. For starters, the band put out their first album in 2009, which launched them into the wide network of “indie rock relevancy.” From there, they toured all over and began to make a name for themselves as one of the genuine icons of the mid-2010s indie scene. But in 2016, things got more difficult—after a number of women came forward with sexual misconduct allegations, the band fired guitarist and co-founder, Matt Mondanile.
In the wake of this, the band stepped back and regrouped. After releasing a statement to emphasize their complete and total denunciation of Mondanile’s actions, the two remaining founding members—singer Martin Courtney and bassist Alex Bleeker—reached out to Julian Lynch, who took up guitar duties. With a new line-up locked and loaded, they got back to the task at hand: their quest to write the perfect album for their ears.
And while that might be an impossible task to complete, Real Estate has sure gotten close. In February last year, they put out The Main Thing, one of their finest, lushest and and most melodic works to-date. But right after that, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, a new layer of uncertainty was cast onto everything. Again, the band stepped back and regrouped. Ultimately, they decided they weren’t satisfied with the inaction of waiting out the pandemic—thus, they brushed up on how to record remotely and got busy doing it.
Now, on March 26 via Domino Records, Real Estate put out Half A Human, an EP which sees them explore all sides of their sound and style in a way they haven’t gotten the chance to in the past. Featuring old, previously-unreleased live favorites and a batch of fresh songs from the Main Thing sessions, the EP is a true testament to the band’s unwavering commitment to one thing and one thing alone: music.
Last week, Courtney hopped on the phone with American Songwriter to discuss Half A Human and the journey the band’s gone on. Read our conversation below:
American Songwriter: I got into Real Estate a few years back when I was still in school—a bunch of lacrosse players I know started listening to y’all and it became a whole thing that the lacrosse players liked Real Estate. Eventually, it rubbed off on me too.
Martin Courtney: That rules. That’s so awesome. I remember when we were a couple years into doing this band and I started to realize that young people and kids were coming to our shows. I guess I was kinda thinking ‘Well, if I was in high school right now, I’d probably be coming to see my band.’ It’s the exact kind of thing I would’ve been into. I spent a lot of my time in high school going to shows in New York City, seeing Built To Spill and stuff like that. So, yeah, I remember having the realization that high schoolers were listening to my music and thinking that was really cool.
AS: Well, in a way, that serves as a great introduction to our conversation today. I want to talk to y’all about the journey you’ve gone on as a band and, specifically, how you arrived here, in 2021, putting out this EP. Your last full-length record, The Main Thing, came out this past February—what has the time since then been like?
MC: Well, at the end of last February, we had all of these shows and tours lined-up and the whole year was looking like it was going to be booked with traveling. Then, everything went into lockdown.
In the span of about two weeks, we went from ‘Well, maybe we’ll have to cancel the April tour’ to ‘Oh, maybe until the summer’ to ‘Uh, I guess we’re not touring this year at all.’ It was traumatizing. It was very intense and scary for everybody, obviously, in so many different ways. Speaking personally for us, we were like ‘Well, what the heck are we going to do?’ We essentially rely on touring for money, so it was a crazy thing.
So, we went through a period of time where we weren’t doing anything. I guess we thought that we’d just ride it out. But maybe a month or two into it, we were like ‘Well, we can’t not do anything this year. That would feel horrible.’ We realized that this could be an opportunity for us to do stuff we normally wouldn’t have done. Plus, we had some songs that were unfinished from the sessions of our previous record, The Main Thing.
AS: So that’s when Half A Human began to come together as a separate idea?
MC: Yeah. The original idea was that we would hold those songs aside and keep them for the next record. But, the more I thought about it, the more I thought that these songs were of a different time now, especially because of the pandemic. I couldn’t really see carrying them forward and trying to fit them onto a batch of new songs that I would be writing during and after the pandemic. So, we decided to release them as an almost companion-EP to the previous album.
We worked out a method of sending tracks back and forth. We set up a drive on the internet where we’d upload files and I’d take everything and mix it together on my computer. That kinda provided proof-of-concept that we could record remotely and get decent sounding tracks and stuff. That’s how we finished the EP, but it also just gave us a way to still feel productive this year, rather than just sitting around for a year. It feels weird, honestly. At least for me, it felt like my whole identity got swept out from under me. It was like, ‘This is it—you’re a musician one day, and the next day you don’t know when the next time you’ll be able to play a show is.’
AS: Do you feel like the experience has given you a new perspective on your career? On your life in general?
MC: Definitely. It does feel really nice to put music out, but it’s still going to be a long road before things… well, I hesitate to say ‘Go back to normal’ because it’s never going to be like how it was before.
It’s all been very surreal. I really couldn’t imagine playing a show right now. Not only because of the risk factor to us or the audience—it’s more-so like what I was saying before about my identity being swept out from under me: my identity was that I was a touring musician who played shows.
I guess the silver-lining is that I’ve been able to become more productive in songwriting this year than I would’ve in the past. So, in a way, I guess I was able to keep up with the idea of being a musician through songwriting. But, on the performance side of it… I feel like it’s going to take a lot. If I had to perform tomorrow, it would be very, uh, ‘rusty,’ we’ll say. But, at the same time, I miss it terribly. I really want to play again.
AS: You’ve become more productive with songwriting? How so?
Before, I had a little studio set up in a town about 20 minutes from my town, but when the pandemic hit, I moved a lot of my stuff home. My wife started working in the evenings, so I would put my kids to bed and go down into the basement and just mess around. I found it really easy to write instrumental music, the bones to songs. I had a lot of fun just messing around, trying different styles. I wrote some faster rock, almost like punk songs. I just had fun, I felt free with the songwriting.
But, when it came to writing lyrics afterwards… that was hard. Initially, I was so consumed with everything going on in the news that I just didn’t want that to be what was going on in my songwriting too. I was thinking that I didn’t really want to write any dark songs—if anything, I was kinda thinking ahead. If and when these songs come out, whatever form they take, I’m hoping it’ll be towards the end of this extremely dark time and people will be wanting more hopefully, happier music. So, I was kinda writing with that in mind. In a way, it was an escape for myself. Hopefully, it’s what other people want to hear, but it was definitely what I wanted to hear.
AS: In a way, writing hopeful or cheerful lyrics can sometimes prove to be more difficult than writing heavy, serious ones, especially during a time like the pandemic. Did you have any particular method to accessing that headspace?
MC: Yeah, I think that’s why writing the lyrics was so hard for me. It was easy to get out of the dark headspace when it came to writing the music, but with the lyrics, I just didn’t know what to write about. I went through a dry spell for a few months and I just started accumulating instrumental songs. Eventually, I was like ‘Oh man, I need to stop writing melodies and chord progressions and sit down and actually finish some of these songs lyrically.’
What I ended up doing was this stream-of-consciousness thing where I was basically like ‘I’m not going to think too hard about this, I’m not going to think about what I want to ‘say’ in this song—I’m just going to string together some imagery, maybe things I think sounds funny or whatever. Just whatever popped into my head. As long as it sounds cool and sounds like a lyric, that’s all I need. Maybe once I get one line, I try to find rhymes for it. Once I get three or four lines, I can start deciding ‘Okay, what does this mean to me?’ From there, the song will start to snowball into something that actually does mean something, even if it started from nonsense.
That made it easier for me. It made it okay to tackle lyrics, just being like ‘Okay, this means nothing.’ Just telling myself that. Sometimes, it’d stay that way—I’d get a whole verse in and be like ‘I don’t know where I’m going with this.’ Then, maybe a month or two later I’d come back to it and almost force myself to find meaning in the nonsense I had written. That ended up being a pretty fun and productive method for me and it really worked out—I wrote essentially and album’s worth of songs last year.
AS: Real Estate is a band that’s been in the indie lexicon for over a decade now. Considering how much the world has changed in that time—and how much the band has changed in that time—what do you think the “secret” for longevity and success has been?
MC: Well, the past few years have definitely been… you know, ups and downs, in personal ways and creatively. The first few years of this band, we were really young. I feel that as I’ve grown as a person and my life has become more complex, so too has the situation with this band.
I was thinking about that idea, like: ‘Is this something I find fulfillment in or do I want to move on from it?’ But, I didn’t know what the thing I’d move ‘onto’ would be. This is just what we grew up doing. I grew up playing and writing music. Having started doing this band at 23, this is what my life is now. This is what we’re devoted to: making music. We work out what’s going on in our lives through songwriting, through performing. I remember being on tour—playing a show is a cathartic feeling. Sometimes you’re dealing with things on a personal level, but when you play a show, it puts it all back into perspective.
So, yeah. All I know is that I’m going to be a 75-year-old man making… well, I would say ‘CD-Rs’ but I don’t know if that’ll even be a possible format by then. Either way, I’ll be writing music and playing songs, even if no one’s listening to them. Writing songs is just a part of who I am. Honestly, I think we’re just lucky that it’s maintained any level of quality in anyone’s eyes. It’s tough to keep going and to keep thinking that it’s good. There’s a lot of doubt, a lot of self-doubt, that goes into it. But, you just gotta keep putting stuff out and hopefully people will like it. Or not. It doesn’t really matter. It’s what we’re going to do either way.
AS: In a way, it sounds like it’s the commitment to the music itself that’s kept y’all going forward.
MC: Yeah. One thing I would say to that—one criticism we’ve gotten over the years is people saying that we haven’t evolved, or that all of our songs sound the same. Err, at least that all of our albums kinda do the same thing. That may or may not be true, it’s a matter of opinion—though, I definitely don’t think it’s true at all. Regardless, it’s fine if that’s how people want to think about it.
But, I think that what that means is (or, maybe it’s just the result of this): we’ve always made the music that we want to hear. It’s like what I said at the beginning about when I realized that high school kids were coming to see this band. I know that I totally would’ve come to see us in high school. I’ve always just written the types of songs I want to hear and I’ve made music that sounds good to my ears. For some artists, a lot of the goal in making art has to do with the process evolving, with their writing or sound evolving. But to me, it’s really just been about writing songs that sound good and make me feel something, even if it’s just for me. Honestly, for us, it’s less about evolving for the sake of evolving—if there’s evolution that happens, that’s really just the product of us continuing our quest to write the perfect album for our ears. Hopefully, other people like it too.
Real Estate’s new EP Half A Human dropped on March 26 and is available wherever you stream your music. Watch the music video for the song “Half A Human” below: