Interview: Real Estate Frontman Martin Courtney on Touring with Girls, the Romance of the Suburbs, and Selling His Grandmother's House
"What you want is just outside your reach," Martin Courtney sings at the opening of Real Estate's debut self-titled album. For this young New Jersey band, that's not really the case anymore. After a marathon year of playing nearly every week in New York, the band's been rewarded with both a lovely debut album, out tomorrow on Woodsist, and a countrywide tour. We caught up with Courtney, Real Estate's singer and guitarist, before their show in Toronto with tourmates Girls to talk about house parties, the suburbs, and the term "lo-fi."
You guys have been around for a little over a year now.
Yeah it's like a year and a month since we played our first show.
Since then you've been pretty busy. How many shows have you played?
Oh. [pauses] Probably well over a hundred. I'm not really positive. For the first couple of months until the spring of this year we played almost every weekend in New York. That was really good for us being a new band to get people to find out about us. Our name got put on flyers and was on the internet. It was a good way to spread the word really quickly. After a while it was like this is way too many shows, so we cut back a little bit. And now it's really awesome to play outside of New York.
What's it like touring with Girls?
[Girl's lead singer] Chris Owens is such a good performer and really fun to watch. I think the two bands compliment each other really well. We're both super melodic. We've really embraced pop song structures, but in different ways. It's gonna be a bummer. We only have two more shows left with them. After that, we're doing the rest of the country by ourselves, playing with different bands.
On your MySpace there's a note that tells people to e-mail you if they want Real Estate to play a house party after the show in their town. Why make that offer?
It's way more fun than playing a club. We love house parties. Our first tour when we went down to SXSW last year we played all house shows on the way down and on the way back. It's really intimate and everyone has more fun. And plus, why not play as many shows as possible while we're on tour? It also helps us find a place to stay. That night, if we don't know anybody in the town, we automatically know some people because we're playing at their house.
I want to talk about the album, which sounds really different in different spots. Was that an intentional effect?
We recorded most of it with our friend Sam. He's in a band called Liquor Store. We've known him since he was a little kid. He has this really nice 16-track 1-inch tape machine. The original idea was to record it all with him. It ended up taking a really long time because he was in college. We started in January of '09. We ended in June. We ended up using some demo versions or the original versions we recorded. Like "Fake Blues" is the version we recorded on a 4-track in my apartment. "Suburban Dogs"--we recorded that at my mom's house on an 8-track. We just ended up liking how those versions sounded better. People describe it as lo-fi. I guess it doesn't sound like we recorded it in a studio, but we tried to make it sound as good as we possibly could. I would love to have recorded it in a studio. I think the fact that it was recorded in many different places adds some character to it.
It does sound homemade--but in a very meticulous way. Are you leery of the lo-fi label?
Sure yeah. I'm a little leery of every label. [laughs] That's how it always is. People need something as an indicator of what something sounds like. I don't mind. There are a lot of good bands that are called lo-fi. There's nothing wrong with that. People are gonna call it what they want. It's music. Just listen to it.
You're part of a particular sound that's coming out of Jersey right now. The suburbs of Jersey are a really important theme on the album.
The town that me and Matt [Mondanile] and [Alex] Bleecker all grew up in, there was a lot of music and there were a lot of bands playing. I think our high school was very generous with open mics. There was always a show to play. It was just us playing for our friends, but it encouraged us to try any idea that we had. We had a lot of stupid joke bands. We had a lot of other bands that we took seriously. It's cool that now, the people that were involved in that--like Titus Andronicus and Cassie from Vivian Girls--everybody has stuck to it. We see each other all the time at shows. But it's cool because I don't think we sound similar at all.
The way you treat the suburbs is definitely more romantic than the way they're handled by some of your other Garden State peers.
We just want to embrace where we're from. I like where I grew up. It has its faults, like everything else. You can't really complain about growing up in a suburb. That's what it is. We all stuck together. We're from the suburbs. What else are we gonna write about?
So why the name Real Estate?
Well, we spent a while trying to figure out what we were gonna call the band. At the time, I was [slowly] going to real estate school. Getting a job after college. Then it started to make sense with the music we were playing.
Did the real estate career pan out?
Eh, I sold my grandma's house.
You'll always have a fall back if the music thing doesn't work out.