Real Estate’s Wonder Years
In April of 2009 I was lucky enough to catch The Dead three times in a single night as they made their way through New York to promote an upcoming reunion tour. Since I was in the Lower East Side anyway—and slightly ADD by nature—between two of those underplays, I decided to pop into the Mercury Lounge to see a indie band called Wavves, who at the time were making something of a name for themselves thanks to their punk rock energy and Phish-like affinity for puny names. At the time I was working on an article about closet jam-fans in the indie world and was recounting the article’s nut graph to a co-worker the um-teenth time when a 22-year old named Alex Bleeker sheepishly turned around and said, “Indie rock and the Grateful—that’s what we are all about?” As it turns out, the “we” he was referring to was Real Estate, a lo-fo indie pop band with jamband-groove tendencies that he’d formed a few months earlier with two of his high school pals (guitarists Martin Courtney and Mathew Mondanile) and another buddy (drummer Etienne Pierre Duguay).
Since they were the first band on the bill, I’d missed them that night but that conversation piqued my interest enough to check them out a few weeks later a few blocks away at Pianos. Though the number of people in the audience only outweighed the number of musicians onstage by a 2:1 ratio, they already felt like a fully formed band complete with its own lineage and divergent personalities, the culmination—as I’d later learn—of several months of hard work and many years of friendship. During the course of the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to watch Real Estate moved through the club ranks, ink a deal with Domino records and even lose their equipment while playing my birthday party, fully forming, as we stated in the December issue of Relix, a Scene of their Own on the edge of the new psychedelic frontier.
While that Relix feature focused on the band’s history and new studio album Days, I also talked to them about a number of other topics, including Real Estate’ precursor bands, the band’s roots in the Brooklyn underground music scene and some of Courtney’s most prominent lyrical themes. We also discussed the band’s “alter ego” projects like Ducktails and Alex Bleeker & the Freaks, as well as new drummer Jackson Pollis. Below, Bleeker, Country and Mondanile catch Relix/Jambands.com up on all those topics as well as why their new album’s title was almost named after a street light.
Though Real Estate formed in 2008 shortly after you graduated from college, the three of you have performed together since middle school. How did you come up with the initial idea for Real Estate?
Martin: I wrote songs in college and so did Alex and Matt. We’d always send our stuff to each other and then—my senior year of college—I went to France for a couple of months. While I was over there I was G-Chatting with Matt a lot, saying things like, “I’m gonna be home soon, and you’re gonna be out of school, let’s start a band.” We were both excited about that idea. I sent him some songs while I was writing there over there: I had brought my little acoustic guitar and laptop and was just making demos. I was pretty new to the guitar—I had always played bass in high school. I wrote “Green River” [off the first Real Estate album] and two or three others songs. At the time I was doing this folkier thing on the acoustic guitar—sometimes I would add drums but there weren’t many effects or delay loops and not as much in the Real Estate-style. Matt said, “Let’s take these songs and make them sound like Pink Floyd or something.” It’s not like I moved to Brooklyn and was like, “I need to find a band” or “I need to go work at a bar and meet some people.” We were lucky in that way because we grew up in that area and all that stuff. It’s lucky when you’re high school friends and you’ve known each other for a long time.
Alex: Matt and I actually had the same guitar teacher growing up, along with our friend Julian Lynch [who now records as a solo artist]. He taught us all on the same day because we were all friends. Afterwards I would always go over to Matt’s house and he’d teach me how to play Pixies songs. It just made sense for us to have a band. And Real Estate came out of the jam sessions that we would have that summer [after graduation]. It was me, Matt, Martin and Etienne, and we were hanging out at Martin’s parents’ house a lot in Ridgewood, NJ. We set up all our gear in the basement, and I remember one night Martin’s parents went away. He has a pool in his backyard, and we were just drinking a lot—drinking vodkas in the pool—that may be where the very chill sound came from. Martin was actually playing bass at that [jam session]—he is a really good bass player and used to play in our high school jazz band. He started playing the bassline to “Suburban Beverage” just as a jam. And that’s how that song got written. Then I moved to Philly. I didn’t have any plans after college but my friend had a cheap room in Philly, so I was like, “I don’t want to live with my parents anyone—I’ll just move to Philly.” And Martin, Matt and Etienne kept working on Real Estate. I was sort of unhappy in Philly—I missed them and missed the band and so I called and was like, “Dude, if I came back to New York, could I be in the band?” and that’s sort of how it started. I didn’t move back to New York immediately, but I made the band a priority and was always back and forth.
Martin: I always thought that the best bands had a certain style or genre, but we really didn’t have that—I still don’t really think that we have that. All of the lyrical content was obviously reflecting the fact that I moved home. I had a job for a while working at a greeting card company, selling greeting cards on the phone. The lyrics to “Fake Blues” are about that. It took us a while to take off but as soon as we started we were playing a lot—sometimes two shows a week—that was the main thing that kept us motivated.
Alex: Martin made all these demos, and we were really impressed by them. And I think we initially formed because we were like, “Wow, these songs are great, and we could really do something with them.” So those were always pretty central to the project. I think he was always sort of the lead songwriter. Especially early on, I think Matt contributed a good deal of what our early sound was. He was really immersed in his [solo project] Ducktails and his guitar sound is pretty unique but he really brings that to Real Estate.
Martin: Most of our songs were sort of written about my immediate surroundings and my immediate circumstances and then there were songs that were kind of like fake stories—“Beach Comber” or “Snow Days” or something where it’s kind of like sort of just trying to invoke a vibe to go along with the music, the vibe of the music.
You are all from white collar families. Martin’s family actually owns a prominent real estate company. Were your families supportive of your decision to make music for a living?
Alex: We didn’t have a direct career path out of college. At the outset, I know we had goals, but I don’t think we imagined that we could come so far so quickly. So when stuff started taking off, I felt nothing but excitement and support coming from my family. They always knew that I was going to be doing something artistic, and I don’t think I’m shattering anyone’s stockbroker expectations. I think they’re happy that I’ve been able to pay my rent through music [Laughter.]. I couldn’t really ask for anything more. I’m doing something that I like to do.
Matt, how did Ducktails first form and were you at all apprehensive about joining a band after achieving some success on your own?
Matt: Ducktails has been my solo project since I was 22. I have been recording music forever under different names—playing in a lot of different bands. I started performing as Ducktails in Western Massachusetts while I was living in Northampton and studying at Hampshire College before Real Estate started. [Even though my solo project was taking off] I wasn’t apprehensive to joining the band at all—I was excited! Martin, Bleeker and I have played together in different formations forever so it just made sense.
Martin: Earlier on, we were trying to get on every show that we could, opening for any bands that we could. We did that for 10 months or so until we went to SXSW [in 2009], which we booked ourselves.
Alex: At first we didn’t have enough songs so we would play other things, some of which became part of Ducktails or Alex Bleeker & the Freaks, which is my Crazy Horse-inspired jamband.
Martin: We were really inspired by some of our friends like Titus Andronicus—they kind of blew up right around that time and got their first Pitchfork review. My junior and senior year of high school I was in a band with Patrick from Titus Andronicus and he’s been putting out stuff under his own name ever since. That’s how I met Kevin, who recorded our sophomore album [Days]. He recorded us in high school and we helped out at his studio, which is where The Walkmen used to record. So really took that high school band seriously—we made a record and played a couple shows in New York. But it was still a high school-style band we didn’t really know what we were doing. Then in college we had a band which featured everyone from Real Estate—we were Julian Lynch’s backing band and we had a band called Les Majesty. We went up to my uncle’s house in Maine and recorded an album. They did a full US tour but I couldn’t go for some reason, though I did six or seven shows with them. But when Titus got signed to XL, we were like, “They’re really doing it, maybe we can too.” Same thing with Vivian Girls. Our goal was just to play a Todd P show.
Alex: It was totally tangible—Titus weren’t strangers who got lucky. I’d be lying if I said that when we booked some of our early shows that we weren’t like, “We’re friends with and Vivian Girls.” Getting your first Todd P show is an honor of sorts. It’s sort of like a formula: play out a bunch on your own and show that you can do it without him, and then he’ll be interested in working with you guys. Even though we play bigger venues now we want to keep a connection with him and do special shows. We played [his venue] 285 Kent in Brooklyn on New Year’s with Titus. And that was a milestone too, mostly because of my Phish fandom Everybody was down, but it was me pushing that we all learn “Auld Lang Syne” just in case we were on at midnight. We ended up being on at the countdown and we broke out into “Auld Lang Syne” and that was a huge moment for me.