Real Estate’s Wonder Years
For readers who are unfamiliar with Todd P, can you talk a bit about his shows?
Martin: He started doing his thing 10 years ago when I was probably 16 or 17. I was in high school. I think that was a huge help for us being able to do those shows as it is for any band that plays his shows because so many people go to those shows. He’s a real promoter yet he’s DIY about it. I remember when I first started going to those shows when I was really young and thinking, “This is insane, what am I doing here? I’m in someone’s apartment in Williamsburg and they’re serving beer out of their kitchen. And I’m extremely underage right now and this is really illegal. And this is fuckin’ awesome.” One of our first big shows or one of the ones that just sticks out in my mind was opening for Crew of Violent Girls at Monster Island in 2009. That was probably our coolest NY show ever. So that helped us solidify maybe in the scene a little.
Alex: His shows are just totally different than all of the “surcharge” concert experiences. I think that that’s what he’s really interested in doing—presenting all age, concert alternative shows, which is cool. Now there are a lot more people doing it in New York but he’s been the forefather and shown people, like “Hey, you can find a warehouse space and be the liaison between some weird landlord and you can make this happen.” He has so many people work for him over the years, and then they frequently go off and do their own thing. I have yet to see something like that, and you know we’ve toured all over the country and I have yet to find a show that feels like a Todd P show. There’s nobody else, especially on that successful of a level.
Martin: We were talking to our agent and were asking, “Why can’t we book Irving Plaza instead of Bowery Ballroom? We used to see all these great shows at Irving.” And he was like, “Dude it’s just because they have new management and they don’t pay you well.”
The only original member of Real Estate who didn’t grow up with you is Etienne. How did he enter your extended family?
Matt: He lived in Northampton where I went to school. Etienne and Ben Daly and I played in a band called Predator Vision that I started in my basement. I took acid with all of my housemates and recorded in the basement onto a handheld cassette machine. I hid the machine in the rafters, we took the acid right when we started playing and were excited about the possibility of ‘coming up on acid while jamming.” Afterwards when we were coming down we listened to the cassette while watching the movie Predator. Things came together and we decided to call the band Predator Vision. We released two tapes on Future Sound Recordings and a split 12 inch with Sun Araw on Not Not Fun. Since then the band has ceased to play shows for a while but we are looking to reunite in 2012 with more releases and hopefully tour.
Martin: One summer during college our [high school friend] Julian Velard used us as his band for an album and tour he was putting together and Matt brought in Etienne. I was playing Fender Rhodes piano, Matt was playing bass, Bleeker was playing guitar, and Etienne was playing drums. Julian was also playing guitar and singing. So that’s actually how Etienne came into my world—musically. We wanted that project to work but we were still and college and didn’t have to freedom to really tour around. I had to go back to Washington.
It is interesting that you were all on different instruments in that band.
Alex: Martin was the bass player. I never played bass in the band until Real Estate. It just made sense for him to play guitar because he was writing songs for guitar. And actually—when I was living in Philly [and had not committed to the band]—Martin was going to play bass, Matt was going to play guitar and Etienne was going to play drums. And then when I came back they were like, “You know what, could you play bass? It would be easier for Martin to sing the songs,” and stuff like that. But he’s starting to be a really good guitar player, which is awesome. I think he’s the most versed in music theory of all of us. He can play upright bass too in an orchestra, so he was able to translate what he knew about bass into chords and stuff. He has no formal guitar training, so he kept doing these weird chord progressions that I would never think to do. Everyone wants to play electric guitar in high school, not electric bass. But he played electric bass, so every band was like, “We need a bass player – Martin.” You know? But he’s an awesome bass player. If you ever see him play, he’ll shred. It’s definitely his home base instrument.
Let’s move from the band’s formation to your songwriting. When I first interviewed you a few years ago, you said one of the initial goals was to update the sound some “cheesier sounding” ‘70s bands. “Out of Tune” [off Days definitely has a Fleetwood Mac vibe to it. Is that still a primary goal for the band?
Martin: I think we gave settled into our own things, and the songs come out however they come out. I think maybe that still manifests itself in our guitar tone and on our new album we really tried to increase our production value—especially with the drums, which tried to make sound really tight like Fleetwood Mac. We would put a rag over the snare while we recorded it and compressed it to create this Steely Dan-style drumming. We didn’t want it to be shiny and digital sounding. So I guess in a way that’s true and, with “Out of Tune,” the arrangement leans toward Fleetwood Mac with the rhythm. But we aren’t trying to sound a certain way.
In terms of your lyrics, your first album captures that nostalgic, somewhat nervous feeling of returning home after college. Do you feel as if Days has any thematic undercurrents?
Martin: I actually think this record reflects on an earlier time, when I was younger and in high school—a lot of it is written about a certain time period. I haven’t lived in our hometown for like three years so all I can do really is reflect on that time [instead of the experience of living at home]. But at the same time, that’s all I can ever can think to write about for some reason. Lyrics have always been hard for me to write and never my favorite part of the process. Even now, especially because a lot of these songs are new, I was really self conscious when I was recording them in the studio—especially knowing that people are going to listen to the lyrics because people listened to the lyrics on the first record. But you can’t think about that—it took me a while to realize like, what the fuck else am I gonna do? I’m not gonna just not sing. I need to just sing the words. But I always write the songs first and with a lot of the songs I didn’t write the lyrics until we were in the studio—probably like half the songs we were in the studio. And I was like hearing it and I was like “shit it’s almost time to do vocals and lyrics.”
Alex: He’s more shy and private about them. It’s funny because when you play a song live for so long, you might not even hear the lyrics that clearly and you make up what they are. It was an interesting experience for me in the studio to hear [Martin] sing them through a really clear microphone for the first time. It was like, “Oh, that’s what he’s talking about in that song.” I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a conscious thing—and he might deny it— but a lot of the songs on this record have to do with touring and being in the band. It makes sense because they were written at a time when that was dominating a lot of our lives. So even when they’re not directly related to it, there are a lot of traveling motifs and changing of seasons, being away from home, longing and missing, nostalgia, which ties in nicely with the sort of style of ‘way back when’ which is always present in the music. But I think we are definitely writing from a different perspective now that the band is a big part of what’s happening in our lives rather than our musical hobby.
Martin: I like it when people sort of put their own meaning on my words more so than me trying to explain them. So it like it that the new record’s almost a combination [of fictional stories and real experiences] where nothing’s really made up or fake but it’s sort of like just trying to invoke certain feelings to go along with our sound. I never know if what I am writing is good or not and always get self-conscious.
Alex: Martin has always had this fascination with streetlights as long as I’ve known him, and there’s definitely a streetlight line on this record [“Green Aisles”]. Even going back to his old demos when we were in high school and college, he wrote about the image of sneaking out late at night and being in the street on a summer night with the cicadas and everything. I know that had a really big effect on him. And it’s funny because a lot of times it was me, Martin and Matt doing stuff when we were in high school. Those were really formative experience for him, I’m sure, because he always continues to write about them. Those are some of the more personal moments that he’ll let you have.
Your first album pegged you as a summer band but this album has a darker tone. Do you think that just has to do with being older and living on your own?
Martin: I’ve never been able to write towards a certain style. And I do agree that I feel like the album kind of has more of a serious tone—I don’t know what it is but it’s autumnal, like everybody says “Whoa, that’s great for fall, it’s coming out in October, perfect”. There’s a lot of tree references [on Days ]. We were trying to name the album and kept coming up with names that had to do with trees or leaves or whatever. And Bleeker was just like, “No, enough, it’s already too much”.