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Published: 2014/02/26
by Justin Jacobs

Real Estate; Tweedy, Jerry and a New Altas

Don’t expect extended 25-minute jams from New Jersey’s Real Estate, but to be sure: the experimentation and psychedelic nature of your favorite jam bands are the same fuel that keeps band leaders Martin Courtney, Matt Mondanile and self-professed Deadhead Alex Bleeker going. Real Estate’s 2009, self-titled debut placed them firmly in the bounds of ‘lo-fi psychedelic’ pop, if such a genre ever existed, with mellow guitar leads and meandering melodies encased in a home-recorded haze. But for album number three, Atlas, to be released March 4, the band camped out in Wilco’s Chicago studio to create a crisp, cleaned-up version of their easy-going guitar pop – and it’s their best work to date. With one foot in the indie rock realm and one dancing in the jam band universe, Real Estate is a band that sound right in a Phish show parking lot and a hipster house party. spoke with Martin Courtney and Alex Bleeker about the creation of Atlas, the band’s many side-projects and why Jerry Garcia is just like Beethoven. For more on the band, check out the recent interview on

Your new album Atlas was recorded in Wilco’s studio. How did that come about?

Martin: We had talked about how we really wanted to record with Jim O’Rourke, who did Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. We knew that wasn’t possible, but it got us thinking about Wilco, and we heard about ( The Whole Love engineer and mixer) Tom Schick. So we got in touch with him. He mentioned he works with Jeff Tweedy all the time – one thing led to the other.

Alex: Tom is the house engineer of Wilco’s studio in Chicago. At first we said we’d work with him in New York, but it dawned on us: “Let’s do it in Chicago.” In addition to all being Wilco fans as kids, the cool thing is you can work on their gear. Jeff has literally hundreds of guitars. It’s a magical place. You don’t get that kind of thing in a New York studio. There, you just pay for room and console. (Wilco’s studio) is not a public place — they’re beginning to open up to the idea of more bands recording there, but it’s not like anybody can just show up.

Were the members of Wilco around during your two weeks in their studio?

Alex: Wilco was on tour with Dylan at the time (during Dylan’s 2013 Americanarama Festival tour, along with My Morning Jacket). Bob Weir was on some of those shows. The tour had a few shows at home in Chicago, and so Tweedy came by one day when we were recording and hung out. He just came by to say hi and give us his blessing, as we were using so much of his gear. Which was good, because it’d felt weird using his guitars without him there.

Martin: (Tweedy’s) presence was a little intimidating, I think. There had been talk of him maybe producing… He’s obviously very talented. It honestly made me a little glad he wasn’t producing — it would’ve been a lot of pressure.

These tracks were recorded live, with everyone in a room. How did that change the vibe of the album?

Alex: There are a fair amount of overdubs on the record, but all the basics are live, just like we’ll play them on the road. That’s big for me — we hadn’t done a Real Estate album that way up to now. I’m a big Neil Young fan; he’s got an ethos about capturing the vibe, playing right on tape. You can feel that it’s a live record at points, without sacrificing sound quality. Plus, it was just good practice. We’d do five takes in a row and just choose the best one. We sat around playing songs over and over; it was great to get inside those songs. We’ll be a better live band because of it. The songs are in our muscle memory now. We’re road ready.

Martin: It was really a result of us spending all that time writing. I mean, I wrote by myself, but then we practiced and worked on the songs as a band. So we entered the studio confident in our ability to play the songs; the arrangements were already thought out. And we took that opportunity to play and record them live, instead of recording it piecemeal.

Though Martin took months to work on the songs more or less by himself, you still call the album a collaboration between all of you.

Alex: There are 10 songs on record—Martin is the chief songwriter on eight; I’m chief on one and Matt on one. But we all contributed to writing of all of them. None are black and white, recorded just like the songwriter put down on paper. Writing was pretty long and experimental and detailed. We’d work on the songs together, everyone would write their own parts. I feel like I can safely say that 100% of the songs on record are full band record.

Real Estate has often been described as ‘lo-fi.’ But here you are, recording in Wilco’s studio, on very nice equipment, and the record sounds clean and crisp. Is it time to cast aside that tagline?

Alex: The description I’d really like to leave behind is ‘beachy.’ But yes, each record has gotten more and more hi-fi, sure. That’s largely owing to our means. This was by far the nicest gear we ever recorded with — that affords you the ability to make more nuanced decisions about how things sound.

Martin: With the first record, we were embracing the limitations we had. We were recording at friends’ houses, by ourselves. I’m still a fan of music that sounds home-recorded. There’s a charm and magic there. But yeah, anytime some description becomes a crutch for journalists, it can be annoying to read. We wanted to take that crutch away from people. I mean, we’ve always wanted to make nice sounding records.

Alex: I think ‘lo-fi’ means a lot more than fidelity. It’s an attitude. This homemade, patchwork feeling. I don’t think we’ve lost that approachability. We’re like a high school band from the garage that grew up and kept going.

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