Interview :: Real Estate’s Martin Courtney
October 13th 2014
In these crazy times it is worth reminding ourselves that musicians are not merely mp3s for our iPods, designs for our t-shirts, and clickable content for our Facebook. They are people, with relationships, hometowns and lives outside of their music. It is from these things that the music we love so dearly flows.
Yet the life of the modern touring musician —constantly in motion, travelling the world but only really moving between vans, stages, and funky hotel rooms — eats away at an artist’s muse. (Especially as touring increasingly becomes the only way to make a decent buck.)
Real Estate’s latest album Atlas, released earlier this year, is acutely aware of the strain that touring places on an artist’s creativity and humanity; and the delicate, destructive tension between the things we feel pressed into doing, and the things that really matter. The result is an album that musically brings to mind endless days by the pool, carefree road trips and long, lazy sunsets; but lyrically quite dark and unsettling. Like being “behind the wheel, but it won’t steer”— to borrow from standout track ‘The Bend’. The question has to be asked: can these songs still mean anything to the band, let alone the audience, night after night?
We’ll find out when Real Estate finally land on our shores next February. In anticipation of this upcoming tour, Danny Noonan spoke to front-man Martin Courtney about life and art imitating each other, the challenges of bringing such an introspective record to life night after night, and the joy that comes from finding a connection with an audience that goes beyond the music.
DN: You’ve been touring pretty extensively in support of Atlas, which songs off the album have you most enjoyed performing live?
MC: It kind of changes as the songs evolve. Early on “The Bend” was a favourite of ours, just cause there’s a lot going on and everybody’s got a fun part to play in that song. But I think “Had to Hear” has emerged as my favourite, just because it has a really good energy live. We usually put it pretty early on in the set; obviously because it’s the first song on the album we open a lot of sets with it, because it just gets you excited to play the show. But it also works if you put it halfway through. If you start feeling a lag in the energy you can count on that song to bring you back to the, uh, positive vibes I guess? But yeah I think that’s my favourite, that’s kind of the consensus to date. We all really like playing that tune.
By the time you get to Australia you’ll have been playing for almost 12 months in support of Atlas. How has your relationship to the album changed in that time?
Well, obviously you get better at playing the songs, and certain things change – like vocal melodies evolve and in my opinion become better. Certain things happen that you wish you could go back and change on the record when you have that much time to play the songs live. But it’s interesting, because a lot of the songs are about touring and stuff – on the Days record – so obviously some of the lyrics have some significance night after night as we play them. “The Bend” is about that exact thing: playing a song live and wondering if it’s lost meaning – that’s what the lyrics are about. So it’s kind of funny playing it live for an audience every night. So they speak to you in different ways.
I think the main thing is that we as a band, we’ve gotten to the point where the songs are a second nature to us. At that point the challenge is to make sure that we’re not just playing them well but we’re playing them with feeling and energy – but I think we tend to succeed at that. Unless it’s a particularly bad show- well, each show’s different for each band member—but I think I’m in high spirits because we played a really good show last night… Not every show can be like that. It has a lot to do with the audience and stuff.
Where did you play last night?
It’s this place called Zanzabar in Louisville, Kentucky. It was kind of our first club show there, ever – we played a festival there, like, maybe two summers ago. But it was really cool. It was maybe the smallest show so far on this tour, because Louisville’s just kind of a smaller city. So it was a 250-capacity room, sold out well in advance. The crowd was really stoked, and it was just a really cool bar. It felt like a place that, you know, the people in that town are lucky to have it.
I wish that growing up they had a place like that in my town, a place that gets really good bands to come through, and it’s small and intimate, but the sound is good. It’s a good spot!
A lot of the themes on Atlas pick up on the experiences and emotions that come from living in the suburbs or living in a small town. Do you feel a stronger connection with small-town audiences than with big cities or festivals?
Only because the audiences are literally smaller, and they’re literally closer to the stage. Like last night, you know, the stage was like 10 inches off the ground and the front row was like a foot and a half in front of me. So literally there was more of a connection because we were really close to each other. And yeah I think people are generally more excited to see you in smaller towns, because they’re not as spoiled I guess by the fact that they don’t expect it, you know…
They don’t have great bands coming in every night.
Yeah – it’s not a given that their favourite band is going to necessarily come to town. So when it happens they’re generally more excited. I can definitely relate to that, growing up in the suburbs, because, you know, I lived really close to New York so we were definitely spoiled by the fact that we could go see shows in New York all the time, but every once in a while one of our favourite bands would play at a place called Maxwell’s…which used to be in Hoboken, New Jersey, and it’s just a smaller club. It’s pretty much the same thing as I was describing – like a 200-cap club that would get big bands to come through every once in a while. You’re more excited to go to that show because it’s just like, it feels more special.
Atlas is your most collaborative album to date, what effect has this had on performing your songs live?
I’m not sure, you know, because most of the songs are ones that I wrote – so I wrote my parts to those songs. But I think as a group, on most of the songs of the new record, everybody wrote their parts. So I think in a way that gets you more excited, because you’re playing something that came from you, rather than something that came from someone else. Some of the older songs, I came to the band with them already fully-formed. There was a little bit less of that on this record.
What difference has adding Matt Kallman and Jackson Pollis had on the way you play live?
Kallman is kind of a newer addition, and he’s just a really great player. They both bring their own personality, and that’s really important. When you’re on the road with people for a long time, it’s important to be able to get along with them. Which, I mean, we’ve always gotten along with everybody in the band but they’re just really nice, easy-going dudes. Jackson has been in the band for over three and a half years at this point. He’s a great drummer, he’s very professional, and he never messes up, unlike everybody else in the band [laughs].
You know what? That’s what I’d say about both of them: Jackson and Kallman are probably the two guys in the band that never mess up.
Me, Alex (Bleeker) and Matt (Mondanile) have our flubs every once in a while. But yeah they’re just great players, and sweet guys. We’re all good friends, which is important. I don’t think every band can say that, which is unfortunate.
How do you handle the downtime in between stops on tour, and how do you keep things interesting show after show?
So, for example, we just sound-checked for a show a few hours ago, then we drove to the hotel and we’re going to be here for the next three hours or so – just this weird hotel on the side of the highway. And the way we’re handling it right now is, well, I’m just doing interviews [laughs]. Some people are on their computers; some people are doing laps on the pool or on the treadmill, just trying to keep moving, because it’s a very sedentary lifestyle sitting in a van all day. And the van time, you just kind of go into a zone. Somebody usually DJ-ing, playing some music, while others maybe just have their headphones in listening to their own music. Or we’re talking, you know? It’s pretty uneventful and boring.
But then, playing every night – one thing we do is we don’t play the same set every night. Pretty much every show we’ve always written a new set list. And we’re able to play probably 90 per cent of the songs on all three albums, and also some B-sides and stuff. We probably have like a thirty-song repertoire that we’re able play live, and we pick between 15 and 17 of them to play a night. So it allows us to maybe retire a song for a few nights and then bring it back and it’ll feel fresh again. And the way our songs are, there’s a lot of room for jamming and improvising and trying different things. So each night the performance isn’t necessarily the same of the same song.
I don’t know, I always love playing live. Everything else about touring can get pretty, uh, terrible I would say, and boring.
And you get sick – I’ve been sick the past couple days. It can kind of wear you down. But the show is usually really fun and it’s the highlight of every day I would say. It sounds cheesy but it’s true, like that Jackson Browne song ’The Load-Out’ [laughs] – it’s the truth.
Do you find any inspiration to write while touring, or does it all come after?
Not really, I mean I often find myself playing little riffs and things on the guitar. So in that way touring is actually a pretty prolific time, or it can be. So, you know, when we’re sound checking and I’m just standing around strumming my guitar a lot of the time, because I have my pedals plugged in and stuff and I have my full setup and it sounds really good, I often play things that I then think sound great and I’ll record them on my phone. A lot of songs have come from that, but lyric-wise it’s really hard to focus enough to write, to actually finish lyrics.
It seems like a lot of your lyrics are more reflective than spontaneous.
Yeah, lyrically, usually when I’m writing I have to kind of go be by myself somewhere. It’s kind of a hard process. It’s harder to do on tour when you’re surrounded by people all the time.
WHAT :: Real Estate 2015 Australian tour (18+)
WHEN :: Thursday, February 26 2015
WHERE :: Oxford Art Factory, Sydney
HOW MUCH :: $49.00 (Head to Oztix)
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