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Real Estate's Martin Courtney and Alex Bleeker on Recording Their New Album in Nashville and Having Fun with Producer Daniel Tashian

'This record was the first time where I stepped back and said, 'Well, what if we actually made it way simpler?"'

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Source: Real Estate / Grandstand Media

Real Estate: one big happy musical family

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It’s been more than 15 years since the band Real Estate came roaring out of Ridgewood, New Jersey...or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they came ambling out, armed with indie pop songs filled to the brim with memorable hooks and melancholy jangle. They began to build their fanbase with their self-titled debut album in 2009, and by the time they released their sophomore effort, 2011’s Days, they’d cracked the upper half of the Billboard 200 while also making significant inroads on the UK Indie chart.

Although things continued along swimmingly for the band with their next two albums, Atlas (2014) and In Mind (2017), Real Estate – along with the rest of the world – were stopped in their tracks in 2020 when COVID hit, effectively ending their chances to tour behind their 2020 album, The Main Thing.

Ironically, this happened just after the band had replaced departing drummer Jackson Pollis, which meant that the freshly-cemented new lineup of Real Estate – Martin Courtney (lead vocals/guitar), Alex Bleeker (bass), Matt Kallman (keyboards), Julian Lynch (lead guitar), and new drummer Sammi Niss – were all geared up with nowhere to go. On the other hand, it did provide an opportunity for the band to start writing some new songs...

Which brings us to the release of the band’s new album, Daniel, which was produced by Daniel Tashian, the onetime frontman for the Silver Seas who - in addition to forging a solo career - has since become acclaimed for helming tracks on Kasey Musgraves' Golden Hour and various songs for Sara Evans, Jessie James Decker, and others. In the midst of their flurry of interviews for the album's release, Martin Courtney and Alex Bleeker took some time to chat with Q about getting back into the swing of things post-COVID, working with the aforementioned Mr. Tashian, and how Real Estate has evolved over the years.

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Source: Real Estate / Grandstand Media

The members of Real Estate, possibly looking for a van in order to travel around solving mysteries.

By the time Daniel comes out, it'll basically be four years since Real Estate's last studio album, and almost three since the last EP. Does it feel like time has flown or dragged in the interim?

Martin: Well, it's been an eventful four years, that's for sure. [Laughs.] No, it doesn't feel that long. I mean, it does and it doesn't.

Alex: It feels like both. It's been a weird four years! So in a way it feels like yesterday, but it also feels like so much has happened, both spiritually and collectively, for the world and the universe but also for me personally. Time is funny like that. Obviously, The Main Thing came out [in 2020], but we didn't get to go on tour. At all! It was swallowed whole by COVID. So it's been that much longer, because there's always a break between cycle periods, as we call them, from the record before that. So we haven't been out in the world since... [Hesitates.] Well, we did sneak in one tour in 2021, but we haven't really been out in the world connecting with fans in earnest for even more than four years. It's all just been kind of cyberspace. So it feels really, really good to be coming back and getting back to business.

Martin: Yeah, in the interim, we put out the Half a Human EP, but that was sort of leftover material. It was kind of just something to do while we were stuck at home. We were, like, "Let's finish these songs up." They were mostly done, and then we worked on them remotely.

Alex: Yeah, that kind of existed already, and we augmented it, but we weren't in the studio collectively together creating that.

Martin: It felt kind of...not tossed off, because I think it's a cool record. But it didn't feel like it required a lot of work. It didn't feel like a full project, you know? But we put that out, and then I did a solo record [2002’s Magic Sign], and then I toured with the solo album, so when I put all that in perspective, it does feel like a long time. And it's the longest gap between Real Estate records, for sure.

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Even before hitting “play” on the album, it seemed inevitable that it was going to have more of a pop flair just by virtue of the fact that it was produced by Daniel Tashian.

Alex: He was definitely the right person for the job, and we were frankly just excited that we got to work with him. And the pop sound was always the intention. We often feel like there are a couple of different facets to Real Estate, and one of them is the very, very accessible, sort of sunshine-pop, guitar-forward, jangly thing that we love so much and we love to do. I'd say that we kind of strayed from that in very select, specific places on this record, but even before it was entirely written, we were, like, "Let's really let that side of this band shine through on this record. Let's make that record."

Martin: It's funny, I can trace it back to an email that I wrote...two summers ago? I had been writing these songs, and I wrote this email to the band, like, "Hey, I've got these songs, and I'm really loving writing these pop songs, these pure pop songs..." . And I pretty much only listened to R.E.M. last year. Like, Automatic for the People, I was really into that album. And I was, like, "I think we should make this album, I'm going to play only on the acoustic guitar, it's gonna be very open and very warm, and the songs are going to be really poppy and inviting, and I want the instrumentation to be pianos and organs, not a lot of synth, just very organic..." And I mentioned that to the label, and I had also talked about Tashian a little bit in the past, because I really like the stuff he's done with Kacey Musgraves. So he was kind of a no-brainer once his name came up.

Alex: I love that Kasey Musgraves record, too. It was great. It got a lot of play in my house. I don't have young daughters, so maybe not quite as much as in Martin's house. [Laughs.] I know they were listening to that record a lot. But, you know, there's always that great thing when the kids and the adults want to listen to the same record, and I feel like those are ones to return to time and time again. But we were fans of Daniel and the production work he'd done before, so it was just kind of a perfect marriage.

For these last three records - everything since Atlas - we've always kind of gone in with this intention of, "Let's work with somebody who can really get in there and start digging around and have an effect on the songwriting and bring something different to the table." And I think we always say that, but we had a tough time really getting ourselves there until now.

Martin: I think in the past we had kind of floated the idea of more kind of producer-y producers that'll get in there and mess with the songs a little bit, and that notion felt very strange and bad to me. But I've come around to it over the years, and for me, for the first time with this record, I felt more open to opening up my songwriting process to somebody outside the band. "Well, I've made so many albums this one way. What if we tried something else?"

Alex: I think it’s because Daniel Tashian is more of a producer in that kind of way, in terms of soundscape and structure and songwriting, than our previous producers. You know, he's more of a producer than a technical engineer. He's not a technical engineer. We had a great engineering crew on this record. Daniel was there to be creative. And I really feel like it worked. And we were ready to listen.

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It seems like the relationship between Daniel and Real Estate was the antithesis of what Todd Rundgren did with XTC, in that you guys walked away with the best bits of his sound and yet still liked him as a person when it was all over.

Alex: Totally. And if I ever worked with a hero like Todd Rundgren, I'd hope to still like him, so...maybe that's an argument for not meeting your heroes! [Laughs.] But it didn't go that way with Daniel: we had a great personal relationship with Daniel and a great time working with him. We're happy to sing his praises.

Martin: Yeah, he was really inspiring to work with, because he's just so fun. I wasn't expecting him to be as fun and...almost goofy. You know, he's a Grammy-winning producer. I was expecting this very professional guy, and he was just so warm and open. Also, just working with him, I feel like his fingerprints are all over the record, but he has a very light touch. You know, it wasn't, like, "Let's rewrite this song." It was, like, "This song is great, but what if we tweaked this? What if we held this chord out a little bit longer?" Little things like that.

Alex: Yeah, it was a perfect marriage. I think it was a good fit, because the Daniel Tashian sound isn't too far from something that we might do organically. But it's just very clean, and there are certain key things on the record that certainly would not have been there without his influence.

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Would you say that he was intuitive as a producer?

Alex: Yeah, I think "intuitive" is definitely a good word for it. Not a technical guy. Technically skilled, but it felt like he was working through intuition and emotion, and it was really fun to work that way. The song is sort of constantly playing in the room, and you can see him have this intuitive idea: his eyes will light up, and he'll go, "'Ba-ba-ba!' Sing that! Sing that! Go!" [Laughs.] It's very active, it's very fast, it's very conductive...and it's very fun. He'll hear something that wasn't necessarily there in the original writing of the song that the band brought to it, and the band was open enough - and mature enough, finally, this time around - to be totally receptive to those kinds of ideas, and it would happen fast.

Martin: It was stuff like that, where it was, like, "I really like the way this chord sits in the context of this verse. What if you just play it twice as long?" And you're, like, "Huh, I wouldn't have thought of that, but...it works. It sounds great!" And then down to more specific things, like on "Water Underground," we had recorded the basic tracks for that, and we were just listening back to it, and he was, like, "I keep hearing this thing..." All the backing vocals, that was him. He added those little melodic bits, and the call-and-response thing, little things like that. And with one or two songs on the record, where we really liked the song but the structure was feeling a little loose... When I went in there, I was, like, "I want to make sure these songs are really tight," so we did a lot of editing on certain songs in post. Once we recorded them, he'd come in there and mess around with the arrangements and take instruments out and strip things down.

But that's kind of what you need. We'd go in there with all this stuff, with all these ideas, and then he gave us some ideas, and he also took some of the stuff away and brought it down to a more pure version of itself, which felt good. It felt very natural. And, y'know, with any situation, either within the band or with a producer, with any collaboration, there's always gonna be some pushback. But with him, it was so natural. If he had an idea, we'd always try it. And sometimes I'd be, like, "I dunno, maybe not." So we didn't do everything. But that's just how it is when you're trying to make something collaboratively.

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It was Daniel’s idea to bring steel guitarist Justin Schipper into the mix, but how did you feel about the inclusion of someone new to the sound?

Alex: I mean, these Nashville folks, it's kind of like... [Hesitates.] You know, it's funny, because - and I'm using air quotes, which I know you can't see in print or online, but - it's our "Nashville record." [Laughs.] And it is! Very much so. We made it, as I'm sure you know, in the very historical RCA Studio A. We were on Music Row the whole time. Daniel is such a Nashville producer. Quintessentially, in a way. Obviously, we didn't want to go heavy-hitting, over the top, like, "This is our honky-tonk country record." It's not that we didn't want to, it's just not the record we set out to make. But I feel like you can't go to a proper Nashville studio without having some steel guitar on the album.

Martin: We kind of assumed we might add some steel, just because we were in Nashville. And it's just such a beautiful instrument. I actually had some pedal steel on my last solo record, so I was already kind of in that mindset. But I was, like, "I don't want to make a country record. Yeah, we're in Nashville, but we don't want to go too far with these tropes."

But Daniel was, like, "Let's bring in Justin," and he was so cool, because. he's a Nashville session pedal steel player, so he can obviously play country pedal steel, but he also could do just really cool stuff, these weird little sound effects, these sweeping sounds and this whooshing noise. He had all these little tricks up his sleeve that didn't necessarily sound very Nashville, they were just beautiful textures. So it was nice to have have that in there. And there are parts where it's more overtly pedal steel-y, but then there's other things on the record that maybe you might not even realize are steel. They're just a cool sound in the background. And it's actually Justin,

Alex: He was amazing. It was amazing, amazing, amazing to watch him work, and to see a true Nashville session player just do their thing, which is so different from the way we do things as a band. And he just would listen to a song once, kind of nod his head, and go, "Cool, got it," and do a pass. And I would say nine times out of ten, we'd just sit in the room, watch him work, and go, "Yeah, that was perfect." The super-dialed Nashville way.

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Would you say that working with Daniel reinvigorated the band, or were you all pretty invigorated to begin with?

Martin: Well, we were pretty well invigorated, because we were really excited about the material, and this is our first album working with our drummer Sammi, who... I mean, she joined the band, and she was going on this huge tour with us, and then we didn't go on this huge tour. [Laughs.] Because COVID happened. And we did have we did some shows with her over the years, but this was our first record with her, so we were really excited about what she was bringing to the table musically.

Alex: Sammi was amazing. Amazing performances on the record. She's just so good. And just such a great person. Great vibe. Great to be in the studio with her. It’s been great to finally have her wholly on board in all aspects of the band. And I think we were really psyched coming into making this record, and we were excited about the batch of songs we had going in, and then Daniel kind of just upped the ante a lot. The first day, the first session we had there with him, I was high energy. Jazzed. It felt new. I mean, this is our sixth full-length record. We've been doing this for a long time, so to feel that kind of infusion of new excitement and joy and energy in the studio was really great.

Martin: We were kind of baseline in a good place as a group. And then the combination of Daniel's energy and positivity, and also being in the studio that we were in, which was this amazing historic Nashville country music studio, which was a massive room that was, like, built to record orchestras. Dolly Parton recorded "Jolene" there. It was built by Chet Atkins. It's really such a cool space. And we'd recorded in some pretty cool studios, but this was a first for us being in one of these, you know?

Alex: One really funny anecdote that is about him in particular, but it's also about the record itself... Nashville is such a music industry unto itself, but a lot of people we were working with were used to making records in a different kind of way than we were working. They were used to, y'know, you bring in the session players, you do one song in the afternoon, and it's completely done, and then you do one song in the evening, and that's completely done, and it moves really fast, and everybody says, "That was a nice day at work, goodbye," and you're home at five. [Laughs.]

Martin: We're kind of used to taking our time. Our pace is slower, and the Nashville pace is intense, They'll cut, like, three songs in a day. So we were kind of meeting somewhere in the middle, and where we felt like we were going a million miles an hour... I mean, we recorded the whole album in nine days, which is pretty quick. We were into mixing by the time we left. We were, like, "I think we got everything we need, let's just start mixing." Which is very unusual for us.

Alex: We're working what felt like to us at a really fast clip. And to them, they were, like, "Wow, have you ever spent so much time on a record before? It's really amazing!" [Laughs.]

Martin: Yeah, we were talking to Daniel and also the two engineers, Craig and Phillip, and they were. like, "This is so fun! We're really taking it easy here. We're having a great time!" They're used to session musicians coming in and just cranking out Chris Stapleton songs all day long. [Laughs.]

Alex: And when Justin came in, he played on a bunch of the tracks, and he just kind of knocked it out of the park right out of the gate, and at one point Daniel said to him, "Hey, Justin, is this the weirdest record you've ever played on?" And Justin said, "I think so!" And you've heard it: it's not a challenging or sonically-weird record. But I think what they meant was, they were making a record in a new and different kind of way, in a sort of indie-rock vernacular. There's a Nashville machine and it usually goes one way, and we kind of touched ourselves down in this world and worked in a different kind of way within it, with all that talent. And we were, like, "This is so not weird!" [Laughs.]

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We interrupt this interview to bring you Daniel Tashian's side of the story...

"Martin, Alex, Sammi, Julian and Matt came down to Nashville to record. I’d never met them before except...I think we had a Zoom conversation during COVID. I’d spoken to Martin on the phone a couple times, and he was an affable character. We shared an interest in some similar things - we both grew up with R.E.M. - and he knew some other obscure bands like the Fallen Angels. I really enjoyed working together.

"They, of course, had dynamics and complex relationships and inner workings that I was trying to understand and work with. Being in a band myself, I sort of understood. I’m a tyrant in a band. Martin is not. He’s really open to other people’s ideas. We would assemble in the lounge of RCA about 10 am. Martin would strum the first song of the day top to bottom so I could understand the structure. I made notes, and then everyone would go to their respective instruments and I would go into the control room with Craig and Phillip. Sometimes I might make a slight arrangement suggestion. That was about it. They would work out their parts and play the songs together. They are all extremely good musicians.

"Julian has a way of playing the guitar that I really love. He doesn’t sound like anyone else but it sounds familiar. He is very particular about his sound and he builds his own instruments.

"Alex has a ton of energy and he’s kind of the quarterback of the band. He sets the songs in motion with his propulsive bass playing. He’s also a very diplomatic, funny guy who you like immediately.

"Sammi is the perfect personality and her playing, tone and timing are all first class. She was way ahead of everyone. Not timing-wise, she just understood things quickly.

"Matt is like Linus, kind of a quiet genius. He understands complex harmony and keyboard chemistry. He is very understated in what he does, never show-offy, but always creating the right atmosphere to make the picture three-dimensional.

"Martin is one of my favorite songwriters. He goes about the task of songwriting in a manner I would call 'correct.' He hints at themes but doesn’t lay the mustard on too thick so you can enjoy some of the mystery of it all. He’s kind of a mystery himself - doesn’t really talk all the time about stuff - and his voice is also very warm and inviting, so Craig put I think a nice old U87 mic on him. Bingo. Done.

"I remember reading an article about the American painter Edward Hopper. Someone was asking him how he painted the way he did. He replied ,“I put the paint directly on the canvas with no funny business.' I was thinking about that, and also about the wonderful album Dead Letter Office by R.E.M., where they cover Pylon and Roger Miller and Aerosmith all on the same record. There is a lot of history and shared memories in this band, and I really feel that comes across. They are confidently bringing their sound to this moment and I’m so grateful I was in the delivery room so to speak."

We now return you to the conversation with Martin and Alex.

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You guys first bonded over bands like Pavement, Built to Spill, and Weezer. How do you feel about the way the band has evolved musically over the years?

Martin: It's funny, we loved Built to Spill and Pavement and... Well, yeah, and Weezer, but I feel like the fingerprint of Weezer's music aren't as apparent in our music. [Laughs] It's pretty different. But we were obsessed with Weezer. That was the first band that we were really in love with as middle-schoolers.

Alex: I mean, it's kind of funny to look back over what's now a longer-spanning career and think about our records in the context of these bands that have also been around for a long time. Frankly, I feel really good about it. I know everybody says this when they're promoting a record, so it's hard to parse when they actually mean it or when it's actually true... [Laughs.] And maybe it always is a little bit true! I won't get grandiose or on a soapbox, but I do think that this is, through a certain lens, our best record yet. Some people will feel that way. I mean, you can't quantify music. But I'm really excited about this one in a way that I haven't been in a long time. But talking about the evolution of the music... I'm just happy to be making records that I'm still so proud of this far along, y'know?

Martin: I do think our sound has evolved a lot, and to me, it was a process over the first few records. To me, the music was becoming increasingly complex. I was really pushing myself to find new chord progressions and melodic avenues and different types of songs. I was trying really hard to see what else we could come up with. And the albums were becoming denser and denser, but in a way that I thought was really cool.

But then this record was the first time where I kind of stepped back and was, like, "Well, what if we made it actually way simpler?" and made the songs really simple, with less happening melodically but still strong melodies. I just started thinking about things very differently with this batch of songs and just kind of taking it less seriously. We just had a lot of fun making this record. So I just feel like this album feels really fresh to me and different, and hopefully that comes through to other people as well. But also just the fun that we had making it... I mean, it's always fun making records, but I just feel like over the years it became more and more routine, so it's: "How do you break that routine while also not completely reinventing the wheel? Because we still want to sound like ourselves." And this was a fun way of doing it, just simplifying. Taking away instead of adding.

Alex: I'm starting to think about things in the context of more than just one record, too. Like those bands that you just mentioned who've had long careers that I'm a fan of. It's like, somebody's favorite record will be The Main Thing. Which is a vastly different record than Daniel. And somebody's favorite record will be Daniel! And I love that. I love talking about what the best Yo La Tengo record is, for example. [Laughs.] Or getting into arguments about that. They have so many records that all of those opinions are valid, it just appeals to different kinds of fans of different kinds of music. And I think it's cool that we've put out enough records at this point - or we're going to - that those kinds of conversations can happen.

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