Jersey is where this band's heart is
By David Malitz
Friday, January 20, 2012
It's going to be a busy year for New Jersey band Real Estate.
The group continues to ride a wave of goodwill for its standout second album, "Days," a collection of sweetly seductive guitar-pop that jingles and jangles in all of the most pleasantly hypnotic ways. A U.S. tour (including a sold-out stop at the Black Cat on Sunday) is underway, and mega-festivals such as Coachella and dates in Australia and New Zealand await. Before the globetrotting, however, there are visa requirements to deal with. And because of that, singer-guitarist Martin Courtney finds himself in the decidedly non-exotic locale of Bergen County to use the printer in his parents' office.
It's an appropriate place for Courtney though. Even as Real Estate continues its rise from blog buzz band to headliner and beyond, its sound and influence remain firmly rooted in the Jersey suburbs. The trio's songs are breezy, unhurried and nostalgic. Lots of bands aspire to create the soundtrack to life's most dramatic moments, but Real Estate makes music for all the other moments, the ones that happen every day. There's no towering grandeur or sweeping proclamations; the band finds subtle beauty in the ordinary, which is resonating with a growing fan base.
"I'm writing about the pretty common experience of growing up in the suburbs," Courtney says. "And I think a lot of people who are into our type of music can relate to the things that I'm saying and use that as a template and put that on their own life." He pauses then adds, "I really don't know."
That last bit isn't Courtney being sheepish or modest, but simply relatable. "I really don't know" is a phrase that almost perfectly sums up suburban teenage existence, especially as ennui seems to have replaced angst as the disaffection of choice. Real Estate's music drifts along gently and leisurely, with such songs such as "Pool Swimmers" and "Suburban Dogs," from the band's 2009 debut, awash in calming reverb. The new album features a cleaner sound, but the easiness of being uneasy remains the predominant mood.
"All those wasted miles / All those aimless drives / Through green aisles," Courtney sings on one of the album's strongest tracks, "Green Aisles." Like most of Real Estate's songs, it's filled with images instead of statements and goes down smoothly thanks to a mid-tempo pace and Courtney's alluring, almost-whispered coo. "It's Real" (recently named the No. 5 song of 2011 by Pitchfork) skips along at a quicker pace, highlighted by an irresistibly simple chorus of "Oh whoa whoa whoa oh oh / It's real."
"I wish it was easier," Courtney says of his writing process. "I wish I could be like, 'I'm going to write a song about this topical thing that's happening,' but I can't really do that."
Of course, New Jersey's most iconic rocker, Bruce Springsteen, started out singing about suburban frustration and wanderlust before transforming into something of a spokesman for America. Courtney and bandmates Alex Bleeker and Matthew Mondanile are in their mid-20s, so there's plenty of time to tackle heavier topics. Still, it's safe to say that Real Estate is not a band in the lineage of the one from E Street. But it is definitely part of a different Garden State continuum, one that includes seminal indie rock acts the Feelies and Yo La Tengo. Both of those bands have a innate understanding of the elegance of electric guitar and a few well-chosen words, something that has trickled down to Real Estate.
"We definitely try to emulate the Feelies," Courtney says of the recently reunited college-rock favorites from the '80s. He also cites the nearly three-decade veterans Yo La Tengo as a favorite, adding: "I almost took too much from them for a while. I just really love them; they are so inspiring."
But more than continuing in the tradition of those personal favorites, Courtney sees an opportunity to create a new New Jersey rock legacy. His home town of Ridgewood may seem like just another upper-middle-class suburb, but it has become an unlikely indie rock incubator. Courtney, Bleeker and Mondanile were all classmates (if only occasional bandmates) at Ridgewood High School. Courtney was mostly a bassist then and played in multiple bands, including one with Patrick Stickles, frontman of barnstorming punk group Titus Andronicus. Members of indie-pop bands Vivian Girls and Big Troubles also graduated from Ridgewood High.
"Whether or not you'd expect a bunch of kids to be into indie rock, it's the kind of place where whatever you're into will be nurtured and people will help you along your way," Courtney says.
School-sponsored open-mike nights gave young, aspiring bands a chance to gain confidence and experience. And only a few years later, those band members have become full-time musicians, earning rave reviews and touring the world. But there's still one place Real Estate hasn't been asked to play.
"There's a band shell in Ridgewood," Courtney says, "and we would be so psyched one day to do a really sweet show with all the bands playing at the band shell in the middle of town."
January 20, 2012