On 'The Main Thing,' Real Estate Is Finally Having Fun Again

We talked to guitar pop mainstays Martin Courtney and Alex Bleeker about their turbulent past few years and how they've endured as a band.
February 27, 2020, 2:00pm
On ‘The Main Thing,’ Real Estate Is Finally Having Fun Again
Photo by Jake Michaels 

It's been more than 10 years since Real Estate released their self-titled debut, and across five albums, they've solidified their status as one of the most consistent guitar bands. They've become as dependable as Spoon, indie rock's most steadfast band, but make breezy, intricate, and sometimes jam-minded songs for suburban daydreamers. The band's catalog so far has been full of subtle tweaks to this winning formula, but their latest, The Main Thing, almost feels like a reinvention.

"We just really feel like this is a substantial, weighty, and important record for us. We're really energized and psyched on it," founding bassist Alex Bleeker tells VICE.

Their fifth album and its 13 tracks have several of the hallmarks that define the band's sound, like wistful melodies, guitar-driven grooves, and an all-encompassing warm vibe, but it's strikingly more adventurous. Songs like "Also A But," which is the first Real Estate song written by guitarist and new band member Julian Lynch, is knotty and jazzy, while "Silent World" boasts delicate strings and programmed drums. Lead singer and lyricist Martin Courtney sounds especially confident, singing lines on the title track that rank among his best like, "Despite the crushing weight of all that’s on our plate/Despite the true significance of everything at stake/I will stay true/The main thing.”

Although the band sounds like they're having fun, this is Real Estate's most anxious record. The past few years have been particularly turbulent for the band. In 2017, they kicked out founding guitarist Matt Mondanile after several women accused him of sexual misconduct, and they replaced him with Lynch.

"Around that time, it felt kind of weird and kind of stupid writing songs," says Courtney. But as he explains, rekindling a collaboration with producer Kevin MacMahon who worked with the band on Days helped Courtney and his bandmates set on making another record.

After a full decade as a band, Courtney realized, "You can look at it two ways, you can think "I can't believe we're still doing this, why are we still doing this?" or you can be excited: "I can't believe we're still doing this, why don't we double down and make it amazing?" Courtney and Bleeker talked to VICE about the creative catharsis of making The Main Thing, collaborating with outside musicians, and staying fresh after everything. Read on below.


The band played The Main Thing in full during three shows this October, months before the album was even announced. How was debuting it to fans so far in advance?
Alex Bleeker: This album has been done for a while so we were raring to go and wanted to do something that felt kind of different. We've played a lot of shows, obviously from just being a band for 10 years, but none really felt like those.

Martin Courtney: We played two sets and they really felt special. There were no openers too. I think it was born of a frustration of just wanting to get the record out. We needed to share it somehow.

AB: But also on my end thinking about what can we do to make a show more than just a normal rock show? We've been largely doing the same kind of thing for so long. All of my favorite bands, like some jam bands, always seem to make fans feel like they're part of the show, you know? Also one of our favorite bands Yo La Tengo did this thing on tour a few years ago where they brought out a giant Wheel of Fortune and spun the wheel to see what the set would be. We wanted to do something that feels interesting and exciting and cool and that was a pretty good solution. It'd be fun to keep doing two-set shows that are weird and novel and interesting in some way.

You've been a band for over a decade and this is your fifth record. A lot has changed with the band over the years and there have been a lot of ups and downs. That longevity is pretty rare. What's been the biggest surprise so far?
AB: Look, I don't want to dwell on this, but this band obviously has gone through some really personally difficult stuff. We had a friend of the band and bandmate who we learned was doing things that were completely unacceptable and we kicked out of the band. That is not a happy surprise and I feel like we'd be remiss to gloss over that in a question like this. That was a very challenging and eye-opening experience for us and that's all I'll have to say on that. But on a brighter note though, I'll couple that with saying it's a surprise for me that we've made it this far. It's certainly a goal to be a band for a decade, but the fact that we still have fans and people who are excited about listening to our music and coming to shows and like supporting us and that we have an audience and a label and all these people that support us. You never take that kind of thing for granted. We're happy to still be here and doing it.

MC: That's definitely what I would have said. I think it played into, for me at least, keeping that in my thoughts throughout the process of making this record. This is not a thing to take for granted. We should be grateful for the fact that we've even gotten the chance to make five records and grateful that anyone has an emotional connection to our music. That's not to be taken lightly and that was a reason for us to make something worthy, something that felt more substantial.

It's clear this record is a document of you guys experimenting, trying new things, and exploring new textures. How did that take shape during the writing and recording process?
AB: That's the theme on this record. We came into it being like, we've been a band for 10 years and this is our fifth record. Honestly, we thought, "what the fuck is the point of making another record even though we really want to?" That was a question we were exploring, like honestly exploring, I think for the first time. We knew we wanted to, but we also knew that we didn't want to repeat ourselves or service the world with a rehashing of a type of album that we've already made before. Both for us personally as a band and it also just feels like a more dire time than it was when we first started making records. There's a sense of motivation here like let's really dig in and do different stuff to make sure it's worth all of our time and that this record will be at least in our minds, really fucking good. There was like a new sort of kick in the ass for us. I'm just cursing so much cause this is VICE.

Right on. You've mentioned you've been sitting on this record for a while. When did it start and what was on your minds when you decided to start work on it?
MC: I started writing these songs pretty soon after the last record came out maybe like six or seven months later. That's unusual because usually we get lost in the world of touring and promoting our previous record. It's funny when I started work on these songs I found it difficult to write lyrics because I didn't want to write about just about anything. With the times that we're living in it just felt important to be more intentional. I mean to write lyrics that were kind of at least rising to the level of like the anxiety that I was feeling.

AB: To put a more sort of a semi-positive spin on it, Martin was feeling these things personally and we were feeling them collectively as a band. There's a global anxiety and we found through the making of the record a sort of cathartic answer to these anxious questions that we are asking. It was a difficult time for us as a band. We decided that if we're going to do it, we have to explore new territory and we have to really push ourselves. It felt like everybody rose to the occasion.

What surprised you all as this record came together?
MC: I think for all of us we were opening ourselves up even more to each other, in terms of collaborating and just listening to each other's ideas. There was a lot cross-pollinating with just allowing someone else to write a part on your instrument or whatever. Jackson [Pollis], our drummer, was very involved and was working pretty closely in hand with Matt [Kallman] on the keys. But the real surprise was trusting our producer Kevin McMahon and being open to having outside musicians come into the studio, which we had never done before. That was very eye-opening I think for me was bringing in people who we knew and we trusted.

AB: The strings are obviously a huge thing that's a new timbre, those are instruments that have never been on a Real Estate record before. With the single "Paper Cup," we have Amelia Meath from Sylvan Esso singing in the chorus. An outside voice singing is an uncharted territory for us. She wrote that part too.

MC: It wasn't what we were expecting when she sent it back but we all thought, "this is really cool even though it's not what we were originally thinking." We had an idea for her already but what she came up with was so much better than what we could've come up with for her.

AB: That's a good example of how good it can be when you allow yourself to relinquish control and be open. We're five records deep and the band knows how to do what the band knows how to do. Having her around and having these other musicians pushed us for the better.

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