While Martin Courtney is only in his mid-30s, he recently had what could be described as a mid-life crisis moment. The founding singer-songwriter of the long-running indie band Real Estate, he began to wonder if his vocation was actually … well, kind of pointless. Given that he’s a father, given the state of the world, and given the current status of jangly guitar bands in the contemporary indie world, he was faced with an existential question: Did making another Real Estate album really matter in 2020?
In the end, Courtney opted to plow forward with The Main Thing, a self-questioning and frequently beautiful LP out on Friday. In the title track, Courtney addresses his personal and professional anxieties head-on, ultimately deciding that pursuing what you love can be a kind of personal salvation. Working with producer Kevin McMahon, who oversaw the band’s most celebrated album, 2011’s Days, Real Estate also strove to pursue a freer, more open sound, incorporating elements of jam-band improvisation (like on the solo heavy “Also A But”) and disco-leaning yacht-rock (“Paper Cup,” a collaboration with the electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso). Though, at heart, The Main Thing retains the core elements of Real Estate’s sound: chiming guitars, Courtney’s wistful vocals, and a mood of sweet, heart-rending melancholy.
When I met up with Courtney recently to discuss The Main Thing, he spoke with bracing frankness about what it’s like to be a guitar-centric indie band at a time when guitar-centric indie bands have been pushed to the fringes. When Real Estate emerged in 2009 with its debut — a late-aughts indie classic that felt instantly connected with a whole history of dreamy rock bands, from the Beach Boys to R.E.M. to Weezer — there were dozens of bands like them, and the indie press was more than interested to lavish these acts with attention and praise. But just over a decade later, a record like The Main Thing can be easily overshadowed by younger, flashier artists who are often backed by major record labels, even ones that cater to so-called indie audiences.
“We knew we’d been a band for 10 years, and this is our fifth record, and it kind of felt almost like do or die,” Courtney admitted. In this interview, he further elaborated on The Main Thing and how he’s negotiating a rapidly changing indie world.
How did that “do or die” sense of urgency translate to the creative process on this album?
There was this thing that Kevin kept saying to us, which was almost to the point of it being annoying. He would come up to you and be like, “Why are you doing that?” Whatever it was, guitar part or examining a line in the lyrics or something, and just being like, “Is there a reason for this? I’m not making a judgment call on whether I like it or not, but as long as you’re thinking about it and you’re not just falling into old habits.” And I think that was the whole thing with this record, was just trying not to repeat ourselves as much as possible.
You also questioned the validity of being in a band at this point in your life. Why is that?
I’ve got three kids now. My wife was pregnant through a lot of the process of writing this record. So, just on the level of, is this a responsible thing to do, to be a guy in an indie-rock band. I was really struggling with that, and also feeling like, the world is kind of in a bad state. There’s climate change, there’s Trump, and it just feels like a lot of things that have been simmering are coming to the surface. It just felt like dark times, and I just felt kind of silly writing pop songs. Is there something more useful I could be doing with my life? I feel a little bit useless writing these songs. So, that was kind of what went into writing this record, those types of doubts.
I was talking to somebody about this — he had been a musician, he had a kid. He quit music, got a real job, found himself miserable, and when his child was still young, he was just like, “I think that I need to go back to music,” because if we’re going to talk about what’s responsible, maybe it’s less responsible to be miserable in the service of chasing a paycheck, and maybe it’s better to set an example to do what you love for those around you. And so, that was something that I found kind of inspiring.
And also, just the countless people I spoke to who were like, “No, art is important. Where would this world be if everyone who made art decided that it wasn’t worth it anymore because the world is dark? It would just be that much worse.” That makes sense when I think about other artists that I appreciate, but when I think about myself, it’s like, you know, it can’t be that important, what I’m doing. But anyway, I think for me it was just like, “Obviously I’m going to do this because this is where I’m at in my life. I can’t just not do it. And I want to make a record. I love making music.” It was never a question of whether or not I wanted to do it. So yeah, I think it just came down to, we need to work that much harder and just make it feel worthwhile, basically.
When you put out the first Real Estate record in 2009, there were a lot of bands who were like you who were also indie-famous. In 2020, that’s no longer true. How does it feel to be in a band like Real Estate in the current indie landscape?
You know, you start to feel old. I’m not that old, I’m 34. I’m not really that old at all. But things move really quickly, for sure. One minute you’re the cool young band, and the next minute… I mean, I started grappling with this probably five years in. You know, “Why aren’t we cool anymore?” But we’re really lucky to have had some modicum of success. Maybe we’re not cool, or maybe we don’t have the super young, hip Brooklyn scene on our side anymore. But perhaps our fans are growing with us, and that’s one thing that I think about a lot.
Our last record came out, and we were really proud of it. I felt like we had pushed ourselves on that record. And we had a new guitar player, Julian, in the band. It felt like a new band, and we felt really refreshed and rejuvenated. I’m not saying that reviews are everything, but I do read the reviews, because you work really hard on something, you want to see what people are saying about it. And the reviews felt kind of… They weren’t negative, but they definitely a repeated theme that was just like, “Another good record from Real Estate. They’re still doing their thing. Just another Real Estate record.” And I felt like, well, that’s not what it felt like at all to us, making this thing. So, it was a little disappointing in that sense.
Critics have a hard time writing about an artist or band that has made several albums. It’s a common deficiency in music writing, I think, where there’s really only two narratives: “This is the hot new band,” and “This band was hot and they’re not anymore.”
I felt that really strongly with the last record. We were told, “Well, you know, you guys don’t really have much of a story this time.” It’s like, you know, band on their fourth record makes another record. Which I get. That may or may not be the case this time as well, but at least, again… I mean, I care less now about that stuff, and I’m just more comfortable in our place. Well, actually, that’s probably a lie, I never feel that comfortable. I mean, the constant fear of it is that it’s all going to go away.
The title track seems like a mission statement for the record. The lyrics are about how, no matter how overwhelmed you might feel, the main thing, whatever that is in your life, is what gives your life meaning.
That’s a song that I don’t think I ever would have been able to write if I wasn’t writing it somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I think it is serious and it’s real, and it does sort of encapsulate a lot of [the record]. But it is somewhat of a joke, and it’s supposed to be super over-the-top, in terms of even the way that we’re performing it. I remember teaching it to be the band and just being like, “Just be as ridiculous as you can with this one. Let’s try and make a just over the top pop song.”
Despite the fact that your life is extremely real and scary and the stakes couldn’t be higher, I’m just going to keep playing in this indie-rock band, because it’s the only thing I know how to do anyway, and it’s what brings me joy. On the level of when I was writing it, that’s kind of how I was looking at it. But then I was singing it, and the guys in the band were like, “It’s kind of a beautiful sentiment.” And I was like, “Yeah, you’re right.” It’s a little corny, but it is true, and the idea also being hopefully it’s a little bit inspirational for people. Which is maybe uncommon in our little world of indie rock, trying to write an inspirational song.
The Main Thing is out on Friday via Domino. Get it here.