Real Estate’s Martin Courtney Would Rather You Didn’t Describe His Band As ‘Chill’

When reached by phone earlier this week, Martin Courtney of the mellow New Jersey indie-rock band Real Estate was in the midst of checking out of a “sketchy” hotel on the outskirts of Austin. Courtney and his bandmates were in town for South By Southwest, where Real Estate played a series of shows leading up to the release of the band’s fourth album, the typically lovely In Mind. But while Courtney was happy to promote his latest record at one of the music industry’s largest annual events, he wasn’t eager to wade into the morass of SXSW.

“It’s just so crazy,” Courtney told me. “In general, I don’t do well in chaotic [situations]. You know, the downtown scene — which we’re mostly avoiding anyway, which is good.”

Courtney’s aversion to chaos is readily apparent on Real Estate’s records, which always sound as clean and orderly as the suburban communities that Courtney has often saluted in his songs. In Mind does not deviate much from previous Real Estate records — the songs are mostly mid-tempo, the guitar lines are always breezy and beautiful, and Courtney’s sings with uncommon affection about everyday domesticity. If you’re fan, In Mind reiterates Real Estate’s reputation as one of the most reliable indie bands going. There are more versatile bands, surely, but it’s not small compliment to note that Real Estate has mastered the art of making Real Estate records with In Mind.

Before we talk about the new record, I’m curious: What’s your opinion of South By Southwest?

I kind of refrain from whining about it too much, because we chose to be here. We’re lucky enough to come down here and make a little money. Whereas I think a lot of bands come here because they think something good is gonna happen, which hopefully it does. But most bands don’t get paid to play these shows, so it’s kind of a weird hustle, which is not that cool. There’s a lot of money flying around, but most of those musicians aren’t seeing any of it.

In Mind is the fourth Real Estate record. It’s really good, but it has no narrative, and it seems like artists really need a narrative in order to make the media interested. When you’re a legacy band, “good band makes a good record” isn’t very sexy. I just wrote about Spoon, who has the same problem with every album.

We were actually joking about it last night. First of all, to be compared to Spoon is awesome. And to be put in that bracket of quote/unquote “legacy band,” that’s all I want. I’ve always thought [that] if you just put out enough albums, and keep working really hard and putting out a good record every few years, eventually you’ll have some kind of weight as a band.

A lot happened in terms of the changing lineup. So, I feel like with this album, the “narrative” is kind of already there. That’s what we were joking about — we’re starting to see reviews of the album pop up, and every single review, obviously, is gonna talk about how Matt Mondanile isn’t in the band anymore. That’s gonna be every single review. That’s the narrative — it’s not frustrating, but that’s the lens through which this album will be viewed. [But] this current lineup has already been a band for a year and we made this whole album, and we’ve been living with it for a long time. So it all feels like something we’re very used to, but I guess, obviously, for other people they’re just starting to get used to the idea of us with Julian [Lynch] in the band.

Since you brought it up: Was the parting of ways with Matt Mondanile amicable?

[pause] It was … Him not being in the band, it wasn’t simply … He didn’t just quit. I mean, there’s more to it. It’s kind of stuff that I don’t necessarily want to talk about. So I don’t know, its just complicated. It’s definitely a little more mutual than I guess what people might think is the case.

My favorite track on In Mind is “Two Arrows,” which is also the longest and jammiest song on the record. I wonder: Would Real Estate ever consider taking a jam-band turn? Real Estate was on the cover of Relix, and Alex Bleeker is an avowed Deadhead and Phish fan. I feel like Real Estate has the potential to stretch out more, but you generally keep the songs fairly well structured.

Yeah, “Two Arrows” is kind of, like, the concession. That is literally a jam. There was no structure. We went in and we were like, ‘We’re just gonna play this for a long time.’ We recorded it Beach Boys-style — there’s a cut in the middle of the song between [the first half and outro].

Alex is obviously the jammy guy. Live, I kind of get scared of going too far into the jam. Eventually, with all of our songs, they have these little jammy sections built in. After a while of playing it live, we fall into a general structure of how we’ll play it for a little while. The goal, in my head at least, is to get to a point where we know when to stop. We don’t just keep going and going and then it’s, like, a little monotonous, and the ending is always just sort of anticlimactic.

When you say you’re “scared” of jamming, do you worry about being self-indulgent, or is it the connotations that go with being a jam-band?

It’s mostly a fear of falling on your face and looking stupid. ‘Cause it can be really fun, but sometimes I don’t really know what to play. I’m a rhythm-guitar player. I don’t solo, really.

When I was getting ready for this interview, I revisited Real Estate’s previous records, and I noticed a familiar word in Apple Music’s synopsis for Days: “Chill.” People always use the word “chill” to describe your band. How do you feel about that?

I don’t like that descriptor, to be honest. Its so overused, I think, especially in reference to us. I think it’s kind of obnoxious at this point. I don’t know how other people hear us. I guess, they hear Real Estate, and they just think, ‘I’m gonna chill out.’ We put this song out, and literally every headline is just like, “Chill Out To This New Real Estate Song.” I don’t know. I mean, it’s fine. I’d rather people say that than not get any attention at all.

When we talked back in 2014, you embraced the “soft rock” tag, and maybe people use “chill” interchangeably with “soft rock” to describe music that’s pretty or not particularly aggressive. But chill to me is emotionally neutral, and I don’t get that from Real Estate records. I think your best work is very emotional in a melancholy sort of way.

That’s the thing. That’s why, I guess, I get frustrated. It’s being interpreted solely on just a surface level — which I don’t blame people [for doing]. You’re not gonna hear a new song and then immediately engage with it and bond with the lyrics. But I do think there’s more to our music than just a vibe that it conjures. There’s hopefully some subtlety there that you can hear if you listen to it a little bit more.

In Mind is out 3/17 via Domino Records. Pre-order it here.