Real Estate play tracks from 'Half a Human', talk pandemic pizzas, and loog guitars

Real Estate join The Current for a virtual session (MPR)

Real Estate play a few tracks from their latest EP, Half A Human, plus a familiar favorite. Martin Courtney connects with Mary Lucia to talk about pandemic scones, getting to stay home for a bit, and the perfect place to watch a Real Estate show.

Interview Transcript

Edited for clarity and length.

MARY LUCIA: I'm Mary Lucia, you are listening to a Zoom session with Real Estate, and I'm talking to Martin. Martin, how are you?

MARTIN COURTNEY: I am doing well. How are you?

Are you in a closet?

[laughs] I'm in a room that is slightly larger than a closet, which kind of acts as my studio. It's like a side den in my house.

Last year when you released The Main Thing, at what point was it during the pre-shutdown? Mid? Post? Where were you guys at with that release?

When the record came out? It came out about two weeks before lockdown. So pretty much the worst possible time, I guess two weeks after maybe would have been worse, because we at least got two weeks of relative normalcy where people were talking about anything other than COVID for the first two weeks when the record was out. We ended up canceling a bunch of tour dates and all that kind of stuff, you know, shut down the whole year.

What does that make you feel like? I know how much work goes into writing, recording an album that you have big plans, for just a little child that you have plans for the future, and then all of a sudden it's like, "Whoa, nope." So what adjustments have you been making? Have you been doing a lot of these really natural Zooms?

Yeah, it was definitely a big anti-climax. Yeah, we have. It was really upsetting, obviously. Everybody was affected in their own ways, and so we're just dealing with it just like anyone else. But yeah, it was a little frightening, you know, because we're supposed to be touring and making money and stuff and you kind of bank on the "on" years, because there's off years and on years.

We also put a lot of work into this record. So it was kind of a bummer not to be able to share it in a physical space with people. It's one thing for people to hear it, but it's nice--it's better than nice. One of the best things about being a musician is getting to go out on the road and play the songs live and have that experience with people who are nice enough to come and enjoy our music. That part didn't happen, which was weird.

But we've been doing a lot of--especially right after the record came out we had to do promo stuff--stuff like this and actually, for example, we might have ended up coming through your radio station and doing like a live session. Instead of doing stuff like that we were doing these remote recorded things where I would record my part, and then send it to the band, and then they would record their parts and I'd mix it back together on my computer. So we did a bunch of that, which ended up being kind of informative, and was like, "Oh, we can do this type of thing." And that was kind of what gave us the idea to end up finishing those leftover songs from The Main Thing which turned into this EP that we just put out.

A lot of the bands that I've talked to, throughout this last year, who had a similar situation to you where they had a finished record ready to go. They now listen back to some of the songs and oddly, some of the tunes seem prophetic. Have you made that correlation to any of the songs from the real thing? Obviously, I don't know what state of mind you were in when you were recording 'The Main Thing,' but it probably wasn't this. But a lot of people have said, "Man, now I kind of look back and think what am I, Nostradamus?" Because I was kind of seeing some people wrote about isolation, people were writing about this sort of, but it takes on a whole new meaning, of course.

I think with anything this traumatic, it's easy to read meaning into things. I'm sure there are examples of it on the album. My bandmate Alex Bleeker pointed out one of the songs--actually, the song you guys just played, "Half A Human". He was like, "Those lyrics really sound different now," he was like--there's this line, "feeling half a human in this mess." It's this feeling of losing your identity, and I think we all have experienced a little bit of that over the last year. So yeah, definitely--we've talked about that. Then there's one song on the EP that I wrote post-this and so that has its own meaning. But yes, for sure.

I do wonder how many bands are going to come away from 2020, early 2021, with a far more introspective take on their music than maybe previously, or just the opposite, where it's like I'm gonna write about seemingly trivial fun things that I used to do or remember, but I really think this whole thing is going to affect people's--because you can't not be affected as a human being--but as a songwriter.

Yeah. Definitely, that was one of the main reasons we wanted to do this EP. We had the songs that we were excited about and we were initially almost considering--well the initial idea was, we'll have these songs for the next LP, you know, like we're halfway there. Then once all this happened, we were kind of like--or I personally was just like, it would be hard for me to imagine writing songs now, after this pandemic, and having them fit with songs that I wrote pre-pan--it just feels like they're from another time. So it's just like, we don't want these songs to fall by the wayside. We really are excited about them. We want people to hear them, so we put them out as an EP. But yeah, I mean, that definitely plays into it.

I've been writing a lot. It was hard. At first, I think I spent like six months just writing music and kind of avoiding writing lyrics, because I didn't want to write about a pandemic, it just felt like so like--nobody wants to hear--but then I was like, I think I want to write, like, just try and write really positive music, because if and when anything does come out, that's what I'm gonna want to be listening to. I'm already depressed, I don't need--there's a place for sad music or whatever. Some of my music that I've been writing--oh here's my kid--yeah, I have my mother-in-law helping out here. She's very nice.

A lot of stuff on The Main Thing was pretty introspective and questioning my whatever, like, life choices in a positive way, and negatively way, whatever. But definitely--yeah, I've been writing a little more stream of consciousness and more trying to just think of images that are--now it doesn't necessarily have to be happy or anything like that. Just things that are a little more--gonna have different meaning.

Normal?

More normal. Yeah, writing about, like, a squirrel.

Yeah.

You know, yeah.

I think it's like, not every band is a socio-political type of band. But then you think about music in the 60s that came out while people were living through civil rights. Certainly there were those people in the forefront singing about those important things, but then there was also like, The Archies and crazy bands that were just still doing their thing, but we can get off the pan--well, can we get off the pandemic?

Yeah, I would say also like stuff like that, where you know, the political things and it just--you have to really, I almost think you have to be in a certain phase of your life or you have to have a certain mindset. It would be hard for me to write the same songs that I wrote when I was 23 now. It's just that your mind is in a different place, so you end up writing about different things.

I mean, fatherhood, as an example--that's got to be a prolific change in some things, in terms of what's important, and what's less important.

Definitely, it makes it hard to write, like more trivial, subtler songs about like--to use an example of a song that I wrote 12 years ago, like someone walking down the beach or whatever. I thought that I was being, not necessarily profound, but at least there's some metaphor there. I've always wanted my lyrics to not just mean nothing. But it's hard now to write about anything other than--I mean, again, that's the challenge. I don't want to just write about the pandemic. I don't want to just write about being a dad. But it can make its way in there. You don't want it to be too on the nose, I guess.

How many of your bandmates are in the same city? Are you in Brooklyn right now?

I live in the Hudson Valley of kind of downstate, upstate, whatever, New York. Yeah, I moved up here like six years ago. Wikipedia says we're from Ridgewood, New Jersey, which is where I grew up. But it says we're based in New Jersey, or we're based in Brooklyn, and I'm actually the only one--well, we have a new drummer, and she lives kind of close to me. But other than that, two of us live in California, and one of us lives in Wisconsin, so we're all spread out now.

I know I've interviewed you guys here years ago, but it seems like all the questions I want to ask are like--especially with this new EP--so let's try to think of when we come out on the other side of all of this, because we will. We know we will. I want to know, what type of venue do you think serves a live Real Estate show the very best?

We will often change the type of set we would play--we cater to the room sometimes. It's so hard to be choosy now because I just want to play any show. But it's really nice to play a big beautiful old theater. Those are nice, and those rooms can be big and booming and the sound can be a little iffy, so sometimes we'll play the more open jammy songs that have--less noisy. A less noisy set, kind of a softer set for rooms like that. Then if we find ourselves playing a rock club, maybe we'll do a mixture of--because we like playing the soft stuff. But we do have some more fun like more rock songs. So yeah, I think we do best in a medium sized, like, not necessarily a box rock--like a black box, but a room that has some character. Like this place The Chapel in San Francisco springs to mind, which is like a really cool converted chapel and it's nice to have a little bit of whatever--aesthetic, something to look at from the stage, and for the audience too.

I would think too that the the outdoor festival, which is so completely different, because again, I don't know if you feel like your music--do you feel like you have to just push it? Because you can literally see people's faces, you're not in the dark. And there's a sense of like, maybe you get that rapt first couple of rows of audience, but I don't know how compelled you feel to get the guy who's in the beer line, you know?

Well, yeah. It's funny, because you said venue, and then the thought of an outdoor show didn't even cross my mind. But I would say that actually is probably my favorite type of show to play. Late afternoon in a field somewhere in a park at a festival. I don't mind the people in the back that are sitting on blankets, and maybe there's kids running around or maybe someone's going to get a beer or whatever. That's the beauty of a show like that. You've got the people that are paying attention, but it's nice to just be playing music outside and be providing the soundtrack for someone's nice afternoon. I don't care if they're not paying attention, that's fine. Yeah, I love playing outside, I do think we kind of shine in a setting like that.

I feel like we're just talking about another lifetime even though it was a year ago, but I mean, how much interaction do you do with your fans?

I mean, a lot. We try to like, especially club shows, or non--festivals are different. But yeah, definitely try to--like, after the show, come out and just hang out and talk to people. That's the beauty of getting to do this--the live music thing. Playing the show is really fun. But also making those connections with people that are maybe getting something out of our music, and it's kind of a gratifying experience, obviously, on our end to meet people that come to our shows. And just to show our appreciation for people coming out, yes, we do that a lot actually. That's kind of a thing that we would do, and I'm sure a lot of bands do it too. Try not to just go hide in the green room after the show.

I think with everybody's circumstance being whatever form of kind of isolation, obviously, you have your family with you. But in this time of, I don't know, more time with yourself--is there any sort of skill you've honed or anything like around the house, you all of a sudden do a lot better because you've had a lot of practice at it? Do you make coffee better?

Yes, definitely. Yes, that's one thing and just cooking in general, I've tried to expand my repertoire there. Honestly, even music, I've really upped my home recording game. Been gathering gear and getting really into trying to make better sending demos and stuff--that's another thing. But just being a dad, I think it's been nice to be around more than I was going to this year. It's been, in a way, definitely a blessing to be able to spend all this time with my kids. I've got three kids that are very young, so it's nice to kind of like, I don't know--I was gonna be gone a lot this year. So it's nice to not have to do that. It's definitely like, as much as I love touring, that's the major drawback.

Which one of your kids is the most likely to start their own band?

[laughs] I don't know. My oldest daughter is six and she has started--we got her like a--do you know what a Loog is, these little three string guitars? She got one for Christmas, Santa brought it, and it sat there for a while. Then in the last couple months, she's started messing around and she's gotten really good. She knows a bunch of chords and now she's like playing songs and singing and I'm like, oh, this is like--now that I've set up this studio in my house I'm trying to get into whatever--encouraging that because she has a band, "a band," quote, unquote, with their cousins, where they write songs and write lyrics about whatever.

It's called Sunny Life, her band. So I was like, "Why don't you--you could take these words that you've written, and you could use these chords that you're learning and you could actually write songs, let's record some stuff." And my other younger daughters, just try to include them in that. I also am like, I'm torn to be like that, "Do I really want you to have the life of a musician?" But no, I mean, they can do whatever they want, and that would be very exciting to see. Just to hear, like, I remember when my oldest kid was just a baby being like,"One day you're going to be talking. I'm going to know what's going on in your head," and now it's like, "One day you could be making cool art," and it's really interesting to think about seeing that side of your children.

I think that if quarantine will prove anything, it's that a lot of young kids are going to be more musical due to an influence from their parents and everyone seems to be a better baker, what's the deal with that? Why did everyone start baking? I don't know what that was, but all of a sudden every Instagram post was, "I just baked this," and it's like--I guess it's satisfying.

My wife and I built a pizza oven in our early COVID mania. We spent two months building a full on pizza oven in the backyard. Yes, and it actually works really well. It's pretty cool. I don't know what that was all about. I definitely fell into it, too. I was making scones, making baguettes. I was like, "Let's get the yeast out!" That kind of went away. Maybe it'll come back. When I think back on those first month or month or two, it's actually not really fond memories. You're like, "God, that was really dark."

I know, just dealing with that isolation and anxiety through scones is perfect.

Yeah, I feel like people are gonna associate sourdough with, like, being depressed.

It's possible. I'm so happy to talk to you, and with the with the new EP, Half A Human. I don't even want to ask 'cuz I don't want you to be bummed, but, what's the plan? I don't want to call it pie in the sky, but can you throw a date out that you might be looking to perform?

Well, there's not tours, but possible little shows here and there. Maybe happening in the fall? Late September, maybe. This EP, it's nice, because there really weren't major expectations for it. It was just a really fun project to finish, and it's nice to be able to put something out new for fans to hear. But we knew we weren't going to be touring on it, so that's fine. That was the reason why it was like, we're not gonna put all our energy into making another record right now, because I don't want to put an album out in the spring and not be able to tour--I don't want to do that again. Put all that effort into making something and then not be able to go all the way with it.

So yeah, we're talking about making another record. I'm writing, and hopefully by the time we're able to record and finish it, and it comes out--we're looking at maybe spring of next--you know, a year from now or or summer of next year. And by then, I can only hope that we'll be able to tour properly. So that's kind of--hopefully, we need to be able to play shows before then, and we'll see what happens. We're not looking to book any major headline tours before we have another record done, but maybe we'll open for another band or maybe we'll just pick off some festivals if we can or whatever, some way of making some money, and getting back out there would be nice.

So I'm talking to Martin from Real Estate, and the new EP, which is called 'Half A Human'. Thank you for taking the time to chat and to play, and what song--you're gonna play two more songs and which one are you going to do next?

So yeah, we can do "Stained Glass" next, which is from two albums back--our last album that we were able to actually tour on, In Mind.

Pre-scone.

Yeah, pre-scones. Yeah, it was fun. It was fun to dust that song off for this session. So yeah, we can play that one.

[music: "Stained Glass" by Real Estate]

I'm Mary Lucia and you are listening to and watching Real Estate and Martin you're going to do one more tune, and again thank you so much for taking time out of your day and your family's day and your baking and your pizza oven and all the essential things you need to do. Which song are you guys gonna close here with?

Well, thanks thanks for having us as well. We're gonna do "Ribbon" which is the last song on the EP, fittingly enough.

[music: "Ribbon" by Real Estate]

Songs Played

00:00 Half A Human
28:48 Stained Glass
33:52 Ribbon
"Half A Human", and "Stained Glass" appear on Real Estate's 2021 EP Half A Human, and "Ribbon" appears on their 2017 LP, In Mind.

External Link

Real Estate - Official Site

Credits

Host - Mary Lucia
Producer - Derrick Stevens
Digital Producer - JEsse Wiza
Technical Directors - Eric Romani, Erik Stromstad

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