Real Estate are not elder statesmen, though longevity is always at a premium in the music industry. Some make it last by sticking to their guns, churning out songs repetitive in subject, sound and emotion. Others look for the little reinventions that keep dedicated and expanding audiences coming back while also reinvigorating the creators.
The Main Thing, the group’s 5th record, is not a departure – it is the continuation of the laud-worthy evolution of a band that will never fully settle down, who continue to push their own boundaries. The Main Thing finds the band charting new ground, at times by looking inwards and at times by looking back. Aquarium Drunkard reached the band’s Martin Courtney by phone, to discuss how memory, touring, and a decade-plus as a group influenced the subjects of their latest LP. / kramer
Aquarium Drunkard: I’d like to frame this conversation around memory. It feels like a lot of the record addresses the topic – perhaps most typified by the song “You” – so I’d like to give you a prompt of sorts. There’s much debate in psychology circles surrounding infant memory. A generally accepted concept is that of “infant amnesia,” generally, that the growing complexities of being able to contextualize both the self and the world around us, clouds and eventually drains-out the memories of our earlier months and years.
But there’s also research and theory that this is not so much about a lack of memory – children as young as a month-old can retain information for short periods of time, and the power to retain grows quickly from there. But as we age, and our concept of the world becomes both conversational and relatable, we lose our connection to the triggers that formed our earlier memories. As a father, and as the writer of “You,” a song that addresses being a parent faced with the responsibility of crafting the world in which a baby or infant will form their earliest memories, how do concepts of the creation and retention of memory speak to you?
Martin Courtney: The first thing that comes to my mind is being somebody that has to travel a lot while having small kids. I remember the first time I had to go on tour. My first child, when she was older than an infant and old enough to greet me and know who I am, I remember being terrified that she was not going to recognize me. When I got back home she did, but there was a coldness for a little while. It really kind of stuck. It hurt. I have three kids now. The youngest is 15 months old. Even with her, I remember going on tours last year and being like “Well, I might get home, and she might hate me for a few days. That sucks. It’s just what it is.”
The thing that you’re saying about being responsible for shaping kid’s first memories is something I thought about a lot. It kind of surfaces on this record a little bit, certainly in that song and the song “Silent World” where it’s kind of a vague responsibility. It’s this whole thing where you want your kids to feel safe. That’s really important for children to feel safe. It’s like you want to create this bubble of calm, especially with the way the world has changed in the past few years, or maybe it hasn’t changed and things have just come to the surface that were already there. With stuff like climate change, all that stuff, it almost feels like you have to create this lie for them to make them feel like things are okay. It’s a heartbreaking acknowledgment that at some point they’re going to be confronted with the same realities that we are as adults every day. It’s this idea to prolong that as much as possible. Enjoy the innocence. Like on the song “You,” it’s like you’re lucky right now. You’re lucky you’re in the state of semi-consciousness. At least, that’s kind of how I look at it.
AD: Do you have a sense of why these feelings and topics are cropping up now?
Martin Courtney: I think it’s a combination of things. Across the board, we’ve been a band for 10 years. I was just a kid when we started this, so my life has changed so much. Yet here I am still doing the same thing, more or less. It’s a lot about feeling responsibility. There are feelings that being in a rock band isn’t the most reliable, stable career. The world more or less seems pretty fucked. Maybe it was there before, but it really feels that way, especially after 2016. I was writing a lot of the songs for this record after Trump was elected. That definitely played into it. There’s feelings of responsibility even more so now. Even a responsibility for – not even having to do with my kids – just feeling kind of dumb sometimes choosing to be an artist and indie rock guy while all this stuff is going on in the world. Could I be doing something more productive? That’s kind of the thesis of where my mind was at.
I didn’t go into writing these songs with an overarching theme, although I do feel like this record is the most unified of any we’ve made. I was really stuck on these ideas. I was kind of having a bit of a crisis going into making this record. It just felt more real now, like it had to be more substantial. This one felt pivotal for us. I think we were all feeling it. I think it had to do with so many things. The kid’s things, the end of the world thing, where we were at in our career as a band. It just felt important to us. It felt like an important record.
AD: Did you accomplish what you’d set out to do, addressing those topics and finding those feelings? Did you find that cathartic? Was it a new process?
Martin Courtney: It was certainly cathartic to talk about this stuff. We spent a lot of the sessions on this record talking about what we were trying to achieve. A lot of sitting in the control room just talking for hours amongst ourselves in the band and with Kevin [McMahon, the record’s producer]. I think he was feeling a lot of similar feelings in his own career. His daughter went off to college that year, and he had been in this particular studio for a decade. He had a big milestone birthday. He was feeling it too, and we had known him for so long that he was really invested in this process with us. I think it felt important to him for his own artistic morale to put everything into this record.
It’s funny. I think a lot of these songs – like “Paper Cup,” for instance – are a lot of questions. It’s me second guessing everything and trying to figure out how I got here. That was one of the first songs we recorded. One of the last songs we recorded is “The Main Thing,” is kind of tongue in cheek. It’s like an over-the-top pop song, but there’s a lot of truth in what I’m talking about: when you feel irresponsible or second guess yourself, it’s important to double down on what you feel passionate about and what is going to feed your own soul. I think that’s how I can set a good example for my children. I don’t know if it’s better to quit art and get a real job if I’m just going to be miserable. I don’t know if that’s the right example to set.
Obviously, I’m lucky, and that’s another thing I’m trying to keep in mind. I’m trying to be really grateful for what we’ve accomplished in these 10 years. That fed into making this record. We’re so lucky to even be doing this. We need to make the most of it. I do think in a way, I answered what I was personally feeling just through the process of making this record and feeling this sense of catharsis and accomplishment. I feel really, really proud of this record. I hope it resonates with people. If nothing else, we’re very stoked on this record. It feels good.
AD: A moment ago you seemed to question whether, considering the issues the world faces, being an artist is the best use of one’s abilities. At the same time, you just spoke about the positivity that comes from it. Is that something you’re still struggling with? Was writing this record helpful with addressing that?
Martin Courtney: I had a conversation with somebody that was a musician and then found out he was going to be a dad. He quit music, got a job, and did that for a little while. The kid was maybe a year old. He was like, “I hate this. What am I doing?” He quit that job and went back to music. I was having this exact conversation with him, like why should I do this? It seems really silly.
I have kids and my job is to play concerts in front of people and have my photo taken. At best, it feels silly. At worst, it feels narcissistic or self-indulgent. I still feel that way sometimes. It’s a weird job to have. It doesn’t necessarily jive with who I am in a lot of ways, but I love doing it. One thing Alex Bleeker kept bringing up is the fact that part of our job is to travel around and play concerts. That act of doing that and bringing a group of people together just for the purpose of experiencing art is in itself something that is worthwhile. I think that’s a nice, idealistic way of looking at it. It is true, and that makes me feel good.
A lot of early Real Estate stuff, some of it means a lot to me, and all of it came from a real place at some point in my life. I do feel that way. I’ll meet these couples that are like “We met at your concert, and now we’re married. Your song was our wedding song.” I don’t even know what to say to that. That’s so incredible and beautiful, and it’s also something I can’t even wrap my head around. I can’t possibly imagine what that means except to put myself in their shoes and be like “My favorite band is Yo La Tengo or whatever. My wife and I danced to a Yo La Tengo song at our wedding.”
It’s like remembering what it was like to be in high school and going to see Sonic Youth and being so excited and such a pure fan of music, which also dissipates sadly. At least it did for me once I started being a musician. It became harder to connect in a certain way with modern music because it’s like knowing how the sausage is made. I’ve started experiencing it differently. Now I really cherish when I connect with new music. Obviously, there’s a lot of old music I still love. I’m trying to make efforts to connect with new music more.
AD: Do you “feel older” now? Do you look critically at your younger self, or what you made just a decade ago?
Martin Courtney: That played into this record—I’m 34, and by any measure I’m really not that old. But music moves really quickly, and you start to feel like you could become irrelevant really quickly. There’s this fear there. People move on quickly from things. Sometimes when you’re making a record it does feel like you’re in a vacuum. Being an artist, you have an opportunity to hopefully make a connection with people or allow other people to make connections with each other. That’s something that I was trying to keep in mind. For the first time, I was really trying to think about that while writing these songs.
AD: Addressing the feeling of looking back on being in this band for 10 years, and doing the same thing, more or less: is reflectively exploring these topics truly “doing the same thing more or less?”
Martin Courtney: I think that was what we were trying to achieve. It was totally different from previous processes. We’ve always taken it seriously and wanted to make good records, at least after our first record . . . our first record was like, stuff we made in our parent’s basements, but everything since then. With each subsequent record, we’ve put more thought into them. We’ve learned something from the process of making each previous one.
But this is the first time that I’ve had a crisis about—I can’t just do the same exact thing again. Otherwise, it’s gonna feel really stale. It’s gonna show. Trying to make it abundantly clear that we’re at least aware of the fact that we could repeat ourselves if we’re not careful.
AD: “Falling Down” is one song filled with very specific memories, and “Paper Cup” has some lines I found interesting. One is “was I ever that young?” which feels like it does harken to memory. “Can we please back this up?” which could mean can I go back to a different point. Do you find it easier now, or just something you can keep in mind, to reflect on your past and youth? Do you feel you finally have the language and capacity, or eloquence, to reflect and address those things?
Martin Courtney: “Paper Cup” is about repetition. It’s about feelings of doing the same thing and relishing in it. I keep doing it because I love it. I keep making records because I love making records, but at what point does it start to feel stale? It’s about moving forward because it’s about stopping two steps outside of this loop and being like, “How did I get here, and do I like this?” If I like it, I’m going to keep doing it. Did I choose to do this, or did I fall into it? I think it is this whole process, and I was taking a step back to just analyze and take a breath. Like, “before we make another record, let’s be thoughtful and pump the brakes a little bit and make sure we know why we’re doing everything that we’re doing.”
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