Real Estate: ‘‘Don’t bore us, get to the chorus’ kept ringing in our heads like a mantra’

Real Estate, the masters of mellow indie nostalgia adopt country pop and reclaim their confidence on new album, Daniel.

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“Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” The invaluable words of wisdom imparted by Tom Petty when it came to crafting the perfect radio-ready earworm. 

Technically, the Heartbreakers’ long-time guitarist Mike Campbell publicly revealed the group’s slogan, which they may very well have pinched from merciless Motown Records businessman Berry Gordy in the first place. Nevertheless, it’s a golden nugget of songwriting advice about how constraint and consciously involving the listener can nudge them towards the volume button rather than change the channel. 

It’s sage wisdom Real Estate have adopted and stuck to truthfully on their sixth studio album, Daniel. Soundtracking suburban ennui over the most part of their nearly two-decade career in music, the masters of jangle-pop nostalgia have returned to what comes naturally to them – and they’re unabashedly confident about writing a shimmering indie rock record decorated with candied country pop appeal. 

Discussing the inner machinations of their new album with lead singer Martin Courtney and bassist Alex Bleeker – the New Jersey band’s only remaining original members –  at an East London hotel early one morning, coffee was a necessity. Courtney had only arrived from New York late the previous night so was initially creaky. Bleeker flew the day prior, so was notably more exuberant from the get-go. 

“We’ve been talking about this record on this press tour, and I’ve realised through speaking about it, that we haven’t got in the way of the record with our thoughts, you know. We didn’t have grandiose expectations going into the recording process,” Bleeker insists. “We didn’t put the stakes on the table to make our most ambitious, successful record.” 

“That was the last one…” Courtney winces. Though he didn’t outright admit it, the indication that 2020’s The Main Thing was a muddled misfire. 

Several key lineup changes since the less-than-amicable departure of founding guitarist Matt Mondanile in 2016 saw Real Estate shifting away from the earnest sound that endeared them to every millennial suffering from frequent bouts of melancholy. The temptation to experiment and complicate arrangements in the name of progress backfired. It took its toll on the band behind the scenes too, most of which were wading into the world of parenthood. 

“[Daniel] is a reaction to the amount of work we put into the last record, and the amount of time. We didn’t want to replicate that again. We just wanted to have more fun, and let it flow,” Martin continues. Alex backs him up immediately, admitting: “There was a clear objective with the album. Martin said early on, before we’d even heard all the songs that he wanted to make a pop record that’s clear, direct, instantly accessible with classic instrumentation. ‘If we can write ten singles, let’s do it.'”

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“It reminds me of the ‘maturity’ thing you get asked on every album cycle. ‘Is this your most mature record?’ I mean, chronologically, yes we are the oldest we’ve been. But when you’re younger in a band, and you think the mature decision is to become more experimental and ‘out there’, changing up choruses or bridges etc. It’s actually advanced songwriting when the verse and the chorus are the same, but distinctly different,” Bleeker reels off, before taking a brief considered breather. “I’m working on a metaphor here, where that’s what it’s like for us on this record: simplicity, directness is a sign of our maturity. Doing what we can do really well.”

Real Estate’s principal songwriter Courtney stripped it back to basics. Embracing a strum-from-the-hip approach to writing both in terms of song structure and lyrics with just an acoustic guitar in accompaniment, he was “just having fun writing pop songs, like an exercise.” Ideas trickled out and mostly resulted in fully-formed songs, by which point, the band’s singer was brainstorming potential producers. 

In the attempt to familiarise his children with any music but the Moana soundtrack (he explains with an expression exclusive to exhausted parents) and veer them away from looming Swifty-dom, Courtney introduced them to several records, one being Kacey Musgraves’ radiant 2018 Grammy Award-winning album Golden Hour. It twigged – Daniel Tashian produced the record, and Courtney wanted the songs that would morph into Daniel to bask in a similar ‘yummy gummy country’ aesthetic. 

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“We started talking with folks at Domino [Records] about who we wanted to produce, and I mentioned Kacey Musgraves, you know, I love how [Golden Hour] sounds. I was thinking about him and a few other people, but Daniel felt like the logical choice. Opening up to him with the songs, asking him what he thought was extraneous, and how we can get things tighter.”

Tighten up and turn the screw Tashian did, laser-focused on the task at hand in keeping the songs simple, but sumptuous. The five band members – including their latest permanent addition, drummer Sammi Niss – hunkered down together at RCA Studio A in Nashville for nine days to record Daniel. The history and industry of the Music City rubbed off on them. So did their producer – they may very well have named the record after the “vibe coach” as Courtney puts it. 

“We ended up in Nashville because that’s where he lives, and we’d never been there. Nashville is audible on this album, in kind of intangible ways.” The album’s hazy country hue is pretty tangible, however.

Acoustic guitar tangles with Julian Lynch’s twinkling electric lead on opener ‘Somebody New’ and ‘Interior’ nestles into the nostalgic pedal steel. Courtney and Bleeker both compared ‘Flowers’ – which features a music video animated by ‘Paranoid Android’ illustrator Magnus Carlsson – to Sheryl Crow and Shania Twain: “Every time I play that bass run, I’d be like ‘let’s go girls’,” Bleeker grins.

Real Estate haven’t entirely left behind the hot concrete of the suburbs in favour of rural country highs. The main point of reference Courtney gave to Tashian ahead of entering the studio together was R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, their seminal 1992 album which saw the former college rock radio heroes transition into a vital band of the era. 

“Honestly, the main influence I’ve kept talking about is Automatic for the People. I’ve always wanted to make a record which sounded like that. Warm, classic sounding. Acoustic guitars, Wurlitzer. Keeping that sonic signature in this classic realm.” 

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“One of the things that Daniel added specifically – which seems like a small thing, but was huge to me personally – is the backing vocal on ‘Water Underground’, the off-mic “fall on me” and call-and-response part before it,” Bleeker added before mimicking the high-pitched melody “I hear a song inside my head”, in audible distance from the busy hotel staff.

Whilst ‘Market Street’ has Peter Buck’s fingerprints on it, the driving rhythm section and “Hornsby chords” on the synth takes ‘Airdrop’ into heartland rock territory, one of the tracks that was ostensibly constructed in the studio with Tashian. 

“The Tom Petty thing, “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” kept ringing in our heads like a mantra,” Bleeker explains before Courtney reiterates: “The chorus couldn’t come in any later than thirty seconds. But ‘Airdrop’, that really is the one that really took shape in the studio. It stands apart.” 

With Daniel, Real Estate have rekindled their creative alchemy, and are more harmonious as a unit because of it. But are they any more content? 

“Content wouldn’t be the first word I’d use,” Martin chuckles awkwardly. “But we’re at our most comfortable as artists, and confident.” Courtney might not be fully content until Real Estate achieve a bonafide mainstream breakthrough. They might just be closer than ever.

Photo credit: Sinna Nasseri

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