The life of an indie rock star isn’t so glamorous for Martin Courtney.
By Kyle Mullin
Sure, he and his bandmates in Real Estate perform for adoring fans night after night, who cheer and swoon for the the jangly New Jersey troop’s melancholy melodies. “It’s a good feeling,” the singer and guitarist tells Tokyo Weekender during a recent phone interview, adding: “It’s a good job. Not many people get instant gratification, where you do your job and people cheer. It’s nice, it’s fun.”
But Courtney spends little time savoring such adoration. Instead, he devotes most of his spare moments to his webcam.
“When I’m away all I want to do is FaceTime with my little girl,” Courtney says of the guilt that builds during that gigging. “When I’m touring I’m always trying to get online and see my daughter as much as possible, because my biggest fear is that she’ll forget who I am and be afraid of me when I come home—which is totally possible when you’re away that much.”
“Not many people get instant gratification, where you do your job and people cheer.”
Courtney’s daughter was born just before Real Estate began touring behind its latest release, “Atlas.” And while some of the LP’s most heartfelt lyrics seem to foreshadow his then-pending fatherhood, the frontman says those lines instead reflected his broader longing to settle down. One of the LP’s most beloved songs is “The Bend,” which features acoustic strums akin to a steadily revving engine, and a snare beat that clicks like a turn signal. On the chorus Courtney sings: “Have I not been clear/ Or do I sound insincere?/ I’m just trying to make some sense of this/ Before I lose another year.”
He goes on to elaborate about those lyrics, saying “‘The Bend’ is kind of about begin in a band, touring, [and] how that takes so much of your time. So when I’m referring to ‘wasting another year,’ it’s about not being home, going into a twilight zone. [It’s] because not much happens while you’re on tour: it’s the same thing every day, but that’s not the case with the people at home.”
What keeps Courtney from hanging up his guitar for good is his extended family in the band.
“As hard as the traveling is, it’s a great feeling when you can step back and say: ‘I’m in Brazil right now, with two of my best friends from high school.’ There’s a lot of good aspects, but it comes at a price.”
Those long time pals are, of course, bassist Alex Bleeker and guitarist Matt Mondanile (the lineup is rounded out by Jackson Pollis on drums and Matthew Kallman on keys). Courtney says he still remembers driving from New Jersey to New York with Bleeker and Mondanile as a teen to see Weezer, Sonic Youth, Television and a slew of other iconic bands at legendary venues like Manhattan’s Irving Plaza. Before long they came across smaller venues and scrappier indie acts, which helped the trio realize that they could start a band of their own.
In 2009 Real Estate released its eponymous debut, and followed it up with “Days” two short years later. Critics praised their sunny instrumentation and wistfully nostalgic lyrics, comparing the band to both mid-60s Californian folksters and 80s indie acts like Yo La Tengo. But in 2014 Real Estate truly came into its own with “Atlas.” Pitchfork praised their newfound melancholy and maturity, saying that “The once-ideal pool party band… has turned to soundtracking the cleanup… The result is at once their most forlorn album and their most beautiful,” and highlights the “telepathic” guitar interplay between frontman and lead guitarist.
“I’m always trying to get online and see my daughter as much as possible, because my biggest fear is that she’ll forget who I am and be afraid of me when I come home—which is totally possible when you’re away that much.”
Courtney says Mondanile’s playing has always elevated his own fretwork. “I always want to have something melodic in my guitar playing, so that we can harmonize or play off each other.” But he adds that sometimes their tensions and disagreements are even more fruitful: “It’s funny, because it’s really effortless for him. He’ll play and it seems too simple and I’ll say ‘Really? That’s it? That’s all you got?’ Then I’ll hear it a few more times and realize it’s perfect. Also, his guitar tone is a big part of how Real Estate sounds. He has a very specific style, and I don’t think anyone can play like him.”
That deep camaraderie counteracts Courtney’s homesickness during tours. And as Real Estate travels further and longer, the group appears to be coming full circle.
“Now we’re at a level where we’re playing the kind of shows I would go see as a kid. We definitely would’ve gone to see a band like Real Estate when we were that age,” Courtney says with a laugh, adding that as much as it pains him to be away from his family, those treks have yet to lose their magic. “It’s kind of weird, playing all these venues where I used to go see my favorite bands. Except for Irving Plaza. We used to go there all the time and it’d be cool to play there sometime.”