Martin Courtney on Atlas, emulating Wilco, and the band coming into their own.
“We wanted to make a really clean, really nice sounding album. A pro-sounding album.”
So says Martin Courtney, vocalist for pop-rock band Real Estate, while discussing the group’s third studio release, significantly titled Atlas. For a band whose music has been described alternately as “suburban pop” and “New Jersey nostalgia-rock,” it’s not surprising they’d choose a title that invokes location. The album’s title, like its sound, is a symbolic reclaiming of what has up to this point been the band’s malleable identity.
Atlas is crisp, cogent, and, like always, heavily dependent on Matt Mondanile’s guitar. It’s also notably less saturated with reverb, which is the genesis of the sharper aesthetic. “It was definitely a conscious effort to make a record that sounded cleaner,” says Courtney. “I think Days [Real Estate's sophomore album] sounds really good. It’s definitely a studio album, especially compared to our first record which was home recorded. We just liked the idea of taking the next step with Atlas, seeing how much better we could make it sound.”
The band’s pursuit of a more polished pop-rock led them to Wilco, veterans of lush, location-based power pop, and whom Courtney cites as an emblematic - and inevitable – influence on the album.
“A friend of ours was like ‘You guys should work with Jim O’Rourke,” who worked on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” says Courtney. “That was our dream collaboration. But we were pretty sure that wasn’t going to happen because he’s really famous, and I think semi-retired.”
“That got us talking about Wilco and the way their albums sound. Their albums sound really good and really clean, and you can hear where everything is in the mix and all the different instruments. We formulated the idea of making an album where you can hear all the instruments. That’s why we ended up working with Tom [Shick]. He works with Wilco a lot.”
The group ended up recording the entire album in Wilco’s studio in Chicago, “The Loft,” a development Courtney attributes to luck. The Loft would serve as the inspiration and incubator throughout the two-week recording process for the record.
“It was great,” says Courtney. “It’s a really nice studio, and they’ve got a lot of really nice gear: organs, synthesizers, literally hundreds of guitars. We were definitely experimenting, using different stuff that we wouldn’t have had access to in a normal studio. That was a big plus. And just the fact that it was in Chicago. It forced us to focus on recording the album. If we had been in New York, we probably would have been thinking about going home, our families, seeing our friends every night.”
Working in a high-end, professional studio seemingly led to a professional album by osmosis, though the sound is not the only area that reflects a freshly wrought maturity.
Prior to the writing of Atlas, Courtney and his wife welcomed a baby. Themes of home life, family, and domesticity are reflected in the album's lyrics, which gives things a particular intimacy. “The fact that we spent so long on tour, I was thinking about being away and being home and wanting to be home more,” says Courtney. “Thinking about the future and wanting a more traditional life of having a house and stuff. That all kind of comes out in the lyrics of the record, for sure.”
However drowsy, dreamy, and dipped in domesticity the music may be, the album is not all rainbows and synth-shine. Atlas in fact reflects a deep ambivalence about tradition and complacency. Songs like “Crime,” which beings with the line, “Toss and turn all night / don’t know how to make it right / Crippling anxiety” smacks of the suburban unrest that tints and typifies the band’s prior work.
Ultimately, though, Atlas is a marker of sonic progression for the band, which is churning out the “pro” grade work it aspires to.
“When we’re checking into a hotel and the person at the lobby is like, “What kind of music do you play?’” I usually just say soft rock,” laughs Courtney. “It’s kind of funny but it’s kind of true. We used to want to be a soft rock band. We used to want to sound like Jackson Browne or Steely Dan or something. We still do. But we can’t, because we’re not that good at our instruments.”
Real Estate plays Monday, September 22, at One Eyed Jacks.