ABOVE: REAL ESTATE. PHOTO COURTESY OF SHAWN BRACKBILL
Real Estate was, at one point, the East Coast’s most West Coast band. When critics and fans talked about 2009’s self-titled album and 2011’s Days, they took from the same word bank: beach-y, sunny, warm, suburban, nostalgic, catchy. If these albums were party guests, they’d be the ones who showed up with a beer in hand, maneuvering from clique to clique with the affability of a high school socialite.
Atlas, however, is the guest who walks in casually, noticeably self-aware, and keeps to himself, alluring and mysterious. But it’s not like the 10-song record could be classified as opaque or subdued. It’s just that, this time around, they’ve sifted out the sand to reveal something that’ll continue burning even after the bonfire dies.
We caught up with lead-singer Martin Courtney a few weeks after the album’s release on March 4, to see how his and his bandmates’ worlds have changed since Atlas debuted at #34 on the Billboard Charts and garnered a handful of “Their Best Album Yet”-style reviews.
JOHNNY MAGDALENO: Atlas is getting great reviews, you’re getting featured by most major music publications, you’re well into your first leg of touring—how do you feel?
MARTIN COURTNEY: It’s great. We’re feeling pretty good. It’s—I don’t know. It’s weird. It’s hard to really step back from it. There’s always this underlying feeling of “Could this be going better?” But at this point the answer is, “No, it really couldn’t.” [laughs] Maybe feeling that way isn’t a good thing. But the record and its release have gone better than we could have ever imagined, so we’re really happy. It’s surreal. And when it came out, it was even more surreal to see reviews and see that people liked it. We had it to ourselves a good five or six months before it came out, you know. I couldn’t tell if it was “good” or not, but we had to at least hope that people would like it.
MAGDALENO: I read it debuted at #34 on Billboard.
COURTNEY: Yeah, which is crazy. But there’s actually this whole thing behind that. The Oscars happened around then, and Pharrell had a song in a movie (“Happy”) that was being nominated. Our record was supposed to come out that Tuesday, but I guess his label pushed iTunes to release his album (G I R L) a day early to capitalize on the Oscar buzz. Because that happened all other albums set to come out on iTunes that Tuesday came out a day before, on Monday. So basically all the iTunes pre-orders for our records counted for the week before and didn’t register with the first week of physical album sales. If the pre-orders had counted, it would have been 31 instead of 34. Which is something people were telling us and we were mostly like “Okay, whatever,” but it’s still cool that we made it to the Top 40. Ultimately I don’t really care about that stuff. If this was like 15 or 20 years ago, that’d mean we’d probably be really rich right now. [laughs]
MAGDALENO: Especially considering how many people probably Torrented it.
COURTNEY: Yeah, and that’s whatever. We’re lucky the album didn’t leak before the release date, which is pretty rare, but all of that is to be expected. Just take it with a grain of salt, you know. We’re just happy to be making a living doing this.
MAGDALENO: So we’ll be sure to include Pharrell in the headline of this story.
COURTNEY: Please don’t. [laughs]
MAGDALENO: People are talking about this record as being one of your best in terms of production and sound quality. Were there any expectations that it would also be received as your most “mature?”
COURTNEY: I wasn’t sure. I mean, obviously it’s an objective fact that it sounds better than our previous records. But otherwise, we worked harder and longer on these songs than anything we’ve done in the past. And I personally felt these songs were better than any songs I’d written before, just by virtue of the fact that I’ve been writing for longer now, and as you do something more and more, you get better at it. But I also knew it was kind of darker and less immediately appealing. I don’t think it has as much pop appeal at face value, and I knew it would take a bit more time for people to get into it. So I don’t know, I hoped people would give it a chance and get what we were doing and not just dismiss it as “dark” or something. I tend to worry about lots of things like that. I was aware it was different from Days (2011), but I worried that, paradoxically, people might say it wasn’t different enough because it was still guitar pop and kind of jangly. We haven’t really changed our sound away from what we’ve always done. I was expecting that to be something people could use against us—critics or whatever. But who cares. We know what we do, we like what we do, we like our sound. Each batch of songs is different from the last, and I just know we worked hard enough on it to where we were happy with it.
MAGDALENO: It also sounds like you guys rehearsed a ton before you went into the studio this time.
COURTNEY: We spent a lot of time arranging and coming up with parts before going in. So that was a new thing for us, for sure. And it’s definitely the only way to do it now, I think. It seems so self-evident, you know? Sure, you gotta write a record before you record it—but that’s not how we did it before, and I think that’s not how a lot of bands do it. At least for this record, the way we did it worked really well for us.
MAGDALENO: In the “Making of Atlas” video, Matt [Mondanile] mentions that there was less certainty when recording your other records, and that Atlas will most likely lead really well into future releases.
COURTNEY: That’s kind of what I’m saying. We discovered a way of working this time that works really well for us. After the first record it was like, “Okay, we can keep doing this, we can keep playing music.” This is one album in a line of, hopefully, many. So it’s kind of cool to see that concept come into focus on this record. “Yeah, it’s our third album, we’ve now done three albums”— that’s something to be really proud of. We did it. It’s done now. We can do another one and basically do the same thing we did this time and come up with good results.
MAGDALENO: What else separates this album from your others that isn’t immediately apparent to the listener?
COURTNEY: Just the nine months of work we put into this record. I was writing as many songs as I could in that time. When we went into the studio, we ended up recording 19 original songs, but only 10 of them ended up on the album. That process in itself was a new thing for us. With Days, we recorded 12 songs and we ended up with a 10-song record, only because we needed to keep two songs for B-sides. We had the very bare minimum of what we needed. With this, we had a lot of stuff to play with, and there was a lot of care that went into choosing the songs that worked best together, to make it sound like a full record. You know, we wanted to make a record that plays front to back and flows well and isn’t just a collection of songs. The first record was literally demos we put together into a release.
But it’s hard to be put on the spot like that, because all of these things I’m saying now have come from having a little bit of distance with the record. When you’re working on it, it’s hard to separate yourself from it. Over time you learn more about your music. Like with lyrics, for example. I just write things that pop into my head and sound good together and usually there’s a loose idea behind the song. But then six months later I realize, “Oh, there’s a new meaning there that I didn’t even intend.” Or maybe I did, but didn’t realize it was there while writing it.
MAGDALENO: Which is why we were curious to talk to you a bit after its release. We wanted to see how things felt once you were distanced from the initial push.
COURTNEY: Well, interviews get easier. [laughs] Since you’re talking over and over about the same album. I mean, I’m never giving stock answers, but a lot of times you don’t know exactly what you were doing or what you meant until you had a little more time away from it. It’s possible my whole view could change a few months from now.
MAGDALENO: A motif throughout indie music today is the use of electronic instruments—keyboards and synthesizers and so on. Yet you guys still hone this straight-up, four-piece rock band style. Was that ever a concern when getting ready to release this album?
COURTNEY: I kind of feared people would be calling us “chillwave” again, or describe us as having “a 2009 throwback sound.” [laughs] Which is bullshit! It’s bizarre that the fact that we play guitars is a “thing.” But in a way—and I don’t like this at all—it worked in our favor because now we’re like “the guitar band.” [laughs] But it’s so not true. There are a million bands who still don’t use synths and fit the same thing people are pinning on us.
MAGDALENO: How about touring? Is it more stressful or less, with the new amount of respect this album has generated?
COURTNEY: It isn’t any more stressful, but not for any reasons pertaining to respect. I’m not stressed with these shows, because we’re really well rehearsed, and we’re playing really well. I’m feeling really good about us as a live band, because before we even recorded we could play the record live, front to back. That was the entire process—working on it as a band. At this point we can play most of the songs from all three albums live, which allows us to do different sets nearly every night. I feel like we’ve been practicing and we’re tight, and that’s why it’s hard to feel nervous. You can’t always count on that.
MAGDALENO: In previous interviews, you’ve talked about how you guys know how to step back when touring feels like it’s about to lead to a burnout.
COURTNEY: We plan for that. We’re never away from home for more than two weeks at a time, basically. Even if it’s just a few days, we’ll come back home just to get some time off from each other and see family and loved ones before heading back out. That’s how we’re able to do this. At the end of our last West Coast run, we did about two weeks on the West Coast then headed to Austin for SXSW, which was intense and not that much fun for me. Then we came home and spent four days off and I realized during that time how much I’d needed a break. The last day of that run was almost too much. I was so glad to take time off at that point. But for now, I’m just really happy we’re back at it.