Posts Tagged ‘Matt Kallman’

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Real Estate named their fifth LP after a Roxy Music song from 1982—a dark, seductive groove that defines the band’s mastery of hi-fi mood. It’s an odd reference on paper; after all, it’s not like frontman/chief songwriter Martin Courtney has started channeling the glammy art-rock stylings of Bryan Ferry. But the inspiration holds up in a roundabout way: After years of defining “dreamy guitar rock” for the modern indie era, the band was eager to experiment with a more expansive sound.

“With this record, we were looking to not repeat ourselves— that was kind of the main thesis,” says bassist and cofounder Alex Bleeker. “We were at this place of, ‘What is the point of making a fifth Real Estate album in 2020 when it feels like our lives have changed; the musical climate has changed; the cultural climate has changed?’ [2017’s] In Mind was critically well received as ‘good ol’ Real Estate,’ and we were like, ‘We just don’t feel like there’s a point to doing that again. So how do we make sure we don’t do the same thing?’”

They found the answer at Marcata, a massive barn-cum-studio outside New Paltz, N.Y., where they hunkered down with engineer Kevin McMahon. A longtime friend and mentor who co-produced their 2011 album, Days, McMahon helped the band whittle away at their massive pile of songs for more than a year, urging them to question their entire creative ethos along the way. As Courtney would ponder throughout the finished LP, he and his bandmates had started to question the driving force behind this “main thing,” this music career to which they’d devoted their lives.

“It’s funny that we went back to someone we worked with before in order to achieve that,” notes Bleeker. “I kept making the joke that it was like Rocky going back to Mickey’s gym. We needed to get back to the emotional center of the band—we needed to remember who we were before we were on Domino and had much of an audience. We needed to get back to the musical heart of things.”

The process began as it always does, with Courtney building up a stack of rough drafts at the band’s gear hub/demo space. Ironically, given the album’s lengthy gestation period, he started quickly—around six months after the release of In Mind, with the aim of breaking their streak of three-year gaps between records. Even more ironically, he spent less time than usual labouring over the minutiae of the arrangements: With three young children at home, including one in kindergarten and another in preschool, Courtney opted for a series of more structured writing sessions this time—an efficient process that churned out a number of tracks in bare-bones, guitar-and-vocals form. But that shift brought its own unique challenge, too: letting go.

“I left some of these songs a little more open for the rest of the band to interpret,” he says. “I wanted to keep writing and didn’t want to linger too long. I almost want to say it’s harder to get excited when a song feels half-done. A lot of times, I record the drums, bass, lead guitar and keyboards parts when I’m writing. And it’s a lot more exciting to listen to those demos because they’re fully finished songs. Sometimes, I can’t stop listening to them. With these demos, it was like, ‘OK, this is promising. This is a good seed of a song, and I’m psyched about this vocal melody. I’m gonna leave it at this and move on to the next one.’”

Since the band’s formation in 2008, the other members of Real Estate have always helped shape their own parts. But Courtney completely relinquished the reins for The Main Thing, opening up his songs to new grooves, arrangements, even instrumentation. That sense of freedom became a throughline for the entire process, allowing Bleeker, drummer Jackson Pollis, keyboardist Matt Kallman and guitarist Julian Lynch to help bring Real Estate into an entirely new era.

“It can be frustrating, going through the process of fleshing out a song with the band,” he says. “Even if I haven’t finished the demo, I sometimes have an idea of how the song should sound, and if it starts going in another direction, sometimes I get really frustrated. But the process of making this record was me trying to let go of that feeling and just let it be more of a collaboration. This band has been together for a long time, and that’s where I was: Just allow these songs to evolve. I can always go back and make a solo record, and do everything myself and scratch that itch. Sometimes it’s exciting to see the songs go in a different direction and take on a different life than what you expected them to.”

For Bleeker, that process was liberating—an excuse to incorporate influences that may have previously been deemed incompatible with the Real Estate brand. “Certain songs that Martin wrote, like ‘Friday’ or ‘Paper Cup,’ didn’t really have [our usual] rhythmic groove underneath them in the demos,” he says. “That came with other people putting their spin on them: Jackson playing a soul beat, me playing a funky bassline and Martin having the grace to be like, ‘OK, let’s try that. That’s not the song that was in my head but, you’re right—maybe we should push it into some new territory.’ It can be difficult. As we’ve gotten older, we’ve found ourselves in this position where, in places that we thought we’d have more stability, we’ve actually realized there’s no shortcut. You almost have to work twice as hard because you’ve already invented this one sound and—in order to expand on it successfully or change in a way that’s not disingenuous—you’ve got to put in at least twice as much work.”

However, The Main Thing isn’t a major departure from the band’s sweet spot: The hazy electric jangle of “Friday” and “November” could slot in seamlessly on their previous albums, from their partly home-recorded debut, 2009’s Real Estate, to the polished In Mind. But it’s their most confident tweak to their signature sound: Early single “Paper Cup” finds Courtney singing over a vintage soul wash outfitted with strings, auxiliary percussion (courtesy of The Walkmen’s Matt Barrick and Brazilian Girls’ Aaron Johnston), buzzing synthesizers and the call-and-response vocal of Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath; and the ambient interlude “Sting” layers reverb-heavy piano over a pitter-patter beat; the gently cascading “Also a But,” Lynch’s first composition for the group, veers more into full-fledged psychedelia.

Lynch’s fingerprints are all over the album, including the liquid-y guitar solo on “Also a But” and a particularly glorious melodic part on “You,” a song Courtney wrote for his then-unborn child. The guitarist—who grew up with Courtney and Bleeker and officially joined Real Estate in 2016 after the well-publicized exit of cofounder Matt Mondanile—became fully ingrained in the group’s creative process on The Main Thing.

“With In Mind, I’d just joined the band and there was some degree of hesitance on my part. I didn’t want people to think: ‘Who is this stupid guy who’s in the band now? Why’s he playing guitar in my favourite band and not me?’ There was some suspicion toward me initially, and I didn’t want to be blamed for some new element introduced—some guitar sound that wasn’t characteristic of the band. I didn’t want people to say, ‘This guy just ruined my favourite band.’ So I didn’t take too many chances on In Mind, but my guitar approach was much more deliberate on this album. I had more time to think out my solos. I was in an environment I felt really comfortable with.”

That environment, friendly yet philosophical, was fostered by McMahon, who has known many of the members of Real Estate since their teenage years. But McMahon was still an unlikely choice for a band hesitant to repeat themselves. Their record label, for one, was afraid everyone would be too comfortable. But the opposite happened. When Courtney reconnected with McMahon to record some songs for a friend’s movie, he realized they’d both wound up in a headspace of creative self-doubt—leading to lengthy conversations about career goals and their place in an erratic industry. It was the perfect time to reconvene with Real Estate—the familiarity of working with an old friend, away from the stress and clinical atmosphere of a top-dollar studio, gave them the confidence to branch out of their comfort zone.

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“One thing I remember him doing is asking us why we were doing things,” says Bleeker. “Not in a negative way but just like, ‘Why are you playing the bass like that?’ He was like, ‘If you have an answer for me, that is satisfactory. I’m not making a judgment call on whether that’s good or bad.’ I realize now that five albums deep, you tend to be like, ‘This is what we do.’”

“Obviously our lineup has changed a few times, but we became a 10-year-old band two years ago, and this is our fifth record, so we don’t want to start going through the motions,” adds Courtney. “The idea was to question every decision we were making as we were doing it, which was also something really encouraged by Kevin. The record was as important to him as it was to us, and he was really invested in it both in terms of his career and since we are friends. It’s been a collaboration with every producer we’ve worked with, but this was deeper in some way.”

McMahon was crucial in urging the band to embrace their new sounds and sound-makers—one of many factors that led to the album’s long arc.

“We made a conscious decision to work with outside musicians for the first time,” Courtney says. “That was something Kevin encouraged us to do—maybe to make it feel fresh. In the past, we’ve been really [hesitant] to do that. I’ve always looked at this band as four or five people and whoever we’re working with as a producer at any given point, and that’s it. Whatever sounds were on the record were made by us, and I’ve become very protective of that. I was [scared of what would happen] if someone else came in and we didn’t like it. You don’t trust anyone to tamper with your sound. But I’m really glad we did. We were pushing ourselves to try new things, trying to be more thoughtful about the parts we’re playing.”

“We got to some places that were uncomfortable and scary,” adds Bleeker. “Julian’s song is one of my favorites and a standout because it’s by a songwriter who’s never written for Real Estate before and has a different sensibility. I remember being psyched on the song when we were recording it, but I also thought, ‘How are our fans gonna take this? It doesn’t sound like Real Estate.’ You have these weird little neuroses that build up and you have to push through.”

The sessions were revelatory. They recorded enough material for a double album, though they decided to table some of the recordings—including the recent, jam-heavy live favourite “Half a Human,” which they hope to revisit down the line. (“I’m the resident jamband lover of the band,” Bleeker says, breaking down the track.) Despite the productivity, the length of their process eventually started to wear on Courtney, as deadline after deadline slipped between their fingers.

“I did get frustrated a few times because I wanted it to be done,” he says. “I kept setting these arbitrary [timelines] for myself, ‘We’ll get this record done by June and get it out by October.’ Then, when we realized that wasn’t going to happen, we said, ‘We’ll get it done by October and get it out early next year.’ But, these deadlines meant nothing. Maybe I was just excited to have the record come out. Then it was like, ‘This record has to be done within the calendar year of 2018.’ And then, January comes around and we’re still recording strings and stuff. I kept having to be told to just relax. Alex and Kevin kept being like, ‘Why do you need to have this record done? Really ask yourself that question—there’s no reason to have this record come out at any given point.’

“Making a record becomes stressful because the band is pretty off the radar,” he adds. “We were touring a little bit, but we didn’t have anything new coming out, so people stopped talking about us. You feel like, every day that goes by, fewer people are going to care when the record actually does come out. I’ve felt that way with every record after our first one, and I’ve always been surprised that [fans] end up caring, no matter how long it takes.”

More crucially, Real Estate still care about Real Estate. Recording The Main Thing reinforced their reasons for making music in the first place.

“[That’s] part of the reason we ended up working so hard and for so long,” Courtney says. “It felt a little more important this time around. We really felt like it was a milestone record for us. If we’re gonna do it, we should try to make it the best thing we’ve ever made.”

Real Estate – from ‘The Main Thing’, out now on Domino Record Co.

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