Story by Michael McGregor
Photography by John Francis Peters
It’s mid-December in Northern New Jersey and the members of Real Estate, known for songs like “Beach Comber” and “Let’s Rock the Beach,” are bundled in scarves, flannel and woolens. The pool is long since covered. Smoking cigarettes on the back patio, drummer Etienne Duguay and guitarist Matt Mondanile are taking bets on whether frontman Martin Courtney, on the phone meandering through his backyard, can walk across the covered, unfilled pool without falling in. Walking backwards, Courtney’s foot hits the green plastic cover and his eyes light up as if he’s about to walk the plank into a frozen sea. Sure-footed, he retreats, moves forward and continues his conversation, while Mondanile tries lifting massive blocks of ice that formed in the crevices of a thick protective sheet covering the deck table and chairs. Neither of them are wearing gloves, and when the mini-iceberg hits the brick patio, nothing breaks but a few laughs.
Despite all the beach-y adjectives used to describe the band, in this frozen Ridgewood backyard, in the dead of winter, they are truly at home. No real surprise though, considering this is where the band, after years of collaborating in different projects, came together as we know them. Moving back to New Jersey after college is a daunting task, and for some, could lead to depression or being tagged by your former peers as a townie. But rather than sit around or slip into an existential funk, bassist Alex Bleeker, Mondanile, Courtney and Duguay channeled that boredom into song and other sorcery: collaborating on records by psych noise outfit Predator Vision, a project started by Mondanile and Duguay while at school in Western Massachussetts; Ducktails, Mondanile’s wafting breeze of a solo project which Courtney has contributed to; Alex Bleeker and his Freaks, a classic rock outfit; and Lese Majesty, a short-lived band started by friend and frequent collaborator Julian Lynch, which featured the entirety of Real Estate long before the band was even an idea, let alone a reality.
Of course, this group of friends goes even further back, to high school, during which Mondanile, Bleeker and Courtney would jam as The Hey There Sexy. The familiarity of having played in nearly every conceivable lineup, in every shitty college house and tons of boring towns culminated one late summer night in Courtney’s backyard.
“We were all drinking vodka in the pool and started jamming at like 4 in the morning in the basement,” Bleeker recalls. The end result was “Suburban Beverage,” a lush backyard jam culled from hours of post-collegiate drinking by the pool. It’s refrain, “Budweiser, Sprite, Do you feel alright?” would come to serve as a calling card for the band on its first 7-inch, a sort of half-baked disclaimer or an all-inclusive mantra.
Duguay chimes in, “I think that jam actually happened the day we did most of the Warlords stuff. We did ‘Going back to School’ and –“
“You gotta explain Warlords,” laughs Courtney.
“Warlords is our soft rock band. But Bleeker and I conceptualized it a couple years ago.”
“Real Estate is the exact lineup of what the theoretical Warlords would have been,” an excited Bleeker says. “We were talking about it for a long time. 'Let's have a soft rock band. We want it to sound like Fleetwood Mac. The album will be called Harsh Winds.’”
“That day we wrote three songs. One was "Suburban Beverage." The other two were Warlords songs, which never again saw the light of day,” Duguay notes emphatically.
“"He's Getting Closer To You" was one of them,” adds Bleeker.
“Bleeker sings ‘He's getting closer to you,’" bursts Duguay, reaching for his air mic stand. “And then I would go, from behind the drums, ‘closer to you.’”
While Warlords may seem like a mythical side project from dudes who sit around smoking weed and surfing YouTube, it's really the catalyst that made Real Estate come together.
One of the bands earliest shows may not have been witnessed by a lot of people, and those there might not even remember, but it sealed a relationship that both kickstarted a label and ushered Real Estate into public consciousness.
“There was a really early show in DC that Etienne couldn't make for some reason,” Bleeker says in a manner that suggests he may be both a very wise Rabbi and an armchair philosopher. “We weren’t even called Real Estate then. The band didn't even have a name. We played all of each other’s songs. We had this material coming from all different places. It’s kind of like what we've always done with each other. Julian [Lynch] joined us at that show. That was also the first Family Portrait show. Etienne couldn't be there, so we rotated instruments. I played drums on a couple songs. Martin played bass. I would play bass.”
“At one point, we were all playing bass,” Courtney laughs.
“Matt, Martin and I played in this band in High School called The Hey There Sexy, which was sort of similar to what happened at Evan Brody's (of Underwater Peoples Records) house that night. Kind of a tribute to The Hey There Sexy.”
That show, in particular, solidified Real Estate as not just another project from a group of old friends, but rather, a project they could collectively stand behind and continue to move forward with. As Courtney puts it, “When I was recording the first 7-inch, Real Estate wasn't a band. I recorded "Black Lake" and an older song called "Old Folks" at my friend Sarim's house. That was before Real Estate was really anything. But when the recordings were done, Brody and Ari (Stern, also of Underwater Peoples Records) were going to put it out, as that was happening we started calling the band Real Estate and playing shows.”
Heading out of the backyard and down the road, it’s easy to see where the band’s all encompassing ease comes from. Quiet suburban streets roll and loop as we head away from Courtney’s toward an old horse farm down the street. Perched next to a pond and a frozen field, separated by birch trees, the Ridgewood Horse Farm seems like an ideal place for teenagers to get stoned. Of course, it is.
“Brody and I got arrested right there,” Martin says matter-of-factly, pointing at a split rail wood fence. “My car got pulled over. We had a bong.”
Brody laughs, “It was two days after my 18th birthday. The cops fucked up though. They wrote down my name as Evan Brady, and there was actually a kid in town named Evan Brady.”
“The Police blotter in the local paper even said Evan Brady,” says Courtney.
“Nobody knew it was me! Meanwhile, Evan Brady was this huge lacrosse star, All-American, etcetera. Sorta sucked for him,” the affable Brody laughs, as a police car pulls into the long drive way leading up to the Horse Farm.
Walking back up the street, past cul-de-sacs and moving to the side as soccer moms maneuver to get their kid to practice on time, one gets the sense that Real Estate may be the best thing to come out of the suburbs since the Wonder Years. Much like that acclaimed show, the band’s work embodies a love-hate relationship with the ‘burbs. Songs like “Snow Days”, “Pool Swimmers” and “Suburban Dogs” each reflect friendships born and bred in the backyards and playgrounds of Ridgewood, NJ, but also the discontent and longing that comes with growing up in the shadow of New York City and an understanding that the world is a much bigger and more exciting place than Hamilton Court would suggest. And just like Kevin Arnold, who eventually sets off to find his place in the wide world, leaving the confines of the suburbs only helped Real Estate realize its vision of the future, one in which Courtney's songbook could become the soundtrack to Keroauc-inspired road trips for twenty-somethings searching for anything, only to end up finding it right where they started: at home.
As they order two large pizzas before another round of practice, they argue over what the best delivery place in town might be. It’s hard to think of Real Estate as anything but a group of guys who simply like to play music together. But there's that bond. At the core of the band is a pure friendship, one that catapults, nurtures and drives. It just so happens to be the same thing that brought them together years ago on the playground, later as The Hey There Sexy and today as Real Estate.