Real Estate Jams

Real Estate

Real Estate
Photographer Thomas Prior
October 12, 2011

How interesting do you need to be to be good?

As if to cut off any criticism at the knees, Alex Bleeker says, “We’re a Brooklyn band now, how boring is that?” Before that, Real Estate was arguably duller: a suburban Jersey band. Bleeker, Matt Mondanile and Martin Courtney all hail from Ridgewood, a suburb a little less than an hour outside of New York City, and, until recently, Courtney was still holding on to his Garden State roots, living in Jersey City with his girlfriend. Finally he caved and moved to Williamsburg. But they’re still close enough to escape, and on one of the last hot days of summer, Real Estate is back in Ridgewood to take a dip. Courtney’s parents’ homey house has a small pool that they added when he was in high school. It would have been bigger, he explains, were it not for zoning laws. Both Mondanile and Bleeker are soaking chest-deep in their boxer shorts. Courtney, in jeans and a long sleeve button-down, paces, talking on the phone. He just dunks his head in.

This is largely the life they enjoyed in high school. Mondanile and Courtney grew up just a few streets apart, so even before driver’s licenses they hung out constantly. Bleeker had to beg his parents for a ride. Ridgewood has generated considerable indie rock attention the past few years, the hometown of a surprising number of very good bands like Vivian Girls and Big Troubles. High school friends, Titus Andronicus, are from nearby Glen Rock. “We have tons of hometown New Jersey pride, which most people from New Jersey do because you get shit on constantly,” says Bleeker. “You go to college or wherever you’re going to go, and everyone’s like, Jersey, I’m sorry. I was like, Wait a minute! I love all my friends from high school. We have a deep crew, and we’re like, Fuck this bad reputation of New Jersey, let’s rep it super hard. It’s that Bruce Springsteen bravado where it’s actually the best even though it’s really the worst. And so we obviously took that opportunity when we could have any public mouthpiece to be like, Jersey Jersey Jersey, we’re from New Jersey.” Mondanile puts it even simpler. “Me, Bleeker and Martin used to drive around aimlessly all the time. Definitely just smoke weed, listen to records, drive around, complain that it was boring in New Jersey and there was nothing to do.” They still do and there still isn’t.

With the van loaded with the last of Courtney’s guitars and furniture from his parent’s place, they tool around Ridgewood before heading back to the city, pointing out their elementary and middle schools, the abandoned house where they took their promo photographs, the weird Starbucks that looks like a small Dutch castle. Driving past the boulder the town of Glen Rock is named for, Courtney says as a kid he used to think it was hollow and the plaque on its side was a window.

Like Ridgewood, Real Estate is not particularly dynamic. They’re a rock and roll band generally, an indie rock band specifically, and what could be more vanilla? Yet somehow, particularly with their new album, Days, they’ve managed to perfectly encapsulate the straightforward malaise and uncertainty of young adulthood. Real Estate straddles a line between the world of jam bands and indie rock, lazy drums and flowery guitar crafting a consistently light footpath. “It’s like easygoing-type music,” Courtney says. “Everybody’s parents like it. Everyone can dig it.” Even his mom really loves the band; Real Estate has revived her interest in music. She’s got a subscription to Sirius Radio, listens to its alternative station XMU constantly and reads Pitchfork and Brooklyn Vegan regularly.

That individual reimagining is the kind of power Real Estate has. Like most artists, they have their sights set on stardom, but taken as a whole, Real Estate almost seems less than the sum of its parts. It’s a nice miracle they’ve found a way to build a collective energy when they each orbit very different suns.

Matt Mondanile just got a bed. He’s been in his Greenpoint studio apartment just over a year, but he’s been sleeping on the pullout couch. Until he gets rid of that, his place is jam-packed, mattress by the door and couch in the kitchen. On the counter is his worn passport and a crumpled wad of money. On the bedside is a glass bottle of Mexican Coke, almost empty, with cigarette butts floating in brown at the bottom. Mondanile’s on the couch, drinking a beer, running down the highlights of his recent tours as Ducktails, his more experimental solo project, including a trip to Greece that the promoter funded out of pocket. Months after that tour he’s still flattered. As he talks, he shakes his head to get his shaggy hair out of his eyes. It’s very Baywatch.

Like the other two members of Real Estate, Mondanile likes talking about high school but he speaks with less nostalgia and more disdain, repeatedly referring to his poor grades. They were apparently bad enough that, before his senior year, Mondanile’s parents transferred him to a stringent boys boarding school in Western Massachusetts. After two years there, one, he says, as a “super-senior,” Mondanile matriculated to notorious hippie haven Hampshire College, where he finally thrived. “I wrote like a really crazy thesis on how the media portrayed the fall of the Berlin Wall through television and I made an installation, a video installation. I rented three flat screens. One was East German television, one was West German television, and one was US and British television, and I made fake ’80s television channels that looped on each, so you watched them next to each other to see the difference between how communists portrayed the news and how like, Western democracy lovers portrayed the news.” He then launches into the long history of the “Kinder Blumen,” the supposed original hippies. It’s also the title of Days’ beautiful, instrumental fourth track. “So this song came from this idea that the first liberated German youth, these beautiful blonde German kids that were like, Fuck Nazis, we gotta run away,” he says. “The Nazi Youth were trained to be the Nazis, and the hippies were like, Fuck this, and they’d literally run off into the fields and have weird crazy orgies and crazy hippie stuff. ‘Kinder Blumen’ is an instrumental kind of lounge song, so it’s them being excited.” As he talks, you can basically see his synapses firing, like a newly grownup version of a toddler who constantly asks “why?”

Mondanile is also a very good guitar player, his meandering rhythms propelling much of Real Estate’s counterpoint; without him, they’d maybe still exist, but would be largely straight ahead. He’s a wiry player, canoodling around Courtney’s cleaner melodies. Mondanile’s playing is clearly influenced by a love of avant-garde music, but it seems equally spurred by his unfailing, hyperactive curiosity. “Ever since I was a little kid I remember when the internet came into popularity and I remember the moment when I was like, I don’t like TV at all, I just want to google stuff,” he says. He sounds like a mad scientist recalling his upbringing. “I kind of have ADD.”

Mondanile is the only single member of Real Estate and in addition to theoretical curios, he reserves a decent amount of brain space for girls. In the middle of a story about getting lost in Belgium, his phone rings and he gets up to let in a pretty, short-haired girl into his apartment. She’s returning his fan. Mondanile wonders aloud how she got in the front door without him buzzing. Another resident, a girl with fuchsia hair, let her in. He says she’ll have to introduce him.

Alex Bleeker is not a literal uncle, but he’s got the vibe. In the course of three hours, he wears two separate baseball caps, one newly bought at a pre-season NY Giants game. He also has a football themed trash can. It’s full of empty beer bottles. He lives with one roommate, Ari Stern, who runs the small but influential record label Underwater Peoples. Because Bleeker is never home, he’s ceded his apartment to playhouse status, with people (including Mondanile, who lives directly across the street) dropping in to hang out and play outdated video games frequently. “It’s like eighth grade,” he says. Bleeker has very little space of his own, his tiny bedroom taken over mostly by his mattress on the floor. His bed has two blankets, one plaid, the other an oversized American flag. It would be a good bet that he owns shirts in both of those patterns.

Drinking beer on his roof in the afternoon of the day a mild earthquake shook much of the northeast and a few days before Hurricane Irene shut down the city, he is less apocalyptically rattled and more bemused by nature. “It’s a weird day to go on the roof,” he says. “Fucking earthquake, man.” The view is killer and the sky is aquamarine. Bleeker is hanging out with Real Estate’s hired gun, dual keyboard/guitarist Jonah Maurer, a lanky stoner with puffy hair and a squeaky voice. He says the sky looks like it has “Toy Story clouds.” Bleeker’s lived outside of Ridgewood the longest, moving out of his parents’ place shortly after graduating from Bennington College in Vermont. Propelled by an easy living situation, he went to Philadelphia, where he worked for a Christian thrift store in Fishtown. He got the job by walking in and asking if he could work there. Much of Bleeker’s relatively good fortune is borne from this same relaxed attitude, and Real Estate benefits from his genuineness. Onstage, contrasting with Courtney and Mondanile’s relatively buttoned-up aesthetic, Bleeker often wears cutoff shorts and a flower-print hat that looks like it was purchased from a Princess Cruise gift shop. He’s usually the only one who addresses the crowd to say hello, goodbye and thank you. When he plays, he sways like a metronome. The dude is having a good time.

In his downtime from Real Estate, Bleeker has Alex Bleeker and the Freaks, a roving crew of equally jam-loving friends who perform as his backing band. (On the cover of his first solo LP, Bleeker is seated kingly on a lawn chair, flanked by a large number of standing Freaks. Positioned with all the action up top, the photo’s foreground of crisscrossing brown bricks melts thanks to Photoshop.) While Courtney is undoubtedly Real Estate’s principle songwriter, both Bleeker and Mondanile contribute compositions from time to time, and Days’ “Wonder Years” is Bleeker’s moment as a frontman. The song sounds like a lost Bob Seger session from 1974. I’m not yours and you’re not mine/ I’m not okay but I guess I’m doing fine, he sings, Far away but still on my mind/ Think of you from time to time. “The rest of the album is kind of different, but it just fits in there really simply,” Bleeker says. “It’s this sweet, acoustic-strummed melody, simple-voice kind of thing, and it just clears the air. It cleanses the palette.” He’s also really excited about where it ended up on the album. “It just sounded like a track seven to me.”

Ultimately it can be difficult to tell if Bleeker is genuinely, consistently positive, or just unwilling to stir the pot. He’s happy to complicate that picture. “I have more stress and anxiety in my life than people think. I have that Jewish anxiety thing. I relate to that, it’s in my blood. I sometimes am good at keeping that private and being chill. I have this very chill public persona, I guess, but I don’t know how fully accurate that is,” he says. “I think it’s real, I can do it, but that kind of I-can-present-myself-as-a-chill-person falls to the wayside when people in Real Estate are like, Don’t give me that chill Bleeker bullshit. Because we’re transparent human beings to each other. We see each other’s flaws and each other’s positive aspects too.” His last name, he says, is an Anglicization of Blecherwitz and, in a rundown of Real Estate’s members as Seinfeld characters, he casts himself undeniably in the role of George. “A lot of it has to do with the stocky build, Jewish guy thing,” he says. “A lot of it’s purely aesthetic. I definitely have that hardheaded, talk with your hands, This is ridiculous! kind of thing.” And while he certainly is gregarious, his persistent good nature ultimately disqualifies him from subbing for anyone who ever set foot on the set of the show (though Mondanile is totally Kramer).

Martin Courtney’s girlfriend Heather Joyce is making chocolate chip cookies to mask the smell of fresh paint. They’ve been together seven years, since high school. This is their third apartment together. He didn’t expect to start sleeping there so soon, but after moving some of their stuff from Jersey City, they set up a big inflatable mattress and crashed. Both of his parents work in real estate, and his father’s reaction to his big city move was surprise that he could afford it.

Courtney is by far Real Estate’s least laid back member. He recently cut his hair, but for most of the band’s two years, he’d get up onstage, his chin-length bob swaying, as he barely sang into the microphone. “We used to always be like, Make sure there’s a lot of reverb on the vocals,” he says. “Sound guys would be like, Oh, you’re not comfortable with your voice.” He sounds sad when he says it, but there’s something sweet about having such obvious problems that even soundmen can diagnose them. He’s getting over it.

Still, Courtney seems stereotypically bookish, the quiet type with Buddy Holly glasses, introverted and exceedingly polite though consistently nervous. But sitting at a wood table in the new apartment, he just doesn’t stop talking. It’s strange and unexpected but not unwelcome, like watching your grandmother get up and go surfing. Finishing Days, he says, was a “stressful mystery.” But, the process nearly done, he’s starting to relax. “Having things start to work out and form into a real album, it’s getting really exciting and it feels good,” he says. “It feels good to make something that I’m really proud of.” That might be the first time. “I have a lot of problems with a lot of the older Real Estate records,” he says. “Especially the first one. I think it’s good, and I feel like I’m really proud of it on a certain level, but on another level I’m like, This sounds like shit. This sounds so bad.” He’s not wrong—next to Days’ full fidelity, all of Real Estate’s previous records sound like they were recorded in a trash can. Regardless, he’s a bit of a worrywart. Courtney is Real Estate’s main singer and songwriter, its de facto leader, and unquestionably he is the necessarily focused yin to Bleeker and Mondanile’s mellow yang. He takes the band extremely seriously and, because of that, it is serious. “Everybody wants their music to be played on the radio. People who say that they don’t like that are either lying or just being really…just approaching it differently than us,” he says. “We want to be a popular band, we really do. We wouldn’t have signed to Domino if we didn’t want to have this be our career, and have this be something we could make money from. I love it so much that I don’t want it to go away.” Though they have a fairly serious five record deal, they’ve yet to get a manager. Mostly, Courtney handles the business, which seems to be working fine considering their debut album sold 20,000 copies on the independent label Woodsist.

Earlier this year, before signing their deal with Domino, Real Estate made the decision to part ways with their longtime drummer Etienne Duguay (they now play with a young friend, Jackson Pollis, who is not officially in the group). Courtney is even handed discussing the departure, saying that when it came time for contracts, he just didn’t want to be legally bound to Duguay, who was becoming increasingly unreliable. Neither Bleeker nor Mondanile were reluctant to discuss Duguay, though all were saddened by the split. Despite not being in the band for some time, Duguay did play drums on one song on Days. Recorded before the album’s sessions upstate, “Out of Tune,” is a hypnotic, driving song, on which Courtney sings You play the songs that were written for you/ But you’re all out of tune…You’ve got the wrong attitude. Initially, I thought it was about conflict with Duguay, but Courtney clarifies. “It’s about being on tour and the songs losing all meaning when I play them every night, so it feels like I didn’t write them, like they were written for me or something,” Courtney says. “The ‘you’ is me.” It’s bittersweet that his harshest bite is directed inward.

On the last day of August, Real Estate plays a show opening for Bright Eyes. It’s just a few blocks from Courtney’s new place. His girlfriend’s parents are there. As the opener, they’re on at six sharp and the sparse audience is mostly college diehards there early to get a good spot. Real Estate doesn’t say much, but they look relatively relaxed on the enormous stage. Mondanile is bopping happily, occasionally taking liberties with the whammy bar. He and Courtney are wearing nearly identical outfits. Bleeker’s just cut his beard and his hair and looks surprisingly tidy. He’s wearing a T-shirt with a cartoon of Bill Clinton playing saxophone. Early in the set, Courtney zones out, strumming his guitar mindlessly, apparently taking in the million dollar view of Manhattan. He looks almost like he wants to be there. In the middle of the set, they play “It’s Real,” Days’ lead single. It’s a love song. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know the deal/ But when I tell you how I feel/ Believe me when I say it’s real, Courtney sings, and they all do the wordless chorus together. It’s not complex, but that’s what makes it potent.

Real Estate Jams