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On Horses And Beatles: A Conversation With Real Estate's Martin Courtney

There's been some changes for Real Estate — most notably, the departure of guitarist Matt Mondanile. Yet the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. And that's just fine.

In this interview, band founder and principal songwriter Martin Courtney told me: "I feel like this is my lane, guitar-based pop music." In Mind, Real Estate's next album, is scenic and thoughtful, a lovely listen.

As Mondanile exited to focus on Ducktails, Real Estate has added guitarist Julian Lynch, a childhood friend from Martin Courtney's hometown in New Jersey, whose playing adds a welcome edge on In Mind, particularly within the song "Two Arrows."

During my conversation with Martin Courtney, we played a few songs from the new record and heard his thoughts on making music — music that works both as foreground and background.

We began our conversation talking, however, about a horse.

Real horse, or chroma key?

Yes, there was a real horse. He has a real horse name. His real name is Like No Other, and his nickname is Moose. Everybody calls him Moose. He's very sweet. He's a Hollywood horse; he's been in different shows. We had to fake him actually knocking the keyboard over because we couldn't' get him to actually do it. We actually taped food, like horse snacks to the bottom of the keyboard, so he was trying to get the snacks. So that's why his head's dipping down. And then our keyboard player pushed the stand over with his knee. We weren't sure if that was going to look good in the final cut, but it seems pretty convincing.

On music that sounds like scenery:

A lot of people describe it [Real Estate's music] as background music, which sounds like an insult, or not necessarily a compliment. I like music like that, where you can put it on and it's a nice soundtrack to your daily tasks. I think this is true of our music, that it rewards a more detailed listen. I feel like there's a lot there, but it also blends in nicely. Lyrically, I tend to favor description. If I'm trying to find a place to start, I'm usually painting a picture of a landscape or a memory of a neighborhood or a place in my head, and then from there, I'll come to a theme for the song.

Do you still have the same passion you did ten years ago?

Before Real Estate was a band, I would write songs because it was a hobby, because it was like putting a puzzle together. That has not changed one bit. I still love writing songs and recording demos and recording albums and playing music live. This is why I still... I grapple with whether or not I should be doing it, but it's really hard not to because I love it so much. I guess the only difference is that I now I feel the need to write songs. I made a record, we did all the touring, we're done with this album, now it's time to make another album. It doesn't feel like a job, but it is more of a job. And having more responsibility now than when I was 22 years old, I have to really set the time aside and decide I'm going to go sit in my studio for a few hours a day and work on music and work on writing songs. I wish I'd done that all along. It's nice to set hours for yourself. It works for me, helps me to be more productive. I definitely feel a lot of passion for it. This is the most important thing to me outside of my family.

Comparing new track "Two Arrows" with "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" from Abbey Road:

We're always trying to recreate The Beatles, especially Abbey Road. I look at us as an album band, so we just thought it'd be kind of funny if we make that much of a reference to them. We even chopped the song off — it just stops cold. We just thought it'd be funny. That album is an archetype to me, especially side B. It represents some kind of ideal to me of what I'm always trying to make — not that we're putting together medleys or anything like that. But just a perfect album, even though it has its flaws. That, and the fact that my two-year old daughter became obsessed with it, so I had to listen to it a lot. So I took a lot of cues from that, either subconsciously or not.

Do you ever want to bust out completely from your musical mold?

I don't think I would know how. I did that solo record a couple years ago, and I feel like I tried out some different ideas there, and working with different people — my friend Jarvis — on that record. I brought strings in. But it's not much of a departure from Real Estate. I feel like this is my lane, guitar-based pop music. Hopefully that's not true. I'd love to try other things, I do. But I think Real Estate has gone in a number of different directions on this record, and we're constantly bringing new ideas in. If somebody's going to criticize us, they'll say we don't change or that all our songs sound the same, but to me, that couldn't be further from the truth. Each song, in my mind... we're trying something different. I think it's more subtle and easier for us to see than others.

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In 1988, a determined Bob Boilen started showing up on NPR's doorstep every day, looking for a way to contribute his skills in music and broadcasting to the network. His persistence paid off, and within a few weeks he was hired, on a temporary basis, to work for All Things Considered. Less than a year later, Boilen was directing the show and continued to do so for the next 18 years.