By Philip Runco
It’s the first Friday of November, and while Courtney is driving somewhere, it’s not without purpose: He’s headed to Virginia to visit relatives with his wife and two-year-old daughter. And the latter vehicle occupant, it would appear, is less than pleased with the lack of attention she’s receiving.
“I’m just – hold on one second,” he says, taking one of several pauses to perform fatherly duties.
“This is a good time to talk,” Courtney assures me, and perhaps himself. “She’s going to calm down.”
The guitarist recently brought another labor of love into world – one that is already sufficiently mellowed out. It’s called Many Moons, and it’s Courtney’s first record outside of Real Estate. (The albums caps a productive few months for members of the popular band, following the release of bassist Alex Bleeker’s Country Agenda and guitarist Matt Mondanile’s latest as Ducktails, St. Catherine.)
Despite the LP’s billing, Courtney has been quick to characterize Many Moons as a group effort. His primary collaborator was Jarvis Taveniere, the bassist of rustic rock outfit Woods and an active producer in Brooklyn. With the assistance of Real Estate keyboardist Matt Kallman and Woods drummer Aaron Neveu, the two have made a record that slightly tweaks expectations for a Martin Courtney song, following a more pastoral 60s folk path, often complete with lush string arrangements.
On Friday, Courtney will celebrate the release of Many Moons with a one-off show at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust – string section and all.
“I wanted to make sure we could do at least one big show. I’m trying to recreate the record live,” he shares. “I wouldn’t say other concerts will be stripped down; they just won’t be as beefed up.”
Outside of three West Coast performances in January, there isn’t anything on the books to promote Many Moons, though Courtney hints that may change.
“We’re feeling it out,” he says. “This is a brand new project.”
What’s your history with Jarvis Taveniere?
We’ve done a good amount of touring with Woods over the years. Real Estate’s first record came out on Woodsist, which is the label that’s run by the lead singer of Woods. When we were making our first record, Jarvis actually recorded a couple of songs. He records a lot of other bands – that’s a big part of what he does outside of Woods. He produces a lot of bands on the label Captured Tracks. At this point, I met Jarvis six or more years ago now. We’ve hung out a lot and seen each other at different shows and festival.
At a certain point, we started talking about playing music together for fun. I’ve been in Real Estate for a long time, so it was a kind a way for me to have fun outside of the band and work with new people and keep it interesting. He was really into doing that. That’s what spurred the project initially.
He also started having pretty free access to this one studio in Brooklyn, and we started getting this idea to record something. Originally, we were just jamming for fun, and then it turned into us saying, “Well, why don’t we record some songs?” Initially, we weren’t going to make a record. We figured that we would make a single or something.
At what point did you realize that it was becoming something larger?
The initial batch was three songs, but then I kept writing new ones. I was enjoying it. We were having fun. It was me and Jarvis, and then Aaron [Neveu], who also plays drums in Woods. As a band, we were sounding really good.
The other thing was that with regard to Real Estate, Atlas hadn’t even come out yet. It was in the in-between period of finishing a record and it actually being released. I had all of this free time. I didn’t have to be writing songs for Real Estate because we had a whole record that hadn’t even come out yet, so I just kept writing songs for this project.
At a certain point, we had maybe six or seven songs, and it became apparent that it would at least be an EP. We started taking it more seriously, and I got it in my head that I wanted to make an album, so I started talking with Domino [Records] and solidifying all of the parts to make it work. It was a gradual realization. We just had to take it more seriously because we had invested a bunch of time in it.
You keep saying how fun this record was to make. The Real Estate process, in contrast, seems a bit more painstaking. What is it about Real Estate that leads to a tenser environment? Is it heightened expectations or is it more a product of interpersonal dynamics?
There are definitely expectations for Real Estate. There are never deadlines, though. It’s more that we put it upon ourselves to make really great records. There is a lot of pressure – especially in my own head – knowing that a lot of people are going to hear it and that there’s a pretty big audience for a Real Estate record. I get more worked up during that process. It becomes more intense for me.
There’s also the fact that it’s obviously more of a band. There are different people with opinions, and all of them matter. That’s a good thing. What makes Real Estate good is that there’s more than just one person’s opinion going into the music. But it does drag out the process – again, in a good way. [Laughs] Each decision has to be agreed on, especially the three core members – myself, Alex [Bleeker], and Matt [Mondanile]. We’re old friends. We’ve known each other since high school, so we can say things to each other that only close old friends can. [Laughs] Basically, it’s a more intense process.
It’s not making Real Estate records isn’t fun, but with this record, it was refreshing not to have think about decisions so much, especially towards the end. Once the record was pretty much done, I had to name the songs, sequence the record, choose the artwork – all of the little details that get thought about a lot with Real Estate. With my record, I kind of breezed through that whole process. I’m really comfortable with everything because I was more detached from it. I wasn’t wringing my hands thinking about each little detail.
Does it surprise you how much of a following Real Estate has attracted? It’s never been a band that’s tried to be something different than what it is.
There are plenty of bands that are way bigger than us, but it definitely does surprise me. I was shocked even in the beginning when we started getting press at all.
Like you said, we’re not really trying to do anything other than our best. I like the music, but it’s very surprising that other people like it, for sure. We’re all surprised that we’ve gotten to the point that we have, because the music is very low-key.
Maybe we’re filling a hole; maybe there wasn’t a band like us. I think about that a lot, actually. It doesn’t make that much sense to me that we’re so popular. I know that I like the songs I write, and I’m happy with the work that I do, but the only thing that I can think is that we were lucky to have stumbled upon a sound. It’s hard for me to hear us as unique, but enough people have said to me that we have a very unique sound that I guess it must be true.
I don’t know how that happened, because we never sat down and discussed the kind of music we were going to play or what kind of guitar effects we would use. It just sort of happened. The one thing you can hope for as a band is to have your own sound and to be recognizable.
One thread that runs through both Real Estate’s records and Many Moons is an attempt to make sense of the past and how memories change through time. What are your earliest memories?
It’s probably pretty normal stuff. They’re just from living in my parents’ house in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
What was Ridgewood like growing up?
Ridgewood is pretty. I was a non-soccer kid. I was not very coordinated as a child. I wasn’t somebody who was into sports. In elementary school, I identified as a nerd or something. I was really into music.
Ridgewood is cool because people tend to get along. I had a lot of friends that did a lot of different things – played sports, played music, did theater. It was kind of idyllic, I guess. There were probably kids that got bullied, but I didn’t experience it.
It’s a nice upper-middle-class town where people live in big houses. It’s easy as a teenager to be jaded and think where you’re living is super lame, because it definitely is, but that’s just because there’s not much going on there. Luckily, we live close to the city, and there’s an influence from there.
I was lucky enough to have a cool group of friends that were into music. Those aren’t early memories, but that’s what it was like growing up there.
Whenever a musician gets married or has a child, that information often finds its way into profiles and reviews as some sort of insight into a particular record. That’s been the case with Many Moons. Were there ways that becoming a father changed your approach to making music?
It changed my approach to music in that it made me want to do more, write more. It influenced this project even existing because it made me want to keep working. During what would normally be downtime, I was writing this record. Normally, when I would just be focusing on touring, I was also writing, trying to finish another record outside of Real Estate. It made me want to become more productive.
Obviously, it is a huge thing in anybody’s life, but I happen to be somebody that writes lyrics for songs, and more often than not, they’re rooted in things that have happened in my life, so it made its way into the lyrics, as well.
The other thing is that it made touring more difficult. I wasn’t a fan of touring beforehand, and now it’s just a necessary evil. It really makes me want to find new ways of being a musician while not having to travel as much as I have in the past. Doing this project, I’m diversifying so that I have more going on. If I can keep recording and putting out records, I might not have travel as much.
What turns you off about touring?
It’s really boring a lot of the time. There’s a lot of sitting around in the van. I like being home with my wife. I like sitting around. [Laughs] I’m a little bit of a homebody. I would just rather be home than in this flux mode.
Once you leave for tour, you can’t really accomplish much aside for playing shows every day, it’s hard to write and be creative. It’s also hard to stay healthy because you’re eating poorly and not getting much sleep. I tend to get sick on the road. It’s just a very uncomfortable way to live your life. Obviously, I like playing shows – that’s fun. That doesn’t get boring. I really do like playing live, but everything around that is not so great.
The last song on the record, “Airport Bar”, centers around airport bars, naturally. Do you have any favorites?
There’s a good one at LAX, but the first that comes to mind is definitely not my favorite. I’ll say right now that I’ve found myself a number of times at the Buffalo Wild Wings at the JFK Delta Terminal 4. You know, friendly service, get a beer. Their margaritas are not very good, though. I would not recommend the margaritas. But you can watch the sports game and have a beer. It’s a pretty classic situation that they’ve got going there.