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How Real Estate Grew Up, Got More Intuitive, and Ended Up on FaceTime With Elton John

The indie-pop band talks about recording its sixth LP, ‘Daniel’, and learning not to overthink things

Real Estate

Sinna Nasseri*

Last month, on the night Real Estate released their sixth album, Daniel, they filled a tiny Williamsburg bar with all kinds of Daniel-themed props: name tags with the name “Daniel” on them, pictures of celebrities named Daniel, a full Danny Devito cutout. The album name had started as kind of a joke; they thought it would be funny to give the record a human name, and it just so happened that they’d recorded this new slate of songs in Nashville with producer Daniel Tashian, known for his work with Kacey Musgraves. When the bandmates took the stage in Brooklyn, they didn’t start with any of the laid-back new cuts off the LP. Instead, they dove headfirst into a cover of Elton John’s “Daniel,” delighting a packed crowd.

The moment was fun and buoyant, indicative of a new chapter for the 15-year-old band. A lot of that has to do with the spirit of Daniel: The songs are carefree but still complex, offering the best version yet of the refined summery jangle Real Estate has specialized in since they came out of New Jersey in the early 2010s. “We wanted to make a very clear, direct pop record that was fun to listen to — easily approachable and not particularly dense. Everything surrounding the record had a lightheartedness,” bassist Alex Bleeker tells Rolling Stone on a recent Zoom call.

Since dropping the album, Real Estate have been busy touring across the country, catching up on tons of live shows that they didn’t get a chance to see through after their 2020 album, The Main Thing, which was released right at the start of the pandemic. Already, Daniel has drawn new fans — including Elton John, who heard about the band’s cover in Brooklyn and FaceTimed them for an interview on his radio show Rocket Hour. (And, yes, there’s more Daniel-inspired stuff coming: The band recently announced Coffee for Daniel, a collaboration with Loveless Coffee.)

In the middle of it all, Bleeker and singer-guitarist Martin Courtney found time to catch up with Rolling Stone and talk about their trajectory as a band, the intuitive way they’re approaching music, and that FaceTime call with Elton John.

Your New York show felt like a homecoming, and you guys filled the venue with all kinds of Daniel name tags and paraphernalia. Tell me a little bit about that night and what it was like to play some of the songs on the new album for the first time.
Bleeker: We didn’t play the album front to back, but it was the Daniel show, without a doubt. Our last record, The Main Thing, came out just before Covid-19, and times were strange then, too. It felt like there was more of a heaviness surrounding that record. So, when it got time to Daniel, we were living in a time of all this heaviness still, but it felt like it was OK for art to bring a breath of fresh air or some kind of relief to these difficulties.

That seems like it’s been resonating. The album is named Daniel, which came out of totally riffing with each other, like, “What can we do to promote this record?” And it was like, “Oh, what if you had to be named Daniel to get into this show?” It just felt fun in there, and it felt good for us.

Courtney: It would have been celebratory regardless because the record came out that day at midnight. And then, opening and closing with that Elton John song “Daniel” — it was such a funny idea to cover that song at all and to see people have that realization about 20 seconds in. And then at the end of the show, we reprised it, everyone went nuts. That was our first show, and we hadn’t even played that much over the last few years, so that was fun in itself. But some shows have more of a kind of a party feeling than others, and sometimes you just kind of get the right night with the right people.

Talk to me about the conversation behind covering the Elton John song.
Courtney: Well, we got to meet Elton John — I’m just going to throw that out there. We covered that song, and that news got so much pickup, and I guess he found out about it. He has a podcast and he asked to interview us, so that was an amazing thing that came out of that, for sure.

What did you guys talk about?
Courtney: We were on the road. We were in southern Colorado, and we were like, “We’ll do it in a Starbucks,” because we needed good Wi-Fi. But then we walked into the Starbucks, and we forgot that, like, there was music loudly playing. So, we were like, “Oh, shit,” and we had to do it in the van. But it was obviously amazing meeting him. It was a standard, straightforward interview. He mentioned that he had been aware of our band for a while, which was really cool to hear. I got to tell him that my kids are big fans of his, which he was really nice about.

Bleeker: It was one of those juxtapositions of the highs and lows of being on tour, where we were in the middle of a 12-hour travel day in the back of a van somewhere, raining, and then Elton John pops up on your FaceTime and you’re like, “This is so confusing. I’m in a Walgreens parking lot right now.”

There’s a levity to Daniel you can hear and feel. Can you talk about where it fits in to your discography, especially after The Main Thing during the pandemic?
Bleeker: I’ve realized this over the years, and I think it does hold true for Daniel, but the most recent record you make is in some ways a reaction to the previous one — what you wanted to do differently or how you wish it felt or something. And I love all the records, but I feel that way with these past two for sure. The Main Thing was really labored over. We were really in our heads about it. We thought that we needed to make this statement record at this crossroads in our career as a band, and it was super, super important. It took us so long, and it was hyper-intellectualized. And then, of course, it’s the ultimate irony that it was released into a world that had so much more on its mind and just kind of got swallowed whole. And it’s not that we didn’t care because we obviously cared so much, but [Daniel] felt like it was written and created organically in a way, with nothing to prove. It was just like us settling into doing what we do, and we didn’t overthink it.

There’s a lot of thought behind it, but we weren’t too in our heads. It was kind of a return to us just making music, feeling the joy of making that music. And I think that that was a reaction to The Main Thing. It was a very strange time in the U.S., and we felt like we needed to make something that was substantive and reflected the intensity of the time and all this stuff. And now, having been living through those times, it’s just like, “It’s OK to continue to write pop songs that actually feel good. We need this kind of break, and other people might as well.”

Courtney: We had an idea early on of what the record was going to be like, knowing we were going to play to our strengths and make a pop record and then devising this blueprint and just allowing that to be our North Star. Even down to the instrumentation, we wanted it to feel very light and acoustic. In my own head, as I was writing the songs, it felt very easy to write because I knew what I was doing. On The Main Thing and pretty much always before this record, I was kind of feeling around in the dark when I was writing songs, trying to decide how to expand and get better and how we as a band could do more than just what we’re known for.

Whats your process for doing that — for leveling up and getting beyond what you’ve done previously?
Up until this record, it looked like trying to make increasingly complex music, at least in my mind, or increasingly inventive melodies or more parts in the song — almost just trying to one-up the previous record. Maybe that’s boiling it down too much, but that’s what it felt like to me. As a songwriter and as a band, it was about making an album full of six-minute songs that felt not proggy but had more complexity to them, that felt like growth. And I made this solo record between the last album and Daniel where I put very little thought into it in a good way: I was like, “I wrote these songs, and I’m just going to do exactly what feels right with each song and not think too hard about it and even improvise a lot of the guitar parts.” It was during the depth of Covid and making music was the only thing I could do to really feel sane, and that kind of planted the seed in my head of doing that but also being a little more intentional. The realization that I had was like, “You can go back to simplicity — having more-simple song structures, or just writing these simple pop songs.”

I’ve heard people say that this record feels like a return to an earlier style for this band, which was not something we were thinking about or trying to do at all. But I guess maybe an explanation for that is that [this album] is simple in a way that our earlier records were. When we were making those early records, we didn’t really know how to make anything more complex than that. When we started this band, I hadn’t written that many songs ever in my life. I feel these are some of the best songs I’ve written.… A previous version of myself as a songwriter might have felt uncomfortable saying these were finished songs, and some of these songs that we wrote on this record feel that way. But that simplicity is necessary.

Bleeker: I’m sure it’s relatable with prose writing, the way you hit an adolescent or teenage stage where you think that mature writing is using a bunch of adjectives or getting really flowery or words that people haven’t heard before. With the band, it’s like, “We need to put strings on this!” And not that I have any regrets, but you think that maturity is addition, and I think the maturity we found on this record is subtraction, clarity, and directness. It’s the same thing as in prose writing: Just say what you’re trying to say in the most direct way.

Courtney: “Water Underground” was probably the first song I wrote on this record. That was before I even knew what the album was going to be. I wrote that song and was like, “I want to write a bunch of songs like this. I want to keep going in this direction,” which is what led to this album being the way it is.

How do you see your evolution as a band?
Bleeker: It’s funny, we’ve been a band for 15 years at this point and I don’t know how old that is in band years, but it’s older than 15 in human years [laughs]. We’re young, but we’re old in band years. Things feel really harmonious and good, both inwardly and outwardly in the band right now. I can trace the trajectory from this being new and so exciting to having this kind of rocky, scary middle point where we clearly had to make personnel changes for obvious reasons. And then [experiencing] some growth and maturity and coming to this point where we were like, “What does that mean for us musically?” There were obvious reasons for that and reshaping ourselves musically and finding ourselves and finding togetherness. It feels like the band’s getting along really well and we’re making this music in a more intuitive way — a less self-conscious way. We started this band with just the ambition to make music, and then there are these business ambitions that come in there, like, “Well, how big can it be? And can we swing for the fences?” It can be easy to lose your path in that mentality, but I think that we’re just comfortable where we’re at and when we remember the seat of the thing, which is the joy to be making music.

It’s funny because, if you look back at early interviews, we’d sometimes say we wanted to make music that we all would have bonded over in high school, which I think is still sort of true. But we’re at this stage and there were a lot of bands that I fell in love with when I was like 15 or 16 years old who already had sort of a history behind them that I wasn’t there for initially. And there are young kids at these shows, and because of Covid and everything, we’re seeing them for the first time. I remember going to see Yo La Tengo and other bands for the first time and knowing that there are all these records behind them and that I’d be able to explore the back catalog: “What’s the new one?” “How does that fit into the new one?” I just feel like we’re at this stage where you go from the beginning to this middle period, and if you can hang around long enough, you get to the classic element of this. And I’m grateful that we have the folks who have been with us since the beginning.

From Rolling Stone US