For a brief moment last fall, it looked like an upstart indie band called Real Estate might wind up being New Jersey's most significant new pop cultural export of 2009. Of course, that was before we all met "Snooki," "The Situation" and the other lovely characters of MTV's latest coughed-up hairball of a reality show, Jersey Shore. Still, rather than bemoaning this as another victory for shallow-minded schlock over critically acclaimed art, it might be worth taking a closer look at just how much these two seemingly disparate Garden State creations actually have in common.
"All the songs on the LP were kind of written around the same time," says Real Estate singer/guitarist Martin Courtney, referring to his band's self-titled debut on the Brooklyn indie label Woodsist. "It was after college, when we were all moving home and stuff. That was the vibe — the 'moving home to your parents house' kind of vibe. And it was the summertime, too, so that all kind of played into it."
OK, so let's consider the context: Courtney and his bandmates — fresh out of school, living back in the Jersey suburbs, unsure about their futures, hanging out at the beach a lot and kicking the sand around. It's no insult to say that these old pals weren't exactly super-ambitious art school intellectuals when they formed Real Estate in the summer of 2008. In fact, they probably had as much in common with, say, the aimless 20-somethings populating the TV version of their Jersey Shore reality. Sure, Snooki probably has never spent a lot of time listening to obscure New Zealand jangle-pop bands from the '80s, as Courtney has, but there's still a relevant shared experience to be found in here. Real Estate — while easily identifiable on the surface as another DIY, lo-fi indie act on a hipster-approved Brooklyn label — is actually far more fascinating for how broadly appealing the band's lazy surf-rock aesthetic really is. This is pop music, first and foremost, and it effectively captures the "sound" of being a 23-year-old American kid in 2010 — jobless, doubtful and unavoidably nostalgic.
"It's kind of like going back in time to your childhood, or at least senior year of high school," says Courtney, "but it's also different. Because you're thinking, 'OK, I don't really want to be here anymore. I'm ready to get out.' [Laughs.]"
The lyrics to the band's single "Beach Comber" might sum it up even better: "What you want is just outside your reach / You keep on searchin' / You're walking down that Pensacola beach / You keep repeatin'."
"None of us really had any idea what we were doing career-wise," says Courtney, who spent much of the band's infancy attending real estate classes — hence the name. "My parents are in real estate, so they said, 'Oh, you should do this. It's work. We can get you a job as a real estate agent.' So they did, but I didn't end up really fully pursuing that. I mean, I got my license and stuff."
Courtney's greater motivations were coming from New York City, where some of his high school friends had already found indie-rock success in bands like Titus Andronicus and Vivian Girls.
"It was definitely cool that we had some friends who had blazed a trail in a way," he says. "I think that kind of inspired us to at least go for it. But I don't think any of us had a real plan going in. I mean, for a long time, we just played any show we could. We were playing at least twice a weekend, every weekend. I think that's the best way of doing it, though. Because people are bound to hear about you eventually if you keep playing shows. And then we were lucky enough to have friends who were starting a label right when we started. They put out our first 7-inch as their first release, so that was a stroke of luck that we got to get a record out so early in the process."
After that, it wasn't long before Real Estate had become the latest overnight Internet success story, earning positive comparisons to some unlikely cult heroes of the '80s kiwi pop scene — The Clean, Tall Dwarfs and The Bats among them.
"I can see the influence, but I don't think it was really intentional," Courtney says. "Honestly, I don't know what the whole kiwi pop thing is supposed to represent. Because most of those bands just sound like really good pop bands to me. Like with The Clean, it's almost defined just by how generic it sounds ... but in a good way. [Laughs.] I don't know."
While the kiwi sensibility might escape him, Courtney certainly recognizes the outsider's perception of New Jersey — both the good and the bad.
"Yeah, the whole Bon Jovi vibe, which kind of plays into the Jersey Shore vibe — it's stupid, to be sure. But, you know, it's also pretty funny. And I think Springsteen and Yo La Tengo balance it out anyway."
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