It’s not every college kid who can boast having a rock icon playing in their basement. Real Estate’s Matt Mondanile, however, recalls Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore playing that up close and personal. “I was at Hampshire College in western Massachusetts,” Mondanile recalls. “There was a lot of experimental music, free jazz, and noise rock. I really got into that. I’d have shows where Thurston would play in my basement. I would do all this ridiculous stuff in college.” Having Moore playing in your cellar doesn’t count as a ridiculous college stunt: “Yeah, that was a cool thing,” agrees Mondanile, “that was a very cool thing.”
At the time, Mondanile was making music under the name Ducktails, his longtime solo project that survived his joining Real Estate in 2009 and saw a fifth album, St. Catherine, released on July 24 on Domino Records, which makes him labelmates with his other band. St. Catherine is a summery dream-pop set, lushly orchestrated, and inspired to a large extent by Mondanile’s move from the East Coast to the West a couple of years ago.
“I had moved to Los Angeles from New York. It was nice to be in a new place and have this open perspective on where I was,” says the 30-year-old, speaking from his parents’ home in New Jersey. He’d just flown in from Los Angles to get ready to start his tour in Philadelphia. Seeing his folks is a bonus, and, he jokes, “I don’t have to pay for a hotel!”
“I was also traveling a lot with Real Estate. So the record took a long time,” Mondanile continues, adding that juggling two bands isn’t always the best situation. “It doesn’t always work well. A lot of the time it’s like, ‘Ah, I have to go on tour again.’ I don’t mind touring — it can be fun — but I love the studio. I write in the studio, but mostly I’m writing in my bedroom. I use the studio as an instrument. I do bedroom-studio writing,” he says, a series of short statements ending in a giggle.
Though the record was made somewhat piecemeal with additional work done in Berlin and New York, it was mostly written and recorded in LA. It was certainly finished there after, through mutual friends, Mondanile met up with Rob Schnapf, co-producer of Elliott Smith’s classic albums XO and Either/Or.
“I’d worked on most of the record before I started on it with Rob. I was playing the music for friends and they thought the songs sounded like Elliott Smith — I thought, ‘No, they don’t’ — and they said, ‘You should work with Rob Schnapf.’ ” A few emails later and Schnapf was on the phone, the two bonding over their shared New Jersey roots. “I said that I live in Highland Park, and he told me he’s from the Jersey Shore. We really hit it off. We had a lot in common: He’s half-Italian, half-Jewish. I said I’m Italian and all my friends are Jewish! It was that kind of thing.”
So, earlier this year, the pair set about bringing Mondanile’s romantic vision to life. “The way I experience the record is as if you’re walking through a beautiful botanical garden, but you’re in a relationship that’s falling apart. The record is about a relationship that’s not going too well, but in a beautiful, ornate setting.”
What with Real Estate still touring their latest record and Ducktails’ summer commitments, Mondanile switches between the two as best he can. “There’s never really been a break; it’s kind of really overlapped this time. I’ll go straight from touring Europe to playing a gig with Real Estate. But, right now, there is nothing on the agenda and I have some time for myself, which is really nice.”
Basking in the familiarity of his parents’ house, he seems very in the moment. “Really, I’m kicking it back, getting ready for the tour. Today I have a bunch of errands to run, like getting a keyboard fan and going to Guitar Center for some musical stuff. It’s pretty nice….Oh, and I try to exercise,” he announces as if reminding himself. “I’ve been trying to exercise a lot, because I’m always traveling and touring and it takes a toll on you. So I try to go on a run. Sometimes I just don’t do it at all and I think I wish I did do that. Then, when I do actually do it, it’s really nice.”
Tour prep is a bit like cleaning your home: It creates order in a cluttered, unpredictable life. There’s a certain Zen state about making sure you have enough clean socks. “I think it’s Zen, because you don’t know if you’re bringing the right things or not,” Mondanile says of packing. “Then you just realize, ‘Oh, I can just get what I need when I need it.’ ”
Ducktails perform on August 7 at the Bowery Ballroom. For ticket information, click here.