Alex Bleeker of Real Estate on improvisation and the merits of the Grateful Dead and Phish
Real Estate (due tonight at the Gothic Theatre) was formed by some friends who grew up in Ridgewood, New Jersey. They were guys who graduated from college in the early '90s just in time for a severe economic downturn, when it became obvious that the prospects as a new college graduate were bleak. So Alex Bleeker, Martin Courtney and Matthew Mondanile decided to put their energies into making a delicate yet emotive pop music. While comparisons to the Feelies and C86-era bands were inevitable, there was a certain earnest humility underlying the band's tales of uncertainty in uncertain times, like these guys had to put their faith in something so they let self-expression be that vehicle.
Real Estate's latest album, 2011's Days, is a step out of that realm of sophisticated youthful angst, but the well-crafted, shimmering melodies and sharply observed lyrics remain key features of the band's songwriting. We recently spoke with the act's bassist, the engaging and insightful Alex Bleeker, about that aforementioned uncertainty, his love for improvisational music and coming to terms with having a middle class background when so many creative types seem to deny and even reject it.
Westword: What got you playing bass?
Alex Bleeker: It's funny, I didn't play bass before I played bass in this band. I played guitar. I basically learned the instrument on guitar for a long time. Since I was a young teenager -- twelve or thirteen. Martin [Courtney], the lead singer and rhythm guitarist in Real Estate, is a really talented bass player. In all the bands when we were younger, in our high school days, he played bass and I played guitar.
When we started this band, and Martin was writing most of the songs, as he continues to do, he was originally going to play bass because we always thought of him as a bass player. But it didn't really make any senses because it was easier for him to sing the songs while he played rhythm. And he wrote the songs on guitar so it made sense for him to play guitar. I was clearly going to be in the band from the get go because we were all good friends. So he said, "You could play bass!" And I said, "Yeah, cool, I can play bass. I know where all the notes are from playing guitar."
That's pretty much how I started. Now, obviously, I play bass all the time, so much that I think of myself as a bassist, or at least as much as I think of myself as a guitarist. It's been fun for me to learn why the bass is different from the rhythm guitar and serves a different function in the band. Even though the notes and the strings are in the same place, the types of things that you can do are different and it's just a really different instrument.
What kind of bass do you play?
I play a 1976 Fender Music Master bass. It's a short scale bass. It's basically a Mustang bass but a little bit a different configuration. Like there's only one pickup on it.
How did Alex Bleeker and The Freaks come together?
I have all these songs I've written and in the very early Real Estate shows before the band was called Real Estate, we played some of them. But it didn't really fit thematically or sonically with the what was going on with the rest of Real Estate and where it was going. But I still had all of these songs and all my friends, and I first started putting out records and making records together. I felt like I had something to contribute to that pot, so Alex Bleeker and the Freaks was born. That early batch of songs that was written early on were on the first record that I made. We started playing shows and I'm working on another record now.
You obviously have an interest in improvisational music. Do you play the bass in Alex Bleeker and the Freaks as well?
No, I play guitar in the Freaks.
What do you enjoy about the improvisational method of making music?
It's exciting for me. Just the idea of getting together and just playing...when I practice with the Freaks, we've just been improvising for a long time. We'll play some songs now and then but it's less practicing than getting together and just jamming. It's so different from what Real Estate is at the moment, which is a very sort of structured thing we've created. I play a lot with Real Estate and tour a lot. So it's like ten songs every night with very little variation. The Freaks has been this sort of a release from that in this weird way. It's just a balance because I value playing in both ways.
Playing improvisationally is just sort of going with whatever happens in the moment and there's a spark and new things are created. Out of improvising there will come a lick or a riff or a chord progression that can later be turned into a more structured song that never would have existed if you just sat down and played by yourself. Creating something without structure is, I don't want to say better, as equally and as exciting as something more structured like what's happening with Real Estate.
In numerous interviews you cite the Dead and Phish as inspirations to your music. What is it about those bands that resonates so strongly for you?
I grew up listening to them, so there's always this sort of resonance of that music that you loved so much in high school. It was as much a cultural thing as a musical thing at that time. I just have reverence for that kind of music. I think it is the thrill of not knowing what you're going to get at any given moment. You can hear fifteen different versions of "Sugaree" by the Grateful Dead, and they're all going to be a little bit different, and then you can have your own personal favorite one.
There's such a personal relationship to have with the band and their music. You can go so deep and there's so much variation and such a culture behind it that's really attractive to me. Even just the idea of going to shows with the hope that you're going to get great versions tonight. And the community that's built around it that can talk about those things together. I don't know, I think that's really cool.
That makes a lot of sense. Kind of like how the culture around jazz bands used to be and sometimes still is.
Before you started playing shows, what were your biggest fears or concerns and misconceptions and what was your first show like?
It's always scary to put yourself out there like that. Before Real Estate, I had definitely played shows before but they were more kind of like for small groups of friends or in houses or in weird sort of alternative spaces. I remember some early Real Estate shows in actual clubs, on real stages, and being so nervous, when more people started showing up, thinking, "One of these days all these people are going to realize it's just us and we don't belong in this club and on this stage."
It's very surreal when things first start happening. You get kind of used to it then there are bigger milestones that come along where something else will feel new, and scary or intimidating or something like that. I remember playing on a stage that looks really small to me now but at the time being so nervous, almost shaking before I went out there because I felt like I wasn't some professional band that should be in a professional club.
In an interview for Jambands.com last year, you talked about how you were involved in theater when you were going to Bennington College, where you were exposed to avant-garde theater. Who were some of the artists or troupes you studied, and how did that impact you as an actor and maybe as a creative person generally?
Probably one of the biggest impacts that any single theatrical group had on me was a company called the Wooster Group. I actually went and interned with them in New York a couple of times a few years ago. They've been around forever. They're this sort of seminal, experimental theater group that got its start in the '60s. Right now, the kind of work that they do is sort of deconstructionalist. They'll take a classic text and break it down into something really new and bizarre. Almost like theatrical sampling in a way, or mash-ups.
They also rely on new technology and integrating that into the live experience. That was always really attractive to me because I do think the screen, whether it be the television screen, the film screen or the iPhone screen have sort of replaced the function of what public theaters used to be before those things existed. So they'll often put tons of different kinds of screens on stage at once too, which was really exciting to me.
You met Martin Courtney and Matthew Mondanile while in high school?
Martin even younger. I met him in middle school. We've all been friends for what feels like forever, and basically the music was very central to our friendship and relationship very early on. We were getting each into music or playing music together or sharing bands we liked or going to shows. We've always been involved in music together, and it's been at the heart of our friendships.
Obviously, you guys formed Real Estate together. Why did you call the band Real Estate? You mentioned calling the band something else before you came up with that name.
Basically, we had all finished college and we were home living in our parents' houses one summer, having no idea what to do with our lives. Being so heavily institutionalized for whatever it was -- sixteen years -- Martin was in the middle of getting his realtor's license. His parents own a real estate company, and they said, "Listen, just get your license, and you can come work for us in the office if all else fails." We've known his parents a long time because we were childhood friends. We were over there having a barbecue or something, and his parents were saying, "You know you guys could all do that if you wanted. You could all get your real estate licenses and we'll give you all a job."
We were joking around about how, "Wouldn't it be funny if we were all real estate agents by day and then had this band by night and what if we called the band 'Real Estate.'" It was just a joke. We didn't know what else to call the band and when we finally started trying to play shows and stuff so we were just like, "Okay, Real Estate."
What did you call yourselves before that?
We had different bands together growing up. The first band the three of us were all in together was called Hey There Sexy. We were fifteen. Then Martin and I were in a band called the Enormous Radio together in high school. Matt was in a band called Paper Face. During the formation of Real Estate, he was already doing the Ducktails thing as sort of a solo project.
In an interview you did for ABC News you did in February this year you talk about that awkward age when you're not a kid anymore but you don't necessarily feel like you're living the life of an adult. In what ways did that inform the content of your songwriting for your first album?
It's sort of a weird grey period that first summer you come back from college. The film The Graduate expresses that perfectly. You have this sort of almost carefree, responsibility-free lifestyle for so long, and all of a sudden, you get thrust out into this world of: "What are you doing? What are you doing? What are you gonna do with your life? You're young, you know." I definitely see it as a luxury to even have that sort of experience of, "I don't know what's going to happen." A lot of people are just born into whatever it is they're going to do, and they don't a choice or freedom or even almost the privilege to feel that anxiety.
Nonetheless, it is a very confusing feeling and sort of a specific, particular anxiety, that I think a lot of people can relate to. That was also during when the recession hit and the housing crash. So it was cool for us in this weird way trying to be creative because it was like, "Listen, might as well. There's no security in a desk job right now anyway." It was such an interesting time to be freshly out of school because everything was so uncertain and our attitude was like, "We're just going to try to be ourselves and continue to play music and do what we've always done." I think that first album really addresses that attitude, I guess.
Has your subject matter and approach to writing songs changed since then for your writing of Days?
Not super considerably but it's a little bit more mature. I think we grew up significantly from the time we wrote the first album and now. I think the album addresses a little more mature themes. A lot of the lyrical content of the most recent album addresses what it's like to be in a band and be on the road all of the time. Which, obviously, was not a perspective we had when making the first record.
What would you say you learned as a band traveling on the road that influenced the lyrics?
I think, in a lot of ways, the world has become smaller, and we've seen a lot more of it and understand more the connections between different people and different countries. There's also this prevailing theme of homesickness and longing, I think, on the record because Martin is engaged right now, and there's a long distance relationship. It's like being torn between being home with the person you love and also wanting to be out on the road doing the things that you love. The passion that we have for this band makes it so we're out of town a lot and that sort of presents an interesting conflict.
In that interview you did with The Guardian last November you said, "we share a bond with a lot of people who have a common, middle-class suburban experience." What do you think that bond is based upon, and how do you think it informs the music you make and how you present yourselves as musicians on stage?
I think it's because it's an American, privileged mediocrity that a lot of us share. You have this incredible fortune to have, and I don't know what your upbringing was like, but for me, it was a relatively easy life handed to you. We're not super rich, elite, posh people. Everybody's got their problems but they're sort of like high society problems in this way if you look at it in the context of where I could have been born in the realm of what is possible.
Having a knowledge of that, being like, "Okay, well, I'm in this Westernized, first world, where when I'm a teenager, what I'm thinking about is mostly not where I'm going to get my food but the girl that I have a crush on." I think there are a lot of people who grew up that way, and maybe there's this increasing desire in the world of music to separate yourself from that or have a story or be urban or weird or hard or whatever it is. When in reality a lot of people have an experience similar to what you and I have had.
We're just trying to be honest about that, and I think people are relating to that. The only thing we can do is reflect and express the actual experiences that we've had. In a way, we're almost trying to satisfy this younger version of ourselves or speak to people who are going through that sort of thing now. It can be cool to have this sort of suburban experience or whatever it is you're going through. It doesn't mean you can't make art or something legitimate. I do think it's a pretty common American life experience, and we just try to have that honesty ring through in the records and in our onstage persona. It's very humble and no frills. Just trying to be true, I guess.
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