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.