Alex Bleeker of Real Estate on improvisation and the merits of the Grateful Dead and Phish
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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