If you needed to identify a member of Real Estate by sight, Alex Bleeker would be the easiest. The thick beard, the beat-up crooked baseball cap, the tendency to wear plaid; Bleeker has an uncalculated signature look in a band where everyone else’s look is distinctively non-distinctive.
That plain-sight difference between Bleeker and the rest of his alpha band becomes a plain-hearing difference when listening to his eponymous side-project Alex Bleeker and the Freaks, and their recent second LP, How Far Away. While Real Estate weaves layers of reverb-fogged guitars to drum up ‘90s nostalgia, Bleeker’s music grows from a different past.
“It’s more rooted in the Americana folk revival,” he says from New Jersey, just days after his album was released on Woodsist. “That’s what tears at my heartstrings. It’s what gets to me, and that’s what comes out of me.”
A self-proclaimed “classic rock nerd” when he started taking guitar lessons in high school, Bleeker was fortunate to befriend a circle of other budding musicians, many who would end up populating a number of nationally touring acts. On the phone, I mention Julian Lynch, an acclaimed independent multi-instrumentalist now based in Wisconsin and also one of the players of Bleeker’s 2009 Freaks’ debut.
“Julian Lynch is downstairs from me right this second,” Bleeker says. “But yeah, that gives you an idea. We’re all friends and we hang out together all the time. That’s just sort of the way it has always been, and I think that kind of thing is relatively common.
“These regionally based music crews and collectives, you first start to inspire each other. And then if one person begins to succeed in the traditional sense and get their music out there, that process becomes less elusive. And you help each other out, you meet the same people, you work together. We all sort of played music together in high school and as we got older, it just evolved.”
Still, Alex Bleeker seems to attract other talented people. The backing band on the first Freaks album was mostly just Lynch and Real Estate, but now he’s working with members of Big Troubles, Woods and Mountain Man. But it isn’t usually about how people can help Bleeker, but how Bleeker can help his friends.
“I’m a pretty social guy,” he admits before emitting a little half-laugh that reads equally self-conscious and proud. “I like hanging out and meeting people. I definitely am inspired by a lot of my friends, so if I meet somebody who is making great music and I think I could help them out or introduce them to people, I’m always down to do that.”
One of those people is Amelia Meath, one third of the aforementioned a cappella all-female trio Mountain Man, a group that recently drew attention for providing Feist’s back-up vocals on her last tour.
“The girls of Mountain Man and I went to college together,” Bleeker recalls. “They were making some wonderful music and it was right when Real Estate and the Freaks were first starting to happen. I was up at Bennington visiting them after I graduated and they pulled me into a room to play me what they were working on and I was blown away. I started freaking out and was like these friends of mine need to be heard. So I just sent a bunch of emails and sent some people their songs. And helped them name the band, too, I guess.”
Any help Bleeker gave has to be considered repaid in full by what she adds to How Far Away, her harmonies hitting the right contrasting points to highlight—not overshadow—his melody. Bleeker describes her presence as “invaluable” while referring to her as “Game Genie” because of her ability to be plugged in anywhere and make the project better.
Still, it’s Bleeker’s voice that is front and center, and his name that gets top billing, something that seems to have the songwriter conflicted, though not for the singing.
“I sang in choir in high school, and I’ve done plays,” he notes, “I have singing experience, I guess, as opposed to some rock musicians who are terrified of singing and recording vocals is the worst part of the recording for them. That’s what Martin is like in Real Estate. He has a great voice, but he doesn’t do anything besides record his vocals. And I am the opposite, I love to sing and record vocals and it kind of makes sense considering our styles. My songs are more about the vocal melodies and the words I’m saying.”
Bleeker’s songs also show a direct relationship with his musical heros. Not surprisingly, a direct comparison to Springsteen can be heard on “Step Right Up,” though, Bleeker admits he landed a little closer to new Bob Dylan. And then there’s Neil Young, the first association anyone with ears would make from hearing Bleeker’s songs.
“Neil Young is the perpetual overlord who dwarfs over everything I do in my life, ever,” Bleeker concedes.
The record is “80 percent” Alex Bleeker in the studio with Woods’ Jarvis Taveniere recording and providing some backing, as well as Real Estate’s Jackson Pollis and Big Troubles’ Sam Franklin. The lineup has recently felt more solid than ever, with Bleeker saying ‘I’ve surrounded myself with top dogs and I can do whatever I want and they will take care of me.”
”It’s been a loose collective for a long time and this album definitely has that feel. And it’s gotten by on people helping out when they can, but now finally, the band right now is feeling like a real band and that’s so nice. It looks to be stable, at least for a while.”
“We have to get creative with the scheduling with this and Ducktails and Real Estate,” Bleeker notes, curbing his enthusiasm for this project with the knowledge that Real Estate is still the top band in his life. “But Real Estate had a really intense 2012, and 2013 has been pretty mellow, but its starting to ramp up again. Real Estate has been on a break to the outside world, but we’re full-on with each other writing the album. And we’re going into the studio in July.”
“Freaks’ album came out in May but won’t do our U.S. tour until August, and that’s to make room for the Real Estate recording,” Bleeker notes. “Balancing that is tough, but I will say that the reason that the band has gotten tighter and we’ve put out this record is because Real Estate has been chilling out for the past several months.”
“I want to make the next album soon-ish,” he says. “But Real Estate is happening so my brain is already shifting to that mode again. But, I want to keep the momentum of the Freaks going and I want to make the next album with this band staying together. I’ll write the songs, but I want there to be less of a burden on my back to write all the songs by myself. I want to be able to bring a shell of a song to practice and work on it as a band and then go into the studio as a band, and I think that’s how the next record is going to feel.”
All the talk about a “real band” and only later does it resonate that he just refers to his band as the Freaks. And it is in this project that his attention doesn’t come from his look or his name being on the marquee, it comes from his songs and his talent.
“I’m a Leo,” Bleeker says. “I’m an attention whore. It’s different. Sometimes I get a little uncomfortable with the band name because we are more of a band now. It sounds egotistical but it has been how the band has been for a long time. But, now I feel it is less like that.”
“I like just being a guy in a band.”