Who Are…Alex Bleeker and the Freaks

Adam Rathe

By Adam Rathe

on 05.28.13 in Who Is...?s

File under: Smart guitar pop with feelings; don't call it a side project

For fans of: Real Estate, M. Ward, Unrest, and The Feelies

From: New York

Personae: Alex Steinberg, Jacob Wolf, Nick Lenchner, Dylan Shumaker, Jarvis Taveniere, Amelia Meath

It was a simpler time when Alex Bleeker and the Freaks released their self-titled 2009 debut. “The recording of that record took one day,” says Bleeker, who also plays bass in Real Estate. “The songs had been written, it being the first record and all, throughout my life. They were the best songs I’d written up to that point.”

When it came to making How Far Away, the group’s sophomore offering, things weren’t quite so easy.

“This record is pretty much the opposite experience of the first,” Bleeker says of his 11-song, lovelorn charmer. “I had the idea I wanted to follow up, but I didn’t have an exact plan. The recording process was stretched out over about two years and that’s just from when we started recording the earliest song on the record until we finished it.”

Made during the height of what he calls “Real Estate madness,” How Far Away was made in fits and starts whenever Bleeker and his cohorts had time to devote. The idea for what it would be, however, was set in stone early on. “The idea for the record came together as quickly as the first record was finished,” he says, “but it took this long for it to fully come together.”

Adam Rathe spoke with Bleeker about his love for the Grateful Dead, his theatrical ambitions and what happens when fans request Real Estate songs at Freaks shows.

On jam bands:

I don’t blindly subscribe to the music that is widely beloved by the jam-band scene. I think most of it is really bad. That said, I do love, love, love the Grateful Dead, particularly at this point in my life. I’m in the deepest Grateful Dead black hole I’ve ever been in.

What’s cool about the Dead is that they were always on the forefront of technology and ahead of their time. Basically, all PA systems we use now in modern concert halls were invested by the guy who made the original sound system for them and had the idea of multiple speakers stacked up in a row in front of each other in order to create a big sound.

You could chart the hipster acceptance of the Grateful Dead. It’s probably the highest it’s ever been. People used to have shame about it, people who grew up on the Dead and appreciate them a lot have been sheepish about their love for the Dead. Whatever happened in Brooklyn in 2009, when everyone was wearing tie-dye T-shirts and there was weed everywhere — that was the gateway to the Dead being cool. I also really like Phish.

On being a theater geek:

It’s sort of a sensitive subject. I think about theater a lot because I’m really not involved in it right now at all. That has a lot to do with the fact that the music thing, which is another dream of mine, took off. Which is great. I grew up expecting that, when I finished college, I would move to New York and be struggling to work in theater. I studied theater in college; it was always my biggest passion. I came to it the way a lot of people do, via theater in high school because it was an outlet that wasn’t sports. I had this really comprehensive high school program and the people who did it were really cool. It was the only thing I was really good at.

I moved to New York City and I was interested in new media and video in theater, which was a really hot thing at the time. I was the video guy who wanted to perform, too. I did a performance at the Kitchen, which was a really big deal for me. Then I started going on tour a lot with Real Estate, and it’s impossible to tour with a band and be at theater rehearsals at the same time. I haven’t lost interest, but I’m just not doing anything with it. I think a lot about doing something again and how I could make it work. You can go deeper with a theatrical performance and touch more complex things that you can while playing with a rock band. But when I’m on stage, it’s still a theatrical performance.

On making a break-up record:

I didn’t set out to write a record about heartbreak, but that’s what it is. It’s like, “Oh shit, I guess this is what I’m writing about.” It’s beyond the point of just grieving and feeling sorry for yourself — it’s not sad, it’s just practical. Like, what comes next? In my case, I’m not debilitated by this thing, it’s just the reality as I wade through other relationships and try to make them work as compared to this weird gold standard. Obviously, there’s tons of precedent for it — most songs are sad love songs. There’s some sort of collective unconscious thing that happens. Lyrically, I go there a lot and I don’t know why. It makes me feel better, I think. With a three-minute pop song, the best thing you can do is relate to a broad spectrum of people. It’s something a lot of people have experience with, so it can be cathartic to write a song and also to hear a song that reflects situation you’ve been in.

On being that guy from Real Estate:

The fact that people will give my record a chance because I’m involved in Real Estate is positive for me. I’ve had a lot of opportunities based on that. You don’t want to be like, “The only reason people give a shit about this is because I’m in another band,” but at the same time it’s not like I’m a hired-gun bass player for that other band and I have nothing to do with the creative process. In a way, I feel like it’s all part of me and if that brings you to my solo music, that’s so much the better.

Sometimes at shows, people come up and ask me to play a Real Estate song and I have to explain that this is something else. But then sometimes people come up and say they like my solo stuff more than Real Estate. But that’s me, too. I’m not competing with myself.

On the physicality of being a frontman:

With the Freaks I’m in the middle of the stage and I’m singing all night, but I’m pretty good with my voice. Actually, I took choir class for a long time, so I know how to sing correctly. It’s not something I think about when I’m singing in a rock band, but I’m used to it and I know how to do it. For Martin in Real Estate, before we played a ton of shows, he hadn’t sung much. For him, it was figuring out how to be good to your voice; I’d often tell him he’d blow his voice out. Now he’s a singer who’s really aware of that.

While I don’t get into the whole tea thing, it’s definitely real for me and it’s what I do. The Freaks are a lot more about vocals and the lyrics and communicating those feelings. So, I do a lot of the work for the band in my voice. It’s something I’m using a lot.

On coming from New Jersey:

At this point, that scene [is growing] exponentially. I can speak to Ridgewood High School directly, which has birthed a lot of bands. It’s crazy to me. There were just people obsessed with music who wanted to play in rock bands. We formed this scene in people’s parents’ basements and it was really special and rewarding. The first group of those people to get recognition in New York doing that was the Vivian Girls and Titus Andronicus, and they were an inspiration to the rest of us. It was like, “Oh, man, those are our friends.” I knew those people and where they came from. It impregnates you with a sense of possibility — that’s our scene, if they can do it, we can do it. Now bands like Big Troubles are a few years younger than us, but that attitude we had I can see in them.