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Real Estate’s Alex Bleeker talks band dynamics, gender quotas and politics

Dan Webb
Brooklyn-based indie rock band Real Estate released their fifth studio album, The Main Thing in February. We caught up with bass player Alex Bleeker around the time of release – prior to the current global pandemic and the announced postponement of their scheduled tour. They’ve since released a “Quarantour” augmented reality website so fans can enjoy the live experience at home.

Congrats on the new album. This is the first time that you’ve brought in outside musicians for recording. How and why did you arrive at that decision?
I think it’s a symptom of really everything that we were driving at in constructing this album… we really were asking ourselves in an earnest, genuine, open way, what is the point of making another Real Estate album, five albums in, ten years into the career? You know, asking ourselves existential questions, knowing that we wanted to go forward, but feeling like we really needed to have a good reason to go forward. And I think the answer that we found for ourselves is to, you know, not to get complacent and to always keep evolving and changing… Bringing in outside folks was just – it made so much sense. It’s sort of top of the list of, you know, music has always been played almost entirely by the members that make up the band. And what if we bring in some outside perspectives. Some people we trust their tastes, you know, instruments we don’t know how to play or write for in particular and like, what can that lend to the foundation of the band that we’ve already built? You know, does that make sense? It was just a good way to get us into new territory.

We really were asking ourselves in an earnest, genuine, open way, what is the point of making another Real Estate album, five albums in, ten years into the career?

Review: Real Estate – The Main Thing

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There’s increasing collective anxiety surrounding issues such as climate change and the state of politics. Heading into the recording of this album, did you feel like you had to choose between tackling these issues or presenting an outlet for escapism?
I think that we confront them, albeit in a personal way in terms of what does it feel like to go forward in a world that – I’m not going to say the world has changed, because a lot of these things that are in front of us have always been there as long as we’ve been alive. It’s just like now we’re more aware than we ever have been before. This sort of extra, for lack of a better term, anxious state of this world that we’re living in. And I think you have to ask yourself the question, “is making art a worthwhile pursuit when faced with the discovery of these realities?” And I think, you know, we found for ourselves, yes, of course it is. But what if all the others just gave up and stopped making work? That would be a much more dismal place to be in. I think, you know, so while we haven’t made the decision to outwardly and directly talk about politics or, you know, it’s more of a personal question than a sort of reckoning. When faced with the obvious inherent reality of something as grand a feeling as climate change, how do you move forward? What is the correct action to take for yourself personally? In a kind of broad sense.

Sure. And how did the outside influence of bringing additional musicians in affect the internal dynamics of the band?
I think it was really cool in terms of like, it helped us to let go and to get to a place where we hadn’t been before. I think there’s something really important about letting a band be a band, and follow total instincts, especially early on in your career. But I think five records in, you, even without necessarily knowing it, can get to a place of like, “this is how we do things”… I think bringing in other people just forces you to take other people’s suggestions that seemingly could be like, not out of left field, but like something you never would’ve thought of, and have to really consider them and push you into new space. I think in a sense that’s almost easier to generate from other musicians outside of the band because there isn’t that shared history there, and you know it’s going to be different. And I think ultimately it affects everything from the top down. Like once you get into that practice of letting go a little bit of like, “my thing, totally mine, total control”, then you can start doing that in a collaborative dynamic within the band as well. This is the first time that band members gave Martin (Courtney) some lyrical feedback. Usually it was just like, I wrote the song, he did the lyrics, and that’s what it is. And you know, just everybody coming out and saying, “look, we’ve got five heads here. Let’s offer a different perspective” and doing the work of being like, you know, “I’m not necessarily the guitar player, but maybe the guitar line, could you add…” or just like, I think letting go of the ego in the recording studio, for the greater good.

I’m a guy talking to somebody in Australia about a record. That’s successful to me.

What does success mean to you and can you “make it” without touring in 2020?
I don’t think you can be financially solvent without touring in 2020, but that might not be what success means (laughs) to everyone. And certainly I have to remind myself that it’s not what success means to me necessarily. I think this band has been successful beyond their wildest dreams because we, you know, when we started the band – you know, I’m a guy talking to somebody in Australia about a record. That’s successful to me. It’s amazing that we have the platform to reach that far. So I just feel really, really grateful and lucky and happy that people seem to continue to be interested in our music. But the truth is, yeah, you’ve got to tour. If financial success is something that is important to you, and of course, I’m not going to lie, I’m not in this in order to just to keep the band going – you got to travel around. The money’s really in live music these days, not recorded music. But fortunately for me, I like to earn travelling the world and meeting people and playing shows. So it could be worse.

Do you think that gender quotas should be imposed on festival lineups? Say, 40% of acts need to be female artists for example.
Yeah, I mean, I think that it’s unfortunate that there is a need for those kinds of things, but like if you look at – I mean, the numbers don’t lie, you know. Festivals and the amount of opportunities in general are just heavily, heavily, heavily favoured towards men. And, you know, that’s just a product. There’s obviously generations and generations of gender discrimination. So yeah, I think I’m in favour of it because I think in order to get to – equality is the goal, right, and not thinking about it is the goal. But obviously that’s not where we’re at. So taking measures to correct centuries of imbalance, I don’t think that’s a bad idea at all.

Let’s discuss your live show. From what I’ve seen, there appears to be no frills, no bullshit, no stage antics involved. Was that a conscious decision from the start or was it borne out of nerves or uncertainty in the early days?
Just cos we don’t like jump around or something? I think we’re sort of doing what’s natural to us up there. That’s always been our thing, is we sort of like present the reality of who we are, unpretentiously. I won’t say that I wish that we – I think the idea that like stage production is really cool and like having some visuals or set pieces, it would be really, really awesome. And we’re just not – we can’t afford it, frankly (laughs)… Sometimes we can get excited, but, I guess we’re there, you know, on the more subdued side of things… You can know that when you’ve seen a Real Estate show, you’re getting the real thing.

I’ve got a really specific question about the new album. “Sting” appears to move up a semitone into a major key and shifts tempo in the transition into “Silent World”. Was it actually recorded in the key that it’s presented in, or was it digitally pitch shifted?
We sped up the song to be at the same tempo as “Silent World”. They weren’t written as the same song, if that’s what you’re asking. It was something that we figured out in the studio that we could string together. I don’t remember whether or not the key was changed, but the tempo is definitely changed. You hear that drum machine part that comes in midway through “Sting” and that sort of takes us into the next drum machine part of “Silent World”. And what we did was we pitched up – we may have pitched up the whole song. I can’t remember if we pitched up the whole song or just the drum machine part. You know what it is. I don’t think we changed the key of the song actually. I think we just sped up the drum machine in order to match the tempo of things, so they would flow into one another. That was kind of like a little trick of a thing that we discovered in the studio itself. It wasn’t always intended to be that way.

Sure. Sometimes it’s those little mistakes or accidents which turn out to be really rewarding.
Oh yeah, a lot of that stuff. That’s my favourite kind of stuff. That was sort of late in the process when we figured out we could do that and when we recorded “Sting” in general. Those are the moments when you feel like you’re really getting into the artistry of making an album, you know, when you actually have a moment to explore like that, which this album was full of.

I think division on the left is a really scary thing and it could easily be weaponised to hurt the left.

The Democratic primaries are obviously underway at the moment in the States. I watched a pretty contentious debate last night. What’s your message to people currently having trouble deciding who to vote for, or perhaps vote at all?
I think that, uh, look, I, you know, probably will support any Democratic candidate as staunchly opposed to Donald Trump being reelected. And so I have my own particular feelings as who to vote for in the primary, and I think everybody should, I think vote your conscience in the primary, but I think division on the left is a really scary thing and it could easily be weaponised to hurt the left. So I guess I’ll just keep an open mind with whoever ultimately becomes the Democratic nominee. I guess that’s my message is in this particular circumstance. I would gladly support whoever ends up being the nominee on the left, and to check yourself before you get too divided on that side of things, because there are bigger fish to fry.

Absolutely. I think that’s a really good message. I’ve got one last question for you. If you could collaborate with any artist in any medium, who would it be and what would you create?
Any artist in any medium, who would it be and what would I create? I think it would be really amazing to have, uh, an album cover painted by David Hockney (laughs). Either that or, uh, maybe Prince could produce the next Real Estate record at some fantastical world. Okay, how’s this? I’m cheating on the question. A Real Estate album produced by Prince, with the album cover by David Hockney.