With twelve years of both manning bass duties for Real Estate and leading the charge for Alex Bleeker and the Freaks under his belt, Alex Bleeker is a seasoned pro at the age of 34. Which begs the question: when you’ve headlined nearly every major festival in the world and been a critical darling for over a decade, where do you go from there? Well, you go back to basics, of course.
For Bleeker, that meant nixing the Freaks and harkening back to his early loves in suburban New Jersey such as hometown heroes the Feelies and Yo La Tengo. Essentially a bedroom project, Bleeker’s forthcoming album Heaven on the Faultline was largely written and recorded at his home via GarageBand and then fleshed out in the studio later. While a few musicians including CMON's Josh DeCosta, Sun Arraw's Cameron Stallones, Kacey Johansing, and Tim Ramsey stopped by to offer their talents for the record, it’s very much Bleeker’s first completely “solo” album.
Perhaps because of this, Bleeker allows himself to wear his influences on his sleeve with pride while honing in on songwriting and his talent for writing a catchy-as-hell guitar riff for Heaven on the Faultline. The sunny, buoyant melodies are in stark contrast to the lyrics, which skew towards bleak and world-weary, creating a paradoxical listen akin to (although not nearly as depressing as) the best of David Berman’s catalog.
Kicking the album off is the warm, jangly instrumental track “AB Ripoff.” Once eased into the tonal world the record resides in, the charming guitar noodler “D Plus” nixes a chorus for 5 minutes plus of verses steeped in the anxiety of impending doom. “We should all settle down /Keep our ear to the ground /There are forces at work /Beyond perception.” The fact that the song was written the day of Trump’s inauguration is context that likely surprises no one.
“Felty Feel” is a jaunty tune about the hopelessness of climate change, with Bleeker resigning, “Let’s just not talk about it/Seriously what’s the use /Don’t mean to be a downer /But there’s nothing I can do.” Even “LaLaLa,” easily the catchiest song on the record, is still far more bleak and unhopeful than the bright, bouncy melody suggests.
But fun is to be had on Heaven on the Faultline. Quirky numbers like “Twang” and “Mashed Potatoes” find Bleeker using simple, repetitive melodies and riffs in unique ways. The former circles around and around while Bleeker chimes out nearly uninflected lyrics in a childlike one-note stream of consciousness. The latter uses a timeless blues rhythm and, while Bleeker is still bleak about the fate of the world, he shrugs it off, realizing perhaps there’s not a whole lot he can do about it and concentrates on the small things that bring him joy. Cups of coffee, mashed potatoes, juice.
“Heavy Tupper” leans into Bleeker’s love for jam bands with a psychedelic leaning number that showcases that a Deadhead never dies. Led by a repetitive bass line, the words “heavy tupper” reverberate around wailing guitars and spacey synths for a hypnotizing effect.
While Garden State-bred jangle-pop might be where he began, Bleeker’s a Californian now and that is made abundantly clear on Heaven on the Faultline. “Tamalpais” uses a mountain in California as a reference point in the lethargic slow strummer while “Twang” finds Bleeker musing about the strangeness of leaving New York City for the sunshine state.
Finishing off with a short and sweet acoustic folk ballad, “Lonesome Call” is Bleeker’s ode to Neil Young. It’s a fitting tribute considering one can (and Bleeker does) draw parallels between the Freaks and Crazy Horse. After 13 tracks of mostly discontented prattling over the state of the world, the final line asks, “Who among you hears my lonesome call?” We hear you, Alex. We absolutely do.
Ahead of its release on Friday, March 5th, KEXP is streaming Heaven on the Faultline in full for 24 hours. Listen below and read an interview with Bleeker that touches on the new record, his love for Neil Young, and the painful but instructive ending of his relationship with Matt Mondanile.
KEXP: You're about to release your new solo album, Heaven on the Faultline. I read that you actually finished this album a whole year ago, before Covid, and have just kind of been sitting on it. Having it finished for so long, does it kind of feel like an old hat where you're kind of over it and on to something new, or are you still really excited about these songs coming out?
Alex Bleeker: I'm definitely not over it at all. And if anything, finally getting to share a few tracks with people, coming up on the full release in a couple of weeks now, I'm more excited about it than ever. So it's a really good feeling. You know, I think a lot of music fans don't realize that records do tend to take time for them to come out once they're done. This one was extra long, though, for sure, mostly because of Covid. It wasn't even intentional, though. Like I think if Covid hadn't hit, this record would have been out this summer but we never had a conversation that was like, "Oh, let's move it because of it." It was just like our heads started spinning around in circles. And we're like, "Oh, yeah, let's put the record out." [laughs] You know, just took a minute to come back down to earth or something.
Yeah, right. "Oh, I forgot I had the album. I should probably put it out."
You recorded these songs a little bit differently where you were alone, without the Freaks. Is this something you've been wanting to do for a long time or did it just kind of happen that way?
It's sort of happenstance. It was kind of, you know, all love for the Freaks. And I will say that the name "the Freaks" started as kind of a loose like, "It's just me and whoever is randomly with me." But then, yeah, the reason that this record isn't called Alex Bleeker and the Freaks is because over time we really did become a band, you know, and so it just didn't feel right to put that name on it without those specific people involved.
Absolutely. That's respectful.
Yeah. Yeah, I'm hoping to create a sort of like Neil Young and Crazy Horse type of vibe. You know, the Freaks are a band, they're a special band and they're a specific band, you know.
Yes. And I also get some real Neil Young vibes on this record, honestly.
Oh, cool. Well, thank you very much. I mean, he has been an overarching influence for as long as I can remember.
For you, what are the pros and cons of recording completely alone versus with a band?
The pros are you can do whatever you want in an uncompromising way, you know, which is also the con. [laughs] If I go down a rabbit hole being in a band – I'm not sure if you've ever been in a band, but as anyone has been in a band will know, it's a wonderful and sometimes difficult experience because you've got a group of people who all have different opinions. And there are social dynamics to navigate. I mean, that's as important as any other dynamic in the band, I think. And that's also the great part about being in a band.
I think having been in the Freaks, continuing to be in the Freaks, having been in Real Estate for 12 years at this point – which is crazy to say out loud – it is wonderful to have an outlet to just be like, "I have this very clear vision and I'm going to execute it." I find that I can work more quickly that way. And it's exciting. However, being in a band and bringing more minds in, oftentimes makes for unexpected, wonderful little surprises to happen. Because someone's like, "Well, let's do it like that." And if you're open enough to be like, "I never thought about it that way." Then that can also be really great.
So I wouldn't ever trade one for the other. But it is sort of therapeutic for me to make this record. And I should say that I didn't make this record completely by myself, you know. It is so much a solo record and I was directing the helm in ways that I haven't with the Freaks, and especially with Real Estate, but there were other musicians that came in. I worked with a producer named Phil Hartunian, who I would ask for his opinion early and often. It's not just me, even though it's a solo record.
Well, I think it's really great. And probably your most dynamically unique and interesting, in my opinion, because it's got a little bit of everything, like it's got pop jams, like "La La La" and like guitar noodlers like "D Plus," and then you've got some kind of oddball tracks like "Twang" and "Mashed Potatoes." Was that something you really set out to try to do?
Yeah, it's really fun, that's kind of the cool solo thing is like it sprang from my brain and it's, in more ways than any other record I've ever put out, a sort of reflection of how I write music and my process. You know, this record is much more polished, but sort of similar to the demos that I make in Garage Band and my computer, you know. And that's kind of the joy of the solo and that was intentional. I wanted it to feel that way. And in a lot of ways, like some of what you're hearing fully started out as that, you know, just demos that we polished up. I wanted it to feel personal in that way. And it is kind of this like varied smattering of different styles and explorations and stuff.
Yeah, right. Because you can over-edit, you know, you can work a song to death to the point that it's lost any of its original meaning.
Totally. I mean, that goes back to the Neil Young philosophy, you know, like get it to the tape as fast as possible.
Do you have a favorite song off the album?
I really like the way the song "Reach for My Brain" came out a lot. I really like the first track which is called "AB Rip Off." You know, I'm fond of the whole record. I'm really excited that people are going to be able to hear it really soon.
What are you kind of hoping that people get from it?
I have very modest hopes and expectations. [laughs] Which is something that I sort of address on the record is I'm trying to strip myself of any like, "This is the one that I'm going to break through and become super famous with!" I just think that as much as we say or try not to have those aspirations as musicians, they creep in, you know, and it feels so much better to lose those.
But I just hope that people like it, you know? And I hope that it's a cool...I hope that if you're the type of person that buys records that you buy the physical record and you get joy out of looking at the cover and opening it and putting it on in your house and listening to it in the same way that I love listening to other people's records.
You also put out a Real Estate record last year, which is crazy because it feels like forever ago, but I actually got sent a bottle of your wine Reality Estates.
Yeah! Well, the problem is that it arrived after lockdown, so I haven't been in the KEXP offices all year but my boss was in there the other week and he said the bottle's just sitting there waiting!
Oh, you can't just sneak in there and grab the bottle of wine?
No, they're super secure about who can come in and out. But I was thinking about trying to do that before we talked today or even like drinking it while we talked. [laughs]
It's a pretty good wine! I want to know how it's aged in the past year.
Yeah. All that fluorescent lighting in the office.
You're close to the Light in the Attic shop, there's got to be good vibes.
[laughs] Got to be. Yeah, because I wanted to do a whole piece where I would listen to the new album and then drink the wine at the same time and then I guess like drunkenly write about the experience.
Oh, that sounds amazing. That seems like cause enough for you to get clearance to go into the office.
I think so! So no one has done that? That's an original idea?
It's actually the way that it's intended to be drank. But I've never seen the piece. I think you're the one to do it.
Hell, yeah, I'm going to do it. I'm breakin' in. I mean, are you super into wine? Because you've written songs about wine so I kind of assumed you were the one who wanted to delve into the wine-making business.
Oh! "Step right up and pour yourself some wine!" [claps]
Yeah, I like wine as much as the next person, I suppose. I'm no aficionado. I enjoy the natural wine craze that seems to be sweeping hipsterism at the moment. And yeah, I like drinking wine. I'm not like a wine freak. The way we made that wine is there's a great vineyard called Gundlach Bundschu in Sonoma County, California.
You're gonna have to spell that for me. [laughs]
Yeah, good luck. [laughs] But the vineyard is really old and its current owner, who's a member of the Bundschu family, is like, "Making wine's really cool but I really want to put on rock shows. That's what I really want to do." So they have amazing – or had and hopefully will again – have incredible shows at their vineyard, and we became friends with this guy, Jeff Bundschu, who started a subsidiary wine label called Echo Echo, and he was like, "Do you guys want to partner together to make a wine?" And when is the answer ever "no" to that question? So that's where that came from.
I just want to know all about that experience. Like, did you just taste a bunch of things? Did you have an idea of what kind of varietal you wanted to do?
Yeah, it says on the bottle that we blended it, which is a stretch. [laughs] It's an exaggeration. But we did get together one night on a Real Estate tour and did a super fun, like blindfolded wine taste testing thing. There's photos of it probably floating around the Internet somewhere if you look hard enough. [Ed. Note: I looked reasonably hard but couldn't find any]
And we were like, "Yeah, we like that." [laughs] And their wine professional was like, "That's a Malbec. We'll do that."
[laughs] I feel like I could talk about this for a while because I just have so many questions. Like, do you get a cut of the profits? Are you technically considered "winemakers" now? Like, if you go into a vineyard, will you be like, "I have a wine."
I sure hope we get entrance to all the backroom private access of wine rooms! Winemakers' accouterments. [laughs]
Well, we split the profits with...I believe now it might be Save Our Stages NIVA. I have to check it up but it might be an organization in New York City called NYC Peace, which is a really good mediation organization that we love a lot. But our portion of the profits go to charity. So it's for a good cause.
And it certainly does feel fun and hoity-toity to have our name on a bottle of wine. You know, it's basically been lockdown since it's been out in the world so I don't know if I get the key to the executive winemaker's room or not. We'll see, I guess.
Do you know how sales are doing? Because I know, from personal experience, that I have drank more wine during this pandemic than I ever had in my entire life.
I imagine wine sales are up across the board.
Oh, for sure. But, back to the Real Estate album. It must have been so disappointing to put this album out and immediately not be able to tour behind it. Were you even able to do a release show behind it?
We tell this sort of sad, kind of funny, mostly sad story, but we didn't really do a proper release. We were doing some press events around the release of the record. The record came out February 28th, so just like really right up against it, and we were in New York. We played a series of shows outside of what used to be our favorite record stores that don't exist anymore. And it's kind of a tongue-in-cheek, fun thing where we were playing in front of, like, fancy coffee shops that used to be Other Music, for example. And that night we ended at Rough Trade and we were like, "Wow, this is a great record store that still exists." Which I just found out is closing.
Yeah. So we did a few things around it. I mean we didn't get to tour. I don't know, I'm trying to have a positive outlook for maybe you know, even taking the long view, like I know this seems a long way away, but I feel like 2022 is going to be a really good year.
I completely agree. Yeah, when music comes back, I feel like I definitely, living in Seattle, I'd have like five different shows I could go to and sometimes I would just feel like, "I'm just not going to any of them." And I feel like now I'm going to be so much more active about, "No, this band is here. I've got to go see that!"
And! Every band that you love is coming immediately!
It's gonna be crazy. It's going to be crazy for bands, but I think really fun and really, really good for live music fans because like already we're talking about like, "Well we better reserve rooms for 2022." Which is insane because that's a whole year away. And also I think you're going to see a lot of really cool double and triple bills, like packages that wouldn't have happened because every single band wants to go on tour at the exact same time.
Yeah, booking's going to be a mess so you'll kind of have to do triple bills.
Exactly. And I think that that's something...Like so many times we'll say like, "We want to play with this band. Oh, well we can't because there's not enough money or X, Y, Z to go around to tour together." And I think that's going to go out the window. And I think that's going to be really cool, actually.
Oh, absolutely. What's the first venue you'd want to play when this is all done?
Umm...Neumos, in Seattle, of course!
Oh, come on. You don't have to pander! [laughs]
[laughs] Honestly, I can't even name one because I don't care anymore. I just hope that the independent venues make it through, actually, is my real answer. Like I think about venues like the 40 Watt in Athens, Georgia, which is like this venue is historic, it's been around forever. It's so musician-friendly, it's so super independent. Those are my favorite places to play. And I hope that they find a way to still be there because I can't imagine what it's like.
Okay, this is like a complete hypothetical, but if you could go back in time, knowing what you know now, do you think that Real Estate would have shelved that album for a year like you did with Heaven on the Faultline?
I don't think so. I don't think so, because I'm so glad that it was out and that people could hear it, you know. And I don't think it makes that much of a practical...I actually feel good that we had something to promote and talk about in this time to, like, stay sort of buoyant. I don't want to shut down Real Estate just because we can't play shows, you know?
So having had a record come out, you know, it's mostly inopportune because all of a sudden, two weeks after your record comes out, like, who's reading music criticism when the border to Europe is shut down for the first time, you know? So I kind of felt like it didn't get to have a proper moment. But it is what it is. I'm glad that it was out there and it was there for people during the pandemic. And I think it's going to be cool to finally play the songs again, live, and see what they've done with people while they've been marinating with that record and not being able to come see the band, you know?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Gives time to really delve into the album. There are positives for sure.
I feel good now. I mean, I kind of have the best of all scenarios because it finally feels good to be releasing this solo record, actually, because it feels like I'm doing something, you know, feels active. And big giant wink, wink, nudge, nudge...Real estate fans can also look forward to something not too distant future.
Oh! Well, that's exciting.
For sure. I'm sure you'll be hearing more about that pretty soon.
Cool! Have you felt like...I don't know how you were as far as being super engaged on the Internet before this, but do you feel like this has made you more engaged with fans?
Definitely. I mean, I think that we, collectively as a band and me personally, have been interacting with fans in a way that I want to continue interacting with fans when we get back on the road. And yeah, the only difference is we're not so tired from being on tour all the time so I have the bandwidth. [laughs] And it feels really good. Like I've been - and Real Estate's been doing this, too - and just me personally, I've been like signing records and sending them directly to fans. You know, people are really into it and that makes me feel really good. And it feels like I'm directly connecting with people.
I also did this thing - a few times I've done it and I'll probably do it again - where I was taking requests for covers for people like commissions. So it's like, "Oh, hey, it's my girlfriend's birthday. Would you cover this song?" And et cetera, et cetera?
Oh fun! You just send it as like an MP3 file or something?
Yeah, exactly. And that's been really cool.
How much does one of those cost?
It's a sliding scale based on what you can afford, but it starts at around one hundred bucks. But if you can't afford that and you really want it, you know, we can work something out.
That's really fucking cool. So...part of me is hesitant to bring this up because we're having a really positive conversation and I don't want to be negative. I'm also just hoping it's been long enough for you that you'd be cool chatting about it, because personally, I just have a lot of thoughts and feelings on the subject. And if not, I totally understand that. But I'd love to chat a little bit about Matt Mondanile.
I remember very, very clearly where I was when I first read that SPIN piece on him, because it impacted me so greatly. Up until then, the MeToo movement was solely serious rapists and old establishment dudes. And he was a guy who seemed normal but was just really creepy and didn't know or care about boundaries. And that was something that hit me super hard when I read these girls' stories, I was like, "Oh, man, I can fucking relate to this." And just working in the music industry as well. So, anyway, I don't know if you're aware, but he did an interview in November.
I'm not. I didn't read it, no.
Well, essentially he says that you guys threw him under the bus and all this stuff, and doesn't take any accountability for any of his actions. So I guess I'm curious – I mean, about a lot of things – but mostly about what that felt like when you realized this dude that you've grown up with and played music with was a fucking creep and had to go.
You know, I really first and foremost, you know, we support all of the victims of his terrible behavior. And like, just that's the first thing that I want to say and did our best to hold him accountable in the best way that we could by taking him out of our band. I'm sorry, could you ask the question one more time?
So I'm wondering what it felt like having this long-standing relationship with him and also when did you notice that it was going too far?
What I'll say – and I'm hesitant to talk about him too much because I think it gives him a sort of power that he shouldn't have. But it was, and it continues to be – just to be completely candid – extraordinarily painful. You know, we grew up together and I don't in any sense compare what we went through with him to what any of his victims have gone through with him. But people who are abusive tend to be manipulative and abusive of all the people that get close to them. And so to go through this with someone who was a good friend was just extraordinarily difficult. And it is disappointing and disheartening to hear that he continues to shirk any true accountability. And that's it.
You know, what I'll say about going through the whole situation in general, as a band, is that it was extraordinarily instructive to us that these behaviors and this unacceptable behavior is and can be way closer than it seems and feels like. So that's what I'll say to anybody listening to this is to check yourselves and to check your friends. And, you know, it's all too prevalent and it's around all of us and it creeps into so many scenes and it needs to be dealt with.
Absolutely. I'll wrap it up with one last question. Since KEXP is a station where the music matters, why does music matter to you?
Music is holy to me. It's an incredible, beautiful expression of feeling and it brings people together in ways that's like magic. You know, it's one of the most important things in my life, certainly.
Heaven on the Faultline is out Friday, March 4th via Night Bloom Records. Below, watch Real Estate's KEXP in-studio performance from 2017.
Get ready for a sweeping North American tour in Spring 2020, including a May 21st stop at the Neptune Theatre.
Sorry not sorry: I'll confess outright to being a huge Real Estate fan. Their previous album, Days, easily cinched the number one spot on my Top Albums of 2011 list. So, understandably, I've been excited for the follow-up, Atlas, which came out earlier this year on Domino Records, and the resulti...