Pop Culture

Real Estate’s Alex Bleeker on ‘The Adventures of Pete & Pete’, R.E.M., Kacey Musgraves, and Other Inspirations Behind Their New Album ‘Daniel’

After 15 years as a band, Real Estate keep finding ways to breathe new life into their jangly, naturally welcoming sound. Having experimented with its dense, hazier edges on 2020’s The Main Thing, the band’s latest collection finds them going in the opposite direction to get to the heart of their songwriting, focusing on pop songcraft in a way that honours their roots. Breezy and naturally radiant in its simplicity, Daniel sees Martin Courtney reflecting on feelings of unease, restlessness, and disorientation, but it also makes peace with them, or at least casts them in a different light. The album was recorded over nine days in Nashville with producer Daniel Tashian, who is perhaps best known for his work on Kacey Musgraves’ Grammy-winning 2018 album Golden Hour and gorgeously layers some of the songs through the framework of melancholy Americana rather than indie rock, adding instruments like pedal steel guitar, organ, and piano. It’s not that the existential uncertainty goes away as you grow, they suggest: you just learn to get better at letting these things wash over you.

We caught up with Real Estate’s Alex Bleeker to talk about some of the inspirations behind Daniel, including The Adventures of Pete & Pete, R.E.M.’s ‘What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?’, Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, and more.

The Adventures of Pete & Pete

I didn’t grow up watching it, but it was obviously an inspiration for the ‘Water Underground’ video, which stars the show’s Danny Tamberelli and Michael C. Maronna. What was your connection to it personally and as a group?

It’s so specific to where and when we grew up, which I guess I’m realizing now; when you’re a kid, you take in this media and you assume that it’s universal, but obviously it’s not, which is kind of what Pete & Pete is about. I grew up watching Nickelodeon as a kid in the mid-to-late ‘90s, and the show really resonated because it took place – it was literally filmed about an hour away from where I was living as a kid, so it speaks to my experience. The central theme of the show is the mundane, suburban life but seen through the eyes of this really creative kid – which, just saying that sentence, you can probably see how that relates to Real Estate and our sensibilities. It’s a kid show that doesn’t dumb anything down for kids. It’s pretty artistic and creative and has a high aesthetic sensibility, and it’s really smart. It still holds up. If you like our band, you will love this show – that’s the best way that I can explain it.

The reason I listed it as an inspiration was because I think it’s as influential to us as any other band, partially because there’s music in the show that’s really good as well. If you listen to that, you can hear the influence there as well, the whole ‘90s jangly aesthetic. It hardly registers as a kid’s show to me, even when I watch it now. And having bandmates who have children, through doing the video, they were able to share the show with their kids, and their kids really liked it. It’s just this timeless classic. The video was particularly poignant because it was shot in New Jersey, where we we grew up, and Danny Tamberelli was from a neighbouring town to us. He was a bit of a local legend, which added this mystique and closeness I could really relate to as a kid.  When we got to do this music video and be in an episode of it ourselves, basically, it was pretty magical.

R.E.M.’s ‘What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?’

The bio mentions Automatic for the People as a reference, but Monster is obviously a different beast.

I kind of did that on purpose because we’ve talked about R.E.M. a lot in this cycle – Automatic for the People, some of the earlier records. That has been a really big touchstone for the band, but I will say that my personal relationship to R.E.M., because of the age I am, kind of like Pete & Pete – as a matter of fact, it all ties together because Michael Stipe has a role in the TV show, he plays a disgruntled ice cream man – I didn’t really know anything about R.E.M. at that age, but that single was on the radio, and it’s such a great song. Monster was one of the first CDs I ever bought for myself, I got three CDs in a pack: Weezer’s Blue Album, Green Day’s Dookie, and R.E.M’s Monster. Obviously, Monster is not the one stands the test of time from their career, but I think that song really does. It’s a great pop song, and I think that was kind of the impetus for this record, to make clear, direct, structured pop tunes. That one has the magic on it for me.

Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour

You sought out producer Daniel Tashian specifically because of his work on Golden Hour, and I read that it was Martin’s daughter that really loved the album. How did you come to the decision to link up with him?

We all loved that record when it came out. It sounds so good, and the songwriting is obviously great. It’s almost the inverse of the record that we just made, because it’s country songs produced in a kind of indie rock context. At first, it kind of reminded me of Beck’s Sea Change for some reason. It’s a great record, but I put it on this list to talk about Daniel Tashian, and it is what led us to him directly. When you have a kid, and Martin’s got a few of them, with music in the house, I know that they work really hard to play adult music and not just kids music. If it’s something that resonates for the whole family, that album gets a lot of play. But you know how kids are, they want to hear the same thing over and over again, so he heard it in his house so many times, and he’s like, “Obviously the songs are good, but the sound of it, the production quality is incredible.” It’s what got him to inspired to make something that sounded sort of pristine. Usually, when the time comes to make a record  and we’re thinking about a producer, we have conversations with our label and folks that we work with and we throw things out there on the mood board. Golden Hour is the one that resonated, so it was like, “How about Daniel Tashian, one of the guys who produced it?” It’s a very direct line to him, so that record influenced this record tremendously when you think about it that way.

Did you have any further conversations about it when you were in the studio with him?

Not musically in a direct way, but I think the sonic imprint is undeniably there. There are a few synthesizer moments on this record, and that’s definitely part of it. But we just talked about the process personally – we didn’t say, “Let’s pull this, kind of like you did in that song.” Just anecdotally, we were like, “What was it like working with her? How’s the new album coming along? What was it like to win that Grammy?” But having him there, he has a very distinct energy in the studio.

Bill Forsyth’s 1983 film Local Hero

I just saw the movie, so the names of all of the actors are going to escape me, but I think that’s sort of suitable for the movie itself. To be completely transparent, I didn’t see it before we made the record, so I don’t know if it technically counts as an influence, but this is how it relates to the album for me: it was so pleasant and enjoyable and has a kind of profound depth to it, and it is deeply simple. Its brilliance is drawn from the fact that it’s not high drama, and there’s not a ton of things packed into it. It’s a brilliant execution of a very clear and simple idea. If I tell the storyline to you, you’ll be like, “That sounds like many other movies.” But it’s more the specialness of the tone and the feel. It’s about this guy who’s in the American rat race, a businessman who wants all the fancy cars and money and gets sent for work to Scotland to check out a town and essentially buy the port and exploit it for oil resources.

You’d think that he’s the big evil man and the town’s trying to fight him, but it’s it’s actually the inverse of that –  these simple folks who live out in the country and are like, “Yeah, we can all make money by selling all our property.” There’s not much conflict. He goes there, he’s like, “I’d like to buy it,” and they’re like, “Cool, we’d like to help you buy it.” But then, over time, he realizes – you know what I’m gonna say, there’s a priceless quality to this beautiful place and falls in love. He just gradually, without too much drama, is like, “I’d rather be here and not do this and not go back to my job.” That’s the whole arc of the movie.

It’s the type of movie that we have tons of, but there’s something meditative and simple in its elegance. It’s a unique style of movie that I’d never heard of before, so I wanted to shine a light on it. But I think there’s a reference there, because the Real Estate record stems from this very basic idea, which is: let’s dig into the pop, structured style of songwriting and not get too broad – to not focus on doing that plus a psychedelic moment, plus an experimental moment, plus an instrumental moment, where we were trying in previous records to communicate the breadth of everything that influenced us and what we were interested in. It’s a narrow focus and a classic feel, and I think the movie achieves a similar kind of success.

The relationship between Big Star and William Eggleston

‘Daniel’ cover artwork

William Eggleston was friends with Alex Chilton’s parents, and his photo is on the cover of Big Star’s Radio City, among many other classic albums. How does that connection tie into Daniel?

It got me thinking why our album cover is what it is. There’s a photographer, Sinna Nasseri, who did all the photography for the album and the whole campaign, the press photos, and if you have the actual package of the LP, there’s tons of posters and photos of us in the studio. He’s a photographer who has gotten much acclaim in the past three years, and it’s funny because we didn’t actually know him growing up, but we went to the same high school as the band, and he’s from our town. There’s a relationship there, and he was talking about how much he loves our records and our band because it reminds him of growing, so it was like, “Here’s another person from exactly where we’re from.” It’s such an important factor to our music and our story – the fact that we’ve all known each other for a long time, three of us were in a band in high school – and he locks into that same lineage, totally separately making waves as this great, in my opinion, fine art photographer.

The image of the phone, I think, in a lot of ways does relate to many Real Estate records, not just this one – that disconnection, difficulty communicating kind of thing, but not necessarily like, “Oh, that’s what it’s about.” But more like, “This image and this person is our community.” That’s when I think of this great William Eggleston photo on the cover of the Big Star album. It’s not exactly linear – like, it’s named Daniel and there’s a photo of a guy named Daniel – but this is the artistic community and lineage that we share. I was thinking of Big Star and William Eggleston being these separate artistic entities that have crossover, and they come together in the album cover album.

Do you mind talking more about what inspires you about Sinna Nasseri as a person and photographer? 

Yeah, he’s a great person and a good friend, and his story is really inspiring. He was working at a law office up until four years ago, I think when COVID hit, he was a paralegal with a photography hobby. And he decided to radically change his life and say, “You know what? I’m not happy in this line of work, and I think I’m a good photographer, and I’m gonna go off and just go for it.”  And he’s been wildly successful in that field, so I think that’s just a cool story. I think he  has a really iconic style that is all his own – this heavy use of flash, the way he frames photos, and the way he gets people doing sort of awkward poses. He has a really strong eye, and he’s really dedicated to his work. That’s his hand on the photograph holding the phone, from the phone, so imagine what he had to do: he’s lying down on the sidewalk in New York City, holding this phone up. [laughs] You don’t often consider where the rest of the human being is when you’re looking at a photo like that.

The New York Times has some right to that photograph, which is funny. They were like, “Go photograph the last phone booths in New York City,” because they’d have them removed. Just that being a very basic, simple assignment, I don’t know how many people would have taken that shot. I’m not even sure that made it into the newspaper, but that’s where his brain is at. It’s very creative, it’s very unorthodox, and it’s working. It was actually Daniel Tashian who said this while we were recording, he put it very succinctly, in a way I hadn’t thought about before but is true: “A good album cover is one you should be able to recognize from across the room.” I think this one does that.

Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Similar to Local Hero, there is an easy accessibility and a childlike innocence to his writing and the descriptions. It’s atypical for him because I think people think of this magical realism, whimsical fantasy when they think of Murakami, and this is not that. It’s him discussing his life. It’s very meditative and masterful in stripping back all the other elements and distilling something quite simple. It’s going to sound funny, and this is the highest praise I can give something so I’m not trashing our album, but nothing happens. [laughs] In the most beautiful, perfect way, where it’s not relying on any tricks – it’s reflective and accessible and easy in a way that has the same depth to it.

Was there anything that particularly resonated with you about the story itself, this intersection of Murakami’s creative and athletic pursuits and his overall journey?

That’s interesting, it’s not what I was driving at, but mentioning it – there’s this artfulness in a live well-lived and well-considered. Just speaking personally, I feel like getting older and continuing to have a dedication to a project, a rock and roll band, which is often the sport and business of young people. [laughs] The whole way everything is structured is based on doing it this one specific time. As I’m moving into this methodical, aging dedication to it, I think it’s relatable in what he’s talking about, both in his practice as a writer and his practice as a runner. There’s also something about this record, in a very adult, methodical way, where we kept regular hours in the studio, 10:00 to 18:00,  and that’s an influence on the record. I think that’s a very healthy process, not this partying rock star thing – not that we’ve ever been that, but it’s really the opposite of that. And I think this book is kind of like that. It’s like, “I’m a writer, and it takes practice, and I also have to do other thiings to keep my practice sharp.” There’s a methodology and a schedule, and there’s creativity in that as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Real Estate’s Daniel is out now via Domino.

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