Alex Bleeker & the Freaks are part of the indie-rock community, but they are really a jamband at heart. The New York and Marin California-based band, which started as Real Estate bassist Alex Bleeker’s solo project, have spent the past year celebrating the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary through a series of open-minded tribute shows that have featured such indie-rock luminaries as Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, Lenny Kaye, Jenny Lewis, Darkside’s Dave Harrington, Ryley Walker and Woods’ Jarvis Taveniere. [Ed note: the first Dead tribute set took place at Relix’s 40th anniversary party this past February.]
While looking back on the Dead’s catalog, Bleeker has also been working toward a new record, Country Agenda, which he wrote and recorded with his new, permanent Freaks lineup. Last week, the Freaks celebrated Country Agenda’s release with a two-set show at New York’s Brooklyn Bowl that featured a slew of new material as well as a Grateful Dead dance party that drew in Real Estate frontman Martin Courtney, Will Epstein, Steve Gunn and Jesse Lauter. Shortly before his Bowl show, Bleeker discussed the Freaks’ evolution, his recent performance with a member of the Grateful Dead and why Real Estate functions like a family.
Can you talk about the genesis of the Freaks? I know from time to time members of Real Estate would play with you, so how did the Freaks mold into a more defined band?
The very first record that the Freaks made was myself, Matt Mondanile and Martin Courtney from Real Estate. It was a lot looser back then—we were and still are just a bunch friends making music—so I made this record, and I said, “Who else is going to play on it with me but my friends who I play music with all the time?” But as Real Estate started to play a lot more shows it became obvious that I could not ask those dudes to be in my other band in their spare time. So slowly, over the course of a couple years as the Freaks became more serious, it needed to be a fully separate thing.
How did you end up recording in Marin County, where you live now?
It was serendipity. We were all set to record in LA; we knew we wanted to be in California, just a change of pace. Basically we weren’t going to be able to afford where we wanted to record in LA just because of studio time plus a place to stay and maybe a car because it’s LA and you need a car. All of these different friends in a short period of time started telling me about this studio in Marin County, and after the third or fourth person brought it up to me casually, I said this sounds amazing, affordable and beautiful. What was cool about it is that you can stay there; it was sort of like an estate. It was like an Airbnb and a studio at once, that cut a lot of our costs, and they happened to have the same exact time available that we were looking at and we said book it now.
So did you stay there frequently while you were recording?
We were in there for eight straight days. It overlooked the ocean, just a next level ideal recording space. So we lived there and recorded and it was perfect.
So you’ve written for the last two Real Estate records. How do you determine what songs will go towards that band as opposed to The Freaks?
Yeah I have a couple of songs on there. Real Estate is somewhat collaborative. Some songs just have more of a Freak style feel. The song that is on the last Real Estate record [“How Might I Live”], when I wrote it I sort of wrote it in a “Freak style,” but then we were listening to it while I was at band practice for Real Estate and Martin asked if I had any songs. I said, “Well, I wrote this one last night” and we Real Estate-ified it. We changed it a little bit and sort of fit it to that sort of sound and aesthetic. There is not a really hard line, sometimes there is some crossover but usually you just know.
It seems like the Freaks dance in-between the lines of being a jamband or bluesy band and an indie-band.
Yeah, it is more rootsy but there is that influence for sure. We are definitely influenced by classic rock, folk and country jambands—I would say we definitely share similar influences as jambands and then there is the whole Dead crossover which obviously resonates.
There has been this extreme resurgence of the Grateful Dead.
It is kind of amazing, especially if you have been a fan of the Grateful Dead for a really long time. All of sudden it’s everywhere—John Mayer is playing Grateful Dead songs. [Laughter.] It’s crazy.
It’s wild. What have you taken away from the music this year, which has really been the year of the Grateful Dead. I know you’ve played with Bill Kreutzmann.
Yes, we played a set of Dead music at Outside Lands and Kreutzmann jammed with us. It was insane. I am just a huge fan first and foremost. I still cannot believe that it happened. I actually just went back and watched the YouTube video the other day, and something I know intellectually happened. It’s just amazing.
How did that collaboration come together?
[Laughter.] Actually a friend of ours at Relix, Mike Greenhaus, said, “We are going to see this happen.” He really had our back and called some people and said, “We think Billy should play with these guys,” and there was mumbling and whispering about it for a few days, and the day before, we said, “Wow, this is actually going to happen.”
That just seems like a dream come true for a Deadhead, specifically one that is a musician.
It was so cool, and it is just such a musical community. It is almost beyond the members of the band, so to have an actual member of the Grateful Dead explore that music with us in that way, and dip into our take of the music was just unreal.
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