It’s hard to hear Alex Bleeker, traveling by van on tour with his raucous bandmates, somewhere between San Francisco and Portland, Ore. “Sorry,” he says sheepishly, “I’m gettin’ ribbed.”
Bleeker is the bassist for the popular indie-rock band Real Estate, which just released its third record, “Atlas,” to very positive reviews. The band performs at the Sinclair in Harvard Square on Wednesday and Thursday nights.
Real Estate’s beautifully rough self-titled 2009 debut and the brilliant follow-up, “Days,” in 2011, were, in retrospect, the work of a band growing toward a more professional, polished sound. The group’s brand of elaborate, guitar-driven rock has evolved into the kind of breezy, reverb-driven music that fans of a latter-day Wilco would appreciate. (That band actually lent its Chicago loft studio to Real Estate to record “Atlas.”)
The band’s van camaraderie seems like an extension of Real Estate’s collaborative nature, which Bleeker says was in full force for their new effort.
“We wrote the record over a pretty long period of time,” he says, “and we would have these practices that were like writing the material. We hadn’t really done it that way before.”
On Real Estate’s other records, says Bleeker, frontman Martin Courtney wrote songs for which the other musicians — Bleeker, guitarist Matt Mondanile, keyboardist Matt Kallman, and drummer Jackson Pollis — would contribute parts. This time, the band composed songs while touring behind and doing promotion for “Days” in Arizona and Spain, and rehearsing in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the band’s hometown of Ridgewood, N.J.
Despite the on-the-fly composition approach, the record’s polished sound was the plan all along, says Bleeker.
“We wanted it to sound as produced as possible,” he says. “We wanted to explore a nicer studio and what we could achieve . . . to really go into a studio and make a good-sounding record and see what we could do.”
As for that studio, Wilco reached out to Real Estate as fans early on, and Bleeker and his bandmates filed away that enthusiasm for a later record. Bleeker says they first hoped to work with onetime Wilco producer and former Sonic Youth guitarist Jim O’Rourke, who was willing but unavailable. Instead, the band turned to another Wilco associate, Berklee alum Tom Schick, who produced Wilco’s return-to-form “The Whole Love” in 2011. Schick has also worked with artists ranging from Mavis Staples to Willie Nelson and Meshell Ndegeocello.
“[Schick] is really experienced, and he’s been in it for a long time,” says Bleeker, who adds that Schick’s resources provided the band with constant availability to a recording space full of instruments at the ready. “He was really professional in that way, and super light-hearted and light-handed. He didn’t have an agenda for us; it didn’t even feel like he was producing the album.”
Kristopher Gillespie, US general manager of Domino Recording Co., Real Estate’s British-based label, says the band’s evolving but consistent sound was very important in signing them after their debut on indie label Woodsist.
“Early on,” says Gillespie, “there was an inherent catchiness to their music that was a natural attraction for us. And as they’ve moved from album to album, that timeless quality to their music has evolved, which is really exciting to be a part of. You could pull a random song from ‘Atlas’ and play it for an unknowing listener, and they would be hard-pressed to tell whether it was recorded in 2013, 2003, 1993, 1983, or 1973, and that is a remarkable accomplishment, creatively speaking.”
Indeed, “Atlas” finds the band’s sound smoothed out to a clean, warm sheen reminiscent of bands from various eras: Luna, the Grateful Dead, and, yes, Wilco. Opening track “Had to Hear” wafts like a spring afternoon, and the bright “Talking Backwards” recalls the poppy, punchy Real Estate that wowed critics when the band burst on the scene in 2009.
Speaking of wowing critics, “Atlas” has won accolades from no less than indie-rock tastemaker site Pitchfork, whose Jayson Greene gave the record the site’s esteemed “Best New Music” label and wrote of the record, “It is rare, and special, for a band to be this effortlessly and completely themselves.”
That description, released after this interview, surely pleased Bleeker, who says that he and his bandmates wanted their sound to progress without them losing their identity. In praising Schick’s work, Bleeker gives what he and his bandmates likely see as the ultimate compliment.
“He was helping us,” he says, “to be Real Estate.”