Touring musicians have a great gig. Rock and roll! It’s doubly great when they’re interested in exploring the international culinary world. We do realize some bands subsist solely on Taco Bell and Coke Zero. Shame on them! There’s Hatch chile to sample in New Mexico. Pappy Van Winkle in Kentucky. Doppelbock outside Hamburg. Tortas on the California-Mexico border. In Good Food, Rocks, we track down a band member serious about their grub—and who has held a job in the food industry too.
Trying to get Alex Bleeker to talk about Real Estate‘s second album, Days, out next Tuesday (10/18) on Domino, is a lot harder than having him recommend a solid cheesesteak sandwich in Philly. The Jersey-reared bassist (and onetime-Philadelphian) now resides in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, when he’s not touring the world with the fast-rising band he co-founded with childhood friends Matthew Mondanile and Martin Courtney IV, and he’s a lot more interested in discussing his love of food than reliving the standard rock interview.
“Food is the central passion for a lot of young, cultural, artistic-minded people,” Bleeker says, amidst a rambling chat that covers eating on tour, the aforementioned cheesesteak debate and —surprise! — his recent six-month stint busing tables at Williamsburg haute-fried chicken restaurant Pies ‘N Thighs. He left the job this past June, presumably to concentrate on Real Estate, whose laid-back and unusually catchy rock jams seem destined to ensure that Bleeker never has to throw out someone’s half-eaten brisket sandwich again.
So, what was it like busing tables at Pies ‘N Thighs?
It was eye-opening! Overall it was a positive experience. Busing tables is really, really hard work. It’s a very busy place and so it was much harder than maybe I’d given anybody in the food service industry credit for. It changed the way I go to restaurants. It definitely made me a better tipper. It gave me a thorough understanding of how to be a more courteous restaurant goer.
What’s your baseline tip now?
I’m generally at least 20 percent now, after tax even.
What did you learn about customer behavior?
My biggest pet peeve ever was when people would bring in their own trash. Lots of people would come in with their own sodas from outside and not buy sodas from us and then drink their soda at the table. Obviously everyone knows that’s kind of shitty, but I was okay with that except when people would leave their trash there for me to throw away. It was like, leave it for the servant to toss out. I had people leave used metrocards. That was always my biggest pet peeve. I was like, listen, I’ll throw out your scraps of food because we served it to you, but take your trash out with you.
You worked as a busser in Williamsburg after Real Estate’s debut, and an album by your side project Alex Bleeker & The Freaks, both earned rave reviews from Pitchfork, so I’m guessing that a few people recognized you?
Yeah, it did happen sometimes. It was pretty funny. I’d be taking away somebody’s half-eaten brisket sandwich and they’d be like, “Hey, are you Alex Bleeker? I saw you play in San Francisco.” And I’d say, “Yup, this is the high life, this is the glory.”
Were you into Southern food before Pies ‘N Thighs?
I was, but not in the same way that I have a discerning palate for it now. I love food, pretty much all food in general. I’m not like a serious foodie but I’m an avid lover of eating. This place comes with a high recommendation, and not just because I worked there. It’s almost like a foodie’s approach to fried chicken but not in an annoying way. It’s authentic. I’ve brought good friends who are real Mississippi southerners who were visiting and they were like this is legit. So it gets the seal of approval for sure.
You grew up in Jersey, so you’ve probably eaten some good Italian food, right?
Yeah, Italian subs in Jersey are the best. The classic, ham, salami and capicola sandwich with a big slice of fresh mozzarella on it and some peppers — a big 12-inch sub from a real Italian deli. Obviously there are good places to get it in the city, but I’ve found that the suburban Italian deli is where it’s at. Jersey also has the comfort food of the Jersey Greek diner. Disco fries, which is the bastardization of poutine: fries, mozzarella cheese and gravy. Jersey has a lot of great late night drug food outposts.
Get your hands on some weed and hit a diner in Jersey and you’re probably set.
That’s the thing: If you’re a stoned or drunk high school kid, the diner’s not gonna turn you away. It can be the end of your night and you could be totally fucked up and you’re gonna get a plate of spaghetti and meatballs if you want it. And a cherry coke.
With Real Estate you’ve been traveling the world the past few years. When you go to a place like Barcelona or Paris, are you seeking out cool food options there?
Definitely, food tourism is one of my top five favorite things about getting to go on tour. It’s always funny because when I go on tour I always think I’ll try to eat healthy and it just never happens. Its’ not even because we’re doing fast food all the time, which we try not to do actually. It’s because when you tour in the States, it’s like, what can we only get in the South or what can we only get in Philly, what we can only get in California? And it’s always like the worst thing for you. It’s always like fried and greasy, because this is America! But its’ like, I’m in Philly, there’s no way I’m not gonna get a cheesesteak.
Pat’s or Geno’s?
I lived in Philly for a year. True Philly natives don’t go to either of those places. They’re like, those are the tourist spots. [Out of the popular places] I like Jim’s Steaks. There was this awesome place in Philly that’s not there anymore called Grilladelphia, that was in a fucking Exxon literally in the back of a gas station. They made cheesesteak pockets, so they’d have like chopped steak and mix the cheese together, like this goopy consistency, and they’d pour it into a hollowed out loaf of bread. It was awesome but it’s gone. That’s the type of place that Philly natives are like, it’s the shit. These weird hole-in-the-wall places.
It seems like food is really crossing over into music now, with like celebrity chefs cooking at rock festivals and bands talking food. What do you think?
We talk to other bands about where to go in each city, like where do you get good crab cakes in Baltimore? In the music community, there’s just crossover, where young creative people are starting to get really into food. People used to have this commonality for music but I think it’s food now. Food is the central passion of a lot of young, cultural, artistic-minded people. It makes sense: Music is something everybody enjoys, but it gets specific and breaks down in different places, but everybody eats, everybody likes good food.
There does seem to be a growing connection. When I go to David Chang’s restaurants, I’m like, This dude stole my iPod.
Totally. I was just talking to a guy who works for Momofuko at a party and he was telling me that James Murphy and the guy from Grizzly Bear have been in the kitchen recently.
Any Brooklyn restaurant recommendations?
I just ate at St. Anselm. It was awesome.
How about in Manhattan?
I wanna go to some of the Batali spots. A lot of the fine dining is uncharted territory for me but I wanna do it.
That’d be a good end to the story. From bus boy at Pies ‘N Thighs to being a rock star eating at Masa.
Listen to the new Real Estate song “Green Aisles” from Days: