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Reach for the Stars

Astra Heights returns from L.A. with a major-label deal in hand

Two years ago, Astra Heights was just another band on the local pub circuit -- a semi-regular name on the marquee at hip joints like Rudyard's and also cover band hangs like Sherlock's. Sure, they were a cut above most local bands -- after all, Astra Heights had not two, not three, not four, but five brothers singing harmonies for them, and their solid pop-rock jams gave off more than a whiff of the Beatlesque.

They released an eight-song EP called Revolving Door in 2002, and Jeffrey "King of Grief" Thames added them to his Sound Awake playlist on KPFT. Edith Sorenson gave them a nice write-up in the Chron's local band pages. But still, back then they were nothing more nor less than a pretty good Houston band, and it looked like this would be as good as it would get for Astra Heights. When their name stopped appearing in my inbox and in our listings, I pretty much assumed they had hung it up.

How wrong I was. They hadn't quit by any stretch of the imagination. Three of the five Morales brothers -- singer-guitarist Mark, bassist James and drummer Joshua -- had moved to Los Angeles. There they picked up lead guitarist Bernard Yin and started gigging hard and steady in places like Echo, the Mint, the Viper Room and Spaceland and at label showcases in both L.A. and New York. They got better and better. Eventually, a talent scout came along and signed them to Universal Records. And once they got their deal in hand, they decided to move back here. Not only are they occasionally back where it all began at Rudyard's, but they're also getting to do the big shows -- this Saturday, they're opening for Buddy Guy at the Verizon Wireless Theater.

"We'd been a band here -- we'd played all the local clubs," says Mark Morales over the phone. "We just wanted to try something different. To be honest, a lot of it had to do with the fact that we could never find bands here that would match our style. There was a lot of hard rock going on. So we just thought if we were gonna try to make a career out of this, we should just go to L.A. and see what happens. 'Cause none of us at the time had really, like, jobs, and we'd just kind of like dropped out of college and were just in a band. And so we were just like, 'Let's do it, you know? We're young and we might as well.' And it worked out perfectly."

The Astra Heights story begins in the Matagorda County shrimp port of Palacios. There were a total of 11 children in the Morales family, and music was always in the mix. Their grandfather played bass in some mariachi bands (at the age of 79, he still does), and their father was a rocker until after he came home from Vietnam, at which time he took up a career. While all of the brothers except Phillip can read music, it was Phillip who was the first to perform publicly -- he had a boy band in high school. By 2001 James and Mark had joined him in the first version of Astra Heights, and the next year saw the release of their debut EP here in Houston, which they supported by playing shows with bands like Arthur Yoria, Strangelight and Deep Ella.

After that, the brothers realized that they had pretty much maxed out what Houston had to offer, at least for the time being. They decided to move, but that would mean some of the brothers would have to stay behind. "One of them was married and the other one had a career -- a real career," Mark says with a laugh. "So three of us went to L.A., and once we were there we hit the ground running. Early this year the labels started to hear about us. We had a girl working for us and we played a bunch of showcases. We flew to New York and played a showcase for Universal and another for Warner out there, too. And we decided to go with Universal, and once that was finalized, we sat down with the A&R girl and we decided we should come back to Texas."

Mark describes the band's trip back home as a "creative retreat." "Our A&R girl wanted us to get away from the hustle and bustle of L.A. This is a way for us to get away from it all and write away from all the pressure. And our families are here, and with the advance we got, we couldn't live off it out there, but we can here."

Plans are afoot for the band to go into the studio next month (probably in L.A.) to record its debut full-length. After that, expect plenty of touring -- there's a possible tour lined up before the album's release in either the summer or the fall of next year, and it's likely they'll tour after the album has come out as well. In the meantime, some of their new material is on the Web at www.myspace.com/ astraheights. "Burning" is a fuzzed-out, driving rocker with shouted "Hey!" choruses and lots of wa-wa guitars. "Choices" has more of a glam feel. It builds from Mark's strumming and singing solo to a hair-raising "Hey Jude"-like crescendo. "Choices" is right up there with the best work of other young neoclassic rock bands like the Redwalls. And better yet, Astra Heights is more original -- you can't play spot-the-reference with the utter ease that you can with the Redwalls.

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