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.

" 'Burning' and 'Choices' are my favorite things of ours that people know of," Mark says. "In concert, we tend to close the shows off with 'Choices,' and it's almost like a sing-along at the end. People tend to really respond to it, and it's a blast to play. And this new stuff we're writing is really good too -- I'm just really proud of what we're doing right now."

He should be -- if the stuff they're woodshedding is better than what they've got up there on MySpace, it's bound to be monstrously good. And it's pretty much guaranteed that you won't have many more chances to see them in clubs as small as Rudyard's (early birds will be able to see them there on November 30) and Walter's on Washington, where they'll play with Rock Kills Kid, the Lovemakers and She Wants Revenge on December 12.

Scuttlebutt Caboose

Boy, talk about revolutions that weren't. Supposedly Clear Channel Radio's flip of Rock 101 to the new reggaetón format was going to usher in a whole new age of Tego Calderon-fueled Hurban cultural hegemony. And for one ratings book, it seemed to be working; Mega 101 surged to seventh place in the ratings and seemed to be giving even KRBE a run for its money. But then the next ratings book came out, and it became clear that Mega was out of "Gasolina": The station sank all the way down to a 14th-place tie with the Arrow's stale classic rock and the smooth-jazz malaise that is the Wave. Just last week, Clear Channel dropped the hammer on Mega program director Al Fuentes, and rumor has it that CC might be flipping the format to a sort of Mix-like regional Mexican format known as "La Preciosa." (Think lots and lots of Juan Gabriel, Vicente Fernandez and Los Bukis.)…In what could prove an ominous development for the Stag's Head Pub and other nearby businesses, the Houston Business Journalhas reported that H-E-B has taken control of tenant selection, property management and future development of Shepherd Plaza. David Kayle, director of real estate for H-E-B in Houston told the HBJ that "at some point, this property might give us an opportunity to have a store inside the Loop. For now, we are working to be an effective landlord for the tenants involved."…Now playing on VH1 Classic: "Breathe," a 16-year-old video of a Pere Ubu song shot entirely at Houston's own Orange Show…Short answers to burning questions. No. 1: Why hasn't Warehouse Live opened yet? Because there's a shortage of building supplies after that hellacious hurricane season we had. No. 2: Why did My Morning Jacket cancel their gig in Houston a couple of weeks ago? Rumor has it that it was because they went to Austin to tape an episode of Austin City Limits instead…Talk about worlds colliding: Racket is a big fan of both Houston rap and The Apprentice, so it was truly surreal for him to see a recent snapshot of Bun B hobnobbing at the Vibe Awards with Apprentice femme fatale Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth.

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