Rock and Ruin
In its day, Westbury Square was more than a strip center, it was an attraction. In the late '60s and early '70s, it was the kind of place where Houstonians would bring visiting relatives to stroll amid the fountains and piazzas and faux-Italian Renaissance splendor. Today, what little is left looks like the Swiss Village at AstroWorld after a nuclear war. Windows are boarded, paint is flaking, wooden planters have spilled their soil onto the asphalt, and pigeons are roosting in holes near the roof of what used to be a shop called Tuesday Morning.
Still, it's the only place to interview a psychedelic pop band called the Westbury Squares. So here we sit on the ground near a bone-dry fountain, passing around a half-pint of silver tequila on a hot summer evening.
"Dude, that is so Omega Man," says drummer Mikey DeLeon, surveying the virtually deserted landscape. "Where's Charlton Heston?"
DeLeon is the originator of the band's name. After the 1998 breakup of the Jinkies, the drummer hooked up with singer/guitarist Davey McEathron and bassist Vince Hernandez, two old friends from Alief and ex-members of Rubbur. They had a band, only they didn't know what to call it.
"We were just trying to think of a name that would reflect our sound, as well as come up with something that no one else would have," remembers McEathron. "We were at Emo's one night, and Mike says, 'What about the Westbury Squares?' "
"Davey and I had a lot of good childhood experiences here," DeLeon says, visibly bummed by the state of the surroundings. "This is so sad. My mom took me here when I was a kid. It's one of those things, kinda like the Banana Splits or something. I guess it kinda comes out not so much in our sound but in things like our pink furry drum kit or something."
It is hard to place a derelict Italianate suburban outdoor shopping mall in any band's sound, but you can catch glimpses of the Squares' mod, back-to-the-future aesthetic on their new album, The Sound Made Visible by the Westbury Squares, to be released on June 27. It's in the lighthearted psychedelic keyboard effects and guitar feedback shot through "Summer." It's also in "Nineteen Sixty-Five," on which, over a balmy trombone, McEathron plaintively wonders, "Whatever happened to 1965?" a year when all the world, especially Houston and Westbury Square, was new, fresh and young.
There are a few signs of life at the Square -- a Montessori school has moved in, along with a playhouse and an antique shop or two -- but the renovation isn't progressing nearly as far or as fast as the overhaul of the Westbury Squares.
Since the band's self-titled full-length first album in 2000, the Squares have added vocalist/guitarist Erica Cruz, formerly of Spain Colored Orange, to the lineup. And her contributions are extensive enough to make The Sound sound much like a debut. (Think Yo La Tengo when Georgia Hubley found her voice.) Cruz and fellow singer/guitarist McEathron often swap vocals, almost but not quite in the manner of a duet, and her sweetly fresh voice -- somewhat reminiscent of the B-52s' Kate Pierson -- nicely balances the growling guitars and sonic waves. Cruz also wrote the rockingly melancholy, intensely catchy album opener, "The Anti-Chorus," which -- with McEathron's jolly "Summer" and the riff-heavy "Running Shoes" -- ranks as one of the album's strongest cuts.
Ten of the album's 11 tracks were recorded at the Bubble in Austin with producer Frenchie Smith, but "The Anti-Chorus" was waxed in Eudora, Kansas, with renowned emo producer Ed Rose, whose credits include the Get Up Kids and the Appleseed Cast.
"He'll bust your balls," says Cruz. "He was like, 'This fucking sucks. Get your asses back in there and cut it again.' You're in there crying, but you get it done and get out of there pretty quick."
There's a sadness that hangs over "The Anti-Chorus," but it doesn't have anything to do with the band's rundown namesake. Cruz is too young to have known Westbury Square in its heyday. Before she joined, she had heard of the band but not the failed mall. In fact, Cruz thought the Westbury Squares was a stupid name. "I thought the band was awesome, but I thought the name was pretty bad. I didn't know the history," she says, laughing.
"This place does have style," she adds. "And we're the most stylish band in town."
The Square itself may yet make a comeback, but the people who are renovating the mixed-use mall -- shop by shop, apartment by apartment -- say the city wants to condemn the land and build a library.
"A library?!" scoffs DeLeon. "People don't read out here." He's joking, probably. But he clearly would prefer a different fate for his childhood haunt. When he learns that two-bedroom apartments could be had here for under $700, he starts toying with the idea of moving in, with a couple dozen of his friends.
"This could be the next Lexington Street," he says, a gleam in his eye.
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