Astra Heights are an L.A-based band of four brothers and one "honorary brother" who play crisp, melodic, timeless rock and roll meant to fill big spaces. They grew up in a family of eleven kids in the rural shrimping town of Palacios, Texas, forming later when they moved two hours away to Houston for college. The band's music -- as demonstrated by 'Astra Heights', their self titled release for Universal Republic -- extends the lush British tradition of pop-rock as invented in the '60s by the Beatles and subsequently further cultivated and tweaked by '70s supergroups such as Queen and T Rex, by '80s visionaries such as the Smith and by the titanic '90s rivals Oasis and Blur. The band's name blends the Latin phrase ad astra, which means "to the stars," with the Houston Heights neighborhood they liked.
Although the Morales didn't begin playing instruments until they were in college, music was no foreign notion. "Our father and grandfather were life-long musicians," James points out. "Our dad was in a jazz band and grandfather still plays in a tejano band. Plus, growing up, we heard the music our parents listened to, which was really good '60s music: Beatles, Motown, Beach Boys. That gave us a great background. Then we began to hear other related bands. This inspired us to want to pick up instruments, especially given how we knew our dad had been doing it. And then, we had sung with him in the choir together. So we were just like hey, let's take the next step."
As much as melody in all its manifestations -- cuddly McCartneyesque basslines, soaring lead vocals, and hook-minded guitar parts, plus an unfailing sense of clear rhythm so foundational it functions as melodic -- compels Astra Heights, they are not the sort of harmony heads who ever sat around obsessively transcribing ELO tracks. "We grew up in the church choir," Mark explains, "where my dad was choir leader. We went from being altar boys to singing in the choir. We started in junior high staying through High School, learning the harmonies. That influence definitely stayed with us. So much of our melodic tendencies come from learning those harmonies in the choir, from learning to sing together as brothers."
Produced partly by noted Beatlesque producer David Kahne and partly by Bill Leffler 'Astra Heights' teems with unabashedly large rock tunes that interweave the Morales' love of melody, rhythm, and harmony. Some songs, such as "Good People" and "The March," address the vexations of living through today's difficult politics; others, such as "Whole World Changes" and "Well Farewell" are about love and girls. "We don't try to write a certain type of song," James says. "We write a song and then let it become whatever it becomes. It may crystallize into something that has a Spanish sound, like 'Whole World Changes', or it may not. We're not afraid to play any style."
'We know we're a pop band," Mark says. "Some people will relate to the joy of some of our songs, or to the frustration we depict in some of the others. Some of the rock songs, like 'Good People', are a little cryptic. But they're rock and roll through and through. When you get to some of the poppier songs, they're obviously about love."
Astra Heights are a brilliant example of coaxing something vital out of the various parts of one's reality. The band combines their youthful experience in harmony with their later love of London pop-rock and the rhythmic vitality that is their birthright. " When we go see our grandfather play his music, " James says, "there's always a groove there. That naturally had an effect on us, on how we play our music, on the idea of making a song move. For us, rhythm is its own kind of melody."
To all of this rich stuff, the Morales’ add their generous notion of the large -- even if it's rooted in some cool notion of Suede selling out an enormous venue in Rio. "Just by virtue of writing these big songs, we separate ourselves from the pack,” says Mark, “It's very stadium-rock, with lots of la-la-la's going on. We have all these strange influences bearing down on us. And when we’re performing they all come out."
That's Astra Heights.