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LAist Interview: Astra Heights

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There is a song called "The March" in Astra Heights' infectious debut album, Good Problems, that is so insanely catchy that you can't help but wonder why radio stations don't play songs like it any more, and you would also think that a record company would have no problem hawking the song. But I suppose it speaks volumes of the current woeful state of the record business that Astra Heights was dropped by its label a day after Good Problems was released on iTunes.

This setback, though, isn't slowing down the boys of Astra Heights, consisting of the Morales brothers--Mark, Joshua, James, and Timothy--and an honorary brother in lead guitarist, Bernard Yin. They are marching ahead. They were set to headline a show at the Silverlake Lounge tonight with the May Fire and Ana Egge opening, but due to lead singer Mark Morales's bout with the flu, they had to cancel. Still, they have a few gigs scheduled in the city, including a party at Swinghouse Studios in Hollywood on May 3. The Morales brothers sat down over the weekend and discussed life as a band of brothers, the experience of playing South by Southwest, the band's future, and the not-so-impossible act of walking in LA.

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How was South by Southwest? You have some upcoming shows this month.

James (bass): SXSW was such an amazing experience, it was so memorable, and I think as a band we just gelled so well during that whole two week tour. I’m excited for our first show back home for people to see us because we just have this confidence now playing together. It feels very electric.

Do you see yourself now as an LA band?

James: I don’t know what the definition of an LA band is. Yeah, I would consider LA home. I’ve been here four years now and when I go away I definitely miss it. I consider it home

Was the move to LA prompted by the band’s interests?

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Mark (guitar and lead vocals): Yes. There’s not much of a music scene in Houston. We wanted to take the next step. We were thinking of moving to either New York or Los Angeles. I don’t know why we never contemplated Austin. We moved to Los Angeles and I think it worked out pretty good. We made some good contacts, some good friends. It has treated us pretty well here.

With everything going on with the record industry, how is it affecting you?

Mark: I think it has affected us directly. With the lagging of CD sales I think none of the major labels want to invest in new bands. We’re prime examples of that. We didn’t come in with some built-in hype—we didn’t go on “American Idol” to build a following. We would hope to never do that. Universal did not want to invest any money in us so they released us the day after they released our CD on iTunes. There was no push whatsoever. They put zero money behind it. I think they just did it to get out of contractual obligations they had. Otherwise they would have had to pay us some money because they had held on the CD for so long without releasing it. I guess we were “victims” of this new paradigm shift in the industry. But we’re happy to be off the label. We’re happy to be free agents. We have some interests.

What is the upside to being free agents?

Mark: You can take advantage of what’s new in the music industry. We can record whatever we want, release it whenever we want. We’re back in the driver’s seat with our own career, which is how it should be in the first place. With a major label like that there’s a lot of wheels to spin, a lot of signatures to sign, a lot of bureaucracy. Now you can almost bypass what the major labels were good at and do it on our own. What we’re doing is we hired an independent publicist, an independent radio promotion with our own money and hopefully garner enough small-time attention to get us on an indie label and get us on tour, just do things on our own in a small-scale and eventually work it up where we can see some real money from it.

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You guys are a great live band, do you see yourself primarily as a performing band?

Timothy (guitar and keyboards): Definitely. When you go to a show, if you pay money no matter what the amount is—five dollars or fifty—I still think you want a show. You want to hear the music from the CD but you also want the experience of seeing them right there, being intimate with us. We enjoy being up there and it’s apparent when you watch us play. We’re having a lot of fun between one another, with the crowd, so I think we prefer the live experience.

Josh (drums): It took us a while to find our niche live, but I think now we finally found it and people get it now. They hear the album and see us live and they get it.

So is there a persona you put on when you perform? I know Timmy is the more flamboyant one. James is the cool bassist...

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James: (Laughter) I don't think we put it on. It just comes out.

Timothy: We’re always those people offstage but when we’re onstage it’s just amplified. I’m the one who likes to go out and dance and that shows onstage. What we are onstage is us offstage just a little less intense.

Mark: I’d disagree with that. (Laughter) They are, but I’m a pretty shy person and it took me a while to become comfortable being the lead singer. I’m fine with it now, but it took a while. We’ve been at it for seven years. It was only since Timmy joined the band that I really had to be the lead singer. Before I was playing guitar all the time, so Timmy took a lot of my guitar parts and freed me up to move around.

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That’s another thing that surprised me. You guys didn’t learn instruments until you were in college? Is that true?

Josh: Yeah, when we were early to mid-20’s. Yeah, it was—at least Mark, James and I. At the beginning of the band was when James and I first even touched ours. Mark had already started playing acoustic and writing some songs. James and I had to pick ours up.

James: Yeah, we didn’t have them, so we just bought them and started.

When did you feel confident enough as songwriters to start writing?

Mark: Pretty soon after I started the band. We started doing Beatles covers but even after a couple of months we started writing our own stuff. I had a catalog of songs, so I would just introduce them to the band and the guys would just flesh it out.

James: Confidence-wise I still feel like I’m picking up new things everyday playing the bass. I’m coming to new realizations every day. And I think it helps with our songwriting. Our songs now compared to a few years back are different.

Timothy: These last couple of months just being on the road a lot—San Francisco, San Diego, this trip to Texas--we’re in the same vehicle for hours on end, listening to the same music, and so we all caught on to the same ideas of different things to do with our instruments. And like James said, it does help with our songwriting. There are things we are doing now we would not have thought of doing a month ago. Even just a simple little change makes something so much better and opens up space. As a musician I think of what I’m going to do, almost like a chessplayer.

You mentioned you started doing Beatles covers and there’s also the obvious glam-rock influence, do you see yourself continuing in this British rock influence?

Timothy: It’s hard to say. For each one of us there are new things coming in. We’re all songwriters, we’re all writing our own stuff.

James: We do listen to the same music, but at the same time we all have our own slightly different tastes and so we’re starting to bring a little bit of that when we collaborate with one another. I can’t say if there is an exact direction we’re going in, but I’d say it’s a little tougher than what it was when we started out. The sound is bigger with a bit more attitude, meat, I don’t how you’d call it.

So how is the songwriting being distributed?

Timothy: Like James said we all have our different tastes in music. My tastes are a little more Southern rock--Kings of Leon--that deep bayou sound, raw and gritty. James is more Brit-pop, uptempo songwriting. Mark’s songwriting is very elaborative and well-thought out, and when you bring those three aspects and throw in Josh’s drumlines—his beats are simple but driving at the same time--and Bernard is just an all-around, amazing musician. We’re all like cooks in a kitchen and it helps out a lot. At the end of the day we all want the songs to be amazing, so we throw in our own spices, and it gives it a new sound. So from the beginning to the finish of the song it’s a completely different world, but it’s a good change.

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How about the lyrics?

Mark: Right now I write the lyrics, but in the new songs we’re working on, James has a couple of songs, Timothy has a couple songs he’s working on. I think they’ll deliver their own lyrics on that. I hope they do because it frees me up and lets them give a new voice to the band. I think that would give us a deeper dimension.

Is there a common theme you pursue in your music? Love…

Mark: Yeah, love, a little rebellion, a little…

Timothy: …Party (laughter). In a good way, just being out with your good friends, music, having fun times. Being happy. When we talk about partying we’re talking about just being happy.

What about “The March”? What is that about?

Mark: It’s about rebellion. I’d hate to spell it out. I like how it needs to be deciphered and can be deciphered in different ways by a lot of people. A lot of it has to do with standing up and taking responsibility for your own actions, reading into things, reading between the lines, being a responsible human being. I wrote it a while back, but even though it’s only being released now I think it still works no matter what.

It’s definitely catchy.

Mark: I think it’s catchy because of the bassline and the drumbeat. It’s a good song and it’s put together nicely.

What is the band's driving motivation? Is there a mission statement you guys operate by?

Mark: I don’t know about a mission statement. I think we have a good positive energy. I think about Elvis when I think about us. He was about rebellion but he’s also about having a good time. It’s good rock ‘n roll. It may ruffle some people’s feathers. I think that’s what we do. We’re positive, we’re not talking crap about anybody, we’re not talking about bling-bling or anything like that. We’re just playing good rock n’ roll and not getting down on anybody. We’re having a good time.

You’ve described yourself too as a pop band, something that bands nowadays who take themselves seriously avoid. Is there a badge in honor in that?

Timothy: I think people look too hard to fit in nowadays. There’s a subdivision of a subdivision of a subdivision. Where else can you go? Pop is catchy, rock n’ roll is rock n’ roll.

Mark: We definitely have hooks in our songs and that’s what makes it pop because our songs tend to get stuck in people’s heads. We’re proud of that. We aim for that. We like it that way. But we give it a little attitude, some balls.

How is it like working as brothers?

James: An example will be like the other night. Timmy and I got in a heated argument during practice, but we’re here now. We’re going to practice today. It’s done as far as I’m concerned. We move on from it so fast. We’re all close and we don’t want anything to get in the way of what we’re doing. We love doing this. I’m not going to let a petty argument get in the way.

Timothy: We’re four musicians. I love my brother as musicians. They’re all amazing, but if we do get in a fight, I love them so much, I wouldn’t want anything get between us as brothers. We’re all in a band, we’re going for the same goal, you just have to suck it up and say, “I was stupid, I was being a jerk the other night.” You have to work on it.

Josh: It’s hard. You grew up together and there’s that bit of pride and you don’t want the other person to know you’re weaker. That’s actually the worst you can do. The best thing to do is just be open with the communication with each other. We’re brothers and of course we forgive each other, but we all do have our creative differences. We fight but we get over it.

What do you guys love about LA?

James: There’s so many places to eat in LA, not just the fancy-shmancy places.

Mark: My favorite place is this place in Culver City, totally hidden, like this little Japanese place, it might even be Hawaiian. It’s run by these really old Japanese ladies and they serve the steamed rice with eggs and sausage. You put soy sauce on it. It’s really cheap too. It’s in downtown Culver City stuck between two parking garages but you don’t see it. You just have to park and walk around.

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Josh: I like that you can run around. Houston is so spread out and really humid, but here you can exercise. There are places to run around, exercise, and hike.

Timothy: I like the fact that you don’t need a car to get to where you’re going.

Really? You’re probably one of the few people who think that.

Timothy: I walk everywhere. Look at my boots. Majority of the time it’s beautiful weather. I can walk down Hollywood to the clubs, I can walk down here to practice.

Josh: They say you can’t get around without a car but I’ve found it different. I’ve gotten around pretty far without one.

Timothy: Yeah, you see all these people sitting in traffic going down Santa Monica and you’re passing them.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

Upcoming Shows

April 30 - Showcase at Musexpo Conference @ House of Blues

May 3 - Swinghouse Studios "Beginning of Summer Party" - $10

All photos of the band via their MySpace page. Individual band member photos by D'licious Chaos.