Q&A with Astra Heights

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After a sweet two-hour open bar at the House of Blues on Sunset (and really the only way to tolerate the $15 parking!) I recently got a chance to sit down with the completely adorable and funny band called Astra Heights just before their show.  “Adorable” might  not sound very rock & roll, but these four brothers polled their mom on their blog about who was the best baby,  so I think its appropriate to categorize them as such.

Currently residing in our City of Angels, until recently Astra Heights was comprised of  Mark (29, lead vocals/guitar), Josh (27, drums/backing vocals),  James (28, bass/backing vocals), Tim (guitar/keyboards/backing vocals) four Mexican-American brothers out of of 11 children (!) from Houston, Tejas. The fifth Astra, Bernard Yin (32, lead guitar/backing vocals), is a former member of the band Medicine and who is basically their “brother” from another mother and more Latino than the Morales brothers will ever be (he digs Los Amigos Invisibles!).

A few weeks ago Tim, the youngest brother, decided to leave the band and move back home to Texas. But its all good in Astraland, Bernard and the brothers are currently auditioning for a new guitar player, their album Good Problems, currently available online, will be sold in stores in early 09, and are now touring with Von Iva.  Astra Heights play modern brit-pop, way better than those pasty kids in Inglaterra are doing and this August they are embarking on an amazing tour with Monte Negro and The May Fire, in what is being considered by many to be the first national “US Latin rock tour.” The tour is called “Circo Rocktastico” (ok the title sucks) but what is for sure is that Astra Heights, as well as Monte Negro and The Mayfire, who sing mostly in English and are based in the US and appeal not necessarily exclusively to Latin audiences, are redifining what it means to play “Latin rock.”

Read on to learn what’s on their mind.

RE: What are your influences?

James : Growing up, our parents listened to a lot of Motown and Stevie Wonder.
We also listened to a lot of brit-pop like the Beatles, Suede.  It’s this mix, Mark has this soul in his voice and it’s also glammy and we have the harmonies, so it’s a combination.

Mark: A year before we started the band we started listening to David Bowie, T-Rex, old school kind of classic.

James: Oasis was my FAVORITE band growing up.

RE: How is the dynamic with the brothers, especially for the non-brother?

Mark: My dad converted the attic into a big boys’ room, so we always grew up with each other, that’s all we know so were each other’s best friends, we fight, we don’t care.

James: You know what I love about Bernard….for some reason, we’ll get into some sort of argument and Bernard stays out of it and he’s sooo smart.

Tim: James you idiot you spilled the White Russian!

James: Bernard just like laughs about it.

Bernard : Part of the dynamic is this is their only band.  I’ve been in thirty; this is my eighth signed band.  I’ve seen every argument, every ego trip, every cliché, the heroin-addicted lead singer, all that crap.

Mark: Like me!  I just came from shooting up.

Bernard: Well, then in your case it’s working.   There are things I’m kind of contentious about, that I’m actually biting my tongue about only because I know these things will work themselves out in time or they may not be that important in the long run.  A lot of bands get wound up about little things that they may not realize are just such minor issues.

Mark: Right now I’m texting Bernard and I’m saying: “don’t you fucking say anything!”

RE: Why LA versus New York or Austin?

Mark: To be honest.  I met this girl in Houston and we started dating and eventually she became my wife and she persuaded us to move out to LA.  And then she divorced me!  ARE YOU FUCKING HAPPY?!  I was trying to forget about it.

Astra Heights, in unison: We don’t regret it all. LA has been great.

Bernard: Even Southern California with all its “quote unquote” problems, it’s a great place.

James: I call LA home now. When I go back to Texas, I’m like man, I miss home, I miss LA.  And I never would have thought I’d say I miss Los Angeles, but I do.

Mark: But you know what if New York was half as affordable as LA was we probably would have moved there.  I mean now we are starving artists in LA and in New York we’d be homeless.

RE: What are your favorite places in LA?

Tim: My favorite place in LA might have to be every Monday night, there’s this place called Cranes Tavern on Hollywood and El Centro. My friends throw a night there,  it’s called “Homework Mondays” and it is just a blast.  My friend DJs like Doo-wop and 50s music, just funk music, just great stuff.  And $1 beers between 9 and 10pm!

James: I’m a big foodie so I like Bay Cities in Santa Monica.  I’m like a big deli sandwich type a guy.  My girlfriend and I make the trip out to Santa Monica just for Bay Cities for that only reason and I don’t do that for any other place.  I like my food!

Josh: I consider Texas my home, for me, I prefer Texas.  To be honest, Pasadena is my favorite part or LA, only because Pasadena is more suburban and homely than Hollywood the city is.

Bernard: Favorite part of LA?   That’s tough.  It depends on the activity, the season.

RE: The season?!

Bernard: This is a good one.  It’s a place called Neptune’s Net. Which is a restaurant right at county line between LA County and Ventura County and it’s on the coast above Malibu on the beach and its kind of like this greasy spoon diner where either tourists or bikers both end up winding up their Sunday drive.  It’s right across the street from a really good break.  A good surf break.

James (whispers): He’s a surfer!

Bernard: The location and the weirdness of it all and the fact that its just a little non-Hollywood and still a little Hollywood cause its Malibu.  It’s this weird convergence of all these people.

Josh:  What’s that breakfast place, The Griddle?  Maybe the Griddle first and Pasadena as a whole.

RE:  Do you ever sing or write in Spanish?

Mark: No, we don’t but we’ve been asked to so we will very soon.  We’ve been trying to write in Spanish, we’ll have something by the end of the summer.

Josh: We weren’t really raised around it.

James: We’re second generation and we were raised in suburban areas of Houston and Philadelphia.

Tim: My parents got in trouble for speaking Spanish in school, so they didn’t teach us Spanish because they didn’t want us to experience it.

Mark: Who knew thirty years later, that speaking Spanish would be the biggest asset?

RE: Why the blog?  Not that many bands have such a personal blog.

Mark: It’s almost like a hook.  People see us and they like us and they hear the CD and they think oh that’s cool and when they see the concert and they put two and two together and then they meet us afterwards they are like, oh those guys are nice and so then when they read the blog it’s like staying in touch with us.  It’s an extension of an interview.

RE: There’s a lot of personal information on it.   You guys are really open.

Mark: In this day in age, say if we were to become famous, fans can find out just about anything if they really wanted to.

Josh: And end up killing us.

RE: Some of your songs are pretty political and Obama is on your blog.  Any endorsements?

Mark: We won’t endorse a specific candidate, but I will say a majority of the band is more left-leaning.

James: I think Bernard said it well one time.  Like, you know what were not left or right, were just like pacifists.

RE: What are you listening to right now?

Bernard: Ronnie James Dios w/ Black Sabbath  – Neon Knights
Mark: Hot Chip – Ready for the Floor
James: My Morning Jacket – the new single [Ed. Note: I think he means “Evil Urges”]
Tim: Kenny Rogers & the First Edition –  “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”
Josh: Glen Campbell- “Gentle on My Mind “

RE: Do you listen to any Latin, Mexican music, anything?

Bernard: I do a lot.  Old stuff, like the Trio Los Panchos.   If you want to broaden your definition of Latin, everybody listens to the Jobim records. I’ve hung out right here in the House of Blues with Aterciopelados. I used to be in a band that all the guys in Soda Stereo used to come and see.  I was in this band called Medicine. Local bands that are great, Pastilla is cool.  Los Super Elegantes, who I’ve known for years.  I toured with El Vez, and I still sometimes do shows with him.  I’ve been in bands with so many Mexicans, its not even funny.  Los Amigos Invisibles, their first record, is hands down one of the classics of contemporary Latin funk.  I’m producing a Panamanian girl, Marisabel Bazan.  I’m really proud of what is happening.

RE: What do you think when you hear the word cosmopolatino?

Astra Heights: Beautiful MEXICAN!

Bernard: We have a better one, metro-sexual Latino!  We are cosmopolatinos.

James: Are we?

Bernard: Sure we are.  We are cosmo-neopolatinos.

James: I want to find a definition for that!

Bernard: I just made it up.  You know like neopolitan, Italian.

RE: And ice cream.

Bernard: Here’s our slogan: rockeamos!