Still Corners Embrace the Mysticism of the Desert on "White Sands" (KEXP Premiere + Interview)

Interviews, KEXP Premiere
01/12/2021
Jasmine Albertson
photo by Bernard Bur
What secret guardest thou, O Desert dread?
What mystery hidest of the ages dead?
Doth some strange treasure lie within thy breast
That thou wouldst guard from man's most eager quest?
Or doth there in thy solitude abide
Some mystery that Nature fain would hide?
Some secret of the great creative plan
Too deep, too awful for the mind of man?

 

This is the second stanza in a poem opening Arthur J. Burdick’s 1904 book The Mystic Mid-Region: The Deserts of the Southwest. Written by A. J. B. himself, the poem rhapsodizes the contradictory allure of the American desert with the aggressively harsh nature of the elements as if writing about a beguiling lover that he just can’t give up. It’s a vortex that consumes him.

The desert has remained a seductive muse for artists of all disciplines. The combination of mysticism and brutality within the pastel sunsets, venomous animals, and miles of sand make for endless creative fodder. Add to that the long stretch of a single paved road, which Burdick unfortunately missed, and you have a meditative experience unlike any other.

Greg Hughes and Tessa Murray of Still Corners are the latest to fall prey to the desert’s charms. For their fifth record, The Last Exit, the duo channel the myth and folklore of the open road with a shimmering desert noir sound for a hypnotic journey through the American Southwest. “We found something out there in the desert – something in the vast landscapes that went on forever,” explains Hughes in a press release.

“White Sands,” the third single off The Last Exit, probably encapsulates this feeling most literally. Opening with a crack of thunder, a jingling marimba makes way for the glimmering desert guitar. “On a lonely highway /From where I came /The road ramps high /Like a runway for an aeroplane,” croons Murray while evoking the thoughts of wanderers everywhere who have found solace on the road. “It’s where I came from /It’s where I’ve been /Always wandering /Around and around and around.”

Alongside the premiere for “White Sands,” KEXP spoke to Still Corners about The Last Exit, post-pandemic live shows, and their decade-plus musical relationship. Read it and watch the lyric video for “White Sands” below.

 

 


KEXP: Your fifth full-length, The Last Exit, is coming at the end of the month. How do you feel about it? Does it feel any less exciting for you with it coming out during a global pandemic and being unable to do the usual rollout?

Tessa Murray: We're still excited. I mean, it's obviously under different circumstances than normal, but in some ways it's quite nice to have a distraction from everything that's going on. You know, we're preparing for the release and doing videos and speaking to people like you. So it kind of breaks up all the craziness, I would say, which is welcome at the moment.

Yeah, well, it's another gorgeous record. So stunning. For this one, you were heavily influenced by the desert and the open road, which I think is interesting, considering Still Corners originally started all those years ago in London, which is a starkly different landscape from the American Southwest. And Greg, I know you grew up in Austin and Arizona, and you both have been in the States for a while. But I'm curious, Tessa, if that American desert mysticism was something you'd been fascinated with when you were growing up in London or if that's something you've kind of grown to appreciate since you've been in the States.

Tessa Murray: I definitely would say it was something that I've grown to appreciate more from being here and traveling. I obviously knew about the desert from a distance when I was growing up, but I think you have to experience it to kind of feels the expanse and the heat and the isolation, just the isolation of the roads. And it's just so very different to what we have in the UK and Europe that it's definitely had an impact.

Did you consume a lot of media like movies that portray the American landscape like that?

Tessa Murray: Yeah, especially...I think what's interesting for me, definitely as an outsider in America and I think for Greg, even though he grew up in in the desert but was in the UK for so long that some of the ones that we really enjoy are ones actually made by Europeans as well, like that outsider viewpoint. So like The Road trilogy by Wim Wenders. And there's a more recent one, Hell or High Water, which is also directed, I think, by a Scot which is interesting.

 

 

But yeah, I think there are so many films, when you think about it, that kind of have this imagery and this just fodder for art that I think will probably be an ongoing well to draw from for us and I'm sure many others.

Absolutely. And film has always been a big part of Still Corner's influences as well, right?

Tessa Murray: Yeah, yeah, and I guess this year we've been watching even more films than ever before, which is hard to imagine that that's possible [laughs]

Oh yeah, I feel that! [laughs] Did you spend time in the desert during the actual making of the record or were you more harkening back to memories of that?

Tessa Murray: A lot of it was just through the mind's eye. But actually "The Last Exit" song was one of the earlier ones that were done and we knew that we really wanted to make the video. So we were still in the process of making the album when we spent the time in Joshua Tree to make that video. And, you know, it's just mesmerizing the landscape there. So that definitely permeated the new songs as well.

 

 

The pandemic greatly affected the rollout of The Last Exit, as it has everything, but for you, it sounds like it had some positive effects because you ended up going back and adding songs to the album after you thought it was done. When you were at that moment looking at the album, what made you decide it wasn't finished? And in general, I'm curious how, you know, when an album is truly finished.

Tessa Murray: I don't know, Greg, if you want to come in on this, maybe if I speak first and then you can go for it.

Greg Hughes: Yeah, go for it.

Tessa Murray: So I think we'd been really rushing because we had tours booked for last summer now. And we, at first, wanted the album to come out to align with those shows. So I think we were just moving too fast and we even had it mastered. And then I think we both paused in the context of Covid and then when we were listening to it, it just didn't feel right.

Greg Hughes: Yeah, I think that's it. It just felt like, "Oh, we could do better."

Tessa Murray: Yeah. From like the songs, that there were some that we decided not to include, but then also we rerecorded some of the stuff, like Greg remixed everything. And then we kind of decided to write some new songs and they just came out really quickly and easily. And those are often the best ones.

Greg Hughes: Yeah. And then we were just in the desert. We had taken a lot of peyote and then we were like, "This just isn't right."

That's always the answer! [laughs] Yeah, I guess I'm always curious about the editing of an album, especially since you guys run your own label so you don't have, like, label heads to be like, "Oh, this song's not working or it should be formatted differently." For you, is that a big part of the process in general for all of your albums where you're like, "Okay, let's really look at this and see what fits and what doesn't."

Tessa Murray: Yeah, definitely, and I think we're both kind of quite critical and almost have this innate sense of what is right and not. It's something that we've evolved through the years and have probably gotten better at, you know, partly being confident in, "Oh, yes, that is a Still Corners song and that isn't." And just going from there, really.

Greg Hughes: Yeah, we get better with practice.

You were talking about how you've watched more movies this year than ever, as everyone has. But has your relationship with music or how you consume it changed over the past year?

Tessa Murray: I mean, obviously, we haven't seen any live music, not that we get that much time to see live music anyway.

Greg Hughes: Oh, we did tune in to the Chris Isaak concert with Lyle Lovett.

Tessa Murray: Oh yeah we did!

Greg Hughes: And that was great!

 

 

Tessa Murray: But that was the only live thing that we've kind of watched online. But yeah. I don't know how much has changed...

Greg Hughes: I think we've just listened to it more, just like films. Probably bought more vinyl.

Tessa Murray: Yep. We got a Tidal subscription.

Oh! One of the 10 people who have one.

Greg Hughes: [laughs] Yeah.

Tessa Murray: And the audio quality of that is great.

Greg Hughes: It seems better.

Tessa Murray: But the algorithms on Spotify are better. So we have both. Yeah.

Greg Hughes: Yeah. I think it streams in CD quality.

Interesting. Yeah, I don't have Tidal but I did notice that you did make a Spotify playlist that you've been adding songs to the past few months, "SC FM." Do you think that this desire to publicly share what you're listening to is kind of a pandemic induced way to connect with the fans that you haven't been able to see?

Greg Hughes: Oh, yeah.

Tessa Murray: Yeah, I think that's one way. And, you know, without touring and getting out and about, you want to feel that there's like a connection and that you're sharing stuff with the fans. So, yeah, that's kind of one element of that for sure.

Greg Hughes: Giving something extra to take their minds off or something like that.

Tessa Murray: Yeah. To help them pass the time as well [laughs]

 

 

And you haven't done any live streams or anything like that, right?

Greg Hughes: No, we're too...I don't know, it would have to be like high production or something [laughs]. I wouldn't want, you know, some sort of crappy recording of us.

Tessa Murray: And our drummer's in the UK still so we wouldn't want to do it without him so we'll just kind of hold off. But I think, you know, we may experiment with a few kind of probably not live but literal recordings over the coming months.

Greg Hughes: We did a little thing for Christmas, actually, of Simon and Garfunkel. "Scarborough Fair." We did that live.

Tessa Murray: Yeah. But we I mean, we didn't post it live, but we played it live to ourselves. [laughs]

Greg Hughes: And then said, "That's a good take. Let's put it up." [laughs]

 

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Yeah. A little different than having it be like, "Tune in at this time."

Both: Yeah. Yeah.

You can only watch so many people strum guitars in their living room after all this time. So I get why you'd want it to be special if you're gonna do it.

Greg Hughes: Right, exactly.

Tessa Murray: Yeah. And it will be so good, you know, when concerts happen again and to be out there and have a lot of people in a room, even that will feel good.

It'll feel so amazing. I can't wait to just like have a beer spilled on me.

Greg Hughes: [laughs] Yeah. "Thank you!"

Have you guys been thinking about that, like when shows do come back, how you want to present your show or are you just like, "I can't even think about it because I'll get too excited"?

Greg Hughes: Oh God. Yeah.

Tessa Murray: We're definitely thinking about it and how we can make it better.

Greg Hughes: Yeah. All the time.

Tessa Murray: Always striving for improvement. And you know this time has been crazy because you've got the time to properly think about it. You're not kind of trying to do everything at once, you know, like prepare for the launch and prepare for tour and, you know, trying to do everything.

 

 

Oh, yeah. The shows are going to be so incredible after this.

Greg Hughes: Yeah. The energy, yeah.

Tessa Murray: And if you do go and see a band and it's not great, you should be like, "What have you been doing for the past 18 months?!"

"You had all this time!" So this interview will be out alongside the premiere for "White Sands." Can you tell me about the making of and inspiration behind that particular song?

Tessa Murray: Yeah, definitely. So this was one of the later additions, actually, so it was a desert in a mind's eye and we've always wanted to do a kind of ghost story. So really, it's about this spirit who roams the desert and haunts everyone. And, you know, is there forever and will be there forever.

Greg Hughes: Haunts the highways.

Tessa Murray: Yeah. And I guess it's kind of the mysticism that comes through in quite a few of the songs on the album, really in that sense of the unknown and what's beyond, and yeah, in this one, there's a strange spirit, lady.

I love that. Are you going to make a video? Because that seems like a perfect video right there.

Tessa Murray: In normal times, we would do like a crazy video in the desert mixed with, like, animation and we'd rise up into the sky and explode when Greg does his guitar solo. [laughs] But I guess we were a bit limited by current events so we've got a little lyric video in Spanish and English. So that will be coming up next week.

So it's been over a decade that you guys have been making music together. How has your relationship changed or grown? Or lessened? [laughs] But hopefully not.

Greg Hughes: It's terrible now. [laughs]

Tessa Murray: We hate each other. [laughs] Well, I think we've gotten better at working together and it's probably become more of a partnership through the years. When I first joined Greg already had kind of tentatively started the project so I was like the singer addition. Whereas now I think it's really 50/50 in terms of what we're doing. And yeah, it just feels really natural, like we just kind of know what each other's thinking and that makes it easy to work together. And we don't get too offended if someone's like, "That sucks." Or, "We need to go back to this." And normally we're on the same page. So like, if I'm not happy with the vocal take, I think Greg will know that it's not quite right. And the same with other stuff as well. We'll know when we still have to work at it.

Greg Hughes: Yeah.

Do you see yourselves still making music together a decade from now?

Greg Hughes: I hope so.

Tessa Murray: Yeah, it doesn't feel like we're running out of ideas, so, yeah, hopefully we'll still be going strong.

Good! That's great to hear. So KEXP is the station where the music matters. Why does music matter to you?

Tessa Murray: I think, especially now more than ever, music has the power to transport you to wherever you can go, whether that's like listening to a story or hearing about a breakup or, you know, like getting over a breakup. There's so many different elements in music that, for me, it's part of every day.

Greg Hughes: It's the most passionate orgy within human's grasp.

That's an incredible answer.


The Last Exit is out Friday, January 22nd via Wrecking Light Records. Below, watch Still Corners' KEXP in-studio session from 2012.

 

 

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