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Interview

Dream Talk — An Interview with Still Corners

Anglo-American dream pop duo Still Corners have had quite the successful year thus far. For the uninitiated, Still Corners’ music is both nocturnal and cinematic, ripe with beautiful, gauzy melodies, breezy, jangly guitars, chirpy synths, and led by Tessa Murray‘s heavenly vocals. Their 2011 debut, Creatures of an Hour, was a shoe-in for our 100 best dream pop records list, and every record they’ve released since has been as elegantly gorgeous as the last.

On April 5th of this year, the band self-released Dream Talk, their sixth record, via their own Wrecking Light imprint. The album, which was recorded in pieces in many different locations, is another stunning entry to the band’s catalogue, with Greg Hughes‘ forward-minded guitar licks taking a bigger role than on previous records. Lead single “Crystal Blue,” channels the sensual late night energy of Sade, The Sundays, and even a bit of Spandau Ballet, a heady blend of influences that can be heard throughout the rest of Dream Talk.

The band are currently on tour to support the record. We had the chance to catch up with both Tessa and Greg to talk about plants, recording in upstate New York, and the joys tour karaoke. Enjoy!

Hello to you both, and congrats on the new record! I’d love to hear about recording Dream Talk – how was that experience? 

Tessa: It was primarily a reaction to being stuck in one place for so long with COVID. We were like, “we’ve got to get out, we’ve got to see stuff.” Normally, when we write a new record, we’ve been on a tour, we’ve had some downtime and then we feel ready to go again, whereas with this one we started the process straight away since we weren’t able to tour for our last record. We got this portable setup together that basically meant that we could work on songs from wherever we were. We did some of it in the south of France, some in England, and some in Woodstock, New York, and it was a really liberating approach to songwriting. It sounds silly, but one minute you’ll be by a pool, and then a half an hour later, you’re working on a new song, and then back to the pool, but it was a really fun way to do it.

Wherever inspiration strikes, right? I’d love to hear more about recording in Woodstock. I grew up in Orange County, New York. I lived in Woodstock for a summer after college, it was a wild time! 

Greg: I fell in love with it immediately. We originally saw the town in this film with Jane Fonda called Peace Love and Misunderstanding. We were living in Austin, Texas at the time, and it was just so expensive. We thought that there has to be a cool, cheaper place. And then we saw Woodstock in this film. We were looking up prices and found it pretty crazy – it’s like two hours from New York and vastly more affordable than Austin… So we went, and it was amazing because three clicks out from the town, you were immediately in the woods in the Catskill Mountains. It’s a very small town of 3,000 or so people.

Lots of critters! Lots of bears! Did you see any bears? 

Greg: Oh yeah!

Tessa: Yeah, the the nature is totally insane! I’ve never experienced so much nature, especially compared to the UK. You’ve got bears, turkeys, lots of carpenter ants, woodpeckers, chipmunks, and so on.

Greg: It’s like a zoo without bars! It’s beautiful. One day we found that some bears had stolen our trash. They usually just tear it open, but one time we found it was just completely gone. They just took our trash back to their lair…

Sounds like they did you a favor! Did you go to the Little Bear restaurant? It’s beautiful, the restaurant has a little creek running through the backyard. It’s kind of a rite of passage up there. 

Greg: Well, that’s a famous spot, but sadly it has closed.

No! It was there forever! 

Tessa: Yeah, it was a British lady, I think, who bought out all of that complex, and she didn’t want to have a Chinese restaurant there, which is too bad since Al Grossman insisted on it opening back in the day. Now it’s called something like the Bear Café, and it’s this version of a large Mexican restaurant that used to be there. Anyway, it’s all changed, and it’s pretty sad.

Wow, I feel like I was there not that long ago, but perhaps it’s been longer than I remember. Gotta pour one out for Little Bear I guess. Well, I guess that’s a good segue. Since you’ve written this record in different spots and in different countries, does the atmosphere you’re in permeate the record at all? I imagine that happens quite often… 

Greg: Yeah, we’re fond of this quote – “environment is mined,” because people often say that the environment influences you. But take it one step further, it’s actually is about how you interface with the world and stuff. I think it’s impossible not to be in Woodstock and not have that town permeate the work, and definitely the same with England, where it’s grey and rainy. We like to lean into that heavily.

Tessa: I think there’s a lot of nature as inspiration for this this album. We’ve worked with that in the videos as well. Because we feel so close to it in Woodstock, England, and even when we were in Austin. You know, it’s a struggle to grow grass, but people still try to do it. You’re fighting the world by trying to have this green backyard, but in England, it’s just extreme green mixed in with the color of grey in the sky. There’s such beauty in that and this kind of moody, dark atmosphere that you just feel when you’re in in that kind of environment. I guess this album’s like a mixture of dreams and the dreamlike state, and then informed deeply by this kind of nature.

Greg: What’s that restaurant that’s off of 290, that long windy road in Woodstock? Oh, The Pines! Yeah it kind of looks like The Black Lodge from Twin Peaks. Have you been?

No! 

Greg: It’s this beautiful drive. It takes about 30 minutes, and you’re going through heavy, deep pines and creeks. It’s just gorgeous. I was thinking about that that you can’t help but be enamored by it all so beautiful.

I wanted to ask about the guitar work on the record. There’s a lot of swagger on it – a lot of Lindsay Buckingham or Carlos Alomar-esque playing, which is a little bit of a departure from your previous records. How did that come about? 

Greg: Well, I think in 2018, we determined that we should really concentrate on vocals and guitar, so I started down that path. On this album, I really deeper into the guitar universe. I mean, the deeper you go, the more there is, and you’ll never get to the end. There’s finger picking and flat picking. I mean, it just goes on and on but I wanted to try to take a few elements and and push it as far as I could. So I did that with this album, and and then we’re also doing that with a live show.

Yeah, I noticed that kind of live guitar energy when you were playing – that was great! What about the synths? I sometimes moonlight as a bit of a synth nerd, so I’m wondering what you both used on the new record. 

Greg: I mean, we’ve we’ve got some amazing analog synths. We’ve got the OB-6 from David Smith’s instruments. That’s my favorite. We’ve got a slim effect synth.

Tessa: The D-550.

Greg: Yeah! But you know we didn’t pull any of those out for this record. We used Omnisphere on this, and I think that’s because I was going to replace these sounds with real synths, but then we just decided that it already sounded amazing, so we left it there!

Tessa: Because of this portable setup we had, we then had the challenge of having t0 re-record everything. With the synths we both felt that this provided the perfect backdrop. It just worked in the context of the percussion and the guitar and the vocals. So we just kind of stuck with it.

I mean, sometimes if you re-record things anyway, it’s just not going to be the same, and it might change the song for the worse. Sometimes those early takes or even the demos, turn out to be the final version. I kind of love when that happens… 

Tessa: And then you have that internal battle – this one sounds more polished, but the other recording has this quality that you just can’t quite put your finger on, especially with vocals, because you might change the lyrics or whatever. You’ve got to try to capture that energy again, which is hard to do. Normally we get there after a lot of work, but sometimes it’s a pretty tall process.

Right! Emotions can factor in so much – however you’re feeling in that moment can affect the performance in some big ways. You really have to be in tune with that, especially with the kind of music you make. There’s a vibe, you have to connect to that, I can’t imagine it’s easy to put a mask on.

Greg: Exactly. Yeah, that’s it!

So how has the writing process evolved for you over the years? What mindset are you before you begin each record? Is it more of a relaxed start or more about it being time to make a record? 

Greg: I think it’s mostly the same. I mean, we’ve always sort of done writing sessions, basically where we get together to hash out some ideas. Or maybe I’ll have a bit of something and Tessa will come in and riff off of that. We just go back and forth and keep building it. Sometimes we’ll have an idea that comes straight out, and it’s amazing. Other times it’ll be partially formed and we hate it, but when we revisit it three months later we realize that maybe it wasn’t so shit and we can do something with it. It comes in spurts. I think the the one thing that we’ve learned over time is just to stay steady and to consistently work. I don’t wanna say it’s like a job, but we like to have some discipline. We’re going to work during these hours. This schedule seems to help us overcome any writers block, I find. Writers block inevitably happens, but if you ignore it and just keep going…

The way out is through!

Greg: Yeah, and I think that’s how we’ve done every album.

Tessa: I think it’s about having that structure, but also giving yourself time to not do it for a while. Let that well refresh and refill and come back to things when you’re ready. You can tell when it’s going to happen or not.

Greg: You can tell when it feels stale. You can’t dictate innovation.

Tessa: So you’re on that see-saw between wanting to go fishing, but sometimes the fish just aren’t there…

Greg: …but the important thing is that you show up and put the rod in. You try.

I love that – way to finish each others sentence there! I guess the good thing is, with having your own label, is that you likely don’t have that pressure to put out product just to do it. You can likely work at your own pace, and that’s gotta be freeing in a way.  Are you thinking about signing other artists to Wrecking Light, or is the label just so you have more control over your own process? 

Tessa: I mean, it started just by us wanting to be in control of the process, to be able to release whatever we wanted when we wanted, and not letting other factors muddy that process. Often we have to go with our intuition, but hopefully other people are going to enjoy listening to that as well. So really it’s about us, but from time to time we’ll hear something and we’ll think that maybe this could be the first Wrecking Light production that’s not us. But since we like to have a lot of control over our own work, we’ll have to find the right person that you feel could put as much attention to detail and quality as we try to do, or someone who’s open to collaborating and working together quite closely. So it’s probably a bit of alchemy that could lead to the first, non-Still Corners, Wrecking Light release, but I don’t know when that might happen.

It’s also a time thing… I was speaking to someone at Sub Pop since they still work on the publishing side of things with them, and he would describe our approach as a bit of a cottage industry, and I quite like that. But really it also takes a lot to keep this running and to do everything because the two of us are so involved with every aspect.

Greg: I wanted to add that we want our work to be, in our minds, a masterpiece. We wouldn’t quit until it was the absolute best that we could do. When we started the label, I certainly came from a very DIY punk rock attitude, that we should just be able to do everything ourselves, and that’s worked very well. It just really suits us, we love to be hands on and cultivate those relationships with distributors, pressing plants, and in all other aspects of the process.

Tessa: It’s just fun, especially in the digital age. We really manage it ourselves, and it’s just fun. Sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming, but most of the time it’s worth it…

Greg: Sometimes there’s tears…

Hah! I mean that’s great otherwise. I can’t imagine you making a hardcore punk record, but I suppose you could if you wanted to. There’s so much label intervention with most of the bands I’ve loved over the years, where they’re forced to keep recreating the same hit machine over and over again and are not allowed to evolve naturally. With the label, you can do what you want, at your own pace, and if you don’t like it, no one is going to force you to release it. That makes me wonder if there’s ever been a moment if you’ve ever recorded anything together that is clearly NOT a Still Corners track, but still very much what you want to make… 

Tessa: Oh, yeah, we’ve got some funny stuff. Hilarious.

Greg: Did you watch Get Back, the Beatles documentary?

Still Corners live in NYC. Photo by Frank Deserto.

Yeah, I did. Loved it. 

Greg: So yeah, 90% of it is them screwing around and capturing the stuff that’s coming out. Some fun, silly things, and then they chisel the final songs out of those sessions. It’s very much like that for us too.

We’ll we’re looking forward to your “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” then. I loved that one moment in the doc when Paul just kind of pulls “Get Back” out of thin air. That’s never been my favorite Beatles track, but just the way it just fell out of him was impressive. Effortless! As a musician myself, it’s rare when that happens, usually there’s a lot of toil and experimentation, and the same with them I guess, but I was sort of stunned with how easy that track came together, if the timeline there is accurate. 

At this point, my cat Clara interrupts the interview for the second time, so we talk about cats for a bit.

Okay. So you’re still on tour, right? How’s everything been going with the tour so far? 

Greg: It’s been awesome, probably one of our favorite tours, This is the first time that we decided to take on the massive space that is the US and just fly into shows and and backline some of the gear which we’ve never done before. We’ve always put the whole thing five weeks in advance.

With the van and everything? 

Greg: Yeah, the van vibe is great because you get to hit all the spots, but we were kind of limited for time. So we just did some major spots, all our favorite places. As good as it was though, I did miss going to all those smaller places and connecting with those fans. I’m kind of old school that way.

Tessa: It was a bit of an experiment to try it this way, and we also had a change of personnel, that meant that timing-wise, this is what was possible. It was really cool in a lot of ways, but obviously, you’re always sacrificing in other ways, and it’s about finding that balance. We’ve only had a bit of time, maybe four days or something, to recalibrate before the European tour we’re on now. I swear it feels like we just got back, and have barely slept. I blink, and now it’s time to pick someone up from the airport and do it all over again.

Barely enough time to get the plants in order! As for driving around the US, I’m sure you really miss getting stuck in traffic at 5pm in the middle of Connecticut, an hour away from the show. I’m sure those gas station burritos are calling to you right now! 

Greg: Well you know, you get used to that in a way, and then it’s the weird stuff that you start to miss. I wanna be in the middle of Montana, you know? In that weird routine. It’s great in its own way.

Still Corners live in NYC. Photo by Frank Deserto.

Oh, there’s definitely a rhythm to it, I can see that. So I went to the NYC show by the way and was there right in the front for most of the show, and caught the last song or two from further back just to take in the full experience with the projections. Firstly, it was great to see an all ages show like that. The crowd was a great mix of us older folks, but a lot of young people as well. 

Greg: Oh wow, really? I don’t think I knew about that!

Tessa: Me neither, cool! I wish the all the shows were like that, because I think the concept of someone only being able to see a show at 21 is like, really weird.

It’s all about selling booze, sadly. It just drives the whole machine, and that’s kind sad. While some people were back at the bar, hanging out and getting drunk (which, no judgements, mind you, do what you want to do and all), all the young folk were up front, blissing out. No aggression, no territorial pushing or shoving, they’re just happy to be in the room and to hear your band. I was wondering if that was intentional – but I guess you didn’t know about that!

Greg: Yeah, I guess we should do more of those by design then!

It’s great too, because kids usually have disposable income and less responsibilities. I remember how formative music was for me at that age. There was so much coming out in the 90s that I was in love with, and I wish I could have seen most of those bands at the time, when they were in their prime, or still alive, and so on. Never going to happen with some of them, and I think that 21+ mentality blocked me and a lot of others from having these moments, and that just feels kind of wrong in a way.

Anyway, I just think this speaks to your appeal – that folks of all ages can connect to your music and find something to latch on to. Were you aware that you had such a diverse fan base?

Tessa: I feel like we’re like an all-ages band, literally from 12-year olds to 70-year olds. On Youtube, we’ll see comments from people that are 65 and still doing music, and they wear it like a badge of honor. There’s just this cool filter with our music that it seems that the majority of people who like it are just really nice. Often after shows the security people will tell us that everyone was so well behaved – there’s no beef, everyone was just out for a good time. Like you said, they’ll bliss out and just be in the moment. That’s great, that’s exactly what we want.

Greg: A small part of me wishes there was a bit more rock and roll in there…

There’s that swagger I was talking about – love that you’re getting a bit of that energy in there

Greg: Yeah! Maybe next we’ll add some heavy metal or something. *chuckles*

So, I really loved the projections that were behind you when you were playing. Who made all the visuals?

Greg: It was mostly myself. I film them and then edit them together. There’s some older ones there that Leon, a friend of ours made as well. But we’ve branched off a bit and I’ve been filming stuff. Where wherever we go. I’ll just have a camera with me, film what I see, and then add it all together, and then time it to the music.

Who’s drumming with you on this tour?

Greg: His name’s Jim. He’s from London, and he’s been with us for six years.

Tessa: This is actually the first shows he’s done with us in the US. Just because of VISA reasons. We’ve had a US-based drummer in the past, but since Jim played on the album, we were really keen for him to be there from the outset. So we forked over for the VISA this time around.

I’m glad you got to work out. I know there’s so much drama with those aspects and so many bands have to cancel tours at the last minute…

Tessa: Yeah, there was drama, there was definitely some drama…

Greg: But we made it through, and he came, and he loved it, cause he hadn’t been back in the US since SXSW, which was in 2009 or something.

How do you pick the songs you play in the set? I mean, do you stick to the same set every night, or do you mix it up based on how you’re feeling that day?

Tessa: It’s interesting you should say that because actually, after the New York show, we just felt we had to switch it up…On the flight over to San Francisco, we reorganized everything, and that’s the set we ended up doing every night after. Because of the technical aspects, with all the program changes with midi and the projections, it’s hard to change it on the fly, but we tend to have to go with the set as it is. So, you are actually probably the only city who will have seen that earlier version of the set.

Wow! And you were backlining the gear, too, so I can imagine that takes some dialing in every night during sound check.

Tessa: Yeah, there were a few funnies along the way with that!

Greg: Oh yeah…

So, tell us more about the European tour – will it be a similar setup then? The same visuals, lineup, etc.? 

Greg: Yeah, it’s pretty much the same as the one that we redid.

Well then, after six records, you have quite a body of work to choose from. How do you decide what tracks to play on tour? 

Greg: Well, I think that only some of them work live. It took this long to get a whole set together, and we used to do some covers and stuff. We try to do a blend, you know? Spotify shows the songs that are the most popular. So you know, we obviously want to go from there a bit, because that’s what people want to hear. But then there are personal songs that we want to play and we think are cool, even if others don’t.

Tessa: yeah, it’s that blend of kind of what people are listening to, plus what we wanna do and say. It does get harder like the more songs you have, because there are ones that we just don’t have room to play, but then we’ll get loads of messages on Instagram and Facebook being asking for those. Unfortunately because of our structure, it’s hard for us to react on the fly to those requests. Maybe next tour we should do a shoutout six months in advance and see if there are any people are really dying to hear!

Well, I’m such a deep cuts kind of guy, and I always want to hear those tracks, and I appreciate when bands put in songs they find relevant, regardless of their popularity. Then of course you’ve gotta play the hits – a band that ignores them entirely is bound to fail on stage and not connect with the audience. 

Tessa: Yeah. we’ll see headlines of bands that they play everything from the new album that no one really knows yet. I understand why – the band just finished it and they’re excited about it, but you know, the fans just haven’t had time to really connect with the new songs yet.

Yeah, you have to play new stuff, and I think it’s always kind of crummy when people and audiences are only there for the first two singles, too. It’s such a precarious balance… I figure, play 4-6 new ones, the expected hits, and a few deep cuts, and that’s how I like a show to be. Actually, didn’t you do a Richard & Linda Thompson cover?

Greg: Yeah, “Calvary Cross!” We love that song.

What a great choice! 

Greg: Great album!

Tessa: He plays in Woodstock pretty regularly.

Greg: Yeah, the tickets were like, $200…

Yeah you know, you were saying that upstate New York is cheaper? It is NOT cheaper, hah! I grew up there, and now that it’s cool to be there, I can’t afford to go back home ever, it seems.  Post COVID, everyone wanted to move out of the city and that drove the prices up and bought up all these houses, and now they’re $3,000,000 homes. Game over, man.

Tessa: Yup, and you go out for dinner in the middle of nowhere, and it’s $600 for four people. How is this happening?

Next time you there. If you didn’t do this already, check out the Phoenicia Dinner. Phoenicia in general has this tubing culture that’s pretty cool, and there’s the diner, which they revamped over the years. I miss how crummy it was in that Twin Peaks/Double R Diner kind of way. Definitely some mysteries have taken place there, you know? One of those mysteries was the kids menu, which had a bunch of He-Man characters as names for food options, but then also simply: chicken nuggets. Chicken nuggets is totally my favorite He-Man character! Anyway, now the diner, like everything upstate, is  super posh, but the food is still good, last I checked.

Greg: We know the place, but we’ve never went in there, but it looked great!

Well, you need a greasy spoon while on the road. Keep that one in mind! Since you mentioned driving around Woodstock while listening to records – what do you tend to listen to these days?

Greg: I mean. I was just thinking about this because we listen a lot of movie soundtracks.

That makes sense. Yeah, I can see that.

Greg: As for current bands, have you heard The KVB’s new album?

Yes, they’re fantastic! They’ve been around for quite some time, and I love how consistent they are… 

Greg: Yeah, their new album is so great. Also, we met this amazing singer/songwriter in LA called Shannon Lay and we started listening to her. She’s just this amazing, funny, crazy, talented…

Tessa: Lovely person…

Greg: Yeah, such a lovely person! Her stuff’s really good. But yeah. mostly movie soundtracks, you know?

Tessa: We listen to A LOT of Bob Dylan!

Greg: A lot of his newer stuff actually. People seem to be quite split on him, our drummer, he and I are always kind of arguing about him.

You know, deep down, I still have this idea his newest album is Love & Theft, which I loved at the time, but that’s like 2001, not quite new any more, is it? So, what film soundtracks? I know your work has so many cinematic moments, so that makes so much sense…

Tessa: We’ve been listening to The Witness soundtrack by Maurice Jarr, but also lots of stuff by Vangelis, Morricone, and of course, spy soundtracks. Those spy soundtracks are always really good. There’s also that thing, you know, when you become aware of albums that come out on the same day as yours, and we really wanted to check out some of those. There’s this British artist, Jane Weaver, she put out her record on the same day as Dream Talk.

Greg: Yeah, and it’s really good!

Last question for you both, and it’s a bit of a fun one – what are some of your favorite moments been from over the years?

Tessa: Yeah, there’s a lot! I can’t necessarily put a finger on one – there are so many things, some are little and some are bit. I remember the first time we went to the US, to SXSW, and we played in a pizza place or something, but they actually had good monitors, and the wind was blowing in my hair, and we were just super chill. Everyone was having a nice time, and that was the first time we had ever played in the States. I couldn’t believe that we were there. Actually a lot of moments for me have been like that, just taking a step back and realizing that this is happening now.

On the last tour for The Last Exit, we had this show at this massive old movie theater called EartH…

Oh my god, I was just there to see Cranes – what a BEAUTIFUL space!

Tessa: Yeah! that was completely sold out. Everyone’s like sitting on these weird, big steps. And then, as we like kicked off with “The Trip,” everyone, stood up and started dancing, it just reminded me of all those little shows we played in London through the years, you know, opening for people and going to work the next day exhausted. Then suddenly, you’re there in this moment, and all these people are there to see us. It was just like a really big, special moment

Greg: I liked when we stopped in Marfa on the way. I think that’s just a magical place. We didn’t play a show there, but…

Tessa: We did do karaoke there, so…

I must know – what’s your go-to karaoke jam? 

Greg: David Bowie’s “China Girl,” hands down.

Tessa: He’s really good at it!

Perfect! “Life on Mars?” is my ringer! What about you, Tessa? 

Tessa: Well, I really like doing “Dancing Queen” by Abba but it is quite challenging vocally. I’m not that good at singing it, but I just love it.

Greg: I wanted to add when we first played SXSW, we played a lot of shows that, you know, weren’t really venues, and one of them was a bicycle shop that had one plug, and we played to an empty parking lot. One person walked up with their dog, so we played to them mostly. I also remember a guy riding by on a bicycle, and as he passed he yelled “sounds good!” §

Indeed, Still Corners live show certainly sounds good, a great deal more than good even! Be sure to catch the band for the final leg of their European tour, and be sure to check out Dream Talk, available via Bandcamp.

Here are the band’s remaining tour dates:

24 MAY | ISTANBUL, TR | SALON IKSV
25 MAY | ISTANBUL, TR | SALON IKSV
27 MAY | ŠKOFJA LOKA, SI | ŠKOFJA LOKA CASTLE
28 MAY | BOLOGNA, IT | LOCOMOTIV
29 MAY | MILAN, IT | ARCI BELLEZA
31 MAY | ATHENS, GR | GAGARIN 205

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Frank Deserto

Bassist of The Harrow, curator/writer at Cherry Red Records, and blogger at Systems of Romance.

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