In “White Sands” — the single from Still Corners’ new fifth album “The Last Exit,” out Jan. 22 — multi-instrumentalist Greg Hughes’ forlorn Spaghetti-Western guitar gallops across a desolate sonic landscape, while bandmate Tessa Murray’s ethereal vocals recount the story of a ghostly desert hitchhiker who’s not the optimum traveling companion.
The lush sonic sweep of the track — and other flickering songs “Shifting Dunes,” “Bad Town” and “Mystery Road” — is decidedly cinematic, so it makes sense that the pair’s passion is movies. Recently, they have been spending many lockdown hours in their Woodstock, N.Y. retreat streaming films deep into the night. “And all day, too,” adds Murray, chuckling. “We’ve had black bears running around outside our house.”
The pandemic down time has given the Austin-bred Hughes and British-born Murray the opportunity to study curiosities like Gerd Oswald’s 1956 thriller “A Kiss Before Dying” — in which a young Robert Wagner turns up the creepiness on a naive Joanne Woodward — and see what makes them tick. In the process, they wrote a dirge with the same name for “The Last Exit.”
Oswald achieved the task, making a film noir masterpiece in vivid color, says Hughes. “I think that’s what we’re trying to do, definitely, as well as create a return to the myth of early American road movies like ‘Duel’ and ‘Five Easy Pieces’ blended with that whole noir vibe. I really like that idea.”
The aesthetes’ most beloved movies and directors run the gamut from classic noir like “Out of the Past” and “Anatomy of a Murder” to classic horror (John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is a Still Corners favorite, musically and visually) to the influence of campier 1980s sci-fi efforts “Goonies,” “Gremlins,” “Labyrinth” and “Big Trouble in Little China.”
“Those ’80s films were heavy on the fantasy thing, and we’re trying to apply that fantasy-mythology thing to our music, as well, if that makes any sense,” says Hughes.
Don’t rule out screwball comedy, Murray adds. “Because the advantage of 2020 was that you had the time to really embrace something like Netflix’s ‘Eurovision Song Contest — The Story of Fire Saga,’” she says, referring to the hilarious Will Ferrell/Rachel McAdams awkward-Icelandic-band vehicle from last summer.
Like any great auteur, the duo placed a lot of emphasis on editing. Earlier last year, they thought “The Last Exit” was done, and scripted a Joshua-Tree-filmed video for the title track based on Peter Weir’s grim 1975 masterpiece “Picnic at Hanging Rock.”
But when the coronavirus crisis kicked in, they left four tunes on the cutting-room floor and composed three more — “Crying,” “Static” and the windblown instrumental “Till We Meet Again.”
Hughes likens his editing technique to that of Willem Dafoe’s artist character in William Friedkin’s 1985 mystery “To Live and Die in L.A.”: “As soon as he finishes a painting, he takes it outside and lights it on fire, so it’s only around for a minute. And when you’re writing something, there is an element of not liking it anymore and wanting to delete it. So we did exactly that.”
The Still Corners origin story is nearly as serendipitous as the script for the movie “Sliding Doors.” In January 2008 in London, Hughes — who had moved from Texas to pursue music —boarded the same wrong train as native Brit Murray did, and when they debarked at the next possible station, Kidbrook, they were left standing alone on the platform while the locals scurried home.
“I remember it was a Thursday, because I was on my way to choir practice,” Murray says. “And I just asked him, ‘Oh, did you get on the wrong train, too?’ So that’s how we got to talking.”
Oddly enough, Hughes had just penned some eerie music in need of a finishing touch — female vocals. She agreed to try out for his project, and a few months later, they released Still Corners’ debut EP “Remember Pepper?” By 2011, the duo had moved back to Austin, signed to the indie label Sub Pop, and issued its first full-length album “Creatures of an Hour.”
Recently, the wayfarers missed chilly English winters so much, they moved to Woodstock.
Meanwhile, Hughes — who models his guitar style on the plaint perfected by the late Jimmy Wilsey on early Chris Isaak albums — says he’s not a dilettante who secretly wants to direct.
“We’ve had our music in film, but we would love to do an actual film soundtrack someday,” he says. “If Jim Jarmusch is out there and he’s reading this? Hey, we’re available!”