Austin, Texas-based electronic quartet S U R V I V E catapulted from cult synthwave act to international notoriety this summer after two of its members, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, scored Netflix’s hit dark sci-fi/horror series Stranger Things. The duo provided an appropriately atmospheric, dark, and at times aggressive soundtrack for the TV series about a young boy’s disappearance in 1983 rural Indiana, which is soon linked to interdimensional experiments at a secret government facility. Also: telekinesis and Matthew Modine show up (of course).
Such ’70s/’80s touchstones as John Carpenter, Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream seep into the duo’s music even as they define their own sonic identity, one which fans can explore on the two soundtrack CDs recently released and on the new S U R V I V E album RR7349, which features the full group—members Mark Donica and Adam Jones included—performing longer, more groove-oriented instrumentals.
Dixon and Stein spoke with the Observer recently about the group’s history, success, deep-cut synth music, and their upcoming U.S. tour.
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There’s been an old-school analog synth resurgence happening in recent years with instrumental electronic artists like Zombi, Disasterpiece, and your Austin neighbor, Xander Harris. Do you guys consider yourselves to be retro?
Michael Stein: We don’t necessarily consider what we’re doing to be retro.
Kyle Dixon: We’re obviously influenced by a lot music from the late ’70s and the ’70s in general, and we use a lot of the instruments that were available back then. That’s going to define what our music sounds like in a certain sense. In that aspect, it’s kind of hard to get away from it.
Stein: We identify with the tone of a lot of that more even though we do use a lot of modern stuff as well, tone-wise and sonically. But as in the past where they were trying to make something forward-thinking and futuristic, we are trying to push our own boundaries and evolve our sound as well and do something that’s new.
You use a lot of vintage analog synths, but I’m suspecting there’s some modern gear as well. One track on the first Stranger Things soundtrack, “Friendship,” features guitar sounds run through a modern pedal, while the synth sounds are glassy.
Dixon: It’s definitely a mixture.
Stein: That specifically was a modern analogue synthesizer that’s got built-in effects and choruses that you would normally find on a guitar pedal array. Glassy is a good term which people used to describe some of the mid and late ’80s analog synthesizers when they became based upon chips, like Oberheims. We’re trying to make sounds that are [different]. We try not to make overtly synth tones, like heavily modulated, fast, high-depth kind of tones. Just more meaty stuff.
Which vintage analog synths do you use?
Dixon: I really like ARPs. Pretty much all of them.
Stein: Good answer. A lot of Odyssey, a lot of ARP 2600.
For the tone?
Dixon: Pretty much.
Stein: The tone, the interface, the layout. The design is really great. You can come up with complex sounds really quick but the overall tone is just super classic. You almost can’t make a bad sound on an ARP. And also the early, early Korgs, like the 770s, the MiniKorgs, the Poly Ensemble, things with the Traveler filter. We use the [Roland] Jupiter-8, and there’s even Mellotron on the score.
I can hear the influence of John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream on S U R V I V E. Are there any lesser known artists that people might not know about that have influenced your work?
Dixon: For sure. We really like the band Space Art. We’re also big Yellow Magic Orchestra fans. [YMO member Ryuichi Sakamoto won Oscar, Golden Globe, and Grammy awards for his soundtrack to The Last Emperor.—Ed.]
Stein: YMO is big but not everyone goes into the depth of their discography and what all their individual members have done and who they’ve collaborated with. Like the stuff they’ve done with Bill Nelson and with Tony Mansfield, who’s the producer of a-ha and Naked Eyes. They have all these collaborations with all these really brilliant producers and musicians that were YMO-related like Japan and David Sylvian. Somehow they worked with all these brilliant people and created this huge, united sound that was worldwide in the early ’80s. Space Art is more of a proggy synth kind of thing.
Dixon: I really like this guy Richard Schneider Jr. He’s done everything. It’s almost Pink Floyd at times, and some of it is like samba. Some of it’s weird. He has a really good album called Dreamlike Land that I listened to a lot when we were making the new record.
Stein: It’s like this weird, desolate rock music that’s cosmic sounding.
Dixon: We definitely seek out lesser known stuff. Tangerine Dream is great, but there’s so much more. There’s Michael Stearns.
Stein: There’s [stuff] from 1979 to 1981 that’s minimal industrial punk-influenced synth music. It’s really stripped down and amateur but great shit.
Have you ever checked out the first couple of Human League records, the industrial sounding stuff before they went pop?
Stein: Oh yeah. I think I have those.
They had this dark phase before they got popular with “Don’t You Want Me”.
Can you imagine what people must’ve thought of it in the late ’70s?
Stein: I know that Martyn Ware the [early member and] synth player built a plexiglass cage around his modular synths because people kept throwing stuff at them.
Dixon: That sucks.
Stein: So yes, people did not like it, clearly.
What I find interesting about your latest album is that you contrast an Eno-esque piece like “Low Fog” with something grittier and industrial sounding like “Dirt”. There’s a strong dichotomy to your music that is also heard on the soundtrack to Stranger Things.
Dixon: I’d say it’s less present on the new album than on our first album, when we had it more evenly split between those textural songs and the songs are beat-driven. There’s always going to be an element of texture or noise or not straight up pretty-sounding stuff.
I imagine that all four members of S U R V I V E have different influences that push and pull your music in different directions?
Stein: Right, but we do make democratic decisions with checks and balances. It’s got to make it by every member as well. Someone can go off on their own little spurt and bring something to the table [and we’ll decide].
How did Austin, Texas become such a hotbed of electronic music activity?
Dixon: There wasn’t when we started and that’s kind of the reason that we started. There were a lot of people doing electronic music in some respects, but not to the extent that it has grown. I’m not saying we’re the cause of that. I think there are multiple factors. There is Switched On, which is a synthesizer store that sells new and used gear, a lot of older vintage stuff that you wouldn’t find in any Guitar Center or wherever. Just people having access to those kinds of instruments and maybe seeing other people play them increases their interest.
Stein: Even before the shop there was an electronic scene. It was more of a melting pot of a younger generation of people just experimenting, and that involved a weird mishmash of electronics that were probably being bought cheap. The noise scene and the really experimental scene would play with the No Wave scene and the punk synth scene, then we came in with this cool synth, higher technology, synced up kind of thing that other people weren’t quite doing. That melting pot of people exists because we’re all very passionate about these weird shows and interesting music. That boiled over and spilled into a lot of different groups, and one of those stemmed from a more synth-heavy, pop-structured direction.
Dixon: I pretty much grew up on electronic music of all kinds. I wouldn’t say that I hated rock music, but it was definitely not my passion for a long time. There was plenty of “rock music” that just didn’t interest me at all, but I think a lot of people that came from the opposite background are now becoming more open to the idea of synthesizer music or electronic music, particularly the noise scene and the punk scene. People who otherwise would not have cared are starting to become more open-minded, I guess, because they’re seeing that you can do music that doesn’t sound like electronica or whatever you want to call it. I think that’s also helped because then people who would be in other types of bands want to start a project like that because it looks fun.
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You guys grew up in the ’90s. How did you get into music like this? Watching older movies?
Dixon: We listened to a lot of that.
Stein: I listened to a lot of rap and hip-hop, and you didn’t realize that a lot of that stuff was electronic. Pretty weird and out there. Kool Keith was pretty heavy analog. You didn’t realize it, but if you listen to it now, there are some crazy analog beats.
Dixon: I didn’t realize that a lot of old rap beats, even current stuff, are very John Carpenter-esque in the melodies and the darkness. That’s kind of where I was introduced to that sort of dark sound, having no idea who John Carpenter was until way later down the line.
Stein: People refer to things as John-Carpenter-sounding when they’re synthy or a certain way, even when over half his career is more piano and strings and not even that much synths. There’s a way he plays and a dissonance that was adapted in a lot of rap. Especially modern stuff is very influenced by the Halloween thing. There’s this 69 Boyz song that samples Halloween, and it is so good. I can’t find it anymore.
Dixon: [Laughing] 69 Boyz, yes. There’s Miami bass, too.
Stein: I love Miami bass, and I didn’t realize the connection of why I liked Miami bass growing up and why I like electro and stuff that Murder Capital plays on IFM. I’ve always been into that dark and stark, minimal, kind of upbeat electro that’s very John Carpenter sounding.
Dixon: Or even Kraftwerk. They were the first band that did the cold thing, but I didn’t really know…I wouldn’t say that Kraftwerk was an early influence, but they’re awesome.
You two worked on the Stranger Things soundtrack. There were evidently budgetary constraints that kept all four S U R V I V E members from doing it. How did that affect the band dynamic?
Dixon: We got the opportunity to do it, and there was no way in hell that I was not going to do it.
Stein: It was kind of a leap of faith that the two of us were willing to commit 100 percent to this thing and be dry on income for a matter of five months or something.
Dixon: [I thought] I don’t care, I have to at least try because this is an opportunity that doesn’t come along every day. It’s like now or never, do it. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. [Laughs] But I think it worked out.
Stein: Kyle and I are very prolific and have tons and tons of music that we put into these libraries that we make it doesn’t go anywhere, but it’s all very cinematic.
Dixon: We’d been talking about trying to get some of this music into film and TV, so we had consciously been cataloging things that we thought would be really good. Themes that didn’t have an outlet, and luckily we got an offer and had a bunch of stuff that we were able to demo.
Stein: We’re going to be able to branch out and take on some more projects.
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I hear the Duffer Brothers discovered your music on Spotify, and then music you demoed for the show was used as background music for their audition tapes. What were they like to work with, and how did they shape the score itself?
Dixon: They were great to work with. We were in pretty regular contact with them throughout that process. They didn’t tell us what to do necessarily, but they definitely provided a lot of feedback.
Stein: They definitely helped shape or streamline the direction, and over time we understood what would or wouldn’t work or be accepted by them. Toward the end we started doing stuff that was way crazy that we knew they were going to be cool with. We had to figure out what their tastes were, plus seeing the picture you could kind of tell.
Dixon: A lot of times we would do something that we would think would be good for a chase scene, and then we would watch the scene chase and think: It looks cheesy, let’s do something else.
Stein: Sometimes things needed to be atonal or rhythmic or way more stark or noise.
The industrial quality to some of the Stranger Things soundtrack helps, especially when the monster comes out of the wall and the chase sequence in the Upside Down with those stabbing synth sounds.
Dixon: One of the things that we learned is we tried to be a little bit more musical with some of those scenes. As horror and sci-fi movies have progressed it’s a little more kitschy to do something that we might consider to be very John Carpenter-esque in a scary scene. It doesn’t seem scary anymore, it seems kitschy or just too throwback or almost comedic. There are a lot of B-horror movies where you hear that kind of music come on and people will laugh at it. A lot of times we would make stuff that wasn’t weird enough to make this feeling.
Stein: There were sound effects scenes that if we didn’t deliver that then it would have been the sound effects team, which did a great job, too. It’s cooler to have it tied into the score where we could have our stamp on it, too. It kept everything a little more fluid throughout with the tone.
S U R V I V E is touring the U.S. throughout October and into early November. How are you going to perform the new tracks and some of the Stranger Things cuts?
Dixon: Some stuff is going to be sequenced, but a main goal of the band is to be a band and not just knob tweakers. As far as playing things from the show, I’m not sure how much of that we’ll do. I think those are separate things, and we’re going to play S U R V I V E songs at shows. It’s not a final answer on that, but we’ll see.
Bryan Reesman is pleased by this old-school electronic music movement. It balances out his raging metal side.