Obsessed with "Stranger Things?" Meet the musicians behind the show's spine-chilling synth score

Salon talks to Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of Survive, the musicians who made Netflix's breakout scifi hit's sound

Published July 23, 2016 8:30PM (EDT)

Winona Ryder in "Stranger Things" (Netflix/Curtis Baker)
Winona Ryder in "Stranger Things" (Netflix/Curtis Baker)

Netflix’s new streaming series “Stranger Things” is a fantastic voyage through ‘80s sci-fi, horror, teen romance and paranormal tropes. I gorged on all eight episodes in two days after its July 15 release, in part because the show — about the odd disappearance of a little boy and the discovery of a suspicious government lab, slimy creatures and a stoic little girl in a small Indiana town in 1983 — is riddled with cliffhangers. But it’s also a noteworthy series because twin showrunners the Duffer Brothers effortlessly disperse so many clever meta references throughout each episode. They do this narratively (with winking nods to things like “Tales from the Darkside,” “E.T.,” “Poltergeist,” “The Goonies,” “Aliens,” “Altered States” and “Under the Skin,” as well as with actors Winona Ryder, Matthew Modine and River Phoenix doppelgänger Charlie Heaton), but they also really nailed their musical references.

Watching “Stranger Things” immerses you in the sounds and the soundtracks of the ‘80s. The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” is a repeated theme here, and other nuggets such as New Order’s “Elegia” and Modern English’s “I Melt with You” encapsulate key scenes. But the musicians who really set the tone for “Stranger Things” are Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the synth band Survive. Dixon and Stein wrote the spectral theme song and the show’s spine-chilling synth score. As a result, they now have an avid social media following posting about their work.

There’s already a Reddit thread dedicated to the “Stranger Things” original soundtrack, and older posts on Survive’s Facebook page are littered with new testimonials about the show, while the Facebook page for Stranger Thingscontains raves like “You just killed it with that synth score …. it set the whole mood for the show and immediately made it clear we were watching something different” and “The synth WAS the movie [sic].” The Austin-based musicians have turned their longtime love for Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter scores into a burgeoning new soundtrack career.

As Survive, the duo has been bringing moody synth soundscapes to life since 2008. Their music already contains a bold cinematic quality, their records pulsing with droning hums and glitchy outbursts over layers of icy melodies. But they didn’t land their first Hollywood opportunity until they were approached about licensing two songs off their eponymous full-length record for the 2014 thriller “The Guest.” For “Stranger Things,” the Duffer Brothers hired Dixon and Stein to write all original music.

Dixon and Stein have been on the road since “Stranger Things” came out and the immediate fandom is throwing them for a loop. Speaking on the phone from Portland, OR, Dixon says he went camping last weekend, leaving on the same day that the show debuted. “It came out Friday and I left town Friday and was without cell phone service,” he says. “I came back to town and my cell phone had, like, melted when I got reception again. That was pretty fun, to be cut off and then get totally ransacked by everybody I know.”

I spoke with Dixon and Stein about their process for creating the perfect “Stranger Things” vibe, their upcoming record for Relapse Records and their take on the show’s dramatic ending. [Warning: Spoilers ahead.]

As soon as I heard the opening credits of “Stranger Things,” I thought, "I’m in." The song really set the tone for the show. What do you think it is about the right soundtrack that pulls people in?

Kyle Dixon: It sets the mood. But I think for TV, the bar is set pretty low. People don’t think twice when something is cheesy because they’re so used to it. So when they hear something that’s a little more tasteful it, it stands out.

Michael Stein: When we write something we’ll call it “too TV” if it’s borderline cheesy or just generic. Almost like a marker of what not to do.

What influence have soundtracks had on your music, before you were creating them yourself?

Stein: I’m obsessed with movies. I think that [the influence of old soundtracks] just becomes intuitive because you grew up with them. It’s like the ‘80s are instilled in you.

Dixon: We listen to a lot of Tangerine Dream and they did a ton of soundtracks. There’s a few key soundtracks by them that definitely influenced us in a lot of ways, like “Thief” and “Sorcerer.”

In older sci-fi movies, the music almost becomes a character in the film — which is how I felt about the music you wrote forStranger Things.”

Dixon: That’s great. The Duffers made a conscious decision that they wanted the music to be a big part of [“Stranger Things”]. That’s why they brought us in so early in the process compared to most TV shows, where the music would come last. We sent our demos and got hooked up when they were doing casting.

Stein: Our early demo themes just ended up in the show. That helped define the direction we went in.

So you didn’t have anything visually to work with in the beginning?

Dixon: They did a lookbook with a synopsis of the show and characters and images from movies they were drawing references from — the tones and colors and stuff — and they also made a mock trailer with themes from other movies.

They pitched Netflix a trailer with one of our songs from our last album in it. And then they were like, why don’t we get these guys whose music we used in the trailer?

How did the Duffer Brothers find you in the first place?

Dixon: They just emailed us. We tried to figure out how they found out about us and they’re not even sure — maybe it was from “The Guest” but they were like, “I don’t know.” So it’s a mystery.

What were some of the specific guiding points that the Duffer Brothers gave you to direct the music you wrote for the show?

Dixon: The main things they told us was there’s Eleven, the girl with the powers, and there are a few other characters, and they wanted us to do a few scenes for her. So we tried a couple of things out, did a few versions of what an Eleven theme might sound like and worked on that.

Stein: She was scared, kinda sad — they gave us guidelines about who she was.

Dixon: There’s a big scope of sci-fi. There’s people-dressed-in-crazy-outfits sci-fi, with monsters everywhere, and then there’s like “Stranger Things” sci-fi, where sure, there’s a monster, but it’s more …

Stein: Ominous.

Dixon: It’s a real-world situation most of the time. It’s like “E.T.” or something. It’s about people, and then there’s this weird thing also. One of the guidelines they gave us was that they didn’t want [the score] to be “too synth.” They came to a synthesizer band to make the score but they don’t want it to be too synth. [Laughs.] We had to figure out what that means to them. Because when you’re talking to directors they may be using words that mean something completely different in musical terms than what they are trying to convey. So there was a bit of learning we had to do there, but obviously I think it worked out.

What did you figure that not being “too synth” meant in the end?

Stein: Resonance.

Dixon: There’s a part of a synthesizer called “resonance” and it makes everything sound kinda (makes laser noises) laser-y. As long as we’re not doing too much of that, I think we’re in good shape. I think that’s what it means, but you never know.

So the music was supposed to be centered around characters like Eleven, not specific scenes?

Dixon: The Eleven scene was just one of the early prompts. That was a starting point for us. But after that the focus shifted to whatever the scene was.

Stein: There were a couple plot points or storylines where we knew we had, like, an ‘80s teen romance. Or there’s some kind of monster. So we came up with themes for all these different elements of the show that showed a broad scope from horror to romance to aliens to childlike. We had to cover a lot of ground with the pitch.

Dixon: And background texture. Stuff that people don’t even really notice but it helps set the mood. We sent them a ton of music early on, like here’s something that could [be playing] when there’s an action scene. Here’s something that could happen when somebody gets happy. This could be cool when they turn a corner. So they had a decent sized library going into it before we even had a picture. They used a lot of that [music] and we ended up writing a lot of new stuff as well.

Stein: Right at the beginning we were talking about all the sound effects we were going to make and got really overzealous. We wanted to do the entire sound design for the entire show, every ambient moment. (Laughs)

What was the most fun “Stranger Things” scenario to work on?

Dixon: The monster theme was fun. The Eleven theme was good. I couldn’t pick one.

Stein: A lot of the more direct stuff that relates to us [as a band], like the theme, came a little easier. The other stuff was more challenging. It’s not like the stuff we write all the time. Like, a kid’s theme?

Dixon: It was pretty fun to do that stuff because we wouldn’t typically write something that’s that overtly happy or childish as Survive.

How did you make sure your soundtrack really matched the era of the show? Did you only use instruments that dated from the early ‘80s?

Stein: Not on purpose.

Dixon: We’ve always used a lot of older equipment and we absolutely did that on this show, but there’s also lot of new equipment in the music as well. We used a Prophet Six quite a bit, which is a brand new synth but it’s modeled after an older synth.

Stein: The Prophet adds a sound that was in so many movies, from Tangerine Dream’s [soundtracks] to John Carpenter’s.

Dixon: It’s all over everything, so it definitely references that [‘80s] era just because it was so popular. That is a great sounding keyboard. We use a Prophet Six but the original one was a Prophet 5.

“Stranger Things” drops a lot of visual Easter eggs in the show — posters for “Evil Dead” and Tom Cruise movies, a Trapper Keeper, D&D jokes — that feel like little in-jokes. I’m curious if in your music, were you dropping Easter eggs for the music nerds to get excited about?

Dixon: They’re going to get excited anyway. People are already speculating about what we were using to get our sound and they’re all varying degrees of correctness because we have quite a bit of gear between the two of us. I couldn’t say we intentionally dropped any Easter eggs but there are definitely some very unique and recognizable sounds from synthesizers in the show.

Stein: I’d maybe write something and laugh to myself about it, about how it sounds like something else. But I think it’s so off that no one would get it. I’m the only one who would think it was funny, like a little melody.

What are people nerding out about the most?

Dixon: We’ve gotten a ton of emails and messages like, are you using this? Are you using this? [Laughs.]

Stein: I saw a message 20 minutes ago that was like, these guys definitely don’t use any vintage equipment, it’s all modern — just dissing on all the old stuff. And I wanted to comment and be like, actually, it’s 90 percent hardware and that “old crappy stuff” you’re making fun of.

Dixon: It’s funny to see the message boards light up with speculation about how we did certain things.

So after I started watching “Stranger Things,” I went straight to iTunes and bought a few of your records. There’s “LLR002,” and “Hd009,” and then your new full-length for Relapse Records that comes out in September is “RR7349”...

Dixon: The names of the records are just the catalog numbers for the record label. We’ve never really named a release.

I thought there was some secret code happening in there.

Dixon: We’re just going to keep doing it. We already have six releases that don’t have names, they’re just random letters and numbers.

What was the concept behind the music in “RR7349?”

Dixon: Our first LP is half songs and drone, and half textural moody stuff. And with this one we wanted to make more substantial songs. We were also trying make it sound ‘70s at times. There’s something between classic rock and prog that we’re trying to do … Slow cosmic songs, I guess? I don’t even know what to call it.

Were there pieces of the “Stranger Things” songs that made their way into this record?

Dixon: No. It’s still us making the music, so I guess it’s going to sound similar, but nothing from the record is in the show.

The record has a strong dystopian vibe. Maybe I was influenced a little by titles like “High Rise,” which was an awesome J.G. Ballard book.

Stein: There’s definitely more horror on there this time. I don’t even know if I’ve seen “Leaving Las Vegas,” but I have an idea of what “Leaving Las Vegas” is like: a dark, luxurious, sad movie that takes place in a fancy place. I could be completely wrong. But it’s the theme of being in a really nice place in a fucked up situation and dealing with that in the lap of luxury …

Stein: … and an ominous magic floating around.

Dixon: Something weird. That was an idea we kept floating back to.

It sounds like even when you’re not making a soundtrack, you still have a visual narrative in your head when you’re making your records.

Dixon: Definitely, we always refer to [visuals]. Like if there’s a certain part of the song where, like this is where the fucking helicopter crashes into the side of the mountain. Or this is when the dude gets drunk and goes blurry and falls down the stairs. This is where they murder the guy in the window.

Stein: This is where the guy’s chest splits open and a giant beam of light hits the sky.

Dixon: And this is the sound of the ax that’s chopping ...

Stein: We’ll come up with a story as we’re writing it and we’ll play off our ideas as we’re telling the story and start thinking that’s what the song is.

Dixon: Like we’ll call something “the hammer.” And we need to make the hammer louder right here, and that’s where it’ll break. We’ll kind of name stuff if it fits into the story and that’s how we know what part of the song we’re talking about.

Will you be releasing the music from “Stranger Things” too? I see people already asking for it on social media.

Dixon: If people want it, we’d like to release it, but ultimately it’s up to Netflix if they want to release it. We don’t have any answer on that yet. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened. It seems like there’s a strong enough response to warrant doing that, but we’ll see.

Has "Stranger Things" opened new doors for soundtrack work?

Dixon: We don’t have any plans to work on anything else but we have a lot of emails that need to be responded to. I think it’ll lead to more stuff but nothing solid yet.

Since you were involved in “Stranger Things,” I have to ask your opinions on some of the unresolved endings in the show. What do you think happened to Eleven? Do you think Hopper knows where she is? And what’s happening with Will? Is he the flea that can walk between the regular world and the Upside Down?

Dixon: I have no idea, but it certainly looks like Will has a monster or something inside him.

Stein: I’m just hoping we get to find out.

By Jennifer Maerz

Jennifer Maerz is a music writer living in San Francisco.

MORE FROM Jennifer Maerz

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks Music Netflix Stranger Things Survive Tv