You might not be too familiar with their names, but you’ll certainly have heard their music. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein are the duo behind the Grammy nominated, Emmy Award-winning soundtrack of cult Netflix series Stranger Things.
Hailing from Dallas, Texas, Dixon and Stein met as teenagers, but only began making music together after the former went to college. A collective love of synthesisers and dramatic soundscapes led to the pair, along with Dixon’s housemates Adam Jones and Mark Donica, forming the band S U R V I V E in 2009.
The quartet’s distinctive sound – heavy with analogue synths and augmented drums – was picked for use on the soundtrack of American thriller The Guest in 2014. The use of tracks Hourglass and Omniverse on that film duly brought S U R V I V E to the attention of brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, who were looking for the ideal musical accompaniment for their newly commissioned show, Stranger Things. The rest is award-show-laden history.
This summer Dixon and Stein come to London to perform the music of Stranger Things as part of Nile Rodgers’ Meltdown. Ahead of their Southbank Centre gig we caught up with the pair at their homes in Texas to discuss synths, MySpace and why they don’t want to see any dancing.
It’s ten years since you formed S U R V I V E – with Adam Jones and Mark Donica – how did the band come together?
Kyle Dixon: We shared a lot of music, just listening to music we shared an interest in that. Adam and I went to college in San Marcos, just south of Austin, and that’s where we met Mark, and figured out that we shared interests in music and listening to music.
Michael Stein: Kyle and I had been in touch pretty regularly before college, but we’d kind of lost touch for about two to three years. But then we found out we had both been messing with recording stuff, trying to make sounds and experimenting.
KD: So we got back together and recorded some stuff. Adam, Mark and myself were living in a house together and Michael came to visit. We had been talking about synthesisers, so he brought some synths down, and in that one weekend we recorded a song that would become Holographic Landscape. We put it on MySpace as we were like yep, that’s a done song, and that’s when S U R V I V E started, because we were like ‘what do we call the band?’ And we didn’t have anything better so we just called it S U R V I V E. And the whole spaces between the letters thing? That was just because of the type aesthetic choice we made. We wanted to add more spacing so it looked bigger, and then it kind of stuck as a thing.
MySpace isn’t often given the retrospective credit it deserves for helping form a lot of today’s bands.
MS: Yeah MySpace was pretty good for finding music. The top eight feature was really big for finding people that were influencing other artists.
KD: It was the best way to find music, and then also to book tours - not that we did much touring - but just finding people in other cities, who followed or produced similar music, it was great.
MS: There was good stuff going on, on there. There were blogs like Valerie blog and they found us somehow and featured us and we would talk with people whose music we liked back then, like Com Truise, just randomly in the messages. It was like nobody was anybody yet, but everyone had this cosmic moody electronic stuff, it was like a fun little community I guess.
I don’t know, something felt like it happened where music was boring until 2008, and then in 2009 all this stuff started happening; all these hybridising genres coming together, all these new artists came out, and you could share your music. Something happened where globally a lot of people who were underground artists were able to influence each other and get in touch with each other.
KD: It’s sad that MySpace went away. F***ing Facebook… not even close.
You mentioned that from the first time you came together to create music, that synthesisers were integral. And your music is still synth-heavy and pretty distinctive in its brooding nature; what drew you towards creating this kind of sound?
KD: The goal of what we were trying to do at first, was that we wanted to be a synth band, because we didn’t know any other synth bands. There was nothing where people got up, played synthesisers and just did that.
MS: I remember a conversation, that I guess was somewhat conceptual, back when we first started making music. We were at a party and sitting around talking about all the music that gives you that feeling of it being nighttime and you’re in some cool situation, or perhaps it could be real smooth or mellow…
KD: ...or a not necessarily cool situation, maybe a tense situation...
MS: ...yeah, but there was a common appreciation of that. We could call out a couple of songs that had it, but there was no real genre for it and we were just like, that’s the mood. That’s a cool mood and we should have a project that focuses on that.
KD: Yeah, because there would always be the one, or maybe two, tracks on an album that kind of like sounded like this, or perhaps an artist has one track that kind of sounds like that, but we thought let’s make that the thing; the whole thing.
You mentioned being drawn to making music that brought certain imagery or landscapes to mind. There’s perhaps an inevitability then that your music would come to be used on soundtracks, but did it work the other way too? Were you influenced by film scores?
KD: We were listening to a lot of early synth music, like Tangerine Dream and a lot of that happened to be in scores, but it wasn’t a conscious choice. We definitely knew we wanted to work in scores, but we didn’t know how to get into it.
MS: It wasn’t necessarily just score, but instrumental music that gives you a lot of visuals. We were big fans of space art, and Mass from Yellow Magic Orchestra was a big influential early track, Plus Tangerine Dream, their score for The Keep and a lot of other stuff like their score for Thief, but it wasn’t like, we weren’t trying to make music that would fit in film necessarily.
KD: But then because there’s no lyrics in our songs, sometimes we would use imagery to explain what the feel of the song is, and what direction it needs to go in. And so we would come up with some kind of situation, and explain that to the rest of the band. So if one of us had an idea of how we wanted it to go, we wouldn’t always know what the notes were or what the sound was going to be, so we would just say some random shit like ‘you’re driving the last nail into the coffin of this crazy monster you just killed’ in order to try and make everyone understand what was going to happen.
Season three of Stranger Things has just launched worldwide, how does the soundtrack you’ve put together for this one differ to that of the previous seasons?
KD: We definitely wanted to make sure that everything could feel like a complete piece, even if it’s really minimal. Because the first record we just threw everything on there and a lot of things would just start and then end. And you’d be like oh but it’s such a cool mood we wish it went on longer, but we didn’t have time to do it, yet we still want to put it on there. This time we have made more decisions like ‘OK, even though we really like it, this piece isn’t long enough, it’s not developed enough, it’s not going in the show’.
MS: Yeah, in the actual show score itself, because of the way the show’s narrative has evolved, there’s more action, there’s more cinematic pieces of music, there’s more comedic pacers, there’s a lot of things that support the show and the story. And I’d say all those things are new to a degree, in terms of the level they are in the score itself.
There’s loads of stuff we don’t release that people make requests for. They’re like ‘where is this? You should put it out’. But we’ve got what, 88 minutes of music we can fit on a double LP, and there’s a lot more than 88 minutes of music in the show.
KD: Yeah I remember someone asked, ‘Why didn’t you put out that song from that scene in the fairground?’ And I wanted to say, ‘Well, it’s nine seconds long, it’s during a chase scene and it’s literally nine seconds, so, you know, that’s why’.
Lastly then, you’re joining us to perform at Meltdown here in London next month. What can audiences expect from your performance, and what are you looking forward to about the gig?
KD: Well it’s gonna be a new set, because now that the third season has been released we can play some of the new stuff and it makes sense to play that. It’s probably going to be pretty dark, but there’ll be some of the classics in there. We have to cut stuff because it’s more music that we can play. I don’t think they’re going to give us an hour and a half, but we could easily fill an hour and a half.
MS: When we start figuring out what we’re going to cut, and how much new stuff we want to add we’ll see how long it’s going to be. The show is a very atmospheric and immersive thing and plus it’s always nice when we get to play in theatres.
KD: Our show is always best to be watched seated I think.
MS: Yeah, there’s a lot of long lows and then bigger moments that build, so you’re not going to be dancing.
KD: We don’t want anyone dancing at this gig [laughs]. Dance and you might get kicked out.
Sadly Meltdown festival 2019 – at which Stein and Dixon performed – is now over. But throughout the year Southbank Centre presents live contemporary music gigs and performances that blur genre boundaries and showcase the best new sounds from across the globe.
Interview by Glen Wilson