No part of acclaimed mini-series Stranger Things activates the nostalgia circuits like its soundtrack of eerie, droning analog synths — an alien transmission from the VHS era to the Netflix generation. They come courtesy of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, one-half of Austin analog synth goosebumpers Survive, who are set to release their second album, RR7349, on Relapse Records in September.
Survive currently ranks as Austin's most visible band in a scene full of retro-leaning synth acts like Troller, Ssleeperhold, Flatliner and Xander Harris. Austin synth store Switched On opened in 2010, and has become a community hub for this explosion of local dark ambient mood-mushers who tinker with patch cords and resistors instead of guitars and turntables. Stein has counted himself as one of its employees — no doubt an excellent opportunity for dibs.
After releasing a handful of cassette and vinyl releases since 2010, Survive's music caught the attention of Stranger Things creators the Duffer Brothers as the perfect analog for their retro adventure — part John Carpenter, part Italian giallo, part Giorgio Moroder and all with the warmth of vintage techniques. With the soundtrack to Stranger Things crawling under everyone's skin, Rolling Stone caught up with Dixon and Stein to ask about how they turned a gear obsession into TV's creepiest sound.
When did you first get into analog synths?
Stein: [I] probably bought a MicroKorg or something in 2003 or 4, and I thought it sounded the way I wanted. But there was something missing from the sound. And then I got an SH-101 off of Craigslist, and I was like, "Oh, shit. This is it. It's analog. That's what it is that I like." And then I just decided to start building, like, a modular out of kits and stuff. I thought that I could have every synth if I just got all the filters for all the famous synths. But then I realized it's a lot cheaper to just buy an entire synthesizer than all these little $200 modules all the time. But I still have that thing and I love it.
Do you still use that thing for your music?
Stein: All the time.
Dixon: Yeah, it's all over everything.
Stein: There's some … secret weapons in there.
Dixon: It's been on every record.
Does he have a name?
Stein: I called it the "Tone Throne" for a minute, but that was a joke. But we still refer to it as that and laugh.
Collecting synths is kind of an expensive hobby. Have you guys had to make certain sacrifices, where it's like, "Well, you know, I could…"
Stein: …have a bank account?
Dixon: I could have savings … but I could also have a synthesizer. … I mean, working a job is just like, "OK, got my paycheck. What am I buying now?"
Stein: I kind of play the wheel-and-deal hustle repair game with synths sometimes and trade up a lot. I usually almost made more money off synths than spent money on them.
You work at Austin synth store Switched On, right?
Stein: Uh, yeah. I'm just helping out, like, real minimally now.
Austin is full of analog synth bands and Austin's Mondo Records is doing a lot of vintage synth soundtrack reissuing. Why do you think it has sprouted such a fertile scene there?
Dixon: I mean, I don't really even know those [Mondo] guys. We know a bunch of people playing music here in town, but I think that's largely due to just Switched On being a resource for people to go buy stuff.
Yeah, I guess not a lot of towns have a synth store.
Dixon: When we started … there wasn't a synth band.
Stein: Everyone was more laptop and … just more experimental in their approach.
Dixon: We were like, "Hey, we want to start a synth band where you get on stage and you play synthesizers instead of just, like, sitting there looking at a laptop or, like, tweaking a knob.
Do you feel like the Alamo Drafthouse and their repertory selection has had some sort influence on you?
Dixon: Most of the movies that I have seen that would be influential, I haven't seen at the Drafthouse, I've seen them from I Luv Video. I Luv Video is literally one block from my house, so I just walk down there. I try to rent from them as often as possible. They do a pretty good curation of staff pics and they do little mini reviews on the front of the cover. They have the director's wall. Any notable director has a section where you can get their movies, so I'll work my way through all the Herzog and Tarkovsky stuff.
How about movies pertaining directly to inspiring your music?
Dixon: I mean, they have a huge Argento collection, so we get to see all that stuff, and then, like, Sorcerer. There's a Tangerine Dream score for Sorcerer that's great. I've rented that one a few times. The Keep. I think you can only get The Keep on VHS. They have a huge horror section, so a lot of times I'll just get stuff if it's got a Goblin or a Tangerine Dream score and just see what it sounds like.
Stein: I'm a huge fan of Giorgio Moroder's soundtracks. … and the stuff that he did with Harold Faltermeyer. Just, they have, like, a weird romance vibe. I don't know if it's some modal-style of playing, but it's … really ingenious. Obviously John Carpenter's films. That brooding kind of … awesome use of dissonance and just propelling scenes.
You guys actually do rent VHS videos from those guys?
Dixon: You have to, yeah.
Is your new album, RR7349, named after the catalogue number?
Dixon: Yeah, all our albums are just the catalogue number.
Stein: I loved not having to come up with a name because we don't really have a concept for a record. When we're working on it it's just like, all these songs start to fall into place.
What did you have to do differently for the show than your record?Dixon: Just dealing with a film … or a TV show, there's a broad range of emotions that you have to touch on, and a lot of that's a little more childish, a little more playful, than something that we would release as Survive. So, out of the necessity to tell the story, we're gonna write stuff that just would never make it out on a Survive album.
How do you know when you have the right mood?
Dixon: When it makes you feel cool. Like, "Oh, I feel cool right now." It's like, "I could be driving around in the car listening to this and feeling pretty good."
It's funny because internet forums where they talk about music like this, driving is the overarching imagery.
There's obvious, like, Drive or whatever all that shit is. And we kind of have that, but we try to keep it a little back from that whole overly Eighties. …
Your stuff's a little bit darker too.
Stein: Yeah. You have to mix it real warm and, like, kind of almost questioning what era it's from
Dixon: Yeah, we're definitely more interested in Seventies-style production than Eighties, which I think is the difference. A lot of those types of bands will go for the super cold stuff … that sounds really digital, and we kind of … I mean, I don't know if we've accomplished that goal, but we're just drawn to Seventies recording styles a little more. I mean, Eighties is great, and we love all that stuff too. But we try to make it sound a little warmer.
Stein: Some depth and some movement to the dynamics of the track, just more life in there than just, like, smacking the shit out of the speakers.
So, how did you two hook up with the Duffer Brothers for Stranger Things?
Dixon: They're fans of Survive somehow and it's kind of a mystery … like, they don't really know how they found us. But they did, and then they emailed us and asked if we were available. They put our song "Dirge" from our last LP in their trailer for the show. Like, they made a little mock trailer to pitch their concept to Netflix, and they had the song "Dirge" in there. They were like, "Oh, shit. That works pretty well for the trailer. It kind of got the vibe across."
What was the process you used to compose for 10 hours of television?
Dixon: I mean, we've been recording for years, and there's tons of stuff that we've always kind of known would be good for films, so we had some of that stuff lying around. And when they hit us up, we sent a lot of that stuff over just to say, "Hey, here's some different moods that could work."
And some of that stuff ended up being used, but a lot of it ended up being re-worked. And after we sent that initial, kind of, dump over to them, they picked a few things out, and then asked us to do a little more for certain things … like write a theme for some of the characters to use … to pitch to the producers and stuff. We got involved really early, before they had even cast anyone. And they used the demo that we'd sent to play against the auditions, which kind of helped them decide, you know, whether or not they wanted to use us … and I think it may have also dictated who they cast for some of the characters. So, that was cool.
Stein: We were just writing … just trying to, you know, imagine who these characters were. And we'd seen a little bit of the aesthetic they were going for. But there weren't scripts yet, there were just like, these vague, kind of character descriptions. And to make scenes based on those ideas, you just had to … kind of imagine what that was and feel it out and send it over. And some of those things actually just locked in and like stayed very early on
Dixon: And before we had even gotten the job. They basically told us like, "We know you can do scary shit and dark stuff so you need to show the producers that you can do some of the more light-hearted things."
Was there anything that you had in mind as a guide for your more lighthearted material?
Dixon: For me, there's this warm, fuzzy feeling that a lot of Nineties R&B like INOJ and even some like Mariah Carey. It's hard to explain, but there are certain notes that just sound like being a kid to me just because that's when I grew up I guess probably. Some of that stuff was kind of an influence for me on learning some of those kid themes I guess.
Was there anything that they came back to you and were like, "This is too scary"?
Dixon: No, they were like, "Make it scary as fuck." They're like, "We want to scare the shit out of some little kids … and adults, so go for it." Especially for some of the more intense scenes, they were like, "Just make it go even harder. Make it as crazy as possible."
You know you've done your job if you make people uncomfortable?
Dixon: Yep. But also, you know, happy and nostalgic and remembering their childhood as well…. But then being scared as fuck.