'Stranger Things' Co-Composer Shares the Story Behind 2016's Most Unlikely Musical Sensation
S U R V I V E isn't what you'd call a prolific band. The Austin, Texas, experimental instrumental noise quartet has managed two albums and a handful of EPs since forming in 2009, secure in the knowledge that what they do is aimed at a pretty niche audience that is never likely to grow much beyond where it is now.
Unless it does. Which, as fate would have it, is exactly what just happened in a major way. Two of its members just landed at No. 1 on iTunes (albeit briefly) thanks to their score for the smash Netflix drama Stranger Things and, as fate would have it, their second album, RR7349, is just about to drop (Sept. 30). As if they planned it that way.
Which they most assuredly did not.
"We're 'big' in Austin, but that's a relative term," said member Kyle Dixon, 32, of his band's profile in their hometown. "Within the realm of the scene and people interested in dark instrumental electronic music we have a good following." That translates to shows in front of a "couple hundred" people on a good night for the band with a very "particular" set of skills.
Dixon and Michael Stein have broken out of that tight orbit in a massive way over the past two months as their spooky, vintage keyboard-drenched, two-volume score for Stranger Things has become an Internet sensation. As luck would have it, the throwback synth sounds created by Dixon and Stein and bandmates Adam Jones and Mark Donica on RR7349 are of a piece with the music Things fans have come to love and download, which suggests that this could easily become their biggest album to date.
In fact, if you love what the pair did for Things, chances are you're going to really flip over RR7349, which was recorded more than a year ago -- before the Stranger gig -- and contains haunting anthems like "Low Fog," "Copter" and "Wardenclyffe," which fit in perfectly alongside the series' chilling theme song and Stranger tracks like "The Upside Down," and "Time for a 187."
"Once I saw the timeline for the release date I said, 'that's so golden,'" said Dixon. "This is gonna do so well." That's not really something S U R V I V E has been able to say in the past. Dixon figured the show would be a success, but he was floored by just how big it's gotten. "I went camping the day the show came out and then I was gone all weekend and didn't have cell service," he said. "I came back on a Sunday and turned on my phone and it was (buzz, buzz, buzz buzz). It just filled up with messages and overheated. It's been hard to keep the inbox below 200."
Billboard hopped on the phone with Dixon to talk about the new album, the stranger things about their Stranger Things success and what's next for the band.
For a self-proclaimed "dark instrumental band" this kind of success seems like a great problem to have.
I was talking to a friend [recently] about pop music and she said, 'I don't listen to pop music' and then she said, 'you are pop music!' I was like, 'wait, whoa, what?' Because the soundtrack went to No. 1 on iTunes. By definition that would make it pop music. I'll take it.
What's that unexpected success meant for the band?
It means much more demand for touring. We just announced a tour in October going up the West coast, then East coast and across to Chicago and back. The L.A. show presale sold out in a day and the shows are doing well. We didn't plan to tour immediately, but we typically tour in October because... you know, Halloween, 'oooh, whoo, spooky dark synth band!'
What's interesting is that the songs on the new album are of a piece with the Things soundtrack. Did you record them at the same time?
That album's been done for quite a while... way before we started the show. We finished it last January and for whatever reason it took this long for it to come out. We already have most of our next album for Relapse [Records] done and we hope to finish that and have it come out next year. I would like to get back to making music and less email.
So the show definitely didn't inspire the album?
This is not the only thing we do. We make all kinds of music. But the only outlet we have right now is S U R V I V E... and now Stranger Things. S U R V I V E has a focused aesthetic on generally darker music, whereas with Stranger Things we were able to put out stuff that was happier and more pop-oriented. 'Pop' isn't really right, but it's definitely more upbeat, something we couldn't do with S U R V I V E.
Were you working on this album when [Stranger Things creators] the Duffer Brothers came calling? How did they find you?
They had a preliminary mock trailer they made to pitch the idea and they used the last song on our first LP, Dirge. They sent it to us and said, 'we have this show we're working on, are you still a band?' We hadn't released anything in a couple years and when they asked if we were available we were like, 'yeah!' That was July 3 of last year. They asked if we had any other music and we went through our Dropbox -- that's how we share songs so everyone can listen -- and we sent them 50 songs the next day. They responded with a bunch of exclamation points. We had a couple calls to get to know each other and we knew we were pitching against a couple other composers, I'm not sure who.
I assume given your slow output S U R V I V E isn't your only job?
Yeah, we put those songs together for them after our 9-5s. I do this now, but I've been doing software design for the past six years. Mark is in a similar field, Michael works at a synth store that sells vintage gear and Adam works in catering and has a tape label called Holodeck and he's in, like, four other bands.
You guys sound like the most Austin band of all time! Why do you think the Duffers chose you?
We felt like we had the upper hand because they had our music in the trailer and because it felt good when we talked to them. But there was a still a period when the execs hadn't signed off and so we were in limbo waiting to hear if we got the deal. We didn't want to get our hopes up too high. The call came when I was in San Francisco on a business trip and at the end of a long day we went for drinks with the client and the Duffers called and said, 'Hey, you got it, let's do this!' The next day I said [to my boss], 'Look, I'm not going to be doing this anymore.'
How did writing to a narrative change what you do musically?
For me it was easier because you sit down to write a song unless you have some specific instrument you want to use... you need some starting point but you don't always have that. So a lot of times you can't get inspired and nothing will happen. But when you're writing to picture there's a scene that you're writing to and it makes a few decisions for you. You have a starting point, a set of parameters. You're not going to do some big, doomy bass line when it's a kid riding his bike down the street.
Did the Duffers ever say 'that doesn't work for us?'
Yeah, for sure. In a lot cases it was bizarre because we would write something for a scene and they'd use it in another scene. In the early stages we amassed a large library of a couple hundred cues and concept mood so they had this big pool to grab from when they were making edits.
How did that main theme come to life?
It's an old demo Michael had, but it's nothing like what you hear... nowhere near as much of a piece of music as it is now. That was just some random thing that ended up in the library they had and when they found it they were like, 'what if this was the main title?' We thought it could be good, so we built it out. We've been wanting to get into music for TV and film for a long time, but we had no idea how. We've been passively creating libraries, weird droney noises... so we had this collection of songs that we were trying to figure out how to present to people in film.
You know that's almost never how it works, right?
I do now.
Without that previous experience, how were you able to create music that spoke so deeply to the characters in the show?
They said our music was actually used to help cast the show. During the demo period they said, 'we know you can do dark and epic, but this is a show about a group of kids, so we need to show the producers that you can do the more lighthearted, sentimental stuff.' So a lot of the demos were like that. They made the decision to play our music over the auditions and that was the deciding factor in casting.
You're all around the same age. Has that helped you bond with the Duffers during this crazy ride?
Working with the Duffers has been an amazing experience because in a lot of ways they're in the same boat as us. They've done other stuff before, but just like us not that many people cared. This is the biggest thing they've done so far so it's great to get texts from them like, 'what the f--k is going on!!!! Did you see this article?'