Stranger Things composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein learned early on not to get too attached to any of the characters who populate Netflix’s sci-fi/horror series set in the early 1980s.
“I really liked Benny,” says Dixon, referring to the diner owner who didn’t survive past episode 2. “I was like, ‘I’m going to like this guy,’ and then he’s gone.” And don’t even bring up Barb, the high school outcast who disappeared into the Upside Down in episode 3.
Luckily for fans, Dixon and Stein seem to be sticking around. Their pulsating, ominous main theme has become instantly recognizable — the regular and extended versions have tallied 3.4 million on-demand audio streams — and they are already hard at work scoring season 2, which premieres, appropriately enough, Oct. 31.
That they have created a theme that stands alongside the themes of some of their favorite shows, such as Twin Peaks, is not lost on them. “We wanted [our music] to have that kind of impact,” Stein says of their creepy, atmospheric score that also recalls the work of Tangerine Dream and other synth pioneers.
For season 1, Dixon and Stein, who are members of the Austin, Texas-based electronic band Survive, wrote music after reading the script or looking at concept art. For season 2, they are writing to final director’s cuts due to time constraints and because they have a better idea of what the show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers, want.
“Just because of the band’s popularity, we have less time to spend on doing the conceptual stuff, and I think we’ve pretty much gotten it nailed down to what works and what they’ll respond to,” Stein says. “Last [season], we would end up having to do a cue a few times because they changed the cuts. It created more work for us.”
As they’ve worked together with the Duffer Brothers, the pair’s instincts for what is needed have sharpened. “I don’t think we’ve gotten a ‘no’ yet this season,” Dixon says. “That did happen last season. I guess it’s getting easier once we’ve gotten over the initial learning stage.”
Though Dixon and Stein are on super-secret lockdown when it comes to talking about season 2, they will say they expect the music to remain synth-driven. “I don’t know if any of the characters are calling for a guitar to come out,” jokes Stein.
They are also enjoying writing for the new characters who arrive in Hawkins, Indiana, for season 2, including Max, a 13-year old girl, and Paul Reiser, who joins the cast as a scientist. “It doesn’t seem necessary to have a strong theme for someone when they walk into the room,” Dixon says. “It’s more of a tone or a mood.”
The popularity of the show (and the music) was instant. Stein went camping the weekend the series debuted last July, and when he came back a few days later, his phone had blown up with interview requests and well-wishers for Stranger Things’ tremendous success.
The immediate impact on their band, Survive, was also abundantly clear. “When we did the initial run of Survive shows post the season of Stranger Things coming out, about 95 percent of that tour sold out,” Stein says. “It probably had to do with all these Stranger Things fans.”
To thank them, the band worked up a dreamy version of the theme that better fit Survive’s tone, but they have dropped the song for the many festivals they are playing this spring and summer.“It’s a one-minute song. We tried to make it interesting for about four minutes, and it’s hard to keep the energy up,” Stein says. “It didn’t really fit the form of the show.”
Dixon and Stein have been approached about scoring films and are eager to move into that realm; they hope to bring their Survive bandmates along. “We’re trying to find ways to incorporate what we can do as a collective,” Dixon says. “As we get into film, we can help prepare them for what the process is.”