Survival of the Strangest

Experimental synth outfit Survive talk the "Stranger Things" soundtrack, their new record and the future

Survive Press Photo
Courtesy of Survive

When “Stranger Things” hit Netflix in July earlier this year, no one expected such a monumentally manic reception that found the ‘80s-aping sci-fi/horror series dominating the furthest reaches of societal constructs in such a short amount of time. One minute, “the upside down” was reserved for pineapple cake -- the next, we were living in it, devouring Eggos and hoping against all hope that someone would even pretend to care about Barb.

Perhaps the most recent example of a truly viral sensation (besides Drumpf’s sniffles), the show was simply inescapable. Among those suddenly thrust into the limelight -- especially after the August commercial release of the show’s original soundtrack, “Volume 1” and “Volume 2” -- were its score composers, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. No one was more surprised at the rabid response to the duo’s mesmerizing synthesizer constructs than the guys themselves.

“We weren’t really sure how it was gonna translate to a record,” Dixon told me during a recent phone call. “It’s weird that [the soundtrack] did so well, especially because most of the songs are less than two minutes … but I think it ended up flowing really well. And that’s just the stuff we decided was close enough to a song to be released. You know, there’s tons of sounds and music in the show that just aren’t really something you’d want to put on a record. It’s definitely really different than the way we would approach making an actual album.”

Oh, that’s right. Aside from writing and recording the music used in “Stranger Things,” Dixon and Stein are also bandmates of Adam Jones and Mark Donica in Survive -- an Austin-based group that dwells in (what else?) fantastically dark, experimental synth music crafted entirely on all-analog equipment (which, in the realm of modern-day electronic music, makes them the equivalent of a unicorn). In a genius move, the group found themselves (inadvertently) capitalizing on their newfound mainstream popularity by releasing their sophomore full-length album on Sept. 30, titled “RR7349” (a follow-up to 2012’s debut “mnq026”). [Listen/buy it here]

First, we get two full volumes of the “Stranger Things” soundtrack from Dixon and Stein, and then a new Survive album to boot? Not too shabby of a year. 

“We knew the record was gonna be coming out,” Dixon said, “and then we got the [‘Stranger Things’] production schedule and realized the show was going to be coming out right before the album and I was just like, ‘Okay, this is gonna be good timing.'" [laughs]

Indeed, you couldn’t have planned it better if you tried. And the band’s label, Relapse Records (home to Nothing, Red Fang, Black Tusk and Inter Arma, among others), was obviously thrilled to have such widespread interest in Survive before the album came out.

“I think they’re pretty pleased,” Dixon said, laughing. “They didn’t really know about ‘Stranger Things.’ We were already talking to them way before ‘Stranger Things’ even came along. [‘RR7349’] was done and they kind of knew we were working on this show, but nobody expected it to be what it is now. So, I think they’re pretty happy with the way things are going.” [laughs]

When the soundtrack and the new album are listened to side by side, you get two slightly different looks into what the group can do, or at least what they’re willing to let audiences hear. The score is warbly and woozy, alternating between eerie and hopeful (depending on the scene). The album dials up the ominous factor and dives headfirst into a near-gothic examination of an imagined dystopian future (think “Bladerunner”) with pulsating, minimalistic beats. It's a burbling synthesis that simultaneously erodes and expands at the same time -- a grisly, sawtooth electronica that feels like its clawing its way into this dimension. That's unsurprising for a band whose live performances have been referred to as "transcendental" by Noisey. 

For the soundtrack, Dixon and Stein set out to create backdrops for onscreen moods, while on the album, the music singularly and profoundly sets the mood. When asked if writing shorter snippets of music to a visual component was more difficult than working within their normal process(es), Dixon said it was surprisingly inviting.

“It actually kind of makes it easier in some cases, depending on how easily you’re able to find the mood that needs to happen there. I mean, yeah, sometimes you’re like, ‘I gotta pack a lot of stuff into a really short period of time and change a lot in ways that aren’t necessarily very musical.’ Like if you were thinking about an album or a song, you can do a lot more when there is video accompanying the music. A lot of decisions are made for you, you know? If you’re writing for a scene of a few kids riding their bikes out to school, you’re not gonna start writing some dark synth bass line. You have some direction to go in.”

Also, being able to write to some “poppier” stuff for the soundtrack was a bit of a welcome opportunity for musicians who mainly mine the darker side of things.

“It’s fun to write all types of music,” Dixon said. “It doesn’t always have to be dark or tough or sad or whatever. There’s definitely an aesthetic or realm that we stay within on the Survive albums. But it doesn’t mean we don’t write really new wave-y, or happier-sounding stuff -- it just doesn’t make sense on the Survive albums. It was really nice to have an outlet for that kind of material.”

And it turns out that there might be more of that style of music coming out from the guys sooner rather than later, if Dixon has anything to say about it.

“There’s tons of music just sitting there. Tons of stuff. We haven’t really figured out what to do with it. It doesn’t make sense with the Survive stuff, and eventually, we’ll find a way to get that stuff out. Especially now that there’s a little more attention, it might be easier to find homes for that kind of stuff.”

While we chatted about the band’s current West Coast tour (which puts them in San Diego on Oct. 5 for a sold out show at Soda Bar) and upcoming albums (“We’ve pretty much got another full-length done,” Dixon said) -- I couldn’t help but ask about season two of everyone’s new favorite show. Will they be involved with its score again?

“There’s a very good chance,” he coyly admitted. “Nothing is signed and official yet. I hope so though. I mean, we did give them a No. 1 album on iTunes, so ... just sayin’.” [laughs]

While we were on the subject, I had to know: Who’s his favorite “Stranger Things” character?

“Um, that’s a hard one. I mean, Eleven is obviously cool ‘cause she’s got super powers. Dustin and Lucas are hilarious. They’re just funny kids. Um, I think everyone is really good on the show. You know ... I kinda like the dad. [we both laugh]

“There’s this one scene that we couldn’t shake,” Dixon continued. “They’re sitting at the dinner table and the family gets mad and everybody leaves and he goes, ‘What’d I doooooo?’ [laughs] That’s been kind of a running joke between us. Every time we have the opportunity to say ‘What’d I dooooo?,’ that quote kinda comes up. I don’t know if he’s my favorite character, but that moment is so good.”

Dustin Lothspeich books The Merrow; plays in Diamond Lakes; and runs the music-equipment-worshipping blog Gear and Loathing in San Diego. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.

Contact Us