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’Stranger Things’ Composers Interview: Duo Discusses Soundtrack, That Haunting Theme Song and More

Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein give details on their Austin synth band S U R V I V E, plus their upcoming album and tour.

"Stranger Things" composers Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon

“Stranger Things” composers Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon

Jackie Lee Young

Love for “Stranger Things” has not abated, in no small part because of the entrancing synth-laden score that enhances Netflix’s fantastical ‘80s-nostalgia series.

Fortunately, fans of the music can now purchase the official “Stranger Things” soundtrack, which will be released in two volumes: the first will be released digitally on Friday, Aug. 12 (Sept. 16 on CD) and the second released digitally a week later on Aug. 19 (Sept. 23 on CD). Both volumes feature the eerie original score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, half of the members of experimental Austin synth band S U R V I V E.

"Stranger Things" soundtrack cover art

“Stranger Things” soundtrack cover art

Morgan Paget

“The directors were previously fans of S U R V I V E,” Dixon said in a statement released by Netflix on Wednesday. “They used a song from our first LP in a mock trailer they made to pitch their concept to Netflix and reached out to see if we were available to score the show.”

Stein added, “We discussed having a classic tone and feel to the music for the show but being reserved enough that it wasn’t ’80s cheese, while offering a refreshing quality so that it felt modern as well — which is one of the qualities that drew them to our music in the first place. Having a familiarity with how classic synths works but with an overall modern and forward thinking approach.”

Here are the track listings for Vol. 1 of the soundtrack:

01 Stranger Things
02 Kids
03 Nancy and Barb
04 This Isn’t You
05 Lay-Z-Boy
06 Friendship
07 Eleven
08 A Kiss
09 Castle Beyers
10 Hawkins
11 The Upside Down
12 After Sarah
13 One Blink For Yes
14 Photos in the Woods
15 Fresh Blood
16 Lamps
17 Hallucinations
18 Hanging Lights
19 Biking to School
20 Are You Sure?
21 Agents
22 Papa
23 Cops Are Good at Finding
24 No Weapons
25 Walking Through the Nether
26 She’ll Kill You
27 Run Away
28 No Autopsy
29 Dispatch
30 Joyce and Lonnie Fighting
31 Lights Out
32 Hazmat Suits
33 Theoretically
34 You Can Talk to Me
35 What Else Is There to Do?
36 Hawkins Lab

READ MORE: “Stranger Things” Season 2 Plans and How David Lynch Could Control the Ending

“Stranger Things” marks the official scoring debut for the Austin-based musicians, although a couple of their songs were previously licensed for the Adam Wingard-directed thriller “The Guest.” S U R V I V E’s second full-length album “RR7349” will be released on Sept. 30 on Relapse.

Dixon and Stein spoke with IndieWire about their longtime friendship, making “Stranger Thing’s” haunting score and the next steps on their music-making journey. Read below:

What has the reaction been since “Stranger Things” debuted? Were you expecting it?

Kyle Dixon: It has been bigger than expected. We knew it was going to be one of the biggest productions that we had worked on, but definitely it’s been performing better than I imagined. You don’t stop anymore. Right now it’s dealing with that, coordinating with all the things that have happened. It’s just been crazy.
Michael Stein: There are a lot of people reaching out. It’s been hard to respond. There’ s a bucket list of things we need to get out of the way.
Dixon: It’d be nice to get back to music.

How did you first come on to “Stranger Things”?

Dixon: The [Duffer Brothers] reached out to us last July with a trailer they had made using one of our songs. It’s a song called “Dirge.” It’s the last track on our first album. They used it to pitch their concept, and once they got greenlit, they reached out to see if we were still a band, if we were still available. We were obviously interested and sent them a bunch of unreleased stuff to listen to in the meantime. And then we started the whole pitch process, giving them some stuff to put in front of producers. They had other composers pitching as well. So we had a little bit of a trial period there, and it ended up working out. So we’re grateful for that.

READ MORE: ’Stranger Things’: Watch a Video of Netflix’s Throwback Series Side by Side With Its Retro Influences

What did the Duffer Brothers discuss with you as far as composing the show’s theme song?

Dixon: We tried a bunch of ideas for potential themes and they ended up finding one of the demos that we’d sent over. They asked us if we could adapt it and make it something more.
Stein: There was a pretty old idea that had been forgotten. It made it into a DropBox folder that they had. There are these folders for licensing that if someone ever hit us up or if we ever wanted to send out thematic or cinematic music. It happened to be in one of these folders that was more this upbeat, mysterious kind of demo. It was just a very loose version of what it became. They just really liked the mood and the vibe of it a lot. I’m glad they did because it gave us a starting point.

What did you have to do to make it into the theme song we know?

Stein: One of their recommendations was to make it bigger, bolder and kind of build to a climax. It was kind of open-ended because they were shuffling around the length. So we made a 30-second version, a 45-second version and a 1-minute version. It ended up being the 1-minute version. A lot of the stuff that defined the sound was that we wanted a really nice bass sound. So I went with one of my favorite bass synthesizers. I can’t really explain the workflow of why it ended up the way it is. I think it’s more you have it in your head the way you imagine it will be and try to get it there.
Dixon: Or you just walk over to the synthesizer and start making sounds. “Ooh, that sounds pretty good. Let’s do that.”
Stein: I kind of view every song like there’s this base-level foundation and then you have to get the melody and stuff on top of that so that it’s hook-y. And on top of that you have to have all the frills, sort of the icing on the cake. It’s kind of like there are a whole lot of layers in that mini composition to make sure it goes with the title cards and stuff.

What was it like to finally see the finished main title sequence with your theme song?

Dixon: I thought it was one of the coolest things. It was awesome. We were like, “We can see why it’s popular. I would probably watch the show.”

Were you intimidated taking this on as far as scoring eight episodes of the show?

Dixon: I wouldn’t say intimidated is the right word. But we knew it was a substantial amount of work. We had never done anything like this before.
Stein: It was kind of naive to have no expectations… We were just really excited. I was like, “I’m going to really work hard on this.”

What was the scoring process like? Were you given episodes to work off of or given notes?

Dixon: We knew that there were going to be certain situations to cover that weren’t tied to anything specific, but we knew we needed to hit these certain moods. We started early, before we got any footage… but we had scripts so we knew what the characters were… I think in most cases it was stuff that we did work on didn’t end up in the show. There was a lot of stuff that we thought, “Oh, this is going to be really cool for this type of scene,” and then we see it under the picture and it’s not working.
Stein: Other times it really worked out. Like, you’d read the script. I remember thinking that every page was like 30 seconds to a minute of the script. I’d take a highlighter and think, “Okay, this is a chase scene. The music is going to start and not stop for a while. This might may have a 2-1/2 minute music cue or something.” It went in and out what I thought, so we made a really long, climactic, intense kind of song early on that we thought would work for that scene. That actually ended up working. It ended up like one of the darker tracks and atmospherics in the show.

READ MORE: Meet the ’Stranger Things’ Kids Finn Wolfhard and Gaten Matarazzo

Were you going to for that dark tone?

Stein: For that, yes, creepy, knowing that there was some sort of entity. Early on they weren’t sure if it was going to be a physical thing or monster. But we knew it was going to big. They mentioned “Jaws” like for suspense, anticipation, “Something’s coming.”

Was there any discussion about how your score would act as a counterpoint to the very ‘80s songs in the soundtrack?

Stein: They wanted us to steer clear of getting too nostalgic ‘80s.
Dixon: They didn’t want kitsch. They didn’t want the hyper-‘80s, stylized, neon-everything look. We’re totally drawn to that [directive]. That stuff is great and fine. Nothing against it, but we wanted to do something that was a bit more timeless and classic. We didn’t want to go overkill with the neon ‘80s thing.

"Stranger Things"

“Stranger Things”

Netflix

How did you approach some of the non-creepy or non-suspenseful moments? For example, the kiss between the kids. Did you get any instructions?

Stein: The instructions are pretty much like guidelines of how it should flow. There were a couple things that before they picked what they liked. They were like, “We don’t know what we want here exactly. Here’s kind of something and the mood of what might work. Make it kind of incidental and kind of swell up.” The guidelines weren’t very musical. They just let us be creative and that’s fun.

How did you guys meet?

Dixon: Michael and I have known each other for a long time, before music was anything that we thought we’d be doing. We grew up listening to the same music. I think we met when I was 13.
Stein: The first time that Kyle got in the car, my mom, we were listening to “Stankonia.” OutKast’s “Stankonia” just came out.
Dixon: We’ve known each other for a long time and I started messing around with music by the end of high school and in college a little bit. I moved down to San Marcos and started exploring that stuff. Michael and I sort of lost touch for a while and then when we got back in contact with each other, I found out that he had been going through synthesizers and I had started to collect musical instruments. We were like, “Oh shit. Might as well try making some music together.” We did that a few times and ended up liking what we made and then started a band.

When was your band S U R V I V E officially started?

Dixon: I would call the official start in 2008.
Stein: Yeah, that would be the band — having songs, giving it a name, trying to put out music. Some of our friends wanted to put out our music, but we were like, “Let’s get these songs mixed and finished and put them out.”
Dixon: We had both been doing music separately — not just both of us but other people in the band — I had played in other bands and had made other recordings.
Stein: I think I was making completely just crazy and experimental, making weird stuff. I started sharing that with Kyle because he had started making compositions a little before me — kind of software and stuff on the laptop with Ableton. So Kyle was the first one I started sharing my music with and one of the first people I started making music with. I remember you [Kyle] had that, you had a bunch of projects back then.
Dixon: Yeah, I was doing a lot of experimental stuff, like ambient recordings using acoustic instruments and processing them heavily. Doing all the field recordings and just sample-based and laptop-based music. I just realized that I wasn’t able to do what I wanted with just a laptop and then started using synthesizers. And then luckily around that time is when Michael and I started getting back in touch. He was ahead of me with the synthesizer thing by a year or so. So we would talk about synth.
Stein: I got into vintage and modulars, so that’s why I worked at a synth store.  People would just call me, “Hey, what do you think about this?” I’d give guidance of what I thought was cool synth or what I wanted. I remember I’d just tell people what I wanted. One of the first ones was the mono/poly. I really wanted a Korg mono/poly. One of the coolest things still.

Michael, you have a degree in audio engineering. Did that help or affect your work?
Stein: I just really like the production side and mixing really acutely and production and stylizing stuff. I’ve been mixing and recording other bands. I engineer our own records, so I’ve been doing that. We do it all together. I did that for “Stranger Things” to keep it all in house. That’s a benefit.

What’s next for you?

Dixon: The “Stranger Things” soundtrack is going to come out, and we need to finish that up. And we have the tour coming up in October. We have the next album we need to get finished. We’ve got all of these new contacts and opportunities coming up that we’re fielding to see what we can take on and what we want to take on.

What other work do you need to do on the soundtrack?

Stein: Mixing and getting some of the tracks a little bit — some of them were just ripped up until the scene cut off and stuff like that.

What can you tell me about the tour?

Dixon: It’s for the band. We have an album coming out on Relapse Records on the 30th. The name of the album is the catalog number: “RR7349.” The album is coming out, and we’re doing a release show here in Austin and then we’re going out to the West Coast. We’re going up and down the West Coast for the beginning of October, and then we come back to Texas for a week or so, and then we’re going up the East Coast and over to Chicago and back down. There should be an announcement about that soon. We’re just trying to firm it up.

Check out the track “A.H.B” from “RR7349” below:

Has your tour gotten bigger since you’ve done “Stranger Things”?

Stein: We haven’t tested that out yet.
Dixon: We’ve definitely gotten more fans since the show started. That’s definitely happened. We’re going to find out. I have no idea what to expect on the tour. I assume there will be more people than would’ve been otherwise.
Stein: The venues are about the same, the trip is similar to what we did one year.

Who are your musical influences?

Stein: The ‘70s.
Dixon: There’s a band called Yellow Magic Orchestra that has an album called “BGM.” They were very influential on our band and the style that we’re going for, even though they’re not that similar. There are a few aspects and songs that kind of defined early on what we felt we were going for. It’s evolved somewhat, but the initial influence I’ve felt is still there.

Which other film composers do you like nowadays?

Dixon: Ryuichi Sakomoto. His stuff on “The Revenant” was really good. I like a lot of Geoff Barrow stuff because of Portishead and “Ex Machina.” He did all of that stuff. And there are a handful of people just doing interesting electronic scores right now. I really enjoyed the “Sicario” score [by Jóhann Jóhannsson]. That one is really nice. There are a lot of people doing good stuff right now.

The “Stranger Things” album will be released in two parts on Aug. 12 and 19 digitally, and on Sept. 16 and 23 on CD.

S U R V I V E’s second album “RR7349” will be released on Sept. 30, followed shortly afterward by a tour, dates to be announced.

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