Like the best cult favorites, Netflix’s new series Stranger Things, appeared on the streaming service with much less hype than previous series like House of Cards or Marvel’s Daredevil. And the lack of awareness seems to have benefitted the show, which has gained unanimous praise via social media and word of mouth. Set in 1983, Stranger Things centers around a small town in Indiana where, well, strange things start happening. A 12-year-old boy suddenly goes missing. A 12-year-old girl with telekinetic super powers appears out of nowhere. A mysterious government agency seems to be conducting secret experiments. And there is some alien-like monster lurking in the woods.
Created by the Duffer Brothers (Wayward Pines) and starring Winona Ryder, Stranger Things is a nostalgia-trippin’ throwback to Reagan’s America: when kids ate Eggo Waffles, obsessively played Dungeons & Dragons and communicated via walkie talkies. It has traces of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, John Carpenter, and David Lynch all rolled in to eight thrilling episodes.
Part of what makes Stranger Things such a compelling series is its score. Like with a lot of horror and sci-fi films these days, synthesizers have become an integral part of composing music. The works of John Carpenter, Alan Howarth, Tangerine Dream, and Goblin have influenced a new generation of film composers. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, better known as one-half of Austin, TX band S U R V I V E, got the call from the Duffers to write the show’s music after hearing a couple of their songs in the 2014 film, The Guest. As exciting as it is to watch the narrative unfold on Stranger Things, it’s the pulsating theme song that introduces each episode that steals the show.
We tracked down Dixon and Stein while they bask in the glory of composing the score for the show everyone’s talking about and prepare to release a new S U R V I V E album.
Noisey: How did you get involved with Stranger Things?
Michael Stein: We received an email from the directors asking if we would be interested in doing scoring work. Our response was an instant yes and once we received a synopsis and some preliminary artwork for the show we new it was a perfect fit.
Kyle Dixon: The directors are fans of S U R V I V E. 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. We did about a month’s worth of demos and potential themes that the Duffers then used against the auditions, and then found out later that we had gotten the green light from the producers.
It wasn’t really public knowledge that you guys had worked on the show until after the series debuted. Was it as top secret as what was going on in Hawkins Laboratory?
Kyle: We didn’t really talk about it. Netflix didn’t really have a reason to talk about us since we aren’t a big name in the music industry, so it just kinda stayed quiet. Maybe we didn’t want to jinx it.
Michael: Because it wasn't being used as an advertising ploy there wasn't much reason to mention it and more or less we had just been fully immersed in the project. I'd rather not start any hearsay as well. Wouldn't want to jinx it and have it turn into another Legend situation.
I heard you had to quit your day jobs to take the gig. Was there any concern in doing that? What were your day jobs?
Kyle: There was a bit of concern, but luckily the timing was fairly good for me. A friend and I made a Discogs app that we ended up selling to the company, so I had a bit of money that I was able to live off while working on the show before we started getting paid. I was working as a software designer for five or six years leading up to this gig, which paid pretty well and helped build out the studio. But it was an easy choice to stop doing that in order to work on music full time. There was nothing that could have stopped me from taking this job.
Michael: I worked at Switched On, an electronic music store in Austin, doing repairs mostly and I also like to take on recording/producing local music acts when I can. For me I was already doing something I love but I would basically work every day so I could make music in my spare time. When offered the opportunity to switch over to just making music full time it was a no brainer.
I know you had songs in The Guest, but this was the first score you guys composed. What was the first thing you discussed when you began working on the music?
Kyle: The first things we did were those early themes and moods, which ended up being a fairly sizable library for the Duffers to pick and choose from. Eventually we had a few sounds and styles we could just recall for various types of scenes.
Michael: 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 felt modern as well - which is one of the qualities that drew them to our music in the first place. Having a familiarity with classic synths works but with an overall modern and forward thinking approach.
How did composing this score differ from making music as S U R V I V E?
Dixon: Well, with a full narrative, you get a much wider range of emotions than you would usually hear on a S U R V I V E record. We always record all types of music, but a lot of it doesn’t make it out because it doesn’t fit with the aesthetic of S U R V I V E. We had the opportunity to make some more playful, lighthearted stuff and it made sense with the story.
Michael: It wasn’t too much different. It just required a faster execution and larger content output. Because there were two of us we had the typical checks and balances and could approve each others ideas and work along the way. There was the occasional jamming and writing together, but for the most part it was topping off or doing a little finish to each others work. So, it was basically identical to making music as S U R V I V E.
The Duffer Brothers said there was more than 13 hours of music composed for the show. How was that whittled down to fit eight episodes?
Kyle: We would sometimes have several different concepts for particular cues, which adds up when you don’t use everything. Plus they had access to a fairly large library from the beginning of our collaboration. There is definitely a ton of great stuff that isn’t in the show.
Michael: Before there was a lot of edited footage and things weren't locked yet, so some days we would conceptualize motifs for the show while we were trying to hone in on the aesthetic. Sometimes we would make textures, moods, and bedding that could be used to pad a scene and set a mood we could build on. Those could be ten to 20 minutes at times. A lot of it went out the window and or is available in the library for future ideas.
What happens to the music that wasn’t used?
Dixon: Nothing. There it sits.
Michael: We are making it into trap beats.
Will the music get released as an album like all scores are nowadays?
Dixon: We’re not sure about this yet. Ultimately, it’s up to Netflix, but it seems like there is enough interest in the music to warrant an OST release.
Michael: We'll have to wait and see.
Does the fact that you made the music for the show affect how you watch it?
Dixon: Definitely, although I haven’t watched it since it’s been finished.
Michael: Yes, and this was something I'd always considered of other composers. You can imagine how being asked to write score to the final 15 minutes of the finale episode before you have even finished reading the script can be a bit of a spoiler. You also have these memories of out-takes and little rough bits before they have been smoothed over and that can have you a little jaded. Other times I'll zone in on the score and think if the mix could have been better and miss a chunk of dialogue.
What are some of the scores that helped shape the music for Stranger Things?
Kyle: Hard to say. We are definitely fans of cinematic music, but I don’t think there are any specific references that we made. Definitely some Tangerine Dream sounding stuff, but that’s always been something that we’ve listened to. The Keep has a great score, although I’m not sure how much it shaped what we made for Stranger Things.
A lot of people are enjoying the nostalgia trip that Stranger Things brings to viewers who grew up in that era. Was there anything in particular about the show that struck a nostalgic nerve for you?
Kyle: Of course, the show has a lot of similarities to some very famous and influential movies that I think most people have seen, particularly at a young age. So it’s inevitable that there will be some aspect of nostalgia.
Michael: Being thrown back to a time when I actually had walkie talkies and a gang of kids just cruising around on bikes making adventures for ourselves really struck home.
I saw some photos of the band taken during the making of your new album. The one space looks a little like the garage where the character Will is abducted. Coincidence?
Kyle: Ha ha, yes purely coincidental.
Michael: That is Kyle’s dilapidated garage space we practice in for live shows. It’s a coincidence but it definitely helps set a mood and is a nice stage for drinking beer, and making some jams with your buds in Texas.
S U R V I V E signed to Relapse earlier this year. What can you tell me about the second album?
Michael: The new record has a release date of September 30. It's a more direct delivery of songs and the record has a lot of diversity. I think the group of songs tells a nice story. There's a nice dynamic of pacing and moods from start to finish.
One last thing: How important are the spaces in between the letters in the band’s name?
Kyle: Not important at all.
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