Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of Austin, Texas synth quartet S U R V I V E sound exhausted. They have another interview in 45 minutes, and they've spent the better part of the last month as the subject of curious prodding by mainstream journalists than they've ever experienced in their half decade of slinging dimly lit, synthesizer-led instrumentals. "We're trying to actually do music instead of just doing interviews," Dixon says with a tired chuckle. "No shade though."
The reason for this unexpected spotlight, of course, is that the duo provided the beloved nostalgic synth score for Netflix's runaway sci-fi success Stranger Things. Since the show's July release, they've been swamped with a wave of attention—from blogs, to local showgoers, to TV-viewing public at large. They had their first taste of pop success with the release of the two editions of the score's soundtrack, which soared to the upper reaches of the Billboard album charts and hit number one on iTunes in-house sales chart. Tangerine Dream—a frequently cited inspiration for the duo—even covered one of their songs earlier this month.
But S U R V I V E—which also includes Adam Jones and Mark Donica—didn't form to score for Stranger Things, and though all four usually work together, only Dixon and Stein had a hand in the proper soundtrack. Though the menacing and poignant score is their most visible moment to date, the whole Austin quartet has been grinding out demonic synth releases for the better part of the past decade, creating a catalog that's even more hair-raising and foreboding as the work they've suddenly become famous for.
In a bit of fortuitous timing, the quartet's second proper LP, RR7349, is set to come out on esteemed metal label Relapse on September 30. Like all of their work to date, it explores emotional terrains of uncertainty and irresolution, where well-deep and halogen-bright synthesizers creep and dart between streetlamps and shadow. The album came together long before their television work, but there's a similar tension to the cues they made for Stranger Things. As songs like "Dirt" ominously tiptoe through cobwebbed arpeggiations, it's hard not to prepare yourself for a jump-scare. Factor in that they're now associated with a label best known for its gory metal releases, and the quartet are in odd place for an instrumental band in 2016—the unlikely crossroads of extreme music community, the Southwestern DIY scene, and mainstream television.
Despite their recent busyness, Dixon and Stein aren't completely withered. They'd rather be working on new tunes, but on an August afternoon, the duo are perfectly willing to geek out about Young Thug and obscure power electronics projects between more pressing questions about their latest album, life after Stranger Things, and the way their favorite film scores shape their work.
THUMP: How has the attention on Stranger Things affected the attention you're getting for this album? This was done before the score work, right?
Kyle Dixon: The record was done before we even had the offer for the show. It took a while to get the album out, and the timing couldn't have been better. Obviously, Stranger Things has increased our audience as a band and has helped album sales.
Michael Stein: The album could have probably come out over a year ago. Granted, I'm happy that it got pushed back, because the soundtrack had such a good response.
Are you worried about how people who came to you through the show will respond to the record?
Dixon: I think a lot of people will [like it]. Obviously, there isn't going to be as much light-hearted stuff, but there's drums on the songs, so maybe that'll make up for it. People are definitely buying the presales. Honestly a lot of the people who I talk to don't really differentiate between [the new record and the score], and they get really fucking confused.
We were at a show the other night, and these girls just came to the show and were watching our friend Ssleeperhold play and they were like, "Stranger Things!" She was hashtagging like, "#StrangerThings" and "#TheUpsideDown" to a video of Ssleeperhold playing. That's dope. If we can get more people coming to our friends' shows because they're confused about it, that's great.
Stein: I think that once you reach a larger, more mainstream audience, a lot of those people don't really differentiate. They're not gonna think so deeply about it that they're hearing a big genre change. They just like synth music. It is different from the score to me, but it's not to a larger audience of people.
Can you talk about your favorite synth-led film scores? I know that you've mentioned that you were thinking about them while making the music for the show.
Stein: There's nothing that we've strictly tried to call off as an inspiration. We do use a lot of the same equipment as a lot of our favorite scorers. We've obviously mentioned a lot of the Tangerine Dream ones, like Sorcerer, The Keep, and Thief.
Dixon: We like Giorgio Moroder's scores a lot. I really like Eduard Artemyev scores for the Tarkovsky films—those are awesome. Even just weird shit like Enter the Void, which had Throbbing Gristle on there. When we were doing our research, it was more from the technical standpoint. Like, "How do other people handle these types of things?" It was like, you can do this scene with barely any [music]. Just a ticking noise, a percussive thing that doesn't stop, is enough to keep the scene moving forward. You don't have to write a big piece of music—just finding little things like that was really where our references were coming from. We definitely weren't like, "Oh, let's make something that sounds like Tangerine Dream here."
Stein: There's so much diverse emotion covered, and a lot of those cues were really short, like 30 seconds. I really like scores like [the one for the IMAX film] Chronos; it's a really big, beautiful, ambient textural score that's like 45 minutes long, with weird instruments and stuff. It'd be cool to get to do that some day.
Do you like the show?
Dixon: Yeah. It's kind of hard to tell, because we've seen it like 40 times. The first time I got to see the show without our score or anything was really the first time that I got to experience the show as an outsider.
Stein: It was also nice to see it in context—watching a whole episode edit instead of a couple scenes here and there.
Dixon: Unfortunately, the way the production schedules work is so you don't always get to watch it in order. So you're like, "Fuck! I have to watch Episode 4 before Episode 3 is done?"
Stein: I was on Episode 5 and an editor decided that they wanted to send me the end of Episode 8.
Dixon: We hadn't seen half of the season, and they sent us the very last one.
So what's your relationship to Relapse? They're historically a metal label. Are you a fan of any of their records or metal in general?
Stein: I like metal. I like a lot of black metal. I'm down with some of the fantasy metal.
Dixon: Wolves in the Throne Room is badass. I like Electric Wizard.
Stein: Obviously Burzum.
Dixon: I feel like [Relapse] have some major thrash or whatever fucking genre of metal. Is Cannibal Corpse on there?
I don't think so.
Stein: Dying Fetus.
Dixon: I never really listened to Dying Fetus. When you're young, you see a band called Dying Fetus and you see the song titles and think, "Okay I'm gonna check this out." I wasn't a fan of their catalog particularly. I guess Zombi would be the only band really that we had known about for a while.
So how did linking up with the label happen then?
Dixon: Chaos in Tejas, which is a punk and metal festival that they throw here every year. They started branching out and adding electronic stuff and we became friends with Timmy Hefner, who runs it. He knows Rennie [Jaffe] and all the guys at Relapse. He had our album sitting around, and he sent it over to them, and they were interested in doing it. We decided, why not get our album in front of a million people who wouldn't hear it otherwise? Maybe some of them will like it.
An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote in the piece's introduction.
Oliver Kinkel is a New York-based writer. He's not in the city right now, but you can still find him on Twitter.