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The Composers for 'Stranger Things' Are Careful to Not Be Cheesy

"There's this term that people use to describe the music that we make for 'Stranger Things,' and it's kind of a caricature of itself, so we really don't want to do that."

by Adam Brodsky
May 24 2019, 6:18pm

Image via Netflix

Fire up your favorite streaming service and you'll be paralyzed by choice. With so many bingeworthy movies and TV shows at your fingertips, filmmakers need something extra to grab viewers' attention. A unique musical score can elevate a film, as the recent movie Native Son has shown. The film seeks to retell the 1940 Richard Wright novel of the same name with a dark, modern twist. The story is augmented by the the film's original score, composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, who are known original music in the Netflix series Stranger Things. But how does the duo make music that conjures up such specific feeling and moods?

Earlier this week Netflix dropped the new trailer for Season 3 of Stranger Things, so Noisey spoke with the composers about their latest collaborative projects and how they create their uneasy ambient soundscapes.

You guys are a film scoring / composing duo, and you also make music under the moniker S U R V I V E, most notably for the series Stranger Things, where you became known for that "analog 80s" sound. Native Son is your first feature film score, but why no arpeggiated synths in the soundtrack? Was this a deliberate decision to move away from that sound so as not to be pigeonholed in that genre?
Kyle Dixon: On the first watch of the film there wasn't any music in it at all, which is kind of uncommon when beginning a project. There's usually some kind of music that's in there as temporary placeholder to help the story flow and show us what sort of energy is expected of those scenes. The first cut we saw was considerably longer than what came out, and it really didn't feel like it needed much music, so one of the first things we told Rashid [Rashid Johnson, Director] was, "I think you're gonna have a pretty quiet movie here." But he eventually sent us some specific scenes where he thought music should be, and we tried to play some stuff over it that was more "musical," and melodic, and a lot of that stuff just felt like it was getting in the way and taking too much attention away from the performances and the story. Even before we saw the film, I think we were deliberately trying to not use arpeggiated synths... I mean, obviously we like synthesizers, but we didn't want to do that.

Michael Stein: We had to explore sonic soundscapes and find tonally what we felt fit the picture without being too forward, and it took some time and effort, but we ended up using a lot of acoustic instruments. But there is some synth doing some bass drones, and there is arpeggiated synth, it's just not arpeggiated in the technical sense of climbing up the keyboard. It’s just a Jupiter 4 in arpeggiator mode, and it sounds metallic and weird.

When Stranger Things first aired you guys got a lot of attention from the indie music world, and for a lot of people, it really re-sparked a new excitement in the soundtrack and the theme song. This soundtrack album, however, is more intentionally ambient, deeper listening. How do you respond to the idea of an ambient soundtrack as a listening experience?
Dixon: Well, I love ambient music so I'm down. Honestly, I think this might be the most coherent soundtrack that we've released because it has more consistent tone, and sound, and even just style of playing. The other stuff is all over the place—I feel like there's all kinds of stuff that is a 45 second track, and there's a shitload of different moods, where you have extremely scary, dark stuff, mixed in with some textural ambient stuff and then this really cute, melodic stuff. We like all that music too but I think this movie was our most coherent sound as an album.

Stein: I think right now when people have such easy access to put on background music and to kind of curate it, like "OK I want to put on something in the background, but I want it to be more ambient or elevator music." Or you can choose to put on a dance playlist or whatever, I think it's more common that people would put on an ambient music, like if they're doing yoga. In the case of Native Son, maybe one third of it I'd put on in the background, unless I wanted to feel uncomfortable. I can't think of an appropriate time to put it on unless you actually wanted to listen to it, because I think it's sonically interesting. But just the feeling it would give you to have it on in the background walking around your house and doing stuff might be a little weird.

Do you ever record something thinking it's perfect, and then you lay it against the screen and realize you were totally wrong?
Stein: Not as much anymore. Season one [of Stranger Things] we wrote a bunch of stuff... and they always want us to write on the off season, at the same time that they're writing, just to come up with new stuff, but we try not to do that anymore.

How did you hone in on the overall sound and palette for this film? What was the process like working with the Director Rashid Johnson and Music Supervisor Howard Paar?
Dixon: Rashid in the initial meeting said "I don't know what's supposed to happen, I just know there's supposed to be a sound here." The soundtrack is mostly electric guitar, so the first time we took a pass, just fucking around, once they sent us the whole movie, we just got our pedal chain hooked up and did a full pass through the whole movie.

You just watched it straight through and live soundtracked it?
Stein: Yeah, we were just feeling it out. Kyle would play something through the effects chain, and then it would get fucked up and the timing would change through the hologram pedal, and then it would go through this huge reverb. So we would play something, and then the sound would come out a few seconds later.

Dixon: During some of the more intense scenes we were literally not playing, we were just smashing things and fucking with the guitar.

Stein: And there's some bowing of cymbals with a violin bow, and we played the violin, not knowing how, to make squealing noises sound like dying pigs. I think we found that using the touch of acoustic instruments was more expressive. One time someone from the crew came up to Rashid and said "Which pair of earrings should she be wearing?" And he responded "Whichever gives you more anxiety," so that thought was always part of our approach.

Dixon: So this thing made it on there a few times, it's called a Marxophone. It's like a dulcimer, but its got these bouncy / springy keys. And it's totally fucked up and not in tune at all, so that ended up being really helpful... hitting it with mallets and muting it.

Is it more challenging to create subtly evolving ambient tracks for underscore to evoke emotion and tension in the viewer, rather than up front '80s-style synth arpeggiated progressions a la Stranger Things?
Stein: With Stranger Things, we have to put in a fair amount of effort to keep it from being cheesy. We have to be really observant of what we're doing.

Dixon: I definitely agree, Stranger Things is probably harder. There's this term that people use to describe the music that we make for Stranger Things, and it's kind of a caricature of itself, so we really don't want to do that.

So in other words, you're aware of the way that people characterize the Stranger Things sound and you're conscious about not falling into that trap.
Dixon: Right. Even with S U R V I V E we never wanted to be an "80s band," we just happen to use a lot of old stuff and some of those instruments sound that way, but it's not our goal. So with Stranger Things, typically, because it's set in the 80s, it makes it more difficult to get those moods across without being too cheesy about it. And a lot of the score ends up being borderline noise, ya know? It's pretty crazy.

Stein: Stranger Things has gotten pretty noisy, and percussion-based, and weird shit, because we didn't want to try to emulate when they temp in all this music that sounds like trailer music, and lame action drums. We’ll say "Alright, we've got to find a way to do this that we think is a lot cooler than this generic direction." Some of the stuff that's temped is fucking crazy—whimsical, symphonic, flurry music, and jazz, and comedy tracks, and we have to figure out how to turn those into something that we're OK with playing.