Men Of Note
A Summer Playlist From The Stranger Things Composers
Listen to this exclusive mix by Grammy-nominated Texan electronic band Survive
Mr Kyle Dixon and Mr Michael Stein of Grammy-nominated, Emmy-winning Texan synth band Survive are best-known for creating the eerie, 1980s-tinged, electronic soundtrack to the acclaimed Netflix series Stranger Things. Yet, it may come as a surprise to learn that – at least in Mr Dixon’s case – early forays into music making weren’t quite so fully wired.
“The first instrument I actually learnt to play was the banjo,” he says. “My goal wasn’t to make a bluegrass album. I was creating all this sampled weird music. Then one summer, I was broke and I had to pay rent; that was about the same as the price of my instrument, so I sold it. I guessed my banjo days were over.”
Photograph by Ms Jackie Lee Young
This summer, thankfully, Mr Dixon and Mr Stein’s rent troubles also appear to be over and their synthesizers safe. The pair chat over Skype from their respective studios – Mr Dixon in Austin, Texas, Mr Stein in Los Angeles – beside banks of intricate, modular synthesizers. Having won Emmys for the Stranger Things soundtrack and created a great summer mix for MR PORTER (which you can listen to here, or below), they are both preparing for live dates with fellow band members Mr Adam Jones and Mr Mark Donica. Bookings include the Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona (which kicks off next week), and, more surprisingly, the Psycho heavy metal festival in Las Vegas. “We’re on a metal label, so that’s how it happens,” Mr Dixon explains.
Bonding over a love of Wu-Tang Clan in a Texan skate park decades earlier, Mr Dixon and Mr Stein formed Survive in 2009, channelling their appreciation for recording artists such as Autechre and Aphex Twin into creating moody, retro, throbbing synthesized instrumental works that won over a small following in the darker corners of the US electronica scene, before they reached a wider audience, following a call from Stranger Things’ creators, the Duffer brothers.
Though their music suits that spooky period drama right down to its blackened heart, Mr Dixon still doubted whether they would make the final cut.
“Until the show came out, I expected to get fired and for them to take all our music off,” he says. “It’s not uncommon for someone to come in and change it all. I thought they were going to replace it with some orchestral score.”
“Orchestral scores are an easier choice,” agrees Mr Stein. “They can sit in a film, and never really interfere with what’s on the screen.”
Now that Mr Dixon and Mr Stein have won over the TV execs, they feel there might be room for more of their kind.
“In electronic music, no one gets paid, and the music is drony and moody,” says Mr Dixon. “But then you throw it under a film, and it works really well. It’s really weird to think that there are people making OK professional soundtracks, putting them in a movie and getting paid very well, and then there’s all these kids in basements, sweating their asses off trying to buy a new piece of gear. Basically, they’re doing the same, and the stuff in the basement is more interesting.”
Hollywood, you have been warned: prepare for a subterranean synth uprising.
Survive’s summer mix
“Stretching Out” by Fox the Fox
From the album In The Dark Of The Nite (1984)
The pair came across this synth heavy 1984 funk cut via a mutual friend, whom, Mr Dixon says, acted as a kind of archivist for them. “He introduced me and Michael into a lot of the stuff we love,” says Mr Dixon. “He was doing heavy research. He even uploaded a live version of Fox the Fox’s better-known record, ‘Precious Little Diamond’, from VHS to YouTube, and got an email from one of the band’s cousins saying ‘Wow, I can see my uncle in the video!’”
“Why” by Carly Simon
From the Soup For One soundtrack (1982)
This 1982 disco record was an unlikely Balearic hit, and remains a firm favourite for Mr Stein. “It’s such a great song, with a great tropical, reggae feel,” he says. “There’s a really great long version, but I also like listening to the demos of big hits like this. There’s usually some great little aspect that doesn’t make it into the final cut.”
“SpottieOttieDopaliscious” by Outkast
From the album Aquemini (1998)
Mr Dixon and Mr Stein both shared an early love of the Atlanta hip-hop duo, and this 1998 track in particular. “I remember, we picked you up, you got in the back seat and you said ‘Oh, shit, new Outkast!’” says Mr Stein. “You had just bought it that day.”
“It’s got just such a cool vibe,” says Mr Dixon. “The central horn riff is the longest melody that everyone has memorised. It’s just so long, but everyone knows it.”
“The song is like a celebration that’s not going to end,” says Mr Stein. “It could go in the middle of the mix or at the end.”
“Sunny Day” by DJ Screw
From the Soldiers United For Cash soundtrack (2001)
The late Houston hip-hop pioneer died in 2000, yet his slowed-down, “chopped and screwed” music lives on in the hearts of these fellow Texans. “My friends from Houston? All they would listen to was DJ Screw,” says Mr Stein.
“It was on the radio all the time when we were growing up, so we kinda ignored it, because it was almost like pop music,” recalls Mr Dixon. “But then, I realised that was an idiotic way to think. It’s such great music.”
“Everything Is Going To Be OK” by Umberto
From the album Prophecy Of The Black Widow (2010)
Both Mr Stein and Mr Dixon admire this contemporary, US synth recording artist, though they’ve chosen an uncharacteristically happy selection for the mix. “This is an outlier,” says Mr Dixon. “Most of his stuff is Giallo [Italian horror films] goblin-y stuff, really scary. Then there’s this song.”