The year hasn’t quite come to an end, but it’s safe to say that the runaway TV sucess of the year is the Netflix retro sci-fi serial Stranger Things. The group of eager adventuring boys and the girl named Eleven are already embedded deep in the collective unconscious, and so is the title sequence—specifically the foreboding song that brings to mind the classic horror films of John Carpenter and Dario Argento.
The band behind this tune, and the show’s entire score, is an Austin-based quartet called Survive (often styled as S U R V I V E). The group has been kicking out moody synth-jams for nearly a decade to a modest, underground crowd, but with the overwhelming success of Stranger Things, the members find themselves in an entirely new league.
It was a dream come true. Survive’s members had often talked about how cool it would be to score films. Michael Stein—whom the rest of the band consider the resident techie and engineer—had already built a giant library of music specifically for this purpose. Stranger Things creators the Duffer Brothers, who’d never met anyone in the band, came across one of their tapes and used it on a trailer they made of cut-together footage from other movies as a tool to pitch the idea to networks. They later contacted Survive, asking if they were still a band.
At this point, the group’s music has become synonymous with the show. Which makes sense: They were locked in before the Duffer Brother even finished casting. Stein tells me a story of how the Duffer Brothers gave them a character description of Eleven and asked them to make a theme song. They played it while watching back audition tapes; it helped the brothers decide who to cast.
I meet up with the band after sound check at a recent Sacramento show. The four members gather around a California-style patio couch, clearly suffering from interview exhaustion. For them, this has been going nonstop since the show premiered four months earlier. Everyone wants to know about the band behind the show.
“I did an interview the day the show came out,” says Stein. “I was like, Weird, I’m doing an interview. Now I’ve done a hundred.”
The day before the show premiered, the band received an email from a record label who’d seen a trailer, asking to put out the soundtrack. Before they knew it, the band’s debut album, from 2012, popped up to #15 on the Billboard charts.
Other than Stein, the band includes Kyle Dixon, Adam Jones and Mark Donica. All four play synthesizers. Stein and Dixon, a bearded man with ruffled hair, seem to be struggling hardest going through the interview process. A majority of press has been geared toward them, as they were the only members of the band to score Stranger Things. Jones and Donica had other commitments, and scoring the show was a full-time endeavor. Stein calls it “a leap of faith.”
Sacramento is the sixth show on their first-ever headlining tour. The first five shows all sold out, all but one in advance. When I ask what their newfound crowd looks like, Stein takes a stab at it: “It’s the kind of people I’d expect to come to our shows.” Then adds that people are now dancing at their shows. And girls are coming out.
Later, when doors open, I get a glimpse of what Survive’s crowd looks like. They are more diverse than I expect: groups of young hipsters alongside packs of sweatpants-wearing guys in their 50s and everyone in between. Basically, Stranger Things fans. I overhear a group of men and women in their mid-30s discussing some of more fringe Stranger Things theories. Later I watch a girl in her early 20s ask the guy stamping tickets: “This is Survive right? They do the music for that show?” He nods.
The group seems not to mind the association. “People didn’t know what to do to our music before the TV show,” says Jones, whose tall frame and long hair make him a more likely candidate for a hard rock band. “A lot of people need a context to know how to enjoy it. Most people can picture a rave scene if it’s really techno, or a crowded club with people dancing. And they know how to enjoy a rock show because they’ve seen bands play a million times.”
Prior to the series, Survive were part of an underground scene in Austin—what Jones called “weirdos playing some weirdo music.” The styles are varied. Dixon says the other bands have more punk and New Wave influences.
At the time, the idea of forming a four-piece, all-synth instrumental band must have seemed obscene. Their crowds were always limited, other than the few occasions they got to open for larger bands. The people that did see them were confused as to which box to put them in.
Their sudden interest is somewhat of a surprise to me, only because synthesizers are such a niche thing. Donica disagrees.
“I feel like it’s less niche than people think because there’s so much synthesizer music out there that they’re hearing all the time, and they don’t even realize it,” he says. “All rap is synth. We’re kind of just cutting to the chase. These are the awesome sounds.”
We have problems with people asking us about our retro sound.
Still, a lot of people are unable to see beyond certain superficial elements.
“We have problems with people asking us about our retro sound, or like, ‘You’re in the '80s’ or something,” Jones says.
Clearly these people don’t remember the actual ‘80s, and what the music really sounded like. If anything, they are playing synths from the ‘70s, with influences more in the range of David Bowie’s Low, Brian En and, they tell me, Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra. Besides, how many bands in either decade had four synth players and no vocalist? The elements may be familiar to a bygone era, but what Survive does with them is completely modern.
“How much more retro is a guitar, bass and drums? That’s been around since the '40s. People invented synthesizers and then never stopped using them. It’s not like we just found out about them because we’re into the '80s,” says Jones.
Survive released their sophomore album on September 30th, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Promotion for the record started right around the time Stranger Things was released. Jones called it a “one-two punch.”
The record shows tremendous improvement for the band. Their debut was heavy on atmospheric sounds, and the recording quality was deliberately gritty, with the tracks mostly bleeding into one another. The new record, which has the sci-fi title RR7349, consists of complete songs with multiple parts, pop structures, and clear bookends. It’s the same experimental, instrumental synth stuff, but with a musical sophistication. It’s more palatable to non-synth nerds. It really could prove to be a crossover album.
Perhaps working on Stranger Things gave them more focus in their composition. Or maybe it’s just that the members are really coming into their own as legit synthesizer players. Most of the writing and recording is done one member at a time, with lots of experimenting and demoing and adding to each other’s tunes.
Live, it’s totally different beast. The show is spectacular. For an hour they play their ominous music with four synth stations lined up at the front of the stage. There’s no vocals, no speaking between songs, no speaking when they’re finished. They have little fake candles jumbled around their keys and fog machines filling up the atmosphere around them. It feels like being inside a ‘70s horror movie—and yet, people are dancing.
At the end of our interview, they show me their gear. They rattle off a bunch of keyboard names and technical information my mind is totally unable to comprehend. This is where I learn just exactly how many synths the group really has. Stein, it turns out has somewhere in the range of 40.
“Do you identify as gearheads?” I ask them.
Dixon responds with a bit of sarcasm, “I don’t identify as a gearhead, but I am one.”
The true gearhead in the group, Jones says, is Stein. “Have you ever heard the term 'conversation jail’? If you ask this guy a question about gear, he will whip out his badge and take you to conversation jail.”
Stein fervently denies the claims, but Jones continues: “He’s down with it. He’s acts like he’s burdened, but he loves it. This guy’s got some crazy museum pieces that you can’t even get unless you’re involved with the mafia.”
The whole band laughs. When we’re done, they excuse themselves and head out to get dinner and, and I can only assume, scour the local pawn shops for vintage synths.