SCI-FI SOUNDS

‘Stranger Things’ Revived the Rock Star Soundtrack Composer in Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein

June 25, 2020

Upon its debut in 2016, the Netflix series Stranger Things became a once-in-a-decade show—the kind that manages to create one giant virtual water cooler conversation. 

Created by brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, Stranger Things’ spot-on simulacrum of ’80s sci-fi and action-adventure flicks proved to be a cross-generational sensation, appealing equally to those old enough to remember renting The Goonies and Aliens to kids who identified with the show’s endearingly geeky preteen protagonists. But of all the ways the show has perfectly recreated life in Reagan-era America, its most potent time-traveling device is its theme music, whose sinister arpeggiated synths are so evocative of ’80s multiplex fare, you practically expect the opening credit sequence to start warping and distorting like an overused VHS cassette.

Like the show’s mutant, ever-expanding Mind Flayer monster, the Stranger Things theme has gradually seeped off the screen to become a phenomenon in its own right, racking up over 30 million streams on Spotify. As a result, Stranger Things has effectively revived another trend from decades past: the rock star soundtrack composer.

Following in the footsteps of Blade Runner visionary Vangelis and Miami Vice chase scene setter Jan Hammer before them, the duo of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein has become the new gold standard bearer for infusing popcorn entertainment with artful sound design. But even as Stranger Things sonic aesthetic has reverberated through all corners of pop culture—from the late Jóhan Jóhansson’s score for the 2018 Nicolas Cage cult favorite Mandy, to The Weeknd’s recent neon-tinted After Hours album—Dixon and Stein see themselves less as trailblazers than as torchbearers for a storied lineage of synth-based composition. 

As Stein tells For the Record, “Stranger Things has definitely created a big point of reference, where someone who doesn’t know much about music production can basically hear an arpeggiator, or rapid succession of chords, and say, ‘That sounds like Stranger Things.’ But this sound has existed forever.”

Photo credit: Alex Kacha

Friends since childhood, Dixon and Stein first joined forces with Adam Jones and Mark Donica to form the Austin-based quartet S U R V I V E in 2009. They envisioned themselves as a live-band alternative to the electronic music scene, which at the time was ubiquitous. As Dixon recalls, “We were like, ‘Let’s get up there and play like a band, out of amps. It’ll be loud, and it’ll sound better than the aux cord out of your laptop!’”

Alas, at the outset, S U R V I V E appeared to be the most ironically named band in America—they barely made it out of their first gig intact. “It was so cold outside that our synthesizers didn’t work,” Dixon says. But while it took some time for S U R V I V E to acquaint themselves with the finer points of performing with precarious vintage electronic equipment, their musical mission was clear from day one.

After a couple of DIY releases through their own Holodeck Records label, S U R V I V E would eventually sign with Pennsylvania-based imprint Relapse Records. But, as the electronic outlier on an otherwise metal-heavy roster, S U R V I V E likely would’ve remained a niche underground concern were it not for a fateful email Dixon and Stein received from the Duffer brothers asking them to score a new sci-fi series they were developing for Netflix. To this day, the duo are unsure of how the brothers discovered their music; Dixon’s best guess is they heard the S U R V I V E songs featured on the soundtrack to the 2014 thriller The Guest. “That movie was the first time anyone outside of Austin knew about us,” he reasons.

Stranger Things debuted in July 2016 and, by the time S U R V I V E released their Relapse debut, RR7349, three months later, Dixon and Stein’s soundtrack sorcery was already firmly imprinted into the psyches of Netflix subscribers around the world, giving their band a sudden, significant profile boost. Since then, Dixon and Stein have been locked into a cyclical schedule alternating between their Stranger Things and S U R V I V E obligations.

Following the release of the Stranger Things Season 3 soundtrack last summer, Dixon and Stein took the rest of 2019 off, which gave them a much-needed breather after three solid years of nonstop recording, touring, and scoring. (Other scoring credits of theirs include the National Geographic program Valley of the Boom and the British miniseries Butterfly.) Their plan was to start entertaining more soundtrack offers for 2020, but the COVID-19 outbreak has obviously extended their hiatus indefinitely. So for now, they’re using the downtime to focus on finishing the next S U R V I V E record, which is shaping up to be a different beast from their previous efforts. “There’s some new moods on there,” Stein says, “and there are also things that we consciously decided to keep off. We haven’t been writing any music that’s very ’80s horror movie.” 

Photo credit: Alex Kacha

But in terms of methodology, little has changed for the duo. As Dixon explains, life under this new normal isn’t all that different than their old normal. With Dixon holding down the fort in Austin and Stein now based in LA, the two are used to working remotely in their respective home studios, putting in long hours in front of their computers.

“Anyone who’s a composer has to be okay with being alone in a studio for long periods of time,” Dixon says. “The only thing that’s different is that other people are now in it with us!”

Stream the Stranger Things Season 3 Soundtrack below.