Strange days: Meet SURVIVE, the composers behind the Stranger Things soundtrack

A photograph of SURVIVE sat on a sofa
(Image: © Dylan O'Connor)

Friday afternoon, early November, Niagara Falls. On this cloudy autumn day, in a tour van crammed with people and equipment, DIY Texan synth quartet S U R V I V E have pulled up to view this awe-inspiring landmark, and to get a little respite from a month of touring. Since Netflix’s 80s-themed sci-fi horror show Stranger Things aired in July, featuring a soundtrack composed by two of the four-piece, S U R V I V E’s previously low-key world has turned upside-down. The series went viral. Everyone wants a piece of the band. Downtime like this is rare and cherished. And then Prog calls.

“It’s crazy, we haven’t really be able to slow down and take it in much,” says one-quarter of the group, Adam Jones. He breathes deeply. “It’s off the charts.”

S U R V I V E’s story starts in the 90s, where Jones, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein met at school in San Marcos. Graduating to Texas State University in the 00s (“I studied business,” says Jones), roommates Jones and Dixon experimented with ambient guitar noise, becoming friends with another student, synth player Mark Donica. Keeping in touch with Stein back in Dallas, they discovered he’d been building synthesisers and working on his own compositions.

“We got Michael down to Austin to do some recording,” says Jones. “We wrote a bunch of songs in the first weekend and decided to become a band – then we harassed him into moving here.”

Amassing vintage analogue equipment, as well as their home-built modules, S U R V I V E consolidated as a quartet in 2008, choosing a name they felt suited their style, and styling it as so for dramatic effect. Informed by pop-electronica, 80s videogame and film soundtracks, and a soupçon of Throbbing Gristle, debut track Holographic Landscape was uploaded to MySpace and the group set about performing live what they’d recorded at home. Part of the problem was the sheer volume of kit to cart about.

“In Texas, everybody has a lot of space,” says Jones. “There’s big roads and big cars and everybody’s houses are pretty large, so we always had a bunch of amps and hardware. We brought out everything we could. And it wasn’t just us, it was other bands. Nobody cared about your synth outfit unless you brought out a bunch of gear.”

Home to the yearly South By South West festival, Austin is a creative hub. S U R V I V E slotted into a scene that Jones describes as being “more experimental, like punk or no wave but had synthesisers”. Alongside acts such as darkwavers Ssleeperhold and Medio Mutante, and fellow synth buffs Flatliner and Low Red Center, S U R V I V E went one stage further with epic, long-form instrumentals influenced by The Radiophonic Workshop, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Jean-Michel Jarre and Autechre. “We wanted to bring a cinematic style but with that acid house aggression of the [Roland] 101,” Jones says. “We’re big fans of scores and soundtracks. We always envisioned our band working with TV and film.”

In 2010, S U R V I V E released LLR002, a 10-inch EP via Light Lodge, a label run by their friends and renowned post-rock group This Will Destroy You. Releases of singles and mixtapes followed – “In the States, cassettes, vinyl and MP3s are the new norm for underground music; CDs are seen as dorky on your merch table,” Jones admits – as the band juggled day jobs to earn a crust and feed the habit of a growing synth pile. Their debut, self-titled album was released in 2012 by Italian industro-synth label Mannequin and caught the ear of director Adam Wingard, who used two tracks, Omniverse and Hourglass for his 2014 horror film The Guest. In turn, two men with a supernatural drama series idea saw The Guest.

Finding inspiration for what would become Stranger Things, the Duffer brothers presented a pitch to Netflix for their original content service, using S U R V I V E’s work as mood music. “They were interested in using us from the beginning,” says Jones, “and it worked out.”

The Duffer brothers also used S U R V I V E tracks while auditioning the cast. “They would have the actors react to the music in a scene, to see how their look matched up with the vibe,” says Jones.

Unfortunately, the band never met the actors or got on set, and because of time and budget constraints, the Stranger Things soundtrack ended up being composed by just Dixon and Stein. But the style was hallmark S U R V I V E: 80s-drenched atmospheres, expressive and downright dark.

The show stars Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine, but is based around the adventures of four young schoolboys and one mysterious girl in the year 1983, and it’s apt that a band born from childhood kinship has helped define the hit series. Evocative of work by Stephen King, John Carpenter and The Goonies, Stranger Things and new release RR7349 have helped hurl S U R V I V E to the forefront of a new synth scene.

“This is the biggest tour we’ve even done,” says Jones. “Every show there’s lots of people who want to examine our equipment and talk to us about how we set up.

“Some of our most prized synths would be the ARP2600, Jupiter 8 and the Memory Moog,” he adds, mentioning Austin’s Switched On shop as the place for gear (owned by Low Red Center’s Chad Allen). “For a while, you could buy a car with the value of a couple of those synths! That’s because they’re rare, but what’s exciting now is that manufacturers understand tonally what people are going for now and are making modern, smaller, more reliable pieces of gear.”

It sounds like S U R V I V E might have first-hand experience of this. “We’ve got some sponsorship in the works,” Jones says. “I don’t want to give anything away – we’ve already done some demo work for new products.”

After years of struggling, how does it feel to be The Beatles of synth? “It’s genuinely overwhelming,” he laughs. “We must have done a couple of hundred interviews. I’m glad there’s four of us to handle it. But the highlight of all this is having Geoff Barrow from Portishead and Ryuichi Sakamoto reaching out to tell us they’re fans. That’s probably the biggest compliment, when people you’ve loved and respected for a long time become aware of your music.”

And now Stranger Things 2 has been announced what does that mean for you? “I assume Kyle and Michael will be involved but we haven’t even talked about that yet. We have to take one day at a time!”

RR7349 is out now via Relapse. S U R V I V E will tour the UK in February. See www.facebook.com/survivesurvive.

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