Considering the eerie tone of the new Netflix show “Stranger Things,” it shouldn’t come as a surprise that its musical score and opening theme were composed under curious circumstances by a pair of lesser known first-timers.
The score to the Duffer Brothers-created series, about the odd disappearance and arrival of children near a secretive laboratory, was made by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, two members of the Austin, Texas, instrumental electronic group Survive (who prefers its name be displayed in all-caps with spaces in between each letter — S U R V I V E).
But of all the TV composers out there, why them?
“The answer to that is kind of a mystery,” said Dixon during a recent phone conversation. “I'm not sure how they found us and they are not really sure how they found us either.”
What is known is that the creators knew about Survive, used one of the band’s songs in an early pitch trailer, and a little more than a year later Dixon and Stein’s music is drawing its own fans.
Set in 1983, “Stranger Things” is a period piece starring Winona Ryder as the mother of a missing son. She is convinced that a ghostly conspiracy is afoot, and the evidence is certainly there.
It was a time when the sudden destruction of a rotary phone could wreak havoc on a rural household. The series draws on a “Choose Your Own Adventure” and “Hardy Boys” style of storytelling, and features a trio of boy sleuths working to find their lost friend while dealing with the confusing new emotions that arrive with adolescence.
Dixon and Stein started working on the score a little over a year ago after a tryout period in which the pair had to prove themselves over the course of a couple months. The producers hadn’t started casting yet, nor had they completed the scripts.
“They wanted someone to come on really early and be there to bounce ideas off of and figure out the aesthetic they wanted to reach,” said Stein. “But we also had to prove ourselves among other composers who were pitching as well.”
The composers employed similar instrumentation that they use on their work with Survive, most notably the immediately recognizable hum of vintage Arp synthesizers. The band has been together since the late ’00s, and will release its new full-length via Relapse Records in September.
Working to avoid ’80s musical cliches while staying true to the period, producers directed the composers to offer a delicate balance.
“They just didn't want the music to really put it over-the-top and make it too much,” said Stein.
Dixon added that the pair wrote a few character themes and moods that producers used during auditions. For one central character who goes by the name Eleven, “they explained what she was like and based off of that we wrote a theme, and they loved it.” Added Dixon of the musical theme for series breakout star Millie Brown, “They were playing that in the casting room when Millie was doing her lines, and were like, ‘This is it.’ It connected us with the show and characters and music all at once.”
As with most TV productions, the composers had no idea whether the end result would draw attention or vanish amid the bounty of entertainment arriving daily.
In her recent review, Times TV critic Mary McNamara praised the series. While acknowledging the occasional stagger, she wrote that “for the most part, and in absolute defiance of the odds, ‘Stranger Things’ honors its source material in the best way possible: By telling a sweet ’n’ scary story in which monsters are real but so are the transformative powers of love and fealty.”
Both Dixon and Stein said they weren’t sure what would happen when the series was released July 15, but it has surpassed their expectations and opened many doors.
“We were working on it and we were like, ‘Hey, the show is actually good.’ I would definitely watch this,” said Stein.
That seems to be the consensus, at least according to Survive’s inbox: “It's crazy. We need an agent. Way too many emails,” said Dixon.
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
There’s a lot of terrible music out there. For tips on the stuff that’s not, follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit