‘Stranger Things’ composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein on the series’ increasingly intense score
Last year the musicians Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon, who scored the music for the second season of Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” added a relatively unorthodox weapon to their instrumental arsenal.
“A real, physical piano,” Stein clarifies.
“With keys and strings, which is something we haven’t had prior,” Dixon adds.
Many composers may raise an eyebrow. What Grammy-nominated, Emmy-winning composing team wouldn’t already have a piano?
Up until then, Dixon and Stein hadn’t the need. The once-obscure Austin, Tex.-based composing duo, who rumbled into the mainstream in 2016 through their eerie work in the show’s first season, relied on the warm, humming tones of modular synthesizers to soundtrack the travails of “Stranger Things’ ” adolescent detectives.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stein added that their new baby-grand’s hammered tones have been so processed that viewers might have a tough time “even noticing that we’re using it to any degree.” The same is likely true of their broken dulcimer, also featured in Season 2’s score.
Sitting at the TV-less Bar Covell in Los Feliz last week while much of Southern California and Texas were attuned to Game 1 of the World Series, Dixon and Stein had been so busy during their time in Los Angeles that they had to be reminded what was occurring at Dodger Stadium a few miles east.
In addition to preparing for last Friday’s “Stranger Things” premiere, Stein and Dixon had been holed up in Silver Lake Airbnbs working on music, doing press and rehearsing for an upcoming Nov. 8 live performance of their “Stranger Things” music at the Theater at Ace Hotel.
It’s been a wild ascent.
A few years ago when they signed on to a then-unknown Netflix horror series created by Matt and Ross Duffer, Dixon and Stein had little idea how far their commitment would take them — that, for example, they’d wind up at Netflix parties with Laverne Cox, Robin Wright and Dave Chappelle.
“There have been so many things that have happened in the last year that it seems like three years,” Dixon says. He added with fake indifference, “It’s like, ‘Sure, I’ll go to a party where Kevin Spacey’s hanging out.’ Why not?”
Once, they were visiting the Moog synthesizer complex in Asheville, N.C., when they learned of their Grammy nominations. Suddenly, they had some unexpected interview requests.
“We were like, ‘Oh, sure,’ ” Stein said. “So then we had newspeople at the Moog lab.”
Said Dixon: “It was a nice backdrop for an interview like that — ‘Oh, we caught up with these synthesizer guys at the synthesizer factory.’ ”
He and Stein are erstwhile members of the experimental electronic band Survive (who prefer their name be presented as S U R V I V E). Their work with the group — minimal, haunting, non-acoustic instrumentals — prompted the Duffer Bros. to reach out.
Drawn to a vibe that recalls horror master John Carpenter’s synth-driven scores for films including “Assault on Precinct 13,” “Halloween” and “Escape from New York,” Stein and Dixon mostly forgo computer-based, cut-and-paste digital tones for anachronistic sounds that reference classic horror scores.
From the start, the Duffers gave the composers the freedom to experiment with tone and texture. “We got lucky,” Stein says, “and it makes it extremely fun.”
Going into the second season, the series creators expressed interested in expanding the show’s personality. Citing films including “Gremlins,” “Ghostbusters” and “Halloween,” Stein characterized the goal as conveying “some of the show’s campy fun without being silly about it.”
As well, the two were invited to make what Dixon called “a lot of terrifying story music,” which in Season 2 commences with an intense opening scene. The kickoff required the score to be, in Stein’s words, “already stepped up a whole ’nother level, and we have to keep that momentum through the series.”
As Stein continues, Dixon interrupts, worried that they’ll accidentally give away a plot point.
Pulling back, he tones down his enthusiasm and adds, “but there’s still a lot of melodic, warm, fuzzy stuff.”
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein perform the music of “Stranger Things.”
When: 9 p.m., Nov. 8
Where: The Theatre at the Ace Hotel, 929 S. Broadway, Los Angeles
Tickets: $30 to $50
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