Let’s get this out of the way – half of S U R V I V E composed the soundtrack for Stranger Things, the show that everyone and their cats love (especially the cats) – yes, that includes that mean-ass theme tune. Now that’s out of the way, we can get on to the fact that the Austin quartet’s second full-length RR7349 is on the way and it is the darkest, grooviest and most chilling synth trip you’ve never heard. After a few technical issues on our end, we nabbed the time of the never-busier Kyle Dixon to discuss the finer points of synth mastery and just how he’s handling being involved in the biggest show in the world right now.
Dealing with technologyas much as you do these kinds of technical hitches happen a lot when you’re on tour or recording?
Not a lot but sometimes. Luckily, Michael (Stein) knows how to fix synthesisers; he knows how to build them and stuff, so in the past when we have had some of the older gear go bad, he always brings a soldering iron and random stuff just in case we need to fix anything. That’s really handy and yeah, there a lot of troubleshooting; for instance, when we practice to play live, we’re not really practicing how to play the songs, the notes, so much as practicing to make sure we have all the gear hooked up correctly. We know what the flow of the set is so we can set up. A lot of our synths don’t have presets on them because they’re analogue, so we have to make the sound for the next song while the previous song is playing. We’ve got stacks so one of them will be playing and in the time that we’re not playing, we’ll be setting up the sound for the next song. That’s at least half of practicing for us – running through it and making sure we know what we have to do so there’s not so much dead space, because we try to have sound going the whole time – we don’t really do the whole ‘play a song, talk to the crowd’ kind of thing. Technology’s awesome and terrible.
So are you guys analogue purists?
No, no, I wouldn’t say that. We definitely have a lot on analogue synths, but not purists by any means. We use anything, we use digital synths too. A lot of people get a newer synth and try to make it sound like an analogue synth, which we don’t do – if we’re using a digital synth it’s because we want it to sound like a digital synth, because there’s a lot of sounds like weird, crystally high-end bell stuff that you hear in a lot of rap music and even John Carpenter stuff – those are very digital sounds that are difficult, or just impossible, to make on analogue synths. We use the digital synths for that stuff or vocal pads. We use anything we can to play up its advantages. We’re not going to try to make it something that it’s not.
How did you get started with synths? Is that your musical training or do you play anything else?
Training?! [laughs] I’m not musically trained – I got kicked out of musical theory class when I tried to take it in high school because I was a brat and didn’t play any instruments; I just liked music and wanted to make music, but I was using a laptop and just sampling stuff. Mark (Donica) took piano lessons so he’s probably the closest to classically trained but I wouldn’t even say that much. We kind of learned just through experimenting, recording, sounds sampling them, fucking them up with plug-ins or pedals, doing that kind of stuff. Michael and I grew up together – I’ve known him for about 15 years, since before our music was even a thing. We kind of lost touch for a while and then I went to school with Adam (Jones) and met Mark, we started making music – not like S U R VI V E, so much, just music in general. I got back in touch with Michael after not speaking to him for a couple of years and found out he’d been doing music as well; he’d started buying old synths and building a new modulator, so shit, let’s make some music, dude! Once we started talking I realised I’d been trying to do all this shit with computers and I need to get some synthesisers. At the time, I was living with Adam and Mark in Austin and Michael came down one weekend to jam. “Hey, bring some stuff and set up in our living room. Bring a couple of synths, see what we can do.” We ended up writing what was eventually the first S U R V I V E song that weekend. We decided that this was pretty cool and maybe we should make a band. We made a MySpace page or something and put the song up then boom, it was official. S U R V I V E is a thing now. We didn’t really start playing or really being a band for another year. Michael was living in Dallas and we were all living in Austin so he would come down on weekends. He was pretty much here every other weekend and we just said, “Dude, you live in Dallas. Dallas isn’t that cool. You come down here, you have fun, play music that you like – you should just live here. By the way, there’s this vintage synthesiser store that just opened up – maybe you could work there.” He thought that sounded pretty good – it’s called Switched On and it’s run by our friends, it’s a great place – so he moved on, started working there… that was a pretty long fucking tangent! That’s the back-story, I guess!
It’s cool, I like talking synths too! When you’re buying new equipment, do you buy for a need, like a specific tone, or would you rather pick something up and play about to find out what it can do?
It’s a little of both. A lot of times, I think “I need this to do this,” especially with modules because you’ll try to make a patch and you can’t do it because you don’t have the piece that you need. I think it can go either way but generally I’ll hear something or see somebody playing with a demo and think it sounds cool and I want to play with it. Then, hopefully Switched On has it so I can go play with it and decide if I actually like it, and then other times I’ll have to buy stuff off eBay or Facebook groups.
Were there any albums or soundtracks that hooked you early on and made you decide that this was the kind of music you wanted to make?
Not so much soundtracks but albums, yeah, totally. We grew up listening to Aphex Twin and the old Reflex Records stuff, which isn’t really that similar but it’s at least where a few of us were coming from pretty heavily. That’s always there, the way they do their sound design and interesting sounds. A while later, I heard the album BGM by Yellow Magic Orchestra and to me; there’s a song on there called “Mast” that was a big part of what I wanted to do with S U R V I V E at least. There’re quite a few Tangerine Dream scores we all like, like The Keep has a really good score; Jean-Michel Jarre is a really obvious legend, Giorgio Moroder… all those dudes. 70s synth cosmic stuff and then also minimal wave stuff is an influence. Pretty much, if it’s music it’s going to influence us in some way. It comes out sounding how it sounds but we listen to everything.
What is your approach to composition, especially with the new work?
Approach to composition? You see the synths sitting around, right? They’re all hooked up to this PC, which is the main sequencer. We usually just start writing on that, or just play around with something like that. Usually record MIDI into there, if I can; some of the units don’t have MIDI but generally, we’ll just write the parts out on PC as MIDI and then build it up from there so I can play along. That’s an easy way to write quickly, but you can also get stuck in ‘the loop’ aspect if you do that too much before you have enough parts. Then you just have one really good section that you can’t really do anything with. There’s some saying that one of my teachers told me that’s like, “If you’re doing a realistic portrait you have to paint broad and wide.” You have to paint the whole thing first and then go back and add detail, you’re not gonna paint the perfect nose and then move on to the next part. I always try to remember that when I’m writing because it’s totally true – you have to get the skeleton down and then fill the detail in, because if you spend too much time on the nose, once you get to the other shit it’s gonna look weird. There’s no way it’s going to work.
“We’ve been doing this for almost 8 years now, pretty much doing the same thing and hopefully getting a little better at it, and now people all of a sudden care because it’s paired up with this show [Stranger Things] that’s doing really well. That’s great, but it’s weird.”
It’s the details that really work on the album, especially on a track like “Dirt”where it’s the little snippets dotted throughout that sell the effect.
Yeah, that one has a good amount of texture. That was a fun one. That main choppy percussion thing was a modular patch that I had made and I knew I had to record something with it before I lost it, because the way it was working was very specific to the way it was hooked up; it was important to get something recorded out of that session if we wanted to use that sound. I’m glad that happened because we like that song. There’s a lot of subtlety and textures on there. There’re probably less layers on this album than on the last one. It’s still there, we just tried to tone it down to make it a little more focused. I don’t know if anybody else will be able to tell the difference.
No, it does seem a lot more concise.
Yeah, that was the goal.
With the new album, did you write with any narrative in mind?
In a lot of cases, we’ll write something and there will be a very visual aspect to it. It’ll bring to mind some sort of image, and a lot of times that’s how we’ll start referring to certain parts of the song or sounds in the song. If it sounds like a hammer, we’ll say, “We need the hammer to smash the rock open!” or whatever it is. In “Dirt”, we had this image of killing a demon or something, hammering this stake into some monster. Other times, it’ll be like when a helicopter’s flying over the city and you see the fire that’s going on over in the distance.
What about videos? You had a great one with “Hourglass”, so are you planning anything for the new material?
We’re trying to figure that out right now – I probably have about ten emails in my inbox of pitches for videos. The label wants us to do one, we want to, but the original person we wanted to do it isn’t available, unfortunately, so we’re trying to look for alternatives. That “Hourglass” video was a fan video – some college students made it and sent it over to us, and it was pretty good! We asked them to take it down and make it an official video but it was about three years after the album was out. Sure, why not? It’s good, it’s high enough quality that we can put it out. We don’t want to just make a video to have a video anymore. We want to do something we are happy with, so that’s why we don’t have anything for the new album yet, but that’s not to say it’s not going to happen. Hopefully I open my email later on and there’s the perfect idea sitting there waiting.
Are you happy with the fan input? I’ve already started seeing the covers of the Stranger Things theme coming in.
Yeah, those are so fucking funny, dude. Have you seen the metal version? My god, it’s ridiculous – it’s pretty awesome but it’s ridiculous. It’s one dude playing all the parts, and he’s super into it. It’s rich. Then there’s club remixes, and there’s all the covers on YouTube, like the accordion version. We’ll just send each other text messages, saying, “Have you seen this?” So bizarre. I never would have imagined any of this stuff happening.
The Stranger Things phenomena, though! When did it start sinking in?
It hasn’t. I was at a bar last night and I hear, “Stranger Things! Stranger Things!” Arghh! Stop! I kind of want to say, “Can you just not talk about that?” No, I’d never do something a text saying, “Hey dude, I don’t know if you realise this but Stranger Things soundtrack is number three on iTunes, right behind PARTYNEXTDOOR.” Whaaat? “Oh wait, it’s number two… nope, it’s the number one album on iTunes.” Wait a minute, I have… I have a number… I have a number one album?! And it’s a fucking score? There’s not even any like that but it’s fucking bizarre. People are coming out of the woodwork that you don’t know, just trying to be around you for whatever reason. I went camping the day the show came out so I didn’t have cell phone service for three days, then I got back into town and my phone blew up as soon as I turned it back on. It didn’t really stop since then, it’s been a constant. Then you get lyrics and the songs are two minutes long, max… what the fuck is that? How does that happen? I was talking to a friend the other day, and she said she doesn’t really like pop music. Well I do, whatever, and she says, “Well, you are pop music.” By definition you are right! It hasn’t sunk in, and it happens every day, but you can’t help but laugh about it. We’ve been doing this for almost 8 years now, pretty much doing the same thing and hopefully getting a little better at it, and now people all of a sudden care because it’s paired up with this show that’s doing really well. That’s great, but it’s weird.
Are you nervous about the shows?
That deluge of soundtrack requests… That’s going to suck. We were debating whether we’d play the theme song or not. I think we might just reserve that for special occasions, plus we just don’t have time to prep what with all the other shit we have going on. It’s going to be weird if we don’t play the theme song, because people are going to leave, like “Eh, they didn’t play Stranger Things!” It isn’t a Stranger Things show, it’s a S U R V I V E show. I know the shows are selling better than they would otherwise so maybe we owe them it. We’ll see, but I don’t see us playing it any time soon. That said, Michael and I are going to do a one-off show doing Stranger Things stuff in Krakow for Unsound, right in the middle of our other tour, which hurts my head just thinking about it. We still need to prep for that.