For a band currently enjoying the spotlight of international fame and two Grammy nominations, Austin's SURVIVE had inauspicious beginnings. In an interview with Austin NPR affiliate KUT, band member Kyle Dixon described the outfit's unceremonious first gig in a freezing Texas backyard. According to Dixon, the stage was inside a shed among a "pyramid of cinderblocks" and the cold weather caused his synth to stop responding. In a last-ditch effort, he ran the instrument indoors and placed it next to a heater to revive it, to no avail. After scrambling for another synth, SURVIVE didn't get five minutes into its set before vibrations from the bass cabinet toppled most of the band's gear onto the ground, right as the police rolled up.
Fast-forward about a decade. SURVIVE isn't rattling many backyards anymore, and it has a little 2016 Netflix show called Stranger Things to thank. The Duffer Brothers' dark fantasy drama combed the playbooks of Stephen King and kitschy 1980s cinema for inspiration and seemed destined for cult-hit status. Instead, Stranger Things smashed every projection and established itself as the gold standard for success in streaming television. Symphony Advanced Media statistics cited by Variety estimate fourteen million viewers watched Stranger Things within the first thirty-five days of release, staggering numbers in 2016's confusing, multipronged streaming-TV landscape.
Reviews, too, were glowing. Critics admired the show's pitch-perfect throwback production and horror elements, and they often especially loved the bleary, menacing analog synth theme that crept in at the beginning of each episode. That piece, and most of the original music, came courtesy of Dixon and fellow band member Michael Stein.
In the modern age, where both nostalgia and synth bands are inexhaustible resources, how did SURVIVE get such a gem of an opportunity?
Chalk it up to luck and experience. Dixon, Stein, and band mate Adam Jones grew up together, and they started the band in 2008 with Mark Donica, who lived with Jones and Dixon during their time at the University of Texas at Austin. Jones also co-runs the label Holodeck Records, which has reissued some of SURVIVE's early cassette-only material and has charted with releases from art-adjacent acts like Marie Davidson and This Will Destroy You. Together, their expertise made them a formidable creative force in Austin's nascent synth community, and their ever-expanding collection of synths and knowledge of how to repair them didn't hurt, either. As they accumulated a diverse collection of instruments from Craigslist, eBay, and Switched On—a brick-and-mortar synth store in Austin and hub for the city's gear heads—they began recording together.
Those early years of experimentation were crucial. SURVIVE produced a handful of good minimalist releases with titles like LLR002 and MF064, and the band has continued in this vein. Since then, most of its releases besides the Stranger Things soundtrack and a self-titled record have simply been named for each album's corresponding label catalog number.
The Duffer Brothers found SURVIVE through Adam Wingard's 2014 film The Guest, which used the band's songs "Omniverse" and "Hourglass," and the Duffers in turn used SURVIVE's "Dirge" in a mock trailer for the show to pitch to Netflix executives. The Duffers wanted more from SURVIVE, so they brought the band on to work with in-progress scripts to come up with themes and cues for individual characters and scenes, tailoring each song to whatever emotional needs were required and drawing from a vast unreleased backlog of material. Because SURVIVE got on board with Stranger Things so early, the Duffers used the band's demos in the auditioning process to decide whom to cast. SURVIVE is already set to return to Stranger Things' second season, which is scheduled for release on Halloween 2017.
Given the show's context, SURVIVE often get compared to John Carpenter or Goblin or John Harrison or other film score legends of the seventies and eighties. Critics have especially lumped SURVIVE in with Carpenter, who made lurching analog synth sounds iconic in scores for films like Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape From New York. But those who push this line of thought probably haven't heard SURVIVE's non-Stranger Things body of work. Sure, there's a bit of Carpenter on RR7349, the band's latest full-length for Relapse Records, but the band actively avoids clichés that often plague retro-fetishistic outfits that often are all too happy to copy their forefathers' affectations. SURVIVE has held on to a sense of modernity and propriety—you hear the gentle ambient drift of Stars of the Lid or the technical sequencing of a Warp Records act as much as you hear "eighties throwback synthwave."
For a band so firmly associated with the eighties, SURVIVE has more to do with a legacy seventies band like Tangerine Dream. Before its digital chrome soundtracks of the Reagan era, Tangerine Dream made music a bit weirder and spacier than its peers, and SURVIVE has continued in that spirit. And last fall, Tangerine Dream covered the Stranger Things theme—a meta cover if there ever was one.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Leveled Up."