The Story Behind Austin's Electronic Music Band S U R V I V E
The Austin synthesizer band Survive composed the music for the hit Netflix thriller "Stranger Things," and now they’re riding a wave of success. We spoke to them for a story on Austin’s synthesizer music scene. Here’s part of that interview.
KUT: Can you explain the origins of Survive?
Kyle Dixon: Adam, Mark and I were living in a house together in Austin. I’ve known Michael for a long time. I found out he was making music, he started coming down, jamming. We had a little jam room we had set up in our house that we were living at.
Michael came down one weekend and we made a song, and we liked it, and we put it on MySpace, came up with a band name, and then there was a band.
KUT: How many synths did you have at that point?
Dixon: Not nearly as many.
Adam Jones: Just a few basic ones.
Michael Stein: I started building a modular system. A lot of those were kits and stuff, and it was cheaper. I got into that and then started buying.
Dixon: We had like three or four at that time but not nearly as many as now.
KUT: Where were you getting all your synths?
Dixon: eBay or Craigslist. But generally eBay, because you get better deals.
KUT: When you started was there a synthesizer music scene in Austin at that point?
Jones: Not really. No.
Dixon: I mean there were people making music with synthesizers, but nothing like we do.
Stein: I think everyone else was using synths as like a punk band before that.
Jones: No wave.
Dixon: There wasn’t an instrumental synthesizer band that I was aware of around playing synthesizers. There were plenty of people using computers and stuff.
KUT: And what year are we talking about?
Stein: 2008 or 2009.
KUT: What was your first show?
Dixon: It was in a shed. It was a house party. It was f*****g cold. It was near freezing.
Jones: It was at Koenig and Burnet.
Dixon: They had built this pyramid of cinderblocks in the back yard. One of my synthesizers is very temperamental especially to cold weather, so it just wouldn’t work.
I took it inside and put it next to the heater hoping that it would work and it didn’t. So last minute, first show, we’re scrambling. I’m like, “Okay, I can try to play his synth.” So I play his synth, and we do our long, droney epic intro super loud, and then we hit the first note and like the synths crash down and then the cops show up and shut the show down.
Stein: We had a rack synth in a milk crate. The synths got rattled off the bass cab head and it had a bunch of cables plugged in, so it took a bunch of s**t down with it. Everything turned off and then the cops were like, [siren sound].
Everyone was like, “Keep playing.”
KUT: There are bunch of synth-oriented bands in Austin now. Do you know how that developed?
Stein: Do you remember the synth parties? They sort of evolved into [the music store] Switched On. But they used to do an Annual Austin Analog Synth Party that Chad Allen put on. They would invite groups from the whole DFW, Houston, Austin, the Texas love triangle.
Dixon: Chad was selling synths. He was basically flipping synthesizers. Driving around to small towns, or calling up pawn shops, buying synths and selling them on Craigslist.
Stein: I actually meet a lot of people through the synth community, which was really small at that time. Like different groups and forums, and I knew like most people through that.
Dixon: His little Craigslist deal turned into Switched On when he got a couple other people who were willing to invest and build a store. So I think just the availability of synthesizers for people, to be able to go into a store and play with them, see other people using them and learn how to actually use them and hook them up.
Jones: There are a lot of bands making electronic music in Austin right now, and there have been for at least the five years or so. Everywhere, but particularly in Austin over the past five years or so.
Dixon: And also a shift in electronic music being okay to people who generally like rock ‘n’ roll or whatever. Like a lot of punk kids, a lot of metal guys, they’re okay with electronic music now because they found out it can be aggressive and it doesn’t have to be trance or [the 1998 Alice Deejay song] "Better Off Alone".
KUT: How has the success of the Stranger Things soundtrack changed things for you?
Stein: We’re about to go play a really well attended show.
Dixon: Our album release show, and then we’re doing a tour. We’re doing our first headlining tour and we’ve sold out most of the major cities, which is something that probably wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t had the show [Stranger Things.]
Today, I was eating lunch and somebody was like, “Kyle!” And I was like [turned around.]
And they’re [whispering], “Okay it’s him.”
I was like, “Don’t do that again, dude.” I kind of got mad at this guy. And he was like, “No spoilers!” And I’m like, “Don’t talk to me about spoilers, man.”
Anyway, sorry. It’s weird. It’s bizarre.
KUT: Has it helped with sales of your music?
Dixon: It definitely has. The week after the show came out, our debut LP from 2012 charted at No. 15 on the Billboard charts. That’s an album from 2012, so it’s clearly helped sales.
KUT: Are other Austin artists benefiting from this attention?
Stein: Definitely, I’ve had friends say they’ve been contacted for commercial work and things like that.
Dixon: I guess Michael played a show with SSLEEPERHOLD at [Cheer Up Charlie’s], and there was a girl on Instragram and she was like, “This is Stranger Things!” She was taking video of José [Cota] playing and saying, “Stranger Things! The Upside Down! This is awesome!” which is hilarious. It’s great! Cool. If our buddies can get some shine off of it, that’s awesome.
Jones: I run the label Holodeck and I can tell you for sure there’s been an uptick in every kind of way you can measure it for all the other local synth bands in town. So yeah, everybody’s sort of benefiting from the "Stranger Things" soundtrack for sure.
I don’t know if it’s going to mean something for Austin as a whole, as a regional hub for this type of music or anything like that, but we’ll see.
Stein: In music, defining success is hard.
Donica: It’s hard to say how sticky it is, or if it’s going to evaporate or something.
Jones: There have been a ton of genres that have popped up over the last ten years and just gone away a couple of years later. We’ve been doing this for a while, and we’ll probably still be doing this for a while. Whether or not people are interested in it a few years from now, we’ll see.