S U R V I V E's 'Stranger Things' Spotlight Shines On Austin's Synthesizer Scene
The hit Netflix series “Stranger Things” is a supernatural thriller set in the 1980s peppered with nostalgic pop culture references and scored with a synth-heavy soundtrack by the Austin band Survive.
The runaway success of the series and its music have catapulted Survive into the limelight. By their estimation, they’ve done about a hundred interviews in the past few months. They’ve already been written about in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Billboard and a bunch of influential music blogs. (You can check out a longer KUT interview here.)
Survive member Kyle Dixon says after grinding through multiple tours since they formed in 2008, they're about to travel the country as the headlining act.
“We’ve sold out most of the major cities, which is obviously something that probably wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t had the show [Stranger Things],” Dixon says.
Some of that attention is rubbing off on the friends they play music with. Like at a Cheer Up Charlie’s show when member Michael Stein was performing with a friend’s band, and Dixon saw a woman shooting video with her phone.
“And like saying, ‘Stranger Things! The Upside Down! This is awesome!’ which is hilarious. It’s great. I’m like ‘Cool, If our buddies can get some shine off of it, then great.’”
Survive member Adam Jones, who runs the label Holodeck, says other band around town are seeing a residual boost in fandom, as well.
“I can tell you for sure there’s been an uptick in every kind of way you can measure it for just all the other local synth bands in town,” Jones says. “So, yeah, everyone’s kind of benefiting from the 'Stranger Things' soundtrack.”
Survive is part of a growing subculture in Austin oriented around creating music with vintage analog synthesizers.
Members of Survive say trace some of the origins of that scene to almost decade ago, when Chad Allen began hosting the Annual Austin Analog Synth party.
Allen is a co-founder of Switched On, a local music store that’s become a center of gravity for people who make music in Austin using analog synths. He's been interested in synthesizers since high school and makes music under the name Cellophane Spill.
“You could make whatever sound you wanted to with it. It was the possibilities, the potential starting from silence, whatever sound was in your imagination, and then a lot of sounds you’ve never thought of before,” Allen says.
Allen moved to Austin from the Portland-area in 1998 to go to the University of Texas.
Around 2007, he got laid off and had no money to pay rent. So Allen made the tough choice to sell a couple of his synthesizers to come up with rent money.
Then, a light went off.
“I thought, you know what? I could just buy and sell synthesizers for a living," he says.
Allen put ads in the Austin Chronicle, and he sold synths on eBay. That’s around the time he started the Annual Austin Analog Synthesizer Party.
“You could go to the party, and [say] ‘Oh I’ve never been able to play that. I’ve always wanted to play that. Now I have the opportunity to put my hands on it and see how I interact with it and how it sounds,’” he says.
Allen met a lot of people doing that. Other synthesizer enthusiasts met each other and formed bands, and members of Survive went to this party.
Allen's synthesizer business grew into a brick-and-mortar location first on 11th Street, and now, in a 3,600-square foot space on East Cesar Chavez Boulevard – a location that is likely the largest repository of synthesizers in Central Texas.
Vintage analog synthesizers are not cheap. They can easily cost upwards of $1,000. Prices for some models have doubled or more since Allen began flipping gear almost 10 years ago. All this for something you could pretty much do on a computer using much less expensive software models of synthesizers.
“It’s the appeal of something physical, the appeal of the object,” Allen says. “People are setting aside their phones and their computers, so they can feel alive.”
Joey Postiglione, one of Allen’s employees, performs as Joey in Austin’s warehouse party techno scene. He also plays in a band called Chairlift, which is performing this weekend at the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
“I would say that Austin has probably the best electronic music scene in the country right now,” Postiglione estimates. “In New York, a lot of people are doing it as a fashion. It’s a very trendy kind of place. Here, people who have been doing what they do kind of it do it out of passion. You have more freedom to express yourself.”
Amber Goers runs the financial side of Holodeck Records and is a vocalist in the band Troller, along with Jones of Survive. She says Switched On filled a void for synth-fanatic Austinites.
“I really do think Switched On had a huge impact, at least in Austin, on the growth of electronic and synthesizer music, just because they created a space for people to talk about it, to learn about and to really play with it,” she says.
Now, she’s seen first-hand how the success of the “Stranger Things” soundtrack has brought attention to other electronic musicians in Austin.
“I really do think it’s more than just some sort of surface blip in attention,” Goers says. “People are really engaging in the type of music that Survive represents and the community surrounding that.”
But, if you wanted to go to the album release show at Barracuda, you’re too late. It’s sold out.