Stranger Things: Q&A with Kyle Dixon

In the annals of film and television, certain musical themes manage to transcend the moving image. From the whistle that brings in Morricone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly theme, to Tangerine Dream’s “Love On A Real Train,” memorable scores have the uncanny ability to sum up an epoch, an entire aesthetic. Prolific Texan musician Kyle Dixon has crafted, alongside Michael Stein, a body of work that’s synonymous with the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, the supernatural everytown at the center of the Netflix hit Stranger Things. But in just a few short years, their sound has expanded far beyond ’80s Indiana, acting as the natural counterpoint for VR-visions of the Universe (Spheres), the Chicago streets of Rashid Johnson’s Native Son adaptation, Silicon Valley (Valley Of The Boom) and even the intimate gender transition of an 11-year girl in the British mini-series Butterfly. Exploring the full potential of racks of synthesizers and drum machines, Dixon and Stein write music for the present moment. The Stranger Things kids have matured into emotionally-nuanced teenagers, and on their recent score for Season 3, they’ve turned in 41 tracks of their most dynamic, and emotionally resonant work to date. Their score for the National Geographic documentary on the beginnings of the Northern California tech explosion, Valley Of The Boom, includes melodic techno that channels the motorik optimism of Kraftwerk, while their Butterfly score transforms the lofty concepts of German cosmic music into timeless instrumental pop music.

In this session, Dixon will be interviewed by composer, songwriter, producer and artist Tessa Rose Jackson. Tessa herself is a self-confessed synthesizer geek with a deep love for the instrument’s boundless possibilities, as well as the science-fiction tinged imagery they can conjure up. A conversation between the two promises a dive into Dixon’s creative process including how he sculpted his musical sound to where it is today.

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Kyle Dixon (composer, SURVIVE, US)

While Dixon & Stein came to prominence composing music for a series that has become a larger cultural touchstone, Stranger Things, imagery and setting have always been central to the duo’s practice. In 2009, alongside Mark Donica and Adam Jones, they formed the epic live synthesizer band S U R V I V E. Leading up to the formation of the quartet, Dixon and Stein had already experimented with the idea of capturing space and time, recording in tunnels or perched up on top of water towers around Austin, Texas, hauling battery-powered modular setups and field recording equipment out to the sorts of places the Stranger Things kids might explore on their bicycles. This desire for tactility also informed S U R V I V E’S approach. As opposed to the laptop-based performances common in live electronic music at the time, the band took on the backbreaking task of arranging a studio’s worth of synthesizers and amplifiers, achieving the ability to set up in a shed and fill the room with crushing sound as a self-contained unit.

Whether they knew it or not, with S U R V I V E, Dixon and Stein were laying the groundwork for their future as one of the premiere scoring teams of our time. Rather than speaking in musical terms, they’d describe their instrumental synth music with visual cues—a helicopter soaring over a waterfall, a high-speed chase down darkened Los Angeles alleys. This visual sense translated to their cult classic EPs and early studio albums, as well as their legendary live sets. They became the house band at a psychedelic desert festival near Joshua Tree, California. Audience members approached them afterwards to tell them they’d listened from the top of a rock formation off in the distance, waves of synthesizer hurtling across the expanse.  After The Duffer Brothers found the band and tapped Dixon and Stein for work on Stranger Things, the duo rolled their sleeves up, taking on a workload typically handled by multiple composers and assistants. Since 2016, they’ve produced nearly 200 tracks spanning three seasons of Stranger Things, scored Native Sun, Butterfly, Spheres and Valley Of The Boom, released a critically acclaimed album with S U R V I V E, toured the world and made the rapid transition from synthesizer-obsessed band dudes to Hollywood darlings. This unlikely coronation culminated with two 2017 Grammy Award nominations, an ASCAP Award nomination and an Emmy Award Win for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music.

Moderator: Tessa Rose Jackson (composer, artist: Someone, NL)

Tessa is a composer, producer, songwriter and artist who releases her own work under the name ‘Someone’. Her passion is storytelling and as a film composer she loves sculpting the musical landscape in which the story takes place. She is a film-lover herself and draws inspiration from the worlds of David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Greta Gerwig, Paul Thomas Anderson, Charlie Kaufman and the Coen Brothers (amongst many others). Jackson has been working as a composer in media for eleven years and has created work for global campaigns including Audi, Ikea and Google Nexus. Her music has also been featured in series such as HBO’s ‘New Girl’ and Netflix’s ‘Dear White People’. As she is a composer as well as a songwriter, one of her more recent adventures has been fusing a film’s score with its soundtrack. This opens a realm of possibilities, allowing Jackson to nestle herself into the film’s team in whichever way works best. Last year, Jackson has been focused on recording a new Someone album, due for release later this year. She also wrote and produced three songs for the new feature film by Antoinette Beumer, sound tracked a number of podcasts and worked on multiple commercial campaigns. Together with her partner-in-crime Darius Timmer, she is in the process of creating the full audio, music and foley for the new animation feature film by the Chinese film maker Lei Lei.

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