Hosted during this year’s SXSW conference in Austin, the house of smart was all about “electrification.“ A motto perfectly expressed by Austin-based synth quartet S U R V I V E. Before their gig at the house of smart, we caught up with the band’s masterminds Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein.
Kyle, Michael – although S U R V I V E uses a lot of analog synthesizers from the 1970s and 1980s, your music sounds very futuristic. What are your artistic references?
Kyle Dixon: I think we are doing both: Our inspirations come from older bands and we use a lot of old equipment – and this decision somehow dictates the way our music sounds. If you are trying to make truly modern music – whatever that means – it would still have a tonal resemblance to older music. And we like a lot of bands from the seventies. But we also use a lot of techniques that weren’t around and available in the seventies or eighties. We record with computers and use a lot of digital synths, sequencers, and gear that wasn’t available back then. It makes things easier. We definitely try to mix it up.
Michael Stein: Futuristic is something objective. There are electronic sounds from the seventies that are more futuristic than what people were doing in the last decade. That’s a motivation to make something new and exciting. The equipment is just the tool we like to work with. It’s weird how much stuff there is. You think you have heard it all – and then you can dig just so much deeper and find really good stuff. I’m a big fan of Yellow Magic Orchestra. Their music still has one of the most futuristic sounds ever made.
How do you find the right balance between innovation and tradition?
Kyle Dixon: I’m listening to a lot of new music as well. We are not stuck in history and claim that 1981 is the pinnacle of everything or that anything after that isn’t worth listening to. So, sure, we try to find a good balance.
Michael Stein: We are open to all technology. We use modern software, too. This might be why people want to hear that nostalgic authentic sound of our music, but it actually has a lot of modern elements to it. At the same time, we are also nineties guys: We are fans of Warp Records, we like Richard D. James/Aphex Twin and all the IDM stuff (intelligent dance music, the editor).
Almost every vintage analog synthesizer is now available as a software plug-in. Yet S U R V I V E works with all this big and heavy original equipment on stage. Is that an artistic statement?
Michael Stein: We come from a studio environment where size and weight of your gear does not really matter – so when we started performing live, we wanted to keep our setup as close to that as possible. There are so many electronic music acts out there that have a laptop, press play, and that’s it – but we did not want to miss the sensation of interacting with real machines.
The two of you composed the soundtrack and score for the Netflix hit show “Stranger Things“, a series that not only received two Golden Globe nominations, but also conjured up memories of fantasy classics like “Poltergeist“ or “E.T.“ The music seems to have come straight from an early eighties time capsule to the here and now. How did you get into the spirit of that era?
Michael Stein: Writing music for moving pictures is complementary. It’s very different from what we do as a band. But it also showcases a lot more emotion with more sentimental vibes. We did many things we wouldn’t do for a S U R V I V E record. It’s hard to explain: For a show, you can develop much more diversity. You are trying to create music that tells a story and there is a lot more inside that story than just the dark side of it. We are very proud that we made it.
Have things around you changed a lot since Stranger Things?
Michael Stein: I think so. It definitely opened up a lot of doors. People invite you to their parties. Sometimes, it’s super weird. But I don’t think about it very much. Usually, you make something because something is missing. You want to make a song because it doesn’t exist. This is where we come from. What we do is what we want for ourselves.
Austin is quite famous for its blues and rap music. What makes it a great place for a synthesizer band?
Kyle Dixon: Tough question. Luckily, we have a store here called “Switched on.“ Basically, it’s kind of hard to find old instruments and synthesizers. Most of it you find on the internet. But once the store opened, it gave the public the option to go in and play around with instruments people normally wouldn’t have access to. That played a part. And then a lot of our friends were kind of making similar music. A scene evolved from that by just seeing other people doing it. There are a few electronic bands now, but Austin is definitely dominated by rock, indie rock, and blues. But over the past five years, electronic music also blossomed.
Are you all originally from Austin?
Kyle Dixon: We all live in Austin now. Adam (Jones), myself, and Michael are originally from Dallas. We have known each other since we were 13. We were friends long before we started recording music together. Adam and I went to college 30 minutes south of Austin. This is where we met (Mark) Donica. We shared the same musical taste and preferences, so he came into the picture. We started recording and liked what we did and so we started the band.
So how does the city change in spring during SXSW?
Kyle Dixon: People from all over the world come here. It’s a giant music festival, a lot of bands are in town, artists meet and expand their networks. It’s a good environment to see people doing things you respect. But it’s also about the diversity. You can see your favorite rapper, folk musician, pop star, whatever. There is so much going on. It’s a unique event you won’t see anywhere else.