Composer duo Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein don’t want to be just “those '80s guys.” Though they are best known for their nostalgic, synth-heavy work on Stranger Things — crafting themes that sound like rediscovering a dusty arcade machine — Dixon and Stein are ready to evolve as the show enters its third season, debuting July 4 on Netflix.
The pair have known each other for 22 years, growing up in Dallas and briefly losing touch before realizing they were making similar music. Their reconciliation resulted in the formation of experimental electronic band SURVIVE, along with Mark Donica and Adam Jones.
After Stranger Things creators the Duffer Brothers stumbled across SURVIVE, Dixon and Stein got the gig that would later reward them with an Emmy win and two Grammy nominations.
Despite the synth-driven quality of both projects, Dixon and Stein were forced to branch out to cater to Stranger Things’ more playful moments.
“One of [the Duffer Brothers’] first prompts was pitching demo themes for Eleven [Millie Bobby Brown] and these little kids that were going to be running around,” Stein said. “That’s not going to sound like SURVIVE.”
The fact that the show centers on young characters was a source of inspiration for its score.
“After reading four or five scripts, we could tell that [the Duffer Brothers] were using a lot of nostalgic ideas from '80s movies that actually had kids in them,” Stein said. “There are things you remember from those movies — memories of feeling a certain way — so we made music from that.”
But for the third season, with the show's protagonists now in their teenage years, Dixon and Stein have had to adjust.
“When Eleven was first introduced, her theme is this girl that doesn’t know how to talk, doesn’t know where she is — she’s just kind of scared and confused,” Dixon said. “And now she’s like, ‘I’m a teenager, I have powers and I can fuck you up if I want to.’”
Along with a more mature cast, Dixon and Stein said the third season has much more action in store, calling for them to “hype up” some of the sounds they were using before.
“Season 1 is mostly about figuring out what the hell is going on. There’s a lot more mystery involved,” Dixon said. “But this season, you already know that there’s a monster in this world, so it’s like, ‘Oh shit.’”
In between seasons 2 and 3, Dixon and Stein made it a priority to broaden their own horizons. In the past year and a half, they have scored virtual-reality experience Spheres, National Geographic’s Valley of the Boom, Hulu’s Butterfly and their feature-film debut Native Son.
“A big goal for us was to take on more projects that aren’t necessarily nostalgic so we didn’t get pigeonholed into just doing '80s stuff,” Dixon said. “Some of the music in Butterfly could be considered '80s, but you don’t immediately think that, because it’s taking place in the present.”
Up next, Dixon and Stein plan to work on the next SURVIVE album — and make their debut on the other side of the camera. "We have a cameo in season 3 of Stranger Things,” Stein said. “We’re just in the background; we should offer an award to the first person that can spot us.”
Stranger Things 3 – Original Score From the Netflix Original Series releases on all digital platforms on June 28, with the season premiering July 4 on Netflix.
Listen to the season 3 tracks “Aftermath” and “William” exclusively on Billboard below: