Photo by Lee Kirby

Keeping Score – Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein on Their Score for Butterfly

Mar 25, 2019 Web Exclusive
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What’s your next move after crafting the music to a television series that becomes a cultural sensation? That’s the question partners in retro synth composition Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein were suddenly faced with after their modular magic invoked the spectral universe of Stranger Things. And it was a question of more consequence when the music itself instantly became the badge of the show’s recognition, propelling its momentum.

The heat emanating from the analog sound waves of Stranger Things captured all the terror and wonder of Spielbergian era adventures involving suburban American youth. It also set Dixon & Stein up to be selective with regards to the projects they worked on going forward. But while the notoriety from a massive hit expands the field of creative options, it also grows the whispers of heightened anticipation for what follows. Ask Jordan Peele what it’s like when your inaugural work in a field creates its own zeitgeist. You suddenly have a monument to live up to.

It ain’t hard to tell the duo have been deliberate in how they’ve proceeded. Logging heavy lab hours over the last couple of years and cognizant of their identification as couriers of nostalgy, Dixon & Stein have honored their trademark sound while seizing on opportunities to diversify. Amidst their continuous devotion to maintaining the sonic throughline between the supernatural and the terrene in what will soon be three seasons of Stranger Things, they’ve notched their first feature film score for the upcoming social drama Native Son. They also appropriately scored the Darren Aronofsky produced Virtual Reality series, Spheres and a National Geographic docu-drama about the inception of Silicon Valley. And there’s always music being made with their Austin synth band S U R V I V E, so yeah, the question comes to mind – Are Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein getting enough sunlight?

Through all the activity, the aim of the tandem has been to broaden their signature range of textures and hues, and maybe more importantly, to connect to projects of social significance with creators who don’t take that lightly. The opportunity to score the 2018 British television miniseries Butterfly provided on all counts. With their original music to a three-episode drama about a courageous and determined young girl dealing with gender dysphoria, Dixon & Stein have added a vibrant red velvet to their color kit. Drum machines have been introduced to give a pop track thrust to some of the cues that beam with optimism.  These are surrounded by ambient waters both glistening and troubled to round out a soundtrack that accompanies an individual’s departure from the body and identity she was anatomically born into. With a startling performance from Callum Booth-Ford as Max/Maxine, Butterfly projects a valiant voice for an underrepresented youth community. Yes, we need more of this.

Most noticeably, the music to Butterfly sustains Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein’s freakish proclivity for locating humanism in their electronics. The signals they send have some sort of uncanny correlation with core feelings. More uncanny is their tonal grasp of what it is to be young and curious.

Your heart leaps up and launches during the opening title track to Butterfly, escalating as you embark on the path of Maxine’s prevailing maturation. The synth anthem is grounded by a perfectly placed pillow of kick drum to tether the melodics and this movement returns in cues like “Dress Up”, which announce Maxine’s flair-in-formation as she privately postures in front of the mirror in her room, embracing her true self. And then there’s “Maxine’s Groove”, the most glorious 55 seconds of the soundtrack. When it fills the air you immediately feel like a kid again, walking to school during the dawn of spring with a bounce in your step, rocking sunglasses for the very first time. Here is the magic of Dixon & Stein, this kind of priceless siphoning of nostalgia, recalling the moments you can’t otherwise get back. 

When you throw in “Taking In Lodgers”, which quite frankly just makes you wanna pop-lock, the tone is set for Maxine’s personal triumph. There’s something worth mentioning here about the syncopation of modular synth notes, chords, and pulses in concert with one another. They stimulate the whole body. Like a post-jog serotonin and endorphin rush, there’s nothing quite like that specific wave of tingles. The fact may not resonate as much with those who didn’t grow up with John Hughes films that depicted the awkward romantic stirrings and bittersweet family dysfunction of youth, but synthesized soundtracks have always been effective at steering emotional response to a story. Just now, I’m picturing Jake waiting for Samantha outside the church to the sound of “If You Were Here” at the end of Sixteen Candles.

But it’s never all euphoric, goosebump stuff. Perhaps the biggest challenge faced on Butterfly was in evenhandedly underscoring the moments of distress and confusion. Some scenes are just asking to be clumsily handled with pitched tension that toes a melodramatic line, but there is enough subsurface current introduced to steady the performance. Dixon & Stein layout hollow tunnels where ambiguity dwells, translating what words measured or second-guessed might fall short of. In other instances where the character interplay alone is enough to carry a scene, they pardon themselves altogether.

The comps go deep on a soundtrack that is more of a stand-alone listen than either of the Stranger Things records. Take your pick of the best of throwback electronic dance pop and counterbalance that with the ambient expanse of Stars of the Lid and A Winged Victory for the Sullen, the regal shoegazing of Slowdive, the contemplative unease of Cliff Martinez, and the stratospheric ebullience of Vangelis. Throw in some Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross while you’re at it and tip your hat to The Cure. 

In separate conversations with Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein, the composers with the biggest cool factor spoke to me about the importance of a show like Butterfly, how they’ve developed as writers of film and tv music since Stranger Things and honestly there’s some nerding out about analog synths so be forewarned. It was good chat, and if you’re fans like I am, you should read on. You’ll learn something about a scoring dynamo. I even got news of a new S U R V I V E album in the works… Excellent.

Charles Steinberg (Keeping Score): So Butterfly was a three-episode miniseries that aired last year on British television and just got picked up by Hulu for American audiences?

Michael Stein: Right. It aired at the end of last year on ITV. It came out on midday broadcast, kind of a soap opera thing. We all knew it was coming out on one of the digital streaming services but it was up in the air [you can stream it on Hulu]. There were a few changes to the American version. We’re all eager for people to see it and we’ve been telling people about it.

Is that why you waited until now to release the soundtrack?

MS: We were motivated to put it out when the show first aired but there wouldn’t have been much of an [American] audience. We were also busy working on our first feature soundtrack [Native Son] so we decided that the new release date was going to be when Butterfly goes worldwide.

I imagine you’ve been approached a lot since Stranger Things and you have to be selective of your projects. What are the criteria for you to get on board with something and what was it about Butterfly that interested you ?

Kyle Dixon: Since the first season of Stranger Things, S U R V I V E put out an album and we toured that a lot, which took up a lot of our time until season 2. [After that score] the main goal, which I think we’ve accomplished, was not to work on another horror/sci-fi project. So we did Butterfly and Native Son, both dramas. We wanted to fully diversify and not just be the ‘80s guys, ya know? Arguably, a lot of the music for Butterfly is somewhat similar to that sound but in a different context, people don’t associate it with neon lights and sunglasses and stuff like that. So that was an important thing, to try to establish that the music that we’re making doesn’t just exist and work in something set in or trying to pay direct tribute to the ‘80s. That was a big factor in choosing this project. And we just have to like the stories. We’ve tried some commercial projects that haven’t worked out and usually, when that happens it’s because there isn’t a strong voice on the other end really owning the project. You can get thrown around. The direction switches up so many times that you don’t really know who to listen to or what you’re going for. We’ve learned to tell quickly if that’s going to be the case, maybe the hard way. It’s really important to speak with the director. If you’re not talking to the director that’s probably a bad sign right off the bat.

MS: A lot [how we choose a project] comes from our chats with the people who are working on it. With subject matter like this, it has to be really respectfully and thoughtfully executed. It has to be quality writing, quality producing, quality filmmaking. We just had a really good experience talking with [Creator Tony Merchant and Director Anthony Byrne] and once we saw one clip we were like this is going to be great. We loved the subject matter and wanted to get behind it to make it a powerful story. And we do know a lot of people like Maxine. It’s nice to try to form some kind of movement around this [issue]...We already felt like it was important and then we saw an episode and really responded to the character and were like, “Oh wow, this is going to be properly done.” I think there is something to pursuing projects that you feel strongly about and identify with. We also just did this [film] project Native Son and we were really fortunate to be on that team and tell that story.

For some of the same reasons? Being compelled by the people and the subject matter?

MS: Very much. These have been really great experiences because it’s not just some wonky movie. It feels stronger. So far we’ve been really successful with small groups and passionate people. I don’t know if you’ll see us do any Hollywood movies anytime soon. Too many cooks in the kitchen. You just don’t want to get feedback from someone who’s not in any kind of creative control. Because you’re not writing music for yourself. As much as anything we do can transcend to the rest of our body of work, this music isn’t ours. We’re making it for other people, a commercial outlet, so it’s nice when you can bridge that gap by doing a project you feel compassion for and make music you are proud of.

So the vision behind Butterfly must have been forcefully communicated to you right away then?

KD: Definitely. Anthony [Byrne] the director said that he wanted the story told a certain way or else he wasn’t going to be involved. He had a very strong opinion on that and it’s not even that he explained it to us but he did mention a few times that if it had happened any other way he wouldn’t have been interested. I think it was done pretty well, personally.

Yeah, I do too.

KD: You know Max is like...I don’t even know how you find this kid. It was really such a great performance.

It really was and for me what hit home so emotively were the escalating synth cues that symbolized her “evolution” Those parts just radiate and make you root for Maxine as she makes her way. They’re definitely propelled by the beats too.

KD: Yeah, that was one of the first times we used drum machines in the score. We didn’t really do that for Stranger Things at all. There were drum-like things but no drum machines so that was fun. It’s cool to have something that’s essentially just closer to synth-pop tunes as the score. Those playful themes. That doesn’t always make sense or work.

Some of these pieces almost sound like fully formed pop songs. Really rhythmic percussive pieces which reminded me of late 80s dance pop. You’re probably tired of comparisons to that era but I thought of stuff like Exposé and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam.

MS: Yeah, there are some [drum] tracks on there. Those you’re referring to, for me, have more of a ‘90s nostalgic feel. From a fan’s perspective, that’s when you would remember (dance tracks) like that. But the characters in the show wouldn’t necessarily be listening to anything throwback or retro. I’m sure we’re going to have an issue digging out of that box [because of the equipment we use]. The main title track, “Butterfly” has that modern electronic feel. It’s got more acoustic kit samples and it’s meant to be fun, feel good-poppy. What you would identify with Maxine.

KD: Yeah I think for Maxine’s character it helped emphasize the fun in learning about yourself and growing, as was the idea I guess.

So drum machines with modular synths. How does that work in tandem? Can you put it in laymen's terms for people unfamiliar with that technology?

KD: Ooof. Ok...um...I’m trying to think of a way [chuckle]. So there’s a lot of different ways to set that up. Some of [these Butterfly] tracks were from a drum machine straight up and some were from modular synth to drum sounds. Most of them are from a [Roland TR-] 606...Anyway there are ways to sync everything up. You can send a clock which basically sends a pulse out to the other pieces of equipment to keep everything in sync or affect the tempo of either the modular or the drum machine. It can go either way. We didn’t really do this very much but you can get really weird with it. One of the really cool things about modular is that you can affect aspects of the sound in an organic way because it’s all happening based on logic. Like if this happens at this point then this will happen and also influence this and another thing at the same time. Then all these things are moving together. It’s the main reason we like using modular so much because if you’re just playing the keyboard straight up you can’t always get that kind of [“incidence”]. Oh, a good example of something like that was in “Taking in Lodgers” There’s a percussive sound that’s up-front and central to that piece of music that’s directly created by the modular and you can tell on that one there are these pauses where it slows down and changes timing and comes back in. That’s because the modular was getting a trigger based off of a kick drum. There was some part of the drum machine that was sending a pulse saying this is how fast you need to go and if you stop sending that pulse it changes the tempo.

I get it. So when the signal was stopped it impacted the beat pattern in a positive way. I guess that could go the other way too?

KD: Oh yeah, sometimes you have to do that for a long time and mess with it and edit out all the stuff that doesn’t work.

Sounds painstaking.

KD: [Laughter] Well it can take a while to get everything dialed in but once you get everything synced to a nice place it can also make things go a lot faster. You have this nice pallet of sounds and leave it where it is and then modify it to the needs of whatever you’re working on at a given point. And that kind of gives it all a continuity. It can be a lot of work up front but sometimes – not all the time [laughter]– you have these settings that you can go back to. It makes things move quicker.

What I noticed too was that there was more emotional ambiguity in Butterfly than with anything you wrote for Stranger Things, where things were obviously terrifying or obviously nostalgic. There was more grey area in what you were interpreting from the subject matter. I wonder how that impacted what you were composing.

MS: Yes, we definitely had to write stuff that was more sentimental. We didn’t want to be too aggressive with it. So it wasn’t written with an aim towards what the viewer would feel as much as what Maxine would feel. It was kind of sad-happy in the way you would feel when hearing good pop and R&B songs.

KD: It’s pretty easy to make something sound scary. You just play some notes that don’t sound good together and make them loud and high pitched, which is fun to do. It’s great I love doing that. But when you have these scenes where you don’t want to give very much away you have to play fewer notes, ya know? For instance, leaving notes out of a chord so that they’re neither minor or major. Like a power chord, which is probably the first thing that kids learn to play on guitar. Those don’t have the notes that make it happy or sad but more neutral. It’s a pretty basic musical concept but sometimes you just have to leave out the notes that tip it in one emotional direction. Or don’t use notes at all really and just rely on a texture. [Even] a simple rhythm with one note can go a long way to set a pace and you let the performance carry the emotion versus trying to tell something through the music.

Do you feel like your ear for sweeter sounding melodic pop-oriented music has matured since you started scoring? Judging from your S U R V I V E records and some of the more horrific elements from Stranger Things, it seems you’re naturally more inclined to darker, more disturbing music, for lack of a better word.

MS: S U R V I V E music is kind of tough and cool and that band is our outlet for that kind of sonic range but that’s just one idea out of like a thousand songs that we will write. A lot of those thousand songs can be really poppy or silly or this whole other genre and you guys are only hearing the S U R V I V E stuff. So [that more melodic, poppier stuff] has kind of always been there. Since the beginning, Kyle and I have both separately made pop-centric music that explored melodies but now we have an outlet in the scoring world where we get to go full spectrum. There’s like one S U R V I V E song that’s pretty upbeat. It’s a b-side that never came out called “Relays”. S U R V I V E is a really disciplined project and it’s sometimes difficult to be in that mindset.

KD: It’s not like we’re sitting around being sad and dark and tough all the time. That’s not the case by any means. [We make] all kinds of music. Some of it’s super goofy and it’s not like anyone gets to hear that stuff. A lot of ‘90s R&B had this feeling. It’s happy but also a little bit sad. It’s difficult to put a finger on why it sounds that way but I really like that. If you can make a song like that then chances are I’m going to be into it.

I guess I identify with you guys in some ways because I lean harder and more cathartic, like epic, punishing post-rock but I’m also highly sensitive to poignant, gently melodic music. You grow up with this fierce association with types of music but then you get older and listen to everything. To what do you attribute your range?

MS: We have respect for so much music. I remember sharing post-rock stuff like Godspeed [You Black Emperor] and Do Make Say Think and Mogwai in high school. Everyone in our band explored all of that. I would say that kind of stuff trickled into S U R V I V E in certain ways. Big epic crescendos and droning. Where with Godspeed, you’d wait for the end of the song and there will be a super chorus.

At like minute eleven…[mutual laughter]

MS: Yeah, like we’re going to come back in with the music chorus again where it can’t get any bigger and that probably comes from that post-rock [appreciation]. You can always kind of hear where [influences] are coming in. That ending track on Butterfly “A Long Way to Go” sounds like a shoegaze song to me. We were listening to [a lot of] Slowdive and I wonder if that track was influenced by them.

KD: I think everyone who really genuinely loves music will reach a point eventually where they listen to a genre that they wouldn’t be expected to like a song from. There’s a good song in any genre. I guarantee that. If you say you don’t like a genre, you’re being, I don’t know….hard-headed. The things I was drawn to in any genre were the things tied together with an experimental or psychedelic tendency, with effects. I grew up listening to mostly sad and darker sounding stuff, and rap and things like that. I guess I was listening to techno too, but I was decidedly not listening to rock. Then I started to accept rock more through its more experimental versions. Once I started to [get beyond]what was in skate videos or whatever, I got into Aphex Twin and all that weird electronic stuff that was still poppy but also experimental in the production style. It was insane music, like Autechre, you know, borderline alien communication. Then I got into krautrock and synth pop….The Cure. The Cure is one of those bands that can write a song like “The Love Cats” which is so different from “The Hanging Garden” It’s like how can those be the same band. They’re a great example of that wide range.

I know you guys have always used analog synthesizers with your band S U R V I V E before your TV work. I’ve noticed more attention being paid to retro synths recently, probably in no small part because of you guys, and wonder if there have there been any advancements with digital compatibility since you started scoring?

MS: That’s funny actually. Now there’s a following and analog synths have become more popular...People have been wanting these analog devices online but implemented with mono synth technology. It’s all kind of happened at the same time and it was fortunate for us because we have all these modular packs and old mono synths but don’t have patch storage, which is hell for scoring because you don’t have any recall. But then we went out and bought these new Dave Smith poly synthesizers right when we got the Stranger Things gig and were like alright now we’re going to have recall and we can share each other's sounds. Now we’re adding a lot more modern set-ups because they sound great and they’re reliable. They didn’t exist when we started (making analog synth music) which is interesting. There’s a supply for the demand and I don’t know if we have something to do with that. If we do that’s fascinating. It’s weird but it’s great because I keep buying shit.

KD: Somewhat. Over the last five years, there’s been a lot more interest in modular analog synths in general. Fortunately right after we were starting Stranger Things, there were a few products that came out. This polysynth came out - a polysynth just means that you can play more than one note at one time, which surprisingly is a big deal with synthesizers. You’re usually limited to about six notes that you can play at once - So right when we started they made some new ones based off of old models. For the first season, the Prophet 6 came out which is just an update on a very famous synth called the Prophet 5. People will argue that the old one sounds better but there’s a new integration capability with other equipment. It was really helpful to have that come out when it did. And also the ability to save a sound. You spend a lot of time making a sound and when you need it again sometimes you have to try to recreate it on [modulars], but now that you can actually save it...it’s a small thing but also a huge thing. Also during the first season of Stranger Things, Moog came out with a semi-modular synth that has a sequencer on it so we were using that a lot. Some of the stuff that sounds a little like Tangerine Dream, with the rhythmic synth, was due to those new machines that had just come out. Tangerine Dream was using an old Moog modular which costs like $50,000 but this thing was like $600, so you can get a couple of those and reach a pretty similar sound.

How has your approach changed from Stranger Things to Butterfly. Are there more parameters and pitfalls you’ve become aware of?

MS: With Stranger Things, a lot of the stuff that we did that wasn’t “to picture” didn’t work. Almost every time you get a project you can go home a write an immediate thing based on the first instinct – and there’s usually some notes or sonics that you get from that – but it isn’t until you see the actual picture that you know what’s going to land and what to move forward with. [For Butterfly] we were trying piano for feeling and more sentiment for the cues and a lot of that didn’t even make it in. That’s kind of what informed the electronic pieces that did make it in. They wanted it to be more refreshing and modern electronic. We wrote a lot of “chorusy” piano pieces because that was a good place to start from a dramatic standpoint but they wound up leaning on the synth pieces that sounded like they were being performed on a piano to keep continuity. I didn’t even know that until I saw the show.

Have there been any people who have expressed to you the importance of Butterfly? Of seeing this kind of story on tv and for the way the music complimented the characters and plot?

MS: I’ve gotten some feedback. Mainly people reaching out when I’ve put something on Instagram and saying how important it is. But I’ve had friends, who were wary of even doing that, come back to me and say they started it and finished it right away and tell me that it was a proper, respectful execution of a show [on this issue].

That must feel good. I know there were moments that were really powerful for me. It’s complicated portraying people going through these things and the music kind of crystalized some of the emotional passages.

MS: I definitely appreciate the compliment because it’s pretty hard sometimes to achieve that. I didn’t want it to come across as just going for that. You know – sentimental scene, sentimental music.

I heard Carter Burwell say that people will use his music for the temporary music for their project and then approach him asking him to write an original score that sounds like the temp they used. It made me think that must happen with your Stranger Things music.

KD: Yeah, we definitely have to deal with that. Temp can be very helpful or it can be a pain in the ass because you’ve got music in there that the editors and directors have been using to set the pace and the tone of the scene. They may have been doing that for a very long time and getting used to it and so when you come in with fresh eyes and do something that’s completely different – or it can even be really similar – they may have heard the temp so many times that they’re stuck on that idea. It’s a tricky thing to deal with. Sometimes it’s really helpful because It can give you direction. Like ok, I can do a version of this mood that sounds like us. A lot of times it’s almost better to just look at the waveform of the audio and see where it gets louder and softer.

Oh, interesting.

KD: You know, not even pay as much attention to the notes or instrumentation. Especially in the case of the Duffers, they just like the [waveform] shape of the cue. Where it picks up, where it hits on the beats. When it gets big and then goes down. That’s usually what they want us to refer to. The last couple of seasons [of Stranger Things] - we’re in the middle of season three right now - we’ve gotten a lot of orchestral music [as temps].

You’ve gotten a lot of orchestral music as references?

KD: Oh yeah, tons of it. But we’re not going to make an orchestral score for Stranger Things. No one expects us to. But yeah, especially for action scenes and things like that.

So, do you feel more like tv and film composers now than a band?

KD: Well... That’s what has been taking up our time lately, so in that respect yes. We’re fortunate enough to now be able to write music for a living. Writing music for a band like S U R V I V E isn’t as lucrative and sustainable as writing pop music. We could probably make a living off of S U R V I V E if we toured constantly and kept putting out albums, but touring is pretty rough. You can make a lot of money doing it if you just keep going out six months out of the year but it’s really taxing. I’m fortunate enough to get to travel quite a bit and I do enjoy the traveling but traveling and touring aren’t synonymous. It becomes, “Ok, where are we going. Where can we get food, what time is the sound check, how long before we play…”

And repeat.

KD: Everyone’s like, “Oh you get to travel so much!” and we’re like, “Yeah we get to see one bar in every town and hopefully someone at that bar can tell us where something neat is that’s not too far away.” [Mutual Laughter]

So is it the best it gets right now where you are in a room working on a score for weeks or months and then once that’s done you can get out on the road a little bit.

KD: That’s kind of how it started but when we took on all these projects we couldn’t tour. Maybe spot shows on weekends or a short run but not full on touring. Also, we need to finish the next S U R V I V E album really before we can get the right amount of promotion. The plan is once we’re done with this third season of Stranger Things we’re going to get back onto S U R V I V E stuff. We have more than enough songs for the album but we need to spend more time refining them and picking which ones will be on the album.

(survive.bandcamp.com)



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