Stranger Things’ Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, Mica Levi, Johnny Jewel and Lynchian muse Julee Cruise split the difference on crafting the strangest on-screen sounds
The glowing red outline of type throbbing through the ‘Upside Down’ to form a surging, synth-led pulse opens Netflix’s sci-fi phenomenon Stranger Things. From the very first jolt of heartbeat-mimicking bass, it’s a transportive hit of nostalgia slinging us straight back to the 1980s. In 50 short seconds, the show’s entire identity becomes lucid, seared into our retinas.
That opening theme has come to define composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. The Duffer brothers used “Dirge” – a track from Dixon and Stein’s band S U R V I V E – to pitch their show to Netflix, and a partnership was forged. It was a welcome gift for two guys who had little musical training. “I got kicked out of music theory class in high school,” recalls Dixon, laughing. “I was a little prick.” Had the duo’s charged, uneasy score not transcended the show’s action, Stranger Things would have never been catapulted to cult status.
For Julee Cruise, whose track “Falling” became the expressive, twangy theme for Twin Peaks, cult stardom came knocking purely by chance. David Lynch had penned a song for his 1986 film Blue Velvet called “Mysteries of Love”, a haunting dream-pop tune that required an airy vocal. When none of the dozen or so singers he tested on the track worked, his soundtrack collaborator Angelo Badalamenti brought in Cruise. She was the missing ingredient. Her first album Floating Into the Night was born, quickly becoming synonymous with Lynchian weirdness.
After doing the music for Bronson, Johnny Jewel was tapped to soundtrack Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. He was swapped with composer Cliff Martinez after studio heads decided the project was bigger than him (though two of his tracks made it into the film’s final cut). Ryan Gosling never forgot, and invited Jewel to lend his moody synths to his directorial debut, Lost River. Jewel repaid him in kind. “He ended up with about 27 hours of music.”
Finally, Mica Levi came out of leftfield with her discomfiting score for Jonathan Glazer’s near-wordless masterpiece Under the Skin. Classically trained, Levi married Midi strings with real orchestral players for her high-frequency score, since ripped off by hacks trying to recreate that alien magic. It’s a compliment for someone who admits she’s “not that experienced myself”.
Bringing together the teeming minds behind the music, here, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, Johnny Jewel, Julee Cruise and Mica Levi split the difference on crafting the soundscapes that keep our ears craving more.
What makes a soundtrack cult?
Julee Cruise: Class. It’s gotta have class. It’s gotta be done really cool.
Kyle Dixon: It just has to have enough people behind it who are passionate about it. Not that it’s an easy thing, getting a bunch of people to really like what you do. It’s like when somebody asks you to make a viral video for an advertising campaign. You can’t really just do that. It’s something that happens naturally. You can’t predict what’s going to resonate with people on that weird level, but (when it does) you feel like you’re part of something unique.
“Even now, soundtracks are cool when less music is used, I believe” – Julee Cruise
What kind of music shouldn’t appear in a horror film?
Michael Stein: There’s room for almost anything, depending on what the movie is.
Kyle Dixon: Now that 30 to 40 years have passed since the whole giallo horror soundtrack thing, I don’t know if it’s as effective to use those types of sounds in a modern setting, just because –
Michael Stein: It might be cheesy.
Johnny Jewel: I find it more interesting when music is used as counter-language in horror, misdirecting the audience and making the eventual impact much more aggressive. I just worked on a film (called Home) where there’s a very violent murder. I chose not to score the scene at all, and the end result is much more brutal because there is no warning.
Julee Cruise: Even now, soundtracks are cool when less music is used, I believe.
Was recording Floating Into the Night your first time in the studio?
Julee Cruise: Yes! Except when I did ‘Mysteries of Love’ (for Blue Velvet), for which the lyrics were written on a napkin. I was a really high belter and Angelo (Badalamenti) taught me about the mic. I never needed a mic before. I was so nervous. It’s scary to sing that softly. For someone like me, who is also a character actress, I didn’t want that part of me brought out. I screwed up all the time. I’d get really angry. David (Lynch) would come into the booth and Angelo would have to interpret what he’d said to me artistically. He would always say: ‘Julee – double pianissimo!’
Alan Howarth, who did the Escape From New York soundtrack with John Carpenter, admitted that most of the music for that film was created on the spot. How fast are you at composing?
Michael Stein: That’s how we work most of the time.
Kyle Dixon: The way I like to work is very quick and dirty. I just do sketches, see how it’s working and get feedback, rather than trying to write this big, long composition before you even know if it’s really going to work.
Johnny Jewel: I always try to use my first takes. I work very rapidly and create a lot of music at once, like a big bang. For me, personally, the first stab at the scene is usually the strongest and most intuitive.
Mica Levi: The more I work on something, the shittier it gets. (laughs) I definitely feel that it’s better when it’s faster. Basically, the main bulk of the music feels like it comes pretty instantly, but then you might have to piss about with it to get the beginning and end and stuff. I proper suck at all of that.
Johnny Jewel: While working on Lost River, Ryan (Gosling) and I talked about Neil Young’s music for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. Neil Young had scored most of the film early on, but Jarmusch had recut the film drastically in the following months, altering the impact of the score. He decided to show the new cut to Neil while the tape was rolling, and just have him improvise variants of the main themes, reacting instinctually to what he was seeing on screen while trying to predict what would come next.
Is it harder to put something down in the first place, or go back and tweak it to make it better?
Mica Levi: Go back and tweak it to make it better.
Harold Faltermeyer apparently put together ‘Axel F’ for Beverly Hills Cop in a single night because he was up against a deadline.
Mica Levi: I wish it happened more like that.
Kyle Dixon: Yeah, you can’t predict what’s going to happen. You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to write a song tonight.’ You could write something, but sometimes you’ll write entire songs in the course of two or three hours, because it just happens somehow. Other times it can take months to do.
Michael Stein: With scoring, you’re on call. You might know there’s this big scene coming up and for two weeks you’re like, ‘I don’t know, they’re not really giving us much to do...’ And then one night at 10pm it’s like, ‘We need this really important cue by the morning.’ With Stranger Things, there were instances where we needed to deliver something last-minute, and then there were times when it was kind of relaxed.
Julee, where were you when you first saw Twin Peaks?
Julee Cruise: The very first night we were all in New York. We laughed ourselves to death! You could scan the channels and know it was David Lynch, just three seconds in and you knew who it was. He pushes everything to the metal.
Did the Twin Peaks craze follow you around after that first episode?
Julee Cruise: I lost track (of the show while it aired), but I saw three of the episodes that I was in, because I was out on the road. England and Australia picked up on Floating Into the Night and thought, ‘This is fucking cool!’ before anybody in the States did. Then I was being shoved into all these rooms by Warner Brothers, and it was press, press, press. Then it was, ‘You don’t even have a passport? You’ve gotta get one!’ And the next day I was on Top of the Pops – weird how life turns out, isn’t it?
“What I find myself doing more often is throwing music at some of my favourite films to see how well it sticks... It’s a stimulating exercise and cleanses the mental palate” – Johnny Jewel
Kyle, I heard you were camping the day Stranger Things came out?
Kyle Dixon: Yeah! I was two hours outside of Portland, Oregon, by Clackamas River. We went camping. I didn’t have cell service, and when I got back on Sunday my phone melted, essentially. We didn’t really tell anyone or talk about working on the show before it came out, so people were surprised that we were doing it. They were like, ‘I watched the show and then I saw your name in the credits, is this really you?’ (laughs)
Do you ever give your songs the car test? Blasting it in the car down the highway to see if it works?
Johnny Jewel: For pop music, yes, for scores, no. The road is too loud to enjoy the subtleties of a score.
Michael Stein: I used to do that, but my stereo stopped working years ago.
Kyle Dixon: That’s so funny. I used to – well, I do that again now. I just got my car stereo fixed. I haven’t had a proper radio in five or six years, which is mind-boggling to me, because driving and listening to music is a very fun thing.
Mica Levi: I don’t have a car. Although I did play a song from my laptop the other night. I got a cab back home after a DJ set and played it in the cab through my laptop speakers. I felt bad for the driver because it’s pretty horrible. I said, ‘I’m sorry about this.’ And he was like, ‘Don’t worry, it’s fine.’ Actually, it was an Uber and someone else had booked it. I was like, ‘The girl who booked it is really nice, don’t give her a bad review!’
Johnny Jewel: What I find myself doing more often is throwing music at some of my favourite films to see how well it sticks. I often do this with Paris, Texas or Blue Velvet. It’s a stimulating exercise and cleanses the mental palate. I also use No Country for Old Men for experiments, because the film is so musically minimal.
The combination of sound and vision is so powerful, but sonic negative space in film is vital.
Kyle Dixon: I guess the new test is with strip clubs – like, you play a song in the club and see if the strippers dance to it. At least with rap, that’s how you know it’s going to be a hit.
Johnny Jewel: I’ve actually done that three times before, but it was for use in actual strip-club scenes, so I wanted to make sure it felt right.
Mica Levi: I definitely feel like those kinds of tests would make or break (the music). But I can’t really imagine what would happen in the strip club. It’s a new dream.
Mica, when Under the Skin came out, sound designer Johnnie Burn told me there were things he would play for you to get the creative juices flowing. What kinds of things?
Mica Levi: Well, the main bulk of influences I consider from my point of view is old strip-club music. The other thing was loads of euphoric chill-out music, to try and get a feeling of rushing or experiencing love, like a teenager would have.
What do you mean by old strip-club music?
Mica Levi: I mean things like Dr. Dre. I made this beat for (the parts of the film where Scarlett Johansson) seduces these men. If I were to look at what it sounds like in my mind, it’s that old 2000s production. Dre and Timbaland would sample Bollywood music in their beats. It was a big phase with all the big producers of that era. A lot of it is strings and flutes, like orchestral music from films. I would get that influence into the beats I’d make. So it’s a mirror in a mirror in a mirror, or something.
It’s like Inception.
Mica Levi: Yeah, it’s like Inception. (laughs)
General practice in the biz – on big productions, at least – is to use music from one film as a ‘temp track’ to score another before the composer gets to work. Directors basically ask their composers to match that temp score, even though it’s essentially plagiarism. I was just wondering how you felt about that?
Michael Stein: It kind of sucks.
Johnny Jewel: There’s a general misconception with the use of temp music in film. It’s a tool the editor and director use to see where music sits well and where music doesn’t belong. I refuse to trace over another composer’s work, but some people are comfortable with it. I’m not.
Kyle Dixon: At the end of the day, you’re hired to make music for someone else, so that’s what you have to do and, if you’re unable to do that, you get fired. (laughs) That’s the bottom line.
“Fuck anyone who says anything bad about (Lana Del Rey), because she always credits me and I think that’s the greatest honour I’ve ever received” – Julee Cruise
What film has come out recently that had a score you thought was totally worth listening to, independent of the movie?
Johnny Jewel: I saw the La La Land premiere at Toronto Film Festival. The score was absolutely incredible. They recorded the orchestra on the same sound stage they used for The Wizard of Oz. The sound of the brass and bells is untouchable. I also love what Cliff Martinez did for The Neon Demon. In my opinion, it’s a masterpiece and his best work since Solaris.
Kyle Dixon: That’s a hard one... The Revenant. Another one I like a lot is The Keep by Tangerine Dream – that’s a good one.
Michael Stein: I did like The Revenant. Under the Skin is really good by itself.
Kyle Dixon: Are you familiar with Gloria Coates, Mica? She has a wide range of stuff. She’s a composer, she’s still alive as well, she’s 78 now. (She does) really cool orchestral scores that have a lot of ‘Shepard tone’ going on – these very eerie, descending notes that never seem to resolve. It’s kind of bizarre.
Mica Levi: I haven’t. Sometimes I feel so stupid not knowing what these things are, then I listen to them and I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ (Maybe) the influence is even deeper. It’s probably that there’s something even older and more basic – if I haven’t listened to this Gloria Coates, then maybe me and Gloria Coates have listened to the same thing or something.
Kind of a Kevin Bacon, seven-degrees-of-separation thing?
Mica Levi: Exactly, if I can’t claim her as a specific influence, then maybe something that she’s listened to is, if you know what I mean?
Have you noticed how the music you’ve made has influenced a lot of people?
Mica Levi: No, but maybe that’s because I haven’t been to the cinema enough. But no, I haven’t. That’s cool if it has... Wow, that’s amazing. It is bizarre. I don’t think I have a way of understanding that sort of thing, what to think about that. I’m going to work on coming up with a joke that encompasses it all. Some great one- liner, but I can’t think of it right now.
Julee Cruise: I’m so proud that so many young girls have picked up on (Floating Into the Night), like Lana Del Rey. And fuck anyone who says anything bad about her, because she always credits me and I think that’s the greatest honour I’ve ever received.
Julee, how did you end up collaborating with David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti on ‘Mysteries of Love’ for Blue Velvet?
Julee Cruise: I met Angelo first in a musical workshop, right when I came to New York. I got this message from him, a pink slip, because we didn’t have our own phone line. I called him right away and he said, ‘Julee, I need you to get a lot of singers for me, because I don’t think you are quite right for this, but I want you to hear it anyway. So come on in!’