Stranger Things Have Happened: Inside Austin's Synth Explosion

Survive, the Alamo Drafthouse, Mondo and more: How the Texas town became America's retro otaku warehouse

Score for Netflix smash 'Stranger Things' was penned by Survive's Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein Credit: Bobby Scheidemann for Rolling Stone

Four-man analog synth goosebumpers Survive have been playing fog-soaked, menacingly throbbing shows around Austin for nearly a decade. Their music was released on limited-edition cassettes and, for a while, their audience seemed limited too – since their esoteric sound was a balmy midnight cruise somewhere between John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream and an Italian giallo bloodfeast.

That all changed on July 15th, with the release of nostalgia-seeped Netflix smash Stranger Things, with its neon, laser-etched synth score penned by the band's Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein.

"The day the show went out, I went camping outside of Portland. I didn't have cell service for the weekend," says Dixon, packed alongside his bandmates in the corner patio table of local brunch spot Bullfight. "I got back into Portland on Sunday, turned my phone on. Just fltltltltltltltltltltltlt. Text messages and notifications and messaging from any kind of app possible just rolled out like ticker tape. My phone got noticeably hot."

In turn, September's sold-out record release party at Austin's Barracuda for Survive's second full-length, RR7349, was a decidedly different experience for the band.

"It's our first time we played a local show where I didn't know at least 75 percent of the people there," says the band's Adam Jones, the following morning.

"People were stoked," Dixon quips with bemused, detached amazement. "People were clapping."

The popularity of Stranger Things and Survive has rapidly brought national attention to Austin's teeming analog synth community, a group of tangled and interconnected artists that have been gurgling and droning in relative obscurity since 2008. They're a natural extension from Switched On, a booming knob-twiddler paradise that stands as one of the few brick-and-mortar stores in the country dedicated to the pricey instruments. Beyond Survive, there's metal-tinged darkwave (Troller, Boan), soundtrack-ready creep-dance (Flatliner, Xander Harris), cosmic krautrock and new age (Thousand Foot Whale Claw, Curved Light, Ju4n, Dallas Acid), future-shocked synth-pop (Missions, Lou Rebecca), quirky blip-punk (Slugbug, Tucker A&M Perry Foundation) and more.

"The bad-ass thing about it is it doesn't feel like some sort of trend," says Amber Star-Goers of Troller, who also co-runs local cassette label Holodeck. "We're really seeing like a true engagement from people. … Lots of people are buying the new Survive record and then just buying a catalog of our [releases]. And they're, like, coming to shows and stuff too. They're actually leaving their houses, they're buying the tickets."

At the Barracuda show you could watch Curved Light go from pastoral modular synth parping to harsh drone, then turn 90 degrees to your left and see Austin's 101X radio station giving away Shiner beer coozies and glowing necklaces. People had camera phones out for Survive, even though they're an imposing four-man wall of synthesizers, shrouded by fog and obscured by darkness. A terrifying, romantic, painfully loud, heaving organism, the band now gets asked for autographs or pictures or to come down to the W Hotel to get free boots. They have an Apple Music placement if you scroll past DNCE and Yellowcard. They can finally tour Europe. Though they can't say which one, they're already booked on the 2017 edition of one of the biggest American outdoor festivals.

"We have management now," says Dixon. "Like, legit."

Jones, currently breaking in his $900 boots, adds: "Some guy the other day stopped me on the street and he was all like, 'You're Adam Jones from Survive, right? I'm Clark from that band the Toadies, do you remember us from the Nineties?' Yeah, man, I grew up in Dallas, I used to blast Rubberneck all the time!"

And even past Survive's unlikely, dystopian reboot of 1983, the so-called "dead" formats of the era are unspooling from Austin and taking root the world over. Mondo's colorful horror soundtrack reissues turn vinyl jackets into blank canvases for esteemed graphic designers, routinely selling out at a rapid clip. A trip down to the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater on South Lamar means you can scan boxes of Mondo's recent VHS reissues. The cavernous, cluttered store I Luv Video on Airport Blvd. maintains its status as the world's largest video store by still renting VHS. The tape edition of Survive's RR7349 is Holodeck's 37th cassette release.

"There's something about Austin in the way that people digest music and movies and whatnot," says Jay Shaw, Mondo brand manager. "Here, if you wanna listen to music, you go to a show. That's a big deal. And we take it for granted that there are 35 shows every night, there are huge music festivals at all times. But if that's where you're getting exposed to music, and it's not so much on the Internet ... you want merch. You want records. You want tangible things. You can hardly get into an Alamo screening, just on a Wednesday, it's packed. There's a 'be in the moment, be with it as physically as you can.' That's just in the culture. So it bleeds over into why people wanna hold things. There's not a lot of stay home and bunker down and hit up Netflix. It's like, No, let's get out."

"I feel like people are rebelling against the tech industry," says Survive's Mark Donica, whose city grew more than 40 percent in tech job growth between 2001 and 2013. "You don't wanna go too far in any one direction and it's like swinging the pendulum back slightly towards something physical."

"Totally," adds Dixon. "Back when I was working in software, I was on the fucking computer all day. The last thing I wanna do is go home and get on a computer."

Survive has been leading the analog charge here since they formed in 2008. Dixon, Donica and Jones – students at University of Texas at Austin – lived together. One weekend, Stein, an old skate park pal of Dixon's, came out to hang. Together, the four wrote their first song, "Holographic Landscape," put it on MySpace and gave the band a name (usually stylized S U R V I V E).

From there, the band functioned as a completely self-sufficient entity. Stein could mix, master, produce and repair synths; geographic information sciences grad Donica syncs the light show; former business student Jones runs the label; design grad Dixon does the art.

"We never had to go facilitate anything outside of our own abilities," says Stein. "Everything's in house at this point."

But now, with the success of Stranger Things, the band not only has a manager, but one that successfully convinces them to maybe play the theme song during the show. (They do, but it's less a "greatest hit" and more like a segue slowly emerging through a haze.)

"It's become too ridiculous to ignore at this point," says Donica.

Stein explains it wasn't written to be a song. "It served a very specific purpose as like a one-minute [piece of music] and it's composed in a way you wouldn't even write a song."

Now that one of the year's most popular songs is a 68-second synth cue, how exactly did "Keep Austin Weird" turn into "Keep America Analog?"

"VHS for a number of years was just gone. But I refused to get rid of 'em," –Conrad Bejarano

With an estimated 120,000 items for rent, Austin's I Luv Video is the oldest and largest for-profit video store in America, still renting many VHS tapes that were on the shelves 31 years ago. You can spot the antiques by the bulky "big box" covers which peaked in the mid-Eighties. 

"That's the most real estate you could get for free on a shelf without being totally annoying," explains manager Eric Mendell, manning the counter today in his Alien Nostromo shirt. "They started with porn, so you could fit more money shots on the back."

I Luv Video was opened by two high school pals, Conrad Bejarano and John Dorgan, in 1985 and has weathered every storm thrown at the VHS format until a few years ago when they became cool again. For a while Bejarano would pick up VCRs from local Goodwills for under $10 and resell them, but eventually he couldn't keep up with demand. Bejarano and Mendell estimate about 15 to 20 percent of their rentals are VHS.

"VHS for a number of years was just gone. But I refused to get rid of 'em," Bejarano says with a laugh. As he speaks, he's affixing ILV stickers to old cassettes that he sells for $5 as souvenir "fortune cookies." "'Cause they're super cool. As we know, there's so much that wasn't available on DVD. And it will never be available on DVD."

Once taking up real estate as a local franchise all over the city, I Love Video's entire library is consolidated in two stories of winding rooms: a wall of Godzillas; an endcap for the infamous banned Eighties "video nasties;" and a since-abandoned porn room where scotched tape signs still warn about leaving adult film cases outside. Long walls dedicated to directors means Luis Buñuel sits next to Mel Brooks, and there's a selection of Andrei Tarkovsky films – including both the Criterion DVD of Solaris and a double VHS of Stalker – that Survive's Kyle Dixon attempted to work his way through in the days when he actually had time to watch movies.

Torn up Blockbuster membership cards hang like garlands, since handing in a destroyed card was once a popular way of getting a free membership. Mendell got one just the week earlier.

"There's still Blockbuster," explained Mendell of the once-bustling chain that ILV essentially outlived.

"There is?" replies Conrad. (They're currently operating 12 licensed franchises, mostly in Alaska.)

Sun-faded toys and collectibles add to the chaos: Felicity Shagwell, Sigmund of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters fame, Bob McKenzie, Serial Mom, a Blues Brothers poster signed by "Elwood," a cassette tape of the Blade Runner soundtrack, at least two of the infamous Little Mermaid VHS clamshells where one of the castle spires looks like a dick.

"I think what makes Austin very unique is the people that embrace your business," says Bejarano. "'Cause if we were in mainstream America, people would come here like, 'Oh my God, this place is … so dirty. There's stuff everywhere.' What makes a place really unique is stuff on the counters – just all the shit everywhere."

"A lot of people say clutter makes home," says Mendell. "People will try to hide their clutter at home, but they don't realize that's what makes it their own.

As they speak, 1984 video-game spinoff cartoon Dragon's Lair plays on 10 old-school TVs. It may be no small coincidence to a generation of local synth bands that John Carpenter films have always been popular background sound here, giving Austin's collective unconscious the sound of moody, minimal synthwork for years.

"We put it on here all the time, like They Live and Escape from New York," says Mendell. "The people working here just pick the movies based on what they're gonna hear in the background 'cause [you] catch five, 10 minutes of it here and there, but for the most part you're just listening to it and having a good time in your mind."

"We've been doing this for so long," says Bejarano, [musicians] could've been coming in here when they were a young teenagers like, "What is that?"

Dixon from Survive doesn't consider himself a format purist, but has been known to rent VHS to project on the wall in his living room. A hesitant but consensual peek at his recent rental history shows the classic Lucio Fulci bleak-out The Beyond rented via the format.

"The new modern movies and modern HD television sets just cheapen and make movies feel removed," says Stein. "Like, I feel like you're watching a set, whereas on a VHS or an old cathode ray TV, I feel like I'm watching a movie. I get a better experience."

No one in America has dedicated more time, effort and opinions to crafting a better movie-going experience than Tim League, co-founder of Austin-born chain Alamo Drafthouse. This week he opened his 25th franchise, a fourth-and-fifth-floor geek palace in a downtown Brooklyn mall, but Alamo has been part of the Austin firmament since its humble beginnings in 1997. Eighties synth scores have pulsed forebodingly under the programming for their popular "Terror Tuesdays" and "Weird Wednesdays," which musicians like Stein frequent. That is, when they don't sell out. 

"I mean, for us, I think it's interesting that no matter how many years continue to march on, something about that era stays in sync," says League. "The Eighties is so singularly defined and so weird, honestly and kind of awesome if you let yourself into it. So there's something quite magical about it."

The genial League speaks in the orange glow of one of the Alamo's many karaoke rooms — this one, "the big top room," has the feel of a vintage oddity-riddled sideshow, complete with a stuffed two-headed calf. Last night, he sang a "more raucous" version of Enya's "Orinoco Flow" in here with idiosyncratic grindhouse visionary Nacho Vigalondo. It's the final day of League's Fantastic Fest, an eight-day celebration of "genre film" that's played host to world premieres of There Will Be Blood, The Human Centipede 2, Bone Tomahawk and Vigolondo's sci-fi tangle, Timecrimes. He should, by all measures, be exhausted, but he's "on an adrenaline high" after successfully completing the "Satanic Panic Room," an escape room challenge that's one of many extracurricular events that makes Fantastic Fest a little quirkier than Sundance. This year featured the annual boxing match and the "Puke and Explode" eating contest.

"For Morgan Spurlock's new documentary Rats, we had a Louisiana water rat-eating contest," League says, with a laugh. "I won the rat-eating contest. Because the prize was the Fantastic Fest badge, and I wanted to save the money."

After a failed movie theater experiment in Bakersfield, California, League and wife Karrie opened Austin's first Alamo in 1997 on the second floor of a parking garage with no plumbing, electrical, kitchen or restrooms. "I think if I were to build that same thing today, it would probably cost me a million and a half bucks," says League. "And so we just did it all ourselves, 'cause we had no other option. Oh, the other challenge was we had no restaurant experience," he says, punctuated with another laugh. "We just really wanted to do it. So, we just overcame it by sheer force of will."

With the money borrowed from parents and Bank of America, they only had enough capitol to stay open one month. "We really needed it to work immediately. So many things are just absurd about the business plan. We're very, very, very lucky that we didn't immediately go out of business."

Once they expanded to a third and fourth theater in Austin, movie studios were enthusiastic about working with these quixotic dreamers who wanted to do "crazy events" like bringing the flame-spitting Robosaurus T-Rex to chomp cars at a Transformers preview. Soon Alamo would gain national acclaim for their "Rolling Roadshow" where they would bring an inflatable movie screen to the sites where iconic films were set: Escape From Alcatraz at Alcatraz, Field of Dreams at Iowa's Field of Dreams, The Shining at the Colorado hotel that inspired it.

"We pitched New Line when Snakes on a Plane came out. Snakes on a Plane on a plane full of snakes," League says. "And we got pretty far." Showing John Carpenter's The Thing in an Antarctic research station is still on the bucket list.

"For Buried, you remember that Ryan Reynolds movie?" asks League. "So, it all takes place inside of a coffin, the whole 80-minute movie. And so we ran a contest to meet Ryan Reynolds. And we chose three young women who were willing to watch the movie Buried while being buried alive. We built caskets and we dug out graves and we buried them alive with these video monitors. We put hoods on 'em, put 'em in a white van and drove 'em out to the outskirts and made 'em watch the movie underground."

"The crazy part is they weren't even screaming or fighting us," publicist Brandy Fons chimes in. "They were so excited to meet Ryan Reynolds."

But despite stunts and baked-to-order cookies, the Alamo Drafthouse remains most famous for maintaining a strict etiquette policy, a staunch line in the sand in the social media era. No talking, no texting, no entry after the movie starts. Pre-show announcements inform the audience that violators will be swiftly booted. League came up with the policies after a midnight Blue Velvet Drafthouse screening turned rowdy thanks to "a very, very, very cheap Pabst Blue Ribbon special." Within a week he taught himself Final Cut Pro 1.0 and edited the first PSA. The most famous one went viral since it was just an answering machine message from an ejected audience member who called the theater with incredulity: "Yeah, I was wondering if you guys actually enjoy treating your customers like a pieces [sic] of shit."

"Some people don't like to be kicked out of the movie theater. There is one story of when I warned somebody, and I was pretty rough about it. I let my anger show in my face, I think," League says with a huge smile. "And so I told this guy to shut up. After the movie he was just sitting there boiling with rage. He started to push me, like aggressively touch my chest and was trying to pick a fight. But it just happened to be that Quentin Tarantino was in town that week and he was watching that same movie. And so he just walks up behind the guy and puts on his hand on his shoulder and was like, 'No, man, you're wrong.' The guy didn't know what was happening." 

Shortly after League retreats back into the throng of Fantastic Fest lanyards, he presents Vigalondo with the Best Movie jury prize for the upcoming Anne Hathaway kaiju romantic comedy Colossal, celebrating with a cake shaped like the director's head on a lizard's body (Vigalondo cut off the ear in tribute to Reservoir Dogs). After the PSA ("You talk. You text. You terrorize Tokyo. Godzilla rips your guts out") and the film, the crowd piles upon some school buses for a closing night party at a mystery location, bumpily cruising into Austin's glittery downtown skyline across the Colorado River.

For the final festivities, Fantastic Fest has turned the worn-out Millennium Youth Entertainment Center into a geek Neverland. A girl in roller skates karaokes Beyoncé's "Baby Boy" while grinding on someone in an inflatable Godzilla costume; a line for free tattoos snakes into a façade of a castle; someone in skull face paint is double-fisting brews while reclining on a child's ride. Shortly after 11 p.m., it's obvious League has already visited one of the two face painters.

Behind the careening clatter of blacklight bowling the man-machine Monster Mash duo Primitive Circuits is about to play their third show ever. The band's Zack "Zackula" Cooper, dressed in a cape and fake blood painted on his lips, explains that he gleans sampling ideas from frequenting Alamo's "Terror Tuesday" programming. At tonight's show he triggered one from his VHS copy of 1984 low-budget sci-fi flick The Dungeonmaster: "I reject your reality and substitute my own!" The band's Suicide-gone-Teen-Wolf synth-punk is partially blipped on a Minimoog gifted to Cooper by a friend and brought back to life at Austin's own Switched On. "The tone is unbeatable," says Cooper, "There's a reason Devo and Kraftwerk use them."

Switched On is located on a busy section of Cesar Chavez Street. Survive's Michael Stein used to work here for a while, and on Saturday afternoon he's back inside with his Arp Odyssey, the setlist from the previous night's show still taped on.

"It broke during the show," he explains.

"A lot of the [pieces] were glued on," explains Paul Millar, lead service tech, with frank bedside manner. "That keyboard is in terrible shape."

It's plugged in and Stein taps out synth classics like "Axel F" and John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 theme. Their tour is in three days.

Switched On co-founder Chad Allen moved to Austin for college in the Nineties. While gigging around in spazzy Devo-esque synth-punk bands, Allen began taking pawn shop trips and buying instruments on eBay, getting them repaired and flipping them for a higher price. In 2005, to celebrate his birthday, he decided to throw the first Austin Analog Synth Party, which would prove magnetic for Austin enthusiasts to get together, play with each others' rare gear and listen to bands like Survive, Missions and Allen's own Low Red Center. Allen and two business partners (including current co-owner John French) opened the store in 2010. 

"We kind of started as a general vintage gear shop," says Allen, tucked in a small opening in a backroom piled high with ailing synths that will take about two years to repair. "But pretty soon, no one wanted to buy drums and guitars from us."

Switched On is set up like a nerd playground where newbies and experts alike can tinker, twist and get hands-on experience."

"These really rare things that you maybe only find at the synth parties, now they just exist," explains Stein, who, it should be said, currently has a perfectly working Arp Odyssey. "They're just at the shop 24/7, you can go in there any time and touch these. The staff will just sit down with you and teach you how to use stuff."

"That's what I love about music stores. Being able to go in and see something you've never seen before and get to hear it and experience it," says Allen. "About 20 minutes before you guys came in, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood were in here playing stuff. A guy wearing a Radiohead T-shirt got to show Thom Yorke how to use a couple modules that he has."

Recently, Switched On has been riding the same wave of attention as Survive. "The weirdest thing has just been that it happened so fast and that the excitement is so concentrated," he says. "People will just come in because they saw Stranger Things, read about the soundtrack, and they're like, 'Huh, synthesizers. I'm gonna check that out.' Based on that alone, people will come in and get interested in synths."

The year after Switched On opened, Mondo, the merchandising arm of Alamo Drafthouse put out their first record, a reissue of the grit-caked, sleazy synth score to merciless 1980 low-budget slasher Maniac. The team was nervous, but the 500 records sold quickly. A copy on red vinyl will currently run you about $290 on Discogs.

The Mondo staff, some of the nation's most acclaimed graphic tastemakers, work out of a non-descript office attached to a warehouse next to a furniture outlet. Inside, boxes of books and collectibles spill out from the storage and invade their workspace. Surrounded by posters and toys and records and VHS cases and a table painted like a Madball, co-founder Rob Jones, label production manager Mo Shafeek and brand director Jay Shaw speak in signifiers and references and genuinely funny movie-geek jokes.

Jones on the wall decor: "You'll notice that we try to insist on only orange posters being hung in the office. 'Cause we're big fans of The Godfather."

Shaw joking about upcoming Gremlins vinyl: "Throw the record in the water. You get a bunch of 7-inches."

Jones commenting on the stacks of boxes: "We're real big fans of Indiana Jones."

The ultimate fan club, Mondo started as a 2004 Alamo side-hustle selling T-shirts out of the ticket booth of the original theater. But after League recruited seasoned concert poster artist Jones to create original posters for the Rolling Roadshow, it became apparent that they may have a new business.

"I was asked to do one poster for that," says Jones. "I had some ideas for it where I was gonna try to do representations of all the movies that were gonna be screened as [roadside] attractions … like I would make Doctor Zaius look like Paul Bunyan. And I just kept thinking it was a poor way to advertise the event. I was like, 'Look, can we maybe just do one poster for each screening? Kind of like a gig poster. And get as many of my artist friends to do it?' [League] goes, 'Yeah if we could do it for the amount of money I was gonna pay just you.' So I called in ever favor I could" 

Soon a collection of well-regarded graphic designers would be cooking up imaginative alternate artworks for classic movies, with the prints being sold on the Mondo site. Officially licensed Star Wars posters by Olly Moss and Tyler Stout were "back-to-back crazy," saleswise, according to Jones. "And from there on out, it almost seemed like almost every poster we released was just disappearing in a millisecond." 

For a while the Mondo team worked in what was affectionately dubbed the "hobbit hole," a tiny portal under the screen of theater 5 in Alamo's South Lamar location, ducking through a door they estimated was about five feet tall to stuff posters in mailers during movie showings.

"The summer I started it was the year Transformers 3 was playing," says Shafeek. "So, I have never see that movie but I have heard that movie about 25 times in a row. From there we decided we should open up an art gallery. So we went looking around for a place that would serve as an office and gallery." They settled on a mellow cube on Guadalupe. "We were like, 'There's no way we'll ever outgrow this!'"

Then, in 2012 they did a "timed edition" run of Olly Moss's noir posters for The Dark Knight Rises where anyone could buy one for $40 if they ordered within a 24 hour time limit: They sold nearly 10,000 and had to move again to their current sprawling warehouse space which is still resulting in box overflow.

Their record label game started with a similar model, teeming artists like Stout, Ken Taylor and Phantom City Creative with classic, mostly synth-oriented soundtracks. They started with a 500-edition run of Maniac and started inching up: 1,000 for 1981 Italian horror The Beyond; 1,200 for 1983 sci-fi schlockfest The Deadly Spawn; about 4,000 for Cliff Martinez's game-changing soundtrack to Drive. British label Death Waltz Recording Company exploded with a similar idea (and a Carpenter-stuffed catalog). Though they would later become allies, the competition made Mondo work harder.

Their special editions got weirder and wilder, like The Iron Giant in a metal box and the Looper soundtrack in a canvas sack that looks like a shotgun blasted through it. A $250 Aliens special edition where the vinyl burbles with neon liquid "Xenomorph blood" took nearly a year to get an edition of 75.

"We still were waiting for copies to show up like the week of the [release day] event. That's how handmade they were," says Shafeek. "Like this guy was in his apartment literally gluing records together. This poor guy made so many for us."

"We had a cassette for Over the Garden Wall last year and we sold out like 1,000 cassettes in two hours and people are still like, 'You should have made more.' We made 1,000 cassettes in 2015. Any reasonable businessman would have told you, 'What the hell are you thinking making cassettes in 2015.'"

So why has Austin, of all cities, become the place where you can make 1,000 cassettes, own a synth shop, sell VCRs and bury movie fans alive?

"Because I think we're full of weirdos. I'm from Georgia, and I'm quite aware of people staring at me all the goddamn time when I go back home," says Jones, lanky, mutton-chopped and wearing a Freddy Kruger sweater. "I'll see mom's pull their kids away in the grocery store, 'cause I look like some sort of monster. And the reason I forget that response is 'cause I live in Austin. It's accepted, no one cares. Everyone here is doing their own thing."

"I moved here a year ago with my family. We live in the suburbs," says Shaw, who sports a decapitation line tattoo on his neck, next to an obscure John Hughes logo. "And this is the only town I've ever lived in where like we look like your average suburban family. I mean, I'm covered in tattoos. We're very normal for this place."

"It's like the Munsters aren't getting reacted to," says Jones.

"I haven't been here very long," says Shaw, "but I haven't felt more comfortable being a weirdo."