How the Duffer Brothers Picked the Perfect Music for 'Stranger Things'

The creators of Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’ explain the shows’s flawless retro soundtrack.

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Complex Original

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There are a ton of reasons why Netflix's Stranger Things has become the breakout show of the summer—the on-point vibes of Eighties classics like E.T.Goonies, and Close Encounters, the pleasantly surprising performances from the show's child actors, the compelling mix of adventure, horror, and science fiction—but one of the biggest may be the show's music. From the synth-heavy songs that score the show (and the phenomenal opening credits) to the song selections, the music creators Matt and Ross Duffer laced Stranger Things with gives the show an immediate sense of time, place, and tone. When Foreigner's "Waiting for a Girl Like You" plays during a scene in which one character loses her virginity while another is attacked by an extraterrestrial monster, you feel equal amounts of nostalgia, young love, and creepiness. The music signifies exactly what kind of story Stranger Things is, and exactly what era of storytelling it comes from. In many ways, the music the Duffer brothers chose is what makes the world of Stranger Things feel so fully realized, and so worth losing yourself in.

In the midst of a post-success media blitz, the Duffer brothers took a few minutes to talk to us about S U R V I V E, the little known band behind Stranger Things' score, and how they put together the show's pitch perfect soundtrack.

Clearly, the show's music is heavily inspired by things like John Carpenter's Halloween. What made you go in that direction?
Matt Duffer: Before we were even talking about John Carpenter, we were inspired by the movement of film composers moving back into the electronic space. We were really into what Cliff Martinez did with Drive; we were into what Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross were doing with David Fincher. When I read about how they worked with David Fincher, they're composing hours and hours of music and then he's working and figuring it out. It's a different approach, very different from the John Williams approach.

Then, the other thing we were talking about, because we knew we were going to get all of these Spielberg references—the minute you put kids on bikes with flashlights it screams Amblin—we were looking to differentiate Stranger Things, because we wanted the show to be a little darker. We wanted the Stephen King DNA, the John Carpenter DNA. We thought, let's get more into electronic music. 

Was there any hesitancy to go down that road?
Matt: To test it out, we tied together this fake trailer where we combined 25 clips from all these movies that inspired us. We cut between HalloweenE.T.Nightmare on Elm Street, and Poltergeist. We put a John Carpenter score, I think specifically from The Fog, over all those images and it worked really, really well. John Carpenter over E.T. was fucking awesome. 

So how did you come to find S U R V I V E?
We came upon S U R V I V E from the soundtrack to Adam Wingard's The Guest. We used one of their songs in that little trailer we cut together. So of course when it came time to actually find a composer, they were one of the first names to pop in our heads. We talked to the guys like, "What would music for Eleven sound like? What would music for the monster sound like?" The Eleven theme that plays throughout the season, that's what they came up with. We immediately went, "Oh my god, these are the guys for us."

Ross: What's cool about it is that when we first showed Netflix and 21 Lots the show, it was entirely scored with S U R V I V E's music. I've never seen the show with different music on it—it's an integral part of the show.

Matt: It's funny because they had regular day jobs. We were like, "Hey guys, do you want to quit your jobs and do this Netflix show with us?"

Ha, they must've quit right then and there.
Within two weeks they were making music for us. At the end of the day—I calculated on my iTunes—we had 14 hours of score. Obviously, not all of that made it in, but I'm sure some of it will make it into season two if and when that happens.

So aside from the score, the songs that are in Stranger Things—from Peter Gabriel to Joy Division—were these songs from your childhoods?
Most of them are not. We were such movie nerds—I hate to say this, but yeah, we would just listen to movie soundtracks growing up. I think music is one of the reasons we fell in love with movies.

How did you end up picking all of this Eighties music then?
For us, we didn't Tarantino it—it's not like this stuff was written in the script. The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" was planned, but all the other stuff, like [Jefferson Airplane's] "White Rabbit" and The Bangles, it was more us listening to as much Eighties music as we could and seeing what hit the right mark. It was definitely trial and error. Obviously, we played around in terms of what would actually be played around 1983—for us, it was more about the tone and the feel, and the stories these songs were telling.

Matt: Kind of a rule we had is that if it's a song a character is listening to in the show then it really needed to be from that era. If it was just playing for the show then it was all about tone. That's why we have The Bangles and Peter Gabriel's cover of "Heroes," which was actually [director] Shawn Levy's pick. I was blown away when I first heard that at the end of episode three.

Yeah, the music in the show, from the scores to the actual songs, really bring such a specific feeling and tone.
Yes. And I'm so glad you're asking so much about music, and I'm so glad that it's working for people. Because I think I was so frustrated that I'd watch television and the scores felt like an afterthought. Either there wasn't a lot of score or the music that was there felt really uninspired. When we saw The Knick or True Detective, they had very distinct scores that were doing very distinct things. It was really important to get the music right—we knew it would make or break the show. And it's a testament to Netflix and how crazy they are: they let us hire these guys who had never composed anything in their lives. 

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