SURVIVE play music rooted in dreamt 80s futures, their live set a Voltron-like mass of keys, a stack of noise boxes channelling aural cosmic portals fine-tuned with occasional cable unplugging and reinserting.
The quartet have embarked on their first European tour in support of an album, RR7349, their first for the traditionally metal label Relapse Records, and are in the unusual position of playing to audiences who might not know their material particularly well. Half of the four, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, recently scored genre melting pot Stranger Things for Netflix, but there are no plans to tip any hats to the series in tonight’s set.
In fact, it seems like the power might have gone to their heads. “Basically, me and Mark [Donica, keys] sleep in a dungeon all day and Michael and Kyle let us out every 12 hours for food, air and to use the toilet,” reflects Adam Jones, also on keys. The four have been friends for years, forming SURVIVE in 2009 in their home city of Austin, Texas. Their music is more organic than one unfamiliar with the world of modular synths might initially assume. “You build a system and it kind of works, you build a patch that works… There’s a lot of stuff [involved],” Jones says. “We use vintage, analogue boards, virtual synths every now and then, we use newer digital synths, we use modular stuff, some of us just like studio tricks and weird effects that come out of experimenting. There’s not really any set thing that we use a particular piece of gear for.”
“Lots of tape echo though,” adds Stein with a content nod. “If it sounds too clean, you run it through some tape echo. It’s always fun processing.”
“There’s a little bit of improv, but it’s kind of almost the same every night. The structures of the song never change, they’re always the same length, but within the songs…” begins Jones.
“Certain things get amped up, or Mark is typically playing our lead and some nights he shreds a little harder than others.”
Mark Donica nods modestly. “It’s true. Sometimes I go a bit farther.”
Jones continues, “I would say part of our performance is not just what we play, but the sounds that we produce with analogue gear on the fly. That’s part of the performance. So, it’s gonna vary from show to show, just because we can’t reproduce all of the same sounds every time.”
Have the band brought any personal favourite pieces of equipment with them? Michael has. “I brought my first synth ever, which is an SH-101 by Roland.” This particular synth was available between 1982 and 1986. “It’s a small mono synth, great for bass, used a lot by Autechre, Squarepusher, people like that. It’s kind of acidy and sounds really elastic and bouncy. I use it mostly for performance interface. I need the arpeggio. I need the clock sync. I need the way that it responds and has little sliders and you can tweak four or five at one time. I haven’t found something to replace it yet. It being my first synth ever, I hate that I’m bringing it all the way out to Europe…” Stein makes a face and mutters something about the Transportation Security Administration.
Kyle Dixon has brought his Korg Mono/Poly, originally out between 1981 and 1984. “That wasn’t my first synth, but it was my first real analogue synth with a bunch of knobs. We’ve been using it the whole time for this band. I can’t find a replacement for it yet either, so maybe I’ll have to buy two just in case something happens.”
Donica jumps in. “I’ve got an old ARP-Odyssey, the Mk 1, that I used to record some stuff on our earlier albums.” This one was released in the early 1970s as a rival to the portable Minimoog keyboard. “That was six years ago and it stopped working, so it’s cool that we have these reissued ARP-Odysseys. Now I’m using one that works insanely perfectly.”
Dixon nods with pride. “It’s a very unique synth sonically because it can cut through a mix.”
“At least when Mark touches it,” agrees Jones.
The Slash of SURVIVE? “I would not say that,” deadpans Donica.
Despite these being the first international dates for the band, they’re grizzled veterans of touring the States, as Jones explains. “We’ve done a lot of US tours. There’s certain cities we haven’t been to, but we’ve been to almost every major city in the US at some point or another, and will probably continue to do that for a while. Hopefully we can do some shows in Canada and Mexico, more in Europe and Australia, Japan – just get everywhere, basically.
“This is our first international tour, so we kind of played it a little bit conservatively. We’re probably not going to make that much money. Since you have to book shows like six months in advance, a big curse for us up until now is that we’ve booked all these shows before, when we were less famous.”
Stein winces. “Less acknowledged. Let’s not use the word ‘famous’.” Jones rolls his eyes, but Stein expands, “It’s nice we’re playing some intimate shows because we like playing that size room. It’s always a good vibe.”
The band rely on the music to speak for itself, naming their albums simply after their given catalogue numbers. “[We don’t] say this is the concept and we want it to sound like this. It’s just kind of an amalgamation of the way things come together. At the end you’re just gonna slap a word on it,” says Stein.
“It sounds pretty sci-fi,” adds Jones. “We have trouble naming songs. We have goofy working song titles that we try not to let anyone ever hear, and then eventually we do something more serious for the actual record. We have enough trouble just naming the songs.”
“I’ve had someone tell me how much they like so-and-so song, and I’m like, what song is that again?” laughs Stein. “Because I actually don’t know it by that name that we put on it last minute, I have to think about it for a while.”
“On our old set list on our last tour, we had problems with people stealing little knick-knacks off of our stage set ups, little personal things for us like little lights and our setlists. Those have all the goofy songs names and reminders on, and then somebody posted that on Instagram…” The band crack up laughing.
The quartet grew up listening to a lot of UK electronic music such as Autechre, Clark, DMX Krew and anything on Warp Records. Dixon explains, “For some reason, because they performed with computers, I thought you just need a computer to do this. But that’s completely, completely wrong. They have tons of analogue gear. They just record it and then manipulate with the computer.”
Talk turns to novelty synth records. I mention my copy of Caldara’s A Moog Mass, and Dixon smiles. “I know that record well. It’s very good. It’s organ and vocoder doing hymns. It’s very good. There’s a band called Warning, they’re kind of – there was a blog called Mutant Sounds run by people out of Dallas and a couple of other places – they were record collectors, specialising in weird records of all kinds. Warning is kind of a prog band…”
“They’re weird,” interjects Jones.
“They’re kinda silly,” offers Donica.
“They dress kind of like Darth Vader on an escalator and they kind of have some weird, ‘raargh’ vocals. It’s pretty good though.”
SURVIVE are opening up a new generation to the ways of the synth. Just leave their set lists alone.
An extended version of the interview is available via groovement.co.ukJamie Groovement