From early Freezepop to Symbion Project, Larkspur and his latest project, ELYXR, Kasson Crooker is a tireless musical chameleon, exploring the limits of electronic instruments and composition. I recently had an opportunity to interview him about several new songs he has written for ELYXR. Our talk also turned to his highly creative songwriting process, his early days with Freezepop and what’s next.
Chuck Frey: Your new musical project, ELYXR – what was the genesis of that?
Kasson Crooker: Hey, Modern Synthpop, thanks for premiering the newest ELYXR single and for setting up this interview! So earlier this year I was working on a brand new Freezepop track, my first in almost 10 years, and I had such a blast making it. I realized how much I missed making synthpop as my songs with Symbion Project are much slower, moodier and atmospheric.
So I wanted to get back into composing electropop songs again but wanted to take a different approach. The first was that I felt a new moniker to release the music was in order, to help separate these songs from Symbion Project, and so ELYXR was born. The next big decision was to really have it be a collaborative band where each song features a different singer/songwriter from some of my favorite bands and with some long-time conspirators. And the 3rd big decision was to have it be a “singles-only” band with no albums or EP’s, just a steady stream of songs getting released as they get completed.
And so here we are, with the first single “Engine” released just a scant few weeks back and this second single “Godspeed” getting premiered on Modern Synthpop!
Frey: What kind of music will you be focusing upon?
Crooker: With ELXYR I want to stay focused on pure synthpop with higher energy songs, lots of juicy synthesizers from my collection of vintage analog synths and catchy melodies. Getting to work with different singers on each song means that they get to go in different and unique directions – different lyrical styles and different melodic styles. So while my production and composing is the consistent thread, my collaborations keep things fresh and unexpected.
Frey: I understand that you will use a succession of female vocalists?
Crooker: The first few singles will in fact feature some of my favorite female singer/songwriters, but I’m hoping that ELYXR will have a balanced group of both men and women. I’ve got some interesting songs cooking with some synth-dudes as I write this and I know they’ll help me create something really unique.
Frey: Who do you have lined up, besides Elissa LeCoque of Kodacrome!?
Crooker: Well, the second single that we’re debuting right here is “Godspeed” featuring one of my long-term collaborators, Naoko Takamoto of the band Princess Problems. She and I met 15 years ago in Boston and helped create some amazing music and some fantastic videogames at Harmonix.
The first track she and I created (“Cool Baby“) was a cheeky track featured in the 2003 videogame Amplitude . A few years ago, I started to do some remixes and originals with her which you can check out here:
Last fall, before the election of Trump, we started to get really worried about what a presidency would be like under him and “Godspeed” sprung from those feelings.
Frey: This actually sounds similar to what Joey Belville from The Echoing Green and his side project, The Pristina Project, have one. Are you familiar with it?
Crooker: I’m totally familiar with the Echoing Green, but haven’t heard this side project… thanks for turning me onto it. I’ll definitely be checking it out for sure!
Frey: Will you be focused on EPs or do you plan to produce an album?
Crooker: For ELYXR, there won’t be either EPs or albums, just a stream of singles released as they get completed! I didn’t want to have to get bogged down by all the baggage of albums and the fact that they can take so long to finish and release. It’s been really quite liberating to not have to think about all that stuff really… just write a song with a friend, make it happen and put it out for the world. If people want to assemble the songs later on into something more akin to an album, that’s cool with me!
Frey: Let’s talk for a moment about your roots in the electronic music industry. Where did you get your start? Self-taught or trained? What was your first synthesizer?
Crooker: I grew up playing classical music and spent many years taking piano, cello, and pipe organ lessons. But it was in the late 80’s that I discovered synths and drum machines and all the possibilities of sound and song creation with them and have never turned back. I grew up on Depeche, New Order, Camouflage and InSoc so making synthpop has been in my veins for 25 years now.
Since then I’ve founded many electronic bands, from Symbion Project, Freezepop, Larkspur, Rocococo and now ELYXR. The synth that started it all for me was an Ensoniq EPS sampler. The fact that it had an on-board sequencer was huge as it allowed me to begin to experiment with composing and arranging songs, as well as sampling. I also had a small 4-Op FM synth in the Yamaha DX100. The first analog synth I ever owned was an Oberheim OB-X which I wish I still had … now I have many others!
Frey: What was it about electronic music that attracted you?
Crooker: American music never really appealed to me and it was the clean, pure sounds of European synth music that really drew me in, from Kraftwork to early Depeche Mode. I’ve also been into darker music so getting into NIN, Nitzer Ebb and Front 242 were a natural fit for me.
There’s just something so immediate and present about the sounds that synths and drum machines make, and hearing such diverse sounds layered together to create song was something I immediately became enamored with. Plus, all the girls I had crushes on liked synth-bands so there’s some inspiration to get you into electronic music 🙂
Frey: You seem to like to experiment a lot musically. Over the years, you’ve been involved with Freezepop, then you formed Symbion Project and more recently created baroque renaissance synthpop under the moniker Rocococo. What drives you to try so many different things?
Crooker: I think to some extent I have musical ADD and get bored or distracted easily and so this makes me want to go into different corners of electronic music and sound creation, and see what happens. Even within just Symbion Project, I’ve released albums focused on techno, IDM, classical, ambient and downtempo.
I guess for me, each release needs to go somewhere new and explore different themes. Sometimes, the themes get pretty far out and it makes more sense to create an entirely new band, which is what I did for Rocococo. I guess I had some 8-bit baroque videogame music trapped inside me and it took an entire band to free it and release it on the world.
Another big factor that drives exploration and experimentation for me is advances in synthesis and interesting new gear. From soft-synths like Kaivo by Madrona Labs, to the Soulsby Atmegatron, to the Elektron RITM drum machine… each of these pieces of gear has pushed me into new ways of creating music and sound creation.
I guess once I’ve mastered a piece of gear, I get bored and move onto something else, and so the music keeps moving on as well.
Frey: What makes you a musical chameleon?
Crooker: Hmmm, I guess I’ve been doing this for so long now I’m not even sure! Just focusing on my craft, writing good songs, and pushing into new sonic territories.
Frey: I’m a firm believer in the maxim, “There are no failures, only outcomes.” In other words, you can learn something from each of the experiments you try. What is your attitude towards experimentation?
Crooker: Yeah, I’ve certainly had my share of failures musically. Really if you don’t experiment and keep learning new things, you quickly get in a rut, which can be hard to escape. Stuck in that place, you just keep making the same music over and over… it might be my worst nightmare!
But when songs or albums get completed and released, and then you look back on them, there are always ones that just don’t stand up to the test of time. Just by listening to them and internalizing them, you can work to not repeat mistakes and get better at what you do.
Frey: What is your creative process like?
Crooker: Usually, I’ll sit down at a synth, drum machine or sequencer and just start creating some simple beds. Drums are a great way to start and interesting and complex drum programming is really exciting to me so I often start there. Once the basic elements are there, you can start to hear the vibe of the song emerge… uptempo or slow, moody or positive, experimental or grounded… and with this direction things can start to happen really quickly with a song.
Collaborating with other singers and songwriters has it’s own challenges, because often they’re in a different part of the world, which makes working together slow and confusing. Communication is such a key element of the creative process that doing things remotely adds a layer of complexity… plus we all lead such complex and busy lives!
Most of my songwriting production is done in Reason9, which is where all the drum/synth programming, MIDI tracks, and audio experimenting occurs. Sometimes in collaborating with others, they’ll send me rough ideas or a cappellas to use and I’ll build a song around them. It really depends on who I’m collaborating with.
Once the song is complete, I’ll bounce all the tracks out and mix in Digital Performer 9, where I have access to all my good plugins (UAD, Altiverb, Izotope).
Frey: To what extent has writing music for video games, where you are often called upon to evoke an emotion on the part of the game player, impacted your writing process?
Crooker: Composing for video games is such a unique experience, with much different challenges than traditional ways of composing. The biggest is that the music needs to be interactive and must react to what’s happening in the world and what the player is doing at any moment in time.
This changes music from linear composition, where you have control over every aspect of the sound and song, to reactive music that is constantly shifting and dynamically evolving. Compositionally, I have to approach things very differently when composing and choosing the sounds I want to use.
Overall, I dont think that composing for games has changed my approach to linear songwriting; I’m able to move between the two styles and switch my perspective to whichever I’m focused on. If anything, because the two styles are so different, it’s refreshing to spend one day working on interactive elements and the next day on linear compositions. That helps keep the brain fresh!
Frey: Do you find that inspiration or ideas from one of your projects spills over into the others?
Crooker: Yeah, that’s often the case, especially with gear and plugins. I’ll stumble upon something amazing sounding and next thing you know I’ve migrated it from one band and you start to hear it in a different band. It’s bound to happen.
But thematically, I try to keep each of my projects focused on something specific so other than gear and technical aspects, I try to keep each project contained and pure.
Frey: Earlier this year, under the Symbion Project name, you launched a new album called Gishiki, which has a distinctly Asian flavor to it. What was the genesis of that project? What influences did you draw upon as you composed your those tracks?
Crooker: Over the past decade, Symbion Project has released a couple of what I consider to be “classic synthesizer” albums, heavily inspired by pioneers Wendy Carlos, Vangelis, Brian Eno and Phillip Glass. When approaching my third album, I wanted to go in a different stylistic direction and became very enamored with different scales/mode, particularly the three Japanese Hirajōshi pentatonic scales and tunings.
I embraced this as a starting point for my compositions and concurrently was reading the “Hagakure” or Way of the Samurai. This lead me into the world of Samurai and Bushido (the 8 virtues of the Samurai) and so a strong theme emerged from these elements which helped guide “Gishiki” – which I view as a unique union of traditional Japanese music (koto, shamisen sound palettes) mixed with vintage analog synths.
I also have been a collector of windchimes and Gishiki was a perfect opportunity to record them and add them as sound elements in the songs.
There is also a concept in Japanese culture called “hakanai,” which doesn’t really occur in western culture that I found very meaningful and appropriate for the songs I was writing. It’s the idea that you could capture this fleeting, rare moment of beauty and represent it through music and sound.
Frey: How much different was the roster of instruments for this project, or did you re-create all of the sounds using synths?
Crooker: The synths used for Gishiki were a standard mixture of my analog synths (Prophet10, Andromeda A6, Moog Modular, Oberheim SEM), with a big addition in the use of Madrona Lab’s KAIVO soft-synth. It’s this physical-modeling synth that helped me to create the koto, harp and other plucked sounds that are so prevalent on the album.
I would have greatly preferred to collaborate with a koto musician, but it wasn’t meant to be. One unique aspect of using Kaivo is that I could capture the characteristics of the koto and harp, but push them into new sonic territory where a real musician would not be able to go. I guess that’s why I’ve always been drawn to synthesizers as there really are no boundaries or rules.
Frey: What’s next for you musically?
Crooker: Unsure, really. I’m mostly focusing on ELYXR singles for now while I figure out what the next big Symbion Project album will be. I’m also collaborating on a few songs with some Seattle musicians and hope to release an EP of that material in 2017.
Frey: Has there been any talk of doing a reunion concert with Freezepop, which recently celebrated its 18th birthday?
Crooker: Since I left Freezepop ten years ago, I’ve been fortunate to play a handful of shows with them over the years! They’re working on a brand new album right now and I hope to have Symbion Project play some shows with them once that’s released. And of course I’d join them for some of our “classic” songs as well! I can’t believe that band has been around for so long and is still going strong!!
Frey: Where can readers of Modern Synthpop learn about ELYXR and your other projects?
Crooker: Glad you asked! As I release each single, I’ll add them to the growing list which you can buy on Bandcamp here. You can follow ELYXR on Facebook. And if you’re into the streaming thing, you can listen follow us on all the major platforms, including Spotify and iTunes.
Thanks for having me on Modern Synthpop!
And now, for the global premiere of the latest ELYXR track, Godspeed: