A Conversation with Kasson Crooker of ELXYR / Symbion Project

Photo Credit: Tim D. Coy Photography

Photo Credit: Tim D. Coy Photography

Back in February I had the opportunity to premiere the new single from ELYXR featuring Information Society's Kurt Harland Larson, "Strange Stubborn Proud." It has been one of the biggest articles we've ever hosted, and with good reason...the track is absolutely stunning. I wanted to dig in and get to know the genius behind "Strange Stubborn Proud", and that leads us to where we are today, talking to one of synth's most talented songwriters, Kasson Crooker. 

Before we get to the interview I wanted to share some of Kasson's work. From his early days founding synthpop heroes Freezepop, to more experimental work in Symbion Project, and the synth single machine that is ELYXR, Crooker has had is finger in the proverbial pot for quite some time. 

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Bringing back the concept of singles, each track is a stand alone modern synthpop classic featuring a who's who list of collaborators

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Pushing the boundaries of synth based music, the Symbion Project experiments with new sounds and aesthetics

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Crooker was a founding member of the award winning synthpop band Freezepop who's music has been featured in countless music based video games, from Rock Band to Dance Dance Revolution

Thanks for taking the time out of your busy day to talk with us! For someone who is hearing your music for the first time, how would you describe it?

Greetings James and thanks for helping to share the latest ELXYR single “Strange Stubborn Proud” with your Echosynthetic followers!

ELYXR is a unique, collaborative project that combines the best parts of classic synthpop (ala Human League, Depeche, Erasure) with a modern intricate production (ala Chvrches, Röyksopp).

Each song is a collaboration with a different singer/songwriter that I’ve been inspired by over my many years of creating electropop music and these collaborations free ELYXR up to explore different avenues that feature the singer best.  Some songs are on the dreamy atmospheric end of the spectrum and others are more hard-hitting dance tracks but all feature my baroque synthpop aesthetic.

Your recent ELYXR collaboration with Kurt Harland Larson was absolutely amazing. Did you write Strange Stubborn Proud with him in mind or was it a back and forth process?

Why thank you!  It was an extreme honor to finally get to work with Kurt after having been a fan of Information Society for many decades, and InSoc was one of the 80’s synth bands that really got me interested in making music in this genre.  Id’ been chatting with Kurt for awhile about collaborating and I wrote the framework of “Strange Stubborn Proud” specifically for him to shine on.  Some of the earlier ELYXR singles were more modern sounding and I wanted to create something a bit more old-school electro sounding and Kurt is the perfect collaborator for this sound since his voice is so powerful and can help drive the energy up.  During the songwriting process there was quite a bit of back and forth refining the arrangement, getting this mix just right, focusing the lyrics that Kurt wrote with some inspiration from his friend. The song came together pretty effortlessly though and probably the most challenging aspect was dealing with the speech samples!  InSoc’s music has always been heavily infused with classic sci-fi samples and Kurt and I wanted our track to have some as well, but it was really difficult to find the right ones and have them fit within the song seamlessly. Ultimately we found some juicy ones but decided to create 2 versions of the song.  The short radio single doesn’t have them and that freed me up to create a classic 80’s extended remix, like those amazing 12” remixes back in the day, and fill it with the talking samples, vocoder and orch hits galore :)

You've got some other great singles under the ELYXR moniker. Releasing singles has become a bit of a lost art. What inspired you to follow that path?

For ELYXR I wanted to try out a different release model for when and how to put songs out.  Since I was working with a diverse group of singers, all with different timelines and constraints, I needed some flexibility about when to put the songs out.  I already knew I wanted to abandon the album/EP approach for the band since people really listen to songs individually these days (playlists, shuffle).  Putting 1 song out at a time once it’s ready let’s me release on a more ongoing and consistent basis.  The upside is that there is always a new track to promote and keep people engaged, with the downside being all the work that comes with promoting a song these days across multiple platforms.  While I think albums/EPs have been a good approach for my other act Symbion Project,  I’ll likely stick with the singles method for ELYXR!

How does your Symbion Project differ from your work as ELYXR?

For me, there are several ways that Symbion Project diverges from ELYXR.  Symbion Project is more experimental, with each album exploring a different aesthetic/genre from cinematic downtempo to ambient Japanese to vintage synthesizer classical music.  Some Symbion Project songs share a bit of the pop-song sensibility that ELYXR focuses on, featuring vocals and traditional pop-song arrangements, but for the most part Symbion music is more eclectic and abstract.  The other big divergence for me is that the overall tone of Symbion Project is melancholic, introspective with darker sonics and production which ELYXR veers more upbeat, positive and uplifting.  I originally thought of releasing all the ELYXR material under the Symbion moniker but it just seemed like too much a stretch aesthetically.  Having it be under the unique ELYXR moniker gives me more freedom to craft a space for that particular sound.

In what way did your time with Freezepop shape the musician you are now?

Founding Freezepop really shaped me in a number of ways from songwriting to performance.  In addition to getting better at crafting clever synthpop songs it pushed me to create arrangements and instrumentation that both unique and constantly evolving over the arc of the song.  While the early Fpop music is quite primitive, by the album FX3P the audio production and mixes were getting quite intense and complex.  This has translated into all my audio productions since then for Symbion Project, ELYXR, and my baroque chiptunes act Rocococo.  The other big area where Freezepop improved me was in live performances. Over 10 years of playing show with them it helped get me comfortable being in front of large audiences, having fun, and not being stressed when mistakes happened. In fact, some of the most memorable moments live were when unpredictable things happened and we just rolled with them and had fun along with the audience.  Even though I’m not in the band anymore, I continue to play shows with them which are always really fun times!

What got your started in synth based music?

Really it all started with the instruments themselves.  The first synth I ever played was a Yamaha DX7 and was blown away by the huge range of sounds it could make.  I then started spending hours at Pi Keyboards and Audio in Cleveland OH trying out samplers, FM, and analog synths like the Prophet 600 which was my first analog synth.  During this time I was listening to all the amazing synth bands like Information Society, Red Flag, Erasure, Book of Love, Skinny Puppy and the list was endless.  Even before college I knew I wanted to pursue synthesis and audio technology ~ many years later and I’m still hard at work doing it and still blown away by improvements in synthesis, surround audio, and spatial audio.

What does the future hold for you? Any secrets you can share about upcoming projects?

I’ve got a few more ELYXR songs nearing completion and I think we’re going to release our first cover song.  While it’s not surprising it’s an 80’s song, I think people will be surprised by the artist I’ve chosen :)

Symbion Project has been working on new material but am unsure the ultimate direction of that music.  Oh, and I’ve got a secret band that’s been releasing the occasional song for the past year ~ very dark-synthwave/IDM/techno sounding.  Nobody’s been able to figure it out yet though which has been exciting!

Any parting words?

Thanks for spreading the sounds of ELYXR with your followers and in the immortal words of Rocococo ~ “Let them eat synth!