#Synthfam Interview: Kasson Crooker (Symbion Project, Elyxr)
Kasson Crooker is a creator of complex, layered synth music that explores a range of styles and moods across his various musical projects. I talked to him about his roots as a music maker, how he approaches creation and albums he's put out as Symbion Project and ELXYR.
Karl Magi: How did you first become interested in making music?
Kasson Crooker: It’s been a part of my life for my entire life. Both my parents were musicians. My mom was a music teacher. They started me taking piano lessons when I was about six years old and I studied classical piano for about ten years. It took cello lessons, pipe organ lessons and I sang in the choir, so I definitely grew up in a very musical household.
It was while I was taking cello lessons and when I was waiting for my mom to come pick me up, there was a music store downstairs and I distinctly remember that they’d just got a Yamaha DX7 in stock, so I’d go down there and play on whatever synthesizers they had. I was just blown away by this thing that makes any sound you want. I started to play with samplers, FM and I didn’t even know about analog synths at all. It was all digital. It wasn’t until later that I got fully pulled into the analog side of things.
Almost instantaneously, I started saving up money for a synthesizer. I stopped taking piano lessons, bought a drum machine and started making very simple, cheesy synthpop music in 1989 or 1990.
KM: Who are the various artistic influences on you?
KC: The very first concert I ever went to on my own was to see Information Society. This was in Cleveland in 1989/90. What’s funny is that years later I actually collaborated with Information Society on a number of songs and done remixes for them. It’s so strange to have things come full circle. I was 16, I think, when I saw them. Obviously I grew up on New Order, Depeche Mode, Erasure and Red Flag. They all came to Cleveland in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s so I got to see many amazing synthpop shows.
As per the norm in making synth music, I fully enjoy science fiction in both novel form and movie form. The Dune series of books is one of my favorite series. I’m also really into architecture and I remember being exposed to Bauhaus in high school and seeing that whole movement, so I’m really influenced by modern art.
KM: Tell me about your different projects and how they have evolved?
KC: For a while, my life as pretty easy. I just focused on Freezepop and Symbion Project was a behind the scenes thing for me. Now I just keep coming up with new monikers which doesn’t make me super happy because then my music starts to fragment and not reach everyone. I know there are people who have never heard the Rocococo album because it’s on a completely different part of Spotify. At least on my Bandcamp page, I try to pull all my projects together. Symbion Project is still my main focus and it’s definitely a darker, more downtempo project with little moments of synthpop and little ambient moments.
Each album definitely has its own flavor and when I started Rocococo, I really wanted to do this weird classical thing that’s almost like a Bill and Ted situation of taking Mozart or Beethoven into today and sticking them on synthesizers making Baroque synthpop. I had these grand ambitions and but sadly we only ended up playing two shows.
Both Rocococo and the Planets are just one off side-projects, but ELYXR has been a more substantial project. I’ve been able to return to my synthpop/classic synthpop focus. I wanted to go in a different direction and instead of just working with one singer, I wanted each track to have a different singer and different songwriter, so each track would have a different flavor.
KM: Talk to me about how you create new music.
KC: I usually start out sitting in front of some synthesizers or some gear. I generally get some sort of foundation going. Sometimes it’s a drum loop or a sequencer running a synth and just letting that gestate. Within 30 minutes or an hour, it’s already starting to go in a direction where I clearly know what it is and then I’ll go, “Okay! Looks like I’m in the mood to make an upbeat synthpop song! I guess this will be an ELXYR track!”
Usually it’s the gear and the tools I use that inspire me. Sometimes a person will come to me and want to collaborate and since I know their aesthetic and their style, it immediately allows me to start to create music that will work with them.
KM: I’m curious about the gear you use to produce your music. Give me a run down of what you use and why?
KC: I got fully pulled into analog synthesizers, especially vintage analog synthesizers about ten years ago. I have a Sequential Circuits Prophet 10, I have a vintage ARP Odyssey, I have a Moog modular and then I’ve got a pretty small but heavily curated Eurorack system. It’s almost exclusively DSP effects processing. I got really into using loopers, delays, Clouds and all sorts of weird granular processing. I basically use the Eurorack as a giant effects processor.
Outside of that, everything else is inside the computer. I’ve been using Reason since version 1 and I’m fully bought into that ecosystem. It takes a lot to get certain things sounding good in Reason and I would never mix in it, so when I’m done with my song, I bring everything out as audio and mix it in Digital Performer. I’m half and half between computer and hardware. There’s a lot of joy at the beginning of the songwriting process in not working on the computer and just playing keys and turning knobs.
Most recently, I was missing playing an acoustic instrument, so I’ve been studying the Japanese koto which is a 13 -stringed instrument with bridges so you can change the tuning. I’ve fully integrated that into my music as well and it’s all over my recent Backscatter album.
KM: Tell me about Backscatter (Symbion Project) and Eternal Life Eternal Youth (ELYXR)?
KC: Backscatter is a very dark and visceral album, possibly the darkest album I’ve ever released. It’s mainly instrumental although there are some moments of Japanese spoken word poetry that my wife read and translated. Since I’m studying koto, which has a very beautiful delicate sound, I wanted to see if I could fuse something so pretty with a sonic world that’s very dark. I was interested in the tension between these very distorted synthesizer patches with the light koto atmosphere and see if those could coexist. Some songs skew a little darker and some a little lighter. It was more of an experiment to see how the friction between those things would work. I’d also just missed making beat-oriented music so there’s some pretty heavy drum programming.
ELYXR basically started out as an experiment into not releasing an album. It was all going to be singles; so every month or two whenever a song was done, I’d release it and there’d be a constant stream of music coming out. It was an interesting experiment, but the downside is that music blogs and press wanted to know when there’d be an album because it’s easier to review an album, instead of a bunch of singles. I was doing little PR campaigns for every song, every two months. After I’d released seven or eight songs, I thought I’d better stop, so I formulated a handful of new songs and take my favorites from the singles and the new ones and release it as a cohesive album
KM: Where do you want to take your music in the future?
KC: I’m at an odd inflection point where I’m trying to figure out what to do with ELYXR and what’s next for Symbion Project. I’m about to release my first long form, very experimental noise/drone recording that’s really one song split into three movements. It was fully composed on a Folktek Resonant Garden which I discovered through Trent Reznor’s work on soundtracks. I used that as the sole piece of equipment to make and process the sounds. It comes out in a month and it’s very weird. One of my friends Chris Child (from the band Kodomo) said it’s like the soundtrack to David Lynch’s subconscious. Once again, for me, it didn’t really fit with Symbion Project so I came up with a totally different moniker: Black House Triangle. That piece Id Ego Superego comes out on FOIL imprints on Nov 1st.
I’m also collaborating with this amazing Japanese modular artist named Yumi Iwaki who I met at Synthplex in L.A. when she performed there. The song we collaborated on is her version of modular ambient music mixed with my koto playing and it will be released on Oct 18th. Beyond that, it’s a little foggy out there. I’ve spent a couple of years building a Unity environment for spatial audio mixing. I’ve been experimenting with composing music in my normal way and putting it into that environment and mixing it there. It’s finally showing some promise and I’m hoping that in 2020, I’ll start to release some music or collaborations that happen inside this very non-traditional mixing environment.
KM: Give me your thoughts on the rise of the Twitter #synthfam?
KC: It’s great any time a community starts to evolve and coalesce around a shared passion, especially when it’s a mix of creators, aficionados and listeners. It’s like what Facebook originally promised in terms of building a community, removing barriers between you and the community and fostering a passion around it but they put up all these paywalls and now it’s horrible. Twitter’s not great as well with their algorithms getting in the way, but the #synthfam movement has really been the best example recently of a community pulling together, talking about shows, how to get exposure, building playlists and supporting each other’s music.
KM: What sorts of things do you do to recharge your creative batteries?
KC: Getting out of my studio definitely helps. I work from home so I’m here all the time. My family has a cottage back on the east coast so I like to go back there and hide in the woods. I always come out feeling rejuvenated. I do a lot of field recordings there so I come back and listen to them and find ways to integrate them into my music. Books are the other way to get sucked into another universe and turn other parts of my brain on.