When it comes to synth-pop songs about girls who are smart, songs about guys preoccupied with your approval of their Wang, songs about theft, songs about tennis and songs about more rokk with less talk, Freezepop have earned the platinum trophy.
From humble beginnings rattling around the Boston area in 1999 to being a major draw at PAX ten years later, the band has slowly emerged and taken on the world. They've ramped up their game as well as the quality of their product, even when, admittedly, much of their charm comes from their DIY championing of technological minimalism. For a long time the band stuck closely to the Yamaha QY-70 as their primary sound source. More recently they broke out of those constraints and flexed their sonic muscles with a broader pallet of lush electronic sounds.
The band has long been a staple among music and rhythm video games, most notably Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Their founding member Kasson Crooker (aka The Duke) works at Harmonix, so their connection is perhaps a given. But it's that very connection that eventually forced The Duke to make his own Sophie's Choice between his work at the game company, or his continued involvement with the band. He chose Harmonix, and in 2009, after a triumphant show at PAX, he left the band.
Or did he?
I had the chance to sit down with Liz, Sean and Seth, the core live line-up of Freezepop for the past three years or so, before their show in Duluth, Minnesota on November 11th. We talked about all things PAX, The Duke and their future future future. Prefect? Read on!
So, is this your first show since PAX?
Liz: Yeah, first show since.
And right after that The Duke left?
So how has that transition gone?
Sean: Ask us in one month.
Sean: It's been very tepid. We've been touring as this line-up for nearly three years anyway, so it's not really a huge physical transition at this point..We were negotiating last fall of '08 with out record label and they wanted to hear some demos, and he wasn't really available even to record. So we started making a record, got maybe 20 songs into it before he told us he was going to leave. I thought we'd use seven or eight of ours and add five or six of his and we'd have a Freezepop album and that's how it'd go, but it didn't end up going that way.
It's completely amicable between us. It's not like there are any hard feelings or anything. But it was a little bit of a surprise. We had most of a record done, and we've already been touring with Seth for three years. So it was like, “Well, why don't you join the band.” And we also have another new member as well who probably won't be playing with us officially until December.
So is that just in a live setting? Or are you writing music with them as well?
Sean: It's still pretty up and the air. We're not getting additional members just to be in the live line-up, no. We want to be a four piece permanently from now on.
If we had just made a weird record last winter maybe we could have just called it something else and moved on. But we kind of made a Freezepop record and we had been touring with this band anyway, so, it was like “let's just stay on message.”
Seth: [pointing to a calendar of local music shows] We didn't want to play those shows like, here on the calendar is “Whale Blip (formerly Freezepop).”
Sean: Yeah, members of a band you already have barely ever heard of. [laughs] “Whale Blip” is good though. Had we heard that name...
Actually, Kasson (The Duke) has actually proved to be a little more involved still, even if he's left the band, than we expected anyway. So he will still be involved from time to time.
Seth: He's like Obi-wan Kenobi now.
Sean: Yeah, he's Obi-wan Kenobi. He's like this blue ghost that pops in every now and then and just kind of guides things along. [doing and Obi voice] “No! Wait. Don't record a metal song.” Oh, shit! Sorry...
Seth: We should.
Sean: It is weird.
He was one of the founding members, right?
Sean: Oh, THE founding member, really. The concept was his concept. We were all really involved from the get-go. It wasn't like he was working for months and months without us. But it is strange. Even though he hasn't been touring with us, he's still been a big part of the business end of it, and creatively. When we had bigger shows and he could make those shows he did. He played PAX. And again I have a feeling that we'll see him from time to time. The door is certainly not closed. He's probably going to do a remix for the next record.
And it's funny, we were kind of a little disappointed and scared at first when he first left. “What the hell are we going to do?” But also, to be perfectly honest, it was a little exciting too. It's like well, we're 20 songs into a record that he hadn't even really been involved with. We can just decided what direction we want to go in now. For the two of us [motioning to Liz] it suddenly seems like a little bit easier way to do the next year. How that is going to pan-out in the long term, I don't know.
ZB: Does that free you up to do more work? Since he was so busy does that give you more time to focus?
Sean: Yeah, our work rate has been so slow in the past, and part of that is that he needed to be so much a part of the final product, the creative input. Even those songs that he wasn't particularity creatively involved with, he would still come in at the end and clean up the production etc. etc. So it's a little odd not to have that in the cards anymore. But in the same way, [Liz] and I tend to agree on some of this stuff more in general anyway, so if we have a wacky idea or want to do a silly cover song, or just write something in a different direction than he would have gone, then we can do that if we want. That's not to say necessarily we will. We certainly weren't working on a record that was like super-far apart from what we've done in the past. But it's a little different, just like all of our records are a little step somewhere in a different direction. So there's that mixture of a little fear and confusion, but also mixed in with a little bit of excitement. A record that could have taken us three years to do before now could take us nine months.
Liz: Except that it's already been more than nine months.
Seth: Yeah, but this time there are additional songs. There's going to be leftover songs.
Sean: Yeah, we usually have eleven songs, and we make those eleven songs and it takes us four years. Now we have, like, 40 songs.
Now you can release one of those special archive collections of unreleased songs.
Sean: The market in terms of selling CDs has changed so dramatically that, to have some sort of bonus content, CD 2 maybe, outtakes, whatever it is that sells the package a bit more. You need this sort of value-added stuff now to sell a record.
[Bit of a break here while we talk about one of the opening bands, Duck Duck Punch, as they start to play. Long time friends and super-fans.]
Sean: They've really been around a lot. Very very dedicated fans, going to everything we've ever done around here. I was playing a show with another band one time in Minneapolis and all his friends came and sat around in the rain for like four hours just to talk to me, even though Freezepop wasn't even playing. They were all drenched. I brought them on the bus and was like “Here! Have towels!” Since then we've been pretty chummy with them. You stand in the rain for hours just to talk? We'll stay in touch. [laughs]
ZB: Speaking of fans and going back to PAX, what was that experience like? Was that you biggest show?
Sean: This was the third one. That was really nerve wracking.
It seemed to go over well.
Liz: Yeah. We really didn't know what we were getting ourselves into. [The first year] we were told ahead of time “this is really big. You guys need to bring a lot of merch, you don't even know what you're in for.” And they were right. We totally didn't know what we were in for.
Sean: We didn't take a mad amount of musical risks or anything, but it was a temporary live line-up in front of this huge crowd. The following year, '08, it was the four of us. And that was the right way to go. I think that was my favorite one, because we felt more confident about it. This year's was good. It didn't have quite the same impact somehow.
Liz: I dunno, I was still pretty nervous! [laughs] That's a lot of people. A lot more than we usually play to.
Sean: Yeah. A big crowd for us is three of four hundred people. That's like six or seven thousand people.
Liz: It's like “Oh! Crap!” [laughs]
Sean: It's a whole different thing. The way you interact with the audience and the kind of songs you play have to be a little different. Usually we can get away with playing these little teeny songs in teeny little clubs. So sometimes you have to be “Ah! These are our really crazy, epic, almost-rock songs that aren't really rock but...”
Seth: Yeah, the interaction's different. A show like this you can go up and say hi to people and talk to them. When there's six thousand people at PAX you just strike some hero pose [leans back and shoots a fist in the air – laughter ensues] and you hear people go [makes crowd noise]. “Wow. Alright!”
Sean: Someone can yell out some ridiculous request of a song we did ten years ago and we'll look at each other. “Can we do that?” At something like PAX, that's not going to happen. So it's a different vibe to be sure.
Seth: I think some of the songs translate pretty well to a larger, almost arena-sized place, but that's fortunate. We don't sound like a bar band.
Sean: By this year, we had at least figured out what songs were [makes an angelic “Ah!” epic-sound]
I did see the video of everyone holding their laptops up.
Sean: That just randomly of happened the first year, and we got them to do it the second year. So now it's a trend.
Seth: More people have hand-held devices with larger screens so it's even better.
ZB: Yeah, you see the people in front with cell phones, and then farther back...
Sean: It is so amazing. Such an amazing feeling when that happens. It's just the best thing.
Seth: We turn to each other [makes an “awesome” sound – laughter].
Sean: It's so insane.
Do you hang out at the event much?
Liz: Oh yeah. We have a table there the entire weekend.
Sean: The irony for us is that half the band isn't particularly immersed in video game culture. People will come up and ask me questions and I have no idea what they're talking about. “Can you guys play the end theme from “Kirubash Arubadababa” and I'm like “No.” It's not that we don't want too...
Seth: You guys got a 360 though.
Sean: Now! Only in the last month, 'cause we have to author Rock Band songs on it.
ZB: That was another thing I wanted to know. Are you going to keep doing the Rock Band thing?
Sean: That was the plan. We got an Xbox and were part of this early adopter plan so we could self author. I'll tell you though, I'm not loving it. It's crazy complicated.
I've thought about checking it out for my band too, but I don't even have a 360 so...
Sean: You've got to have a 360 and you've got to have this special account and you've got to be signed up though Harmonix. And the technology is kind of overwhelming. And I'm pretty good and music technology. I mean, I own a recording studio, I can get around ProTools, Logic and stuff. But there's programming the crowd to react in certain ways, getting all the MIDI information right for all the drum hits...”oh god I am not going to be able to do this.”
[It is here that the band takes a break to check out more of Duck Duck Punch. When they return, singing their praises, we move on to some reader questions from around the Interblogs.]
[Question via Magnalon]: How exactly underage were the fans who threw their undies on the stage?
Liz: I think it was more of a hypothetical actually.
Seth: We don't want to get in any legal trouble here.
Sean: Totally hypothetical.
Liz: Well, we do play a lot of all ages shows...I've never gotten obscenely small underwear.
Seth: Oh god. I feel weird.
Liz: Oh! None of that.
[Question via OtakuGirl23]: What's the story behind Liz E's name?
Liz: Sean came up with a big list of stupid names, and that is the one I chose.
Sean: In about a two week period, we named the band, named all the characters, wrote the first song. It was a very productive two weeks, around July '99. It all sort of came out of nowhere. I had this huge list of stupid names that they could choose from.
Seth: It started like any other fake band that we've been in. But then became real.
Sean: Originally The Duke was The Duchess of Candied Apples.
Liz: Well yeah, the list was for me. But then he saw that and said “Well I can be The Duke of Candied Apples. Why not?”
[Question via shnjhnsn]: What is a sprode?
Liz: Oh, well, it really doesn't make much sense, so, I'll have to destroy the illusion here. When we first went to Denmark we stopped at this convenience store and saw a bag of chips that said “Super Sprode” on it and we thought that was pretty fantastic. And then we found out that it's pronounced “spruth,” and it means “crispy.”
Sean: She just took it as more of an excited term.
[Question via phantomile]: What's the weirdest thing that's happened at one of your shows?
Sean: Maybe the marriage proposal at PAX this year?
Liz: I would say that's the most out-of-the-ordinary.
ZB: Who proposed to who?
Liz: Well, this guy emailed me several months before PAX and he was like “well, I want to propose to my girlfriend and I want it to be this big thing so, can we get up on stage with you at PAX to do it?” And I was like, that sounds exciting, we had never done anything like that before.
Seth: “Please say yes. Please say yes.”
Liz: That never even entered my mind until the day of, and I was like “Oh crap! What if she says no?!” We would even recover from that, that would be terrible. But she said “yes” so, it worked out very well.
Sean: We play a lot of conventions and sometimes people show up in costumes and, I love that stuff, but sometimes you're just not expecting it. “Uh...I've been on the road all day.” And then you get in there and some guy's dressed as a level 12 wizard [laughter] just with the...oddest look on his face.
Sean: “I'm a giant fire eagle. Hey, are you guys playing 'Stakeout' tonight?”
“Are you real?”
Sean: “I have to go...right now.” [laugh] I think because of the video game connected we get thrown into a lot of “fantasy situations.” It's super fun and the people are always really sweet. But it can be a little surreal.
[Question via kurogane]: Have you ever been in any of the crazy Asian rhythm games like bemani stuff, DJ Max etc.?
Sean: We were in some of the early ones like Dance Dance Revolution.
Seth: I've played Parappa the Rapper. Guitarooman.
[Question via Xzyliac. NOTE: Xzyliac asked about PAX East, but oddly enough my audio recorder seems to have deleted our entire conversation during that time. Also, whatever it was that effect the recorder also seems to have targeted those particular neurons in my brain, so I also have no memory of their answer. Strange. Xzyliac also asked]: I have been dreaming since the day I became a Freezepop fan that I would own a Freezepop vinyl to add to my collection. Will there ever be a Freezepop vinyl?
Sean: I think we have three?
Liz: We do have vinyl, yeah. We have it available on our website. It's an EP, it's not an album or anything.
Sean: And the other two, that they can also collect. We still have one available on our site. I guess that questions is...Yes, we have records.
[Question via Son of BaconSandwhich]: How far have you guys come? Where do you guys think you can go now?
Sean: I guess that with every record we try and take a step forward. I don't think that in ten years that we'd ever make a record that was unrecognizable. Our tastes have changed over time, and or records have changed over time. As your tastes change, you goals change a little bit. What you want to do sonically, lyrically. We've gotten a little less goofy over time just because I think our tastes have gotten a little less goofy over time.
The first two records were made with, just this little box. I credit The Duke, he had really exhausted the resources of this box and did an amazing job with it. Be he was kind of done with it and we were kind of done with it and it was time to move on to the next thing. So of course the next album sounded a lot more expansive because we had tons of gear and finally got to use a little of it. We made it sound super huge in places. Hopefully we'll just keep taking steps. I don't think we're consciously deciding to go in a different direction. Even if it's more minimalist or simple over time, that's the progress. If it just gets stale then what's the point? It's hard to tell, in the moment, what's happening.
Liz writes most of the lyrics, and that certainly sets the tone. When you get a song like “I had a robot, and it was a chef, and then it had a fight with a gorilla” [laughs] you're not going to have a big orchestral arrangement for it. As her taste has change and the vision of her lyrics has broadened the music has too. It's gone hand-in-hand. Not counting “Hot Air Balloons Are Everywhere They're Driving Me Crazy” which happened the one night in Reno...
Seth: She doesn't want to talk about it.
Liz: No comment.
[Question via Son of BaconSandwhich again]: Any other side projects coming our way?
Sean: We have another band called Lifestyle and we just released a record online. We're involved with a lot of people, especially in Boston, making a lot of recordings. [The Duke's] Symbion Project is probably the highest profile. He just released a new album and he's really proud of it.
Lifestyle actually pre-dated Freezepop. Symbion Project pre-dated Freezepop. Freezepop ended up being a surprise to us, as much as anything. That it ended up being the thing that “got out of town." I wouldn't have known of, like, the six things we were doing at the time, what thing would end up generating interest.
[Huge thanks to the entire band for taking so much time to talk with me, and for putting on an amazing show that night. You can read my previous Destructoid interview with Freezepop here.]