“You might go to the same restaurant many times, but do you always order the same dish?” grins Iason Chronis, the artist most commonly known as Mason. We’re deep into an extensive interview over Zoom about the biggest releases of his career and he’s reached a philosophical plateau. He pauses for a second, giving DJ Mag a moment to look through the windows behind him. They reveal a busy street in the centre of Amsterdam. Trams trundle, people bustle; everyone is totally oblivious to the fact they’re just metres away from a Dutch music legend who’s been in and out of the public eye for almost his entire life. “What’s the fun in doing the same thing over and over?” he continues. “I know many people have made great careers from it. But that’s not for me. I love the freedom being an artist can give you. That’s the most important thing for me.”
Looking back over his career, Iason has stayed true to this freedom. Now, as you read this in 2022, he’s currently developing a close harmony vocal group called The Masonettes who’ll be recording and touring with him later this year; a fusion that is seldom seen in DJ culture or electronic music full stop. Go back to his earliest outings as Mason, around the early 2000s, and he felt just as free and limitless.
“It was a beautiful time. It felt like we’d created a scene here,” he reminisces. At the time, Iason was part of a collective and party crew known as Electronation, an event that celebrated the burgeoning fusion of sounds that would eventually go on to be called electro-house. With artists such as Don Diablo and Laidback Luke either booked as occasional guests, or in attendance on the dancefloor, Electronation is the stuff of Dutch club culture legend and a key stepping stone en route to the EDM phenomenon that remains a dominant presence in dance music today.
“It was the early days of electro, we were getting a lot of the clash stuff coming over from America, a lot of the darker sounds from Germany. It felt very new and fresh. Before then we had house and we had techno, but neither of them I felt truly part of. With this it was different. It was a super-vibrant period — the sound felt warm, it was fun, it brought joy back into dance music and felt very contemporary. If you want to talk about ‘Exceeder’, it was basically the product of those times.”
Arguably one of electro-house’s first big crossover anthems, ‘Exceeder’ was created in a moment of musical flux and was set to the backdrop of early tremors of the digital revolution. It became one of the most iconic and widely supported tunes of its kind, yet it may never have happened if Iason hadn’t become a child star aged six. “That’s kinda the reason why I’m doing all of this,” admits Iason, who was part of a child choir on a famous TV show called Kinderen voor Kinderen. A Dutch institution that continues to this day, back then it was so popular he would regularly be stopped by fans in the street. “It was a big thing because we only had one TV station back in the day. It also meant that I got to hang out in recording studios a lot when I was a kid. In the breaks, everyone would go out and play soccer, but I was fascinated by all the studio kit and would hang around in there whenever I could. I really wanted to be a sound engineer even back then.”
Born in 1980 — son of an actor mother and sculptor father — Iason was brought up in a highly creative environment and encouraged to be anything he wanted to be. As he moved into his teens, the fame of being in a child choir stopped carrying any cache, but his immersion in music continued: he studied the violin and developed a passion for DJing, mixing in clubs from the age of 16. Already adopting the name Mason (a subversion of his own first name) he first made a noise in his hometown of Bussum, then made even more noise in Amsterdam, where he moved at the age of 17. Both of these musical endeavours unwittingly set the scene and put him in good training for the life-changing career moment that was about to happen.
“As a DJ, my first international bookings were around the late ‘90s, when I was 17 or 18. I went on a few tours around the time of the millennium, but the first big world tour I went on was actually with Tiësto a few years later,” Iason reflects. This was in 2003/4, and it was no usual support gig. Often performing to crowds of over 20,000, Tiësto In Concert was a bombastic show concept even by today’s EDM standards, and Iason played a prominent role as both the warm-up DJ and as a performer, playing the electric violin live on key tracks. Videos of these collaborations still exist online and showcase how rapid, talented and technical his playing was. No matter how impressive these performances were, however, it quickly became too routine for Iason.
“I began to feel like a bit of a circus monkey, where you have to come on and do your trick,” he explains. “I wasn’t feeling it. We did a world tour and, looking back, it was cool because I had some experience with touring, so that type of lifestyle wasn’t a surprise when ‘Exceeder’ blew up.”
The surprise, for Iason, was the fact it blew up at all. Released in autumn 2005, ‘Exceeder’ was Mason’s fourth single following breakthrough records the ‘Helikopter’ EP, ‘The Screech’ and ‘The Benedict Files’. Each cut was very different and drew from inspirations ranging from disco and funk to deep house. ‘Exceeder’ was his latest endeavour, but nothing about it stood out to Iason as a hit. He thought it was far too obvious and not unique enough to make an impression.
“It felt too easy,” admits Iason, who first named the track ‘BLEP’ because it was made in such a blink-of-an-eye situation. Produced while he was in between studios, the track came together in a matter of days in his kitchen on just a Mac and a MIDI keyboard. The A-side, a slower, funkier, Italo-style groove called ‘Follow Me’ came together not long after. “I can be a stubborn guy and I felt that ‘Exceeder’ was just not A-side material and should be on the B. So I made ‘Follow Me’ for the A-side,” he explains. “I felt more comfortable with that one. But then, of course, everything kicked off around the B-side.”
The first of many different versions of the release came on a label called Middle Of The Road, an imprint run by one of his Electronation peers. 500 vinyl units deep, it didn’t take long for the record to circulate and the phone to start ringing. But as nice as the groove of the A-side was, everyone wanted a piece of the B. “I guess it had more to it than I thought,” Iason shrugs.
Taking electro-house from the underground to the mainstream, sonically ‘Exceeder’ articulated what everyone into the sound had been feeling for a few years to records by the likes of Black Strobe, Felix da Housecat, Freeform Five, Tiefschwarz, Zombie Nation and bands like Spektrum. The rasping, cascading bassline/riff and the big slug-like funk guitar samples on the fills, the widescreen chunkiness of it — it was an electro-house blueprint that brought everything together. It had the class and temper of house music, the weight and futurism of techno, the riffy hookiness of trance and the fatness of breakbeat. As a result, it got picked up by DJs across all those genres, with support ranging from David Guetta to Boys Noize, John Digweed, Carl Cox and Stanton Warriors.
Attention from labels was just as intense, with imprints across the board looking to licence it. Burgeoning German label Great Stuff took the honour. Home to other big electro-esque acts at the time like Tocadisco, Tomcraft, Coburn and Eyerer & Chopstick, Great Stuff’s reputation in the electro fringes of house and techno was well established even after just two years of operations. As a new-generation label launching in the mid-2000s, they were also digitally savvy, giving ‘Exceeder’ an added layer of exposure.
Following on from the track’s first release in 2005, their reissue in early 2006 gave it a whole new lease of life. “I don’t think I really quite grasped the weight of it to begin with. There’s a delay between the hype and then the effect it has on your career, so I was getting the signals but none of the actions,” recalls Iason, who by this stage had been joined by temporary Mason member Coen Berrier. “Then Great Stuff re-released it, it went to Beatport number one, which was also a very new thing at the time. From there it became a big Ibiza hit. That whole summer became a big festival and the next few years became an endless world tour.”
This is the classic moment in any Game Changer story, where the track takes on a life of its own and the artist is dragged along in its hype slipstream. But, unlike so many other artists who have a mega-hit so early on in their career, Iason was already well-versed in touring. Between 2006-7 Iason played hundreds of shows, often comprising two or three in different countries in the space of 24 hours.
“I had the record of the most shows played in one year with the agent we had at the time,” he remembers. “It was hard-going but I was flexible, I had that tour experience from the past and wasn’t too much of a crazy party guy. I kept it sensible and could handle the pressure. It was like, ‘Okay let’s go — play, play, play!’”
The playing and touring was extended furthermore when Iason and Coen created a vocal mash-up using the vocals of a hit called ‘Perfect’ by LA rapper Princess Superstar at the end of 2006. Coming from electroclash roots, stylistically Princess Superstar was a perfect match. And with her unique sultry lyrical delivery, it was everything Ministry Of Sound’s Data imprint needed for a crossover smash, too. Hitting number three in the UK official charts in January 2007, the label even copied the success of Eric Prydz’s ‘Call On Me’ video they’d released in 2004 and whipped up a (now very dated) gym-based video with lots of scantily-clad dancers.
Financially, this made sense and ensured Iason was on the road for at least another year. But stylistically, for both Mason and electro-house, the vocal version heralded the beginning of the end of an era. The halcyon daze of 2004’s electro melting pot was a distant memory and the mainstream release was creating more and more commercial bookings where Iason felt completely disconnected from the crowd. It was time to move on.
“I never want to follow the usual path or trends. The electro-house movement was becoming very big and that, for me, felt quite cheesy — so I went a different route,” says Iason, who by this stage of his career was becoming increasingly frustrated with labels requesting him to churn out another version of ‘Exceeder’. Instead of dancing to their tune — and increasingly concerned his profile was going to be based around the success of just one piece of music — he launched his own label Animal Language and started releasing the records he wanted to make.
Some releases were playful and euphoric (‘Front Row Chemistry’), others were more pop-like and leftfield (‘You Are Not Alone’). Either way, each release positioned Iason and Coen (who eventually left Mason in 2013) further and further away from ‘Exceeder’... And deeper and deeper into a dancefloor no man’s land.
While Iason’s Dutch contemporaries such as Fedde Le Grand, Don Diablo and Afrojack had become something of a new jet-set superstar DJ elite, Iason had a much more scenic route to explore as he continued to carve a much more unique — and often heavily disco-flavoured — path that suited him. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, he did this while navigating not one, but two, label- imposed remix updates of ‘Exceeder’, in 2012 and 2014. On both occasions a remix topped the Beatport main charts, bringing all Mason conversations back to ‘Exceeder’. But rather than cashing in on his old reputation, these moments spurred Iason on to push himself in new creative directions.
His self-described stubbornness has since paid off on multiple occasions: the timeless Mason sophomore album ‘ZOA’, the club-pounding smasher ‘Rhino’, the Jacko-sampling disco bomb ‘Papapapapa’ (which went on to be vocalled by Stefflon Don), his 2020 Toolroom album ‘Frisky Biscuits’ and last year’s Beatport number one ‘Givin Up’ are just some of the big moments Iason’s enjoyed in the last few years — each one reminding us that he’s definitely not ‘that ‘Exceeder’ guy’.
“As grateful as I am for everything the song has given me, I was worried I would become known as ‘the ‘Exceeder’ guy’ at some points,” laughs Iason. “But I’ve shown that if you do your own thing then you have to travel a longer road — but it will pay off. Yes, there were difficult periods where things didn’t click with what was happening out there and I’m too stubborn to change what I’m doing to fit that. And yes, 10 years ago, maybe we couldn’t have had this conversation. But now I feel I’ve done enough in my career that not everyone associates me with that one song anymore. It’s another exciting time and I still feel that total freedom I felt before.”
Except now, he has a lot more control over that freedom. 17 years after ‘Exceeder’’s debut, Iason is able to decide who remixes the anthem and when it’s released. And, with eight years passed since its last update (the longest the track has ever gone without a new remix or reissue), he hints that we could well be hearing a new batch of versions for 2022, including one from David Guetta.
“There’s always been interest and requests to remix it,” he explains. “But I never want to overdo things, or tread the same path. I’ve already said about ordering from the same menu... Where’s the fun in that?”