Tycho: Sounds Like Serotonin

[31 July 2012]

By Steve Jansen

Speaking with Scott Hansen—he that is Tycho—as bad as the international phone line is between Britain and Canada, where Hansen’s three-piece live band are on tour, I’d have to be deaf not to hear his reticence upon hearing the c-word. Fair dues, not everyone likes the term chillwave.

“I might seem like somebody that can speak to that,” he crackles and wavers, back and forth, as I ask about possible origins for the scene. “But when it was all happening, I had my head down working on my music,” spirited away in his San Francisco abode for what became a 12-month tenure, writing and recording, Dive, Tycho’s second –- and it has to be said, really rather fabulous—longplayer. Hansen concedes, yes, he was aware of the rising swell of interest in acts “like Toro Y Moi and Washed Out”, but the unassuming (bordering on self effacing) 35-year-old refuses, albeit politely, to be drawn any further. Merely claiming he can’t speak for “other people’s influences. I just think that’s where electronic music was moving towards, that chilled out sound.”

To be honest, I would have been more surprised if Hansen had been happy at my namedropping chillwave, given how the simple act of defining and labeling any cultural shift generally threatens obsolescence. But being British (let alone on the other side of the Atlantic) I was curious as to how such an epic sound—all paradoxical ‘70s synths, with hints of indie shoegaze buffed to a lysergic sparkle—came about. And there are aspects of these which Tycho certainly shares. Hansen merely suggests it may simply have been a “natural coalescence”, before shifting to agree with my observation that “it does seem to be a uniquely American thing. Which is great,” he warms, “because it does seem like you guys have been ahead of us on everything else.”

In fairness, compared to a lot of high-profile electronica these days, where the sound is simplistic at times bordering on deconstructed or lo-fi, Tycho is something apart. Parlaying an obvious awareness of prog rock structuring with a love for Boards of Canada and Ulrich Schnauss, Hansen admits to being influenced by the likes of “DJ Shadow, and before that, Roni Size. LTJ Bukem, that whole Logical Progression stuff.” Certainly, there’s DNA traces of them all—specifically the latter’s Journey Inwards—in Tycho’s widescreen and meticulous production sound. An undertaking Hansen admits sucks him in. “When I’m working on stuff, my house, the rest of my life, becomes a complete disaster,” he laughs. But which has resulted in Dive being the kind of album that begs—and amply rewards—repeat listens.

This writer first came to Hansen around 2006, via Iso50, his graphic design alter-ego (of which, more in a moment), just as Tycho’s first album—originally Sunrise Projector, rebooted with fresh material as—Past Is Prologue was released. A collection which Hansen now regards as “a very early kind of experiment. It wasn’t a conscious effort to put that album together, more that I had this collection of songs and I wanted to place them together.”

Nevertheless, as debut albums go Past Is Prologue belied, certainly on tracks like “From Home” and “The Disconnect”, a commitment to transcend that which for electronic music is an innate, ongoing challenge: the double-edged sword of vocal use. Singing, after all, as Talking Heads suggest on the inner-sleeve of Stop Making Sense, “is a trick to get people to listen to music for longer.” A standard ingredient—and indicator—of pop song convention which electronic music enjoys a freedom to reject, but all too often fails to validate. Too many electronica acts (given the genre’s deep links and debt to electronic dance music) squandering their valuable freeform liberty, in favor of bog-standard repetition and knob-rider sonics to see a track through. A trade-off which confirms in a genre, as with punk before it, where a lack of formal music training is almost a prerequisite, that a world of difference remains between producing and composing music.

Tycho live: Hansen strings theory, with Zack Brown (left).

Tycho live: Hansen strings theory, with Zack Brown (left).

Hansen admits he is, as a multi-instrumentalist, self taught; the result to-date of a friend hooking him, first onto drum & bass, before lending him an old drum-machine to tinker with. “I’m not a great guitar or keyboard player, I don’t understand those instruments as much as a lot of people. So I’m having to experiment with less, in a way.” Yet as with DJ Shadow at his onetime best, it’s entirely possible to take long rides with Tycho without ever registering a lack of text.

“A huge component is memory,” Hansen suggests, by way of an answer as to what he’s striving to communicate; the “echoing of a past”. Nostalgia is an emotional reaction. And the only explanation for what this writer gets each time he listens to ‘The Disconnect’ (from Past Is Prologue), as if the track aligns with some random shard of my ‘70s childhood. “But it’s not the past as it really was, though,” Hansen concedes from beyond the phone static, “because memories aren’t always entirely how things happened.” Which also explains why I’m still none the wiser as to which memory I’m supposed to be reliving through the track. “But that’s the intention,” he confirms, “to evoke some big sensation.”

As a former student of computer science, Hansen admits he was on the wrong road until he “slowly started messing around at night with graphic design and exploring music” in his early 20s. From whence “the two disciplines grew out of each other”. Work as a graphic designer (and for Adobe) ensuing, until “about five or six years ago”, the day-job and night projects flipped. Hansen preference for the design jobs-as-favours he was doing for friends: for the freedom they granted him to express himself.

Cut forward to now, and Hansen’s Iso50 website, “originally just somewhere to put my portfolio”, has expanded into what maintains as a well thought out, intelligent but accessible, graphic design blog. which by virtue of its concentric editorial policies also features music and video, “all of the things that inspire me”. An endeavor which Hansen (and co-curators) has managed to create as an alternative equivalent to the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royale magazine. “An extra layer,” he hopes. One that offers a broad access point, through which people can arrive at Tycho’s music as part of what is effectively a much larger “audio visual project. Because it’s about the graphics as much as it is the music,” Hansen admits. “Because I don’t think about music without the visual.”

Following through, in taking to the road Hansen accepts electronic music doesn’t automatically make for an experiential live event. (If God had intended laptops for use as stage instruments, He’d have created them with longer flex.) Thus, Tycho onstage is a trio, with keyboards, live drums and guitars. Over which—Hansen admits he favours his chosen genre’s tendency towards anonymity—video director Charles Bergquist’s specially commissioned high-speed-slo-mo footage is projection synched.

Hansen: The man in black.

Hansen: The man in black.

As mentioned earlier, this writer came to Tycho via Hansen’s graphic design. After which, I stuck around, fascinated that his music somehow manages to sound like his design work—just as his visuals seem to refract like his music. “It’s not like people sit looking at a record sleeve while they’re listening [to music] anymore,” he registers, pointing towards the responsibility of websites now that music’s ephemeral wrap has been atomised by binary downloading. “But it is up to the artist: to be more creative and aware when they present the visual side of their work.”

Likewise, I’ve been impressed by how, through funds generated from sales of prints and t-shirts—all of which further expand upon the world of Tycho’s music (“you can appreciate one or the other, but together they paint the whole picture. There’s always a dialogue going on”)—Hansen has self-financed Tycho, even down to the year he needed away to make Dive.

Efforts, I wager which position Hansen as one to watch. Now, but also for the future; certainly as Tycho, and especially for Dive. But equally because, by striving to self-launch and produce and maintain such an impressively immersive world in—and through—which his music can thrive; where sound interacts so seamlessly with visuals and products and publishing-grade editorial content, Hansen has concocted his own solution to the music industry’s ongoing torpor.

But most importantly, beyond talk of business models and industry solutions—transaction—at the heart of Tycho’s tale lies Scott Hansen’s desire for us all to lose ourselves briefly to something positive. And in a cynical world like ours right now, what’s not to like about that.

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Tycho will be on tour across the United States throughout September 2012. Check website for details.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/160939-tycho-sounds-like-serotonin/