Tycho's Scott Hansen talks graphic design and making headphone music work live
With Tycho's Awake, out March 18th via Ghostly, the San Francisco-based audiovisual project helmed by Scott Hansen has reached a certain maturity, growing into a three-piece band and achieving, on the new record, an even more refined sense of clarity. Awake takes the evocative, pop-ambient synth work that made 2011's Dive feel so oddly spiritual (and drew countless comparisons to Boards of Canada) and refocuses it into a cleaner, sharper post-rock context; it feels like an album that should be broadcast at night over the Grand Canyon. I spoke to Hansen about growing out of "the Instagram approach" to music producing, making headphone music work live and why he considers this "the first true Tycho record."
Stream: Tycho, "Awake"
Where am I talking to you now? We’re in the studio, working on the live show. I’m working with the engineer who helped mix the record to translate the recorded stuff live. Last album, we struck the balance between having the live show sound more like the record, but over time, we decided we wanted a more ability to go off the beaten path, and we’re trying to skew the balance back to the performance end of things. It’s kind of headphone music at the end of the day, especially the older stuff, so we’re always trying to punch it up.
You’ve called this “the first true Tycho record.” Why do you feel that way, even though you’ve been at it for a little while? I look at it from a career perspective, like what I was doing in my life when I made those other albums. My life revolved mostly around freelance graphic design work, and I wasn’t truly focused on music in the way that I am now. And back then, I hadn’t met musicians that I really resonated with in a songwriting context. Meeting Zac, meeting Rory and meeting Count, the engineer—forming relationships with them where we were comfortable enough to start creating together is what facilitated making this record the way I wanted. It was always my dream for Tycho to get to that point, it just took me 10 years to get there. This is what I wanted Tycho to be all along.
So it’s a proper band now. Now I kind of look at at is: I’m in a band, and I play keyboards and guitar and bass, and I also produce that band. You put on two different hats. Working with Zac in particular, we came up with basic ideas and then spent time in different places for a couple weeks at a time working through them, developing songs. Then I went back and produced them out, and we spent a few weeks at the end flashing and burning and doing the hard decisions I wasn’t objective enough to make in the past. From songwriting to arrangement, we worked really closely. Rory, the drummer—I always hear these drum patterns and swells in the music, but I’ve never had the ability or energy to achieve that with electronic programming. He was able to just sit down, hear the music and go.
You’re in the second half of your 30s. Does devoting yourself even more to music feel like a risk? There’s a huge element of that, but I also—when I say I’m devoted to music, there’s a little bit of a caveat, because Tycho is an audiovisual project, and I’m an audiovisual artist. Shirts we do, posters, album covers, I’m always designing those things. As a financial risk, that’s inherent with anything.
I read a post of yours on Reddit about the album art, and you used the phrase “efficiency of communication.” Did you have a similar approach to the album itself? That was definitely a goal with this record, to become more efficient. I would never use the word “minimalism” to describe anything I do, but it’s a relatively minimal record compared to some others I’ve done. As you become more adept at expressing yourself, whether it’s on the audio or the visual side, you tend to separate the background noise from the real thing you’re getting at. You have to crystalize the vision you want to express, and you have learn about the craft and the process to be able to express that in the simplest, most digestible way possible.
I remember another old interview of yours in which you said you’d had a really hard year, and that Dive was what came out of it. That surprised me because its so even-keeled. How do you see this album as reflecting your own personality? It’s all relative, right. I think I’m pretty even-keeled compared to most people in the music industry. If anything, this album represents to me a triumph over the barriers I’d made it past making Dive and touring it. Okay, we learned all these things, how can we come back and use them? If it speaks to my personality, I’m not sure—I don’t have an objective enough standpoint to say. But it does feel comforting, and maybe that’s because I use it as therapy in a way.
I don’t know if I just have a bad rip of Dive, but things sound crisper here, like there’s more attention to fidelity. That album was such a protracted process that some of those songs were created over four years. When we tried to pull it all together—that’s when I worked with Count for the first time—he was like, “Man, this is a wreck. There’s just clicks and pops and huge problems with the recording process.” I was using bad equipment, and I didn’t know what I was doing. He taught me a lot about how to do it next time. He was like, “Next time, dude, just sell all your stuff. Get a really simple setup of just two input channels and a good converter and do it clean. Don’t worry about having all these different things, just learn these two pieces of equipment well. Then we’ll go back, if you want to add anything.” I was always hung up on the Instagram approach to making music: let’s dirty everything up, let’s make it sound bold. That was me hiding the errors of the original recordings through making it all retro and lo-fi. This time we had quality recordings to start with.
I thought it was interesting that track four on this record was called “Dye,” and the previous album's track four was “Dive.” Is there a connection besides similar names? There are parallels between those songs. “Dye” is like an evolved version of what “Dive” was back in that time. If you listen to the first half of “Dye,” it’s more like “Dive,” then the second half with the rock refrain is more like “Montana,” or the post-rock sounding songs that we have now. The way the new album starts is with “Awake.” The song is fitting, the title is fitting, and I think it’s the most focused expression of what we were trying to do with this record. “Montana” I wanted to put up front, because it’s kind of a long, rocked-out thing and probably the most different song from Dive. Then it jumps to “L,” which is totally old school Tycho in most ways. I just wanted to put all the ideas up front, and the jumping-off point is song four, where it shifts from an older sound and changes to what this record is about. It’s about an arc of energy and emotion across the record.
Stream: Tycho, "Montana"
Once upon a time, you had vocal samples on your songs, and you don’t anymore. Is there an interesting reason? There was a time when I felt that was necessary to build a space, which I felt was missing in a lot of my music. Guitars, for me, have replaced that for a certain degree because they’re expressive in a similar way. I got a Minimoog after Dive and I’ve found it to be great for harmonies and melodies in the way that lead vocals would be, to me at least. It was just a motif where I feel I did what I did with it, and now it’s time to try something different.
I think there’s a quality to the music you make, and in similar post-rock sounds, where it doesn’t necessarily have an intrinsic emotional slant, but instead can amplify whatever emotions the listeners already have, and blow them into big proportions. Do you consider the songs to have inherent emotions? I think that’s a good way to look at it. There was a second Reddit thing I did, and I said that one of the beauties of instrumental music is that it doesn’t define, it implies. I try to use the music as a framework for you to transpose your own emotions onto it, just like you’ve articulated it. The way I know that it doesn’t have any inherent emotion attached is that, even for me while working on it, I might be in a low point during a certain time developing the song, and the song really speaks to that, but then later I’ll be totally euphoric and working on it and it’ll play to that. It’s an amplifier, or like a wireframe that you can mold your own emotions around.