Tycho’s Scott Hansen is a busy man. As the frontman, principle songwriter, producer, as well as the creator of the band’s album art and live visuals, he has no shortage of things on his plate. It’s the sound of the future that owes so much to the past. I sat down with Scott on a morning before a show in Seattle to talk about his process, translating his brand of ambient/electronic music into a compelling live show, and the intersection of music and visual art.
What were your first early forays and entries into making music?
When I came back from San Francisco, and moved back to downtown Sacramento, that’s when I started messing around with drum machines and synthesizers. I finally got a sampler, and that’s when it took off for me because I realized I could record back into it. That’s when the concept of chopping things up and moving them around occurred to me. That was the first thing that made me think, “Okay, this is something I can do. I can make musical compositions instead of just play with this gear.”
Besides the sampler, were you using a 4-track cassette recorder?
No. I never used any recording medium before that. I transferred music to tape and MiniDisc once it was done, but when it came to composing, I never used anything before that sampler. Eventually I got a computer. I never realized computers could record audio at the time, because mine was so old.
Were you always drawn to instrumental music?
I listened to rock, folk, and singer/songwriters. But when I went away to college in San Francisco, I started going to electronic shows. It was unlike music I’d heard before, and that’s what piqued my interest. That was the only music I’d ever heard that I felt I could at least begin to dissect. I didn’t play guitar or any [traditional] instruments at the time, so “normal music” seemed really foreign, and basically impossible to break into.
On Epoch, your latest record, what was the process like? How do you start?
With this one, I worked with Zac Brown a lot. He’s from Sacramento too. Usually I work up some ideas, then I spend a few months with them, turning them into something I would consider a demo. Then Zac will come in and we’ll start playing with the idea. I’ll take it back for a while and do the full production and arrangement. Then he’ll come back and we’ll basically strip it down, try to figure out what it’s about, take out everything that doesn’t need to be there, and make it cleaner for the final version. We actually started [working together] on the previous record [Awake]. We went to Lake Tahoe for the first couple weeks on both of those; we just tried to jam and figure it out. That’s the first time I’ve gone about it that way, and that was pretty fun. Some of it worked out, some of it didn’t. But it was good because it lays a nice foundation for the rest.
Are you inspired by a melody? Or is there a sound you’re starting with, like sitting down with the guitar or the synth, translating a melody that was in your head?
Yeah, it’s probably half and half now for guitar and synths. I’ve really gotten into guitar over the last ten years. I’d really gotten into keyboards, and I felt like I was playing the same thing over and over again. The things that really inspire me at the beginning, the initial sparks, are the textures, the effects, and all of that. That usually writes itself, at that point. I’ll start playing a synth patch that’s really interesting and then this melody just comes out of it. That’s usually the basis. Or I’ll start playing into a chain and think, “Whoa.” I’ll hear this echo and it makes me think, “Oh, maybe this should go that way.” The real spark is the initial sound, then the melodies come out of that.
Right. There’s such a visual aspect to your music, and you’re a visual artist as well. Does the visual inform your writing?
I wouldn’t say that either informs the other. I think they come from the same place; it’s two different sides of the same coin. I think there’s definitely a lot of overlap, and there are instances where – especially lately – that I create the artwork after the fact. I’m definitely trying to create something that captures the spirit of what I think the music is about. But, at the same time, it’s never a one to one translation. It’s more like filling in the gaps.
How do the sounds and the composition translate into a story?
I think there are two different types of songs that end up on the records. The first ones would be the personal, emotional kind of spaces. Maybe not an event, or a specific thing, but an emotional space. Those don’t really have a story for me. They just kind of hit me in the gut and I get taken back to this feeling. But there are others that are open-ended soundscapes. When I’m making them I just think, “Wow, this is really interesting.” And I keep following that path and taking the turns. By the end of it, after I’ve listened to it a million times, it becomes kind of numb. But after the album is done and I’ve had some space, I’ll come back to it because I have to do the visuals for the show. So the visuals don’t always reflect exactly what I am hearing, but that’s when the songs start to take on a narrative and you can see this movie being played along to them. I actually have storyboarded them up. I haven’t had the time or the resources to make a true narrative film, but it’s something I hope to be able to do eventually. There are some songs, like “Montana,” “Rings,” or “Epoch,” that have a very solid narrative element to them. For me, at least.
You talk about nostalgia, longing, childhood, and environment. How do you work to translate those emotions into a narrative of sound? One thing I noticed, following your social media, is that you’re often posting beautiful landscape images. How much does the natural world influence your writing?
They are inextricable. I’m not sitting there thinking, “Oh, I’m writing about the beach!” But I think the natural and the rural was my childhood. That’s something that was always core to my existence; the whole world to me. That’s where this is coming from, whether I’m trying or not. But I do think it’s becoming more that that’s the palette. And now these emotional spaces are becoming more of the content, because I feel as I get older – and I’ve gone through this process of speaking to all of these elements that were inspiring me at the time – I’ve turned more inward and tried to work through some more personal themes. An internal space. I don’t think that’s been a conscious choice, that’s just what’s happened over the last couple of records. So, those spaces still inspire me, but it used to be, “Okay, how do I invoke this idea?” I think Epoch might’ve been the end of that path. Now it will be some different formula or mix of those two things. That’s the way I’ve been turning.
It’s a unique challenge because you’re not playing vocal music. How do you present new ideas?
For me, it’s back to the sound and the texture. It’s not all about the notes. I’m sure if you broke the music down, it’s not the most complex music in the world. A music PhD would think it’s pretty simple! But, for me, it’s about the engineering and the sound design. There’s music, like Boards of Canada and Ulrich Schnauss, that inspired me. Photek [Rupert Parkes] was the first person that inspired me where I was like, “What is that sound? I’ve never heard anything like that.” I’d hear these bass tones and textures behind him. There would be one chord for five minutes, but it was so interesting, and moved in such an interesting way, that it was really powerful.
How do you pull your music off live?
It used to just be me, a laptop, and a keyboard, and it was not something I was really proud of on a nightly basis. I wasn’t like, “That was cool.” I think, back in the day, with the artists I was into, I would go see them live and be like, “Okay, it’s just the guy there.” It didn’t matter, because I just wanted to hear the music on a loud sound system. The guy was actually there, and there was something about that that was enough for me. But then I saw Roni Size’s Reprazent in 1996. They came to San Francisco and played at Bimbo’s. He had a drummer, and a bassist, and it just blew my mind. The other artist was Caribou [Tape Op #37]. I’d seen him a few times and was like, “Man, that’s so engaging.” I think that planted the seed. It wasn’t until a decade later that I hooked up with Zac. I asked him to come over and open-end riff. We didn’t even have songs then; he was just playing over them. Then I slowly started having him play on demos for the records. When we first got offered a tour opening up for Little Dragons in 2011, we hired a drummer and it evolved from there. We use SMPTE [timecode] as the core timer, and that sends signals out to all of our ears, and [drummer] Rory [O’Connor] is obviously the timekeeper of the whole thing. I tried to focus on the elements that were most important from the songs, take those, and push them to the forefront. I think this kind of music is headphone music, at a certain point. It doesn’t have to be, but it can serve the purpose of being background music very well. That’s obviously not what you want in a live context, so I try to take it and punch out these elements. “Here’re the drums. Put them right up front. Here’re the guitars, and here’s the melody. Make it way louder than the record.” That’s what the show is about: taking the songs, driving the energy with them, and driving them a little bit harder when it comes to sound. We’re driving the preamps harder, and we’re using tones we wouldn’t use on the record. If you look back at Dive , really that wasn’t a live [performance] record. I made all that just by playing little parts and chopping them together. But then on Awake the idea was, “Let’s try to capture that [live show energy].” So Rory was playing drums from the very beginning. Zach and I were playing the whole parts and trying to make it feel live. And so the records slowly caught up with the live show. And now, with the new record, I feel like “Division” and “Slack” are basically live songs. So that’s the end where I’ve pushed the drums and all these elements up to the forefront that used to hang in the back to make it this more visceral “in your face” experience. I don’t think “in your face” would be how people would describe the music or the shows, but that’s the idea! [laughter]
It’s cool to get something different. Maybe people don’t want the live show to just be the record playing.
Some people do. Tame Impala [Tape Op #95] has always been an interesting reference point to me, and it’s been interesting to see their progression. It seems like they’ve gone on this cyclical “it sounds like the record, now it sounds live.” It’s been interesting to gauge, based on what I want, and what I personally wanted out of a live show, to see bands do both things multiple times. I try to keep a balance with this. I want to satisfy the people who want textures and all those interesting elements in a big, larger than life space, but I also want it to feel live and have there be a connection between what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing. There’re a lot of sounds where I’m playing a keyboard or guitar with a 100 percent wet reverb and delay, and you really would not even know what’s going on. All you hear is a giant swell. A lot of the “synth” parts aren’t even synths; they’re guitars. Or they’re synths that sound like guitars. But right now we tend towards live sounds, especially working with Peter Franco, the front of house engineer. He worked with Daft Punk for a long time, so from the studio to the stage he knows the process of making something feel live. He’s taught me a lot about what people are looking for, as well as how things can sound like a studio but have that live element to them. We switched our whole front of house system to analog; we’ve tried to break as much as we can out of the box, and we have also done a lot of things to make it be a much closer connection to us on stage. I think that was the problem; there was a disconnect where we were playing through these super saturated reverb channels. If you’re not feeling it, and you’re not feeling that visceral connection, then the audience isn’t either. So he’s helped me unravel things and make it drier and more live.
And is he actually participating in the mix of the show like a dub mixer would?
Absolutely. It’s so fun to be on stage and see him look so into it. It makes us feel like, “Oh, this sounds amazing. This is in the moment, and the show is never going to sound like it does right now.” He’s really pushing things. We used to have everything totally automated and we were going through digital mixers with full automation. We used to mix in the box, in Reaper [DAW]. All you’d hear in front of house was a two-channel mix with the drums. Now, it feels like it’s a lot more in your face, and I think he pushes the right elements, at the right times. And he makes up for us not sounding great that night, or whatever! You know that whatever is going on onstage, he’s make it sound at least decent. [laughter] So that’s been cool; he’s been like the fifth member of the band.
It was really difficult. The first test of that was with,Dive. I’d met him at a show right before that album was finished up. He was like, “Oh, I can help you out with this. This is what I do; I mix.” That’s what I was looking for at the time, because I felt like I’d hit the limits of my abilities on that level. By the time you’re that deep into a project, you have no reference point and you’re not able to be objective about your own work. Plus, I just didn’t have the technical skills to pull it off. So we started working on it. But he wanted to put it in Pro Tools and I use Reaper. So we did that and we spit it out, and it was just too different. There were all these relationships with side-chaining, and busses, and all this mixing in Reaper that was going on that kind of got blown out of the water. So I was like, “This isn’t going to work.” I think a few of the songs ended up making the record that were done in Pro Tools. But basically the bulk of it, we took it back into Reaper. I just sat there with him and he told me what to do, and then slowly he learned it enough to use it. And then with Awake it was the same thing. With this one he’s pretty good at Reaper now, so I just take my computer over to his studio, we set everything up, and work through everything together. At this point it’s become a really smooth process. I have these songs – it’s not a negative thing, because actually it’s a very positive thing – but at the end of it, I’m so ready for these songs to be done. He does all this work, and all of a sudden these elements come out. And all these problems and places where I screwed up become so apparent. [laughing] It’s not just a muddy wall of sound anymore. It’s like he puts the glasses on the mix and then I’m like, “Okay, we’ve got two more weeks of work fixing this shit!” It’s kind of a back and forth. That’s the cool thing about him working in Reaper: I can take that computer back home, work on the exact same session with the mix in place, and then take it back over to his place.
What part does software play in your recording? I know you use a lot of analog synths, and we just talked about getting back to a more analog process in your live show.
Software is definitely by far the biggest element of the whole process. I always use an analog front-end. I mean obviously you have to use some sort of analog! [laughter] For the most part, dynamics, EQ, and the preamp are all analog, and then I use an Aurora converter. For the last two records, other than interesting effects like an Ursa Major [Space Station] reverb or something, there’s pretty much no going out of the box at that point. We’re using all kinds of plug-ins; SoundToys, Waves, PSP, and UAD. I also use a ton of soft synths, actually. I’ll play the initial melodies; the meat of it is there, and then it’s like, “This should have a pad.” Especially during the later phases. If there’s something needed I’ll try to use a VST [Virtual Studio Technology] so I can keep them open-ended and edit them. At the end, we do analog summing and use analog bus compression sometimes, but it’s pretty rare. We mostly just do the summing, so we go out through that and come back into the master bus reverb. But the core of it is Reaper, which is kind of the Swiss Army knife for audio.
You reference Boards of Canada. Texturally and sonically you’re using some of the same “voices,” I guess is a good term.
It’s just the saddest sound I’ve ever heard. [laughter] And I hear it on all your records, and certainly the Boards of Canada vibe as well.
It’s probably not a particular synth. I use the Minimoog a ton on everything. I’m sure Boards of Canada use that, or something similar. But yeah, I think it’s that VHS kind of tape wobble. It sounds like old memories; like when you’re a kid listening to your parents 8-track. I think there’s something to that, there’s a patina or a texture that I try to put on. It’s the same as graphic design, where you can design something in Illustrator with these perfect lines and create these posters where there’s all this stark contrast and it looks like it was created by a computer. But then I’ll take it into Photoshop and blur the edges, or layer some paper over it and use some sort of process to make it feel like a photo of an old poster, which is kind of what I want the music to be. I want it to sound like samples. I want to make my own playing sound like it was a sampled record. But I think that’s becoming less and less. I think I’m trying to capture what the element of that is that’s hitting people and having some sort of emotional response. [I want to] focus in on that, but take away the dirty artifacts of that process. There was a time and place where I enjoyed that kind of filtered sound, but more and more, especially with the latest record, I’m trying to get this hi-fi sound while still maintaining those nostalgic, familiar elements while stripping away the ugly things that come along with it.
How has the sound of Tycho evolved in other ways?
At the beginning I was definitely going for that Boards of Canada “thing,” where it’s super saturated. Almost like a Polaroid vibe. And, like I was saying, there’s going to be this blur, and fading, and color shift when you do that. But, over time, I think I became more and more interested in the engineering side of it. Definitely Count enabled me to think about that and achieve the vision of sharpening all those sounds, while maintaining the good elements. That’s a part of it; the true texture of the sound. The core of what it sounds like has evolved to be cleaner and more focused. And the writing has evolved in a way that I’ve worked more and more closely with Zac, and then on the last record Rory was involved as well. He played drums on Awake, but he was involved with songwriting with a couple of songs on the latest record. So I think, in that way, it’s become more open to other people’s perspectives. It’s been an evolution for me. At the end of the day, these songs are the sum total of a lot of people’s ideas, instead of just this one thing that could become, over 10 or 12 tracks, a little “one note.” I can step into a producer role at times where I am here to shepherd these sounds and these ideas, and push them into the Tycho sphere, and bring them into that space and put my own textures on them. But, at the same time, the original idea “not being mine” is sort of interesting to me. I think that might be the next phase – going more and more into a band space, as far as where the ideas come from.
Contributions are always nice.
Doing a lot of remixes taught me that working with an existing idea will inspire something. I’ll come up with an original idea, but I’ll throw this framework that I built the idea around, and that’s probably more interesting than something I would’ve come up with right away. That’s how I’ve always looked at music, even when it’s 100 percent my own song, is to try to remix my own music so that by the time whatever makes it on the record, it’s hopefully two steps removed from my original idea. There are some things where a piano part is always going to be there, but I like to keep changing the rest of the song. “What is the cool part of the song? Let’s just do that again, but strip everything else away.” I think that might become a quicker process when dealing with an initial idea by somebody else.