Ambient musician and producer-cum-visual artist Scott Hansen, under the stage sobriquet Tycho, grew from the expected man-laptop template so ingrained in the electronic canon now to having a full-fledged backing band in the span of four albums. Recent album Awake, inspired by the live nature of previous album Dive’s tour, is the first record Hansen made with a fully formed band in the studio with him – and despite having an additional three people to the Tycho lineup, it hadn’t made the sonic mien of his music any less personal. Sure, the guitar work on some tracks made it nigh stadium-like in execution, a stark difference to the intimate bedroom creations of before, but the emotions are still very much in thrall to a Malickian scope. Stopping by Kuala Lumpur as part of the Awake Asia Tour, JUICE caught up with Hansen backstage hours earlier before the show for a little tête-à-tête…
You got interested in electronic music due to your affinity for technology. How did that come about? What about technology attracted you to music?
I just think traditional instrumentations like guitar and piano, at first, didn’t really appeal to me, just because I didn’t think that was really something I could learn or something that other people did. I was really into computers, so once I found out that I could use computers for music and design, I started thinking I could make music [and art] that way – that was the gateway for me. And then I ended learning all the other instruments and stuff, but I think that’s what I needed to get into it at first.
But you yourself, you’re not really a fan of electronic music?
No, I’m definitely a fan of it – that’s what got me into making music in the first place. It’s just that at this point… I’ve listened to it for a long time and there’s still a lot of electronic music that I enjoy, but for whatever reason mostly I listen to rock. And that was what I listened to growing up. I had a phase where I was listening to electronic music almost exclusively because that was what I was getting into – so I was studying it – but now not so much, I don’t know why.
You only started playing with a live band during the Dive tour. Did that contribute to you listening to a lot more analogue, rock-ish stuff?
No, I always listen to [that] anyway. I think mainly what that did is that just opened up, y’know, seeing the way that we play live and hearing the sound we were able to create with everyone up there – a lot more energetic and visceral. That was what made me want to make a record that way. That was what made me want to make Awake – to capture the sound we were doing live.
Awake was the first time you had a band in the studio as well. Prior to this Tycho’s just you, Scott, like that’s just your thing. How did you adapt to having other people in the Tycho project?
It’s actually been freeing. It’s allowed me to focus on my strengths, and just having more people means having more ideas to work with as a producer. It makes things a lot more diverse and interesting for me. Having a drummer also frees up [time constraint] – y’know, I used to spend a lot of time trying to make the drums sound real and live, and now having a real live drummer makes the stuff sound the way I want it to sound like come about a lot quicker. It’s a lot easier, and it’s fun working with other people.
But with the addition of other people to work with, do you feel like Tycho is a lot less personal than before?
I made those other records myself, and doing it that way was something that I think was valuable at that time – I made those records and I feel good about them. But I just think the vision that I have for this project can be better expressed in the context of a band – there are certain things I just couldn’t do on my own, and I had to find people who share the same vision in order to really fully achieve it. I think the personal elements are still there, it’s just that it can almost work against you when it’s one person doing it – it becomes almost like just one note. It becomes a little bit too simple. With more people, I just think it’s a broader set of ideas to work with.
Having a band play live instruments for Tycho, did that contribute to the lack of a lo-fi sound to Awake?
A lack of? Yeah, yeah. It’s just that those things interested me for a long time and anytime you use a tool like that, the tendency is to overuse it. I feel like that was a good learning experience. But now I’ve taken those ideas – and techniques – and I just use them more sparingly. And as I’ve learned more and progressed as a producer, I wanted things to sound more and more hi-fi. So, with Awake I wanted to take the organic sound that I had on the previous records and make it more upfront – make the mixes clearer, make it more high fidelity. So, that’s always something that I’ve been working towards, it just took a long time till I get to the point where I could mix those two things comfortably.
You mentioned before (in a separate interview) that previously you used the whole lo-fi approach to hide errors. Lo-fi is somewhat of an aesthetic when it comes to music now though. Do you feel that people are really doing it to hide something? Like a flaw?
I don’t think they are particularly doing it to hide anything. I don’t think I was consciously doing it to hide things, and it just ended up being that way. It’s just a personal preference thing, I’ve things that are really lo-fi, really pretty, and really well done. I don’t think it’s one or the other. I’m sure some people use it as an excuse in some way, but for our stuff I just felt like it was holding… (trails off) I just didn’t want to overuse it. So now I use it sparingly in the right places. I don’t think it’s a good or bad thing, it’s just another way of doing things.
Prior to this you were a graphic designer, and you first touched a musical instrument when you were already 21, 22. What instrument was it and what happened there?
It was called a [Roland] MC-303, it was a drum machine, it had a really rudimentary small keyboard on it – it wasn’t really a keyboard but it had little pads that could be used as a keyboard. So, I just started playing around with it and it really inspired me, that was when I realised it was something that I really wanted to get into. Then I bought a sampler, and it had a different kind of keyboard on it, and then I finally got a real synthesiser keyboard.
And prior to that you never played any instrument at all?
No, my neighbour had a piano. That one time I sat down and messed around with, I remember being like, “Oh, this kinda makes sense to me,” but it never occurred to me that I could make music. Y’know, back then, you couldn’t make music with computers as much and it was really expensive, so you either join a band or write down sheet music, or record using tape recorders, [but] none of those things really occurred to me. It was more like, I had to understand that there was a way to use computers; to leverage computers to [make music].
And right now it’s gotten a lot easier. You don’t even need hardware, just software…
Yeah, yeah. Our stuff kinda starts with guitars at this point, so I feel like you do need some hardware – like the real drums and stuff. And I try to use analogue synths when it makes sense, but yeah, a lot of the stuff on the last couple of records have been virtual instruments. It is pretty amazing the tools that people have available to them now.
You chose to play with a live band because you wanted to give the electronic genre a live band experience. Do you feel that this genre is missing that experience as compared to other genres with live bands?
It was for me. It really depends on what you’re looking for out of live performances. A lot of people go to shows looking for many different things, but for me, I just enjoy seeing rock bands play live. And when I go to see electronic musicians I like, for me it just felt like something is missing. I went to see Roni Size & Reprazent early on in the ‘90s, I saw them playing during that tour in ’96 or ’97, and they had a whole band – they had a real drummer. I heard their record so many times and when I saw it being played live, it just made me realise, “Wow, there are real people who really made this music somewhere.” No matter how synthetic, crazy or outer-spacey it sounds, somebody really made this at some point. That for me was when I figured that there was another way to represent electronic music live. And that was actually the first electronic music show I’d ever been to and that was what I thought it was supposed to be like, and then I started going for more and it was just guys with like laptops and CDJs. And then I went and did that, I did the whole laptop thing for a long time, and that was fine – I’ve seen people do it, Flying Lotus does it and he does it really well. But just for me, and this music in particular, I think if I did it on a laptop just with me, it wouldn’t be honest because that wasn’t the way that it was made – the way it was made is as a band, with instruments, and I felt like we need to represent it that way so that people really understood where the record came from.
Due to being a graphic designer, you have an auteurist approach to Tycho’s visuals, but have you ever thought of making your own music video?
Working with all the visuals has definitely gotten me into video more, and it’s something I’d like to do. We’ve put together a couple of videos, like the ‘Ascension’ video, I worked with Charles Bergquist on the concept, but at the end of the day I didn’t have the time to be out there with him directing the video. So, that’s definitely something that I want to do in the future but it’s a whole lot of discipline and a lot of time, so I don’t know how I’m going to find time to do that while we’re touring so much and making records – it’ll have to wait for a while.
Previously you used vocal samples in your music, but Tycho as it is now wouldn’t be Tycho with vocals. You did remix a few songs with vocals, but have you ever thought of doing another project where you produce for someone who sings?
In a perfect world I’d have time for all of that, but right now, doing the visual and the music aspects for Tycho, it’s pretty demanding time-wise. But yeah, I’d love to do something like that in the future, and I’m not even ruling it out as something in the future for Tycho. But yeah, up until this point it hasn’t really made sense, but I’m sure I’ll work with a vocalist in a production capacity, whether it’s for Tycho or something else.
You have been quoted saying that with this sort of music you don’t “say your emotions, you only imply it.” Does this project stay instrumental because you don’t want words to dictate how people feel?
I think that it’s just the way it happened because I’m not a vocal person. I’m not a poet, I don’t sing. None of those things. When I’m making music, I don’t hear voices, which I’m sure a lot of other artistes do because that’s like the first thing that occurs to them. For me it’s just like, “Oh, I hear guitar, bass or synths.” So that’s why it has only worked in a remix capacity – because here’s an existing song, and I didn’t have to think about what needed to be created, and you just work backwards from there.
When you make music, you don’t have an image in mind. Only once it’s complete, you visualise something. Since the release of Awake, what’s the visualisation of the record been to you?
With Awake, I had a vision, kind of a space that [the record] would occupy – a space that I kinda write to, and eventually it would occupy that space. But it’s not like I was sitting down writing one song about the desert, or this song’s about that. But we just spent a lot of time driving across the United States, and saw all the high plains in Wyoming and Montana. Those really inspired me, and always have since I was a kid, so that for me was what I wanted the album to be about and I feel like it ended up sounding like that. Usually, as far as the visuals and the graphics – like the covers – are concerned, those always come afterwards.
Presented by Soundscape Records, Tycho played at KLPAC on Wednesday 14 January ’15 as the first stop of their Awake Asia Tour.