Above photo by Tim Navis / Live shots below by Charles Bergquist
Sacramento, California, like many state capitals, is not known for its wild nightlife—especially not with “Babylon by the Bay” (San Francisco) and "Sodom by the Sea" (Los Angeles) a fast drive, short flight and wicked thought away. The city's primary employers are government, education, health and insurance institutions. If you ask the locals, you can hear stories about famous people who call their town home: academic types like Cornel West and Joan Didion, thinking cowboys like Sam Elliot, hotties like Sasha Grey and Darryl Hannah, rockers like the Deftones, Papa Roach, Stone Temple Pilots' frontman Scott Weiland... and one of the guys from Night Ranger. The Cramps may or may not have lived here; and Keith Richards may or may not have almost electrocuted himself playing a gig here. Some of these folks, perhaps the more “currently minded,” might mention Tycho—also known as Scott Hansen. A few people there might even remember his first gig.
"I always have visuals, but it was a crutch...The goal is to have moments when you get lost in the visuals and then bounce back and forth to the people playing instruments.”
Sometime in the early '90s, before he moved to San Francisco in 2005, a young and very nervous Scott Hansen was scheduled to make his debut with his first band. Prior to the show, he met his friends at a local diner where he accidentally fell and hurt himself so badly he wound up in the hospital. The first gig never happened. Hansen's recovery took months, a period during which the son of post-hippie parents got into graphic design and electronic music, each element stimulating the other. The sound waves refracted the shapes and lines flowing in Tycho's imagination. For Tycho, music has texture, colors and motion; colors and texture exude pitch and tempo. “Polarized,” “abstract,” “atmospheric” are all terms that have been gushingly applied to his soaring, ambient pop and its collectible packaging.
As ISO50 Hansen founded and runs a design blog that produces art, T-shirts and music. As a professional graphic artist he did work for major record labels and financial corporations. Starting in 2002, he released a few singles, EPs and a couple of albums, most noteworthy among them 2004's Sunrise Project on Grammaphone, reissued in 2006 by Merck as Past is Prologue. After the success of ISO50 Hansen decided to devote himself almost exclusively to making music. Tycho's distilled yet diaphanous sound has been compared to that of Boards of Canada and M83. It's lush, emo and droning but don't call it chillwave or glo-fi. Not that Tycho cares, it's just not how he sees his music. Visualizing the music, always an important component, is especially key on this tour. This album, Dive, marks the first time that Tycho recorded and will be performing with a band—including a live bassist and drummer. “For a long time I did the laptop DJ thing. I always have visuals, but it was a crutch. I've seen people with more presence pull that off. I don't. Up there, I don't really exude that kind of energy. The goal is to have moments when you get lost in the visuals and then bounce back and forth to the people playing instruments.”
“The music is originally what got me into design so I still practice design but it isn't the focus right now...”
The urge to extract emotive sounds from machines has been at the heart of electronic music since it first became a viable pop genre in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Tycho is after a similar effect. “I feel people don't think about how electronic music is created. I would challenge anyone to look at how an indie rock record was made and how this one [Dive] was made and see a huge difference. This one has more synthesizers, but every song was written on guitar, most of the drums are real drums. I wanted to show the human side of this music.” Helping with this lofty undertaking are two of his hometown friends Zac Brown on bass/guitar and Matt McCord on drums. “I've been working with these guys for about a year now. The bassist I've known and worked with for a while. I'd show him something and ask what he thought was missing. The drummer we just added about a year ago. He's played with a lot of bands in Sacramento.” Contrasting the music scenes in Sacramento and San Francisco, he says, “I think it's more lively in Sacramento, there's more of a community than in San Francisco. I've lived in San Francisco for six years and I don't go out much because I'm so focused on work.”
“When I'm really hitting the wall on one it feels good to go to the other and cleanse my palette.”
Hansen's work demands a balancing act between sound and vision. Shortly after moving to San Francisco, his attention shifted more toward music. “I haven't done freelance in about six years. But especially in the last three or so, I decided it was too much work. I was sitting on a lot of material that deserved more attention.” The distraction was ultimately eye-opening. “I have this other album that was pretty much done before this. I kept changing my mind, falling in and out love with different songs. It took so long. I realized I had to focus. The music is originally what got me into design so I still practice design but it isn't the focus right now, or for the foreseeable future.” Fortunately, he has a supportive community on his blog. “The music section is popular, the design section is popular. The posters, products pay the bills. We sell the music directly from the site. I wouldn't say that I could throw away all the design and live off the music.” There are also other benefits to working multiple parts of the brain. “When I'm really hitting the wall on one it feels good to go to the other and cleanse my palette.” The passion for marrying music to visuals makes him a good fit for Ghostly International, home to some of the most aesthetically inclined electronic musicians on the scene. Ghostly's refined approach to the genre is what attracted Hansen to the Ann Arbor label. “What turns me off about electronic music is the attitude ‘Let's make the ugliest, weirdest sounds. Let's make these drums sound so different that we can't tell they're drums.’ I grew up listening to a lot of folk music and I tend to draw from that. Even if it's made with the weirdest sounds in the world, if people feel something when they hear it, they're not going to think about how it's made.”
Listening to Dive you might not immediately guess that folk music is at the root of it. But if you tune into the lead single “Hours” specifically, you may pick up signals that echo melodic tunesmiths like Scandinavian dream-pop posse Husky Rescue or French Neo-Prog duo Air. There is a celestial twang that reverbs through “Hours” as it swirls and blasts off into the ether. This is largely due to the fact that Hansen writes most of his songs on guitar, not keyboards. “I didn't learn guitar until five or six years ago. When I did, it opened up a whole new world. Working with keyboards, I fell into a dogma of patterns. With keyboards I know exactly what's going to happen when I do certain things. With guitar, it forces you to make mistakes and you learn to play things in a different way. Sitting down and starting with a synth line doesn't appeal to me as much as the guitar. A lot of times I take the guitar away, like it's scaffolding, and it creates this whole other thing that becomes its own thing.”
As enthralled as he is by the newness of the guitar, Tycho hasn't abandoned keyboards altogether. “I've spent so much time with the guitar these past few months that I got a mini-Moog. One of my buddies gave it to me. It taught me a whole new way of listening. I always heard this and I never believed it but if I were to pick my top five songs on this album, three were written with that keyboard in the last few months.” These lessons resonate deeply because Hansen is a self-taught musician with no formal music training. “My neighbors had a piano, and I played around with that. I knew I was interested, but I was also intimated. I was afraid to start. When I discovered electronic music and drum machines, it was something I could wrap my head around. I got into the technical aspects and I felt like I could express myself through this medium. Slowly I took on more instruments. I moved out of relying on machines. I'm talking about 10 years of practicing.”
Tycho's dedication seems to be paying off, and not just because it's put him on tastemakers’ radars. It has helped him evolve personally. Thinking back to that failed first gig, he muses “I have severe anxiety in general. I've grown out of it now, but it was a big problem early on. Playing shows I was like, ‘What, are you kidding?’ I felt playing live was like sky diving for people who are afraid of heights. If I can do this, maybe it will trickle down to the rest of my life. If I can stand in front of people and play these songs, I will feel comfortable in my own skin for the rest of the day.”