Scott Hansen, better known to most as the ambient electronica musician Tycho, is the kind of musician that creates dreams. Having built a career around soundscapes that blur the lines between reality and our imagination, he’s a stellar example of what electronic music is capable of when you deconstruct the barriers of 4/4. Tycho’s also been one of the de facto leaders in the current IDM scene having been compared to artists like Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin in addition to being a major draw at festivals because of his penchant for moody, atmospheric vibes during his live shows. Currently on tour supporting his most recent LP, Awake, Hansen took the time to speak with us prior to his upcoming show with Autograf at Ram’s Head Live in Baltimore. We discussed his ethos, the current infrastructure of electronic music, and eating healthy on the road.
Clearly you’ve been making music for a very long time. And you’re considered by a lot of people, like Consequence of Sound, Pitchfork, to be one of the most dynamic voices in electronic music and ambient music. I was curious: when it comes to your music, what kind of stories do you try to tell?
TYCHO: The whole thing is it comes from a place you’re really unable to articulate verbally. So, you just kind of have the idea behind it which is why it’s instrumental. It’s some kind of physical or emotional space. There’s never really some kind of concrete narrative, especially for specific songs, because there’s never a concrete narrative I’m trying to get across. It’s more like an idea. Or a general space.
So, instead of stories, you said ideas. When you’re trying to capture an idea, what’s your process? Do you basically go from soundscape to soundscape until you hit that note?
T: It’s the same for me, I think, as someone who plays the guitar. I sit down and say I’m doing this and I’m going to transmit this directly to some person or some idea. But it’s more like I just start hunting and then something hits me and it kind of reinforces some emotional idea I already had or it’s on some memory I have and I just latch on to that. I’m kind of listening to the song as it evolves and following where it goes. It’s not like a purposeful thing. It’s kind of what just happens when I sit down.
For you, it comes from some kind of carnal instinct?
T: Yeah. It’s like an innate thing. I’m not classically trained, so I don’t know music theory and all that kind of stuff. So I can’t really articulate some of these things. It’s kind of like drawing or art. I just start doing it and stuff will kind of evolve out of it. And it’s the same when it comes to being a music producer. A lot of the time, a lot of the work and the ideas I like the most, come from the process and not from some kind of deliberate action on my part.
I just kind of found this out from a buddy of mine when I told him I was doing this interview. I had no idea that Dive was the first time that you went on tour with a live band.
T: I don’t remember when our first show was when we had a live drummer, but yeah. It was right around that time. The record before that, I was dabbling with analog and instrumental guitar and live drums and bass and electric bass a little more, but it wasn’t until Dive where almost every song had multiple live instruments. So I just realized there’s really no way I could represent it live without making a lot of compromises. The initial idea was I just needed to find a way to play this live and then, after we started playing live for a while, it started to become its own sound and the band started pushing the energy into this other direction and it really became something else. I realized that’s when the live show began to take a life of its own. And you would go to the live show, and it wouldn’t be 100% different, but it would be a new take on the whole thing. And the thing about that is, as we played more and more, we thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to capture this on a record?” And that’s what the link was. It’s actually recording the band and working with Zac and Rory during the writing and arranging process. It’s great to actually break out and have different perspectives on the whole process instead of being buried in it alone.
Because now you’ve had new voices working with you during the creative process of Awake, what can you say about your sound in terms of how it evolved?
T: I think there’s a more diverse array of content to draw from. I’ve always looked at music as I was a musician and an instrument of the producer and I happen to be the producer as well. I would do these things and I would create these little ideas. And then, as a producer [on Awake], I came in and looked at them and this pool of content to draw from and went, “Let’s do this and this and move all these things around.” It’s the same thing, but now I have more diverse content to work with. Rory’s drums always help with the process because there’s always these ideas I had about live drumming where I felt like I wasn’t good enough or I couldn’t program them and make it sound passable as human. So having him made the process a lot faster and made everything evolve much quicker. And it wound up becoming a different take on the older sound. It lives in the same spheres that I’ve created with Tycho over all these years. It respects that, but I think it pushes it out into the boundaries of the sphere.
I think James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem once said, “You should never put anything on an album that you can’t reproduce in a live setting.”
T: Yeah. I don’t agree with that at all. [Laughs] I mean, if you made it in a studio, you could somehow find a way to make it live. It might not sound the same. But I think that’s the beauty of live performances. I don’t want to go hear the record. I think for a long time I was trying to make the show sound exactly like the record, and I think we’re still trying to cater to that and not go off the rails, but at the same time people have heard the music a bunch of times and I think it’s more interesting when they hear a different take on it.
Your music has been connected, obviously due to the current Renaissance in electronic music, to other artists like M83 and Neon Indian. And those artists seem to have this common root in music from the 80’s and late 70’s. Would you say it’s an inspiration for you as well? What do you come back to?
T: I think the song textures from the 70’s and the 80’s are seriously ingrained in someone from a particular age group and that was the backdrop of my introduction to music and popular culture in general. The digital revolution was something that happened in my conscious lifetime. I was totally aware of it and I saw it happen and even started music, not on the cusp of it, but definitely when it was starting to become available outside of large studios. For me, it was always a reaction: This doesn’t sound like what I think music sounds like. So, I’m always chasing that kind of texture or soundspace that they were able to achieve with equipment back then. I think it’s just all of us grew up then and it’s ingrained in us.
So it’s not like you’re sitting in the studio and you’re like, “Damn – what am I going to do? Oh. I know what I’m going to do. I’m gonna watch He-Man: Masters of the Universe and pull out an old Tangerine Dream LP and kind of see what happens.”
T: [Laughs] No. It’s not that specific. I think a professional record sounds like, whatever, Fleetwood Mac “Dreams” or something like that. So it’s not even like I’m listening to it and then listening to my recording. Because you’re not going to be happy with it. So you keep looking and start subconsciously chasing down this end result which, for me, ends up being this 80’s big studio sound.
This is interesting to me because I’m 25, but I’ve always been that weird kid that listened to indie alternative, electronica, and older music that came out way before I was born. But there seems to be this trend right now in modern music to kind of recapture this organic throwback vibe. Do you think that’s where electronic music is continuing to go? Or do you think it’s eventually going to wear out and people are going to find something new?
T: I think there’s two sides of it. I think, with studio technology, all the old school guys who came out on consoles and analog stuff, when digital came into the picture, were super stoked and like, “We don’t have to deal with this bullshit anymore. We don’t have to deal with tape.” But then, for the next generation of people, we never had access to that old sound. So yes. I think it’s been moving in that direction for a long time trying to recapture that. But if you’re just talking about, like, the 80’s revival or chillwave or that kind of stuff, I think it’s been real popular more recently because you begin to hear more organic sounds instead of just crazy sounds. It sounds more thought out.
So in terms of what we hear in electronic music right now, do you think there will come a time when everything is part and parcel with one another or do you think there’s going to continue to be a division between different forms of electronic music?
T: You’re always going to be pop and there’s always going to be an alternative to the kind of homogenized vein. And there’s nothing wrong with either of those, but there’s always going to be a division between those things.
Are there any artists that you look up to or are friends with you’d like to collaborate with in the near future?
T: Boards of Canada. What they were doing helped me crystallize my vision of what I wanted my sound to be. And now, Caribou. I’ve always followed him and watched his evolution from a solo IDM/electronic guy to being a full band. That’s always been really inspiring. I think I went and saw him play, I don’t remember what year it was, but it was before Dive or right before we started doing the band thing, and I saw him play with a whole live band and that’s when I was like, “I really need a drummer.” It was amazing.
T: It was like 2009? 2010? I don’t know when that song came out. On Swim? I don’t remember what year Swim came out. But the stuff I listened to before, his IDM stuff was like around 2000 or 2001, that’s what really got me into him.
When you play a set, and you go hard during the set, it’s the end of the night, you’re tired, you’re on your tour bus, what food do you crave the most?
T: [Laughs] We usually have pizza after every show. I don’t know, by that time I’m sweaty and ready for bed. On the road it’s hard to be healthy, so at that point I usually want a salad or something. But at that time, everything’s closed so you can’t find anything good.
That’s not the first time I’ve heard that. We had Chris Lake in DC and on his rider he had Naked juice and Clif bars.
T: [Laughs] Nice.
So, do you feel more alive on the road or more at home in the studio?
T: More at home in the studio. Being on the road is great and it’s a lot of fun, but it kind of feels like you’re in suspended animation because you never feel like you’re getting anything major accomplished. You’re working on the live production, but from an artistic standpoint I’d rather be in the studio writing new stuff. I’m always trying to mess around with ideas on the road, but it gets difficult. It’s grueling. So you’re always wiped out by the time it’s time to sit down and mess around with music. […] I really enjoy this part of the job. It’s really fun to go out and see how the stuff you’re doing at home effects people. And that’s always really powerful. So it makes it all worth it.
As someone who goes to a lot of shows and lives at venues, I definitely appreciate artists who go out of their to create a life-changing experience to their fans. So thank you for that. Now, you’re coming to Baltimore. Have you played at Ram’s Head before?
T: No, no. This is our first time.
What’s the most exciting part of coming to Baltimore, you think?
T: It’s always cool to look at a new market and see what’s out there and see what kind of fans there are. You never really know what to expect. If you go to New York or San Francisco or something, you kind of know what you’re going to get. But with a lot of these cities, you’ll get there and it’ll end up being this crazy show with this crazy fan base that’s pumped up. I’m looking forward to it.
Last question. What can we come to expect from you guys in the next year or two years from you guys?
T: We’ll be done with this album cycle in September. And then I’m going to go back into the studio and spend probably about 4 months on a record, Rory and Zac will come out, and we’ve got a couple of studio dates planned. We’re going to stay in a location somewhere and record there. Basically, we’re looking at spending the winter on a record. I’m not going to put a timeline on it, but my goal is to have it out next year. Maybe late summer. And then we’ll hit the road again!