Musician, designer, producer extraordinaire Scott Hansen (aka Tycho, or ISO50) shines bright as an original independent artist in the times of nostalgia and referential art. His latest full-length Dive is a masterful work of mood and effects, somehow managing to transform any setting into a sundrenched paradise. We got to speak with Hansen at his last stop in Chicago, in the middle of his national tour, and we learned much about his understanding of his art, his processes and how others perceive it.
Frontier Psychiatrist: You guys are in the middle of a pretty huge tour, getting to play a lot of smaller cities that I’m sure you haven’t seen much of. I saw you were in St. Louis yesterday, how was that?
Scott Hansen: St. Louis was really cool. People definitely came out excited for the show, which is great.
FP: Yeah, St. Louis is a pretty interesting city. They have the playground/children’s museum called the City Museum, do you know it?
SH: Yep, I’ve been there a couple times. Great work.
FP: I agree, excellent. The main project head and artistic director, Bob Cassilly recently passed [in 2011]. I just found out about this, it’s a serious bummer. He had a pretty amazing vision, and his work is stunning.
SH: Yeah, it’s very sad. He died on accident too, while working on one of his projects.
FP: Tragic. Do you feel your art is dangerous?
SH: Haha, no. Well, the stress will at least shave some years off my life, but you know.
FP: Yeah, who needs those years anyway?
FP: This tour your on is in support of your most recent full-length, Dive, correct?
SH: Yeah, this whole year has been surrounding that. We’re basically doing a second push, you know? It came out and it did what it did, but then it got some weird momentum halfway through, so we decided to get back out there and keep playing.
FP: What sort of momentum?
SH: I don’t know, really. It just seemed like things were coming out of the woodwork and things were exploding, you could just feel a rising vibe across the social networks, and everything just stepped up to another level. We started getting offers to play some bigger rooms, so we decided we might as well go out.
FP: Excellent. You’re about halfway through the tour right now. How’s the tour going? Is it hard to make the drive with your music and visual equipment? What’s the set up like?
SH: Yeah, we’re all in the van. We used to take an RV for a while, but I recently bought a conversion van, so it’s got a bed in it. I’ve since realized that it’s actually better than an RV, because there’s more seating. We all basically have captain’s chairs and a bed, and we’re pulling a huge trailer. It’s going great, the best set up we’ve had so far. It was getting to the point that with those benches in the long passenger vans that it was just too hard to get any sleep, and you’re propped up all day, it’s painful.
FP: The unglamorous life. Dive is out on Ghostly International, the electronic music and art label from Ann Arbor. Seems like an excellent fit. This isn’t your debut, though, right?
SH: Yeah, I put out an EP and a full-length by myself years and years ago, like 2002 and 2004, I think. And that full-length was picked up by Merck, who rereleased it as Past is Prologue (2006) with a couple extra tracks. When Merck stopped releasing records, and Ghostly came by a picked me up. We then put out a couple of singles, but I really took a long time off of music. I was always messing around, but I wasn’t focused enough to make an album or anything. So yeah, there was about a six-year hiatus there, except for those few singles. This is the first time that I’ve ever sat down to write a full record that is one cohesive piece.
FP: It certainly feels cohesive. That’s the great thing about the best albums, of course, is how you can hear that the artist has worked it through, start to finish. I imagine it forces you to look at your music in a different way. How did this process differ from your singles?
SH: Well, I always had a vision for the album. I always knew what songs I wanted to be on it, at least I could feel what parts that needed to be there to create the spectrum I was hoping to convey. There are these big wave points, and I just needed to fill in the gaps, and the album process was really just having time to link it all together.
FP: That feels great, I’m sure. Feels great to just get it done.
SH: Yeah, I spent a lot of time starting this blog and building my name on the design side. I really wanted to get myself to a point where that side of the business was just coasting, and I saved my money to the point I was able to focus entirely on music. I spent literally a year doing nothing else but music, just letting everything go. I think that was key to getting the album finished.
FP: How did you keep your design business moving, then?
SH: It didn’t move at all for that year. I mean, there’s always little things here and there. Of course, I designed the album cover, and after the fact I did all the posters and the visuals for every show. So that stuff keeps me busy, and I’m always messing around with design, but there was a big lull there where I didn’t do much at all.
FP: That’s understandable. It’s been said before, but I feel there’s a real connection between your design work and your music work. I’m no designer, but your work seems very effects based, both visual and music. The power of effects shines through. Would you agree?
SH: Absolutely, yeah. That’s what ambient music at its core anyway, it’s not really the melody or the structure. I mean, I try to build those things in as well, but I focus a lot of my energy on the effects that surround this thing, that is pretty simple at it’s core. I think it’s the same thing with the design. Design by nature is all about stripped down ideas and solutions, right, trying to keep things very efficient and tight. So, for me, I took that idea, and placed these effects layers on top.
Yeah, I focus a lot on the processing. It’s not about creating one form or this sound, it’s about processing for me. I think that’s what being a producer and an engineer is. And approaching those disciplines from an artistic perspective is kind of what it’s about for me.
FP: Feel free to agree or disagree with this: To me, it seems like you’re an artist that is of this time, on both visual and music. It’s art for this day and age. It’s pretty unfathomable to mistake Tycho for a band of the 60s, 70s or even the 80s, even the last decade. And you’ve done it all yourself, of course with help, but you are working as an independent artist in a time when independent art is flourishing.
SH: I think there’s an element of truth to that. You know, thanks to the internet and the enabling factors of being able to launch a career basically off your own ideas instead of basing it off some corporate structure, or something similar. I worked in freelance for a long time, and I thought of it as being a very freeing experience, and then I quickly realized that while it was a great way for me to express myself, it wasn’t completely pure. I know there are people who may disagree with me, but I wasn’t able to work within that context.
It’s a great time to be an artist, especially if you’re trying to pursue your own specific vision of things and you’re trying to work alone. This is a really great time because you can get away with it.
FP: Do you think that others are seeing/hearing your vision as you see/hear it?
SH: I think so. That’s always been a very fulfilling thing to hear someone explain it and be like “wow, you got it.” But you know, then again, you could also look at my work and say “it’s pretty obvious what he’s trying to say.” I’m not pulling many punches or being very mysterious a lot of the time, I’m being pretty literal with a lot of this stuff, so it’s not surprising that people can pick up on what I’m trying to do.
FP: At the same time, words don’t always make it, and I’m sure you know that. Especially with music like yours, which is far more based on how it feels and less about some stupid blogspeak. “Swimming through melodies” or some garbage.
SH: Yeah, I more meant people at shows. The thing is, though, we’re talking about pieces that were written and made years ago now. In hindsight I could probably look back and say this means this, but at the time it was a very personal and a 100% different thing compared to my retroactive understanding. Now, when I hear that music I can remember what it meant probably, in some vague way, but I really think about how people can perceive it in a live context. Things like that start to muddy up your view of those songs. It’s hard to speak objectively about the music because it’s become a different and new entity to me now. After listening to these songs so many times a playing them, they just mean something else.
FP: Does it get old?
SH: I always thought it would before I toured, but it doesn’t. When I’m playing up there I’m not thinking as much about the music, and more about that single part that I’m trying to play at that moment. Actually, now, if I hear the record now and I’m relaxing without pretense or context, it’s like “OK, now I remember this song.” That’s a 100% different experience than performing, for me at least.
FP: That makes sense. Are you working on anything new?
SH: Yeah, I’ve got a ton of new material. I’ve been working with Zach, he plays bass for us live, and he played a few other parts on the album. That was my first time collaborating with anybody, and now we’ve got Rory, the drummer. Basically, playing live together, I’ve really learned how to value outside perspectives and people who know what you’re trying to say, but can voice it in a different way. I’m super excited about the stuff to come, because it’s all very collaborative. We’ve done a few remixes lately, and we’ve been working within that framework for a bit, just testing things out, and I feel it’s coming out much better than anything I’d be able to do on my own.
FP: Are you going to be considered a band now?
SH: Well, it’s still me writing the music and bringing it to them and seeing where it goes. I feel I have another album of all this material that I want to get out, so we’re just working to see how they work it through their lens. But, on the other hand, just jamming around, we’ve been coming up with some great stuff. I think it may be like a half and half thing. Then again, I will be producing and engineering all of it, so it will be colored by my intentions, which is different from having a band and an outside producer.
FP: That’s the way you got to do it when you have such strong convictions. I must commend your decision to bring in more people, I imagine it’s a hard decision to make.
SH: It was easy with these guys, man. It’s just the second when you’re sitting there and you’re going “holy shit,” or when Zach says, “that’s a cool bassline, but how about this?” On many occasions I’ve heard both of them do that one little thing that just takes it all to the next level.
FP: Totally. I’m a huge fan of the live drums, and I love that you’ve incorporated that in your shows. Too many times, the drum machines just don’t cut it.
SH: Yeah, I think that’s what’s going to be cool about the next record. The concept is that I’m going to write the drums like I normally would, on the drum machine, and then have Rory play over that and weave them together, kind of like we do live, but really getting in there and editing the sounds to sound like one piece. There just so much detail there that I could never program in a million years.
FP: “The Human Element.”
SH: Totally, plus he’s just a great writer. He writes amazing drumbeats, and the way he actually plays the sequences is really great.
FP: Couldn’t agree more. Talking about you being a producer and engineer, that seems like very tedious work. Did your experience with design help prepare you for that sort of work?
SH: Yeah, but with I feel I’m 100x better at the technical aspects of design, whereas music, it’s pretty much a lifetime of work. Not knocking design, but it’s really just one tool: Photoshop. Music is just this hyper subjective thing, people are hearing all these different things. Obviously, different people see different things, but I feel like with music there’s just another layer of complexity there. You’ve got all these things that need to come together in just the right way.
I started design around the same time I got into music, but I didn’t take music as seriously. So working on this record, I spent a lot of time trying to learn more, and getting the right equipment. I was absolutely unprepared for it. I feel like I’m just now recovering from the spiral that it threw my life into, because it turned into this absolute project. I heard these songs and I knew that this thing could become this thing, but from point A to point B was a chasm of ignorance. Getting there was really hard, but then I met Michael Elderidge, who mixed the album. So I brought my whole rig over to his place, and that helped a lot to see how he cleaned it all up.
The sequencing and all that, I love getting in there and doing all the detailed stuff, so I didn’t have a problem with that. It was really the engineering that was a real challenge.
FP: Well, you pulled it together just right. As you know, in electronic music, the way it sounds is key.
SH: Totally, and with my style that’s just layer after layer after layer, the pieces become these dense compositions. That, coupled with the majority of the sounds coming from the mid-range—that’s the way I like my synths—made it a technical challenge.
FP: That’s the real thing that takes an artist to the next level I think, by taking an abstract idea and turn it into a produced piece.
SH: Yeah, one that people can consume. Once you clean it up, it just becomes 3D. There’s a huge amount of art in that as well. There were times when I would get frustrated, and say “man, you’re taking so much time” or, “you’re an artist, you’re supposed to be writing.” But I think there’s something to be said about the technical aspects as well, which is an art form itself.
FP: And it helps you understand your own work better, and also how people ultimately receive it.
Scott, thanks a lot for your time. We love the record, and look forward to hearing more from Tycho in the future.
SH: Thank you.
Peter Lillis is Managing Editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His last piece reviewed the Pitchfork Music Festival.