Scott Hansen is the man behind the music, art and design elements that make up Tycho. The San Francisco-based electronic musician was known first for his design work (working under the alias ISO50), but Tycho — the music, and the visual work that goes with it — has since become his focus. His latest album, Dive, was issued last fall on Ghostly International.
You were a visual artist and designer before you were a musician.
Yeah. I always, as a kid, did art — pen-and-ink stuff. Then when I got my first computer around college, I started doing design. Very shortly after that, I started getting into music.
What were your first experiences making music like? Did you play traditional instruments first, or start out making music on a computer?
This was before computers — at least computers I could afford — could be used to make and record music really, so I started with samplers and synths and sequencers. I learned the traditional version of electronic music, if you want to say "traditional."
Pop songwriters often know the moment when they began writing songs: "I heard this Beatles record, this Cheap Trick record, and I wanted to do that." What got you started making music?
I think it was drum and bass. Photek and LTJ Bukem and Roni Size, folks from that period, the late '90s. That just really inspired me; a lot of stuff off Full Cycle Records. It was all about sound design, there was no real songwriting. It was mostly just really crafting these incredible, otherworldly sounds, like nothing I'd ever heard.
How do you create the visual aspects that go along with your music? Are they inspired by the music, or vice versa?
I have thoughts in my head of the kind of colors, the landscapes or the environments that go along with [the music], but it's not like I'm sitting there composing the music of the beach or something. It doesn't really work that specifically. A lot of the time, I'm sitting there trying to capture the kind of place you get transported to by the music. At the end of the day, I think they come from each other; they work off each other a lot, there's a lot of interplay. That final product is the fully realized vision — I don't think of them as separate elements at that point.
Is it possible to sum up your philosophy regarding your visual work and your design — the aesthetic of it?
I can say what my goals are: To kind of create this detached universe, this alternate reality that hopefully transports the listener or the viewer into this other space and gives them this other perspective on where they are, or shows them a perspective on some other space that I'm trying to create. I don't want to say "psychedelic," to be that specific, but it's that kind of thing — outside the normal, everyday experience — that I'm trying for.
And you look at your body of work — music, art, design — as being part of one big project?
Absolutely. I think it's all working toward this singularity or something — it's all filling in little gaps and holes in a big picture.
You tend to incorporate words sparingly, but intentionally. Beyond the obvious, like track titles, you'll use repetition of one word, or just a part of a word, in the geometric themes in your art or the soundscapes of your music. How do words fit into your work?
I feel like names are obligatory when you're naming tracks, but I tried to use some super-basic word that described the space that that track represented for me. As far as words in the songs — there was a time when I was into that and wanted to add some vocal element to humanize it maybe, and I have the desire to, at some point, work with actual lyrics in a literal sense. But I think for this album it was more about that out-of-body experience thing, and I didn't want to tie it to anything too familiar. In general, I don't think in terms of lyrics. It's not how my mind works.
Do you find it important to make an effort to, like you said, humanize visual or musical work that's coming from a computer, to make it more organic?
Absolutely. I started out in web design, that's where I did most of my work. I was always trying to create interfaces that felt like you could touch them — they felt familiar, they felt like a real thing. So that was where I started to develop this palette of elements — textures, and using wood and paper and all these things from the real world to trying to create these spaces. And that started spilling over into my [visual art] work. I was conscious of the fact that, using a computer, there's a tendency to be able to have things perfect: perfect lines, perfect colors, perfect everything. I wanted to get away from that and make it feel a little more handmade. The same goes for the music; it's almost the exact same approach, as far as creating the music and giving it that organic texture.
What's your setup on this tour?
I've got a drummer and a bassist-slash-guitarist. Zac Brown, the guitarist, actually helped me on [Dive]. And Rory O'Connor, the drummer, he's a really great technical drummer; I'm looking forward to hopefully recording with him, but for now we're just doing the live thing.
Playing with other instrumentalists, on more "traditional," analog instruments, is pretty new to you, right?
On [2006 album Past Is Prologue], there's certain guitar work in there; that was when I was just learning guitar. This last album, I spent more time working on guitar, so there's a lot of that on there already, and this is the first time that I've had somebody else come in from outside.
That you started learning guitar, as opposed to using a synth or a computer, must have had an effect on your basic approach to songwriting.
Yeah, definitely. With Past Is Prologue I used guitar more as an overlay — here and there, I'd put in a little simple part if I felt like it needed it. A lot of [the songs on Dive], I wrote on guitar, then either transposed them over to synth, or just kept them that way. [Composing on a synth], I'd get into these ruts; I see the keyboard visually and I see these patterns and I just go back to them over and over again. With guitar, it was just so foreign to me [that] it forced me into different ways of thinking about things. It made me stumble into really interesting chord changes and ideas that I never would have come to on a keyboard.