Tycho On Music And Design, Nostalgia, And Building Computers

    Scott Hansen is a Californian who creates music under the name of a 16th century Danish astronomer, Tycho. Hansen is a also a graphic designer and visual artist and his output in both disciplines references the scenery and surroundings of his home state. But while songs like “Hours” and “Coastal Brake” conjure up distinct images of Northern California, Hansen says he tries to make music that’s an artifact from a “retro-future, like what people in the ’70s thought 2020 was going to look like.” That cinematic and highly visual style comes through on Tycho’s first full-length record for the Ghostly International label, Dive, which will be released in November. (Hansen previously self-released a full-length entitled Sunrise Projector, which was then reissued as Past Is Prologue on the now-defunct IDM label, Merck Records.) We recently spoke with Hansen about the relationship between music and design, nostalgia in his work, and why he builds his own computers.

    You run a design shop and blog, ISO50, as well as make music as Tycho. How in a business sense do Tycho and ISO50 connect?

    Over the years, the whole idea of everything was this sort of symbiosis where one thing allowed me to do another, and one thing was the impetus for another — in this weird, self-feeding, spiral. The reason I got into design was to do album covers for my music and posters for my shows. But design is what keeps me paying the rent and be able to make music. Over the years I’ve tried to shift the balance and about a year ago I just decided to get to the point where I could really focus on music for a year and let the visual side of things coast. So that’s what I did a year ago to finish this album.

    Are there specific examples on Dive where you used visual ideas to inspire the music?

    Yeah, and that’s kind of what the live show is about: re-enforcing those ideas. If you see the visuals, that’s kind of going on. I use found imagery and some of my own graphics and stuff I’ve created. I think that some songs, especially “Hours,” the first single off the album, has very specific imagery attached to it in my head, and always did. And “Coastal Brake” is like a twin song. I feel like they share something. After “Hours” came out, a lot of people were talking about this imagery and it was exactly what I had in my head. It was cool to see that translate without words.

    How did people describe the imagery to you?

    Northern California, beach, ocean scenery. Waves. All that sort of California coastal vibe. Obviously “Coastal Brake” wasn’t trying to be too secret about it. [Laughs] I moved here from the Valley — Sacramento — and that has it’s own thing: hot summer on the river, slow pace, thick air. I moved to [San Francisco] six years ago, and I just think the city — and getting out of the city — is incredible. I think that re-inspired me. The last two albums were more about Sacramento, the Valley, and all those environments.

    Some people might call that synesthesia — the mixing of the senses.

    I wouldn’t go as far as to say, “I’m going to make a song about the ocean.” Most of the songs start from an emotional base, trying to get off this emotional sense. As the song develops, I start to see the imagery. I think the imagery follows the music and not necessarily the other way around. There are some songs that they’ve grown out of each other, where [the music] was influenced by something I did in design or something I saw.

    Your work references a lot of older music. How do you approach references to the past in a contemporary way?

    Obviously the retro-nostalgic vibe is a big part of my work. I never set out to make something look dated or from a certain period. I do think that growing up through the ’90s and being inundated with this synthetic electronic music, I think it was backlash in my mind. I have these very vague memories of the ’70s and early ’80s and being very young and seeing all these things through the lens of my parents’ tastes and style. Hearing that music and seeing those clothes — that to me seemed more genuine or real. To me the way things looked and sounded back then was real. But then I use machines to make a lot of the sounds that you hear on the albums and so there’s always been this fight to make things seem like they’re made by hand or have some sort of organic component when I’m using these modern processes, leveraging the tools we have at our disposal now. 

    What are some of those tools for you? A lot of vintage analog equipment or software?

    I use everything. I use what makes sense for the case. I don’t like to be too idealistic about things. I do have 30 analog synthesizers. My whole studio is pretty much covered with them. I love analog synthesizers and I use all analog preamps and compressors, and delays and reverbs. But at the same time I have a very modern, powerful computer with tons of plug-ins, and I use the DAW, Reaper. There’s a balancing act there. I do want certain aspects of my music to sound very modern, and certain aspects to be dirty.

    Do you think the actual technical processes of audio production and graphics editing like Photoshop are similar?

    Absolutely. I’ve always thought about the parallels between the two processes. It’s almost line for line: layers, tracks, effects. It’s all the same. I think they’re some subtle differences because you’re dealing with different medium, but at the end of the day it’s almost like the exact same process. It’s pretty interesting how similar they are.

    I’ve also heard some musicians say that audio editing — when you’re cutting up little samples and listening to them over and over — is a lot like video editing.

    I definitely see those parallels. I try to work more linearly. I like working inside DAWs but I don’t like the Ableton Live model of music creation. That’s never appealed to me. I like the tape model. Where you have this long linear piece of audio and you’re splicing that. I don’t like working with the loop-based programs. That’s why I love Reaper. It’s allowed me to look at it as a multi-track tape player. But you don’t have to pull out the tape and the razor blades to do the editing.

    I learned on this product called Sony Vegas, which is Sony’s multi-track digital audio editor — it never really made it, I don’t know why. I think it was more for video guys. So I love the model of that — it’s how I think and how I learned. [Reaper] kind of took that to the nth degree. I used Cakewalk and I switched over [to Reaper] a year ago. I was just struggling to get this album off the ground and the second I jumped in [Reaper] it was done. It’s a pretty amazing piece of software and it’s also cross-platform.

    So you use Windows for everything, including design? That seems kind of contrarian for a designer.

    I’ve always been on Windows because I’m a tinkerer and I like to build computers and I like to feel like I have control over the machine. I never liked the all-in-all package of Apple. I love Apple’s mobile devices. I use their laptops for the shows. For a lot of years, what I needed Photoshop to do wasn’t possible on the kind of hardware that was out there, so I’d build these solutions after enterprise-level hardware specs. You really couldn’t do that for a long time with Apple. Now I’m at a crossroads because I could easily make the switch [from PC to Mac], but it’s hard because Windows is like an extension of me. 

    When did you get interested in building computers?

    I was a computer science major in college. My first jobs during school was IT — like installing networks and computer systems for businesses. I went on to do some software-side stuff, building interfaces. I treat it like any guitarist who can field-strip a Les Paul in five minutes and replace everything. The computer is my primary instrument, if you really look at it. I feel like you really need to know your instrument and understand how to get the most out of it.