For all the talk about how San Francisco ambient electronica producer Scott Hansen’s music as Tycho has expanded wider than ever with the addition of vocalist Hannah Cottrell on new album Weather, Hansen views one crucial aspect of it as a contraction.
That aspect is the music’s meaning, because Cottrell, who performs as Saint Sinner, wrote the lyrics without much input from Hanson other than the name of an audio file to work with.
“That was kind of the goal; to see this thing through a different lens,” Hansen said in a recent phone call from his home in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, a week before kicking off a U.S. tour. “The music has kind of always been open-ended, which is the beauty of it in one way. Now it allows for her interpretation. … one single person’s interpretation.”
Cottrell ended up singing on five of Weather’s eight tracks after a mutual friend introduced her to Hansen. The Grammy-nominated artist knew he was finally ready to make an article that used a human voice as something other than a sample, but he didn’t know who to work with, how many vocalists to work with and how that would impact his songs. He’s experimented with vocalists before, but nothing stuck. How would he fold in another instrument—a human voice—with the songs he held so dear?
Yet working with Saint Sinner was a perfect fit for Tycho, whose projects leading up to the album were remixes of others’ songs with vocals. He knew he needed to get schooled on the process and on the varied song structures that use vocals. Eventually, he decided he didn’t need anyone on the album other than Cottrell.
“I wanted a singular voice, have it be a statement and have it be like ‘here’s this iteration of Tycho for this record.’ When that all ended up working out, that was a huge relief.”
Hansen has tinkered with his musical formula since releasing his debut album, 2006’s Past is Prologue. While none of the changes have been as noticeable as Cottrell’s ethereal vocals, there have been numerous additions (Tycho went from a one-man project to a band on 2014’s Awake) and subtractions. The band now includes bassist-guitarist Zac Brown, drummer Rory O’Connor and keyboardist Billy Kim.
“‘Awake’ was kind of like the ‘band’ record, and [2016’s] ‘Epoch’ was like the dance or more intense record,” Hansen said.
The latter album garnered Tycho a Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album—not bad for someone who didn’t get his start in music until later in life. Hansen was first a photographer and graphic designer, passions he still cares for deeply. He designs his own album covers and the visual elements of concerts.
Now that he’s had mainstream success—not just within the genre—he’s finding more freedom to pursue artistic endeavors.
“At the end of the day, this is a business, on one level, and there’s so many moving parts just to make one tour happen,” he said.
“You have the resources as far as personnel to take some of the weight off trying to do it yourself and making it so you have some semblance of a normal life. There’s a flip side where there’s so much going on now that it actually increases my workload in some ways. But I feel like it’s very nice because I’ve been able to finally completely focus on the artistic elements of running this whole thing. …
“The organization and the people involved in it are in such a good place that I feel very enabled as an artist to do exactly as I want. This album is definitely a product of having a wide open space to completely focus on music instead of thinking about every other aspect of the business.”
Artistically, Weather is a callback to the joyful, carefree vibes of Past is Prologue, Hansen said. It’s meant to be an antidote to what he sees happening in the world right now, rather than a political response to it. He had dug into his own darker recesses on Epoch, which was cathartic for him.
“If you dwell too long in that space it can get pretty dark, at least for me,” Hansen said. “There was definitely a need for me to do something that felt pure and beautiful and positive—a happy record, you know?”
To that extent, Tycho’s instrumental songs continue to be more about an emotional reaction rather than hold a concrete meaning to the songwriter.
“It’s something that I’ve never been able to express with words,” he said. “It’s not like I can say [about] any one song, ‘That was about me walking on the beach in 1995.’ I think it’s all drawing on my experiences in nature as a kid. That was a huge part of my life. That was hugely influential on the way I see the world and it continues to be.”
One of the products of having that creative time open up is an entirely new live visual accompaniment to the music, which has always been extremely important to Tycho’s overall performance. Hansen has painstakingly created the dreamy projections that cover the stage and the musicians at shows. But it’s been a while since he’s been able to evolve the visuals so they continued to represent the emotions of the music.
“As we’ve grown, I feel like I never had the time to step back and ask, ‘What is this show really about?’” he said. “There’s a vision I had early on that I wanted to achieve, but, incrementally, as you gain the ability to achieve certain levels of production, you lose touch. The message starts to get scrambled. This is the first time I’ve completely stepped back and rethought the whole thing.”
The visuals will remain the core of the concert experience, but for the first time, they will work in tandem with the light show, which will be used to invoke the same feelings. Hansen promises additional production elements that will slowly be rolled out over the next year.
Releasing new music is also at the top of Hansen’s mind, beginning this fall with the release of an all-instrumental version of Weather. The album started out just like any other, he explained, without vocals as the driving force—“I just sat down and wrote music like I always do.” Eventually some of the songs presented themselves as candidates for vocals, and Hansen began stripping back some of the instrumentation to create the space for the vocals to breathe. But he still loved the original versions.
That’s when he decided that in order to fully pursue the vocal album without sacrificing his creative process or falling back into his old ways, he’d make both versions.
“It was more for myself, to be like, ‘Don’t worry; this stuff is going to see the light of day,’” he said. “To me those are very compelling songs, and I want people to hear them.”
Besides the updated arrangements, some of which have already been released as B-sides, this wordless version will have another significant change: Weather’s lead single, “Pink & Blue,” will revert to its original name—which Hansen has yet to unveil.
This album won’t be the last new material that Tycho will release over the next couple of years. Hansen wrote two other projects simultaneously: One will be instrumental, and the other will continue to use vocals, though he doesn’t know which forms either album will take, or who will sing. He wants the collections of songs he releases over this time to show greater diversity than in the past.
“[Weather] is just the opening salvo in that,” he said.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.