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Full Circle: The Art and Music of Scott Hansen of Tycho

By Breanna Murphy; art by Scott Hansen; photo by Marc Lemoine on March 17, 2014


Full Circle: The Art and Music of Scott Hansen of Tycho

Over the past decade or more, two artistic sides of Scott Hansen have been operating in a state of evolutionary convergence. As ISO50, he is a graphic designer employing a mixed-media technique to his pieces, combining digital and photographic elements to create lush, saturated compositions that are both vivid and vague, blurring the line between reality and dreams. As the musical project Tycho, Hansen crafts cinematic landscapes, utilizing a mixture of live instrumentation and electronics that echo and resonate across open, beautiful spaces, soundtracking interstellar roadtrips as easily as deep-sea diving.


A visual artist before he became a musician, Hansen attended the University of San Francisco and paid the bills working in Web and graphic design. “Purely through accessibility, art came naturally,” he explains across a phone line from his Bay Area home. “I guess I always thought of music as a thing that has a high barrier to entry—you needed an expensive instrument and to know how to play—and [with] a pen and ink, you could just sit down and start drawing.”

And yet, despite their differences, the binary worlds of ISO50 and Tycho coalesce together organically, intersecting and interacting from their individual orbits, with Hansen always at the center, crafting the striking visuals that accompany his soundscaping odysseys. “[Designing Tycho’s art] really grew out of convenience. ‘Well, I know how to use Photoshop, so I might as well make a cover for this.’ To a certain extent, some of the first music I put together was more just to have a reason to design something. It went hand in hand.” Like the music beneath the covers, Hansen’s art is multilayered, vibrant and universal; transporting its audience to places vaguely familiar yet thoroughly otherworldly.

For its latest album, Awake, Tycho has matured past its beginnings as a one-man band utilizing synthesizers and drum machines to full live instrumentation by bass player Zac Brown and drummer Rory O’Connor, with whom Hansen has performed over the past two years. Unlike its previous records, including 2011’s Dive, the recording of Tycho’s new LP Awake was collaborative between the three musicians, with sessions occurring in Lake Tahoe, Santa Cruz and San Francisco. “It’s what I’ve always wanted,” Hansen admits of Awake’s production. “I just didn’t feel like I had met the people that it made sense to do that with [in the past].”

Here, Hansen talks with FILTER about his artistic processes, both visual and aural, and how Awake, on the inside as well as the outside, may be the apotheosis of each.

How do you view the relationship between your music and the art connected to it? Does one influence the other?

For me, they’re kind of inseparable at this point. I see it as an audio–visual project, so it’s hard to say which one’s inspiring the other. I always do the album artwork second, so that’s definitely not what’s inspiring the music, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that the music inspires the design. I’m not sitting down and saying, “Let’s make a cover that represents this music.” You can see the album artwork as its own individual work, but it definitely connects with the music. There are two separate processes, but because the same person is doing both, they end up meshing. That has more to do with it than some concerted effort to visually represent the music. At any stage in my career—my path as an artist—I think I’m getting at the same point visually and musically, so there’s obviously going to be a spot of overlap there.

How has your artwork for Tycho evolved over the years?

Have you seen Awake’s album art? Obviously Dive is the maximalist interpretation of that same kind of idea. Tycho’s original artwork was haphazard, like, “Oh, this is cool” or “that looks nice,” but I’ve slowly started trying to craft a narrative or core element that would be a recurring theme throughout everything, so I started working with the circle. And that was always kind of like the symbol for the sun. For Dive, I wanted to create this photorealistic version [of it]. The idea was to create a collage; it’s a giant collage of literally 30 or 40 different photos from all different types of sources and then a lot of illustrative design elements. Different things from different places in the world and different landscapes all mesh together to make some ethereal landscape. Basically, it’s a lot of photo collaging with some basic design to make it all fit together and feel cohesive. It blurs the line between design and photography to the point where it almost feels like a painting in a lot of ways, but at the same time, you know it feels too real to be a painting. And that’s exactly what I’m trying to do with the music: You don’t know what’s synthetic, and you can’t really call it electronic music anymore because there’s live instrumentation, but at the same time it’s been effected in a way that makes it feel otherworldly.


So Dive’s album art is a collection of real places that have been combined to make an imaginary one.

Yes, exactly. Even the sun, although it looks like it’s design—I drew those waves into it—the core of it is actually a telescopic image of the sun. Everything has a basis in reality.

What sort of techniques do you use in photography?

I started out in film back in the early 2000s. That’s why I go by “ISO50” for design; I used to shoot ISO 50 Velvia, which is slide film, and use Lomo cameras. And it was fun. That’s really what got me into working more with computers, to scan that stuff in and edit the photos. But I wouldn’t consider myself a photographer. There are a lot of people that work hard at photography, and spend all day, every day, honing their skills. I like to go out and take snapshots and edit them and sometimes they come out cool, but most of the time it’s dumb luck. The way I see it, I just use a camera as a design tool, so that’s when I switched. Digital lends itself better. It needs to be very clean because I’m doing a lot to it in post. Film, in my experience at least, degrades quicker. I’ve found it harder to use as an element in my work because it’s not quite as sharp. There’s something perfect about digital that I can take it, then degrade it and make it into what I want; it’s a better starting point. So, long story short, I exclusively shoot digital.

On a Reddit discussion of your artwork, you wrote, “From what I have seen of my peers over these past 13 or so years as a designer, we generally tend towards simplification as we go along and I think that is an important part of design: efficiency of communication.” Is Awake’s art a breakdown of Dive reduced to its simplest form?

No, I don’t think so at all. I feel like design is the search for efficiency and communication—communicating an idea, visually, in the most efficient way possible. I don’t necessarily see Dive as “super efficient”; it was more like an exercise in creating something pretty or intricate or detailed and there was some beauty in that. But [Awake] is more about a very specific idea. The way those colors fit together and the proportion of each to each other, and there’s eight of them, one for each song. The way it looks, to me, encapsulates this idea that I’ve been going for for a long time. That’s an old thing in design, that as graphic designers age, they tend toward minimalism, and I think it’s because you learn slowly how to express yourself more efficiently and, as a result, your work is going to become what outside observers would consider “minimal.” I think that’s the correct observation, but at the same time, if you look at the thing as a whole, there’s a lot going on in there in terms of the way it’s affecting the viewer that I think needs to be taken into account aside from just how simple it is, literally.

You have described Awake as “the first true Tycho album.” Can you elaborate on that?

I’ve always wanted to work with other people and to create more of a “band record.” That’s what [Awake] is. When I hear this record, I hear the thing that I had envisioned all these years; I just really wasn’t able to do it [before]. I wasn’t capable of it, personally. So [in the past], I made these other songs that were finding my way around that, but with this, I think we really got to the center of it and that is really fulfilling.

Overall, how did this process vary from how you worked in the past and what was its effect on the result?

Dive was this really long, protracted thing over many years. I stopped doing music for a long time to focus on ISO50. After four years, I had a handful of songs, but that was just me in my spare time working on stuff, and then I finally got serious about making that record. And then I spent six months to a year really focusing on it.

We spent almost as much time thinking about how [Awake’s] songs should go, how we could make them shorter and how we could make them more efficient, than we did recording. We spent tons of time on arrangement and thinking about what made sense for the album as a whole. That was one of the things at the end that struck me the most about it; that [Awake] feels like this cohesive record where we accomplished what we set out to do as far as the concept, as opposed to finding our way as we went, you know? That’s what Dive was; Dive was a meandering walk through the forest for me [laughs], mentally. It was just kinda like, “Oh, that’s cool, let’s follow that!” I love how it came out, and that’s a valid way of going about it in its own right, but I did that twice, [also] with [2006’s] Past Is Prologue, and I wanted [Awake] to be this more focused effort.

Is there a unified theme of Awake's art and music?

When I was a kid, we used to travel through the Midwest...Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska. I felt a really strong connection to those places as a kid and I lost touch with that when I was older. But then, through touring, we’ve been to all those places... Arizona and New Mexico, all these beautiful desert spaces, all through the middle of the US. That is what inspired this whole record: wide-open spaces. One of the songs is called “Plains,” one of the songs is called “Montana.” The cover is like this flag for this imaginary place that encompasses all that space. Like a regional flag for what those places mean to me, visually, and the way that you feel when you’re there. That’s what this album is about for me: trying to express that idea, the way that those places feel to me in music. F

This article is from FILTER Issue 55