On the eve of Halloween, the streets of downtown Oakland were all abuzz with excitement and anticipation. Less than 24 hours before, the San Francisco Giants had won their third World Series in five years, and now the Bay Area had a victory parade and endless Halloween parties due up on the immediate horizon. But before those parties began we had own musical celebration to revel in; tonight was the Tycho tour closer at the Fox Theater.
For a community that prides itself on expert costume execution throughout the year, the thrill of the impending holiday night was palpable as we walked past a myriad of folks dressed up as monsters, mouses, and even a chessboard. Getting over my initial disappointment about being ghastly un-costumed for once in my life (I swear!), I decided to leave my cape in the car and be content to live vicariously through my festive peers. There was a distinct orange glow around the crowd of 20 and 30-somethings outside the Fox Theater and it was evident that many of the attendees saw no reason to forestall the eventual celebration.
After six months on the road, Scott Hansen, the mastermind behind the music of Tycho, was also in celebration mode. The show at the Fox had sold out and was one of the largest venues they had played to date, including over 40 shows throughout the globe and even a few notable sunrise sets at Burning Man. After raising fame locally and organically for the past six years, his hometown fanbase couldn’t have been more excited. From basement parties to the Indy, then Outside Lands and now The Fox – Tycho’s upswing in popularity was notable and well-deserved.
For those new to the project, producer Scott Hansen is a multi-instrumentalist and producer that leads Tycho’s music and graphic design work. Since 2013, he has been playing his ephemeral electronic sound with the backing of a live band, which adds a beautiful soul and depth to his already complex and layered songs. Scott himself leads the group on synthesizers, guitar, bass guitar, and visuals, with the rest of the sound supported by Zac Brown on bass guitar and guitar, Rory O’Connor on drums, and Joe Davancens on bass guitar, keyboards, and synthesizers.
Hansen has been quoted saying “…one of the beauties of instrumental music is that it doesn’t define, it implies.” And it’s pretty obvious he knows that adding visuals to instrumental music can further help the creative implications. Hues of red and yellow decorate the original album art, invoking the sunrise and sunset feelings apparent in his other art. And whereas the vocals of a song sometimes can divide an audience, separating listeners between those who’ve memorized the lyrics and those who struggle to follow along, his instrumental music is expansive and open which allows audiences to float along with it in their own unique way.
So for the final set of the tour, the anticipation inside the venue was huge. It was my first time seeing Tycho in person, and the Fox Oakland couldn’t have been a more beautiful venue to enjoy his sound within. If you haven’t been there, the Fox Theater originally opened as a movie theater in 1928 and was said to ‘redefine architecture’ in the Bay Area due to it’s hallmark Middle Eastern style. Ornate golden buddha statues flank the stage, providing an impressive and regal air to a space that is already intricately decorated in terra cotta and bright colors. The venue was almost named “The Baghdad” in order to pay homage to this mystical ambiance that exudes throughout the multi-level music hall. All of this really creates a wonderful energy for audience members that allowed us to be even more open to the mystical Tycho sound, one that evokes a fantastical and ephemeral energy in its own right.
When the house lights finally dimmed at 8:30pm the stage revealed a glowing sunset orb projected onto screens behind stage. This image was familiar, an original graphic design created by Scott for the cover art on 2011 album, Dive, it was clear the show was about to start. After a few minutes of teasing the audience with a growing red and orange visual delight, Hansen and his band walked onstage. The sunset image in the background slowly set behind a ridge of mountains, and the audience roared in passionate approval, while the screens took on a loop of video footage that showed sand dunes and coastal shorelines from a bird eye’s view that was mesmerizing.
The set began with a slow build of synthesized beats as the band literally led us “Adrift”, with a ballad from Tycho’s first album. Soon the songs would pick up from this soothing warm water sound, but at the moment the music perfectly matched the beach scenes projected behind the band quite perfectly. After coaxing us with their familiar soothing sound that his first album, Dive, is so well regarded for, the band turned up the energy with higher pitch beats that punch your eardrums with energetic groove. As the set continued though Tycho trailed from his past work to highlight songs such as “L”, “Dye”, and “See” from his newest album, Awake. But just when the audience thought they were comfortably swaying to the newer and more cohesive sound, the band would play an older tune like 2006’s “Past is Prologue” and remind us that the musical legacy is long and sophisticated one. The dream pop sound that now pervades the indie airwaves has been developing and evolving for over a decade.
As for the man himself, Hansen walked out onto stage wearing a white linen shirt and beige scarf draped messily around his neck. The warm hues of the biophilic video projected behind his bohemian outfit almost felt like watching a photo shoot for a Free People Catalogue, you know, one of those hipster couture brands that seems content to clothe only those who want to spend all their afternoons lounging on beaches or in meadows of wildflowers while draped in exorbitantly priced knit sweaters and ripped stonewash jeans. Throughout the set him and his band held their hip and “effortlessly cool” vibe while on stage, and my attention shifted from his outfit and the bourgeois fashion trends it evoked back to the music as the intensity increased. His performance as producer is as close to a true musician in every sense of the word, methodically following the song via multiple instruments, nodding his head to the beat and presenting a vulnerable sound that sometimes felt as intimate as a house concert. We were slowly being connected to a deeply visceral space of his subconscious and the audience were grateful companions on this ride.
Back in 2013, Hansen felt ready to focus his creative ambitions on the Tycho project in it’s entirety and put the design stuff on hold; he headed to a cabin in the Tahoe forest for 8 months to record his latest LP Awake. Unlike the prolonged and choppy process of writing and recording Dive, Scott has called Awake “the first Tycho record” because he could go much deeper into the music and focus on the flow of each song. The output takes the evocative, pop-ambient synth sound that made 2011’s Dive feels so profound and refocuses it into a clearer, more distinct post-rock context. It feels like an album that should be broadcast on loop over Crater Lake at night.
Fast forward to the night of this tour closer, it was fairly evident that the focus has benefitted the project immensely. If there’s any obvious way to sum up the show that night, it would be that it was a true reflection of the progression of Scott’s music since he began producing in 2003 to the output of Awake and beyond. His early album releases, Sunset Projector and Past is Prologue introduced the graphic designer to the music world. But it wasn’t until his 2011 album, Dive, was released to much acclaim that Tycho reached true “indie fame” (if such a thing can actually exist). It took Scott six years to produce Dive as he balanced a successful graphic design career with an growing interest in music production. And he’s been quoted as saying that he doesn’t really listen to electronic music but that his genre of choice has always been rock and roll. He got into electronic music through his affinity for technology. His fusion of technology driven beats with rock instruments represents a perfect union between a nerdy interest in technology and a basic love of a funky bass line.
At the end of the set the band members returned onstage to play an encore I will never forget. It fittingly began with “Awake”, the guitar and bass lines begin with anthemic power that builds into the full joyous energy of the song that has quickly become a fan favorite. Next they played “Montana”, a song with a drum beat hook and guitar riff whose constant repetition captivates and enchants the eardrums to no end. Since “Awake” and “Montana” are two of my favorites I felt content. But as the blue light onstage faded out, Scott took one quick pause and decided to play one more song.
This past Spring I listened to Tycho’s euphoric ballad “Elegy” on a daily basis for almost two months as I struggled to study for a technical exam that I seemed destined to fail. My anxious mind could only to be calmed when submerged in soothing mix of lo-fi guitar, synth and reassuring bass. On the day of the exam I was a bundle of nerves until I finished the test and was awarded my passing score. Immediately I burst out crying in the Prometric testing center (to the horror of my test administrators) and the bridge of “Elegy” began playing in my head. I had won, and Tycho was my personal soundtrack of victory. Instantly I felt like all of my fears of failure were sunsetting in the distance and Tycho’s musical release had arrived just in time for the celebration.
As the final guitar reverb for “Montana” rang out, instead of stopping the music, Scott then began to lovingly strum (ever so slowly) the notes of my heartful favorite. The song held such power and comfort for me, but was played live so rarely that I had assumed it was a unicorn-like experience that shouldn’t be counted on. The audience members around me seemed similarly amazed by this unique experience and as we stood together, bound together by mutual shock and awe, I felt my throat choke up a little bit. The video-projected sun-setting scene was completing one final time as I watched Hansen orchestrate his most beautiful song. The tune was so gratifying and enriching to the audience – like we all had just landed on a cloud. And now we were left to gaze upon the scene and catch our breath as we looked out on the last few rays of color in the sunset ending before us.
Like watching a green flash of creative brilliance, the encore cemented our mystical belief in the optical and auditory phenomenon that is Tycho, ending the sunset arc of an amazing 2014 tour with one last amazing show.