Tycho Takes to the Sky – and Forecasts the Weather
November 11, 1572: A bright blast explodes in the evening sky over Denmark, illuminating the autumn darkness and catching the attention of alchemist and astronomer Tycho Brahe. Ten years into his ambitious quest to map the celestial firmament with only a compass, a sextant and his untrained eye, Brahe records the happening as “the Star, new and never before seen in the life or memory of anyone.” He calls it a “stella nova,” the phenomenon now known as a supernova. It was eventually named SN 1572 and remains, to this day, one of the most spectacular ever witnessed.
Like many innovators of the time, Brahe was also a complete and total freak. He wore a prosthetic nose after a good part of his own was sliced off in a drunken sword fight, and devoted himself to the care and feeding of a menagerie of strange pets: a (supposedly) clairvoyant dwarf that lived under the dining table; and a moose whose rapacious appetite for pilsner lasted until it went on a particularly enthusiastic bender and dropped dead down the stairs. Brahe’s sphere of influence even extended to literature’s greatest Dane. When Bernardo fixed his gaze upon the “star that’s westward from the pole” in Act One of Hamlet, the odds are excellent that it was Brahe’s supernova he saw. The dates align too perfectly to be coincidental.
More than 400 years later, an heir to Brahe’s vision: Scott Hansen, great-grandson of a Danish émigré, who fuses the aural and the visual in the instrumental compositions he creates as Tycho.
“The part that resonated with me was the idea that Tycho was able to meticulously catalog all this information about planetary motion and the position of the planets, and he didn’t know what to do with it,” Hansen explains. “He had it down, and he didn’t see the forest for the trees.”
Brahe’s lifelong credo: “Non viduri sed esse.” Translated into English: “Not to be seen but to be.” It’s a perfect summation of the Tycho essence. They transcend the corporeal, these shadowy men on a shadowy planet, and you’d sooner recognize them by their album and poster artwork – all created by Hansen, who designs under the name ISO50 – than you would by their outward appearances. It’s an ingenious way of preserving their anonymity. “I always wanted the project to be more visible than any of the people in it,” he says. “That’s why there’s always this vague imagery about it.”
In creating the Tycho mystique, Hansen endeavors, with mathematical precision, to create something new and never before seen (or heard) in the life or memory of anyone. For the most part, anyway: A piece of artwork on Ned Flanders’ wall in the premiere episode of The Simpsons’ sixth season bore a striking similarity to the cover of Tycho’s fourth album, Epoch. Fans of Stanley Kubrick alerted him to the obelisk Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One, whose smoke-detector shriek deafened Dr. Heywood Floyd and his crew in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hansen insists that all pop-culture touchstones remain entirely coincidental, particularly the Epoch-like Emoji, which he denies responsibility for and instead attributes to “the Emoji Council.”
Much like everything else in the universe, Tycho is an entity in perpetual motion. Between 2002 and the moment you read this, they’ve visited or will visit at least 60 cities in 21 countries on six continents; their recent tour in support of their fifth album, Weather (Mom + Pop/Ninja Tune) took them to the Fuji Rock Festival and the Sydney Opera House. Add to the tally one Adult Swim bump, aired in commemoration of the digital re-release of Tycho’s 2004 debut full-length, Past is Prologue; and, to the band’s surprise and delight, a Grammy nomination for best Electronic/Dance Album in 2017. The trophy went to Flume, but Tycho was in no way disappointed. In fact, Weather is nominated in the same category for the 2020 Grammys.
“Once it gets to the point where there’s something you can show your parents, and be like, “Look, I have a real career,” Hansen laughs, “that’s pretty cool.”
With a tour schedule as rigorous as Tycho’s, staying in shape is of crucial import. Also essential to tourtime stamina: knowing when to say when.
“I don’t drink before shows anymore,” reveals Hansen. “I’ve always had really bad stage fright to the point where I was shaking and couldn’t play guitar. I would drink to get rid of that, but that would just make me worse the next day. Then, I’d have to drink more to get rid of that. Now I feel like I play better shows than I did before because I’m completely lucid. You see things for what they are, instead of through rose-tinted beer glasses,” he laughs.
Hansen’s daybreak DJ sets at Burning Man are always a popular attraction, with attendees flocking from all points of the Black Rock playa to greet the day, dance and trip before this post-millennial piper at the gates of dawn. When it comes to highs, Hansen gravitates toward the more natural sort. Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to, he’s not.
“For me, the thesis statement of Tycho is speaking to that out-of-body psychedelic aspect of interacting with the natural world,” confides Hansen. “I’m talking psychedelic independent of drugs, that connection that humans and animals have with the natural world. It’s hard for us to understand, but you just know it: the sense of wonder at seeing an amazing sunset, the exhilaration when you exert yourself on a long hike or a run, going through the forest. That’s absolutely what the music is about.”
On Weather, however, Tycho embraces the pleasures of the great indoors. “I wanted there to be some grounding element, something that felt intimate, like welcoming someone into a private space. That’s what the vocals are about. I know there’s some moments where it steps outside, but it’s supposed to be a more personal, intimate experience.”
As a designer, Hansen strives for perfection. No detail is too minute for his attention, not even the typefaces on Tycho’s album covers and posters. Years before he ever touched a Minimoog or picked up a Les Paul, he committed himself to the visual arts.
“I’ve always had a very innate sensibility for the idea of creating a cohesive consistent experience visually connected to music,” Hansen says. “I always loved the Led Zeppelin albums, seeing how they all flowed together. So, I’m always conscious of, how do you create this consistent visual experience? If you think back a decade as a fan of consuming the music, there’s also going to be attached this visual identity that’s a very prominent part of this experience.”
It’s fitting that Tycho reopened the Variety Playhouse after its renovation, for it’s a wonder to see that visual identity in action. Live instrumentation courtesy of guitarist and bassist Zac Brown, keyboardist and guitarist Billy Kim and drummer Rory O’Connor lends a heart, a pulse, a human touch to the sounds of these four man-machines. Hansen would have had it no other way on tours past, stationed behind his platform of plug-ins, controllers and keyboards with his eyes, like Brahe’s, facing the heavens. “I just wanted to blend into the visuals,” he explains. “It’s about catching the visuals and becoming part of that.”
And what visuals. Behind them roll vivid montages of ocean and surf, desert and dune, sunsets that stun and blind. It’s now the enigmatic San Francisco artist Hannah Cottrell, who performs under the name Saint Sinner, who’s at one with the overwhelming colorfast. Her voice is the first of any kind since Tycho’s 2011 album Dive, and her presence a fierce new feminine energy. She’s the very heartbeat of Weather. At the conclusion of its first track, “Easy,” she intones, almost unintelligibly, “Where are you going?”
Hansen considers the track “a jumping-off point to acclimate the listener to what the record was going to be about. With the vocals, it was really important that it be something that connected to the music, and her voice ended up feeling like it melted into the soundscape and became another instrument in this really nice, cohesive way.”
Mindful that not all listeners would take to Saint Sinner’s presence as immediately as he did, Hansen recorded both instrumental and vocal versions of all eight of Weather’s tracks to satisfy both palates. First the stars, now the troposphere. It was the chaos of weather, its circulations, cycles and patterns, that intrigued Hansen most.
“It was speaking to things that are beyond our control,” he says. “My life was in a tumultuous time, but I also think the world is in a pretty tumultuous time as well. I look at it like weather: You can’t control it. You do your best to make it through it, or wait until it passes, or wait until it gets better. That was the message of that.”
Tycho Brahe didn’t see the forest for the trees. Does Hansen? “No!” he laughs. “Probably less than ever. I’m not very good at being calculated. I can’t set out to do something and just do it. I just have to work and keep working every day. And at the end of a year, you’re left with this thing. You may or may not understand it or how it came to be.”
In short, something not to be seen, but to be. “The overall message of this album is that I wanted to make something beautiful and something positive. I think I tried to weave and move through all these spaces with the other records, and this one I wanted to center myself. What comes naturally to me is positive, hopeful music. That’s what this record was all about. There may be bad weather,” Hansen assures, “but eventually it’s going to pass.”
Photo by Susan Moll.