Recording ambient music as Tycho, Scott Hansen taps heavily into the musical strains of his native San Francisco.
In concert, where Tycho expands into an instrumental rock trio with bassist Zac Brown -- no, not that one -- and drummer Rory O’Connor, there’s a good deal of psychedelic rock that soars, drones, and buzzes as color splotches and dusty visuals are projected onto a screen behind them onstage. And the laid-back rhythms and soundtrack-atmospheric tunes derive plenty from the Bay Area’s tradition of experimental hip-hop and the chill-out rooms of early S.F. raves.
Yet Tycho’s three albums -- Dive (2011), Awake (2014), and Epoch (2016) -- are chewier melodically than you might expect. Hansen’s lost some grit with time -- the latest is more fusion-gliding than strictly necessary -- but his straightforwardly lovely tunes and dawn-over-the-horizon production was legible even to the notoriously hidebound Grammy committee: Epoch was nominated this year for Best Dance/Electronic Album. (It lost to Flume.)
Like most dance producers-turned-bandleaders, Hansen also DJs. Most notably, he DJs every year at Burning Man -- also a show of his S.F. roots. Burning Man has long been a staple for both the Bay’s tech and dance-music crowds; in many cases they’re one and the same. But it’s been a while since the idea of hanging in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, with air-conditioned campers full of preening tech-bros spouting Ayn Rand and actively making the world worse has sounded like anything other than a pseudo-subcultural version of hell.
That’s hardly how it sounds when Tycho is spinning at Burning Man, though. The desert bacchanal (here, this will explain it) has been a dance-DJ staple for a quarter century now, and every year Hansen plays right before dawn near weekend’s end. Elsewhere—Burning Man Sunrise 2015 (September 3, 2015) is a nearly flawless showcase for the dewy-eyed robot music that stoked his artistic heart, not to mention that of a good number of participants.
For a seasoned electronic-music fan, the tracklist is not just a no-brainer but blindingly obvious. Well, yeah: In this setting, Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Jon Hopkins, and Jamie xx might as well be KQ spinning Zeppelin and the Stones. But it’s the way Hansen builds things that makes this a model of the form. The first three tracks set the table. He opens with turn-of-the-’00s twee IDM from Brothomstates—a lovely music-box melody over a funk beat rendered entirely with clicks—then segues into undulant drum and bass from Photek, the bass hits less chest-concave than temple massage. That fades into the shaggy trip-hop of “It’s Very Sunny,” by Casino Versus Japan, a.k.a. Milwaukeean Erik Kowalski, its kids’-talk samples a balm rather than a gimmick in this setting.
Those tracks, and everything that follows, are congruent sonically but not necessarily rhythmically; this is a listening set, not a dancing one, even when the beats ramp up, as they inevitably do. So it transfers to your headphones effortlessly while retaining its on-site flavor. Everything here is touched with the cosmic--in fact, the sun came up during Boards of Canada’s classic “Roybgiv.” Apparently, anything can happen at Burning Man.
Each week, Michaelangelo Matos will spotlight a different DJ set -- often but not always new, sometimes tied to a local show but not necessarily -- and discuss its place in the overall sphere of dance music and pop.
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