Editor's Note: We originally published this article on September 30 2016, when Tycho released its album Epoch early, as a surprise to its fans. That day was the last day of eligibility for the 59th Annual Grammy Awards, and Epoch's early release proved to be fruitful, as it has earned a nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album for the awards, which will be presented this Sunday, February 12 on CBS.
When you’re a music technology fan, the world is full of surprises, as cool new items seemingly come out of nowhere every week. Yet it’s a much rarer treat for a major new album to catch you completely unawares. Today, however, a lot of electronic music fans’ weekends were just changed for the better, as San Francisco electrogaze band Tycho has released its surprise new album, Epoch.
They gifted us with the chance to hear the album early, as well as have a few words with Tycho founder and producer Scott Hansen, who said “I've never been fond of the ‘hand in the album then wait 4 months for it to come out’ release schedule. With the prevalence of streaming and digital distribution, it felt like the right time to step outside that way of doing things and be more connected to the people consuming the music.”
Hanson and crew are currently on tour incorporating five new pieces from Epoch into the live set. The Tycho experience kind of feels like the spirit of Boards of Canada embodied in a live band—early M83 with a synthwave upgrade. Every band has its influences; not every band has its own sound. By now people immediately recognize Tycho’s sound on its own. If you don’t know that sound, you can figuratively see it for yourself.
Because Hansen holds down a second profession as a graphic artist who makes all of the band’s graphics and live visuals, Tycho sounds like it looks: like a sunrise on a fantasy world made of peace, like sound vibrating into geometrical shapes that break back down into sound, like moments of clarity where normal life takes on the tunnel-vision hyperreality of the Sierra Instagram filter.
But chances are you already know how Tycho sounds, because what creates Tycho fans are simply human beings hearing Tycho’s music. Once you get it, you’re in. People have been slowly but steadily lining up for the Tycho ride through its stages of initial self-release in 2002, joining the Ghostly International label in the latter half of the 2000s, and its breakthrough Ghostly albums Dive (2011) and Awake (2014). By that time, Tycho had taken over Explosions in the Sky’s mantel of instrumental “It” band.
However, there are still some surprises in store on Epoch. Fans will not be disappointed, but they will hear some more aggressive bass and drum parts on Epoch that haven’t been as prevalent on the last two albums. The resulting spiked energy was part of Hansen’s plan all along. “I've always been really interested in pushing drums as far as I can,” he said. “For this album I wanted to get back to that—really put the time and thought into the rhythm section. I wanted this album to feel more aggressive in that way, more driven. I think it's part of an overall trend on this album toward more defined parts. I wanted each part of the songs to stand on its own and hold a space.”
Hansen’s synth parts have never had a problem holding their own space on Tycho records. While Tycho songs are always cohesive works, the creamy warmth of Hansen’s many vintage analog synths is often most recognizable element, and that holds true on Epoch’s early singles “Division” and “Epoch,” as well as album tracks “Glider,” “Continuum,” and others.
Some of Hansen’s cast of synthesizer characters have included a somehow-still-operable Korg Polysix, Moog Minimmog, Roland Juno-106, as well as a Moog Phatty that’s used on stage.
For both the Epoch album and accompanying tour, Hansen has added the Korg Minilogue 4-voice analog synth. It has a unique sound, and its relatively low cost ($499) and easy availability will make a good road hog when nothing less than pure analog will do. “I also added a seated keyboard to play the piano parts from ‘Receiver,’” Hansen said. “I felt like that song was a good opportunity to bring the energy of the show into another space and refocus the audience's attention.”
“Receiver” is a mid-album adjustment point on Epoch, as well—the most strictly downtempo ambient interlude on the album, before it picks up steam with the understated lead-synth-and-driving-rhythm majesty of “Epoch.” When presented live, such mood swings and energy shifts will also have the emotional heft of Hansen’s own visuals to enhance them.
“The visuals are an integral part of the show and the overall story of the music,” Hansen said. “They're a mix of live-action footage and my graphic design work animated. With the newer stuff, I find myself trending away from literal narrative-type themes and using more minimal elements, almost like a light show at times.”
As such an auteur for the band, it makes sense that Hansen would desire to control the timing of Epoch’s release, especially when he feels that breaking with the schedule of traditional album releases would be good for both him and the fans.
“There is a kind of visceral fulfillment you get from sharing something that you've just created with other people,” Hansen said. “We just finished mastering the album in late August, so it will barely be a month old when people hear it. That's a very satisfying feeling as an artist.”