When Tycho released Epoch, an album of genial, panoramic, wordless rock, at the end of September, it sped to No. 1 on the Billboard Electronic/Dance Albums chart. This may have surprised no one more than Tycho founder/brainchild Scott Hansen. “I make instrumental music,” he tells Billboard over the phone from San Francisco. “I never expected any of this.”
Although Epoch has little in common with the big-tent electronic music near it on the chart — The Chainsmokers‘ Bouquet or DJ Snake‘s Encore — Hansen suggests the success of those artists and their predecessors in part cleared the way for Epoch‘s No. 1 debut. “EDM has trained a new generation of listeners’ ears to accept a much broader range of what equals a song,” he explains. “EDM has become top 40 stuff: those sounds, those styles, those ways of thinking about song structure — even thinking that vocals aren’t necessarily the central element — those ideas have made their way into popular culture. That helps bands like us find their way in.”
Tycho started years ago as a solo drum and bass project. A DJ friend in college introduced Hansen to the dance music sub-genre, where music hovers near 170 beats per minute. “I’ve always been good about interfacing with machines,” Hansen says. “But that never seemed like a gateway to being able to make music. I never made the connection that music could be made with machines — that was what drum and bass was for me.”
He gravitated to the more delicate edge of drum and bass: artists like Roni Size, whose 1997 album New Forms was awarded the Mercury Prize, and Photek. But Hansen struggled to create the music on his own. “When I was trying to make drum and bass, it always felt like a struggle for me,” he says. “I was just trying to get anywhere near what these guys sounded like. I kept making this other stuff I couldn’t put my finger on that just flowed really well. Then somebody gave me Boc Maxima, the tape by Boards of Canada.” “This is it,” he realized. “This is my thing.”
The first Tycho record, Past Is Prologue, arrived in 2006, seemingly by accident. “That first record, I was like, ‘that was cool, but I don’t know how I would do that again,'” Hansen recalls. He worked on the follow-up, Dive, on and off for several years while focusing on his career in interface design for software.
In 2010, Tycho went to Burning Man for the first time, and had an experience that seems destined for a Burning Man promotional pamphlet, if such a thing existed. “I was drifting away from electronic music,” Hansen remembers. “I wasn’t even sure if I was going to do this anymore.” In the Nevada desert, he went to a sunrise set and rediscovered his love for the form. Soon after, he quit his job at Adobe, to focus full time on his side projects — a T-shirt and poster job and a design blog. He also decided to finish Dive. (This year, he DJ’d his fourth sunrise set in a row at the festival.)
When Dive came out in 2011, it set the trajectory for Tycho. “That was when the sound crystallized,” Hansen says. He was tapped by Little Dragon to open for them on tour shortly after the album’s release. “I put together a band, and we’ve never stopped going since then,” he continues.
The tour experience informed 2014’s Awake — “I wanted to make something more visceral, translating the live show into an album — but Epoch reaches back to Dive once again. “This album was about taking the detailed work and textures of Dive and taking the energy of some parts of Awake and trying to combine those,” Hansen says. The songs on Epoch undulate smoothly, full of the serene shine beloved by crossover indie rock bands like Phoenix. There’s little distortion, lots of space and polish in the mix, and all the ebbs, flows, and pacing of pop music — just no vocals.
As the record was progressing, Hansen noticed that more acts he admired were embracing the surprise album release. “It became clear somewhere along the line that this is the future of how to put out music,” he remembers. Tycho’s Epoch subsequently appeared in September without a pre-announcement — though “Division” and “Epoch” were released ahead of time, so a vigilant fan might have expected that something was in the works.
“With Radiohead, when A Moon Shaped Pool came out, it helped me see the album as a singular body of work,” Hansen explains. “I think that’s something we gained by putting [Epoch] out that way.”
He’s also excited about the possibility of continuous self-editing in the streaming age, citing the example of Kanye West‘s The Life Of Pablo. “Artists have taken back a little bit more control,” Hansen says. “I felt pretty comfortable putting out the single version of ‘Division’ even though I felt like it wasn’t really where I wanted it to be. We can always update it later. I wasn’t as afraid to let go.”
In the end, he didn’t change “Division.” “What you need is the proverbial feather,” he explains. “It helps you let go, it helps you have confidence, and then you realize you didn’t need it at all.”