Roughly once a month, Scott Hansen, a musician and graphic artist from San Francisco who records under the name Tycho, finds himself totally lost in nature—intentionally. Hansen and his label mate, Christopher Willits, usually set off around noon somewhere among Northern California’s dense redwoods or along its coastline. Then they hike all night, without a map or a destination, until sunrise the following morning.
“It becomes this endurance thing, really meditative,” says Hansen, 39, who was a competitive runner in high school and college. “You feel a slight element of fear. We’re in the woods at 3 a.m., it’s pitch black, and we’re barely finding our way on this trail. By the end of it, you’re just exhausted but also exhilarated.”
With tongue firmly in cheek, he and Willits call these adventures “spirit journeys.” And for anyone familiar with Tycho’s music, these trips make perfect sense. Although Hansen makes music inside a dark and cramped Bay Area studio, the expansive sounds he emerges with seem made for the outdoors. He and his four-piece band’s instrumental music is variously characterized as post-rock, electronic, ambient, or chilled out. But Hansen says listeners often describe it more experientially—that it evokes driving along the ocean, sitting in a meadow, or floating above a mountain.
Throughout Tycho’s four albums, his somewhat spare guitar and synth riffs are drenched in expansive-sounding reverb. The melodies evoke a kind of wistfulness and nostalgia, making ample use of minor chords as well as the kind of melancholic sounds produced by sixth and ninth chords—think the ending of the Beatles’ “Help” and Adele’s “Hello,” respectively. It’s often driven by throbbing, midtempo bass lines and a snappy snare drum sound. It’s far too grounded in popular music to be described as New Age, but it’s also no coincidence that Hansen plays a popular sunrise DJ set at Burning Man every year.
“In the beginning, I was truly trying to take what I felt when I was in a field or in an outdoor space and directly translate it into the music,” Hansen says. “That was the only way I found I could do it: I was a visual artist before, but I don’t feel like my skills ever caught up with the vision.”
Hansen grew up on the undeveloped edges of suburbia in Sacramento, California, and lived a childhood of free rein over rolling hills, old farms, and the nearby American River. As a competitive track and cross-country runner, his workouts often took him deep into the forest. He says the mental high he got from physical exertion in nature is what he’s often attempting to convey.
“I wouldn’t call it psychedelic, but it was definitely one of my first experiences with feeling a disconnection from your body,” he says. “That actual high was something I was very aware of and chasing after at a pretty young age.”
Today, Hansen often chooses to tackle more personal emotions as musical themes and downplays the overt nature element. But, he says, it’s always in there. “It’s like you’re going out [in nature] and you’re collecting this experience,” Hansen says. “Whether you’re consciously channeling that into the work is kind of inconsequential—I think it’s what puts you into this state, and you’re gonna hold onto elements of that, and it’s going to find its way into the music. I would just say nature is the palette and not necessarily the content.”
Nevertheless, the natural world exists as the main theme of his album art, tour posters, and video direction—all of which he designs. They’re almost exclusively graphical representations of the sun, moon, water, monoliths (after all, the name Tycho is taken from 2001: A Space Odyssey), or celestial objects.
Even without any overt human aesthetic to the music, either through vocals or imagery, Tycho has enjoyed popular and critical acclaim. The band’s fourth album, Epoch, released in September, soon hit number one on Billboard’s electronic/dance albums chart and was recently nominated for a Grammy in the category of best dance/electronica album. The album’s success represents an unlikely crossover for an instrumental artist.
As you might expect of a distance runner, Hansen works brutal, sleepless stretches at a desk in his studio. He is aware of the toll it can take on a body, and thanks to his athletic background, Hansen sees the relationship between physical wellness and creativity more astutely than most artists. To him, fitness means having the physical ability to put himself in a studio for weeks at a time.
“I start to get afraid that when you see artists drop off, it’s maybe because they’ve lost the ability to really push themselves into this heightened state,” he says. In that way, being active in nature also serves as training for his work.
“Sometimes I wonder if I’m just memorializing my youth when I spent all this time outdoors,” Hansen says. “I always envisioned my adult life like I’m going to run every day and live in the woods in a cabin if I can—and here I am living in San Francisco and working in a studio. It’s almost like I make music that makes me feel OK about the fact that I’m not out there actually experiencing nature.”
Hansen has been on an extended break since the release of Epoch and gets outside as often as he can ahead of a busy 2017. The band has toured extensively in Asia and Europe and is a fixture at large outdoor festivals like Coachella. Hansen is now gearing up for an Australian and Asian tour at the start of the year, which then will take him through the United States and around Europe.
But the band’s final show of 2016, a set at the Treasure Island Music Festival in San Francisco, was memorable. As they had done all weekend, the skies opened up and poured torrents of rain during Tycho’s performance. There are few bands for which this would seem more appropriate; naturally, Hansen and his fans wouldn’t have had it any other way.