To anyone who claims to have seen, heard, or experienced “the whitest thing ever,” I present my counter-evidence: I saw Tycho at a winery outside Portland.
I started listening to Tycho about three years ago, serving as an AmeriCorps member at a public school in Beaverton, a suburb of Portland. Much of my “service” was devoted to sitting behind a computer, hiding from kids while I typed single digits into color-coded government spreadsheets. Scott Hansen’s pulsating, cool-bright intrumental melodies hover pleasantly between Boards of Canada and Explosions in the Sky – an ideal soundtrack for data entry. The NPR of EDM.
Early this Spring my roommate Jake told me about that in late June Tycho would be coming to Edgefield, a mid-size outdoor pavilion where McMenamin’s – an Oregon chain of restoration-centric restaurants – houses their vineyards, and a sprawling hotel-spa complex. After a moment of sticker shock, we convinced ourselves that some summer, we would no longer be feeling the $50 pinch. Indeed, at the show I was not thinking about the money I’d spent so much as the packs of cool moms, aging ravers and their small children crowding the lawn. Not quite a disco, not quite a picnic: a friend texted me asking if the crowd was just a bunch of software developers. I replied with a covert picture of a guy spread out on a blanket, working out of a calculus textbook.
I love quirky, older crowds, and being a millennial enamored with Dino Jr, Yo La Tengo, and My Bloody Valentine, I’m accustomed to elbowing up with sweaty guys that could be my dad. One of the most electric crowds I’ve been a part of was at a Superchunk show in Charlottesville, VA, where no one on the rail was under 40 or 200 lbs. That vibe was ecstatic; dudes were geeking out over their early-90’s heroes, and no one wanted the party to end. It became clear that this kind of energy could not be harnessed at Edgefield, since the surrounding town of Troutdale enforces a strict 10 p.m. noise curfew. I’ve never witnessed such a precisely timed musical occasion: opener Jaga Jazzist went on exactly at 6 PM; Todd Terje followed right at 7, and Tycho started at 8:30 and neatly wrapped things up an hour later.
What irked me about the scene at Edgefield was its weird blend of half-assed performance and pathetic pageantry. Part of the fun of seeing DJs and electronic artists live is that the stage becomes a venue for them to try out new sounds and sequences that you can’t hear in their studio work. Anyone who came to hear as much – to dance – must have been disappointed, as Tycho played each song note-for-note from his albums, with tidy fade-outs between each tune. Burst of applause, onto the next one, neither a constant groove nor any sort of playfulness or improvisation.
Still, a few wire-thin hippie types went all-out with rave gear, stumbling through the pit barefoot, dancing with abandon, even to the prerecorded music between sets. These people annoy me at big festivals, and here they looked especially desperate, trying to weave through broad-shouldered bros hoisting toddlers on their shoulders. Aside from this sprinkling of hippie elves and kandi kids, the pit was lousy with half-rave, half-beach attire, more head-bobbing than dancing. The picnic blanket was worse, though, since there was all that plus diapers being changed three yards away.
Between sets, Jake and I guzzled 10 oz cups of free water at a picnic table across from a wall of Honey Buckets. We’d both consumed some marijuana-laced gummi treats in the parking lot; our cottonmouth was peaking with our highs as we gawked at the hordes. It was not euphoric: wrinkles stood out, shirts clung a little tighter to beer bellies, and those big blue plastic doors slammed a little louder than normal. I began to think that if they scraped off the glitter and the glow sticks, this would be no different than a crowd at a live taping of This American Life. Buttons were pushed I didn’t know I had: while I’ve always found it a little tacky to wear a band’s shirt to their concert, it seemed doubly egregious to wear a DJ’s, and there were a lot of Tycho and Bonobo tees floating around. It also bothered me that no one looked all that sketchy, that no one was trying to sell drugs; it made sense, though, since I was starting to regret getting high myself. We slouched back into the pit, just in time for the headliner.
As the sun sank behind the stage, Scott Hansen strode out garbed in white linen from head to toe, like Father Yod. His backing band opted for a palette of maroons, blacks, and deep-blue denim, a stark and very deliberate contrast with their fearless leader. Sorta U2, sorta American Apparel photoshoot – everything was crisp and clean, from the beautiful angular mahogany encasing Hansen’s keyboards to his perfectly Pomade-d wave of auburn hair. A few songs in, he reached back and strapped on a gold-plated guitar (with a gold strap, of course). I leaned over to Jake – “here comes one of those screaming Tycho solos!” I mean, if you go all white-and-gold like that, aren’t you obliged to play guitar god? Nope – just the carefully syncopated series of two-note vamps that opens “Source,” then right back on the stand.
And the visuals: a miasma of clouds, sunsets, canyons, women’s hair in crimson silhouette, like they took the leftover b-roll from The Endless Summer and applied every filter they could. Not interesting, but too colorful to look away, accompanied by music that is not danceable or chaotic enough to have a reason to stare at your shoes and surrender.
In a word, it was all very boring, very lame. In the days after Edgefield, I tried to pinpoint why it sucked so much, and devised a simple criteria. Something is lame if it 1) is overly ironic or 2) devoid of irony, but too serious to be campy. Tycho falls in the latter category. As their increasingly sterile album covers suggest, Tycho’s music has evolved into something like seapunk without the punk – oceanic electronica without all the funny sampling and gangsta rap influence that makes artists like Ultrademon so much fun. “Serious” beach music of Tycho’s brand is not much different from Jimmy Buffet. That is, it would be a lame endeavor to pay $50 just to snicker at parrotheads and margarita moms, though you’d probably have some good fun, with or without a snarky attitude. Spending $50 on a Tycho ticket grants you no feel-good shtick to fall back on if the music sucks, but all the gaudiness you would expect from albums called Awake, Dive, and Epoch.
Of course, it wasn’t all Hansen and company’s fault: Edgefield’s restrictive noise curfew not only forced a mostly daylit show, but also precluded any opportunity for a lengthy encore. As the clock hit 9:15 p.m., blankets were dragged back to cars en masse, as no one wanted to get stuck in a car, in a field full of other cars – in Troutdale – for the rest of the evening. Jake and I opted for sacks of Taco Bell and pillars of Baja Blast.
As Tycho sweeps through the Southeast and spills into Europe this summer, do something Spills failed to do – consider the cold, utopian aesthetic of their albums and their album covers. Tycho’s live show is like that but bigger, louder, and more expensive – if that sounds good, by all means, treat yourself. But, please, leave the Day Glo and the kids at home.