This interview has been conducted with Ken Evans, one of the founder members of the Australian electro pop band Tycho Brahe. They just released their second album which I already reviewed. Let’s discover a little more about them…
Chain D.L.K.: You named your band after the 16th century self taught Danish astronomer, because you have his same self taught attitude. Can you tell us something about the different steps of this “do it yourself” process?
Tycho Brahe: Everything about Tycho Brahe embodies the “do it yourself” philosophy. I taught myself to program synthesizers and sequencers and play guitar, and I play everything by ear… no-one in the band can confidently read sheet music, I even have difficulty identifying the notes on a keyboard by name. We produce and engineer ourselves based on how we think it should sound, we stopped using outside studios in 1995. The engineering and production is all self taught and self discovered. We even occasionally build our own gear for live use. It’s all done by us without outside influence, not only the creative side of things but the technical as well, and sometimes it’s trial and error to find what works, but we find the solutions ourselves in our own way. Basically we don’t give a damn how it “should” be done – we just find out what works for us and do it ourselves, we find our own path. The only concession we do make is to insist on professional external mastering for our CDs. In the same way that the astronomer Tycho Brahe found his own pathway to make a contribution to science, we have found our own pathway to make a contribution to music. Our self taught skills have advanced to the level now, where we are placed alongside trained musicians, engineers and producers, but because we’re self taught we don’t always take an approach that’s conventional, and that helps keep us unique.
Chain D.L.K.: You formed in 1993 but three years passed since your first tape and seven before your first album. Why it took so long? Only because of the band adjustments?
Tycho Brahe: It’s largely due to the self taught aspect of how we work. That first tape was recorded using a borrowed four track tape recorder, when the band was a duo. Prior to that I’d done a lot of recording in commercial studios for various projects, and was often unimpressed by how things turned out. The problem was often due to time and cost pressures in the studio with engineers who just didn’t “get it” since we weren’t a rock guitar band. The four track recordings were mainly just to document what we sounded like, it was Georgina and myself recording in the beginnings of the home studio exactly what we did as a live act. The first tape, “Promotional”, was only ever released because the recordings turned out better than we expected, there were actually about a dozen songs recorded and we chose the best four to release. We sold all those tapes at live shows. We did one other tape after that, “Absolution”, and sold all those too. Then came a period of setting up the home studio more seriously using a computer to record a proper CD album, which was a steep and expensive learning curve in 1997, much more costly and difficult then compared to now. That took three years to learn how to engineer and produce well enough, write some more songs, expand the live band to a four piece, and find an avenue of release for the first album, “Cassiopeia”. During this time we also did a lot of live shows and were rehearsing constantly, which took up most of our spare time, not to mention all of our day jobs. Recording was often done at night instead of sleeping, which created a cycle of exhaustion. So even though from the outside progress seemed slow, it was an intense period of learning for me on a technical level especially, and the band as a live act. Home recording using software is such a simple task now, compared to then. It’s so much faster and foolproof – in the early days I was using a stereo in/out soundcard, with no MIDI sync for the computer and a maximum of about eight stereo tracks with no onboard effects. Now I’m running 24 tracks with onboard effects, with multiple synchronization options, although that rig is now considered out of date!
Chain D.L.K.: Does Australia offers opportunities for young bands?
Tycho Brahe: Not as much as it used to. I’ve been involved in electronic bands for 20 years now, and when I started out it was easier to get live shows and actually get paid decent money for it. Now there are far less live venues, and less pay – some venues here will even charge the band for bar and security staff! It’s easier for a venue to have a DJ and/or strippers and slot machines. The Australian music scene is very insular and the mainstream is basically monopolised by a handful of large companies that will rarely take a chance on anything other than a “sure bet”. We have a relatively small population (about 20 million) spread over vast distances so most mainstream music is designed to cater to the lowest common denominator. I suspect it’s like that in most places now though, not just Australia. Outside of that though the digital revolution has opened up vast opportunities for bands isolated in Australia, like ourselves, and it’s now possible to reach the entire world. Tycho Brahe would never have bothered releasing any albums if it weren’t for the communication power of the internet and email.
Chain D.L.K.: Have you been forced to look for an overseas deal with A Different Drum or do you wanted to work with them because you had a feeling with the other label’s bands/attitude?
Tycho Brahe: We initially approached A Different Drum with our first album “Cassiopeia” back in 1999/ 2000 as it was one of the very few labels we could find anywhere in the world that was releasing new synthpop. Whilst there were a couple of tiny electronic labels here in Australia at the time, the market here was and remains so small that it just wasn’t worth a release. So we were forced to look overseas from a practical logistical perspective. Synthpop fans in the US probably account for about the same percentage of music buyers as in Australia, but Australia has roughly the same population as New York alone! Because of that, it’s easier to get decent distribution in the US, as opposed to here – what Australian distributor would want to stock stores with a CD by a synthpop band that will realistically sell a handful of copies, which in turn means you can’t justify advertising expenses etc? In the US all that is made possible by the sheer number of people, although it’s still on an underground indy level.
Chain D.L.K.: Was the deal with ADD concerning only distribution (I read on the first CD that it was only distributed by them and I haven’t found your releases into their catalog)?
Tycho Brahe: The deal was for distribution only for our first album “Cassiopeia” (2000) and the remix/ covers album “Tasty” (2001). We sent large boxes of CDs to ADD and they sold them all, which is why they’re no longer in their catalogue! We still have copies available from Australia through an online store at http://www.acmedistro.com
Chain D.L.K.: What happened with them?
Tycho Brahe: ADD stock and distribute our new album “Atlantic”. As a matter of fact, “Atlantic” is currently sitting at no.38 on ADD’s best sellers for the year, ahead of new releases by bands like Covenant, Heaven 17 and Depeche Mode. Todd also managed to get me a DVD copy of the greatest movie of all time, “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The Eighth Dimension”, so he’s alright as far as I’m concerned!
Chain D.L.K.: I saw that you moved to Ganymede’s Cohaagen. How did this happen and have you ever thought to collaborate with any of your new label mates?
Tycho Brahe: Basically we shopped the “Atlantic” album around to many labels over many months and Cohaagen came back with the best offer, the right attitude, the same goals and a belief in the music, so we signed the album to them. Regarding collaboration, as the main producer/ engineer/ writer in Tycho I have very little spare time so sadly any outside collaborations are unlikely in the near future. I did start work on a remix for Fr/action, but sadly had to shelve it due to other priorities and time restraints. The remix was turning into a rush job that wasn’t going to do anyone any favours. This is a rule the band has now agreed on indefinitely – no outside remix work for the foreseeable future as it plays havoc with our own work schedule, which is a shame as I love remixing and have done so in the past noteably for Real Life, and Empire State Human. Outside remix work delayed the completion of “Atlantic” by several months, and we want to concentrate exclusively on Tycho at this time. The past remix work however, has helped us in the long run as it has ultimately led to a remix album due for release very soon – ie other artists have slowly reciprocated our remixes and returned favours. We’re now waiting for the last final remix before we take the remix album for mastering.
Chain D.L.K.: As I can read from the lyrics your main inspiration comes from relationships so I was curious to know, why did you titled your albums “Cassiopeia” and “Atlantic”?
Tycho Brahe: It’s true that most of the lyrics are about relationships, but relationships with others are a basic fundamental of the human condition, so it’s only natural to write about them. Typically our “relationship” lyrics aren’t romantic though…for example Georgina wrote the lyrics for “Total Kaos” (from Cassiopeia) about a mentally ill family member; “Dislocation” is about a bad dinner date with a frigid social zombie; other songs like “White Room” are observations on the increasingly crazy state of the human race post industrial revolution: “One hundred years of mass production/ One million years of blind seduction”. On the new album “Atlantic” there are relationship songs, but with a twist: “Empty Days” is a narrative about a guy intentionally overdosing his bored girlfriend with heroin bought from a junkie Grateful Dead fan; “Sanctify” is about contracting HIV from an unfaithful dishonest lover; and then there’s songs like “Throwaway Fashion” which is about the superficiality of supermodels, and “Military Option” which is a statement about political power and it’s abuse. Lyrically it’s a grab-bag, ranging from trite pop lyrics through to a few sharp disturbing statements on the human condition.
As for the album titles, “Cassiopeia” came from an astronomy text book – I looked up “Tycho Brahe” and it said “See Cassiopeia”. So I looked up Cassiopeia, and it said it was a star discovered by Tycho Brahe, and that it was “a radio source”. I knew then that it absolutely had to be the name for the album.
The title “Atlantic” was an oblique and cynical reference to the fact that most of our audience for the album would be in the US and/or Europe, which are linked by the Atlantic Ocean. It’s my private metaphorical face slap to the typical majority mainstream Australian music buying sheep who are force fed and accept crap music on the mainstream radio courtesy of a radio monopoly and major labels, working in conjunction with co-owned crap music video TV shows, and none of that music is synthpop. Its typically “R&B” or Idol type rubbish, it’s like a McDonald’s burger for the ears. In Australia, for example, Depeche Mode are “one hit wonders” who did “Just Can’t Get Enough” over 20 years ago and then vanished! Gary Numan is unheard of. Human League disappeared in 1982, etc etc. Hence “Atlantic” distances the album metaphorically from Australia. The situation is very frustrating when we have great contemporary synth bands here like Real Life who never get mainstream exposure except for their ancient “retro” work….despite the internet the average Australian hasn’t got a clue about bands like Depeche Mode since it isn’t served up to them in the mainstream, but it’s not the fault of the average music listener. It’s just business. Ironically, Human League just played at the Hollywood Bowl to 15,000 people…..
Chain D.L.K.: In my review I told that I heard influences of The Fixx and A Flock Of Seagulls in your music because your synthpop has also a 80s new wave electro attitude but I read on your website that you don’t think this is true. Can you explain your point of view?
Tycho Brahe: Ha ha! We definitely do have an ’80s new wave electro attitude….I think it said on our website in reference to your review that “Ken denies the Fixx and Flock of Seagulls influences, though”….To clarify, I’ve got a huge collection of ’80s vinyl with very broad tastes from electro to rock to orchestral, and in that I have one 12” single by the Fixx (“One Thing Leads To Another”) and one 7″ single by Flock Of Seagulls – the obligatory “I Ran”. I love ’80s new wave and synthpop with a passion, but I know hardly anything about those two bands, so I can’t see how they could be a direct influence. I’m sure if I explored them further I’d love them, and maybe I will one day, but I’m still preoccupied with my fixation on other bands like Berlin, Human League, New Order, Depeche Mode, Real Life, etc etc…..I didn’t intend to sound like I don’t like the Fixx and Flock Of Seagulls, I just haven’t really explored them yet!
Chain D.L.K.: I read that you just finished the video for “Don’t Feel That Way”. Can you tell us something about that? What is its story plot? Where has it been shot?
Tycho Brahe: The video was shot on a huge stage in a huge auditorium, and is basically the live band performing the song as we would at a normal show, with a couple of ’80s goth sexy dancing robot girls in gigantic boots! It also includes graphics created by Francis (our drummer). The whole purpose of the video is to show the overseas fans what we look like as a live performing act, and to drive home the fact that we’re a functioning live four piece band. We’re not a typical synth act which might have a DAT machine or a CD, one guy miming on a synth, and another guy singing. We’re sort of like a normal rock band, but instead of acoustic drums we have Francis playing a full electronic drumkit, and instead of a bass guitar we have Andy playing basslines on a keyboard. Georgina is roughly equivalent to a rhythm guitarist/ vocalist, and I’m like the vocalist with lead guitar, although it’s actually a bass guitar…confused yet? We wanted to show that we play for real, and the video shows that very clearly. Here in Australia we have to be able to hold our own alongside rock bands in smokey beer soaked pubs, so we can’t get away with “laptop karaoke” as we like to call it.
Chain D.L.K.: What’s next for Tycho Brahe?
Tycho Brahe: Currently we have seven songs partly recorded for our next album which we should have out in 2007. That next album will possibly be a little darker, which is a conscious direction our songwriting took after opening for VNV Nation. In the meantime we have the remix album almost ready to go to mastering, it’s called “Transatlantic – the Atlantic Remixes”, and it’s the entire “Atlantic” album with the same track order, but all remixed or alternate versions. It has remixes by Real Life, Boxcar, Tankt, Angel Theory, EMP, Tenth Stage, Garland Cult and some others. We hope to release a lead single from that very soon. Also we perform live quite a bit and there’s a bunch of new songs to learn, not to mention the technological challenge of making them playable on stage, so there’s a bit of work to keep us busy there….
Chain D.L.K.: Any final words?
Tycho Brahe: War is stupid. People are people. Check out the Crash Frequency Collective website to find out about other Australian electronic bands http://www.crashfrequency.com Visit the Tycho Brahe website at http://www.tycho.com.au for free downloads and news, or to join our email list to keep in touch!
Visit Tycho Brahe on the web at:
[interviewed by Maurizio Pustianaz] [proofreading by Tycho Brahe]