Having gone on tour in the fall and now playing at festivals and clubs across the nation, Tim Wu of Elephante is only getting things started. Stopping off in New York to play at Lavo, we got the chance to catch up with Tim about his newest single, "The In Between," the creative process behind his music and what Elephante has in store for the rest of the year.
EDM.com: As a fellow Asian, I know it's pretty common that parents make you learn piano or violin when you're younger. Was that the case for you, where you were kind of...not forced to learn, but they really wanted you to learn classical piano?
Elephante: Not forced, but you got to go to lessons? Yeah. My mom was like, "You got to pick something!" and so I picked piano. I always liked music. I remember I was being a baby and wanted to quit and she said it was fine, I just have to finish the year. So I finished the year and then I started to enjoy it because I was able to play stuff I like. Then I think she accepted me with keeping going with it, but that didn't work too well because I'm doing it for a living so. But you know, it's tough in the beginning. It's really frustrating, but then when you get into it and you can actually make noises that you like and enjoy what you're playing, then it becomes a lot of fun.
And then you taught yourself the guitar, why'd you want to learn the guitar?
Honestly, it was probably to impress a girl, like everything was in middle school. But yeah, the kind of music I was listening to like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, John Mayer, Incubus and that kind of stuff was what I was really into. And when I was learning piano covers, it was like, "This doesn't sound right and it doesn’t feel right," so I just picked it up and tried to do it.
So you mentioned John Mayer, how many of his songs do you know on the guitar? I know some of them are pretty hard.
Probably all of them. I mean at least the first three albums. Like if you gave me a guitar right now, then I'd probably play like ten or fifteen of them, but I definitely learned all of them. That was sort of how I learned how to play guitar, especially the acoustic guitar. I was just learning John Mayer songs. I have all the tab books. He was my idol growing up so that was like the bible, but some of it is very difficult. There are a couple of songs that I don't actually know how to play. I can't play them because my hands aren’t big enough. Like "Neon" is really hard. "Neon" is like crazy hard!
Then what's your favorite John Mayer song?
I really like "In Repair" or "Gravity." I like "Why Georgia" too. That one’s really fun to play. He did a cover of “Bold As Love” that is a Jimi Hendrix song that I actually have a tattoo of. That was what introduced me into the world of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. It took me down the classic rock path.
So tattoos, what's one favorite that you have?
That one's really important to me because of "Bold As Love." I have a tattoo of a tree on my back. It's for Ann Arbor where I grew up and you know the nickname is tree city, so that reminds me of where I came from.
Are there any you're planning to get anytime soon?
Mom, if you're reading this, no. But no, I don't know. Tattoos are like, for me, they have to be very personal and have to have a meaning so I'm always generally thinking about the next one. Whenever I have a brilliant idea, I'll probably get the next one.
Did you ever play in any bands in high school or college?
I did. They were all just sort of local cover type stuff, but I did mostly solo acoustic shows. I'd play open mics on the guitar and sing and stuff.
So you got a Harvard University degree in economics, but you also minored in music. Did any of those music classes help towards Elephante's sound?
I don't think necessarily, like specifically and practically. There's no dubstep class. There was a lot of theory and performance. It was very intellectual and it was fun, but most of my time that involved music, I was kind of on my own. I was managing the college studio, I was going to Boston to intern and was just messing around and writing songs and playing guitar and doing all that on my own. The classes were basically a fun excuse to not take another class. Yeah, they were great, it was fun.
How'd you get into electronic dance music?
I liked a bunch of indie electronic stuff like Ratatat, Miike Snow and Passion Pit and it sort of evolved from there. You know when you're doing the singer-songwriter stuff, it was just me and a guitar and that's all what the song was and you have to build around that. And then with EDM it was like all of a sudden you could make any sound in the universe that had ever existed or hasn't even existed yet. You're like a kid in a candy store. So I think it was maybe Skrillex or something. I heard "Scary Monsters" or some other dubstep song. I was like "How is this even possible, what is this noise? How does it work?" I think I just downloaded Ableton and I was just doing it for fun for awhile. Then one thing led to another and it kind of turned into the main thing.
Looking back on it now, did you ever think you'd be a DJ or did you think you were going to be an indie-rock artist?
If you told me when I was a kid that I'd be a DJ, I'd be like what's DJing? But I don't know, to me it's just a very natural evolution of the kind of music that I like making. And I think the lines are kind of blurring now. And you can't go into trying to be something from the past, right? So it's just trying to find your own way and trying to follow the sounds and the music that you love and figure out how to do it.
Some people don't know, but why the name "Elephante?"
So "Elephante" is a reference to the phrase, "elephant in the room." I worked at a corporate job for a year and I hated it, so the elephant in the room was that. I wanted to quit and just pursue music and give it a shot. So it was about quitting that job and becoming the Elephante in the room.
With the corporate job, you worked as a traveling consultant. The traveling sounds fun, the consulting not so much. How'd you juggle making music and the job before you quit?
Not very well, I wasn't very good at my job. Traveling sounds fun in theory, but you're realistically sitting inside of an office or hotel most of the time. I didn't have a social life. Every time I'd get home on the weekends I would just lock myself in the studio and work on music. I would try to leave work early and say I'd finish stuff up overnight and just work on music in the hotel room. Towards the end it got really bad, I installed Ableton on my work computer. The music was the one thing making me not go crazy. That was my light at the end of the tunnel.
What was it like making music full time?
It was the best. It still is the best. On the one hand, it's like this weight has been lifted off my shoulders and all of a sudden I can finally be the person I want to be, but at the same time it's like this panic that sets in, "Oh shit I don't have any money, this is a problem." I've definitely worked more hours and worked harder than when I had my actual job, but it was all in the pursuit of something I loved.
Was it hard to keep on track day to day to make sure you got some work done?
For me, not really. Honestly, it's fun. It’s what I wanted to do. You know most people get off work and ask, "What are you going to do with your time?" It's like, "Oh I'm going to play video games or go to the bar, I'm gonna go work out," or whatever. Literally I was like, "I want to work on music." I wake up and get to do exactly what I want to do all day and there's that panic of, "Oh I gotta make something happen for myself!" And that's constantly in your brain. Every day 11 AM to like 2 AM, I'm just battling it out.
So you know you have to make ends meet all this time, did you ever worry you weren't going to be successful at some point?
Oh, every day. That's sort of the paradox of being a young artist. On the one hand, you have to have the arrogance of "I'm gonna be the biggest rock star in the world," but then you also have the insecurity of "Fuck maybe I'm not good enough." And you kind of need both of those because you need the arrogance to get you through the hard parts, but you also need the insecurity to make sure you're working and getting better because you're probably not that good yet. So yeah, every day was a roller coaster of emotions and every day, "Well maybe I'm not gonna make it" and the other half, "Nah fuck that you’re the best."
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You know how it is, all the artists I talk to, whether it's in music or actors or whatever, it's always that "I don’t know what I’m doing, oh I suck" or "Nah I'm the shit." There's always that balance and I find it so funny. Some people will overcompensate and be like "I'm the shit, I'm the best," but then I know dude you were crying to me about how bad this was and you didn't know if it was going to work. So, it's just funny.
I feel like that's how all artists are and that's what helps them make their art really good.
Yeah, I really believe that no one is born making great music. It takes a lot of work and I think that's why talent is actually kind of overrated. I don't think talent is as important as sort of persistence. Every artist when you start off makes bad stuff for a long time and you have to be able to get through that and make bad stuff over and over again until you start to make okay stuff and then you keep doing it and after years and years you're at thousands of hours working on your craft you're finally maybe kind of good. And then people see you for the first time when you're pretty good and they're like oh my god he’s so talented. It's like, no. Maybe talent is like the ability to get to where he was, but it took them so long and so much work to get there.
But for you, you released a debut album in 2016 and it's a really awesome and beautiful album. So what was one song you really enjoyed making and why?
"Catching On." That day is still probably the most fun day I've ever had making music. So I started this kind of riff on my laptop at the time, it was like "da da da don da da da da don." I didn't really know what to do, that was all I had, like that was it. On my computer I had dozens and dozens of these random riffs and then I got together with Nevve, we were actually at the Patch House in the Hollywood Hills so we were in this rented cool old mansion in the hills and they had a studio in the house. She came over and hung out and I was playing them stuff and I played that and she was like, "Dude that was cool, let's work on that." And when you're in the studio, this chemistry happens and we started feeding off each other and this whole thing just came out in a few hours. I was like, "Dude this thing is perfect." It was like we were both unconscious at the time, it just spewed out and it was beautiful. It was one of those things where I knew it was pretty cool, but I didn't know if it was going to be a single or how it'd do. I was working through just making music that I found exciting instead of trying to make stuff I thought would be popular. That was one of those songs where I was like eh, I like it so we'll see what happens and, lo and behold, it turned into the biggest song off the EP.
Well that's what you have to do, you have to do stuff that you like, not necessarily popularity wise.
I've found that whenever you try to make something that's going to be popular, it's not really that good. But whenever you make stuff that is meaningful to you that's when it has a better chance. Like the other song that did really well off it was "Plans." It was the same thing. The whole EP was done and then I thought this was the last one and I was like, "Fuck it this one's for me. This is going to be the album cut and I’m just going to make it because I really like it." And then that was the lead single on release day and that's probably the song I get the most reaction from fans. That song's so meaningful and again, Brandyn and I made it as an album cut and we were just doing it for fun.
What does "Plans" mean to you then?
Brandyn is such a brilliant artist and it's just such a powerful message of, you probably know this as an Asian American, you're always taught to do things a certain way and you gotta follow this path and then do this and do this and it's like, whether it's in your career or in love or anything to a certain extent, you do the best you can, but at the end of the day you just kind of let things happen. Let love happen. Let, you know...you can be like I want things to happen a certain way, but that's probably not how it's going to work out and learning to live with that and learning to embrace that sort of going with the flow.
So when you're making music, where do you get your inspiration from and what's the creative process like?
That is a great question and the answer is, I don't know. I have no idea where any of the ideas come from. That's one of the scary things about it because I’m afraid one day I'll wake up and it’ll just be gone. And some days it's just not there. I'll be walking down the street and I'll, for some reason, start humming some random thing and then all of a sudden I'll be like, "Oh that’s a good idea," and I'll record it on my phone and I'll forget about it. And then I'll go through it a week later and go, "Oh that was cool" and then you go do that. Sometimes you're sitting there and you're like, "What do I do...I got nothing." But I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, a lot of different genres and I always try to find stuff that I get excited about like, "Oh fuck I wish I wrote that." Or sometimes I'll sing along to other songs and make up my own lyrics because I don't know the words and then be like, "Oh that's a cool line." But inspiration is a very funny thing. You just gotta put yourself in the right frame of mind and then hope that something happens. It's a very weird zen - think about not thinking but then you have to not think about it, but then if you're thinking about not thinking then you're not actually not thinking. It's like, alright, you gotta just make what you think is cool, but then if you think about what you're making, then you're not really just letting it happen. It's weird, I don't know. The creativity god just sometimes blesses you. I think that's the answer.
You say you don't know the lyrics to some songs, what's one that you really botch up?
I don't know any of the words to "Gucci Gang." I don’t know if anyone does. What's another good one that I don't know? I don’t know "Bad and Boujee" for sure. Or "All The Stars" is a good one, the new Kendrick and SZA song. I love that song, absolutely love it, but don't know any of the lyrics to. So that's a good one.
So you just released a new single, "The In Between" with Anjulie, what was the most fun part you had in creating it?
The whole thing was fun. That was a really fun song. I think it was sort of seeing how this idea I had...I came up with the concept in a hotel room. It was about this weird conflict or paradox of being on the road doing something I love, but then still being super lonely. And then taking that initial idea and working on that with Anjulie to flesh that out and create this sort of love story. I think it was really fun just seeing how the idea evolved and what it turned into. I don’t know how other people are going to interpret it, so I think it's just fun seeing how the initial idea turned into this song.
You've played at small clubs like Lavo and big festivals like Beyond Wonderland which you've done recently, where do you like performing more and why?
They're different because when you play in the small clubs you know that everyone there is there for you and it's very intimate with the fans and they know all of your songs and you can hear them singing. That's the energy that's amazing, but then you go to a big festival and maybe most of them don't know who you are yet, but that's fine. You gotta give them the introduction to what you do. When you see the sea of people that could be super overwhelming too, so they’re both amazing for different reasons.
How much preparation do you put in the setlist for, let's say a club versus a festival?
A festival you gotta be a little more strict about because your set times are usually shorter and so you gotta have a better idea of what you're doing. Whereas with clubs it's a little more flexible on the times and they're usually longer and it's a little more intimate so you can kind of go off the wheels. But you try to do a lot of prep for both and then I've been doing it long enough where I don't need as clear of a game plan. Now I can just kind of go in and free will it a little bit.
What’s the biggest dream you have for Elephante?
The biggest dream...you see I'm not really good with big picture stuff. It makes me very anxious...like win a Grammy, have a Platinum album, win a Nobel Prize? I don't know. You gotta dream big, but to me the dream is being able to do it every day and I try to have it very small, like take it day by day and just find the next cool thing. To bring it back to the plan thing, say I want to get to there, it's like life will take you another way. Every day it's like, "Alright this is cool I'm going to do this, move along and do that" and I just sort of follow that. Wherever you end up is where you end up. And just trusting the process, that’s what’s going to get you there.
So then what did your parents think of your plan?
They're not...no they’re cool with it now. I think they've just come to accept the fact that I want to carve my own path and they're like as long as I'm not asking for money all the time then they're like, "Yeah we're cool." You know, they’re Asian parents, they worry alright, that’s what they do, but it comes from a place of love and I told my mom this is what I gotta do. But I've taken them out to a couple of shows, so I think they’re into it.
That's awesome, what show you took them to?
Last one was a show in San Francisco and I actually brought them on stage. We were going on and I was with my mom and right before I walked on I was like, "Hey mom in thirty minutes get ready to come on stage and she's like what no, no no no." And I was like, "Alright, see you." And I told my manager, "Yeah thirty minutes bring them on." I cued them and I cut the music and was like I have some very special guests and I can see my mom's face just go completely white and I brought them on and they got super into it. My dad was having a blast. He was like "Yeah I'll go on stage!" Then people were coming up to them asking to take pictures with them and stuff after. It was great. It was hilarious.
So I saw you like Dragon Ball Z, now I just have to ask, what's your favorite anime?
Probably Dragon Ball Z, other than that Gundam. I was really into Gundam when I was a kid, but I haven't seen it in awhile because I don't think they show it anymore. But Dragon Ball or Gundam, those were my two jams.
What's next for Elephante?
So I'm playing a bunch of exciting festivals this summer. I'm doing EDC for the first time. I’m very excited about Paradiso and Sunset Music Fest. I just finished a nine song EP that I'm really excited about. "The In Between" was the third single off it. I'm going to release a couple more singles and then we're dropping the whole thing in June. It's all done. I've been working on it for a year and a half and I'm really excited for everyone to hear.
Special thanks to Tim for taking the time to chat with me! It was a pleasure learning more about Elephante and we can't wait to hear your new EP!