Interview: Elephante is taking center stage
If you’re a frequent festival-goer, Elephante is a name that you may be all too familiar with.
A Harvard graduate and one-time businessman at a global consultant firm, Elephante (Tim Wu) left it all behind in the pursuit of his one true passion — music. Taking his stage name from the expression “the elephant in the room” in reference to his unhappiness in the business world, Elephante is now a regular performer in the EDM festival circuit, thanks to the release of two wildly successful independent EPs — 2016’s I Am the Elephante and 2018’s Glass Mansion.
But his debut album, Heavy Glow, is the artist’s most personal as well. Released in October after signing with 88Rising, Heavy Glow sees Elephante diving into previously unexplored themes of identity and adding a rockist twist to his music — all while maintaining the raging highs of his previous releases.
We took the time to talk to Elephante ahead of his 2021 Head in the Clouds appearance — dissecting the themes behind Heavy Glow, his reckoning with his Taiwanese American identity, and how he’s finally allowing himself to take center stage in his own work.
Ahead of your appearance at Head in the Clouds, I know that you’ve recently performed at the 2021 edition of EDC. What was it like to be performing in front of crowds again, and do you think that there’s a different energy present in live shows right now?
I’d played a few shows — nothing on the scale of EDC, obviously. It was a very complicated feeling because during the pandemic there were moments where I was like, I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to do this again. I don’t know how realistic that was but that was a real fear that I had. At the beginning of when things started opening up, it was like, Great! Everything’s awesome! Then of course, Delta came back and people got kind of scared — so there’s a little bit of tenuousness to it.
For me, at any time, in any scenario, playing EDC main stage is like a dream come true. That’s very much a bucket list kind of show. From that level, it was just a very fulfilling feeling. It was like, Wow, I’m actually here and I’m actually doing the thing that I dreamed about doing all these years ago. But then there’s also the extra layer of the pandemic and just being so grateful to be doing it again. There were so many starts and stops, and I was pretty gun-shy about my expectations about when things would happen. And to actually be up there, being able to play the new album that I didn’t know if I would ever finish, to see the fans and see them engage with the new music that they’d never heard before and get a reaction… that’s just such a special moment.
I think that, for me, was one of the positives that came out of not touring. I’m so grateful for it now — all the other petty bullshit that goes on behind the scenes — I don’t really care anymore. I get to be out here, I get to play my music and I get to see the fans. This is so special and I’m never going to take this for granted again.
Your newest album, Heavy Glow, is one that touches upon a number of themes that are quite close to you. In the press release for the album, HEAVY GLOW is one that talks about “fame, the depression and isolation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the Asian-American experience.” Do you think you could tell me more about where this album is coming from?
Totally. I think on a broad level, at the beginning of the pandemic I found myself in a place where I was really uninspired and felt really useless. I was struggling to find a meaning in creating. There was obviously the pandemic, but there was also the Black Lives Matter movement and the Asian hate things happening. It just felt like multiple things were hitting the fabric of society and I was questioning my place in it. It’s like, If I can’t write or perform music, what am I? What do I really have to offer the world?
The thing that got me out of it was going back to my roots. Learning how to cover songs that I liked, playing guitar, and singing — that lit the spark in me. That was the catalyst to the evolved sound and still chasing the things that I loved, and trying to turn those into songs that I really cared about and felt very relevant to me. In the past, I was always true to myself when I was writing but I would shade towards the things that people wanted to hear. Things that would be fun at a party, or at a rave. But I couldn’t get to that place when I was writing the album. It was like okay, I just have to write about what’s honest to me. Y’know, that’s a little scary because when you think dance music, you don’t typically think about pretty dark lyrical content. But it was like — this is who I am.
You’ve also talked about how this album is one that represents an “identity awakening.” Could you elaborate on that statement?
On the race and identity side, it was also a time where I think what had been going on with the Asian hate and my experiences going through the pandemic. I think when I was younger, you didn’t see a lot of Asian creatives. It just wasn’t in the realm of possibility. Growing up, I loved making music but there was no one who looked like me who was doing the things that I wanted to do. When you talk about entertainers, mainstream entertainers, we had Jackie Chan. That was it. And we had Harold from Harold and Kumar. And they were always not cool! They were always a clown, or a nerd or whatever, and it was just very limiting.
I think for me, I knew I wanted to be a creative, but society was telling me, “This isn’t what you do.” I think I internalized that in a way where it was like, Okay, just don’t be Asian. I think I developed a self-loathing for my identity, where I was almost ashamed of it. But then, as I grew older, it was less of a shame but more of a, “Let’s just not talk about it, I don’t want to be known as the Asian DJ. I don’t want to be a novelty. I want to be known for my work.” But during the pandemic, it became very clear to me that, Look, this is a part of who you are. As I was writing this album it was like I was trying to figure out who I am and who I want to be and what I stand for. My experiences as an Asian American are so fundamental to that.
And this isn’t something that I should be ashamed of. This is something that is who I am, and no matter how much I would like to disguise it, it’s still there. That kind of evolved from a shame or wanting to hide it to Nah, fuck that. This is who I am and I’m proud of it. Just being a part of the cultural shift where — being a part of 88Rising, with the Crazy Rich Asians phenomenon, and Steven Yeun — the social discourse is kind of changing. Asian creatives are fucking dope, and they have something to say. To lean into the thing that used to give me pain and fear to make that my strength — that’s kind of where the imagery of Heavy Glow came from. I don’t know, when I hear the word “glow,” I think of the [phrase] “Asian glow,” and that was such a shameful thing for me growing up. But now, it’s like, Nah, this is who I am! It’s not something I can hide. This is my power and this is my light. And I really embraced that.
I think it’s cool that you brought up Asian representation in the music scene, because in my own Asian American circles, you’re someone who people look up to.
I appreciate that! But you know, I think a lot about the four minute mile. This is kind of like my metaphor for it. Basically, for hundreds of years, scientists were like, “A human running a mile in under 4 minutes is physically impossible. We don’t have the lung capacity, oxygen, muscles, whatever.” And so everyone believed you couldn’t do it. Then one guy broke it — he ran it in three minutes and 59 seconds. And then all of a sudden, within the next couple of years, dozens of people started doing it. And then it started getting lower and lower and lower. And it was just this psychological barrier — once one person does it, then other people believe they can do it.
It’s such a powerful force — once it’s in the realm of possibility, once it is a thing, then society and individuals will be like I can actually pursue this. If I can be a part of that — I’m a mainstream electronic musician on these big stages, then I think the next generation of young Asian Americans who want to be creatives will see this and think Holy shit, I can do that too! I really believe that in the next five to ten years, we’re going to see a huge boom. All the kids a generation ago would’ve been too afraid or too repressed by society to really pursue their passion. We’re gonna see these kids bloom. I’m really excited to see what happens.
In the dance world specifically, at EDC, Asians are very underrepresented on stage. There are only a handful of us up there, and if you look in the crowd there’s so many of us out there. I think it’s exciting to see the dope Asian creatives getting the attention they deserve.
In your previous EPs, I Am the Elephante and Glass Mansion, your tracklist is usually filled with vocal collaborators. I’ve noticed that that’s not exactly the case on Heavy Glow — you sing a lot of the songs yourself. Was it a conscious decision to do that? What was it like singing your own songs?
It was conscious, but it wasn’t a master plan. I think it was partially the isolation of the pandemic and being on my own all the time. Not really wanting to do sessions and people weren’t doing sessions. I’ve always been a singer-songwriter at heart. That’s where I started making music, and I think the songs that I was writing felt so close to home that I didn’t see anyone else singing it. This is my story and this is so personal to me — I don’t want to just hand this off. That’s just where I was in the world, and this is the music I’m passionate about. This is the only music I can write right now. This is only music that I want to make. There’s no other choice really — but it wasn’t like Oh I’m gonna make an album and I’m going to sing on everything. I’ve always been about what’s best for the song, and these songs were just so personal to me that it didn’t feel right to have anyone else singing them.
I’ve noticed that the songs on Heavy Glow are a little more rock-oriented, marking a possible shift in the sound that people might be used to from you. What were some inspirations for this album, and what was your media diet like when you were creating it?
I’ve always listened to a huge variety of music growing up. I grew up listening to the Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, and John Mayer and things like that. For this album specifically, I was listening to a lot of The Killers. Old Killers is a huge favorite of mine. Nothing but Thieves is a cool new band I’ve been listening to. Mansionair is doing some cool indie electronic stuff, and a lot of RÜFÜS.
RÜFÜS is probably my favorite artist to listen to now. And that’s one of the things I was really excited about — trying to emulate it. They’re doing this sort of live, sort of DJ, but they’re also performing and it still feels huge even though they have live elements. It was combining that with some of the sounds I’ve developed early in my career.
What is your favorite track off of the album at the moment?
It’s hard, because they’re like your kids. You love all of them, but you love them in different ways! Some of them are nice and easy and they’re easy to go along with and some are motherfuckers to get out.
Performing “Dopamine” live is always really fun. That one is probably my favorite live one. I think just in the making of, doing my cover of “Light On” was the most therapeutic. That was the one I would just play for myself. It was like my daily prayer. To take that and do an interesting twist on a song that I love so much — that was a lot of fun.
What are you most excited about at the festival?
I’ve never been to Head in the Clouds, so I’m so excited just to see what it’s all about. I think just the celebration of Asian American creatives — it’s going to be a cool experience. I have no idea what it’s going to be like, but I imagine it’ll be a very different experience than EDC or Escape. Playing these songs in front of a different audience… I’m really curious and just excited to see what that’s like. I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on dance-focused festivals, but to do something broader and be one of the handful of electronic acts on it — I’m really excited to see what that’s like.
This interview was conducted by Li-Wei Chu via Zoom ahead of 88Rising’s Head in the Clouds Festival on November 4, 2021.
Heavy Glow is out now via 88Rising and Zoo Music. Header photo by Alex Lopes.
Li-Wei Chu is the chief editor of From the Intercom. When he’s not editing drafts and searching for new artists to cover for the website, he loves watching cult films, cooking, and listening to his ever-growing collection of vinyl records. You can follow him on LetterBoxd and make fun of his taste in movies here!