After having just flown into New York from visiting my home state of Texas, I was able to sit down with Elephante
, the Los Angeles-based DJ and producer, and chat about some of his upcoming projects. We had arranged for the interview to take place in the La Colombe Coffee Shop in the West Village, for which I was thankful given it was the middle of a work day and I had yet to have a single cup of coffee (on top of the fact the location demonstrated his taste in food in addition to music). Feeling like I was waiting on an awkward Tinder date to show up and constantly checking and rechecking my phone to get a clear sense of what he looked like, Elephante (known offstage as Tim Wu) showed up right on time, devoid of the entourage or publicists that are usually present at other interviews.
Elephante had just wrapped up his fall tour with a show at Lavo NY
on November 26. Knowing just how crazy Lavo can get, I had to know what his impression of the venue and crowd had been. "Lavo is always crazy, it's always a shit show," Wu said approvingly. "Especially this time. We sold out in pre-sale. I think all the people had a lot of pent up energy from the holidays because they were ready to go." Strangely however, Tim had stuck around for over a week after the show so I had to pry into what kept him in New York beyond the show, knowing his home was now in Los Angeles.
"We've had some people we've wanted to meet with and go to their office so we decided to just stay around. My manager is from New York and we just thought it was a good opportunity to go around and do some press and get some face time. We met with Sirius and iheartradio and some other places." While Wu said "nothing ground shaking" came from these specific meetings, his goal of putting a face to his art by personally meeting with people is a theme that stretches throughout his career.
In his mind, especially as someone who he himself considers "not as well established as other people," a solid identity is a necessity in advancing not only your art, but your entire career as an artist. "You don't have to dress anything up, but the most difficult part of establishing yourself in the industry is establishing an identity. As a producer, you're not singing, which is traditionally how most music is identified, so how do you find that thing where people can listen to your music and know it's yours? That concept expands beyond just your music, to personality, to everything you do."
While it was difficult to nail down a specific set or list of qualities Wu wanted with which to imbue Elephante, it all came down to just passionately making music. "I don’t think I have a specific thesis or list of things, but the core of my musical identity is to make music that moves people both physically and emotionally. I've put a lot of heart into it. It's me trying to say follow your dreams. People have callings in life and you really have to be brave and follow yours."
Following your dreams is a sentiment with which Wu is no doubt familiar. Before focusing solely on music, Wu was in the corporate world, fresh out of Harvard and positioned to begin a career about as far as you can get from that of a touring DJ and producer. "Every single day I felt miserable," reflecting on the days before he became Elephante. "I wanted to feel happy, I wanted to make music. I was giving the job its best try, but I was just constantly feeling unsatisfied. I needed to change because I knew ten years down the line I'd hate myself and regret not going for it." The consistency of following your dreams rang true throughout the conversation I had with Wu. Whether it was his music, his artistic identity, or his career path, what always came through in conversation was his steadfast desire to follow his dream to make music that moved people, even if it meant a riskier life than a corporate career would allow.
The most interesting moment for me in stories like Wu's is the instant an artist has a realization that the path they are on is not for them. With regard to leaving the corporate world for headlining Lavo NY (among numerous other venues and festivals), Wu said, "Ultimately, I don't think it was really a choice to leave that world. It got to the point where there was no other option. It wasn't a calculated, 'Oh this is a good opportunity,' it was a 'I can't do this anymore.' I'd held out on that feeling for a long time."
But when it came to actually ditching the corporate life and immersing himself in dance music culture, Wu discovered he had been a bit more naive than he initially thought. "I was optimistic about where I was in the industry, but in hindsight also a little naive. I thought 'Oh, I just got my first remix on Beatport!' That's the kind of range I was in when I first left my corporate job. I thought I was a lot closer than I was. But it might have been a blessing to not know everything I needed to do, because honestly, if I had known everything I would have to do to have a career, it would've been a much harder choice. I would've thought there was no way."
Since fully embracing Elephante, Wu has learned valuable lessons about who you put around you as an artist and how you build your team. "They just have to really believe in you. People that will really work hard for you. My management team has been insurmountable in this whole process. And honestly, building relationships with people is a huge help. There is so much great music out there and building relationships with people, whether it's with writers or someone at a club or someone at an agency, those are the things that put a face to your art." It was clear Elephante was meant to be more than just a faceless producer. "People kinda want to feel like they know and can relate to their favorite artist. They're not just some kid on a laptop or some anonymous Dutch guy."
Wu started off as a singer-songwriter, playing guitar and piano rather than software and CDJs. Having been an artist immersed both in the electronic and "traditional" music creative processes, I wondered if there was anything lost for him as an artist in the transition between physical instruments and digital production. "I wouldn't really call it a loss. They're just different beasts. As a singer songwriter, you're much more limited in your sonic capabilities, so you just have your guitar and voice. I think with singer songwriters there is a lot more subtlety, but it becomes a challenge to create something interesting with just two instruments. Whereas in electronic music, it's a lot easier to create energy and interesting sounds and to get that power. But the challenge is how do you also get that emotional aspect to it. Fundamentally, I think the music boils down to the same thing, we're just approaching it from different angles. It's just making music that makes you feel, so in the end, I think they share many of the same qualities."
Elephante - Closer feat. Bishop
Many of Elephante's tracks have amazing vocals, such as Closer featuring Bishop and Catching On featuring Nevve on his 'I Am the Elephante' EP (two of my personal favorites), which I thought was a way to incorporate more aspects of his singer-songwriter past in order to imbue these digital creations with a human touch. But again, Wu came back to the music itself and it's power, as a whole, to really convey shared emotions. "Yeah sure lyrics inject an emotional aspect, but it also comes down to how the music is written. Chord progression, phrasing, your lead lines...There are a lot of subtle things that can make an electronic song feel more organic and natural. Someone like Porter Robinson
, they are amazing at that. Those guys are very digital but incredibly expressive. That’s my goal, is to balance between digital and expressive."
Elephante - Catching On feat. Nevve
I was curious as to his thoughts about dance music's movement towards what I call "emotional electronic," for lack of a better term. I'm thinking about the ever increasing popularity of artists like Porter Robinson, Madeon, Odesza
, the sustained popularity of artists like Above & Beyond, and anyone else who doesn't make you wanna rage necessarily, but still makes you feel. Wu maintains all electronic music can be emotional, regardless of genre.
Naturally, this lead me to ask his thoughts about genre's in general, and in particular his thoughts towards the fk a genre or death to genres concepts espoused by artists like Mija
. "I think genres are important in order to communicate what you're talking about. That's how EDM…I understand why people think it's a bad word because that's what people who don't understand the music call it. But you do want to associate or talk about the music with people who don’t know it and that’s the easiest way to engage them in a conversation. If someone says 'EDM' and you immediately call them a n00b, you're not advancing the conversation." Being told saying "EDM" was OK by an artist was somewhat refreshing, as it seems to diminish authenticity within the dance music community, but largely communicates what kind of music you're talking about to others outside of it. Moreover, in terms of "advancing the conversation,"I was glad to find some indirect validation in my belief that Skrillex joining with Justin Bieber was a net benefit to the dance music community
, rather than a dilution.
However, when it comes to creating music, genres have little use. "In terms of creation, I find them pretty useless. Anytime I try to force myself into a style or start thinking that a track needs to be a particular genre, it never comes out authentically. Genre’s are a post-track thing. I don’t sit down and think I’m gonna make a progressive house, 128bpm, big room-trap hybrid. It’s more that these are the things I think are cool and if that’s what it turns out to be, great, but otherwise I don’t know what to call it. I try not to worry about labels in the creative process."
Elephante - I Am The Elephante EP
Speaking of creative process, Elephante has released a ton of material this year. All of it has been well received, far beyond even his own expectations. Not only did his 'I Am the Elephante' EP come out this year ("It came out in July…or…I can’t remember it’s been such a blur. September is when it came out?"; It's September 14, for the record), but he's had numerous remix EP's out and is currently working on a full remix EP of I Am the Elephante.
Plans is the latest single from the EP, featuring vocalist Brandyn Burnette who recorded the track in Wu's apartment. Strangely enough, Wu didn't initially know what to do with the track when it was completed.
"It was actually the last song I finished on the EP. I thought we had our 'singles' but he came over and we just kind of wrote it as an album cut. It’s like what I said earlier, the best music comes with no intention. We started the song and at the end of the first day we had this five minute organ, guitar and vocal demo with no drums or drop or anything. I thought it was awesome but I didn’t know what to do with it, so I had to think 'what does this have to do with an EDM song?' Then I just thought whatever it doesn’t have to do be. He sung the vocal in my apartment and we put together the final project that was just going to be this cool thing that isn’t really like anything else, but it has turned into one of the biggest singles on the EP."
Harking back to his inner singer-songwriter, the acoustic mix of Plans is out now as well.
All in all, Elephante is truly a unique artist. As someone who wasn't fully familiar with him or his work before the interview, the passion and authenticity that he puts into each project shows through in not only the tracks themselves, but in conversation about the art. When you hear an Elephante track, you know who produced it, which has been the goal all along. I highly suggest you check out any of his work, from his remixes (like his remix to Jack U and Bieber's Where Are U Now?
) to his energetic The Zoo Series (currently on Volume 2, with Volume 3 right around the corner according to one insider). Elephante is an artist on the rise, who has already gone so far, but will go so much farther.
Big thanks to Elephante's management and PR team who made the interview possible!
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