By Jocelle Koh
Design by Allison Sun
Forming in 2014, Elephant Gym is one of Taiwan’s only Math-Rock bands. Yet from this place of isolation the trio has grown like a rose amongst the thorns; adapting with grace and fluidity to become one of Taiwan’s most successful musical exports. The band’s musical offerings have been highly acclaimed since the very beginning; from scoring opportunities to work with Yoga Lin to now embarking on an ambitious worldwide tour with their second full album ‘Underwater’, but in fact very little of their trajectory was left to chance.
Instead, the trio seem to have forged a rare balance between logic and creativity, an element which has eluded the best of us. Despite the absolute freeing feeling of whimsy and abandon one receives from their math/post-rock tunes, I found out over afternoon tea that the band is surprisingly grounded. A completely independent team, Tell, KT and Tu are not just the musicians and performers behind Elephant Gym; they are everything from the admins who reply on social media to the accountants who crunch the numbers.
“KT: Our team is just the three of us. We all have two roles, taking on identities as both the admin and the band. Oh and we deal with promotion, and… everything else (laughs). We don’t have an assistant or a management company in Taiwan. So we are always having meetings and have clear roles for each of us. To me I think Tell will put together the big idea, and then Chiachin will execute and contact the relevant parties... So once everyone has secured the deal, then I will start to tell everyone that this thing is happening.”
Throughout the interview the trio spoke candidly about everything from how their music isn’t all on Spotify, the gargantuan task that was putting together a world tour independently, and the conception of their latest album. Yet the one thing that for me set them apart from many other artists we have met in the past was the quirky trio’s ability to allow their pragmatism to elevate their musical offerings, rather than restrict their creative flow. Case in point, the story behind how KT picked up the bass:
“KT: I learned bass because initially I learned guitar with Tell, but he was better at it than me. And afterwards because we wanted to do a band, then he said: ‘Since you can’t play the guitar then why not try bass?’ My guitar was really bad, I think the logic is very different. Guitar is more about the harmony, but bass is about singular notes. And I’m okay with singular notes, but he’s good with harmony.”
Without such logical decision-making and the evident lack of an inflated ego that characterises many artists today, one might say we might not even have the Elephant Gym that we have today. However while the band stands out for their emphasis on the bass, KT is quick to correct me on thinking that the bass is the star of the show, showing the unspoken bond of respect and camaraderie she shares with Tell and ChiaChin.
“KT: Something I think is important to note is that saying that bass is the focus in reality is wrong. Because actually our statuses are the same. Just that in comparison with other bands, the bass component is more prominent. But now it’s like each of us is 100-100-100 as opposed to 100-50-70 (points at Tell, herself, then ChiaChin); we’ve just lifted the position of the bass.”
And it is the uniqueness of their music through and through which in itself has set Elephant Gym on a trajectory like none the Taiwanese music scene has ever seen before. From the get-go, the bands were gaining experience both performing at home and in niche markets overseas; together and as separate entities; unique and valuable experiences which have truly shaped their outlook and allowed them to look beyond traditional models of artist progression.
“Tell: We really like and are always listening to Jay Chou, Karen Mok... It’s just that the things we come up with aren’t within this vein. So at that time we were thinking where we would belong... for example, CTHONIC (Taiwanese Heavy Metal Band) …they are very popular worldwide. When we observed their situation…they were very focused on their genre and not emphasising their cultural background or language. When we felt that, that made us decide that we don’t need to emphasise that we are a Taiwanese band…”
Although serious as can be when we’re discussing topics close to their hearts, gentle ribbing by KT, especially towards her brother Tell is a constant throughout the hour-long chat, as seen when she coolly explained the meaning behind their new album ‘Underwater’.
“Each of us thought of three names for the album. And then voted… the reason we chose underwater was because it can describe our current situation, and the album’s psychology… In the age of information explosion, when you close off your heart that’s when you have time to reflect on everything you’ve experienced in the past. So you need sink deep underwater in order to reveal all the information that you’ve internalised regarding music, techniques or concepts. But I don’t remember what any of the other names were. Ah! He suggested one called ‘Earth’ (pointing at Tell). Isn’t it terrible?
Tell: Yes, it’s because we were going on world tour.
KT: Very straightforward.”
And it was not only the album name that was met with such straightforwardness, but also the delegating of creative work within the album, where the writing of the nine tracks on the album were divided evenly between the three band members.
“Chia Chin: One of the things about the album was that all three of us had to produce three songs each… We write quite slow because we take a lot of time to make adjustments … so we decided that everyone would have to have a taste of writing their own songs. Everyone would have to hand in their demos, we would agree on a time at which everyone would have to hand in what they have… all are based on math rock, but everyone knows where their instrument’s uniqueness lies, so we will try to keep that within the songs. For example I’m interested in hip hop and disco, so my songs have these elements inside. And those skits, because of the unique feels between our different songs, we need the skits to connect these different atmospheres.”
Thoughtful, honest and endearingly earnest, it’s hard not to love the Kaohsiung-born creatives. Given that we had a couple mutual friends who were also prominent musicians from the area, I was curious to know more about what the city has to offer.
“KT: We all started only after we came to Taipei. So I can’t imagine if we studied in Kaohsiung what it would be like… if we started from Kaohsiung, we might not have chances to perform, or would be performing at the same bar.
Tell: Kaohsiung doesn’t have a real so-called music industry. So there’s no way we can interact with people within the mainstream industry. Like when in Taipei a lot of friends have their own indie band but at the same time are Yoga Lin’s musician etc. But in Kaohsiung we don’t have any way to access these trains of thought…”
Given Kaohsiung’s lack of hard resources, it was intriguing to note that the band nevertheless made the decision to move back to their hometown a couple years back despite the evident resources that Taipei, a known creative capital offered them.
“Tell: Of course we’ve used the resources and opportunities that Taipei has offered us. But we have slowly discovered that some bands such as Fire Ex have more commercial gigs, such as a department store’s end of year celebration … But we seldom do these kinds of commercial showcases. A majority of our performances are solo shows, or festivals. And these shows might be in Singapore etc., so there’s no real reason for us to live in Taipei.”
Chia Chin shared that they were amongst only a handful of musicians who had made the jump and moved back; showing once again how the band has truly paved their own path, slowly and surely, every step of the way.
There is something called The Blue Ocean Strategy, a train of thought which I’ve found best fits the unique curves and requirements of creating something niche like Elephant Gym’s unique, fluid Math Rock sound and presence. In chatting with the band, I found their story easily relatable, their hardships understandable, and their work ethic indomitable. Unlike other artists we’ve interviewed, the band are not just talented musicians at the top of their game; but have also pushed themselves to in equal part be savvy business people; who use what makes them different to their advantage. Rather than staying in what are called ‘Red Oceans’ of conflict and competition, they’ve chosen instead to turn their differences into advantages; opening up blue oceans of opportunity and sustainability. Dominating the international math rock scene with their humility and openness to new experiences, the band has not only paved a path for themselves to successfully reach overseas audiences; but continue to lay down stepping stones for the new generation of Mandarin music artists looking to bring their music to wider audiences too. Guess their album name ‘Underwater’ has yet another layer of meaning now!
Elephant Gym still have tour dates to North America, Hong Kong, Kaohsiung and Taipei coming up over the next few months of 2019. Be sure to check out all tour dates and information on their Facebook page or here!