We interview acclaimed producer Elephante on his newly-released full-length album Heavy Glow, his identity as an Asian-American in the music industry, and his partnership with leading music label 88rising.
Tim Wu, or as he’s best known as the melodic electronic music producer Elephante, has always seen his Asian-American upbringing unique even if was at times alienating.
The son of Taiwanese parents, the Asian-American producer graduated from Harvard and entered the office life. Needless to say, the corporate life wasn’t for him, and opted to pursue a career in what he loves most – producing and playing electronic music.
A highly creative individual, he’s gained millions of streams from his fusion of EDM with pop and rock sonic elements across two of his EPs – 2016’s I Am The Elephante and 2018’s Glass Mansion.
After headlining two sold-out tours, and following the extremely isolating situation of COVID-19, he’s been back at the studio to work on his first full-length studio album, Heavy Glow.
Signing on to leading Asian-American label 88rising for the record, Tim’s new music is representative of the struggles of self-reflection he has endured during the pandemic.
“Heavy Glow is about identity. It’s about coming to terms with who you are compared to who everyone else sees you as or expects you to be. “Heavy Glow” became a metaphor for the part of you that shines through in the nighttime, and can be hard for other people to really see. It can feel like a huge weight on your shoulders, but ultimately defines who you are.”
Tim has put out three new singles, including feel-good track ‘Dopamine’ which takes listeners back to his house music roots, the late-night groove ‘Holy Ghosts’, and guitar-led ‘High Water’. The latter features an innovative music video featuring submerged in underwater as he performs the song.
Prior to the release, we had a chat with Tim in which he tells more about his new body of work and his place as an Asian-American artist in the competitive music industry.
AsiaLive365: Hey Tim, how have you been this year?
Elephante: It’s been better, it’s been tough. I think, like a lot of people, it’s been a struggle just dealing with such a change. Obviously, I’m grateful that it hasn’t been worse for me. I know people are going through a lot of stuff, losing their jobs and loved ones.
In the grand scheme of things, I’ve been doing well, but as an artist it’s obviously been difficult. Playing live and seeing my friends are so important to me. I’ve spent all that energy pouring it into my music. We’re all on holding and trying to make the most of it.
AL365: You’re about to release a new album called Heavy Glow. What can you tell us about the record?
Elephante: Heavy Glow is a diary of my experiences through the pandemic and all the mental health struggles that come with it. It was these last couple of years where I really had an awakening and reckoning with my identity as an Asian-American.
When I was younger, I struggled a lot with it, and developed a kind of self-loathing to it where in the US I’m not white or black. It’s difficult to figure out where you fit in, and it was only in the last couple of years where I’ve come to terms with it.
I’m really proud of it because it has defined who I am and my experiences defined my music. Heavy Glow is a reference to that sort of identity. It’s not something that you should hide, it’s something that’s a part of you and something you should celebrate.
AL365: It seems a lot more personal. Did the pandemic changed the way you approach music creatively?
Elephante: Yeah. I think by necessity I’ve always tried to write what’s important and relevant to me. I’ve always been honest in my music, but before that, I think a lot of motivation came from wanting to make a song so I can play it out at the show next weekend or thinking this will work on the dancefloor.
Without the pandemic, I was trying to figure out what’s important to me, what moves me just sitting here alone by myself in my room. I didn’t have that sort of external force to think about, so it was all just totally what was going on in my own head.
I always try to lean towards music that I thought other people wanted to hear, but this album is totally the music that got me through the pandemic.
AL365: This year, prior to the release of the full album, we’ve heard of three new tracks. With the pandemic having affected you, they dealt with themes of depression and needing to connect with people. You’ve mentioned you didn’t want to hide those things, but was it difficult to talk about it?
Elephante: It’s scary. I think, on the one hand, I’d finish a song and be like, ‘Oh man, this is pretty dark’ or ‘I don’t know how people are gonna take this’. For me, it was the only music I could make that felt inspired and authentic. Any sort of sugarcoating or pretending that everything was fine, I didn’t have the energy to do that. It was the only music that I could make, and ultiamtely, I’m really proud of it.
AL365: Let’s talk about ‘Dopamine’. It’s a melodic tune that takes me back to your earlier work with house music that’s reminiscent of what we heard in 2016’s I Am The Elephante. How did the song come about?
Elephante: I had this idea for the song starting in 2019. It was just a story about how I was on tour all the time, and I was constantly searching for the next big thing. I was waiting for the next show, just this constant search for that sort of stimulation and excitement. In a way, I kind of became addicted to it and I needed that.
During the pandemic, that all went away and the meaning to me just kind of morphed. It was one of the first songs where I figured out my voice, and how I wanted to sound singing on the record. It blended the big, energetic melodic sound with my own voice and the lyrical content of everything I was going through.
AL365: Out of the three tracks released, what would you say has been your favorite so far?
Elephante: Man, it’s hard! They’re like your kids, right? You love them all equally in different ways. I think ‘Dopamine’ is the most fun to play at shows. I remember when I first started playing it out on tour, it wasn’t released yet. By the end of the tour, fans knew of the song which I thought was really exciting.
‘High Water’ was the first song I kind of figured out the fusion of guitar and electronic, and ‘Holy Ghosts’ is a very vibey, introspective song. They all hold special places in my heart for different reasons.
AL365: You’ve stated that John Mayer is your idol, but which electronic artists helped shape your sound?
Elephante: The first one is definitely Avicii. I think he was the first electronic artist who was creating these moving, melodic pieces that had so much energy. They felt emotional with soaring melodies that are really transcendent.
Maybe surprisingly, there’s also Skrillex. Just hearing Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites for the first time made my head explode with what you could turn into music. Like that bass, I don’t understand how this is a sound that works. It’s like opening Pandora’s box in what a song could be.
AL365: Will we see you incorporate other genres like how we see you use guitars in several songs?
Elephante: Yeah, it’s a constant journey of discovery. I don’t plan anything in advance, it’s always like what am I interested and excited about exploring today. There’s no grand decision, you get in the studio and you figure out what you’re excited by and what’s cool. I’ve learned that whenever I’m filling in the blanks and coloring in the lines of something I already know, it’s always kind of boring and ends up kind of stale. I never know what’s going to come out when I get started.
AL365: You’ve partnered up with 88rising, which is a leading label in terms of Asian representation. What can you say about this partnership?
Elephante: It’s been great working with them. They’ve put me together with an amazing creative team that has really elevated my music to a place that I’d never would’ve been able to get to on my own. All parts of the creative process, the music videos that I did for this record that I never really invested into before.
For example, in ‘High Water’, we shot it underwater and on a crane! That’s not something I would have dreamed that I could have done. Just all this really cool and creative stuff. Like the album artwork looks like a photograph you’d see in museum.
We have another music video coming out for the focus single of the album. It’s all about creating content, it’s enabled me to make better art than I’ve ever been able to make before.
AL365: For the ‘High Water’ music video, you were really underwater?
Elephante: Yeah, there was no CGI. The only CGI in that MV was the part where I was floating on a crane in which they just Photoshop that out. All the underwater scenes I actually went down there, holding my breath and lip syncing and playing guitar. All real stunts.
AL365: That’s impressive.
Elephante: Yeah it was. It seemed a lot more fun before I actually did it, but once I was there, I was kind of committed. It was just very gratifying at the end, but it was also physically demanding. After the shoot, I was a wreck for a while but I think it was worth it.
AL365: Prior to the partnership, as an Asian-American, did you find it hard to break into the music industry?
Elephante: I think it’s hard for anyone to break into the music industry. It’s so competitive and challenging, there’s no real road map for it. There’s no like, checking boxes and then you’re in. No one can teach you tell you how to make it.
I think, especially as an Asian-American, I don’t think there was an explicit ‘Hey, you’re Asian, you’re not allowed.’ It was more of just overcoming people’s expectations of what Asians and Asian-Americans could do. Growing up, I always wanted to make music, but I don’t really see anyone that looked like me doing what I wanted to do.
In the last few years, it has changed radically. Asian cultures are being celebrated, and it’s an amazing thing, but I think 10-15 years ago it was a very different story. The number of times where I’d play a show, and people wouldn’t know what I looked like and I showed up, people would be surprised. There’s just this ingrained social expectation of what Asians and Asian-Americans are, and there’s there’s always a little bit of a surprise. So I think it was just about overcoming that stereotyping in people’s heads.
AL365: I know about your upbringing, coming from Taiwanese parents. How do they feel about your pursuit of a music career?
Elephante: They were mostly just worried, as any Asian parents would. I was lucky they’re very supportive. I think a lot of it was that they also didn’t understand that it is a thing that you can do.
It’s funny when I told my mom I was quitting my job, she knew how miserable I was and was like ‘Okay, I believe in you, just don’t tell your dad for a little bit (laughs).’ Because he was always the much stricter, traditional parent. He was still hoping that I go to med school, but after a little while, he came to a few shows.
He was like, ‘So you quit your job, huh? You make a lot of money doing this?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah’, and he went ‘Okay’. So that was it.
They just want the best for me, and that’s the culture they were raised in. They would have never dreamed that being a musician was a real thing you can do.
AL365: But suppose your career didn’t take off, what would you have done? Would you go back to that boring corporate job?
Elephante: That’s my deepest and darkest fear. I honestly don’t know because I’ve been on the other side. I had a very stable, well-paying job and I was so unhappy. This was not what I wanted my life to be. I think that helped me through the really hard times when I was coming up in the industry where I don’t have a backup plan so I’m gonna have to figure out this music thing one way or another.
That’s what keeps me up at night. I don’t know what I’d do without music.
AL365: Well, worry not, because I know you’re actually scheduled to play the main stage at EDC Vegas later this month as well as 88rising’s ‘Head in the Clouds’ festival in November. How does it feel to be back on tour, now that you’re out of that pandemic depression?
Elephante: I’m so excited. I think there’s still a little bit of haze around it where you’re still crossing your fingers that nothing terrible is gonna go wrong, but in the end that’s what it’s all about for me. It’s such a privilege, a part of me doesn’t want to think about it too much, If God forbid anything happens, I don’t know how I’d handle it.
AL365: Thank you so much Tim! Appreciate you answering all these questions. Looking forward to your album!
Elephante: Thank you, Nicky! Appreciate your time too!
Elephante’s Heavy Glow is now available to stream across all digital platforms. The producer is preparing to drop a new music video on leading single, ‘Down This Road’ soon.
Photo credit: Nicole Lemberg