By Paul Salfen
Tim Wu is living the dream. The LA-based DJ and producer, 27, majored in economics at Harvard, left his corporate job to play music because he felt like the “elephant in the room” – hence the name. After being unhappy in a corporate job and wanting to play music, he made a risky move and now he’s a rising star. After doing popular remixes for the likes of Lorde, Wu put out his own EP, I Am the Elephante, in September and has been releasing hot singles from it ever since. With rising numbers of listens in the millions online via SoundCloud, his popularity is growing, proving he made the right choice.
Sitting backstage at Lizard Lounge in Dallas before his set before a packed house, Wu talked about his musical upbringing, what playing music for a living means to him, and if he’s ready for the big time.
AMFM: Your story is amazing – you’re a Harvard grad – in economics no less – you got a corporate job, decided you didn’t like it and two or three years later, you have an album out!
Elephante: I appreciate it! Well, the first thing is that I’ve been playing music my whole life so everyone’s like, “Oh, you did this in three years,” and yeah, but I’ve been playing piano since I was five. I played guitar in a band in high school. When I first moved out to LA, I was recording acoustic demos and playing open mics and stuff. I always wanted to do something in music and that was very much a part of who I was, so quitting to me was not spending as much time on it working on the side when I was at the job, leaving work early and making up excuses – in general, being a really shitty employee – and so I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t give it a chance and it was more like, “If I don’t do this now, I know I’m going to look back and regret it.” I’ve been very lucky in the last few years to have the career I’ve had.
AMFM: And that’s where you got the name, right? You felt like the elephant in the room at the job.
Elephante: Right! Yeah, it might sound corny but I was my true self and what I wanted to be and thought at a certain point I couldn’t do it, but, I was like, “Fuck it. I’m gonna go for it and see what happens.”
AMFM: I ‘ve read that your parents were not happy about this decision before but now they get it.
Elephante: Yeah! It’s not that they were unhappy – they were just worried, right? Because my mom is very supportive emotionally but I get it – as a parent, your child comes to you and says, “Mom, I’m going to become a DJ” and they go, “Excuse me?” [Laughs] It was more that they were worried in a “I hope he knows what he’s doing” kind of way. That’s what parents do, though. They worry. That’s their job.
AMFM: By now, though, you’ve had a musical moment that’s made them proud, right?
Elephante: I think so. I hope so. I think it’s exciting for me to have them see that it’s a real thing and hear it on the radio or see kids at shows singing it, like, “He’s not actually a drug dealer pretending to be a DJ!” So that’s exciting for me.
AMFM: I Am the Elephante is very cool – and very different in that it’s all about the songs first.
Elephante: Yeah, I think that comes from me being a songwriter first .I was never the best at sound design or making crazy noises. This was more about taking songs that I knew how to write and making melodies and harmonies that I love – like the stuff I listened to growing up but applying the electronic sounds to it rather than building something around the sound. Which is totally cool in it own right – just not something I ever knew how to do.
AMFM: At what point did you decide, “This is what I want to do?” Was there a certain song you heard or show you saw?
Elephante: Yeah, the song that made me want to make electronic music is “Scary Monsters” [Skrillex]. When I heard it, my head exploded. I was like, “How was this noise made? This is insane!” And I remember seeing Kaskade at Coachella. Because I was still doing the indie stuff, producing a little bit, and thought I wanted to be in a band and thought, “Nah, this is what I want to do.”
AMFM: And now you’re making songs that touches other people in return.
Elephante: It’s crazy, man. I’m incredibly grateful that my music has meant something to people, because that’s all I ever dreamed of doing – but at the same time, you have to separate yourself from it a little bit – that’s a lot of weight to put on yourself. When you think, “I have to make something that people like,” you’re not going to get out of bed. I’ve learned that the process of starting to make something for a certain group of people and think, “People will like that,” it never turns out that well. So you have to trust yourself and do what you think is best for the song and for you because as soon as you try to fit it to make certain people like it – it becomes contrived.
AMFM: What was the golden moment that made it worth quitting the job?
Elephante: The day I quit was pretty great. I just walked off, opened my computer and worked on music for, like, 12 hours straight. I talk about the first show I did here last year a lot because it’s the first show where people were singing the words to the song I made and that was very special. I started my career doing a bunch of remixes and people liked that and that was great, but having people know my music? There’s nothing more special than that.
AMFM: I know your album only came out six months ago, but there are already people wanting new music. Maybe it’s bad to ask, but are you already thinking about the next one?
Elephante: No, it’s not bad! I started thinking about the next one before this one even came out. Hey man, I’ve heard all these songs a million times! I just finished the next single. I don’t know when we’re going to release it, but hopefully soon, like April or May. I have five or six more songs in some form of completeness that I’m excited about and I’m always writing new songs, so that’s the joy for me. It is hard to work on them on tour, though.
AMFM: Are you ready for this?
Elephante: I don’t know, man. I hope so. I think so. [Laughs] It’s exciting, man. I keep reminding myself that I’m very fortunate to make music for a living and people seem to like it and that’s such a rare and magical thing.
AMFM: And now there are kids looking up to you. What would you say to them?
Elephante: I’d say it’s hard – really hard. You think you might know, but you don’t know. It’s harder than you think, so make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. If you’re doing it because you want to play festivals and stand on tables and stuff – don’t get me wrong – that’s very fun but that’s a very small percentage of my life and I have been very fortunate because there are so many talented people that are still struggling. The majority of your life you’ll spend in front of a computer or a guitar by yourself and you could be making music that no one listens to and no one cares about and you’re going to wake up in the middle of the night thinking, “What am I doing? How is this going to work?” And if you don’t love those moments where you’re grinding away by yourself like that’s what you would do even if it wasn’t your career, you should be doing things that you would be doing anyway and the end result is a really long road, man, and you’re going to have to get through it somehow and if you don’t have that fundamental love for music and love for creating and getting better, that’s the rest of your life. If that’s what you want to do, that’s what you love, even if you’re willing to do it if you don’t make it or have a career, that’s what it’s all about. Music is tough, man. There’s a lot of wrecking balls and you gotta do it for the right reasons and work your ass off.