After 10 years, Taiwanese trio Elephant Gym are used to being known as a math rock band – even if “math” isn’t always part of the equation.
Vocalist/bassist KT Chang, guitarist Tell Chang and drummer Chia-chin Tu formed Elephant Gym in 2012 as college students who shared a love of the genre. Their debut album “Angle”, released two years later, left a strong impression on listeners with its appropriate geometric form of skillful musicality: complex time signatures and instrumental dexterity, common characteristics of mathematical rock bands.
From time to time, Elephant Gym always easily connects to this technique mode. “In some songs, I’ll keep thinking we’re a ‘math rock’ band, and I have to write it in seven [a 7/8 time signature] or five [5/4]“says KT NME on Zoom. “But in some songs, I never think we’re a ‘math rock’ band.”
On their third album ‘Dreams’, out today, Elephant Gym go further than math rock than they’ve done before, fueled by their relentless creativity, relentless drive to hone their abilities and the emotional engine of their composition. This last element is what allowed the trio to avoid common criticisms of the genre – that, impressive as they are, technical chops lead to cold, clinical music. Instead, KT’s flowing basslines, Tell’s evocative guitar riffs, and Chia-chin’s understated precision spawned an expressive, joyful artistic voice.
Given Elephant Gym’s emotive approach, it’s not too surprising that they see genres as moods to be employed rather than territory to be conquered. “When we try to express different emotions, we unconsciously borrow characteristics from different genres,” Tell explains. If jazz is “soft”, rock is “powerful” and classical music is “elegant”.
“We like rock, we like jazz, we like classical music, we like traditional music,” KT says. “This is the album where we finally realize our dream of ‘collecting’ all the sounds we love.”
“There are no boundaries between the art form and your imagination”
Elephant Gym – a group flexible in spirit but inflexible in work ethic – has been preparing for this for a while now. Despite the pandemic disrupting touring plans, they’ve managed to maintain a steady pace: a four-year gap separating each studio album (their second album, “Underwater,” was released in 2018), with an EP in between for satisfy their fanbase. Throughout, Elephant Gym sought to challenge themselves through collaboration: each of their albums featured at least two tracks with guest artists.
“The most interesting thing to do is find other musicians to break down your world,” Tell says. “I think we all need to break our old thoughts [about music] and what we have learned that already exists.
Elephant Gym takes delightful left turns and explores new territory in their sound through these connections – whether it’s crafting a humanistic folk song with singer-songwriter and activist Panai Kusui on “Swan” from 2014, or channeling the rhythmic essence of J Dilla on 2018’s ‘Bad Dream’ with rapper Sowut.
They like to “stay flexible” doing this, Tell says. But they admit the learning curve was steep when they were passionate young musicians. It was while working with Kusui, an indigenous singer from the Amis people, that they learned that collaboration isn’t just about asking an artist to add flourishes to your work.
“We wanted her to sing the way we wanted, but she told us that the notes we wrote couldn’t be sung in her language,” he explains. “Because [her tribe] possesses [different] forms of expression [in] their traditional music. Over the years, they have learned “step by step” to collaborate more intuitively. “We should learn each other’s culture first, then we will talk about how to work and create a new world [together]Says Tell.
“This is the album where we finally realize our dream of ‘collecting’ all the sounds we love”
“Dreams” features four collaborations, including neo-soul artist 9m88 (“Shadow”) and folk singer Lin Sheng Xiang (“Dream of You”). The songs are sung in Mandarin, English, Hakka and Japanese. “It’s a collection of the languages spoken by the people of Taiwan,” Tell explains.
And in a nod to math rock diehards, there’s also a track, “Go Through The Night,” which samples the song “Two Moons” by beloved Japanese post-rock band Toe. “Our Japanese manager asked the band if we could do it, and they said, ‘You should do it first, and let us check if it’s good enough!’” laughed KT.
Over the years, Elephant Gym has demonstrated that their music is a vehicle not only for their own imagination, but also for new ideas and songwriting styles inherited and borrowed from others. On ‘Dreams’, they found each other’s energy in new ways.
9m88 was immediately ready to sing in a “weird time signature,” KT says, and they “drove each other crazy, in a good way.” Venerable Lin Sheng Xiang adapted his performance style, honed over decades, to perform “Dream of You” live with the band. “He tried to learn new ways of producing music and performing live,” Tell recalled. “The bravery of this act is very precious to me.”
It’s not just solo artists who have turned to Elephant Gym. The group was invited to work with the Kaohsiung City Wind Orchestra – their resident composer wanting to “challenge themselves” – resulting in “Wings”. Working with the Chio Tian Folk Drumming and Art Troupe produced the thunderous “Feast of the Deities”. These are gratifying collaborations, says Tell: “In traditional Asian music, there are the same weird time signatures. [that we play]so it was exciting to combine a very old sound with a very experimental sound.
Elephant Gym now knows how to combine disparate sounds, but its ambitions have also become interdisciplinary. “Dear Humans”, sung in Japanese on the album, began life as a song written for Big Band Species, a 2021 Taiwanese theatrical production based on the founding texts of biologist Charles Darwin. The lyrics to ‘Witches’ are taken directly from the seventh soliloquy in William Shakespeare’s play macbeth. KT – who sees her voice more as an instrument and isn’t attached to the lyrics – liked “the atmosphere of these words”, choosing to sing the text verbatim instead of interpreting it differently.
As university students, the band enjoyed their time watching stage productions and dance performances – now, with an eclectic and creative third album under their belt, they now hope to score a musical and even cross over into the film world. .
“In the world of music, there are no boundaries between styles,” says Tell. “There are no boundaries between the art form and your imagination. We’re trying to prove to ourselves that as long as you can accept, or respect, the other side of the world, or the other side of your creation, then your world will be much more interesting. This diversity comes from respect and love for each other.
Elephant Gym’s “Dreams” is now available via Topshelf Records