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 university students who shared a love of the genre. Their first album ‘Angle’, released two years later, left a strong impression on listeners with its appropriately geometric form of skilful musicianship: complex time signatures and instrumental dexterity, common hallmarks of math rock bands.
Occasionally, Elephant Gym still readily plug into that technically minded mode. “In some songs, I will keep thinking that we are a ‘math rock’ band, and I have to write it in seven [a 7/8 time signature] or five [5/4],” KT tells NME over Zoom. “But in some songs, I never think we are a ‘math rock’ band.”
On their third album ‘Dreams’, out today, Elephant Gym range further beyond math rock than they have before, fuelled by their restless creativity, unrelenting drive to refine their abilities, and the emotional engine of their songwriting. That last element is what has allowed the trio to sidestep common criticisms of the genre – that no matter how impressive, the technical chops lead to music that is cold and clinical. Instead, KT’s fluid basslines, Tell’s evocative guitar riffs and Chia-chin’s unshowy precision have given rise to an expressive and joyous artistic voice.
Given Elephant Gym’s emotive approach, it’s not too surprising that they see genres as moods to employ rather than territory to conquer. “When we try to express different emotions, we unconsciously borrow characteristics from different genres,” Tell says. If jazz is “gentle”, 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 fulfil our dream to ‘collect’ every sound we like.”
“There are no boundaries between the form of art and your imagination”
Elephant Gym – a band flexible in spirit but unyielding in their work ethic – have been building up to this for a while now. Despite the pandemic disrupting tour plans, they have 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 to satiate their fanbase. Throughout, Elephant Gym have sought to challenge themselves by way of collaboration: Every album of theirs has featured at least two tracks with guest artists.
“The most interesting thing to do is to find other musicians to break down your world,” Tell declares. “I think we all have to break down our old thoughts [about music] and what we’ve learned that already exists.”
Elephant Gym take delightful left-turns and explore new territory in their sound through these link-ups – whether if it’s crafting a humanist folk song with singer-songwriter and activist Panai Kusui on 2014’s ‘Swan’, or channelling the rhythmic essence of J Dilla on 2018’s ‘Bad Dream’ with rapper Sowut.
They like to “stay flexible” by doing this, Tell says. But they admit the learning curve was steep when they were eager young musicians. Working with Kusui, an indigenous singer of the Amis people, was when they learned that collaboration isn’t merely roping in an artist to add flourishes to your work.
“We wanted her to sing in the way we wanted, but she told us that the notes we had written cannot be sung in her language,” he explains. “Because [her tribe] has [different] forms to express [in] their traditional music.” Over the years, they’ve learned “step by step” to collaborate more intuitively. “We should learn the culture of others first, then we’ll talk about how to work and create a new world [together],” Tell says.
“This is the album where we finally fulfil our dream to ‘collect’ every sound we like”
‘Dreams’ features four collaborations, including breakout neo-soul artist 9m88 (‘Shadow’) and folk singer Lin Sheng Xiang (‘Dream of You’). Songs are sung in Mandarin, English, Hakka and Japanese. “It’s a collection of the languages spoken by the people of Taiwan,” says Tell.
And in a nod to the math rock diehards, there’s also a track, ‘Go Through The Night’, that samples beloved Japanese post-rock band Toe’s song ‘Two Moons’. “Our Japanese manager asked the band if we could do it, and they said, ‘You guys should do it first, and let us check if it’s good enough!’” KT laughs.
Over the years, Elephant Gym have demonstrated their music is a vehicle not just for their own imaginations, but for new songwriting ideas and styles inherited and borrowed from others. On ‘Dreams’, they found their energy being reciprocated in new ways.
9m88 was immediately game to sing in a “weird time signature”, KT says, and they “drove each other crazy, in a good way.” The venerable Lin Sheng Xiang adapted his performance style, honed over decades, in order to play ‘Dream of You’ live with the band. “He tried to learn new ways to produce music and to play live,” Tell remembers. “The braveness of that act is very precious to me.”
It wasn’t just solo artists who gravitated towards Elephant Gym. The band were invited to work with the Kaohsiung City Wind Orchestra – their resident composer wanting to “challenge themselves” – which resulted in ‘Wings’. Working with the Chio Tian Folk Drums and Art Troupe produced the thunderous ‘Deities’ Party’. These were gratifying collaborations, Tell says: “In traditional Asian music, there are the same odd time signatures [that we play], so it was exciting to combine a very old sound with a very experimental sound.”
Elephant Gym are adept at combining disparate sounds by now, but their ambitions have also become cross-disciplinary. ‘Dear Humans’, sung in Japanese on the album, started out life as a song written for Big Band Species, a 2021 Taiwanese theatre production based on the foundational texts of biologist Charles Darwin. The lyrics of ‘Witches’ are lines pulled directly from the seventh soliloquy of William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. KT – who sees her voice more as an instrument and isn’t precious about lyrics – liked “the atmosphere in those words”, choosing to sing the text verbatim instead of interpreting it a different way.
As university students, the band cherished their time watching stage productions and dance performances – now, with an eclectic, creatively fulfilling third album under their belt, they now hope to score a musical and even cross over to the world of film.
“In the music world, there are no boundaries between styles,” Tell says. “There are no boundaries between the form of art and your imagination. We’re trying to prove by 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. That diversity is from respecting and loving each other.”
Elephant Gym’s ‘Dreams’ is out now via Topshelf Records