Putting an original Asian spin on the genre of math rock are Taiwan’s Elephant Gym. They recently made their UK debut at ArcTanGent and straight after their set Peter Dennis spoke to bassist KT Chang, guitarist Tell Chang and drummer Tu Chia-Chin.
MR: You’re fresh off stage. How was your first gig in the UK?
Tell: The crowd was very good. I think they’re really into instrumental music. So they know what were doing and they bounce with it.
KT: And even when I played a wrong note they still screamed. I don’t know why but they are really nice.
MR : Did ArcTanGent live up to your expectations?
Tell: I think it exceeded our expectations.
KT: I thought that, because we are not as heavy as other bands in this festival, I didn’t think people would come but they still came and I’m very thankful.
MR : When you play live do you try to faithfully replicate your studio sound or are you more free form?
Tu: As a drummer I try to play the correct notes all the time. When I record for an album that’s for serious listening so I will compress it but I’ll also try to play the right parts on stage.
Tell: We set up onstage facing each other and we will look at each other before we start and I think that will make people focus on the drums or the bass. We try to make it as big and as dynamic as possible.
MR : It looks like you have a lot of fun when you’re onstage.
Tell: Because our music doesn’t express negative emotions we always try to make people have fun. So we try to have fun, even when there’s technical problems.
KT: I think the secret is every time I play live I will smile. I have fun when I play live.
MR : You’ve just played Europe: Czech Republic, Germany, Holland. How was it? Which was your favourite?
Tu: It was pretty good. I think Amsterdam at The Paradiso was our favourite.
Tell: The Paradiso is a big venue with lots of different spaces. We weren’t on the biggest stage but if you buy a ticket for the biggest stage you can come to our show so we had a big crowd and many people listening to our music for the first time.
Tu: And as it was our debut show and to play in a venue like that and many people came from far away.
KT: The people came and they stayed for the whole show. I met so many people that came from France and Poland who said ‘We came from so far away’ and I said ‘We also came from far away!’
MR : How do European audiences compare to those in Asia?
Tell: They’re definitely more crazy here, they’re jumping and shouting or sometimes they’ll just talk to each other but in Asia they’ll be very quiet especially when the song is playing.
MR : Are you excited to be touring the UK?
KT: Yes because this is the start of our UK tour so I’m really looking forward to the shows. The only thing I hope for is good weather! I heard that the UK is always rainy! Is that true?!
MR : As a classical musician your mother wasn’t too happy when you started playing rock music. Has her opinion softened at all?
Tell: She was afraid that we were going to be drinking beer all day or smoking weed! But we didn’t end up that way! Our parents come to our shows and they can see the vibe is different than they expected. Our parents are very supportive now in the beginning they borrowed money for us to buy equipment.
KT: My mother is a classical music teacher so she’s not used to loud rock music and she used to tell us to turn it down but now she likes it!
MR : Why do you think your music travels so well?
Tu: A lot of our audience from outside our country say they’ve never heard music like ours so maybe our music is unique outside Taiwan.
KT: When we started the band their wasn’t a lot of instrumental music in Taiwan but when we started playing we realised people from different countries, because we don’t have many lyrics, they can understand the instruments. That’s why I think.
Tell: Maybe because there’s something in traditional Asian music where the rhythm will keep changing and although our rhythm is complex we want to create an easy to follow melody for everyone so although the groove is changing you know the character.
MR : Years ago Asian bands used to copy Western groups but now they’re very original. What has changed in the mindset?
Tu: I think the indie music culture is getting bigger and bigger. I always listen to Japanese indie music but I also listen to Western music so maybe when I am listening to Oriental music my brain is mixing it with Western.
MR : The band was on hiatus while you performed national service. Was that a help or a hindrance?
Tell: I think it helped a lot because it made us stop for a while and think are we going to go full time when we’re out of the military? It gave us time to think about that and we all listened to different music during the break. I started listening to K-pop because I’m a manual worker all day so I didn’t want to listen to complex music: I just wanted simple melodies and watch beautiful girls on the screen. So when we started again I valued simple melodies.
MR : What are your musical influences?
Tu: A lot of Japanese indie music. A lot of solo drummers.
Tell: My biggest influence is Sugar Plum Fairy, a Taiwanese math rock band. They drew me to the instrumental world.
KT: I think we all like Japanese music a lot that’s why, when you ask us why Asian music becomes more original, older people listen to Western music while younger people listen to Asian so it’s half/half.
MR : How do you write music?
Tell: An important value in this band is equality: there’s no leader. We now assign different members to be different producers, so if the drummer is the producer he’ll make three minutes of only drum track and he’ll tell us what to do and we’ll follow him but if it’s my turn, I like vocal melodies, I’ll decide there must be vocal in there. So we take turns.
MR : From where do you draw inspiration for your songs?
Tu: I get a lot of ideas from the music I listen to but I will change it, find my own interpretation.
KT: My ideas come from practice because the bass guitar has a lot of techniques to practice and I try to learn techniques from the internet and I will think ‘This is interesting’ so I’ll change it to Elephant Gym style and write a song. The first time I learned tapping on bass I played it at practice and everybody joined in.
MR : What direction will your music take in the future?
Tell: I think it’s very hard to say.
KT: He said we are equals and we all have different opinions. He likes to write smooth songs while I like to write more instrumental, more complex.
Tu: While I want to write some more slower songs.
KT: So it’s really difficult. We try to write songs that satisfy all three of us. It’s very complicated!
MR : Finally, what are your future plans for Elephant Gym?
Tell: We actually found the years break was very beneficial so we’re going to have another break in 2020, go away and learn new things and come back and see what happens.
KT: But maybe things change