From Harvard to the mainstage, Elephante discusses his unconventional entrance into the music industry [Interview]
As Tim Wu stepped foot onto Harvard University’s campus, he never would have predicted that four years of an economic degree and one of the best consulting jobs later, he would be turning in his resignation letter. He would not have predicted that he would willingly trade everything he had worked so hard for to be broke with few prospects. He certainly would not have predicted that he, Tim Wu, would be blonde.
It’s now 2017 and Tim, otherwise known as Elephante, is signed with Creative Artist Agency, touring the country, and to boot, his music has hit a staggering 100 million digital streams during his relatively short career. After releasing a full album in 2016 with singles and remixes along the way, he has created a strong following that is sure to be there in support of his every release. While it’s easy for many who have ‘made it’ to forget the struggle of their fledgling days, for Wu, it is not. We sat down with the Michigan native to talk about what typically isn’t talked about — the struggle that inevitably precedes the success.
“You see all of these people who say ‘all you need is one song,’” Wu reflects. “Martin Garrix did ‘Animals,’ and then became huge. DJ Snake did ‘Bird Machine,’ and then became huge. But you don’t see all of the songs before the song.”
Wu, whose DJ name is Elephante because his desire to leave corporate life and focus on music was ‘the elephant in the room’ at work, quickly realized that his passion for music was not something he was going to be able to suppress. He left work early during the week and neglected friends on the weekends in order to produce music. His unhappiness became so great, he reflected, that when he made the decision to finally quit his corporate job, his mother and friends were hardly surprised because ‘the writing was on the wall.’
Wu’s decision to leave his job was a leap of faith, although he does admit that he was confident it would eventually work out. He had landed an official remix on Beatport, and he took this feat as a sign of his impending success.
He chuckles at his first memories as a full-time producer. “I guess it’s funny. If you told me then everything that would have to happen, and all of the ‘breaks’ that I was going to have to get, and everything that I would have to do to be where I am now, there is just no way I would have ever tried it. I think that naive arrogance sort of ended up saving me.”
Wu spent the first two and a half years of his career releasing a remix every three weeks and receiving little recognition from them. The exhilarating decision to quit corporate life and pursue music full time quickly turned into depression as he hit roadblock after roadblock.
“You are going to be sitting by yourself for years and years and no one is going to care. You are going to be on your own, and it is going to feel like the world is totally against you. You have to get through that, and somehow I knew that I tried living a different life and it wasn’t for me. This is the only thing I could ever do.”
A year and a half after quitting his job, Wu began to build up a sizable following on Soundcloud. Agents began to take notice, and he finally signed with his first agent and booked a fall US tour. While this was by no means his peak, it was the beginning he had needed to give him the confidence and platform to finally find his sound and come into his own as a musician.
“For most of my life it was like, just go out and do all of the right things and it will work out,” Wu said. “With this, you do all of the right things, and nothing happens. Then sometimes you didn’t do the right things, and it worked out.”
Having been a collegiate athlete and attended one of the top universities in the country, Wu was accustomed to working hard and achieving a favorable outcome. With music, he explains, the path to success can be nonsensical. He had to readjust his expectations for himself and how he gauged success because it’s not always the most talented people who rise to the top. Those who are able create music through the mental exhaustion of the ups, downs, and constant and reoccurring failures are sometimes the ones to make it over the ‘most’ talented.
“You always want to do better, and have more plays, and play bigger festivals, and have better set times, or whatever,” Wu said. “To me, it all comes down to you just have to make the best music that you can, keep getting better, and make things that are meaningful to you.”
“If it’s not meaningful to you, then how is it going to be meaningful to anyone else? Know that as the music gets better, everything else will.”
Elephante is finally realizing this dream playing the mainstage at festivals and living the life he aspired to live upon giving up corporate life. His career is on a continual upswing, and he is content as ever —despite not yet becoming the next Avicii. As he tours the country and continues to release new music, his following is growing steadily, but one thing is for certain: the best is yet to come.
Read the full interview below
Tell us about your entrance into music
I grew up playing music. I was classically trained in piano and grew up playing guitar in bands and stuff. I graduated college, and I was like ‘well, guess I need a job.’ So I had a job for a while, but I was so unhappy there. I just knew I wanted to make music right? So I was spending a lot of the time leaving the office early to make music. On the weekends my friends never saw me because I was making music. One day I was like, ‘fuck it I can’t take it anymore. If I don’t go for it, I will never forgive myself.’ So I just quit, and I have been very lucky in my career so far, so here I am.
When you left your job, did you have a lot of momentum with a solid following? Or was it like ground zero– starting from scratch?
It’s funny, I thought I did, but looking back it’s just like- you had no idea what you were doing. I had gotten my first offer for an official remix that was going on Beatport, and I was like ‘Dude this is it. I’ve made it.’ I was still at my job, and I wasn’t even getting paid for the remix. I was like, ‘This is going on Beatport, I’m going to hit number one, and I’m going to be Avicii in like a month and a half.’ Clearly that didn’t happen. I guess like, it’s funny, if you told me then everything that would have to happen, and all of the breaks that I was going to have to get, everything that I would have to do to be where I am now, I’d be like, there is just no way. I would have never tried it. I think that naive arrogance sort of ended up saving me.
You were on this perfect career trajectory and gave it all up for music. Tell me about your head space for the first five months after you quit your job?
‘Uhhh, oh god.’ Haha no, but I was definitely a little mentally prepared. You don’t realize though how hard it is going to be. You see all of these people who say ‘all you need is one song. Martin Garrix did ‘Animals,’ and then became huge. DJ Snake did ‘Bird Machine,’ and then became huge. But you don’t see all of the songs before the song. I put out a different remix every three weeks for two and a half years, and every single time it was like, ‘this is the best possible thing I could ever do, and I don’t know how I’m going to get any better.’ Then releasing it, having no one care, getting depressed, and being like, no alright, trying it again and learning from it. Then again, no one cares. It’s rinse and repeat for years until something finally started to click, and I finally started to find my sound, and I knew what I wanted to do.
How long was it from the time you quit until music became a viable career for you?
It ended up being a year and a half? I quit in March and then was doing it full time. I first started picking up some traction on the internet on Soundcloud a year later, then I signed with my agent and started touring in the fall.
I can imagine how hard that would be for such a high achieving person. You went to Harvard, played a sport, and were probably used to being the best. Then it’s like wait, why isn’t this happening now that I’ve taken the jump and quit?
Yeah there is a little bit of that, but it was also just like, there is no path. There aren’t set things to do, and no one knows what they are doing, and even now, we kinda don’t- we know generally what we are doing, but there aren’t ‘check off these boxes and you will be successful.’ There is none of that. For most of my life it was like, just go out and do all of the right things, and it will work out. With this, you do all of the right things, and nothing happens. Then sometimes you didn’t do the right things, and it worked out. It was like learning to deal with ‘hey man, you just have to work and make the best music that you can and hope it works out because you can’t micromanage your way into a career.’ That’s just not how it works.
What advice would you give people facing a similar situation to yours? Is there a clear delineation of what the right and wrong situation for someone to quit their jobs to focus on music would be?
Um, it’s tough right, because I don’t want to tell anyone to quit their job. Looking back, it was kind of foolish. I think, to me, when I quit, it was not even a choice. It wasn’t like, oh weighing my options. There was not a back and forth thinking about it. There was nothing else I could do. For me, I had to get to that point on my own. Even after I quit and I was so happy because I was finally doing what I wanted, there was so much heartbreak and disappointment and setbacks. It has to come from inside you, and if you have to ask for someone’s advice, like if I have to be the one to tell you you should quit and do this, it’s just not going to work out. You are going to be sitting by yourself for years and years and no one is going to care. You are going to be on your own, and it is going to feel like the world is totally against you. You have to get through that, and somehow I knew that I tried living a different life, and it wasn’t for me. This is the only thing I could ever do. So I was like, I’m gonna go until I figure it out. To me, the people who make it and have careers, they aren’t always the most talented. They are the ones who are able to go through that mental exhaustion of like, ‘I am on my own and it’s never going to happen’ and just keep doing it.
What is your definition of success for yourself in the music industry?
That’s another thing I had to battle with. I don’t do very well with specific goals, like play at this festival or get this many plays. You know you generally want to do well but like, that is counterproductive with the creative process. For me, it is very important to make the best music that I can and hope that other people like it. Knowing that I get to do this for a living is the biggest victory you can have. You always want to do better, and have more plays, and play bigger festivals, and have better set times, or whatever, but to me it all comes down to you just have to make the best music that you can, keep getting better, and make things that are meaningful to you. If it’s not meaningful to you, then how is it going to be meaningful to anyone else? Know that as music gets better, everything else will.
What did your boss say to you when you quit?
He was like, ‘you’re making a mistake.’ I made up some convoluted lie that I was going to a music startup. He told me I should really think about it, and I was like, ‘I thought about it- I’m leaving.’ It’s funny though, the offices are in the same building as my agent’s building in LA, so like going back and walking in is strange. I don’t think he knows, but some of my younger coworkers know. I haven’t thought about that in a while.
What did your parents say?
My mom knew the writing was on the wall because she knew how unhappy I was. She was like you know, try your best. I had to ease into my dad for a while. It was a little while before I could really come up to him and be like, ‘yeah I quit my job.’ He means well, he just doesn’t really understand, and it wasn’t until he came to a show and heard my music on the radio until he was like ‘oh you’re actually doing something.’ He had never been to a rave and didn’t understand the music. They have been great though, and I got to bring them out to my show in San Francisco last weekend, and it was really special. I forced them to come out on stage and they were like 1500 kids screaming.
Who were your inspirations growing up? How much was music a focus of yours growing up as a hobby?
It was huge. I was classically trained, but Jimmy Hendrix, classic rock, hip hop and R&B were big for me. I grew up wanting to be John Mayer, so I was like playing acoustic guitar and making my friends come to open mics. I also listened to The Killers and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and stuff like that. That’s what I loved growing up, and then as I got older, I started getting more into the indie electronic stuff like Passion Pit, Miike Snow, and then I heard Skrillex and my head exploded. I was like ‘what is this, how is this even a thing?’ Then I got Ableton and started messing around.
Are Tim and Elephante one and the same, or are you two different personas?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think they are related, but they probably aren’t one and the same. Elephante is sort of the stage persona. I think Elephante is a certain aspect of myself, and certain parts are amplified. It’s as authentic as I can make it. But there are certain parts of Tim that you don’t want in Elephante.
What is one personal growth goal for Tim versus one personal growth goal for Elephante?
Personal growth goal… my general goal is to not be depressed and not stress out all of the time. It’s one of those things where I am very rarely happy. I get happy and then very soon after it’s like, what’s next, and I take whatever we accomplish for granted. So just trying to be more present and appreciative for what I have, and not go through this cycle of I suck and I can’t do anything, I’m the worst, I’m the best. Just trying to stay level and not go through the roller coaster, but I’m always going to go through a little bit of that.