Taiwan's Elephant Gym bring back bass-driven math rock

Taiwanese trio Elephant Gym are revising the math-rock formula

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 1:12am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 1:57am

Math rock is typically a technical, complex and somewhat intense genre, but Taiwanese trio Elephant Gym add a touch of cuteness to the equation. Just look at the video for Light, the first single from their recently released debut album, Angle, which depicts a musical fairy tale, or the clip for the follow-up single Head & Body, which features a beautiful pas de deux.

Still, this may not be so surprising considering the band's age: all three members are still at university. Elephant Gym was formed in 2012 when siblings Tell Chang Kai-hsiung and Tif Chang Kai-ting (on guitar and bass, respectively) were joined by drummer Tu Chia-chin. The "elephant" in the band's name refers to the bass guitar, the lead instrument in the trio, and "gym" is a metaphor for the unique rhythm generated by the band.

Elephant Gym quickly created a buzz among university students in their hometown of Kaohsiung, and later tore through the independent music scene in Taiwan by playing at large-scale festivals such as Formoz, Mega Port Festival and Simple Life.

Their first EP, Balance, was released in May last year and was followed by a sold-out tour of Taiwan. Their big breakthrough came soon after when they were featured on Mando-pop superstar Yoga Lin You-jia's single Speaking in Tongues, exposing the band to a wider audience. As a bonus, they were also special guests during Lin's recent tour, playing at places such as the Taipei Arena and Hong Kong Coliseum — hardly conventional venues for a young indie band. Elephant Gym's next performance in Hong Kong will be on August 15 at Hidden Agenda.

Math rock is rhythmically rich, and Elephant Gym interpret the sound in a bass-driven, mainly instrumental style.

They teamed up with singer-songwriter Panai Kusui on the track Swan. With a chorus that includes the lyric "Can we dance together?", the track calls for coexistence between parties with different viewpoints. Panai, a member of the Puyuma and Amis tribes of southeastern Taiwan, has been a leading voice in protest songs in recent years, standing up for such causes as the anti-nuclear movement.

"We were mixing this song in Japan at the time of the anti-trade-pact movement in Taiwan, and Panai's voice sounded more powerful than ever during that time," says Tell.

Tu adds: "Rather than convincing people about what we believe in, I think it is more important to think. We have the right to choose our own stance. If we don't treasure that, we could gradually lose our right to even choose."

Musically, the trio have never stopped looking for common ground between Western rock music (math rock in particular) and traditional Eastern music. They see many similarities between the complexities of math rock and traditional music from Japan, India and Indonesia, as well as music from the indigenous Taiwanese, which is often filled with unusual time signatures and counterpoints.

"So apart from exploring the relationship between math rock and oriental music, we hope to introduce fans of modern math rock to traditional Taiwanese music," Tell says.

The upcoming gig at Hidden Agenda will be the third time they have played in the city. Their debut show came last August when they supported local math rock quintet tfvsjs. Their special guest on August 15 will be Enno Cheng, singer-songwriter and frontwoman of the band Tiger Chocolate.

Elephant Gym will be taking a break after this tour to serve their stints in the Taiwanese army. This forced separation spurred the band to give everything they had during the creation of the album.

"We did everything we wanted to do with this album — we collaborated with more singers, we did vocals ourselves and found dancers for our music videos," says Tell. "At first, we weren't sure what our respective roles were, so we fought a lot, but it was an intensive learning process."

One thing all three members have is a curiosity about the world and where their music will take them. For example, the album mixing session with Mino Takaaki, the guitarist of Japanese math rock band Toe, took place in Tokyo. While the band were impressed with his work, the most memorable part was something not related to music at all. "For the rest of our lives we will never forget the ramen and fried pork he found for us," Tif says.


Elephant Gym, August 15, 8pm, Hidden Agenda, 2A Wing Fu Industrial Bldg, 15-17 Tai Yip Street, Kwun Tong, HK$180 (advance), HK$230 (door). Inquiries: 93093659