Tim Wu, known more commonly to his fans as Elephante, is no stranger to pursuing your dream. As a Harvard grad, he went into consulting, but then decided to go after his true passion: creating music.
A few years later, he’s playing the Main Stage at Electric Zoo, with an elephant head as the backdrop, no less. His journey, has of course, been a whirlwind of success.
He’s good-humored, soft-spoken, and enjoys regularly connecting with his fans and understanding the impact his hits have had on their lives. His laid-back nature was pretty clear when we sat down for the interview at Electric Zoo and he promptly flipped a personal swing.
First things first, how’d you decide to name your orange tree Oscar?
[laughs] It’s funny. You’ve done your research. I actually asked people on Snapchat to send in names, and I got a million responses. I got to Oscar and thought, “Yeah, this sounds great.” His full name is Oscar Jemima, I think. I can’t remember his last name. We call him O.J.
Okay, now onto the real stuff: You graduated from Harvard and were working for McKinsey, then decided to quit to pursue your dream. How’s your day-to-day compare from then to now?
It literally could not be any more different. When I was working the job, I wasn’t a very good employee. I was spending a lot of time making music anyway. That hasn’t changed. Now, when I’m at home, I’m in L.A. in the studio working on music or doing art. Then I’m on tour all the time.
My life is amazing. I get to do whatever I want whenever I want because I love making music and I love touring. It’s all such a dream.
Where are you in L.A.?
The east side, near Silver Lake. The weather is so nice every day, it’s hard to be super stressed out about anything.
Do you surf and go to the beach regularly?
No… I don’t actually. I haven’t been to the beach in years. I’m not very good in the water. I’m not a great swimmer. [laughs]
Back on track, does your past job influence how you do things now?
I don’t know. It’s hard to say. The job made me a part of who I am today. There’s no crossover in what I was actually doing. If anything, the job taught me that I’m really lucky to do what I do. Sometimes, I don’t really feel like doing it, but I know it’s such a privilege to make music for a living. So I suck it up and stop being a baby.
Were your parents surprised with your career change?
Yes and no. My mom sort of knew the writing was on the wall because I was pretty depressed. I talked about how much I hated my job. My dad didn’t really find out about it until later. It took a little while to ease him into it.
I actually just brought them out to a show—my show in San Francisco a couple weeks ago—and it was the first big show they’d seen. I think it clicked for them, like, “Oh, this is what you do.”
You went from acoustic, to electronic remixes, to your own originals, and have stayed mostly independent, if I’m correct. How’s that process been?
It’s been a very natural progression. I never set out with the intent “oh I’m going to be a famous DJ.” I loved making music growing up, playing guitar and singing. I got interested in production when I was listening to, I think, Skrillex, and it blew my mind. I dove in, messed around, had fun with it, and discovered my passion for it.
For me, music is very much about having fun while making music, and being really excited about what you’re creating. If you try to set a course where you aim to make something that sounds like something specific, it never turns out well. It’s more just following the paths of what you think sounds good, and you end up someplace you never expect but it always feels more organic.
What’s been your favorite festival or show and why?
I just started this new tour, Animals Wanted. It’s maybe my fourth week in? All the shows have been crazy. This year has been a whirlwind. Playing E-Zoo is really special, you know, with the stage and all. This is one of the festivals I’ve always dreamed of playing. It’s hard to pick!
San Francisco, a few weeks ago, was amazing. It was the loudest I’ve heard people sing the lyrics to my songs, which is always a special feeling. It’s hard to say. The whole thing is crazy.
What would be your dream perk to play a show?
A live elephant to ride out on. After this stage? How do you top that? The next thing has to be riding on an elephant. It has to be an ethically-sourced live elephant.
Apparently, if you go to Thailand or India or whatever, you’re not supposed to ride the elephant, because they treat the elephants like shit. So for me to do it, it’d have to be a very well taken care of, ethically-sourced elephant to ride out on.
You’re on tour right now. How’s it going?
It’s amazing but very tiring. I was in Ohio last night and we’re going to Chicago on Sunday for North Coast Festival. We’re playing Lavo tonight for an after-party. As a producer you spend so much time sitting in a room in front of a computer, and you sometimes lose site of the fact that you’re making this to share with other people.
Getting to go on tour, you can see this thing you’ve slaved away on on your own out in the world and that’s the most exciting part. That’s part of the gratification of making music—seeing people interact with it, seeing it have an impact on people, seeing people sing the words! It’s like, “Oh man, it’s out in the world, and people are listening.” That’s the greatest feeling.
Weirdest tour story?
I started Oscar, my orange tree, as a total joke, just messing around. Someone made an Oscar sign and brought it to a show. The sign… I’m not sure you’d believe it. It said, “Hey Oscar, you little bitch,” and it had a picture of him on it. [laughs] It was so funny. I was playing and started dying laughing. I couldn’t believe my orange tree was famous.
Best or weirdest local food you’ve eaten?
Best? I was playing a festival in Monterey in Mexico called Pal Norte. They have the best artist area. It was sick; I think it’s like their Coachella. The Killers were headlining.
In the back, they had spits over open fire of pigs and goats. They were making tacos, and of course, they had the normal chicken, steak, whatever. I pointed at a spit and said “What’s that?” They told me it was baby goat and asked if I wanted to try it, and absolutely I did. They carved off some baby goat and made me tacos. I’ve never had goat before, it was amazing.
Montreal also has the best food ever. Gotta shout that out. Their poutine is life changing.
What would your tour manager say is the strangest thing about you?
I don’t know. I’m really good at sleeping on airplanes, and I’m really bad at sleeping at hotels. On planes, I close my eyes before we take off and wake up after we land. It’s like time travel. Hotels, I can’t sleep for hours after the show. Every hour I wake up thinking, “I’ve missed my flight.”
What do you miss most about home while on tour?
I miss my bed. Being on tour; there’s nothing like sleeping in your own bed. Partially because I can’t sleep in hotels, but waking up in your own bed makes you feel so good. I took a month off from tour, woke up on a Saturday morning at 9 AM, and felt great. It was so strange! I had gotten nine hours of sleep every night, I hadn’t gone out, I hadn’t drank. I woke up and was like, “Wait, this is what normal life feels like? This is awesome.” Feeling human in the morning is a nice thing about being home.
Have a panic attack, that’s a pretty standard ritual. I have a few drinks, jump around, try not to throw up with nervousness. It’s very strange, five to ten minutes before every show I get super nervous, then once I’m on and start the first song, I’m fine.
Not really, I do anything to try and sleep later. I hang out with friends. I don’t really drink on stage because it makes me have to pee. If I’m drinking too much, two-thirds of the way through the show I won’t be able to finish. You’re always so jacked up on adrenaline afterwards, I just try and wind down to get sleep.
How do you discover new music?
Playlists on Spotify and Apple or things that pop up on Twitter. Pretty much exclusively social media and new playlists.
Any favorites we should be listening to right now?
Obviously, you’ve already heard them, but Illenium has a new album coming out. I’ve heard it—it’s so good. The new Lemaitre stuff is great, they’re homies. There’s so much great music out right now, it’s really exciting. Oh and 2 Chainz. Obviously I’m obsessed right now.
Anything in store for the next year we should be excited about?
Yes! My single “Troubled” has been out for a little bit. I’m working on new music, finishing this tour, and I have a new single coming soon this fall. I want to finish up an EP soon. It’s close, it’s definitely getting there.
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