Taiwan's Elephant Gym say audiences are learning to love their math rock

Taiwanese band Elephant Gym comprise (from far left) Tell Chang Kai-hsiang, Tif Chang Kai-ting and Tu Chia-chin.
Taiwanese band Elephant Gym comprise (from left) Tell Chang Kai-hsiang, Tif Chang Kai-ting and Tu Chia-chin.PHOTO: CLICK MUSIC TAIWAN

When Mandopop star Yoga Lin first contacted Taiwanese indie band Elephant Gym online more than three years ago because he liked their music, he did not hear back from them.

Guitarist Tell Chang Kai-hsiang, 27, says: "We simply ignored him."

His sister, bassist Tif Chang Kai-ting, 24, adds: "We thought he was a pervert."

Their reaction was understandable because Lin had used a pseudonym on his Facebook account, Jiao Ma Ji (Chinese Pepper Chicken).

Eventually, they met in person, though it took another three to six months before Lin broached the idea of a collaboration between them.

The song they recorded together, Speaking In Tongues, was released on Lin's EP of the same name in May 2014, a few months before his military enlistment.

We and the audience are training each other to grow. We are introducing them to math rock and the audience is giving us feedback (on what works).

TELL CHANG KAI-HSIANG, guitarist of Elephant Gym, on how the band are trying to raise listeners' acceptance of math rock

The track also helped to introduce the band, and their chosen path of math rock, to a wider audience. Their name takes its cue from the music genre: "Elephant" refers to the bass guitar - the key instruments for such outfits are bass, guitar and drums - and "gym" is a metaphor for the unusual rhythms worked out by the band as math rock music frequently employs less common time signatures.

Math rock is a style of indie rock which emerged in the United States in the late 1980s and features complex rhythmic structures and unusual time signatures.

Elephant Gym, which also include drummer Tu Chia-chin, 25, were in Singapore recently for the indie music festival Music Matters Live and performed at Chijmes, Timbre at The Substation and Switch by Timbre. Also here as part of the Taiwanese contingent were Minnan folk-pop-rock outfit Chang And Lee and rising hip-hop star PoeTeK.

As children, the Chang siblings of Elephant Gym were forced to learn classical instruments as their mother taught the piano and choral singing. Separately, Tu was made to pick up classical percussion.

While they hated those lessons, Tif says: "A seed was planted as the emphasis in classical music is on the instruments and not the vocals."

It meant that they later had a natural affinity for the instrumental works of post-rock bands such as Taiwan's Sugar Plum Fairy and Japan's Toe.

Elephant Gym were formed in Kaohsiung in 2012 and put out their debut EP, Balance, the following year. Their album, Angle, was released in 2014.

Asked about the level of acceptance of the type of music they make, Tell says: "We and the audience are training each other to grow. We are introducing them to math rock and the audience is giving us feedback (on what works)."

Tif adds: "There are math rock bands who do not care about accommodating you, but we do want a connection with listeners so we want our rhythms to flow so smoothly that they can be accepted."

They released their second EP, Work, last year after Tell and Tu completed their compulsory military service. It is a record of a group diversifying their sound as they incorporated jazz elements as well as, for the first time, some vocals by Tif.

Elephant Gym definitely have ambitions - one of them is to perform at the Esplanade.

Tell exclaims that the venue is "very beautiful" and notes that it is also "where our idols Toe performed".

He adds: "We hope to play there in 2019 with works from our new album."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2017, with the headline 'Mad about math rock'. Subscribe