The trope of the unfulfilled businessman is a familiar, if all too real, one. We see it in movies like Netflix’s Set it Up, where a low–ranking finance bro finds true happiness by eschewing his corporate dreams, and in our daily lives, where 20% of the Class of 2018 entered the consulting industry after graduation. We hear little of these people’s hopes and dreams as they grow into middle–aged businessmen and women, leaving us to wonder: is there really life after we settle at Bain or BCG or Deloitte?
If you asked Tim Ku, who goes by the DJing moniker Elephante, there is, but only if you’re willing to take risks.
Ku, a Harvard grad and Econ major with a secret love for John Mayer and New Age philosophy, quit his McKinsey consulting gig after only a year to pursue music. Now going by the stage name Elephante, a nod to feeling like the elephant in the room, Ku produces melodic dance–pop and EDM reminiscent of a coming–of–age movie soundtrack. Sounding like the lovechild of a Passion Pit record and the main stage at Ultra, each of Ku’s songs bring a lyrical touch to the electronic genre. Hits like “Plans” and “Come Back to You” resonate both lyrically and sonically, cementing Ku as one of the most exciting DJs in the industry.
Make no mistake—his rise to niche success is anything but planned. Beginning as a self–taught guitarist who wrote his first song for a girl who liked his friend, Ku entered the music industry as an acoustic singer–songwriter, playing in bands and at open–mic nights in Boston throughout college. Once he stumbled upon EDM, however, his true passion was sparked.
“[It was like] I had been drawing in pencil my whole life and all of a sudden I had crayons,” Ku said when Street caught up with him after playing a bombastic set at Made In America’s Freedom Stage,.“It was amazing. Like imagine doing the most fun thing ever—making music—and suddenly there’s a whole new world and being like, 'WHAT?!?' So it was just an evolution, a new playground for me to play in.”
Ku constantly brings his knack for lyrics to the forefront. Penning most of his songs solo, the unorthodox DJ is “always chasing the next cool idea.” He rarely writes at his computer and finds that his inspiration ebbs and flows, recording lines of songs as voice memos and saving them for weeks on end as he constructs bass drops in his head. This lyric–driven approach elevates his EDM, turning it into the kind of music you can sing along to and study with.
“Dance music, I think, is always really sound–driven. It’s more about the energy and the beat, and the movement,” Ku said over the beat of an Anderson .Paak song playing in the background, “So, I asked myself, ‘Well what if I take that, take those sounds, take those ideas, take those values, and apply a more singer–songwriter mentality to create something different?’”
Even so, Ku wasn’t always so sure of his musical abilities. As his days at Harvard wound down during the slow recovery from the Great Recession, he sat at a crossroads—did he want security, a nice blanket of money to keep him warm at night, or did he want to follow his passion? Ku, like many burgeoning artists, chose the former, and soon found himself crunching numbers and churning out strategic recommendations at McKinsey and Company, a worldwide management consulting firm.
“I was making music in college, going out to open mic nights and doing the whole thing and I was like, ‘Okay, you’re probably not going to be a rock star, so you should probably get a job,’" Ku reflected, chuckling at the absurdity of his decision.
What he found while there, however, wasn’t the freedom, camaraderie, and problem–solving promised at on–campus info sessions. Ku openly admits to being a terrible employee, downloading recording software onto his work computer and leaving the office early to make beats. Throughout his year at McKinsey, Ku couldn’t stop thinking about music—and that’s when he knew to quit.
“I fucking hated the job,” Ku admitted, “I remembered how much music mattered to me as a kid, and so to me, I just felt like what I was doing at work didn’t really matter—it just wasn’t what I was meant to do. You could replace me with any other drone and nothing would change, whereas with making music, there is nothing like the high of creating something.”
Still, as much as Ku wants to forget his stint as another business school graduation statistic, he acknowledges the period made his music better—stronger, more deliberate, more emotional. His latest EP, Glass Mansion, reflects much of the remnant angst and his transient definition of success.
“When I quit my job, all I ever wanted, all I ever asked for, was to make enough money to have a living making music,” said Ku, “But, the thing with experience is the bar of success keeps moving, right. All I wanted to make a living and pay rent, but once I was doing that, all I wanted to do was go on tour and I did that ... There’s always going to be the next thing.”
And what’s that next thing? For Ku, it’s getting back to his roots and making the kind of music that makes him “feel like a little kid again,” all excited and teeming with potential energy. Oftentimes, it’s these songs that become hits, even if they didn’t set out to be.
“Your conscious brain is pretty dumb. Your subconscious is where all the good stuff happens. I’ve read so many interviews with amazing artists where every time they write something great, they’re like, ‘I have no idea where this idea came from. I just got out of the way and let it come out,’” Ku said, “So I think your subconscious is a lot better artist than your conscious brain.”
Ultimately, Ku, like the rest of us, is still searching for something that gives him the same purpose as playing with action figures or kicking around a soccer ball as a kid did, where every moment, no matter how dull or exciting, captivated every inch of attention. For some, that something may lie behind a desk at a consulting firm. For others, it may be farther away, on a stage or in a kitchen or behind a computer. Whether you listen to EDM or John Mayer, let his story be a reminder of this: success is always moving, and to move with it, sometimes you have to take a risk.
You can find Elephante’s latest single, “Diamond Days,” on all streaming platforms Sept. 12 and catch him on tour throughout the fall.