Spending time with the Temper Trap at SXSW in 2012 was an interesting experience in seeing into an international band on the precipice, staring at their future, not knowing what was about to happen. After their debut, Conditions, made them stars in Australia (the launch of their single ‘Sweet Disposition’ at my favourite pub in Melbourne, the John Curtin, was one of the best shows I’ve witnessed), and saw them experience a hefty amount of success internationally, three years later they were out of the public conscious and hoping people would respond this record . This cover story interview happened across a day of SXSW (along with the photoshoot), just before the release of that second album. A side note: ‘Trembling Hands’ is terrific.
WORDS: Jaymz Clements PHOTOS: Kane Hibberd
In amongst riots, celebrity encounters and a trip to the happiest place on earth, THE TEMPER TRAP have stayed true to themselves on album No.2
IT’S a dreary morning in Austin,Texas.A grey sky threatens rain all the way through our photo shoot, but the Temper Trap remain in good spirits as they pull various poses and run through an array of expressions. At one point, when there’s a slight ‘family photo’ air to the shot (a Family Ties tribute cover was shouted down in the planning stages), frontman Dougy Mandagi wraps the band’s newest official member, keyboardist/ multi-instrumentalist Joseph Greer, in a big hug. For a band tearing through a bunch of massive showcase gigs in the US ahead of the release of their super-anticipated self-titled second album, the Temper Trap are pretty chilled out.
It’s not entirely surprising, though. Since their beginnings in Melbourne in 2005 (as Temper Temper), the Temper Trap have been a band who don’t seem to worry about what other people think.They’ve always stood apart from any sort of scene or trend — even as other hype-driven bands plying delicate indie rock have risen to prominence alongside and after them.
On evidence of their world-beating 2009 debut album Conditions and now The Temper Trap, released in May, you can tell that for the five of them, with music being pretty much all they do, it’s also akin to a type of spiritual fulfillment. You can hear it in the inflections in Dougy’s voice, when that climbing falsetto with its tremendous peaks and troughs sounds like a gospel all of its own, and you can see it in the lost-in-the-moment intensity with which they play later that night, as they showcase a bunch of their new songs for the South By Southwest audience.
Bassist Johnny Aherne closes his eyes and rocks back on the balls of his heels; then there’s the manic concentration of both Joseph and guitarist Lorenzo Sillitto, or the way drummer Toby Dundas’s eyes follow his bandmates’ every little movement on stage. And, of course, there’s Dougy centre stage, every bit the enigmatic frontman as he commands the crowd’s attention.
Offstage, the five of them tease each other relentlessly — just as any group of close friends would — and there’s a palpable good-natured feeling to Temper Trap proceedings. With that in mind, clearly they’re not the type of band who were going to be overly worried about writing the follow-up to an album as successful as Conditions and its lead single,‘Sweet Disposition’. Right?
Well, not so fast. It wasn’t too bad; it did, however, take them a long time, and suddenly the band were in a very difference place to the one where they’d concocted Conditions. Namely, a rehearsal space in London, where they’ve been based since 2009, with nothing to distract them. It was a shock to the system.
“Yeah, we were in there for about six months, writing every day,” Lorenzo explains.“So it’s pretty weird to go from when we were writing the first record, when all of us were still working full-time and that type of stuff, to just focusing completely on music. It was a very different way of thinking.”
Their days weren’t too onerous, though, according to Johnny.“We all lived pretty close to the studio — we all lived in Hackney — so a day would entail getting a coffee on the way to the studio for an 11am start. We’d go from 11 till 5pm, roughly, trying to write songs.”
Dougy snorts.“And by 11am, we mean 12.30… which is lunch time, time for a lunch break.” Everyone laughs.“So… 1.30.Till 4.”
Even with their truncated days, the band used their time wisely, crafting tunes without any preconceived notions or many pre-written songs; they would grow concepts from the ground up. “People would come in with an idea,” Joseph recalls,“sometimes more fully formed than others. We didn’t have a lot of songs that came straight from jams; they were usually an idea first and we’d develop that idea.”
“Yeah, from the start, people were saying, ‘Let’s try to be as creative as possible’,” Johnny adds. “So there was a guiding principal of ‘let’s build on what we’ve done, but try to make it better‘ — and that’s the challenge for anyone writing their second album.”
This challenge the band set themselves was to focus more on the keyboards they’d brought in to expand the scope of their songwriting. And from the first strains of the fuzz-synth on ‘Need Your Love’, it’s clear how much of an impact that had on the sound of The Temper Trap. As Toby explains, “I think what influenced it the most was that we bought a Nord keyboard and a synthesiser. Just having those two things around drove certain songs in a certain direction.”
Johnny nods excitedly.“I think when we used the Moog and the Nord, they’re just tools where we just tried to push ourselves creative… creee… aaayyy… tively?” He looks around, confused.“Creati…vision?” he laughs along with his bandmates.
“Creativision?” queries an amused Dougy.
“How do I say that word?” Johnny jokes. “Creatively.”
Lorenzo laughs.“Ha! ‘The Temper Trap: now in creativision.’”
THE lengthy writing period, it turns out, wasn’t actually anything to do with how long it was taking to produce the songs.The band took a while to find a producer they wanted to work with — who was actually available.
“It was one of those things where we kept thinking we were ready,”Toby says.“Then we’d be having conversations with producers and stuff, they’d be like,‘Well, yeah, I like it, but I won’t be ready for a bit longer.’ So we’d be like, ‘Well, okay, so we could just sit around doing nothing for the next month… or we could just keep writing.’ It just kinda kept getting drawn out and drawn out.
“The same happened with Conditions. We thought we were ready six months before we actually did it… but it all worked out in the end.”
Dougy laughs.“I thought that was just an excuse for people to say,‘I don’t really like the songs… I don’t want to record you.’”
“Yeah,‘it’s not me, it’s you’,”Toby chuckles.“But it wasn’t the end until we got something that we — and other people — seemed to like.”
It was then that the band found themselves heading to LA to record with Tony Hoffer (M83, the Kooks). “Obviously we got delayed because we were talking to certain producers and they weren’t available,” Lorenzo says,“and we only really came to Tony late in the writing process, which was probably really good… because, I feel, it’s the perfect match. Like personally, on a personal level, from day one, he was just insane. He’s a really nice guy.”
“He knows a lot of dick jokes,”Toby adds. “So we all hit it off from there,” Joseph laughs. Lorenzo nods.“He’s also quite knowledgeable with songs and music and synths… It was a really good fit. Plus we got to go to LA, be warm and sunny and away from soggy, cold Hackney.”
Lorenzo recalls they “were in the studio six days a week pretty much…” before Dougy interjects excitedly, saying simply:“Disneyland!”
“…but we did go to Disneyland,” finishes Lorenzo.
Johnny leans back and says,“Everyone in LA we met seemed to do something else. Like a model and an actor. So everyone does more than one thing. It’s weird.”
Ahh, the good ol’ LA mattress (model-slash-actress). Lorenzo nods.“Everyone’s a slash. But yeah, we went up to the observatory and skated down the roads from the observatory, which was pretty awesome.”
“The Disneyland experience was pretty fun,” Joseph says.“But we didn’t do that much stuff besides be in the studio.”
Except hang out at the former Mr Demi Moore’s house.“Joe took a dump in Ashton Kutcher’s toilet,”Toby grins. “And,” adds a delighted Johnny,“thought he was gonna be on, what’s that show… Punk’d!”
Everyone laughs. “Joseph was nudging me when Ashton was talking to me. He’s doing like this (makes funny, excitedly eager face) and Ashton’s like (raises eyebrow quizzically). I’m like, ‘I know.’”
Toby chuckles.“That’s Joseph’s mutant power: he’s just always really cool around celebrities.”
Joseph cops it good-naturedly.“Remember when we snuck into the upstairs bedrooms, looking around?”
Wait.They rummaged through Ashton’s underpants drawer?
Johnny holds up his hands defensively. “Well… It was, like, a four-storey house. We just went exploring.”
We have nothing to do with the London ‘scene’ at all
WE’RE having lunch in a stunning Tex-Mex restaurant that straddles Austin’s Red River, looking out at a bridge that connects a stone- hewn amphitheatre on the opposite bank.
The band are in a reflective mood. With The Temper Trap, they feel they’ve constructed a record that showcases, as best as they could, who they are as a band.
“I personally think there’s more maturity to this record,” Johnny offers.“I feel like there’s a bit more depth. So I hope people, when they finish listening to the record, musically, they would sort of be drawn back to it.”
“There were moments,” Joseph says,“perhaps where I felt that personally — because you’re
in it so much every day, and no one else is hearing it — you start to second guess yourself if anything you’re doing is any good.Towards the end it came together and it was a unanimous feeling between all of us that we had it.”
“Yeah, it’s a band,”Toby emphasises.“You’re not going to agree with everything that happens in it; everyone — if they were honest — would say that.The best thing about it — the exciting thing about being in a band where you don’t necessarily at first agree with everything that’s happening — is that you learn stuff and you might get your mind changed. It might be down the track where you’re like,‘Oh, I do really like that,’ or ‘That is a good thing.’ So if we were
all solo artists doing what we want, it’d be pretty boring.
“It’s the fact that there are different opinions and stuff like that that takes us to these interesting places, I think. There’s something about that; it’s a good thing. You should just be happy about being taken to a place that you maybe wouldn’t have gotten to on your own.”
“We feel free to explore everything,” Joseph adds.“I don’t know that we’d ever become a folk band… but we’ve got the luxury to kind of do what we want.”
That, Dougy figures, is why they’re happy in their own skin.“Yeah. We’ve grown internally, I feel. It’s probably because we were never a scene-y band. We were never a part of it.”
Lorenzo laughs.“It’s probably even more heightened because we have nothing to do with the London ‘scene’ at all. So all we do is ‘us’. We’re not involved with anything else, really — we operate in isolation.”
“And that’s where we thrive,”Toby adds.
You start to second guess yourself if anything you’re doing is any good
STILL central to the Temper Trap’s identity is Dougy’s voice. On this second album, the frontman’s vocal chords get a pretty impressive workout, each song showcasing different elements of his range.‘Trembling Hands’, for instance, hits some impossible highs and lows.
“Yeah,Ithinkafewpeoplewereabitfreaked out at first,” Dougy says,“because stylistically there’s a bit of a change, and a lot of the first few songs that we wrote were leaning more towards the ‘new’ vocal style… so people were like,‘Whoa, man, are they all gonna be like this?’ Y’know,‘Shit. What’s gonna happen?’”
Toby nods.“They just wanted everything to go high.”
“Yeah, like,‘Sing it all in falsetto,’” Lorenzo adds. “‘If dogs can’t hear it, we’re not interested.’”
So,‘if it’s not above the human register, we’re not into it’.
“Yeah,” Dougy grins.“‘If a dolphin can’t understand the lyrics, then you’re not singing high enough.’ But, anyways, I think people hopefully will like it, and it’ll showcase our versatility…”
He trails off, then adds:“I don’t want to get pigeonholed as ‘Oh, there’s ‘Sweet Disposition’ dude, he’s sings like that’. How boring’s that? Obviously I still want to grow as a singer, and singing differently is almost like taking on different personas.”
Indeed, on the album it’s almost as though he’s playing different characters in each song. “Exactly. It’s almost like an acting gig or something. And it’s kinda cool. It’s not the first time someone’s done it, but you hear that: where you get used to one particular style then you hear something else and you don’t even realise it’s the same person… and it’s fun for me. I like it.”
“I think it’s good,”Toby adds,“because when the song comes, the voice should serve the song.
If the song inspires him to sing a lower register, or a medium register, or a high register, or a combination of all three… if it serves the song, that’s the thing. It shouldn’t be,‘Oh, I’ve got to sing in falsetto or I’ve got to sing super low.’ With every other instrument it’s about what serves the song best, and the voice should be like that, too.”
With their second album full of very personal, reflective anthems like ‘Need Your Love’, ‘Trembling Hands’,‘The Sea is Calling’,‘Never Again’,‘This isn’t Happiness’ and ‘Where Do We Go From Here’, there’s a definite sense of longing and heartache to the Temper Trap of 2012. The reason is simply because, well, that’s them.
“I think the key to what we like to do is just be kinda open and honest when we write. Like, if the content’s weighty, that’s good; if that’s what we want to write about, then we should,” Johnny says.“It’s the same musically — we don’t place limits on what we write or do.”
“Yeah,” Dougy agrees.“I like all [the songs] because they’re all quite different.”
Even something as topical as ‘London’s Burning’, written about the London riots of 2011, showcases their emotional touchstones while acting as a springboard to reflect on society.
“You’re seeing the smoke from the fires and the helicopters are going around,” Joseph recalls. “I mean, Dougy’s house is 20 metres from where it was happening.”
Dougy nods.“Told the kids off. (Adopts an old lady voice) ‘Put that back. Put that back in my house. Just put it there. A little to the left. A little bit to the right.’”
WITH a huge second half of 2012 looming for the band — including the triple j One Night Stand extravaganza in Dalby, Queensland, with 360, Matt Corby and Stonefield; a seemingly endless run of shows around the world; and even supporting Coldplay around Australia — it hits them that the grace period from Conditions is over. From here on in, they’ll be judged by this second album. But they’re not worried.
“I don’t think there’s a sense of arrival,” Johnny muses.“I think we’re still looking off into the sunset — as it were — to see what we can accomplish. Musically I want to do more.”
So, as an artistic statement of them, right now, they’re convinced that this record is the ideal representation of the Temper Trap. “For sure,” says Dougy.“As much as you can ever be.”
“One of the things we’ve always said is we’re always trying to move forward; we don’t ever want to stay still,” Lorenzo offers.“That’s one of the important things. I guess after touring for so long, and seeing so much stuff, I feel like I ‘know’ a little bit more. Like, when you’re touring in Australia in a van, you live in that world, and the moment we moved out of Australia, everything changed. It’s not until you’re thrown into the belly of the beast that you find out how it all goes.”