The Temper Trap: Living The Dream
“I HAD a dream once,” says Johnny Aherne, bass player for The Temper Trap. He’s sitting in a dim dressing room underneath Melbourne’s, Forum Theatre, responding to a question about the genesis of his band’s new album. “This song we’d made was playing in the dream,” he says. “Toby [Dundas, The Temper Trap’s drummer] was there too. He said, ‘This is beautiful.’ And he was crying. Toby’s quite practical – he’s an engineer and stuff – and I’d never seen him cry. That was profound. Then this other friend who has really good musical taste and is somewhat spiritual – it was quite a spiritual dream – was there too. He said, “This song is amazing. This is great.” At that moment it was clear as day. I woke up and was like, ‘This is it.’
MEMBERS of The Temper Trap are standing straight-backed in the subterranean gloom of The Forum’s seating area. “We love Japan,” says long-haired frontman Dougy Mandagi, smiling into a video camera. Two Japanese journalists look on. “We’re going to be doing a meet-and-greet at Tower Records in Tokyo.” Up next is Dundas, the band’s lanky, doe-eyed drummer. He is not crying. He looks relaxed, happy even. “Tickets are out now,” says Dundas. “We’ll be playing a lot of new songs. Looking forward to it. Arigato.” Duties done, Dundas asks the two journalists if they’re going to check out the Great Ocean Road while in Melbourne. Over here, all the way from Japan, to see The Temper Trap. Who are living the dream.
Nearby technicians tinker with the lighting rig hanging above the stage for tonight’s show. The grand, gnarled theatre is considered an “intimate” downgrade for The Temper Trap – part of a quick promo trip ahead of the international release of their new, third album, Thick As Thieves. The band haven’t played their hometown since 2014, back when they appeared at the nearby Falls Festival. Like that visit, this is also a confidence-seeking mission.
“Your first album comes from playing live,” Dundas tells me when it’s his turn to sit in the dressing room backstage. “You play gigs until you can make an album [2009’s Conditions]. We didn’t do that for the second one [2012’s The Temper Trap]. So for this one we thought we should. We played Falls at the halfway point of our recording process for Thick As Thieves and it gave us a boost. It was like, ‘Oh yeah we’re heading in the right direction. We just need to push through this last little bit and then we’ll be there.’”
Since the moment Condition’s stupendously successful lead single ‘Sweet Disposition’ turned them into an international concern, The Temper Trap have become accustomed to forging ahead. More than a million albums sold. Over 200 million streams on Spotify. Support slots with Coldplay and the Rolling Stones. Festival appearances at Glastonbury, Lollapalooza and Coachella. So what then have they been doing for the last three years?
Regrouping, is one answer. Their chief disruption was the sudden resignation in 2013 of longtime guitarist Lorenzo Sillitto. His departure was a shock to the tight-knit collective, who together transformed from shit-kicking workmates at a General Pants store in Melbourne, to legitimate international rock stars.
“I definitely didn’t see it coming,” says Mandagi. “He’d been with us for so long. The initial feeling was, ‘OK what’s next? How do we continue?” More surprised was Dundas. The drummer had been friends with Sillitto since they were 12-years old. “In hindsight you could see leading up to it that something was going on,” he says. “He was about to get married and had a kid on the way. But at that stage we all thought we would have finished the new record and be back on the road a year later. No one realised it would be another three years.”
Sillitto’s urge to have a family left a sizeable hole in his musical one. “That was our brother,” says Aherne, the band’s lovely, earnest dream-sharer. “I think it made everyone review how we treat one another. As well as how we do music.” Though still mates (Sillitto manages tonight’s opening support band) Aherne misses him. He wonders what the new album might have been like if the guitarist was still around. But then Sillitto’s departure is indirectly responsible for the new album.
“We named the album Thick As Thieves because we went through all this and bonded back together,” says Aherne. “That feels like the truest thing. With anything creative you’ve got to put blood sweat and tears into it. That certainly happened in this process.”
Fortunately for The Temper Trap, Sillitto’s replacement was already in the band. Instead of auditioning a new member, they promoted auxiliary multi-instrumentalist Joseph Greer to the front of the stage. “We thought it would be really cool if we didn’t have to get in a session person,’ says Dundas. “Bringing in an outsider would really change the dynamic.”
Greer, a New Zealander who was a pal of Dundas’ before joining the group, was brought in around the time of Conditions to help expand the band’s sound as they graduated to bigger stages. By The Temper Trap he was a fully-fledged, contributing member. Still, Greer didn’t take the promotion lightly.
“I started practicing a lot,” he says of the shift. “I wouldn’t say I’m so confident that I’m 100 percent smashing it. But I can see myself becoming more and more comfortable in calling myself a guitarist.”
He’s had some OK gigs to get up to speed. The rejigged four-piece did a short North American run in 2014, which included a busy afternoon slot at Lollapalooza, Chicago. Then came Falls. The shows proved a crystal ball into the band’s configuration. “Once we’d done that we were like, ‘You know what, it’s better,” says Dundas. “Less bloated and unnecessary layers. It felt really good.”
To close the gap, Mandagi had to become more involved on guitar. “Which is fine with me,” says the singer. “I’m not a very good player but I love it. Maybe that’s why there’s more guitars on Thick As Thieves. I kept on reaching for it and disregarding the keyboard.”
There are more guitars on the new album. It’s most likely what they’re referring to when they say it’s an intentionally “back-to-basics” record. “We wanted to write an album that was probably reminiscent of the first one,” Greer states matter-of-factly. “It didn’t turn out exactly that way. But we wanted, as a band, to play to as many people as possible and get our music out there. That’s what we always wanted.”
Getting their music out there hasn’t been a problem for The Temper Trap. How it’s been received, less so. Even detractors of Conditions couldn’t deny the earworm qualities of its best songs, which along with ‘Sweet Disposition’ included chart/fan/radio favourites ‘Fader’ and ‘Love Lost’. So the band were miffed when their follow-up – despite debuting at Number 1 in Australia and going platinum – was received less favourably by a handful of international critics.
The Guardian called it “weirdly hollow: music as a means to an end,” while Consequence of Sound wrote, “The Temper Trap establishes a willingness to experiment on the new album, but the band doesn’t produce anything as accessible as “Sweet Disposition” or “Fader”, the two biggest singles from Conditions.” You can see the seeds of opposing arguments – experiment, but not so much you aren’t accessible anymore.
“The second album didn’t keep things going the way we were hoping it would,” admits Greer, who is especially thoughtful about this period of the band. “I think it was us coming out [of success] and then given six months to write an album. Not wanting to do exactly the same thing but also not wanting to do something difficult. We never felt like we were writing music that was going to be unaccessible. We thought that people would really love the stuff.
“But we had a few things with negative press early on. Maybe the first single choice wasn’t the best thing to go with. Too much of a departure. But it brought us closer together and [taught us] it’s not a walk in the park. You really have to work for it.”
Mandagi is a little more rueful.
“You can look back on a lot of successful follow-up records and they sound more or less the same as the first,” he says. “We didn’t do that. I feel like the second album was me staying true to myself. But it is hard. Because of that experience, I know what people in general expect of the Temper Trap. Making music that veers off too far from that… it’s in the back of your mind that there are consequences to that.”
Does that matter? “It’s a tough one,” he says. “Ideally, no. It shouldn’t. You should do whatever the fuck you want. But our first record, for better or worse became way more successful than any of us ever imagined it would. That comes with a price. We didn’t realise that when we were gallivanting around the world playing amazing festivals and high-fiving each other going, ‘This is fuckin’ sick.’ But when it came time to do the second one, the pressure started seeping in.”
FOUR years later, The Temper Trap still seems a sore point. Tonight the band play only one song from it, the shuffling anthem, ‘Trembling Hands’. The sold-out crowd receives it well (“When dreaming’s this hard, it’s not meant to come true”) but they clearly reserve their most rabid moments for anything off Conditions.
Encouragingly, most new songs go over well. ‘Thick As Thieves’ blossoms from a chugging, almost blues-rock riff to the kind of escalating rock chorus the band have made a signature. ‘So Much Sky’ shifts from a driving bassline to a chant-drenched chorus, Mandagi’s searing voice belting out, “we run free, we run strong” above a flock of hands clearly attuned. Highlight is ‘Fall Together’, a hook-drenched synthesis of the band’s classic rock tendencies with undulating, dance-orientated arpeggios.
Much of Thick As Thieves does hark back to that U2-laced, arena-ready gravitas that defines Conditions – most notably on ‘Burn’, which instantly recalls the Irish band’s humble little number, ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’. But there’s a newly installed grit and satisfying simplicity where once there was but polished edges. The album too, is punctuated with amp hum, rattling bass strings, bright drums, and a saturated static encroaching on Mandagi’s belting voice.
That human element appears are encouraging signs. They appear naturally tonight. A segue from another anthem-in-waiting, ‘Alive’, to percussive-favourite, ‘Drum Song’, is botched when Greer screws up his pedal settings and misses his cue. “Let’s start that again,” he says sheepishly. Before another new one, a yearning mid-tempo number called, ‘Summer’s Almost Gone’, Mandagi crowdsources approval. “We don’t know which one’s a hit yet,” he says. “Whichever one gets the biggest cheer, right?”
The question lingers. A “hit” means something very different to The Temper Trap than it does most bands. ‘Sweet Disposition’ became no less than a cultural touchstone, the kind of song that seems to happen to a band rather than it is something created by it. Its shadow will always loom. The best they can hope for now is to collect more shadows.
To assist, the band drafted in a stellar crew of help on Thick As Thieves. The bulk of recording was done with Damian Taylor, (Bjork, The Killers, and Arcade Fire), and for the first time the band worked with outside songwriting collaborators, including Malay (Frank Ocean), Justin Parker (Lana Del Rey, Sia, Bat For Lashes), Ben Allen (Animal Collective, Deerhunter) and Pascal Gabriel (Ladyhawke, Goldfrapp). At one point they even wrote a song with Weezer frontman, Rivers Cuomo. It didn’t work out.
“It ended up sounding like a Weezer song,” says Aherne. “For a minute, Rivers wanted to use it for a Weezer album. [We thought], ‘Oh it’s going to be awesome for The Temper Trap!’ Nup. I think it feel by the wayside for his project. But he was really into it.”
Aborted collaborations aside, Thick As Thieves, is what the band says it is: the classic middle-ground between Condition’s guitar driven tension-and-release, and The Temper Trap’s quirky electronics and lush atmospheres. What it all soundtracks, says Mandagi, is the years it took to create it.
“So many things that have happened in that timeframe,” he says. “Jonny and I went to Africa and Tanzania, where we donated some water wells and whatnot. We bought them for the Masai tribe in Tanzania. We spent 10 days there and that was a very inspirational moment, and out of that came ‘So Much Sky’.”
Mandagi also befriended convicted Australian drug dealer Andrew Chan in Bali, later executed despite outcry that included a public plea from the singer. “I met him through my mum who is active in church there,” says Mandagi, (his mother is Indonesian). “We spent four hours chatting and that definitely left a mark on my mind. I wrote about that on a bonus track called ‘Closer’. So yeah – I guess the themes of the album run the gamut of life. In three years one can experience a lot. But there’s a lot still left that I want, you know? I’m still ambitious.”
You would need to be. Enough to shepherd a band through head-spinning success, critical blowback, internal upheaval, rebirth, and renewal. The dream lives on.
“I’ve had some silly dreams, too” says Aherne, closing his train of thought. “I dreamt Cee-Lo was in prison. He was singing. Big Bird came on TV. I heard the song and I woke up. I was like, ‘I’m going to write a song for Cee-Lo.’ I’ve tried to submit it but nothing’s happened. It’s pretty weird.”
(Live images by Katie Fairservice)
The Temper Trap’s Thick As Thieves is out June 10 through Liberation Music.