Whichever angle it’s viewed from, whether a 20,000-strong sing-along throng in Australia, through the smoggy haze of West Hollywood or from the window of Dougy Mandagi’s flat overlooking the riot zone in Hackney, East London, The Temper Trap’s 2009 debut Conditions was a runaway success. Propelled by the omnipresence of a song called ‘Sweet Disposition’, the album sold nearly a million copies worldwide. The Melbourne four-piece made a breakthrough at odds with the flash-in-the-pan nature of rock’s revolving door, resulting in widespread international acclaim, sold-out tours the world over and a bevy of accolades from ARIA Awards to Brit nominations. ‘Sweet Disposition’ may have been their not-so-secret weapon, but they backed it up with an album of nuanced epic-pop perfection and a work ethic that would mean they wouldn’t see their own beds for the best part of three years.
Dougy Mandagi (vocals, guitar), Lorenzo Sillitto (guitar), Jonny Aherne (bass) and Toby Dundas (drums) had barely relocated from Melbourne to London when they made a tour bus their home-away-from-home. They’d arrived in 2009 as a band wet behind the ears but armed with songs fit to headline festivals and an ambition that was keen on getting them there. Having recorded Conditions with Arctic Monkeys producer Jim Abbiss, their debut was released in Australia in June 2009 to an overwhelming response. Conditions was then released globally over the coming months and The Temper Trap were thrown into an extended period of intense, relentless touring that only concluded at the beginning of 2011. If they’d pitched up in the English capital as relative novices, come the end of the year, they’d most definitely found their feet. “My expectations were to play as many shows as possible and see where it went from there,” says Sillitto. “The thought of getting into the Top Ten and selling however many records that we did was never really a goal. As high points go, we played a festival in Australia called Splendour In The Grass and at that point it was the biggest crowd we’d ever played to, like 20,000 people, the reaction was just incredible.” “When you’re onstage and the crowd are singing so loud that you can’t hear yourself,” adds Mandagi, “that’s quite an amazing moment.”
And so, it was in these triumphant circumstances that The Temper Trap, now bolstered to a five-piece with the permanent addition of Joseph Greer on keyboards, reconvened after a shorter-than-expected holiday (“I thought to myself, ‘I’m gonna disappear for a year’, but after a week and a half, I was so bored,” laughs Mandagi) to begin work on their second album. With minimal writing having taken place amidst the whirlwind of the Conditions touring cycle, the band entered sessions for album two with a clean slate and little idea of what would surface. Mandagi, though, was aware he had little control over what the main lyrical themes would entail. “I was in a relationship whilst touring the last album and it went bad. I guess I opened the floodgates – I thought I was over it but I had a lot of things to get off my chest so I started writing all these mopey heartbreak songs.”
Situated in their adopted home of Hackney, the band approached the writing sessions much as they did their debut, “sitting there and nutting things out,” as Sillitto puts it. By the time they were ready to head to the famous Sound Factory studios in Los Angeles to record with Beck collaborator Tony Hoffer (in Aherne’s words: “a great guy with great ideas”), they’d written 35 songs that were whittled down to 17 to record. Of these, says Mandagi, “4 or 5 are heartbreak songs – the rest didn’t make the cut.”
“Being in LA was the right choice for this album,” explains Greer. “Tony has his own studio so we didn’t need to spend a lot of time trying to get things sounding right. On top of that, the weather was amazing the whole time and I’m sure that did a lot to elevate our moods.”
What emerges is their self-titled second album, a record of two distinct personalities, one of melancholic, mesmeric balladry and one of synth-led, anthemic powerhouse pop. “Each time I play my friends these songs they all have a different favorite,” says Aherne. “This really feels like a record that could have something for everyone.”
Their trick isn’t that perfunctory, though; most songs on The Temper Trap see the band’s two disparate sides bleed into each other. So, the fuzzy stomp of ‘Need Your Love’ appears to be a stadium-slaying cocksure sing-along but is in fact underpinned with lost soul yearning, whilst ‘Dreams’ should be a slow-burning album track but is in fact loaded with one of the record’s hookiest choruses. Wonderful contradictions spring up all over the place; ‘I’m Gonna Wait’, a song recorded after repeated listens to the last Zola Jesus record, is a brooding slow snarl that has a celestial chant at its core, ‘Rabbit Hole’ is an intimate, solemn vignette that explodes in a frenzied, euphoric climax and ‘Trembling Hands’ is swirling fire’n’brimstone alt-rock.
‘The Sea Is Calling’ is one of the starkest and most soulful things they’ve done (“lyrically, Dougy just transports me to another place,” says Greer) and the forlorn surge of ‘This Isn’t Happiness’ allows the taut interplay of the band’s rhythm section to flourish. The pop grandeur of ‘Where Do We Go From Here’ and the jagged menace of ‘Never Again’, meanwhile, highlight the shift in dynamics from their debut by revolving around Greer’s searing keyboard parts. More new avenues are explored on ‘Miracle’ and final track ‘Leaving The Heartbreak Hotel’, the former flickering into life around intricate beats and sparse soundscapes and the latter using a reverb-drenched dubstep groove as a starting point upon which they build an achingly tender atmospheric closer.
Whilst the majority of these songs ingrain themselves upon you with repeated listens, there is one that will stand out from the off. ‘London’s Burning’ was written in the aftermath of last year’s riots as Mandagi struggled to deal with what he’d watched unfold outside his flat. “It was bizarre,” he says, “but it was such a significant moment that I just had to write about it.” Again, their playful contrariness comes into focus – its subject matter might be dark and devious, but London’s Burning’s sounds like The Clash soundtracking a glam rock musical.
At the centre of everything is the charismatic, enigmatic Mandagi and that voice, a swooping croon that could lift a 747. The Indonesian-born, Melbourne-raised, London-living frontman is the driving force behind The Temper Trap’s recurring theme of displacement. “I definitely went through phases where the only place I felt like I belonged was on the road, on the stage, in a bus,” he says. “Being on the road gave me a sense of purpose. I love it and there’s no place I’d rather be, but at the same time it can be lonely. That’s all ammo for me as a lyricist.”
It’s exactly the sort of juxtaposition that makes The Temper Trap such an intriguing listen. It’s a snapshot of a band blossoming, their songs matching their own skyscraping expectations. “I’m an ambitious person,” says Dougy. “I want this album to be bigger, and I want the record to do well, I don’t want just one or two songs to do well, I want people to realise we’re capable of making records.” Rest assured, the penny is about to drop.
THE TEMPER TRAP out Friday 18 May 2012 (AUS & NZ)