Interview with The Temper Trap: "Damn you, Sweet Disposition"
Thick As Thieves
The brightly-lit office of agents 19sixtyfive was nothing compared to Joseph Greer's megawatt smile as The Temper Trap member introduced himself. Despite having had interviews all day long, you could easily tell by his amicable nature that he'd be someone you'd enjoy having a chat with. The guitarist-keyboardist is the yin to frontman vocalist Dougy Mandagi's yang — he emerged with a half-unbuttoned shirt and a tousled mane any hard-hitting rock star would envy. A ball of endless energy, Mandagi had an air of constant distraction, as if nothing's cool enough to warrant his full attention.
This devil-may-care demeanour dropped once he perched himself on a stool and started strumming his guitar alongside Greer. Soon, they were basking us with The Temper Trap's newest track, Fall Together — off their upcoming album Thick As Thieves and co-written by the legendary Justin Parker, who has collaborated with the likes of Lana Del Rey, Sia and Banks — and an old number, Love Lost from their debut album. As the press group fell silent, Mandagi's signature spine-tingling falsetto pierced the air.
It was this Curtis Mayfield-slash-Prince-inspired falsetto that brought the band to local acclaim after stealing the show at Melbourne's St. Jerome's Laneway Festival in 2006. The then five-piece wonder went global once their U2-veined anthem Sweet Disposition from their debut album (Conditions, 2009) cracked the Top 40 in multiple countries. It also made an appearance in the indie movie (500) Days of Summer, which helped them form a cult-like following in the States. In 2012, the band returned with its eponymously titled record featuring the single Need Your Love before seeing the departure of guitarist Lorenzo Sillitto the next year. Proving they are no less as a creative unit, the remaining members are back with their much-awaited third album Thick As Thieves.
After putting their guitars aside, the duo shared their love for Singapore's famed chicken rice and chilli crab, the pressures Sweet Disposition gave them and of course, the forthcoming Thick As Thieves:
Welcome back to Singapore. You guys have been here a couple of times now. What do you love about it?
Dougy Mandagi (D): The food's good. Oh man, I love everything. But chicken rice is the staple favourite.
Joseph Greer (J): Chilli crab.
D: I can't eat that. I'm allergic to the sauce. Although I'm sure it's great.
So it's been four years since you released a new album. Can you tell us more about what's behind Thick as Thieves?
J: It took a long time because we just wanted to get this one right. We wrote a bunch of songs and then we thought "Is this an album?", we thought "Now we gotta keep writing", and that happened quite a few times. There's also the scheduling thing because of commitments with the record labels. It's taking longer than we would've liked but at the end of the day it doesn't really matter as long as it's good and I think that it is.
What are your personal favourites from Thick as Thieves?
J: We both have different ones. I really like a song called Tombstone. It makes me feel really good listening to it.
Is there a special meaning behind that song?
J: To be honest, Johnny (Jonathon Aherne), the bass player, actually wrote that song and it has a personal meaning to him. I won't even ask him what the lyrics mean because I enjoy making my own meaning. Obviously they mean something to Johnny, but to me, I'll take my own meaning from it. They're pretty special lyrics. Whatever he's saying, you can tell that it's meaningful and it's said from the heart.
How about you, Dougy?
D: I like a song called Ordinary World, which is the last track. It's kind of like a post-apocalyptic doomsday I'm-the-last-person-on-earth tune [laughs]. I don't know, it just made me paint a bleak picture I'm morbidly fascinated with. But more than anything, I just think it's a cool song. It doesn't fit a pop formula, which I like. It's not trying to be a hit single. It's just pure self-expression.
With the departure of Lorenzo in late 2013, is Thick as Thieves meant to show the world that the four of you are still very much tight as a band and as a creative unit?
D: With the departure of Lorenzo, it was a bit of a shock to the system for us because no one really saw it coming. But it actually made us reevaluate ourselves as a unit and in the end helped us solidify who we are as a band and who we are to each other. But when we were looking for an album title, that wasn't really in our minds. There was a song called Thick as Thieves that had already been written at the time and we thought that it had a nice grip to it. It sounded cool, so we chose that as a title and then we realised that oh, actually this was what we're going through.
So did Lorenzo's departure have an adverse effect to the making of this album?
D: No. If anything, it helped us approach songwriting in a different way. I think in the past we had a bad habit of just coming up with parts for the sake of having certain parts in songs that might not have been necessary. So when Lorenzo left and there were only four of us, obviously there aren't enough hands to play so many instruments. We've had to make do with however many things four people can play at one time, which in the end lead for a much leaner record. So we just cut out the fat, while still maintaining that Temper Trap sound.
How would you describe your current sound?
J: This album is a lot more guitar-focused. In some ways that was also the characteristic of the first album. On the second album, we were evolving on our own musical journey. We acquired some new synthesisers and we decided that were likely to play with it. So that album has a lot more of that element. With Lorenzo leaving, like Dougy said, we threw away the fat and did something really awesome with just playing guitars and you can see how powerful you can make things sound with just a mix of guitar, bass and drums. There's always going to be signatures of the sound that makes us, us. Dougy's vocal being the biggest one, but this album is a natural progression for us to retain things that make us The Temper Trap while still looking at the things that people love about us.
Right now, you've reached that stage where people look up to your songs. How does it feel to be this big?
D: It feels good. I mean, it's flattering that many people like us and that we've been able to affect so many people with our music. There are definitely moments in each of our lives where we kinda have to pinch ourselves to make sure it's all real. I think we're level-headed guys and we never let ourselves or each other get too big for our shoes. But I feel like there's more to do.
"The pressure's definitely there and our job is to navigate to where we can make music that we're still proud of while playing the game of pleasing everyone else."
Who would you say are your ideal listeners, the youth or a more mature crowd?
D: We don't really have an age bracket in mind when we're writing songs. There's always one old guy just dancing like nobody's business at the very front of all our gigs though. So, I think if anything is an indication that we appeal to all ages, it's that guy. There's always one in every city.
Do you feel any pressure to top the success that Sweet Disposition brought?
D: I don't think we put that kind of pressure on ourselves. But other people put that pressure on us, for sure. I guess that's part of having a successful song. It's kind of on us. We have the awesome job of trying to navigate and just be creative in creating music and also living up to the expectations. It's not an easy thing. Obviously we can't be mad at Sweet Disposition because the reason why you're here right now interviewing us is because of that song. You know what I mean? Yeah, it's a double-edged sword isn't it, that song. Damn you, Sweet Disposition.
Was there any pressure to conform to what other successful musicians were doing with their music?
J: As soon as our first album was released, we were introduced to the business side of things. Suddenly you've got other people's opinions involved: Record labels, radio people. And suddenly the spontaneity and innocence of the band got lost. The tricky thing is trying to create music that is close to the kind of music you made initially, you know, when everything else didn't matter. You can't be like "Hey, let's write another Sweet Disposition again", because it wouldn't be the same song. People would just see through it. The pressure's definitely there and our job is to navigate to where we can make music that we're still proud of while playing the game of pleasing everyone else.
The album drops next month, and I imagine the rest of the year will be a real whirlwind. Do you think about reviews and things like that?
D: I shouldn't but I do.
Do you Google yourself often?
D: No, I don't. I think of it but I don't. But Joseph does. He's always checking YouTube on the hits and likes. The hits or likes? Likes?
J: It's the views. And the comments.
D: See? I don't know even know what it's called.
Do you care about getting a good or bad review?
D: For me personally, I do. Especially because we travel so much and when I'm waiting around in the airport, I will always pick up a Rolling Stone. I don't necessarily read the whole thing to the end, but it influences me in a way. With that said, I don't read reviews of ourselves, because my heart is fragile. I can't take the pain.
Do you get inspired by other fellow musicians of today?
D: Of course. At the moment, Tame Impala is super inspiring. Kevin is a mad genius. The guy plays everything, records everything, writes everything. I look at those guys and I have a sense that they have so much freedom in their music. He doesn't write within a box. I can be wrong because I haven't actually sat and had a conversation with him, but it sounds like he doesn't write from a box which is, like I was saying before, pure self-expression. And it happens to be catchy as hell, which is amazing right? That's really inspirational to me. My dream is to do that.
You guys are obviously going to spend a lot of time on the road once the album drops and the tours start. What are your tour essentials and pre-show rituals?
D: Tour essentials? Load up on TV series. I'm currently staying away from Game of Thrones because I know I'm about to go on a tour bus soon and I'm going to be so bored. So I'm just gonna slam it then. Joseph and I always do these really weird vocal warm-ups that for people who have never witnessed someone doing vocal warm-ups, it would probably look pretty weird.
J: We always have a group hug before we go on stage. That's pretty consistent. Just like, a little huddle.
D: Touching each other's butts. A nice big squeeze. [squeezes an imaginary butt]
Dougy, we found out you did a fashion merchandising and marketing course before you got into music. How did that happen?
D: Do you really want to know?
Why of course.
D: Well, being Asian, obviously my parents didn't understand that I wanted to do music. So my mum forced me to take a course. And being a young dude back then, it's like "Oh, there are lots of chicks here. This seems interesting".
So chicks, huh?
D: That didn't really last long though. Care factor is zero for fashion merchandising. It wasn't my passion, let's put it that way. Not even the chicks were enough to keep me there. I was already doing music before but my mum was like, "What are you doing? You're wasting your time". You know, old school Asian mums. Shout out to all the Asian mums out there though!
The Temper Trap will be performing on 10 March at The ColiseumTM, Hard Rock Hotel® Singapore, Resorts WorldTM Sentosa. For tickets, click here.