SXSW Underdogs: The Temper Trap

Lorenzo Silitto, Dougy Mandagi, Jonny Aherne, Toby Dundas


Bali, Indonesia isn’t exactly known as a hot bed for cutting edge indie rock. Australia, however, has been on fire the past few years (see: Wolfmother, Cut Copy, Midnight Juggernauts). So consider it fate that Dougy Mandagi decided to study in Melbourne a decade ago. Equally fateful: his decision to quit a string of degrees and hawk jeans and T-shirts at General Pants, the Urban Outfitters of Australia. It’s there that he met his future band mates—Jonny Aherne, Lorenzo Silitto, Toby Dundas—and formed The Temper Trap,which, in case you missed it, released a four-track, self-titled EP (out on local label Liberation) in 2006 that has drawn comparisons to everyone from Coldplay and TV on the Radio to Radiohead and The Mars Volta. Not bad for an off the cuff effort by four skater boys from down under.

The Temper Trap’s first full-length—and still untitled—studio effort has evolved their hook-heavy sound to anthemic levels, with soaring vocals from 29-year-old leadman that recall an early Michael Hutchence, and expansive, syncopated guitar and drum rhythms you might expect from The Edge and Larry Mullen, Jr. Although the band has yet to be signed by a major label, the effort seems to be paying off. TTT’s first single, “Sweet Disposition,” has already inspired two highly danceable remixes—one by Bowie collaborator Pocketknife; the other from Curtis Vodka—and garned them a spot on Sound of 2009, the latest edition of BBC’s annual hype-casting list. Meanwhile, there’s a bidding war afoot over the new album as the band gears up for their debut at this week’s SXSW Music Festival in Austin. We talked to Dougy about the band’s big new sound.

MICHAEL SLENSKE: What do you think makes a rock star?

DOUGY: Hopefully good music, man. The sad truth is that these days you can staple your foreskin to your leg and get on YouTube and TV and become famous for mutilating yourself, which is cool, whatever. I don’t know what makes a rock star. I just want to be someone who makes decent music that people connect with and if I accidentally become a rock star in the process, cool.

MS: You’re Indonesian, but you live in Australia. How does that influence the way you write songs?

D: I’m born and raised in Indonesia, but I’ve been living in Australia for the past ten years now. I don’t think it’s a geographical influence as much as the music I grew up with. I was in the choir in a Protestant Church.

MS: Do you take any influence from Indonesian music?

D: Not really, but it’s definitely something I’d like to explore.

MS: How did the band come together?

D: Before I came to Australia in 1999 I was living in Bali for about three years. Me and the bass player, Johnny, became friends as soon as I arrived. I taught him a few chords and we just played together and jammed out to Weezer songs. Toby and Lorenzo, the drummer and the guitarist, they grew up together, went to school together and played in a hardcore punk band together. Me and Toby ended up working together at General Pants, which is the Urban Outfitters of Australia, so we just started from there.

MS: What were you studying in Australia before you met up with the band?

D: First I did fashion merchandise and marketing. It was cool at first because I walked into my first day in class and it was just full of hot chicks. There were only three dudes, one was gay and the other dude had a girlfriend. But even that wasn’t enough to keep me there. It was just boring. I quit that and did music and business and I got really bored of that. So I’m a quitter.

MS: The new album has a much bigger, stadium style sound than the EP. Why is that?

D: Our musical tastes have evolved. We’re not amazing players, to be honest, but we’ve gotten better, so we’re not as restricted as we were. Those songs were kind of straightforward and now we’re able to play with different sounds more and more confidently.
MS: Jim Abbiss, your producer, also worked with Adele and the Arctic Monkeys.

D: Totally, that guy’s a wizard. He’s been in the game so long and he knows how to pull sounds. We might have a sound in our head and just hum it and he’ll go, “How ‘bout this?”

MS: How would you describe your sound?

D: I guess it helps to know what you don’t want. I can’t say what it is, but when I hear it I go, “That’s shit, we don’t want it.” There are artists we look up to, like Radiohead, TV on the Radio, Bowie, Prince, and so we kind of steal from them here and there and make it our own, give it a little Temper Trap twist. I don’t think it’s really original, we’re doing things that have already been done before, but with a little bit of a twist.

MS: It seems like there’s a lot of bands from Australia making it big in America right now. Does that represent an emerging scene, or a community of artists?

D: There’s definitely a bustling scene in Australia. In my opinion there’s so many more bands out there, but the ones that are being championed are just average bands that don’t really sound different to the rest of the pack. There’s a band called Snowman, they’re amazing, and there’s a band called The Drones that are really good. There’s a lot, but sometimes I think Australian music has a tendency to favor hype over substance. There’s a lot of fashion bands out there I’m sick of.

MS: So you’re not into fashion anymore?

D: I’m not knocking fashion, I sold people jeans and t-shirts for four years and I’ve studied fashion merchandising and marketing, but I just think you need to back that stuff up with some good old-fashioned tunes—something more than a stiff upper lip and tight jeans.

Temper Trap plays four times during South by Southwest: 10 PM on Wednesday at the Dirty Dog Bar; 1 AM Friday Morning, at the British Music Embassy; Friday again at 12:45 PM at Maggie Mae’s, and again at 3:45 at Brush Square Park.