WHAT was the Australian music scene like in the mid-2000s? High school, says The Temper Trap drummer Toby Dundas.
The analogy is apt. On the one side of the playground you had the graduating class of 2006; the double denim trilogy of Jet, The Vines and Wolfmother. On the other, the next gen of upstarts – Cut Copy, Midnight Juggernauts and Presets – who were replacing retro riffs with dancefloor ready beats and rocketing into MySpace Top 8s globally.
Then there was The Temper Trap, a tight knit gang of General Pants employees, cobbled together from unknown Melbourne bands like Dead Frenchman and The Saboteurs, fronted by an Indonesian-born singer with an androgynous voice pitched somewhere between Fine Young Cannibals and Prince.
“There was so much good stuff happening in Australia at that time, but I know we never quite felt part of it,” Toby explains. “We were the Year 9s and they were the Year 12s. Our paths didn’t really cross so much.”
The Temper Trap were outliers in other ways, too. They were unabashed about their arena-sized ambitions, making them at odds with a scene still reeling from the crash-and-burn success of their nu-rock peers.
“We were working on very little sleep and adrenaline and it was a sense of relief. I remember feeling really proud of what we’d done in the time.” – Jim Abbiss, producer
They wrote songs with big soaring choruses like ‘Fader’, ‘Love Lost’ and ‘Science Of Fear’, and they enlisted none other than seasoned British producer Jim Abbiss to give the tracks the “special sauce” he’d applied to debut records by Kasabian and Arctic Monkeys.
In an interview with the band around the time of the release of their 2009 debut Conditions, I remember being struck by singer Dougy Mandagi’s eagerness to leave Melbourne; a city he felt they’d outgrown, even before ‘Sweet Disposition’ went on to attain the success it did.
At the time, it seemed unfathomable for an Australian act to consider relocating to overseas when they weren’t hitting local markers yet – an ARIA #1, a sold-out Festival Hall or Hordern, a Hottest 100 top 10 (amazingly, ‘Sweet Disposition’ didn’t make the cut). But Dougy and his mates – Toby, bassist Jonny Aherne, new-ish guitarist Lorenzo Sillitto, and touring member Joseph Greer, who would later join full-time – had a vision.
“We’re a band that have always been focused on the broader market,” he told me from the boardroom of Michael Gudinski’s Liberation imprint. But he was cautious, too. “You don’t want to be one of those bands that come out of nowhere and are suddenly everywhere. You go to get your teeth fixed and you’re there in the background of the dentist’s office.”
It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Propelled along by the inclusion of ‘Sweet Disposition’ in the indie romcom smash 500 Days of Summer, Conditions sold 250,00 copies in the US alone. In a time where physical album sales were in decline, it attained Gold status in the UK, Double Platinum in Australia, and went on to shift three-million units worldwide.
The Temper Trap were suddenly everywhere – Diet Coke ads, car commercials, Sky Sports promos, and video games. ‘Sweet Disposition’ was certified Platinum and sold more than one-million copies in both the UK and US, also going Gold in Italy, NZ and Ireland. It totalled more than three million sales globally.
To paint an even more vivid picture of their global success at the time, you just need to look at the 2011 BRIT Awards, where they were nominated alongside Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars and The National in the International Breakthrough Act category.
But for Jonny Aherne, it was the small moments that mattered. “I remember seeing two youngsters sharing a headphone each singing quietly as they walked in a shopping centre,” he recalls. “They were singing ‘Love Lost’. I just happened to be behind them.”
Ten years later, and Conditions is still everywhere. To mark the milestone, which includes an anniversary tour and a reissue on white vinyl, The Temper Trap’s founding members and producer Jim Abbiss tell us about the making of the record – from studio mishaps to internals tensions, and Jonny’s infamous slap dance.
LORENZO SILLITTO [GUITAR]: I played in another band [The Saboteurs]. We used to play gigs together all of the time at [Melbourne nightclub] 161 and around town. My band fell apart, and fortunately the boys were like, “Well, we need a new guitarist. Do you want to join?”
TOBY DUNDAS [DRUMS]: I remember in our early days someone once asked us if one of our songs was a Jet cover song. [Laughs] We’re like, “Ah. That’s not good.” It’s like most bands when you start out, you’re playing bluesy rock sort of stuff.
LORENZO: We changed our name [from Temper Temper to The Temper Trap] and started getting probably a bit more serious about it all. I think the EP came out in like 2005, and we were already kind of departing from that style of music when that came out.
TOBY: We started to experiment more with electronics and were listening to bands like Bloc Party and Unkle, who mixed electronic and hip-hop but with some more guitar and kind of rock drum elements as well. It really excited us.
LORENZO: I remember I was listening to Gang Of Four. Yeah, it was a weird mash.
TOBY: Once we started going down that path – exploring guitar pedals and drum machines and those kinds of things – that definitely expanded the palette of how we could make a song. There was a definite period of six months where we did radically kind of change the sound.
DOUGY MANDAGI [VOCALS/GUITAR]: There was a feeling of excitement. We used to drive back and forth Melbourne to Sydney, almost twice a week. I think one time it was like three times a week.
LORENZO: We’d be sleeping on people’s floors or sometimes the boys would drive straight back and I’d fly back to get to my job. You’ve got 12 hours to discuss and argue and crack jokes and get to know each other really well, so our friendships were pretty galvanised by that point. I think that held us in really good stead for when we went overseas.
DOUGY: We felt like a little gang, and we were just really into playing and writing songs. Always excited about the songs, and excited to try them out.
LORENZO: I think some of the tracks on Conditions may have even started around that time. We did a couple of tours with Howling Bells and Dappled Cities Fly. Literally after those two tours, we started writing for the record. It was five years, I think, from inception until it came out.
DOUGY: It’s not like we had all these big producers at our disposal. We were just recording when we could record. Other than that we were just writing. Lo and behold, the kind of crappy demo that we had came to the attention of Jim Abbiss.
TOBY: The story he told us that he was driving along with his wife listening to a bunch of demos that people had sent him.
"It’s not like we had all these big producers at our disposal ... Lo and behold, the kind of crappy demo that we had came to the attention of Jim Abbiss."
JIM ABBISS [PRODUCER]: We were on some trip somewhere, I can’t remember where we were going. Back in the day I’d often get demos on CDs and I just had a load of stuff to listen to while we were away for a few days. I think we were without the kids actually, so me and my wife put a few different things on and The Temper Trap track demos came on. They were really really good. There was one particular track, ‘Soldier On’, which we both loved. My wife particularly. She was obsessed with it.
TOBY: I think we’ve got Mrs Abbiss to thank for getting those conversations started.
JIM: I kind of fell in love with his [Dougy’s] voice and the songwriting. That normally does it. His voice was just really unusual. And it was so unusual at that point to have – I hate the label “indie rock” – but an indie-rock band if you want to use that term who had a really soulful singer. They had one foot in the rock camp, but then the other side of things it was really soulful.
DOUGY: Jim had just done the Kasabian record, obviously famous for doing The Arctic Monkeys debut. We all worked at General Pants and they were constantly on rotation in the store. So when we actually got a reply from Jim it was amazing. I guess we never thought he’d consider us.
TOBY: It seemed kind of unbelievable that he was interested, but then that process was super drawn out because he was so busy working on a million other records. You start to wonder, “Is this ever going to happen? Should we get a back up plan?”
JIM: I guess my career was based around working in London and there were lots of great studios and lots of people would travel to work in London for various reasons. But It wasn’t practical for the guys to do it … It made a lot more sense for me to just go out on my own because there were quite a lot of financial constraints on us. So I had to come to Australia without my regular engineer and find a studio we could get a good deal in and do the album pretty quickly.
DOUGY: I guess when Jim came into the picture, we changed gears and it was just about recording. It was a big opportunity for a no name band.
JIM: I flew out and we had 30 days to make a record before I left.
Sing Sing Studios, Melbourne
LORENZO: We were pretty excited about having Jim there … [But] before we went into the studio, he actually wanted to see us play live, so we arranged a gig at the East Brunswick Club for him to come and watch us play.
JIM: I always try to see a band live before we record. They were very much a gigging band so of course it was important. But because I was in London and they were in Australia, I didn’t know how this was going to happen and that’s why they did the show the night I flew in … It was important even though I was massively jet lagged and wasn’t taking everything in.
DOUGY: He came to see us, and I don’t know, but maybe that made him really aim to capture that live feel? He definitely had a knack for that when we were in the studio. He knew exactly the right tempos. That was something he really hoped we’d learn: the tempos in order to get that live feel we want.
TOBY: It’s just about capturing the ebb and flow of the song so it feels completely natural. That’s not something I’d ever seen anyone do before … We’d just play the song over and over and Jim would be just sitting there on the couch with this little metronome tapping away.
JIM: I can’t remember which song we recorded first. I’ve been trying to think about this. It may have been ‘Resurrection’, it was definitely one of the more up tempo bigger tunes … We got a take that I thought was a good representation of it in a really basic form. I said, “Okay guys. Come and have a listen. I think this is sounding really good.” And it was just the raw recording so in my mind I knew that there would be quite a few more takes, quite a lot of editing, lots of repairs and overdubs and layering and a lengthy process to get it to where it could be. But I think the guys probably thought they were going to come in and it would sound like a finished record.
LORENZO: We were green … We had never really experienced that kind of attention to detail before in the studio, so it was really, really cool. We would do loads of takes of everything with the band together in the studio to get the bed tracks absolutely right.
TOBY: I think for ‘Love Lost’, we got to about take 32 of the full band trying to get the bed track down for it. He did make us work, which is a good thing.
JIM: At the start of ‘Love Lost’, there’s a little organ and it’s just a little Casio home keyboard or some little terrible sound, but I loved it. And they were like, “No, we want a bigger and better sound.” But I really loved the fact that it sounded kind of naive. So that track I think they saw as a more polished thing. But I quite liked the fact it started very tender and grew into this bigger track.
DOUGY: There was this visceral [live] energy that Jim wanted to capture in the studio – and that’s why he was such a hard taskmaster. He knew what that thing was, that special sauce was. It’s always hard to articulate these things with language. So I guess the only way that we could capture it was by playing the part over and over until your arms feel like they’re about to fall off. But Jim just wouldn’t rest until he thought he had captured that thing he was looking for.
TOBY: I know Dougy and Jonny didn’t always enjoy that process. I guess because I kind of came a bit more from a studio background, I really enjoyed just learning so much from looking over Jim’s shoulder. I think probably that I had the funnest experience out of anyone making it.
JONNY AHERNE [BASS]: He was a little intense at times, but he did a great job.
JIM: I was [a taskmaster] with all of them because I knew how tight our schedule was … As it happened, we had this mixing desk blow up on us. I ended up having to go into another studio and for a time it was a really stressful. I was thinking this was going to blow our timetable completely, but it actually worked in our favour in a strange way. I was in the other room with Dougy on my own and we did vocals for like a week together.
DOUGY: It was a very trying moment to be honest. It was our first time obviously being in that kind of environment. We’d been living with these songs for so long, just playing these songs live by then so many times. As the writers of the songs we had an attachment to it – we felt like we knew how it should be done. Then you have an outside force come in and we had never worked with anyone like him. Quite a big personality, opinionated – and rightfully so. His resume speaks for itself. But he also had ideas and sometimes those ideas would conflict with what we wanted to do.
JIM: I thought Dougy and I really bonded over that time [recording vocals]. I think he was quite shy, almost defensive when I first met him. I probably bonded with him the least in the first few days and I think it took getting a track into a reasonable stage and then letting him sing and get really great vocal [takes].
TOBY: He really managed to challenge Dougy and put him into a place that drew really intense performances out of him.
JONNY: I think he pushed Dougy the hardest … It was confusing at the time but in hindsight so accurate.
JIM: [I knew] his voice was the absolute key to this being a great record, getting his voice to be upfront and getting all the emotion or whatever out of it. Getting the best possible takes from him.
DOUGY: He was a pretty hard taskmaster, but the result speaks for itself.
JONNY: This was the last song made for Conditions. It was also made while I was on honeymoon. I came back to it.
TOBY: Me, Dougy and Loz just kept rehearsing while Jonny was away. Loz came into rehearsal with this little riff – the opening section – and immediately we were super excited by that. Dougy’s main melodies came really quickly and we got a structure going within an hour, two hours. The next day Dougy came back with the lyrics. In two days we had a song.
JONNY: I feel like there were lesser versions of this song being made, with delay bass grooves. But coming home to this one, I felt like it should make the album. My lady thought it sounded too much like U2. [Laughs]
LORENZO: I’d been listening to Achtung Baby and some Radiohead at the time. That’s the stuff that we used to listen to in the car a lot when we were driving between gigs. But I’d actually been listening to a Cornelius record. I’d just started to use delay and there was a particular thing on this Cornelius record that I was trying to get the delay right for. I was just practising scales, and I happened to turn on the pedal. ‘Sweet Disposition’ is an A major scale, and that’s basically it … It just inspired something that came out.
DOUGY: It felt good instantly. It felt good to play. It came about really organically and easily.
LORENZO: ‘Sweet Disposition’ actually took forever [in the studio]. I think maybe because I wasn’t technically proficient enough to play it properly.
"I think that was a psychological thing that he did to make me furious enough to go, 'I’m going to fucking nail it.'"
JIM: Poor Lorenzo. God. That song obviously was always going to be a big single for the band because the label quite rightly highlighted it. I’m very used to that scenario with most records. But once something is tagged as the big track, it puts pressure on it. And you listen to that track and it’s deceptively very simple. It’s very repetitive. It very much sounds like a four-piece band playing, so there’s nothing complicated about it. But actually it’s very difficult. I think if we’d done that track now, we would have just looped loads of it and it would have been much more of an electronic production. But the band really wanted it to be a band record and they wanted to play it … So it was quite hard work and Lorenzo, to his absolute credit, wanted it to be amazing. Getting that guitar took a while. I’m not going to lie.
LORENZO: I remember there was even a time – and Jim probably won’t remember this – where he was like, “Oh, shit. Can we get someone else to try and play it? Because you can’t do it.” [Laughs] I think that was a psychological thing that he did to make me furious enough to go, “I’m going to fucking nail it.” You know? I don’t know. You can ask him that, maybe. He probably won’t remember.
JIM: [Laughs] No, I don’t remember that. It sounds really cruel.
TOBY: A producer has to be a part psychologist and Jim is really good at knowing how to push a person, almost like a football coach type of thing. He knows if someone needs to have an arm put around them, although I don’t think I ever saw him do that. [Laughs] The threat of someone else playing that part was what drove Loz to nail it.
JIM: Well, it was worth it. It sounds great. Lorenzo and I we got on great. He used to pick me up in the mornings from my apartment and drive to the studio and we’d listen to mixes of where we were at, or we’d listen to other stuff and just chat … I very quickly became friends with Lorenzo. He’s an absolute gentleman. I would have gone the extra mile for him anyway.
LORENZO: It was a dream to even be in those types of situations. Being in there and playing over and over and over, I was just like a dog with a ball. “Yeah, I’ll do whatever you tell me to do. I’ll just keep going.”
TOBY: I think it was a pretty intense little session they [Jim and Lorenzo] were having working on just nailing that part. Me and Jonny were down in the old room. I think we’d got up to about 180 tracks of synths on ‘Fader’, just the two of us making weird noises while we waited for them to do ‘Sweet Disposition’ … It’d be funny to go back and pull that session open and see what terrible noises we were making. Completely unusable, I imagine.
The Infamous Slap Dance
DOUGY: We’re doing the song that Jonny wrote [‘Down River’] and Jonny at some point said he wanted to try this slap dance thing. It’s basically this dance where people make percussive rhythms by slapping different parts of their body, like slapping their chest or slapping their thighs or what not. And we were rolling our eyes and saying, “Really, dude? We just don’t have time for this.” He was really adamant so we let him give it a go.
JIM: He said, “Can you just put a mic on?” And I thought he was going to bring in a drum or something and he just started sort of dancing. When we got to the part of the track, he just started dancing on the spot. Hitting his legs and his chest, like some sort of mountain dance, an alpine mountain dance. I was just looking at them [the band] and was like, “What the hell is he doing?” And they’re like, “That’s how he works parts out. He loves doing this.” It sounded awful.
DOUGY: The thing is with the slap dance. If you’re wearing pants so you don’t really get that slap sound … So anyways, just imagine Jonny in this dark studio with no shirt and no pants on, just kind of slapping away. The rest of us rolling our eyes like, “Oh, god.”
JONNY: The slaps weren’t cutting through it ended up with me in my undies slapping my legs thinking, “This will work.”
JIM: It still sounded like absolute shite. [Laughs]
TOBY: [Assistant engineer] Russell Fawcus got stuck with naked Jonny doing that one.
JONNY: It was kinda like a Haka but mine had no impact, needless to say my slap dance did not make the record, but the boys and all parties involved got a good laugh.
DOUGY: I actually think it’s buried in the mix somewhere. I don’t know. You’d have to really listen to it pretty intently.
JIM: As it transpires we did some mixing over in London when the band came over. And my very last memory of the actual finishing of that record was I was in one room doing a couple of edits and Barny [Barnicott], my longtime collaborator, was mixing in the main room. It was right at the very end. Barny was supposed to be finishing up this mix and I was doing an edit when he called me and said, “Jim, I’ve got something for you to listen to.” Jonny had got his shirt off again and he’s in the room making Barny record his bloody slapping. And I think it actually made it. I think we said, “Okay. Put it in. Whatever.” So I think it is in there in one of the songs in the background. I couldn’t tell you which it was. It’s so quiet I don’t think you could hear it.
DOUGY: Now that you have that in your mind, it can probably help [you hear it].
JIM: I literally left on the last morning we were doing our last overdub. We saved it to our hard drive, I put it in my bag, and got in a taxi to the airport and just made the flight.
LORENZO: You think a month is a long time, but it just seemed to go by so quickly. And I remember, even on the very last night, I was recording overdubs until two or three in the morning with Jim … just all of the noisy stuff that’s on ‘Science Of Fear’. All of these weird guitar overdubs that are probably not even on any tracks.
JIM: It all sort of came together on the last few days. We were working on very little sleep and adrenaline and it was a sense of relief. I remember feeling really proud of what we’d done in the time.
DOUGY: We all just wanted to make the best album we could make. Some of us had different ideas on how that should be done. When you’re inexperienced like we were, being thrust into an intimate and intense setting for a year can be really challenging, but I think it brought us closer together.
TOBY: [After Conditions came out in Australia] things had started to get a little bit of momentum for us to get over to London, reset, and start playing gigs again to 50 people in little toilet bars in London and around the UK. We were really starting again from scratch and we really didn’t know how it was going to work.
DOUGY: We felt like we couldn’t be in Melbourne. People weren’t adapting to the music. All of the bands that we loved at the time were from New York and London. So we thought, “Let’s save, let’s just work our asses off boys. Let’s bounce, let’s go to London, live our dreams”, you know?
TOBY: It was a fun time. We were either all jammed in that house together or in a little splitter van, driving around the UK and Europe. We were living in each other’s pocket. But so many things were happening that it always felt really exciting. It really forged a bond between the five of us, including Joseph [Greer], who was a touring member at that stage. It kept us going through a lot of rough stuff.
JONNY: I found myself in a bit of culture shock. Worlds were spinning fast. But gravity kicked in after two years as we got to know the place.
TOBY: When ‘Sweet Disposition’ got on [BBC] Radio 1 that changed things. The great thing about a station like Radio 1 is all of a sudden you’ve got a track all over the UK, so you can just constantly tour up and down. That grew and when it started going up in the charts it definitely felt like a bit of a wave had caught us up in was taking us forward.
DOUGY: That record has definitely taken us to new heights and allowed us to experience some amazing things in our lives. It’s enabled us to make more albums and see different places. We all owe a lot to that record, each band member. So, yeah. I’m really proud of it in that sense.
TOBY: We got to play at Brixton Academy … We were supporting Florence and The Machine, but [it was surreal] just getting to play in an iconic venue like that. I remember we played that show and it was the first time we got a [tour] bus. It felt like those dreams you have as a muso growing up, where you see things like Almost Famous with the band on tour on the bus. That was definitely a pinch yourself moment.
JONNY: The fact Conditions really stamped itself on the hearts of people was such a gift to be part of. For the record to still maintain its impact is a beautiful thing and a celebration for all of us.
DOUGY: I feel like that record belongs to so many people now. So many people have amazing memories attached to that album and the individual songs on that record. And at the end of the day that’s the most important thing that matters. The fact that we were able to achieve that, is probably what makes the record special to me; the fact that it’s special to so many other people.