It’s a glorious early summer afternoon in New York City, an ideal rejoinder to the previous evening when the members of The Temper Trap stood onstage at Webster Hall triumphantly basking in the adulation of a sold-out crowd. Their long-gestating third album Thick As Thieves has just been released, and everyone is in high spirits; reviews are coming in and the glow from last night’s impressive showing persists. All is well.
The odd part for The Temper Trap — singer Dougy Mandagi, bassist Jonny Aherne, drummer Toby Dundas and guitarist Joseph Greer — though, is the narrative that’s accompanying their bombastic new album after their underperforming self-titled second record and the departure of founding member/guitarist Lorenzo Sillitto. They’re not quite indie underdogs, but with the muted reception to 2012’s The Temper Trap, there’s now almost a chip on their shoulder: they’re a band out to prove there’s more to them than ‘Sweet Disposition’.
The term ‘muted reception’ there is key too. In 2012 the band were still riding the overwhelming success of their debut album Conditions, and the cultural touchstone ‘Sweet Disposition’, which found a home on movie soundtracks, TV shows, and adverts the world over. Add to that their repertoire of of festival-ready sing-alongs like ‘Fader’ and ‘Science of Fear’, and it was no wonder they were poised to conquer the world.
But that second album didn’t capture the imagination at the levels their debut did because, really, what could? It still hit No. 1 here in Australia, and moments like ‘Trembling Hands’ (which went platinum) and ‘Rabbit Hole’ remain undeniably terrific, yet the band hadn’t matched the wide-ranging cultural impact of their debut. And so, they were at a crossroads. With the reception for The Temper Trap stinging, the band toured the second album, but the spectre of Conditions hung heavily, and it took some soul-searching to figure out where to go next.
Sitting on the sun-dappled grass in Madison Square Park, surrounded by tourist couples and office workers on their lunch break, Toby and Jonny acknowledge that their approach to following up Conditions saw them moving away from the band’s core values.
After eight months of intense, constant writing in a “shoddy-ish rehearsal room in east London,” the band quickly headed to LA and a very “defined amount of recording time”. There, says Toby, they were curious about experimenting with their sound.
“We’d started playing with some synths towards the end of the Conditions tour,” he explains, “so we had all these new toys in the studio. I guess that took us away from what our DNA is, of this energetic rock band — ‘high energy sissy rock’, we’ve been told,” he laughs.
“Thematically, as well, the break up stuff gives the record a certain kind of melancholy, which I guess didn’t translate as well.”
“Each member would have a different answer, but I personally agreed with some of the fans,” says Jonny of The Temper Trap being a breakup album meaning he didn’t relate to it as deeply as he probably should have. “What I liked about the first record, I feel like, is in the third… and then also some of the really cool stuff from the second. I like what we’ve done now – there’s energy in it and it’s different.”
Perhaps that’s because they changed their process dramatically for Thick As Thieves. It was, explains Toby, “much more fluid,” because he’d set up his own studio in London’s King Cross, giving the band — who had moved to London before the second record, leading to the London riots-inspired ‘London’s Burning’ — a place to decamp and gets their heads into a fit state in which to write and tackle the album.
“It was nice to have a base. It gives you the freedom to not have a definitive endpoint,” he adds. “This time it was ‘If the songs are still coming, let’s keep exploring the songs; we don’t have to rush it. We’re already old, what’s another year!?’” he laughs.
That’s one of the most marked differences on Thick As Thieves: the addition of co-writers such as Malay (Frank Ocean), Justin Parker (Lana Del Rey), Ben Allen (Animal Collective), and Pascal Gabriel (Ladyhawke). Working with collaborators – and producer Damian Taylor (the Killers) – was a new route for the band and, says Toby, was critical for them to take on different perspectives of their songs, and, really, figure out exactly what they wanted The Temper Trap to be.
[include_post id=”481137″]Beginning with Dougy going on writing trips to write for other people, the relationships he formed turned into the band working with Malay and, after hearing his spin on ‘Summer’s Almost Gone’, the band thought “wow, that’s super cool” laughs Jonny.
The band liked it so much, they went to Byron Bay to work with Malay and, says Toby, “the vibe of that and success of that opened us up to all these other ones, like ‘look at what happens when people throw their twist on it’.” Those writers, he adds, brought in their own “ideas and experiences and, for us as songwriters, to see how people like that at a certain level do it, you learn so much.”
They also tried something different from their approach on the second album when they road tested a handful of new songs on a brief run of shows in Australia at the end of 2014. “That was really good,” says Toby, “you can see people reacting and it’s like ‘Yes! We’re on a good path here’. Straight after that we went back to London and did the bulk of the recording.
“I’m really glad we did that; we didn’t road test any of the songs off the second album.”
It worked. They still combine the obtusely profound earnestness of Elbow and Muse with Coldplay’s (who they supported in 2012) universal emotional pull, and there are reams of U2-ish, festival-ready guitars… but, crucially, there’s also plenty of heart on tunes like ‘Burn’, ‘Tombstone’ and ‘Alive’. Thick As Thieves feels like The Temper Trap honing their musical identity, getting a firmer grasp on who they want to be and what they want to sound like. And it sounds big.
But some of that was born out of necessity when founding member and guitarist Lorenzo Sillitto left the band while they were working on ‘So Much Sky’ with Ben Allen. Considering that Toby and Lorenzo had been friends since they were 12, the departure hit the drummer hard. “It was certainly a surprise,” Toby admits, “but it was for good reasons.”
The band were about to begin a new album cycle, and spending a couple of years on the road just didn’t appeal to the guitarist. “He was about to have all these changes in his life, have his first child, get married, all those kind of things,” explains Toby. They remain close, however. “He lived around the corner, so I saw him almost as much! We’d get coffee every day and our wives are best friends, so we’d always be having dinner at each other’s house.”
The lineup change, however, made the band reaffirm just exactly what they were doing, hence the title of the album. “I loved what Lorenzo played, so I miss it,” nods Jonny, “but I think we understood what the DNA of The Temper Trap is, so we could keep it going.”
“It’s made us focus more on what we’re doing as just the four of us,” adds Toby, “and stripping the sound back makes it a bit more powerful, a bit more clean. It’s going to be a lot more naked in a way; you can’t hide it behind a spacey second layer of guitar.
And with Lorenzo leaving the band, multi-instrumentalist Joseph Greer took his role on guitar to the next level. “Joseph became a shredder,” laughs Toby. “He was practising eight hours a day. It was seriously impressive; we had to hold him back towards the end, like ‘you’re getting too good for the rest of us dude’.”
The key to Thick As Thieves is that, even with that chip on their shoulder, the band feel settled creatively – even while living in different places around the world, with Jonny in New York, Dougy in Berlin (even if he’s only seen his new apartment via Skype) and Toby and Joseph still in London.
“We certainly felt like ‘Let’s make a guitar record’,” says Toby, “and getting excited about getting back onstage and having that energy onstage: that’s where we feel most at home, most natural. So it’s important to have that spirit and rawness there.”
“We wanted to keep pushing ourselves,” shrugs Jonny, “and after four years we wanted to make sure we really liked what we were doing, and that it encompassed all of that.”