There was a period about two years ago when it was tough to avoid ‘Sweet Disposition’, a blissful bit of pop-rock that Melbourne band the Temper Trap chose as their first single. Ten and Seven used it in big-push promos, Julia Roberts smiled vaguely as it played in the trailer for Eat Pray Love, and after featuring prominently in indie rom-com (500) Days of Summer, the song jumped to number nine on Billboard’s alternative chart in the US. The band’s first album, Conditions, rode the wave, and a series of equally ad-friendly singles later, went platinum. It was one of the most auspicious debuts in Australian music.
Talking to Temper Trap drummer Toby Dundas two years later, it’s hard to avoid that American music journo cliché, ‘the sophomore slump’. Conditions was a grower, an album driven by infectious singles and word-of-mouth; their self-titled follow-up, released this month, is expected to connect straight out the gates. What if it doesn’t?
Well, while his bandmates have been monitoring Twitter and YouTube for reactions to lead single ‘Need Your Love’ and preview track ‘Rabbit Hole’ – most of them fairly positive – Dundas says he’s “just letting it happen. I’m not ready to get too emotionally invested in people’s reactions – good or bad – just yet. Once the album’s out, and we’re playing the shows, you can just tell from the crowd reactions. That’s when you know.”
That test will come this month when Dundas and his bandmates return to their favourite Melbourne venue, the Forum. "We played Festival Hall last time, and while it's great to play a big stage like that, the Forum is a bit more intimate. It will be like a bit of a homecoming." If our ears are worth anything, the crowds are going to eat up a set of new tracks that make up for a lack of Conditions-style hooks with sonic daring and darker themes.
Dundas says the album came together very differently from Conditions, which was written in Melbourne as singer Dougy Mandagi and other bandmates worked, studied and played the songs throughout Australia and the UK. The Temper Trap evolved over eight months in a London studio – the band moved in 2008 – and a ten-day trip to Spain, where they took their gear to a house near the mountains of Grenada “and just played music all day, hung out and talked about music.” They recorded in LA with Tony Hoffner, who’d spotted them at their first South By Southwest show and who’s worked with Supergrass, Beck and Phoenix. Success might have brought added pressure, but it also brought opportunities. “People who are in demand will take time to listen to your demos; they definitely didn’t last time around.”
The intensive sessions did mean there was less chance to get feedback on the material. “You become a little isolated because you’re not playing shows and road-testing the songs. So you play them to your girlfriend, or partner, or friends. They’re not afraid to tell you they don’t like it, and they don’t have the commercial mindedness that a label might have.”
The mood of the new album is melancholic – Mandagi’s recent break-up might be behind songs like ‘This Isn’t Happiness’, ‘Where Do We Go From Here’ and ‘Leaving Heartbreak Hotel’. Dundas, who likes melancholic music, says the band writes what it knows. That explains ‘London’s Burning’, a song focused on the 2011 riots that’s Clash in title and in sound, and features audio clips of David Cameron (“This is criminality, simple and clear) and a rioter (“It’s payback”) amid sirens and charged lyrics – “Who’s the one to blame, when their children go insane. Dancing on their broken dreams, London’s burning from within.” The band all lived close to Mare St, in Hackney, at the time, and experienced the riots first-hand. “Having every shop boarded up, the shopowners roaming the streets in kind of vigilante groups, seeing the smoke and helicopters flying overhead… it was a pretty new experience for us. Musically, the song existed before the riots. It had an effect on Dougy and he came in with those lyrics. It was almost as if the music was waiting for those riots to happen.”
Now that the recording is done, Dundas says he feels liberated. Even with all that expectation – and the label let him know there were expectations when the band presented their tracks – “At a certain point you just have to let go and give it up into the world and see if anyone else cares about it the same way that you do. And if they don’t like it, I guess there’s always next time.”