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ACL Fest 2010 preview: Temper Trap

Band back in land of discovery before TV shows

Patrick Caldwell

Conventional music pundit wisdom tends to identify the same handful of ingredients in the Temper Trap's recipe for success.

To start, there's the Melbourne-by-way-of-London quintet's spirited performances at the 2009 South by Southwest Music Festival. Then there's the seemingly endless licensing of the lilting, lovely single "Sweet Disposition" — which you might recall from "(500) Days of Summer," episodes of "Greek," "90210" and "One Tree Hill," Chrysler and Diet Coke ads, and a staggering number of other bits of pop-culture ephemera. And then, of course, there's the music itself — with TV on the Radio's wall of guitars and booming percussion melded to Coldplay's instinctive sense for radio-ready melodies, front man Dougy Mandagi laying his warbled falsetto over the harmonies of band mates Jonathon Aherne (bass guitar) and Lorenzo Sillitto (lead guitar).

This is all well and good, but the Temper Trap might never have gotten that far without the help of one particularly persistent fan: the wife of Jim Abbiss, the award-winning British producer behind the Arctic Monkeys' breakout "Whatever People Say That I Am, That's What I'm Not." It was Abbiss' wife who helped persuade him to take on the Temper Trap's debut album, last year's "Conditions."

"They were in a car together driving to the beach, and he was working his way through a stack of demos. For whatever reason, one of our songs got her attention, and she kind of rallied behind it," says Sillitto, speaking from the band's London studio. "He has three kids and is very much a family man and wants to stay around them, but in order to record us he had to come to Australia and be apart from his kids. Which he hates. He has to be convinced to do that, and it has to be OK with the wife and kids. So I think her permission was the big reason that he would come out and take a chance on us."

That chance would turn out to be a fortuitous one. The Temper Trap had begun in 2005 as a collaboration between Mandagi, an Indonesia native recently relocated to Melbourne, and drummer Toby Dundas. The band acted as something of a musical chameleon, changing shapes to blend in with whatever had caught their inspiration at the time. At first, that meant a traditional rock 'n' roll sound in the vague shape of the Kings of Leon or the Strokes. By the time Sillitto, a childhood friend of Dundas and a guitar player since adolescence, came in, the Temper Trap had moved in the direction of post-punk — Sillitto points to Interpol, Bloc Party, Gang of Four and Television as the touchstones in those days.

But when Abbiss came in, the Temper Trap had forged another sound altogether — big and brash and stadium-friendly and the result, Sillitto says, of sealing themselves off in pursuit of a batch of songs they could be proud of. The band solicited Abbiss after a months-long sabbatical that produced around 30 songs.

"We locked ourselves together for nine months writing 'Conditions.' We kind of kept growing and being influenced by stuff, brewing up songs that were inspired by all the musicians that made us want to keep writing,'' says Sillitto. "I don't know that big anthemic songs were our aim. But we were listening to a lot of David Bowie and early U2 records, and Radiohead's 'In Rainbows' had just come out at that time, and I think all of that rubbed off on us. Made us want to do something big, with lots of layers and textures. I think one of our strengths was that when we first started, every idea got a chance no matter how stupid or insane it may have seemed at the time."

With Abbiss' help, they narrowed 30 songs down to 10 for "Conditions," completed just days before March 2009, when the band made its first trip to the United States for the South by Southwest Music Festival. The Temper Trap picked up steam shortly after those much-buzzed SXSW sets and a much-ballyhooed move to London — partly thanks to "Sweet Disposition" and its pervasive placement in film and television worldwide.

So when the Temper Trap strides onto the Honda Stage for an early evening set on Saturday, Sillitto says they'll be returning to the town where they first started to build a global audience — the place where, 18 months ago, they set out on a course that's led to headlining shows on three continents. To Sillitto's credit, he seems sincerely excited to come back.

"We love Austin. We've basically had 18 months of nonstop touring, and that's where it started. And it's going be really nice to be in Austin when SXSW's not on and there's not 40 million industry people everywhere," says Sillitto. "Austin is at its most charming when it's less insane. The first time we went there last year we played our last gig at the San José hotel, away from the bustle of Sixth Street, and it felt like it was all local people and families.

"That's the kind of stuff I remember and love, and ACL is just a little walk from there. That's to me is where the real Austin is — South Congress Avenue. That and Sam's Bar-B-Que."