The Temper Trap’s Dougy Mandagi on making indie smash hits and moving to Berlin
It’s been little over a decade since Dougy Mandagi first took to the stage to front Aussie alt-rockers The Temper Trap. 12 years on and the Indonesia-born crooner has traversed the globe countless times over with his bandmates, not to forget dropping one of the most emblematic indie anthems of the noughties with ‘Sweet Disposition’. We managed to bag an exclusive chat with Dougy to talk about growing up, moving to Berlin and what the future holds.
You guys came over to Europe pretty early on in your career, how come? Right, it was 2009. If you wanted to make a splash internationally, you had to leave. Australia is isolated. Although there’s a lot of good content there, back then nobody wanted to listen to it. Besides, we couldn’t really get any gigs back in Australia to be honest. Electro was really big at the time and guitar-led bands weren’t really getting much love. We were ready to leave and had spoken about it and decided on London. I took two jobs just so I could get some extra money. Around about the same time we got a manager and some interest from the UK. A label was also willing to fork out the cash to move us over. It worked out perfectly.
What was it like being in London in the tail end of indie’s golden age? To be honest we weren’t really in London that much, it was more of a base because we were touring a lot. Being in a new band means you don’t have the luxury of saying, “Nah, I don’t want to do that.” You’ve got to do everything. So we literally did everything. We toured Conditions for a little over two years. We played a lot of shows. So London was just a hub, I didn’t really get to know it all that well until the second record.
Did you guys expect Conditions to do as well as it did? No. I’m an ambitious person, so this was never a bedroom project for me. But I didn’t know it would take off the way it did. When we wrote ‘Sweet Disposition’, I felt good about it. We looked at each other in a ‘that’s awesome’ kind of way. It came along really easily. A lot of the other songs were really hard to put together and took ages to write, kind of like trying to work out a puzzle.
Why was ‘Sweet Disposition’ different, did you channel something extra into it? Exactly. I don’t want to sound too hippy about it, but I feel that sometimes when you write a song, your intellect is very much engaged. You think about it on a very practical level. It’s almost as if you’re looking at a blueprint, other times it’s just something in your heart – it flows out. With ‘Sweet Disposition’ that’s what happened. It came so naturally and easily. It was almost as if it was there waiting for us to strike the first chord.
There’s an element of danger in performing new songs. You don’t really know how the crowd’s going to react, whether you’re going to mess up the chorus – it’s tense.
Bearing in mind you wrote that hit so early on, did you feel pressure trying to replicate it? You can’t replicate that stuff. Like I said, it’s waiting for you. It’s not something that you can figure out, it’s something that’s out there and if it chooses you, then…
How much energy do you have to channel into keeping things crisp? The record just came out and it’s still sounds fresh. Playing tracks of a new album is always exciting. Some of the older songs are second nature to me now, it can be quite robotic playing them. There’s an element of danger in performing new songs. You don’t really know how the crowd’s going to react, whether you’re going to mess up the chorus – it’s tense. That’s good though, it pushes your performance and gives you character when you get up there.
Why was there such a long break between The Temper Trap and your third album, Thick as Thieves? We had a few false starts, I guess we could have released a record earlier but collectively we thought it wasn’t the right time. So we went back to the drawing board and kept writing. We work with so many different people, so the scheduling itself is an absolute nightmare. When the producer wasn’t available we weren’t, and when they were we had to go and play this gig.
Trying to produce new material and fulfil your fans’ desire to see you live must be an almighty balancing act. It is. The thing that’s extra hard for me is that I love playing live, it’s when I thrive. Writing is cool, but it can be like pushing a brick shithouse up a hill. It’s hard work. I’m not that into recording either, it’s too repetitive and I’ve got a really short attention span! Live is where I really feel like I’m fulfilling my role, my purpose. It’s hard watching our peers put out records and do the festival circuit, knowing that we couldn’t because we had to stay in the studio and write. I guess there’s no point in putting releasing something that’s half-baked. We always want to make sure that whatever we put out is quality, to us anyway.
Let’s talk a little bit about Berlin. Why did you decide on moving out here? I was going to move to LA, that was kind of my goal. There seems to be a mass exodus of musicians moving there from London and New York. New York used to be the hub of everything. I think it’s just getting too expensive, a little bit too corporate. All these artists are moving to LA where the rent is cheaper and there are more opportunities. But America is a little strange at the moment, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to plug into the system there. I could’ve gone somewhere like Venice Beach and pretended like I’m doing my music thing and not hurting anyone, but I’d feel funny about it. Working, paying taxes and wondering where my money is going to! I’m also trying to make conscious decisions now that I’m 36, think things through a bit more and not do whatever the hell I want.
A lot of people move to Berlin for a lot of different reasons. What was the pull for you? The price for starters. I’d been in London for seven years, I was ready to move on but still I wanted to be in Europe so as to be relatively close to the other band members.
How do you mediate being in another country from your band mates? It’s not ideal, though it’s worse for our bass player, he lives in Brooklyn! That’s really tough. The last three songs we recorded for this album I’ve had to play bass because he’s all the way over in New York. Around the same time we were going to go to the studio to record these tracks he was moving house, enrolling his kids in school and buying a station wagon or some shit. Being an adult basically! But you make it work.
What do you like about Berlin? I love how it’s a 24-hour city, unlike London where last call for drinks on a Friday night is midnight. Where do you go next?! For a city that size, as far as nightlife goes, there’s not that much on offer. I’m not a big clubber, but what if you want to hang out in a bar until the morning? You can do that here.
I didn’t even know what techno was until I moved here and went to Berghain for the first time.
You say you’re not such a big clubber, why did you move here then?! [Laughs] I like clubbing, I’m just not a big raver. A lot of people ask me if I moved here for the techno scene. I didn’t even know what techno was until I moved here and went to Berghain for the first time and was like, ‘oh shit, this is techno, this is intense!’ It’s like someone taking a pair of speakers and hitting you in the face repeatedly, non-stop. It was really fun. I’ll go out clubbing every now and then but I don’t own any techno records, or any dance records for that matter. I’m not the kind of person that sits at home and listens to house tracks in the background.
A lot of artists talk about certain places shaping their sound. Do you think Berlin will impact the tunes you write? It might, I’ve been working on a lot of music since being here. I’ve got a guitar and practice amp at home. Everything I’ve been coming up with is super rocky, kind of like stoner rock. I wonder if I immersed myself a bit more in the music scene whether it’d make for some interesting output. Maybe I should go to a few more techno nights!
How does laissez-faire Berlin juxtapose with you being such a driven person? I’m driven to make music. Because I had success with the first record, and not much with the second, I’ve seen both sides of the coin. I know how success feels and I also know what it’s like when the radio doesn’t play your songs, or when the label isn’t happy with what you’ve made. I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that success felt really good for a while but now my main focus, as selfish as it may sound, has to be me. I have to really love the music I’m making. That’s why I’m super excited about writing again, without any external pressure. I’m just at home making material that I’ll probably put out at a later date. I’m not really trying to go for another ‘Sweet Disposition’. It’ll kill me in the end if I try and do that!
Is there space for putting yourself first in The Temper Trap? There is sometimes. It’s really hard not to compromise in The Temper Trap. I think a lot of it has to do with the success of the first album. It came with a lot of with baggage. Success isn’t free. Back then I didn’t know it, I was just thinking, ‘this is awesome, people fucking love our shit and are telling me I’m awesome, and I’m travelling the world’. Then, when the time came to release The Temper Trap, people were like, ‘oh it’s not the same as the first one’. All these folk you thought were loyal to you ended up disappearing.
I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that success felt really good for a while but now my main focus, as selfish as it may sound, has to be me.
How do you stay motivated through circumstances like that? You’ve just got to look within and not play that game. I only want to make music that I love. ‘Sweet Disposition’ is good song, we knew we had something special when we were writing it in the studio, but it wasn’t until other people heard it that we thought wow, we’re communicating something. That’s when it got its value. I don’t want to make weird music that nobody gets. I want to say something and have a dialogue with the audience. The success thing, in terms of how most of the world perceives success, I’m not sure if that’s for me anymore. If it comes it comes, but I’m tired of making it my goal.
So what’s next? Any fresh projects on the horizon? I’m still in touring mode. But I’d love to put together a side project for sure. I’m super motivated about it. I came here wondering whether I’d be able to find any musicians here, everybody’s a fucking DJ. But oddly enough I’ve met a load of people who play and are willing to jump onboard.
Finally, how long do you think you’ll be staying in Berlin for? I just subletted a place for a year but I’m not really built for the winter, you know I might have to escape. I might come back. When you’re touring you’re kind of chasing an endless summer. I was thinking about Lisbon as well. I sold most of my possessions in London and moved here with a backpack and a suitcase to be more mobile.
You can catch Dougy and The Temper Trap on stage at Astra Kulturhaus Berlin on Tuesday January 31st.