Longreads Or Whatever

On the Run: The Temper Trap's Dougy Mandagi Is Still Searching

We join the band on the brink of disaster in Bali and find the legacy of Dougy's fractured childhood still cuts deep.

by Kim Taylor Bennett
19 December 2016, 8:11pm

One Friday in September, Dougy Mandagi was out partying with his friends in Bali deciding to call it a night around 5 AM. When he eventually woke up on Saturday, he rolled over, grabbed his phone, and started scrolling, opening an email that'd make any frontman break a cold sweat. While bassist Jonny Ahearne and guitarist Joseph Greer were already 36,000 feet in the air, winging their way to the Indonesian island, drummer Toby Dundas was marooned in London. Somehow, thanks to a kerfuffle at the airport regarding 30-odd pieces of gear and a $37k bill to fly said gear halfway across the world, Toby lost his passport. Given the paperwork and the time difference this meant there was zero chance he'd make it for The Temper Trap to headline the island's annual Soundrenaline festival the next night.

Although the quartet are forever associated with Melbourne, Australia where they formed in 2005, Dougy is an Indonesian hero. (A very different national hero, mind you, than his great uncle Arie Lasut, who was assassinated in 1949 by Dutch colonists in the midst of Indonesia's struggle for independence. But that's another story.) Born in Bandung, the capital of West Java, the 36-year-old's held up as one of the few homegrown talents who's achieved global success and recognition, all of which to say, this headline slot—coming just a few months after the release of their third album, Thick as Thieves—is of some importance.

While Dougy slept the band's management were busying trying to rectify the situation, drafting in 22-year-old Bloc Party drummer Louise Bartle, whose Soundrenaline set was scheduled a couple hours before The Temper Trap. They gave her the music to learn on the plane; problem solved. But Dougy was nervous. What if the flight was delayed, or she got stuck in customs, leaving no time to rehearse? So he started posting pleas on Facebook to secure a plan b, which came in the form of an old high school friend's younger brother, who drums in local band Andra and the Backbone. He received the music at 1 AM on Saturday night, by 2 PM the following day the stand-in drummer was rehearsing, and 10 hours later he was playing for thousands. Just as well Dougy had the foresight because, as he points out this evening, "things have a tendency to not go smoothly here in Bali," and thanks to one stage running late, Bloc Party and The Temper Trap wound up playing at the same time.

Thick as Thieves was a tough collection to wrangle. The process was protracted, stretching over two and half years, taking them to London, LA, Montreal, and Byron Bay in Australia, and punctuated by tours supporting their second, eponymous record. It didn't help that midway through that first year Lorenzo quit to focus on starting a family. The band were shocked, of course, but Dougy remains sanguine: "It's totally understandable—this life isn't for everyone. I've just been on a month-long tour and I'm exhausted, and I don't have to come home and deal with kids."

Much has been made of the fact that this was the first album where Dougy worked with outside songwriters/producers, which was kickstarted back in 2013, in LA, when the singer received a call out of the blue from Frank Ocean/Zayn Malik collaborator, Malay. And so the seal was broken: subsequently the band worked with Pascal Gabriel (Marina and the Diamonds), and Justin Parker (Lana del Rey), while Bjork cohort, producer Damien Taylor, wrapped the disparate sessions to create a cohesive whole. Dougy is keen to point out that although these producer's contributions are integral to the album, the lion's share of Thick as Thieves came from the band. The synthy flourishes from the previous record largely subdued, vast, stadium-sized refrains ("Fall Together" "So Much Sky," "Riverina," "Lost") are once again brought to the fore. It's a record beloved by Temper Trap fans, but like their genre peers, it's failed to make an impact on pop culture which is simply because indie rock's gone underground again. Nevertheless that doesn't take away from the fact that Dougy writes songs ready-made for any movie montage you care to star in: you're on the road, home town in the rearview mirror, hanging out the window, wind in your hair; you've finally realized your partner in crime was sitting right in front of you all this time; maybe you're falling apart and you just need a tune to amplify your blues. There's more than a touch of U2's bluster and melodic bombast here (see "Burn"), but then it's not the first time the claim's been leveled at the singer.

"If people want to compare us to early U2 then that's amazing, I don't know about like some of the newer shit!" he laughs. "I mean listen, it's hard to stay on top forever. When was the last time The Rolling Stones put out a good record?"

And of course there's the unavoidable fact that rock 'n' roll is a young person's game. How can we avoid getting cheesy in our old age? "I don't think you can," counters Dougy. "Also all the people making the judgments are usually young people because we still kind of give a shit about what's cheesy and what's not. When I'm as old as Bono I don't want to give a shit. I'm gonna wear fucking blue glasses, indoors, outdoors, 24/7, in the shower, whether I need them or not. I don't know why I'm wearing these blue glasses, but fuck it!

When The Temper Trap formed in 2005 the music landscape was a vastly different terrain: Kings of Leon were still underdogs, we were all on MySpace, Rihanna was 17, and The Bravery were a buzz band. Back then Dougy, Jonny, Joseph, and Toby, (guitarist Lorenzo Sillitto, a friend of Toby's, joined a year later), were making ends meet folding t-shirts in the Aussie equivalent of Urban Outfitters. But just like in London and New York, in Melbourne the guys were bonding over The Strokes and The White Stripes, hanging out at weekly indie night Shake Some Action, a party which stuck out like a sore thumb in the city's commercial club district on the south side of town.

"We used to get teased for wearing super tight jeans," recalls Dougy with a laugh. "Nowadays the people that used to kind of bully you for wearing tight jeans are the ones that are wearing them."

They released their first EP in 2006, but despite indie edging into the mainstream, the quintet weren't having much luck at home, so Jonny and Toby started throwing events just so The Temper Trap could play shows, meanwhile Dougy was working double time to save up to move to the UK—because that's what ambitious artists from Down Under do. But before they could make the move independently, they caught a break—snapped up by UK label Infectious Records, they signed to Glassnote in the States shortly after. Mere months later "Sweet Disposition" soundtracked the saccharine, wildly popular indie drama 500 Days of Summer, starring Zooey Deschanel and Gordon Joseph Levitt. Dougy's exuberant falsetto, delayed guitar ripples, and galloping drums became synonymous with that delicious rush of falling in love (in a nice v-neck sweater vest and skinny tie). It went platinum in America and four times platinum in Australia and they were off. "Listen, I get fucking sick of it," confesses Dougy, "but the crowd reaction doesn't get old. It's like anything in life: You're happy when you see other people happy."

Conditions remains an easy sell: ten succinct songs of unabashedly anthemic, radio-ready indie rock, interspersed with some melancholic navel gazing. They toured it hard and in their downtime they'd return to east London's unrelenting grey. They became pals with Mumford & Sons and members of Florence and the Machine's band, they laid down roots with a studio in King's Cross, (now rented by Lily Allen), but making new friends in London is tough.

"It took me a long time to like London, I'm talking years," Dougy explains. "Having been with the boys 24/7 for six, seven weeks straight, and then coming home to my big flat… I didn't really have friends because I didn't have time to make any friends. I was just a little depressed about being in London: I was living by myself and obviously drugs are very, very readily available and I kind of started doing that because I was really bored. But I'd do it alone. Then you get jittery and you start Skyping friends in Australia, and it's fucking 2 AM and they're half asleep, and I'm chattering away, fucking 50 miles an hour, and they go, 'Are you doing what I think you're doing? Who are you with?!' 'Oh, I'm by myself.' And they're like, 'Dude, that's really sad, maybe you should just go out and socialize and meet some people.'"

Before it became a serious issue, his manager had a concerned word, and then it was back to the grind with their second record, whose slightly synthier bent wasn't quite so rapturously received. Still, it held up thanks to their not so secret weapon: Dougy and his hooky toplines and the verve that vibrates through him onstage. "It's like a circular energy when you're playing: whatever you're emitting goes into the crowd and they throw it back at you," he says. "There's brief moments where you realize, shit, seven, eight years ago I was dreaming about this, now I'm here. Those people are singing the words to a song that I wrote fucking five years ago! That's pretty cool."

The following day I meet Dougy at his hotel, grabbing a table at one of the resort's al fresco eateries, birds are tweeting and our vista is many shades of neatly manicured green, which eventually give way to several infinity pools. One hundred and ninety-seven steps down the cliff face is the ocean, cerulean blue, white sand, paradise. Dressed in cut-off denim jeans and a vintage Rolling Stones tee—both a shade of black paled grey by countless washes—Dougy's hair curls enviably thick, well past his shoulders. It's the kind of hair that's inspired its own Instagram account. He slips into Indonesian to order vegetarian nasi goreng (egg fried rice) and we let our hangovers settle. Bali is where Dougy feels the most comfortable in his own skin. He has a house here where the renovations are almost complete and he tries to visit whenever he can. But the country's pace (slow) and pursuits (yoga, surfing, chilling) are not exactly conducive to the career of an ambitious musician.

Dougy is an only child, born to parents who had him when they were barely out of their teens and ill-equipped for the responsibility. At five years old they packed him off to live with his aunt and uncle and cousins in a small fishing village in North Sulawesi, a slender arm of land reaching up toward the Philippines. One of Dougy's earliest, most formative memories imprinted itself a year later: He remembers the house wailing, grief shaking the walls.

"The next thing I know my aunt was grabbing my tiny little arms and shaking me," he recalls. "She was in hysterics, going, 'Your dad died.' I had been away from my parents for a year at that point, so I was kind of detached from them. As far as I was concerned, my aunt and my uncle were my parents. I just remember being scared."

His father was one of six children and that day his grandparents lost not one, but three sons—all of them skydiving fanatics—packed into a small Cessna. From his vantage point on the ground, Dougy's grandfather watched the plane go down. Some 14 years later, Dougy's other uncle Theo, a skydiver whose forte was freefalling in snowflake formations, flew up for a sunset jump to celebrate a recent record-breaking leap. This time the parachute failed to open. Now, four sons gone. Shortly after his father's passing Dougy was shipped to Hawaii to live with his Aunt Wilma who'd married an American, Uncle Johnny.

"It's not uncommon in Indonesia for children to be passed around the family, it's very communal, basically you're raised by the whole village," Dougy shrugs. Being sent abroad for a better education was also commonplace. Nonetheless the move was a culture shock: Dougy didn't speak English and he was homeschooled with flashcards. He spent a lot of time drawing and thought he might be an illustrator for Disney when he grew up. Instead he became a rock star. His father, of whom he has the haziest of memories, loved Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, flannel shirts, and big belt buckles. Apparently he was "an insane guitarist."

When Dougy was 11 his mother sent for him to live with her in Bali. When he returned he didn't speak a lick of Indonesian. He liked cereal for breakfast, not rice and eggs, he was an other in his home country, he was frequently at odds with his peers, a regular at the principal's office (well he really shouldn't have shot Carlos with a BB gun, but it sounds like Carlos deserved it). Additionally, Dougy was adjusting to life with his mom, sorting through feelings of abandonment after being shunted between countries and family members. This feeling of isolation was further compounded by altercations with his mother's abusive boyfriend. At school, he'd lie about the bruises.

"I think that's what hurt me most: not having a dad and then only having your mother, who should be your protector, I guess, and she didn't protect me, and that really fucked me up," he explains. "In my high school years, I don't know if I was suicidal, but I definitely had suicidal thoughts, a lot, you know? You get bullied at school, and you come home, and you get the fuckin' daylights kicked out of you…"

Dougy speaks about this period haltingly, but stresses that his experiences weren't entirely his mom's fault, that "she was just a product of her environment, and she was neglected and abuse as a child," and that while it was never right, to a degree, this back-in-the-day, blind-eye behavior was cultural. "I grew up with resentment all my life. Not anymore, but for a large part of my life up until 24, 25, basically."

If you care to lean in close, there are allusions to this in Dougy's music—on the delicate "Soldier On" ("Just keep your head low / Don't think about it at all"), the sketch of a song that's "Lost Boy." Even more recently, on "Summer's Almost Gone" and "On the Run," there's a sense of yearning, searching, a tough to shake melancholy. Elsewhere, on "Alive"—with its monster chorus sounding like a seize the day affirmation—Dougy takes the verses to clinically dissect the modern rat race. While the singer has the propensity for peering into life's bleaker corners, but he's also reconciled his past and has no interest in dramatizing it. He smiles frequently, he's always game for one last drink and another smoke, he's really good fun. When sadness does simmer below the surface, it reads almost matter of fact. In the past he's spoken sparingly about his upbringing, but sitting in Bali and catching up again via Skype several months later, Dougy doesn't swerve a single nosey query I lob his way. Why talk now? Why not before? "Well because nobody asked. You're asking."

"You get bullied at school, and you come home, and you get the fuckin' daylights kicked out of you…"

Given his sense of dislocation, and fractious family life, it seems par for the course that Dougy would find comfort in music, but his immersion came relatively late in his teens. When living with his mom and his school troubles became untenable, Dougy was once again shuttled back to North Sulawesi. While the locals were still vibing on the remnants of hair metal, Dougy subscribed to Indo culture magazine Hai, obsessing over Weezer, Oasis, and Blur. He first saw Pulp sitting on a dirt floor at his friend's house watching a rickety TV, meanwhile his aunt and uncle—who were both involved in church choir—would schedule choir practice at home.

After high school Dougy's mom encouraged him to join her in Melbourne for college, so he packed up again, riding the city's trams, a homesick loner in a new land. It wasn't actually until he joined the missionary group, Youth with a Mission, or YWAM, that he found his tribe. Even though the organization's tagline is "Get to Know God and Let God Be Known," Dougy describes their core ethos as less about hardcore evangelizing and more about traveling to Fiji, Burma, and Thailand, and working with missionaries to build homes for refugees and those in need—God gets practical, if you will.

"I felt like I belonged in something and it gave me a purpose," he explains. But for many, Dougy included, there was a deeper appeal. YWAM attracted a rag-tag group of kids—many from broken, sometimes abusive homes—and once enrolled these kids were taught about the Father Heart of God. "They were trying to drill us with the idea of God the Father loving us unconditionally, trying to instill in us self worth again because it had been so damaged," says Dougy. "The people that were running this course were trying to fix us, really, and to be honest with you, for me it was really helpful. That place also made me grow the fuck up. It made me go, this is weird, this is making me feel uncomfortable, this is making me feel great, this is what I like, this is what I don't like, this is why I'm insecure."

These days Dougy describes himself as spiritual, but not necessarily religious. He didn't always fall in line with what was being taught. For instance ahead George W. Bush's re-election, YWAM encouraged praying for his success based not on the President's policies—they backed Bush simply because he was Christian. The ability to question and challenge was Dougy's takeaway; being blindly led was not something he was down for. YWAM was also formative because this is where he met Jonny, "a goofy little dork," whose father was the director of the organization at the time. They've been close ever since.

Post-festival, in a large, makeshift dressing room the guys are unwinding from their triumph over adversity. They sailed out on a high of sparkly confetti canons, lasers, and fireworks, the packed throng shouting along. "The crowd was great, very understanding, very, very kind," says Dougy, still dressed in his stage gear: white skinny jeans, beat up Chucks and his long hair braided into tight pigtails. "It was probably the loosest gig we've ever played since our very first-ever gig at my friend's little brother's 18th birthday, in Lilydale in Australia."

Here the room is full of well-wishers, 18 of them to be exact. They're all eager for a hello and a hug, and they're all related to Dougy. His mom, Dede, is the midst of it all, a petite lady with a big smile that crinkles the corner of her eyes. "Get ready for the photos," he tells me, grinning, "it's the Asian way." While Dougy poses for pics, I talk to Jonny, who now resides in Brooklyn, and who has an apparently endless stream of anecdotes where he's the nerdy, awkward punchline. Somehow we land on the topic of the many ways he tried to woo his wife in the early days. It took his father-in-law a minute to warm to the affable 30-year-old, not least because as a teen he selected a single rose to give his then girlfriend, only for her—and her father—to realize said fake flower was actually a rolled up red thong impersonating a rose. Now it's funny to imagine Jonny as unsuitable marriage material: he's a devoted dad of two, a man committed to his faith, and a deeply friendly dude who's made a lucrative career from a pipedream.

An hour or so later we pile into the van and head back to their resort just south of Jimbaran Bay, on Bali's lush Western coastline. Guitarist Joseph heads straight to bed, but a small crew stay up drinking on Dougy's balcony. Talking about the show, Jonny jokes about his rudimental Indonesian—"When I was onstage I said, 'I'm a gay monkey.' Do you think they connected with that?!"—and everyone cracks up. We shoot the shit till 4 AM when the night gets a little blurry and eventually Dougy slips inside to lie down, his face lit bright by his cell screen as he texts with his girlfriend Polina, who's at their home in Berlin. The couple moved there from London earlier this year, attracted, like all the artists who flee the English capital to Berlin, by the city's artsy thrum and (still relatively) cheap rents. Because The Temper Trap have been touring so much in support of Thick as Thieves, Dougy hasn't spent much time there, but he's utterly unfazed by the upheaval; his itinerant upbringing means he takes it in his stride. "For the longest time I just didn't care where I was, I didn't care if I lived in hotels for eight months of the year," he says. "The other guys are like, 'I can't wait to go home,' and I just wanted to go, go, go. It didn't make me sad to say goodbye."

But these days Dougy does understand the desire to stay put. When he gets off tour he'll do some napping and watch Narcos and write music. He'll be hanging out with Polina, and finding their spots, they'll make Berlin their home. Maybe one day Dougy will have a family of his own, perhaps he'll adopt, but he's undecided. It's not a priority. When I joke that he's old and settled, it's the latter word that irks him—"Settled. I wouldn't say I'm settled!" Of course not. It's the dreaded word, suggesting complacency and artistic death and right now Dougy's ambitions are laser-focused. "My goal is to make a record that is totally uncompromised," he states. "I just want to make something that goes straight from my imagination right into the music. I want to make something that's pure."

The Temper Trap Tour Dates
Dec 19 ACADEMY 2 Manchester, United Kingdom* (with Tempesst)

Dec 20 O2 SBE London, United Kingdom* (with Tempesst)

Dec 21 O2 INSTITUTION 2 Birmingham, United Kingdom* (with Tempesst)

Jan 18 MELBOURNE PARK Melbourne Vic, Australia

Jan 29 DEN ATELIER Luxembourg, Luxembourg

Jan 30 GRUNSPAN Hamburg, Germany

Jan 31 ASTRA Berlin, Germany

Feb 02 WUK Vienna, Austria

Feb 03 LUCERNA MUSIC BAR Prague, Czech Republic

Feb 05 MAGNOLIA Milan, Italy

Feb 06 QUIRINETTA Roma, Italy

Feb 07 NEW AGE Roncade, Italy

Feb 09 LES DOCKS Lausanne, Switzerland

Feb 10 THEATERFABRIK Munich, Germany

Feb 12 BIKINI Barcelona, Spain

Feb 13 SALA ARENA Alcorcón, Spain

Feb 14 LISBON CCB Lisbon, Portugal

Feb 15 HARD CLUB Porto, Portugal

Feb 17 LE TRABENDO Paris, France

Feb 19 COMPENSA HALL Vilnius, Lithuania

Mar 04 WANDERLAND FESTIVAL Manila, Philippines

Apr 14 LUSH FESTIVAL Clarens, South Africa

Apr 15 SPLASHY FEN FESTIVAL Underberg, South Africa

Apr 17 GREENPOINT CRICKET FIELDS Cape Town, South Africa

Jul 01 ATLANTIC FEST Villanueva, Spain

Thick as Thieves is out now on Infectious in the UK and Glassnote in the States.

Kim Taylor Bennett is an editor at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.