Catching Up with Sweet Cambodia

The guys from Sweet Cambodia will open for the likes of Weezer, Young The Giant, and Iration at the Florida Man Music Festival Nov. 30. Photo by Fletcher A. McCall

Local Band Won an Opening Gig for the Florida Man Music Festival Nov. 30

Drummer Donnie Fusion. Photos by Fletcher A. McCall (More photos, end of story)

By Fletcher A. McCall

Anyone who’s played an instrument with friends has had the thought, “Let’s start a band.” It’s a fun idea, but without serious dedication of time and a massive amount of creativity, it’s a fool’s errand. It takes the right kind of person to be internally driven and forward thinking enough to take on the task of making a band work. Local band Sweet Cambodia comes in ahead of the race. All three members—Eric Charles, Donnie Fusion and Savvy—fit this description. After reporting on these righteous dudes a few weeks back when they won The Big Break contest, I met back up with Sweet Cambodia to discover a bit about the band’s history as well as how the three of them have been since winning the contest and what they’re doing to prepare for the upcoming Florida Man Music Festival, Nov. 30.

How have you guys been since The Big Break?

Eric: We’ve had some pretty loyal fans that saw us, for the first time, out there and followed us to last night’s show, which is really cool. We’ve made a lot of friends since then.

You guys played two shows yesterday, what and how were they?

Donnie: Well, the first one was Valencia College Radio.

Savvy: VCR!

Donnie: We went and did the VCR thing, and it was pretty interesting. We met a lot of people, it was super-hot, and we got free pizza.

Eric: And we were on the radio!

Donnie: Yeah, for like 35,000 people. And then we went home, and died. Then came back to life to play Twisted Tuesdays, the first Twisted Tuesdays at the Henao Center (Edgewater Drive, Oralndo). It was a really good turnout and the crowd was pretty crazy. And there were bras on stage so, that’s always a good sign.

Individually and together, how long have you guys been playing music?

Savvy: I’ve been playing bass since 2013, so it’s five years, going on six. I played trombone for six years before that and piano two years before that. I’ve been with the band since 2014.

Donnie: I’ve been playing for 13 years now. I started back when I was 10, my best friend had a shitty garage drum kit in her house, she was like, “Hey do you want to go jam?” And I was like, “Yeah, I don’t know how, but I’ll try.” I played something, and we both looked at each other. It was that moment of “oh my god, we just made something,” and I got that excitement for the first time in my life, like “I just did something.” I fell in love with it immediately; I fell in love with the feeling of doing something that was me. I stuck with it and bought a drum set within a year after that, after pissing off her parents every day. I practiced like eight hours every day until now.

Eric: I’ve been playing guitar for 14 years, since I was 9 years old. And I’ve been playing with Sweet Cambodia since I met Savvy, in the halls of Valencia in 2014, September of 2014.

What’re your top three inspirations and one song you play frequently driving in your car?

Donnie: Top three bands right now that I’m listening to, Polyphia, Movements, and surprisingly enough, because I just saw them live, Real Friends. I met the lead vocalist, and we ended up talking at this bar when he was on tour, and I thought he looked familiar, and he put me on his guest list for his sold-out show. So, I go there and listened to their stuff and was like, “Wow! These guys are amazing,” so I’ve been listening to their stuff for a good bit now. I would say “Day Lilies” by Movements is something I’ve been listening to a lot right now, and “O.D.” by Polyphia, because we’re learning the song, and Goat. And, “On the Outside” is a great song by Real Friends and so is “Late Nights in My Car”. Super angsty stuff and I love it.

Savvy: I would definitely have to start off by saying Red Hot Chili Peppers. They have been a really deep inspiration of mine, in terms of longevity, journey and progression. My second band … this is so hard, having to narrow it down to just a few. I really, really enjoy Authority Zero. Their bass player is insane, with chugging train fingers. For some reason, that’s always inspired me to pick up a guitar. That grilling punk rock sound. They might not be the biggest punk band ever, but that shit just gets me. Lastly, James Brown and the James Brown Band, and all the members that went on to do different stuff. There’s something so tight about what they did and performed. That’s explosive energy and classy music, and that’s not easy to do. A song I listen to, all the time, in my car is “Giorgio Moroder” by Daft Punk, and it’s literally just Giorgio Moroder, a synthesizer player from Germany, I think, and he just revolutionized the sound. He does a speech over the whole thing, there’s a sick solo and sick parts all through it. It always, always inspires me.

Eric: The Beatles are probably one of the biggest influences on my writing, technique and overall approach, to guitar and music. George Harrison is one of my all-time favorite guitar players. I would say Theo Katzman of Vulfpeck is an incredible musician and makes we want to practice. And a band I’ve been listening to a lot lately is a band called Passafire. They’re like a funky, reggae band. The song “Submersible” by them is one I’ve been playing a lot.

Largest Audience and Longest Tour?

Savvy: The largest stagnant audience we’ve played for is the House of Blues. During the time of our performance there was anywhere between 800 to 1,200 people in the building, going crazy during our show. Tour-wise, we do our own tours. So, we’re always kind of growing and building ourselves, so the NEXT tour will be the biggest tour.

Donnie: They’re off and on. Sometimes, you’ll get a really good stack of bands and there’s a really good turnout at the shows, and other times you get screwed by some dude named … I can’t remember his name. But then you don’t have a place to stay at when you’re stuck in Montgomery, Alabama, or whatever. It’s happened.

Best way to stay busy when you’re not playing music together?

Savvy: I’ll be honest with you, we’re always busy. There is no time to kill.

Eric: I wake up, go to practice, go to work, then I go home to sleep. Then, I wake up, go to practice, go to work, then go to sleep. Sometimes, I wake up, go to work, then go to practice, then go to sleep. Or I wake up, go to practice-

Savvy & Eric: Go to work, go to practice again, and then to sleep.

Eric: Yeah, I really don’t have time to do anything else, literally. I skateboard, I surf, I never have time to do either.

Savvy: I play video games, I have a dog, I try to do as much as I can.

Donnie: I play music.

Where do growing musicians work?

Eric: I’m a server at a pizza place called Uno pizzeria. It’s off I-Drive. And I’m a vibe host, which is basically a fancy tour guide, so I pick the music for and give tours of the biggest Hard Rock Cafe in the world, over at City Walk. They’ll be like, “Who’s the vibe tonight?” and look and be like, “Eric. Eric’s the vibe tonight.”

Donnie: The only other side job I have is modeling, that’s it.

Savvy: I work for Invicta, and I sell expensive watches to rich people. I’m actually wearing an Invicta S-1 limited edition JT.

Do you guys still get nervous when you play?

Savvy: Absolutely.

Eric: I get nervous about people showing up, rather than when they show up or if they’re not there. If the crowd is packed, and wild, I’m more excited, like you’re about to release an animal back into the wild, kind of thing.

I mean, you did get naked last night.

Eric: I did. HALF naked, yeah.

Donnie: I swear, one of these days we’re all going get naked on stage, by the peer pressure of the crowd.

How consistently do you guys write new music?

Savvy: Now, non-stop. We try to work around the shows we’re doing because we have to work on our sets for the performances. But it’s at the point now where we have music written in the studio right now, and are planning to record new stuff, while we’re writing new stuff, and we’re planning new stuff for spring.

Donnie: All while trying to get our setlists together.

Savvy: It’s really never ending. It’s whenever we can meet up and put time aside for writing. We try to have at least one writing session a week, because we usually rehearse like 3-4 times a week.

Eric: It depends on our schedule, really.

What does your writing process consist of?

Donnie: That’s a good question, really. It all depends on who brings what to the table. Sometimes Eric will bring something to the table, sometimes Savvy, or even I will. If I bring a guitar part to Eric, he’ll take it and make it Sweet Cambodia, basically. And then he’ll give it back to me, and we’ll write a groove to it and kind of go into detail from there. Or we’ll mix things up, someone will say, “I like this part but not that part,” and we figure out how to get from one piece to the next, and how to write a good hook, then figure out a transition for it all. It’s like a little puzzle.

Eric: That’s basically how it goes. We find a stem, and then we jam on the stem and hear where we want to go with it, and the pieces kind of fall into place. If we have a busy week, we’ll sometimes just run set and head out of practice, instead of spending time writing.

Donnie: If we do have a busy week, normally we try to fit something in at the beginning of practice. Just so we can remember the idea we were working on so we can be like, “All right, we got to a good point,” and we can work out our setlist for the next show.

Is there anything new people might expect to hear at the Florida Man Festival?

Eric: Yes.

Donnie: Absolutely. We have a lot of stuff that we wrote after we put out our EP, that’s available on basically everything, (Tasty, released 2017). We have a second EP coming out soon, and we’ve even written past that.

What was your take on The Big Break contest?

Eric: It was fun. Actually, the guitarist Jordan, that’s in Kasson, is a server at Hard Rock, so it was kind of like a friendly competition.

Donnie: I didn’t know that. I met the vocalist for Kasson at a show a week prior and we became friends, and we started talking about how we were both musicians. Then like two weeks later we’re battling against each other, and I was like, “Yo, what’s up dude, this is crazy, right?” and it felt like we were meant to run into each other. The overall experience, as far as being on stage was pretty wild.

Eric: Electric.

Donnie: Yeah, it was pretty intense. There was a lot of stuff we didn’t expect to happen, AKA, the panda bears going up on stage, rocking out, and throwing candy into the crowd.

Eric: Out of Sweet Cambodia jack-o-lanterns they’d painted themselves.

Savvy: They surprised us with that.

Donnie: They literally just showed up in panda suits and just did their thing. They were handing out candy outside, too. And the CONGA LINE! Yeah, that broke out and I was like really weirded out on stage. I’m playing and I like to look out in the crowd because I like to make personal connections with people when I play, and looked out in the crowd and there’s like a conga line just going around in circles and I’m just jamming out thinking, “What am I looking at right now?”

Was the win a surprise for you guys?

Eric: We were in a battle of the bands in early February for the Lake Okeechobee music festival. And out of like 3,000-something bands, we made it to the top five, which was great and we were stoked. But unfortunately, it was judged not on talent or anything like this battle of the bands (Big Break), that was mainly presence and performance, but (Okeechobee)was how many people showed up. It was a popularity contest. We, being just three guys, we did all we could and pushed really hard and it was really great. Our competitor brought out her whole sorority and even rented buses to transport them.

Donnie: She definitely put in the extra effort she needed to, to win, and we were unprepared.

Eric: We had no idea. We didn’t even think about it. She had a bus going from UCF to her show.

Donnie: She had connections and she used them to her advantage, I thought that was a very smart move.

Eric: But it ended up being so close. It was 130-132, so like SO close. So, I was having bad flashbacks about that.

Donnie: Yeah, when they were about to announce that, I tried not to get my hopes up because I’d gotten them up last time, and I was upset for a few days after. Just because it was such a good opportunity, when we didn’t win, it was like “F**K”. So, for this, we were sitting there anticipating that moment and they said, “Drumroll please…” and I just thinking, “Stay calm, I still had a good time, don’t get too upset,” you know preparing myself in case we didn’t win. But we did win and it was lit.

How are you guys feeling about playing Florida Man?

Eric: Super Stoked.

Donnie: Anxiety. Straight up. We’re playing the Orlando amphitheater, playing with bands like Weezer, Young The Giant, Iration; all giants. They’re all huge bands and the opportunity here is like really awesome, but at the same time we’ve never played an amphitheater or had that many eyes on us. Including big people that could change our lives. All those people are going to be there, like managers and producers. People traveling with the bands like Weezer. So, we’ve got to bring our A game. So, we’re practicing extra hard this month.

Who are you guys excited to see there?

Eric: Weezer and Iration.

Savvy: Sir Sly and Alice Merton. Those are the two bands that are going to be, absolutely, TO SEE, at the festival.

Donnie: I want to see Two Feet because, honestly, he’s got some really good songs and they’re super sexual so, I’m into it.

What are you guys doing to prepare for the festival?

Eric: Practice twice a day, 3-hour sessions, usually.

Savvy: Not leaving each other alone, in terms of staying responsible and practicing. Promoting and marketing. That’s one of the most important things when being a band at this level, promote, market, market, promote. It’s all you.

Anything you all would like to add?

Savvy: We released a live session video about a month and a half ago. It’s at 96,000 views, and that’s a huge response to what we’ve been doing. It’s overwhelming, really.

Donnie: As far as milestones we’ve been hitting lately, that one has been one I was really excited about hitting. I didn’t really expect that response, from that video, so it was really cool that it reached that many people and that people really liked it that much.

Eric: I like to say it went semi-viral.

One strange fact about each of you:

Eric: I can solve a Rubik’s cube.

Donnie: I got nothing.

Savvy: Nothing? Come on, Don! I can name three, just for you.

Donnie: Really? That’s funny, I can name three for Eric. He wears the same socks to every show.

Eric: Ah… That’s true.

Savvy- You can throw anything at Eric and 98 percent of the time, he’ll catch it. Even if he’s not looking, it’s instinctual.

Donnie: Even if he’s not looking, at all.

Savvy: I don’t know if that’s abusive or athletic at that point. Donnie also has an insane sense of smell.

Donnie: I can really smell. Like, if it’s really bad, like you’re in New Orleans, it’s really bad. I can smell the throw-up and piss, and rats.

Eric: I’ll give one for Savvy. Donnie and Savvy, but Savvy more. If you ask him any fact that has to do with anime, he will know the answer. Anime or Japanese culture.

How did you get the name of your band?

Savvy: I’ll be honest, the reason I choked earlier is because I was going to lie to you, but here it is. We made a blood oath with a sweet wizard, a candy wizard basically, and we had to cut ourselves with candy canes over a shrine of ginger bread cookies. We had to do a ritual where we sang Merry Christmas backwards, and that’s how we became Sweet Cambodia.

Eric: Boom.

If this doesn’t make you want to get off your phone (or computer) and listen to their album, go see them live. No matter what platform, go listen to Sweet Cambodia. This group of guys put in an excessive amount of effort to get where they are today, and they show no sign of slowing down. This is still the beginning of the Sweet Cambodia story, and it is just now unfolding.

Below top photo: Eric Charles feels the music while getting ready for the Florida Man Music Festival. Photos by Fletcher A. McCall

Below bottom photo: Savvy, left, and Eric Charles jam in preparation for the Florida Man Music Fest Nov. 30.



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