King Salamander's experimental sound and innovative instruments

The music of 1960s rock group The Doors plays quietly through a speaker in a garage in Mission Viejo.

Cullen Van Stouden walks over to his drums, near the rear of the structure, but he doesn't play them.


Instead, he opens the 26-inch Gretsch kick drum as he would a cabinet, revealing a mini bar with various specialty liquors and a cigar box engraved with an image of a salamander.

The drum set is just one of many unique instruments played by experimental Orange County band King Salamander.


"We didn't have anything to go off of for the drums," said Van Stouden, 27, of Costa Mesa, who built the kit with a master woodworker. "We had to dream it up, give it a shot, and it actually worked."

As imaginative as the five band members are with their performances, so are they with their instruments, which they either build themselves or pay people to build for them.

A custom wooden guitar and bass amps were created from used Hammond organs by Carl's Custom Amps and Analog Outfitters.

A piano, also transformed into a bar, is one of the band's favorites of their unique instruments, said King Salamander frontman Sterling Musk, who bought it in Texas. He also noted another customized piano.


"I've always wanted to take the keys off and sand them down, paint them and put them back on," the 29-year-old Mission Viejo resident said.

So he arranged it. Now the key are painted red and purple.

"Our house artist, Travis Tate, painted them, put them back on and it plays and looks great," Musk said.

The group also has custom square-shaped guitars that are made from old cigar boxes, which guitarist Jack Mason said gives the instruments a different kind of sound.

The instruments are all part of the old-school jazz lounge sound King Salamander is aiming for.

The blend of big band jazz, Latin and rock accompanies the snazzy outfits that the musicians wear in an effort to transport the audience back to a 1920s-type setting at its live shows.

"It's an experience," said Mason, 37, of Lake Forest. "It's not just going to see people play instruments. You're immersing yourself into a world that we created."

That world extends to King Salamander's debut album, "Salamander Lounge," which was released Sept. 26.


Musk said he would describe the sound, which is influenced by The Doors and 1990s jazz/rock group Morphine, as "a modern Rat Pack with an edge to it." Rat Pack refers to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford, friends from the 1950s and 1960s who performed together.

Like a salamander, he added, "it is mysterious, dangerous and sexy."

As the music plays on the 12-song disc, the clinking of glasses and chatter can be heard, sounds meant to evoke for listeners a lounge bar.

At the live shows, the group often hands out shots and other samples of alcohol that they grab out of their converted instruments. The libations are provided to them by companies that endorse them, like Hotel California Tequila, Bottle Logic Brewery in Anaheim, East Side Distilling and Nolet's Gin.

"I reach out, sometimes blindly, to companies and just keep them updated on what we're doing," Musk said. "After a while, some get interested and want to partner with us. These people get a lot of inquiries on a daily basis, so you have to really show that you are different. People are just intrigued by our vibe."

Musk, who sings on a wooden microphone stand that is specified to his height and looks like a pool stick, said the group never planned on the alcohol endorsements or all the unique instruments.

"It kind of just evolved.... The sound and vibe lent themselves to those things," he said.