Interview: Here We Go Magic Frontman on His Month in Sri Lanka

In 2009, the civil war in Sri Lanka ended with the Tamil Tigers admitting defeat. While tourism to the island has been growing rapidly since then, it is still a relatively new trend, which is precisely why musician Luke Temple opted to visit the South-Asian nation.
09/18/2013 03:26 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2013

Sri Lanka is an island country in the Indian Ocean with a rich Buddhist heritage, but it is mainly known for a 26-year-long civil war between its military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who tried to form an independent state. In 2009, the war ended with the Tamil Tigers admitting defeat. While tourism to the island has been growing rapidly since then, it is still a relatively new trend, which is precisely why musician Luke Temple opted to visit the South-Asian nation. "It seemed like it would be more of a real experience . . . and it was," said Temple. "I went to the north, where the war was: Barbed wire everywhere and really poor. People seemed scared still. They've lived years with a mandatory curfew; no restaurants, nothing to do at 5 o'clock."

Temple's Brooklyn-based band, Here We Go Magic, spent the majority of 2012 touring, and with the forthcoming release of his solo album, Good Mood Fool, it's a safe bet that the singer will be on the road for most of next year, as well. I spoke with Temple, fresh off his month-long, solo voyage in Sri Lanka, to find out how someone who travels for a living chooses to spend a vacation.

What was the weirdest thing you saw in Sri Lanka?

I took a kayak into this lagoon where someone told me I could see elephants bathing. I saw a huge pile of elephant shit in the water and paddled towards it. It had to have been six feet of elephant shit just peeking out of the water. When I came close, I realized it was a group of water buffalo with their heads sticking out of the water.
[Also], there were some German girls at the hotel I was staying at. One day they were sitting outside of their palapa hut, and standing on the beach, 10 feet away, staring at them, was a Sri Lankan man masturbating in broad daylight. They screamed for him to go away and he just smiled and continued his business. This part of Sri Lanka is Muslim; the women are completely covered. So, when these European girls come and take their tops off, these guys totally lose their minds. It's very complicated, as you can imagine.

Did you play any music while you were there?

I wrote some songs. There was a lot of alone time. The last week and a half, I was the only person staying in this hotel on top of a hill, overlooking the valley, with this family and nowhere to go. It was just jungle and this tiny switchback road going forever to nowhere. I was stuck in a big white house with a family, so I played a lot of guitar.

Did the family speak English?

Yeah, they spoke English. Donald, the husband, had to drive me if I had to go anywhere. He would drive and anytime I would say a word or even open my mouth, he would stop the car to give me his undivided attention. I couldn't talk to him! I would have to remain completely silent to get anywhere. And his name was Donald! He was Sri Lankan, but his parents just decided to give him an English name.

What does Sri Lankan music sound like?

It sounds like Indian music, but that's just hearing it without paying attention to subtle nuances. It's Sitar and Tabla drums. Music doesn't seem like it's a huge part of their culture, to be honest. I think their music is sort of relegated to religious ceremonial events. They're not really playing out in the streets.

I was staying in Arugam Bay trying to learn to surf, which was really embarrassing. It's so hard! The wave at this beach is one of the best in the world, so there were Pro Australian dudes there and I looked like a total idiot. This was the only place that had a social scene because it was a surfing town, so there were bars. One guy had a residency at this bar and -- as cool as the surfing life is -- those folks had the worst taste ever. This guy did this kind of Jack Johnson rap/folk shit. It was awful. Every one loved it too. He played guitar all percussively. It was terrible. I would go because it was the only thing to do.

What area did you enjoy most?

Ella, central mountainous region: Beautiful tea plantations and waterfalls.

How did Ella differ from Sri Lanka's other regions?

The weather was perfect and the people there have goat genes from 2,000 years of careful crossbreeding. [The goats] have horizontal pupils.

What was the food like?

Light curries, coconut sambol, chili powder, red onions and lime.

Did you notice any surprising cultural differences?

One thing I noticed was touching. When men greet each other and shake hands, they tend to hold each other's hand for a very long time as they talk. The people generally have a very nice, relaxed way of being with one another.

Any tips for someone who is planning to visit Sri Lanka?

Don't go to the northeast and forget sunscreen because you won't be able to find it.