Imagine wild organ swirls, rolling surf licks and jazzy party horns coupled with angular and decidedly eastern melodies, plus a sultry singer who shifts between English and her native Cambodian dialect. That's just a fraction of what shapes Dengue Fever's original sound.
The band discovered its calling in Cambodia's 1960s psychedelic Khmer rock, unearthed by band founder and keyboardist Ethan Holtzman on a trip to Southeast Asia. The music also resonated with Holtzman's guitar-playing brother Zac. The pair formed a band featuring drummer Paul Smith, brass player David Ralicke and bassist Senon Gaius Williams to recreate this exotic sound. Musically assured, the brothers combed Long Beach, California's Cambodian nightclubs for a singer to authenticate the band's sound. Discovering Chhom Nimol, who they later discovered had sung for the king and queen of Cambodia, she needed only to be convinced to join them. She was skeptical, but ultimately a bond was formed.
On the heels of the band's fourth album, Cannibal Courtship, and subsequent western tour, Up On The Sun caught up with Smith recently at his West Hollywood, California, home to discuss the band's formation, the recent "Electric Mekong Tour" of Southeast Asia promoted by the U.S. State Department, and the Willy Wonka-like Golden Tickets found in special vinyl copies of the new album.
Dengue Fever is scheduled to perform Thursday, January 26, at the Crescent Ballroom.
Up On The Sun: Tell me something about the Cambodian rock music that inspired Dengue Fever's sound? What makes it different than American rock?
Paul Smith: The music came about at a time with American Armed Radio Forces were set up in Vietnam. Phnom Penh at the time was a pretty cosmopolitan city and songwriters were influenced by the music they were hearing, which was garage rock, surf music, British Invasion stuff, and mixing it with traditional Cambodian stuff that they knew. While the rhythm section might sound like British or American rock, the melodies they were putting on top of that were Cambodian with longer phrasing. And occasionally they would include a different (non-Western) instrument. It became a game of musical chairs.
Ethan discovered this music on a trip to Cambodia, and Zac also took a liking to it. When they put this band together and brought you in as the drummer, what did you think? What captured your attention?
Musically it was different than anything I was listening to at the time. It had a very unique characteristic that in a lot of ways was familiar, but there was this element of, for lack of a better word, exotica too it. It just sounded like a fun musical journey, but I was skeptical about the logistics of putting a band together like that when they said they wanted to find a (Cambodian) singer. I said, "I am happy to play, it was a cool idea, but I don't know how you're going to find a singer." Famous last words. They went down to Long Beach, scoured the clubs and found Chhom Nimol.
What was her response when asked to join this American rock band intent on playing psychedelic Cambodian music? I can just imagine her rolling her eyes.
She didn't readily accept it. She was very skeptical. She had an older sister who she sang with a lot who was there and the older sister basically said no to it. But they persisted and she was ultimately really curious why these American guys were interested in music that at the time was several generations old. Her age group wasn't listening to that music. They knew it, but it was kind of like classic rock or something. So she did say no at first but they kept pestering her a bit and she agreed to come to one audition. She showed up to that audition and we had other singers there who said she'd never show up. She was too big of a star. We had no idea she had a name in the Cambodian community. But she did show up, which was great for us, and when she started singing it was like, "Oh, there it is." It sounded right. We all got chills. The music came alive and we knew we got the answer we were looking for. Somehow, even though she couldn't speak English and always had like 10 people with her, we managed to keep it going and have rehearsals and she stuck with us.
In the early days the band seemed focus on sounds more Cambodian than American, but the new album, Cannibal Courtship seems a balanced mix of that and American rock. The band is 10 years old, so how has the sound developed and changed over the years?
It's been a very organic process. The first record was all covers. We never intended to be a cover band, we just wanted to use those covers to start the band and see where it would take us. Gradually we began letting our influences seep in and over time made sure to allow that. It wasn't like our formula is this and it's what people are enjoying, let's stick to that. Instead it was let's write music together and come up with original stuff and make sure we invest ourselves in it and be honest and enjoy it. Over the years you naturally tinker with different influences.
One advantage here, even starting as a cover band, is that you're covering Cambodian rock, something few Americans would know. People are automatically going to think you're an original band.
People really had a good reaction to it right off the bat. I think that's probably why. At the time the scene here in LA was all shoegazer rock and emo was happening and there were just a lot of depressed people on stage with guitars. It just wasn't who we are. We presented a more chaotic, interesting, different kind of show and it sunk in with people.
Initially, Nimol did most of the singing, but now you've got Zac and Nimol exchanging vocals on tracks like "Sober Driver" (from Venus on Earth) and "Cement Slippers" (from Cannibal Courtship), often in a fun take on relationships. Has it taken a while for this dynamic to reveal itself or was this in part due to language barriers?
Both. We grew closer as a band and became a family over the years and at first because of her lack of English we couldn't develop that kind of back and forth. Even with this type of musical format I think we had to develop first as people and then you can begin to play with that relationship. We started touring and being squeezed into a tiny van you can't hide. She's a great road dog, so to speak. She put up with five guys and became like our little sister. So we were able to develop that back and forth dynamic more.
So the U.S. Department of State selected Dengue Fever to tour Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos in 2011. You've toured Southeast Asia before, and it seems a natural fit. How is the response there?
When you play the clubs there (in the cities) ... those are not really that different--the same high energy, people going crazy. It really a mixed crowd like in the states. But when you do these cultural ambassadorships and go to these small provinces that rarely, rarely, rarely have live music, let alone a rock band, then you're getting reactions like, "When did this spaceship land and where did these aliens come from?" It takes a long time to absorb it. These are farmers and not people who go to concerts. They are just watching and it's very strange to them. But to me that's a beautiful moment. It's a unique moment, because playing to those people is like bringing something new to them, sharing something with them. It's a different approach that seems really human and keeps it exciting. Those experiences really stick with you and mean a lot, because at the end of the day they resonate and become part of you.
Anything standout from the trip, anything unusual or unexpected occur?
There was a giant moth that landed on my leg while I was playing at one concert and stayed there for about 45 minutes, but I don't know if that counts. [Laughs]
OK, anything else?
Some of the workshops that are set up by the embassy are amazing. We did this one in Battambang (Cambodia) at a performing arts school. These kids learned all kinds of instruments, but also acrobatics. It was like a circus school. We jammed with these kids there ... they were just really open to anything. They just wanted to jam. We just walked in, didn't say anything, kind of shook our heads, and sat down and started playing immediately. What happened was really nice. All these jams just came out of nowhere in a room filled with strangers. We never really talked to them, but we could sit down and play this music. It's kind of an extension of how being in the particular band allows us to have these kind of experiences I'm really lucky to have. It's another by-product of playing music, reaching people and having something special come from it; changing my perspective on the world and maybe changing someone else's perspective. And that becomes much bigger than playing music. It happens on these types of tours. It's like the trophy of these tours.
Many people think that videos killed the imagination of music listeners. They see what you think the song is about, and don't visualize what it means to them. However, with some of your songs sung in Cambodian, videos like that for "Seeing Hands" instead have the listener wondering what the lyrics really say based on the images. That's kind of a cool twist. Is that a conscious thought in making your videos?
We joke about it: "It doesn't matter. They don't know what the hell we're saying anyway, but we know what the song is about." But we don't consciously make a video where the storyline is completely distant from what the song's about. But we are aware of the sense of freedom we are allowed because of that.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
One last question. For the 2011 Record Store Day limited vinyl release of Cannibal Courtship Zac made five Golden Tickets, ala Willy Wonka, that were inserted into the albums. Each was good for a free concert. Have they all been redeemed?
It's a free concert for your life, I believe. It's not one show, it's forever. It's either forever or a year, but either way it's more than one concert. Two tickets have been redeemed. One girl in Philly I know of for sure, and I'm not sure where the other was, but some are still out there in the world in the vinyl. Keep looking for that Golden Ticket.
Dengue Fever is scheduled to perform Thursday, January 26 at the Crescent Ballroom.