Dengue Fever: "It Doesn't Matter...They Don't Know What the Hell We're Saying Anyway"
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.