'No Sudden Moves: The Dengue Fever Story'
For those not in the know, Dengue Fever is a six-member band from Los Angeles who combine Cambodian pop music and lyrics with psychedelic rock.
The band was formed in 2001 by Ethan Holtzman and his brother Zac after Ethan was inspired by a trip to Cambodia. As Ethan and Zac were searching for a vocalist to sing in Khmer, lead singer Chhom Nimol was discovered in a nightclub in the Little Phnom Penh area of Long Beach. She was already a well-known karaoke singer in Cambodia, but decided to move to the United States after visiting her sister, and thought it was a good chance to make more money to send to her family back home.
Zac is a vocalist and guitarist, formerly with Dieselhed, while Ethan plays the Farfisa organ. Rounding out the band are bassist Senon Williams (who played in Radar Bros until January 2009), drummer Paul Smith, and David Ralicke on brass.
Their self-titled debut album was released in 2003. All lyrics on the earlier albums are sung in Khmer, while the third album introduces some songs in English. Many of the songs are covers of 1960s Cambodian rock tunes by such artists as Sinn Sisamouth, Pan Ron, and Ros Serey Sothea, but some are originals, first written in English by the Holtzmans before being translated.
Having just released their sixth full-length album, The Deepest Lake this very year, I sat down with Ethan Holtzman, and we chatted about all things Dengue Fever. Indeed, I first wondered why it had taken nearly four years for this brand new full-length album to have come out? "In the last couple years we switched from being signed on with Concord/Fantasy Records and started our own record label Tuk Tuk Records. For the first two years we toured extensively supporting our last album. We put out an EP called Girl from the North."
"We also toured extensively both in the states and internationally. We took our time recording the Deepest Lake, making sure the album was ready to be released. Everything takes time and sometimes it feels like time is speeding up so four years just seemed to fly by."
Indeed, and over a decade later, how does this fifth album differ from your 2003 self-titled debut? "Well, the first album was mostly 60's Cambodian covers. We used that body of work as a spring board to develop our sound and write all original songs. I think on our latest album, we have all matured as musicians and collectively as songwriters we create more space for each other and try to do what's best for each song."
The new album has been noted as being your "most challenging to record" yet, but why is that exactly? "Personally, I don't feel it was the most challenging because Chhom Nimol, our lead vocalist, has learned to speak English so our communications have improved drastically. Where as in the past Nimol's English was quite limiting, maybe she could say "hello" and "thank you", so as you can imagine, that was quite an obstacle trying to explain what we envisioned doing for 1000 Tears of a Tarantula."
Also, why was it named The Deepest Lake? "We were invited to play a festival at Lake Baikal in Siberia which has the deepest lake on the planet. On two separate occasions we were very excited to perform there, but for some reason the shows fell through and we never got to explore this vast mysterious body of water. However it inspired us and spawned a whole slew of ideas. So we have created The Deepest Lake. Who knows, maybe we will go there still one day."
With a trademark blend of 60's Cambodian pop and psychedelic rock, was this always the musical genre of choice for DF? "Sure, but we are influenced by all types of music and and we will go outside of that label and pretty much experiment to keep things interesting. If we just played Cambodian pop psychedelic rock, I doubt that we'd be still recording new music this day."
Curiously taking your name from a mosquito-borne tropical disease caused by the dengue virus, what was the original thinking behind doing so back then? "My travel mate Ross, got bit by a day time mosquito carrying Dengue Fever. The bite probably occurred the day before, while we explored the ruins around Angkor Wat. We were traveling down from Siam Reap to Phnom Penh in the back of a pick up truck. Ross sat up front with the drivers, because he was sick with symptoms of Dengue Fever. He felt like hell and said things, with a thick Scottish accent, like, "Why did I ever come to this godforsaken place?"
"Meanwhile the truck driver was playing a cassette tape with the music of Sinn Sissamouth, Ros Sereysothea, and Pan Ron and it caught my ear and I asked who it was. I handed the driver my journal and he scribbled some names in Khmer and said, "Russian Market!" So I dropped off my sick friend at the hospital and went looking for these cassettes. I saw a man on the floor with all these wires going out to various cassette machines and the rest is history."
Your songs have appeared in some big movies, but have you ever written a song specifically for a movie, perhaps? "We wrote a score for an old silent film called the Lost World. Its a really neat Dinosaur adventure that predates King Kong - same creators, I believe. We performed it live three times, once to a sold out crowd at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, once at Royce Hall in UCLA, and another time in Dallas, I think."
"That was a great experience writing music to picture, using the film for time cues, and we had so many different instruments between the six of us, it was really challenging but beautiful. My eyes filled with tears when the credits rolled the first time we performed it live in SF. We put in so much work, I was really proud of ourselves and getting a standing ovation with my parents there was one of the musical highlights of my life."
"We also met Matt Dillon and together we decided to record Joni Mitchel's song Both Sides Now. It was used as the end title credit to his directorial debut City of Ghosts."
DF have entered into partnerships with a number of charitable organizations to support causes in Cambodia over the years, but as we're not called Exclusive Magazine for nothing, please tell us something (interesting) about the band that you have actually never revealed before! "Well we worked closely with Cambodian Living Arts headed by Dicken Verey. They help preserve the traditional songs and dance from Cambodia. One time while on tour in Cambodia, we played a concert for a completely deaf audience. The kids would put there hands, face, and ears on the amps or speakers to feel the vibrations."
With all you have done musically since 2002, inclusive of this new album, what's next for DF? "More touring, more recording, new ideas for art for merch. It's fun again to be in Dengue Fever."
Speaking of your art work, I find all your album covers to be very interesting. Well designed, well thought out, but who is it behind their creations? And which is your own personal favorite - and why? "Senon and Zac work the most on the artwork. I like the packaging for Sleepwalking for the Mekong, and I like Electric Cambodia a lot. The latter was a painting by a young khmer artist and we paid him for permission to use it for the album."
Lastly, we here at Exclusive Magazine LOVE penguins. Do you also, perhaps, and if so do you have any personal stories? "I don't have any stories about penguins. I have a decent pair of shorts that are made by a company called Penguin. I love birds and can tell you a story about a lady I met on Borneo who was looking for a spoon billed sand piper; maybe another day!"
Interviewed by: Russell A. Trunk