Khmer, check this out

Dengue Fever’s exotic blend of indie rock and Cambodian pop

You can call it “Cambodian indie rock” or ‘Asian psychedelic,” but Dengue Fever defies description.

You can call it “Cambodian indie rock” or ‘Asian psychedelic,” but Dengue Fever defies description.

photo by marc walker

KZFR presents Dengue Fever tonight, Feb. 12, 7:30 p.m., at the Chico Women’s Club. Bogg and Dr. Yes open.
Tickets: $15 at Lyon Books and
Chico Women’s Club:
592 E. Third St.

Dengue Fever is the brainchild of brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman, who simultaneously but separately discovered Vietnam-era Cambodian pop music in the late 1990s—Ethan through his travels in Southeast Asia and Zac via a CD passed to him by a record store employee in San Francisco.

The suitcase full of cassette tapes Ethan brought home became the foundation and inspiration for Dengue Fever, which they formed in 2002 with saxophonist David Ralicke (who’s played with Beck), drummer Paul Dreux Smith, and bassist Senon Williams (formerly of Radar Brothers). But it wasn’t until meeting singer Chhom Nimol performing at a Cambodian nightclub in Long Beach that the current lineup truly gelled and became the band that is still evolving musically today.

The group is touring in support of its new album, The Deepest Lake, and will be hitting the Chico Women’s Club tonight (Feb. 12). In anticipation, the CN&R talked with Ethan Holtzman about the band’s process, its exotic instruments and what to expect from Dengue Fever live.

CN&R: The band bio lists a lot of musical influences, and your videos show some interesting instruments—that double-neck guitar-thing in particular. Do you collect instruments in your travels, have them custom built, or do you seek out vintage instruments that are particularly suited to producing sounds that reflect those influences?

Ethan Holtzman: Mel Bergmann custom built the [double-neck] Mastadong for Zac. It’s half Fender Jazzmaster and half chapai dong veng—a traditional Khmer stringed instrument. It sort of symbolizes a mesh of musical cultures between East and West. In Cambodia we have gotten some nice chimes, bells and bamboo flutes that we use in the studio. We own lots of vintage instruments. Playing keys for Dengue, I have a few Farfisa compact organs made in Italy in the ’60s. Our studio is crammed with everything from a Bulgarian button accordion, to a ’70s Big Stud bass, and ’60s Rogers drums. Ralicke’s horn is worth more than most people’s car. We all collect and collaborate.

While watching the “Girl From the North” promo video, I was struck by your process of writing the songs’ lyrics in English and then translating them into the Cambodian language of Khmer using dictionaries. Does Chhom Nimol also write some of the lyrics and help in the translation process?

Yes, Nimol writes some of the lyrics in Khmer, and she helps out with the translation process. The hardest part with direct translations from English to Khmer is the amount of syllables. We often have to take the idea in English and strip it way down so just the most important words are left, getting the point across as poetically as possible.

What is the motivation for presenting many of the lyrics in a language that a majority of your audience won’t understand?

When we started the band, we covered songs from Cambodian artists that recorded in the late ’60s and early ’70s. We used that body of work as our springboard, and from there we started writing our own original music. We use Nimol’s voice just like one of our instruments. Hearing her sing naturally in her native tongue is a powerful force that we utilize as a part of our sound.

Any memorable audience reactions?

Yeah, there have been some special moments. One time a Cambodian grandmother got up on stage with us at a rock club in DC and sang a song. Another time in SF, a bunch of dudes started a break dance pit. Sometimes toward the end of our set, if there are Cambodians who want to jump up and dance or sing with us, we encourage it.

The Chico Women’s Club is a great old wooden-floored community hall—should people put on their dancing shoes in preparation for seeing Dengue Fever?

Yeah, for sure! Have them put on their dancing shoes and prepare to splinter the wood! It’s gonna be fun! We’ve never played a Women’s Club before.