The Greatest psychedelic Cambodian pop band ever: An interview with Zac Holtzman of Dengue Fever
As San Francisco’s Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival approaches, guitarist and vocalist Zac Holtzman of the band Dengue Fever set some time aside for an interview. Dengue Fever heads to San Francisco tomorrow to show their documentary film “Sleep Walking through the Mekong” at the Red Vic theatre before playing Saturday at Outside Lands.
Fusing a unique blend of Cambodian pop music and 60’s Psychedelic rock, Dengue Fever has drawn growing attention since their 2003 self titled album release. The band carries one of the most interesting stories to complement their music. Before their 2001 formation, Zac’s brother Ethan traveled to Cambodia. While there, Ethan’s friend contracted the acute tropical disease–which became the band’s name–from a mosquito. On the cab ride to the hospital Ethan discovered 60’s style Cambodian rock, heavily influenced by Vietnam-era radio broadcasts of American and British psychedelic rock. Ethan returned to states with cassette tapes of the tunes, and as Zac describes, the band was born.
“At the time, I was in a different band in San Francisco called Dieselhed. We both realized we were listening to Cambodian 60’s music, and came up with a unique idea to base a band around that body of music. That was our spring board.”
The brothers searched the Los Angeles area for a native Cambodian singer before finding current singer Chhom Nimol. Nimol had performed before the Cambodian Royal Family and become highly successful in Cambodia before emigrating to America. Nimol fit for the band and the music built from there. “Because of the relationship that developed with Chhom Nimol with her learning English, and with us coming from background where we are used to writing all our own material, we grew into what we are now.”
While the music came easy, Nimol’s assimilation into American culture posed challenges for the band. “She’s been very slow to adapt to American culture. She lives in Long Beach where there is a huge Cambodian community. She’s surrounded by Cambodians, so she doesn’t have to speak any English. Her English has grown at a snail’s pace”. However, the Holtzman brothers & Co. worked to adjust and create an easier transition for Nimol, who originally sang all Dengue Fever songs in Khmer, the language of Cambodia and surround areas.
“The good thing is we are able to roll with whatever language she sings in. We just try to transcend language barriers. Her English gets better. She’s been here for about nine years. Her improvements in English and us being like a tight family, working together so much, we now know how she learns best.. We’re able to sort of present things to her in ways that make her able to learn new songs. Maybe they have English or Khmer, or a combination of the two.”
Following post-9/11 security measures, Nimol had a run in with the INS in San Diego that almost derailed Dengue Fever. “We were playing a show at the Casbah, and then coming home at 3AM. Nimol was riding with my brother in Honda, with all the equipment in back covered in sheet. There was a border check, and they shined flashlight, saw the sheet, questioned Nimol, and pulled out her expired passport. She was held for 22 nights. It was a really hard time. But it’s all worked out now. Everything is fine now, green cards, visas. And she wrote a song about it”.
Contributing to the developing trend of a blossoming new world music genre, Dengue Fever’s acclaim has drawn on their global influences and cross-cultural material. While fans were originally slow to accept their foreign brand of music, they’ve now earned an international following. “In the beginning, people were like, ‘Why are you singing in Khmer?’. To them it seemed like such a crazy idea. But there have been a lot more [similar artists] like MIA, Beirut, Chicha Libre, Extra Golden, and Gogol Bordello. We just played with [Gogol Bordello] in a festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We’ve seen a huge acceptance to the foggy border between genres.”
The band is traveling to show their recent documentary “Sleepwalking Through the Mekong”, which follows their trip to Cambodia. Zac talked about the adventures of returning to the birthplace of their musical influence. “It was an amazing trip. We were there for a month. We got to meet many really nice people and record with traditional master Cambodian musicians. We played some really fun shows, in some bizarre places. It was pretty weird, because we played for a TV show on one of the major Cambodian television networks, CTN. We played in the first day or two that we were there. Then, the whole time we were there, the two hour show was playing show four or five times a day, non stop. Everybody in the country knew our faces wherever we went. Kids on the beach would come ask us about shrimp or bracelets then stop and say, ‘Wait a second, I’ve seen you on CTN’. Then we’d all sing a song together. It was kind of a trip. But it was great.”
The style of 60’s Cambodian pop was nearly destroyed by the Pol Pot genocide of the Khmer Rouge communist regime in the country. Yet Zac noted how incredible it was to visit and play with the few preserved elements of the musical tradition. “Some of the instruments and musicians we recorded or played with were thousands of years old. And they may be the only surviving players of these instruments. It was really cool to see a part of that tradition being saved, livng on through kids being taught to play”.
Dengue Fever is currently in between labels, though ready to record over 20 songs Zac said the band has prepared for the studio. The hunt for the perfect label match has become much easier compared to the band’s earlier days, which were characterized by limited label support and dedicated live performances. “There are matches that seem like they’d be perfect, but we try to think about everything. Are they going to be able to appreciate that we’re not just an indie band, and not just a world band. It’s sort of a borderline thing, make sure they appreciate and see the potential. But we’ve got a lot more bargaining room now, after you’ve sort of proven yourself. Now anything is going to be a really big improvement.”
Sleepingwalking Through the Mekong Trailer
march_of_the_balloon_animals “March of the Balloon Animals” from the Sleepingwalking Through the Mekong soundtrack
Dengue Fever will be performing at the Outside Lands Festival on Sat. Aug 29th