Back in 2001, two brothers from LA – Ethan and Zac Holtzman – paid a visit to Cambodia. Whilst out exploring unknown geographical territories, they encountered fresh new sonic terrain: Cambodian pysch-pop. Inspired by their encounter and seeking to revive this little-known genre, the brothers returned to LA in search of a vocalist who could not only sing in Khmer but who would also be willing to front a brand new musical venture. Fate took them them to a Long Beach karaoke bar and it was there that they discovered Chhom Nimol – a Cambodian pop star. Dengue Fever was born.
Merging surf-rock guitars with traditional Cambodian pop, the six-piece strong collective – Chhom Nimol, Zac & Ethan Holtzman, Senon Williams, David Ralicke and Paul Smith – reawaken a canon of music obliterated by war and lost beneath the weight of history. With five albums and two EPS under their belt, their music has been featured in films (Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers and Matt Dillon’s City of Ghosts) and TV (True Blood, Weeds) and the band’s 2005 Cambodian tour was documented by the film Sleepwalking Through The Mekong. This latest, self-produced LP, Cannibal Courtship, is an invigorating, cross-cultural adventure which even employs a specially made hybrid guitar; the only one of its kind. Dazed Digital caught up with Dengue Fever to talk about the genesis of the band...
Dazed Digital: You recently played Ray Davies’ Meltdown Festival at the Southbank Centre. How did it go?
Ethan: It was incredible. Everyone was seated to start off with and we were thinking ‘I wonder if we can get everyone to get up and dance?’ So after about five songs in, Nimol asked everyone to dance if they felt like it. They all came down to the front and they stayed there. There was so much energy and the sound and the crew were perfect. It was my favourite show of the whole tour. Ray said that we reminded him of Blondie and Led Zeppelin and he had toured with both of them so that was pretty cool.
DD: What prompted you to go back to Cambodia in 2005?
Senon: We were in the studio in LA at the time and I remember there were rolling blackouts because it was so hot. When the power went down in the studio we all went out to the street and it was then that Nimol told us that she was thinking about going back to Cambodia because she’d just become legal and hadn’t seen her family for five years. That’s how we got the idea to go back. We called our friend John who’s a cinematographer and he was up for going out there with us and filming it. Four or five emails later we had managed to raise the funds. We always wanted to do what we were doing but take it back to the Cambodian people to get their reaction.
DD: What was the response like?
Ethan: It was great, people went crazy for it. There are a lot of foreign people working out there at NGOS and stuff and then there are the Cambodians. Westerners go to the western bars and Cambodians go to their karaoke bars, but we kind of brought them together. I was scared that the building was going to collapse at one point though!
Nimol: We played live on a TV show and some of my friends and family were very proud of me for singing in Khmer because they thought I would be singing in English like Beyonce or Britney Spears!
DD: How does this new album differ from previous ones?
Senon: This album has a crazy horn section, thanks to David. But I think one of the biggest things is one of Zach’s friend’s made him this two-necked guitar which has a traditional Cambodian instrument attached to a Jazz Master. It kind of sums us up: putting Cambodian culture and Western culture into this big, electrified instrument. It’s the only one in the world!
Dengue Fever will be playing Glastonbury this weekend