U.S. troops brought rock music to Cambodia; Dengue Fever is bringing it back
Rock bands often combine musical ingredients to create new sounds and styles, but Dengue Fever is probably the first to popularize a melting pot of American and Southeast Asian rock ’n’ roll. Now 10 years old, the Los Angeles-based six-member band is currently touring with their fifth full-length album, The Deepest Lake, including a local gig at Don Quixote’s on July 17. Singer and songwriter Zac Holtzman spoke with GT about the evolution of Dengue Fever.
How does Dengue Fever fit into the history of rock music in Cambodia?
ZAC HOLTZMAN: The Cambodians were inspired by the psychedelic rock, garage, British and surf music being broadcast to the troops [in the Vietnam War]. They added their own thing to it. We heard what they’d made and we were like “whoa!” It’s like a game of tag that goes back and forth. I guess we’re it now! [Laughs.] We’ve been back to Cambodia about five or six times as a band.
You also found Dengue Fever’s lead singer Chhom Nimol in Cambodia. How was she affected by the violence of the Khmer Rouge there?
Her family had to flee and live in a Thai refugee camp. Her sister, Chhom Chorvin, didn’t make it out, and they didn’t know if she was dead or alive until they heard her singing on the radio. When Nimol was a little girl, she heard her sister singing on the radio and her mom said, “That’s your sister! She’s on the radio.” Nimol was so young that she thought her mom meant that her sister was tiny and really inside the radio. We wrote a song about this and called it “Sister in the Radio.”
Part of that story is that her sister was being forced to sing nationalist propaganda songs on the radio.
Yes, dark times.
Speaking of dark times, not long after 9/11, Dengue Fever played a show in San Diego, and Chhom Nimol was arrested.
We were playing at the Casbah with Jonathan Richman. Coming home that night, my brother was driving with Nimol and she was arrested because her papers weren’t up to date. That was because of that code orange time we were living in.
You’re learning to play the flute?
I found a flute in the road. We have a song on the new album about it, “Golden Flute.” I was driving and I looked down out my window, and there was a flute in the road. It was a really good flute, made by Haynes in the ’70s. As I was looking for the owner, I saw it as a sign from the universe that I should try to play the flute. I found the original owner and his name is Ernie Fields Jr. He plays with some of James Brown’s old band members. He gave me a few lessons and ended up buying me a flute as a gift for finding his flute.
There’s a song on The Deepest Lake that has male and female vocals that reminds me a bit of early L.A. punk like The Alley Cats or X. What role has punk played in your life?
Punk shows were the first shows I ever went to—Bad Brains and X. We did get this sort of X-style harmony where two notes are riding on each other, but fighting each other at the same time. That’s our song “Rom Say Sok.” It’s based on a Cambodian mythological woman who has magical hair with the ability to suck up oceans.
At one time you were on Peter Gabriel’s label, and then you created your own record company Tuk Tuk Records. How’s that going?
We’ve always been self-produced. We were on Real World Records. Having your own label takes more work, but it’s more rewarding. Over the years we’ve seen mistakes that people made, and we try not to make those. We try to not do things like blow $10,000 to fly us out to play South By Southwest (SXSW) because it’s turned into such a big, crazy circus that it doesn’t make that big of a difference. I love going to Texas, but not during SXSW.
PHOTO: Dengue Fever plays Don Quixote’s on Friday, July 17.