Imagine wild organ swirls, rolling surf licks and jazzy party horns coupled with angular and decidedly eastern melodies, plus a sultry singer who shifts between English and her native Cambodian dialect. That’s just a fraction of what shapes Dengue Fever‘s original sound.
The band discovered its calling in Cambodia’s 1960s psychedelic Khmer rock, unearthed by band founder and keyboardist Ethan Holtzman on a trip to Southeast Asia. The music also resonated with Holtzman’s guitar-playing brother Zac. The pair formed a band featuring drummer Paul Smith, brass player David Ralicke and bassist Senon Gaius Williams to recreate this exotic sound. Musically assured, the brothers combed Long Beach, California’s Cambodian nightclubs for a singer to authenticate the band’s sound. Discovering Chhom Nimol, who they later learned had sung for the king and queen of Cambodia, she needed only to be convinced to join them. She was skeptical, but ultimately a bond was formed.
On the heels of the band’s fourth album, Cannibal Courtship, and subsequent western tour, Up On The Sun caught up with Smith recently at his West Hollywood, California, home to discuss the band’s formation, the recent “Electric Mekong Tour” of Southeast Asia promoted by the U.S. State Department, and the Willy Wonka-like Golden Tickets found in special vinyl copies of the new album.
Dengue Fever is scheduled to perform Thursday, January 26, at the Crescent Ballroom.
Up On The Sun: Tell me something about the Cambodian rock music that inspired Dengue Fever’s sound? What makes it different than American rock?
Paul Smith: The music came about at a time with American Armed Radio Forces were set up in Vietnam. Phnom Penh at the time was a pretty cosmopolitan city and songwriters were influenced by the music they were hearing, which was garage rock, surf music, British Invasion stuff, and mixing it with traditional Cambodian stuff that they knew. While the rhythm section might sound like British or American rock, the melodies they were putting on top of that were Cambodian with longer phrasing. And occasionally they would include a different (non-Western) instrument. It became a game of musical chairs.
Ethan discovered this music on a trip to Cambodia, and Zac also took a liking to it. When they put this band together and brought you in as the drummer, what did you think? What captured your attention?
Musically it was different than anything I was listening to at the time. It had a very unique characteristic that in a lot of ways was familiar, but there was this element of, for lack of a better word, exotica too it. It just sounded like a fun musical journey, but I was skeptical about the logistics of putting a band together like that when they said they wanted to find a (Cambodian) singer. I said, “I am happy to play, it was a cool idea, but I don’t know how you’re going to find a singer.” Famous last words. They went down to Long Beach, scoured the clubs and found Chhom Nimol.
What was her response when asked to join this American rock band intent on playing psychedelic Cambodian music? I can just imagine her rolling her eyes.