: Dengue FeverDate
: January 2010Publication
Details: Article including an interview with Ethan Holtzman, founding member of LA rock band Dengue Fever, for Seattle-based Jewish webzine Jew-ish.com.
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Few westerners know it, but in the 1960s Cambodia had a huge pop music scene, with artists recording hundreds of songs, playing concerts, and selling records all over the country. Intellectual city-dwellers that many of them were, most of those artists were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime, and much of the music was lost. It was certainly unknown to most Americans — that is, until two Jewish brothers from Los Angeles decided it was time for a revival. Dengue Fever, founded in 2001 by Ethan and Zac Holtzman, has toured the country and the world with their blend of Cambodian pop and psychedelic rock. With bassist Senon Williams, drummer Paul Smith, David Ralicke on brass, and vocalist Chhom Nimol (a Cambodian singer they met in a karaoke bar), the brothers have spent the last nine years making some of the weirdest music to ever inspire Americans to get up and dance. While preparing for their upcoming tour (including a stop in Seattle), Ethan Holtzman took some time to tell me a little about how his very unique band got started.
In 25 words or less, what is Dengue Fever’s deal?Ethan Holtzman:
Asian psychedelic rock music [with a] dance party vibe, and our vocalist, Chhom Nimol, takes it all over the top and gives you the chills.Jew-ish.com:
How did you first become exposed to Cambodian music?Holtzman:
Back in ‘98 I traveled in Southeast Asia for six months, and I came across some Cambodian rock and roll that they were selling on cassette tapes in the old Russian market in [the capital] Phnom Penh. That’s when I first purchased some. When I first heard it was on the truck ride from these famous ruins in Cambodia called Angkor Wat. I was in the back of the truck, crammed in with all these locals, and the driver was playing this cassette tape on a little radio, these really good songs by Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea and Pan Ron. He wrote it down in Khmer, and I went to the shops and showed them this little slip of paper…next thing I knew I had a whole stack of really good stuff.Jew-ish.com:
Did you make the instant connection of wanting to play this music, or did that come later?Holtzman:
That came later. It became the main thing I was listening to, to the point where the cassette tapes were breaking and I was tying knots in the tape, quite literally. Then my brother was down from San Francisco, and I hear him listening to this music in the living room and I’m like, “How’d you get this?” He had a CD and next thing you know we started comparing his songs and my songs, and we picked out five or six of our favorites and learned them with our drummer Paul Smith. My brother Zac would sing the vocal lines but he didn’t know how to speak Khmer. That’s how it started.Jew-ish.com:
Are you still doing the covers, or have you switched to all originals at this point?Holtzman:
We write all originals [for our albums] now, but at every show we’ll play half a dozen of the old songs, because they’re a big part of what we’re doing. It has helped shine a light on this body of work that was almost completely wiped off the planet. All the musicians and songwriters we were inspired by, they died during the Khmer Rouge, and it’s nice to pay homage to them. It brings attention to that body of work, and I think people are starting to realize what happened, [people] who didn’t know. For the records, though, we’re writing original material. We have about 20 new songs we’re working on right now, and we’re hoping to cut another album this year.Jew-ish.com:
Has that initial influence faded at all, as you’ve recorded more and found your sound as a band?Holtzman:
Actually, some more traditional Cambodian musical elements are becoming infused with our music now. My brother Zac is having an instrument made in Cambodia right now called a chapey dang veng
. Cambodia is always going to be a part of our music. I mean, we have Chhom Nimol, and she’s 100 percent Cambodian.Jew-ish.com:
I had heard that you started doing the covers because when you met Chhom Nimol she didn’t speak any English.Holtzman:
The truth is, Nimol could say “yes” and “thank you.” Every answer was “yes.” We’d ask, “Hey Nimol, can you do a show with us?” and she’d be like, “yes,” but she couldn’t. I think we planned on doing a lot of covers, but we wanted to do originals. They were just harder for Nimol. So our first record had, I think, two originals, then our second had 10 originals and two covers, and our third was all originals. It was just a natural progression. We like to write our own music and to be inspired by all kinds of music, not just Cambodian. At first Nimol didn’t really know us and it was hard for her to trust us, but now we’re like a big family.Jew-ish.com:
Have you ever run into someone who thought you were being disrespectful of Cambodian music and didn’t like what you were doing?Holtzman:
We’ve been really lucky for the most part. We went to Cambodia in 2005 and made a documentary film there called Sleepwalking Through the Mekong. That’s when I was scared, because I didn’t know if there would be Khmer Rouge loyalists in the back of the crowd. We played this show in this village with 1,000 people and we [didn’t know what would happen], so we had to hire security, but it was really cool. We played five shows and people were really positive. It was definitely the first time an American band had gone there and played that music. After we played on this Cambodian television network they aired it like, five times a day. We’re so famous in that country. My brother [is recognizable] because he has this big beard, and Nimol was already somewhat known there, but they recognize every one of us. We were eight hours outside the main city and I went to a bank and the teller said, “Excuse me, are you in Dengue Fever?” It was kind of fun.