Welcome to the Jungle
The infectious vintage revisionings of Dengue Fever
There is no band like Dengue Fever. Despite the Los Angeles sextet’s inspiration being an obscure but distinct form of music—’60s Cambodian rock—the mixture of East and West / surf and psych / then and now is unparalleled. Fronted by Khmer-language singer Chhom Nimol, Dengue Fever formed in the early aughts as a cover band that quickly turned to original material.
A decade later, the band has just returned from a 20-day tour in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. During the trip it performed on a stage carpeted with bugs (two went down singer Nimol’s throat, the bass player got one in his eye, and the drummer had a 4-inch moth on his thigh throughout the show) and swilled questionable alcohol (street beer, goat ball liquor). Over the phone, bearded guitarist/vocalist Zac Holtzman talked with the Alibi while his bandmates, in their studio, combed through the live recordings they made on the trip.
What was your first introduction to music from Southeast Asia?
My friend in San Francisco, who worked at Aquarius Records, turned me on to some old Cambodian music. That's how I first heard it. Then I was playing it, and my brother heard it. He was like, How did you get this music? Because he’d been to Cambodia in the ’90s. Then we started talking about it, and we were like, Geez, what if we put a band together and started playing this stuff? It's such a great starting point—almost all of these musicians were killed by the Khmer Rouge and it feels like they never really got a chance to blossom into what they could've been.
Who were some of the Cambodian musicians that people should know about?
Well, Sinn Sisamouth was the main songwriter. And Ros Sereysothea, and Pen Ron.
What's your take on the interaction between music and politics?
I love when music has a powerful political pull. Like Fela Kuti. And—like during the ’60s—when musicians and artist can stop a war and help pull everybody together. I love that. Personally, I'm very liberal and left-minded, but I don't like to be singing about politics. I like to be active, but when we're out playing music and having a good time, I don't like having politics be the main thing we're trying to focus everyone on.
What kind of guitars do you play?
I play a Fender Jazzmaster, but I've done some customizing to it—P-90 pickups. I also have that double-neck guitar—that one is a combination of a traditional Cambodian instrument called a chapei dong veng. The long neck on it is a chapei, and the other part of the guitar is a bass on a Fender Jazzmaster. My friend built it for me.
What’s the most important thing you've learned from traveling and touring over the years?
There are some things that come up that challenge your patience—you need to be very patient at times and not worry that you're sitting somewhere for eight hours, that you're missing your sound check and your show's going to start. Because you almost always end up making it to your show. So it's pretty important to be patient. And also, for me, don't get too experimental when eating because we're there performing and we need to feel good. If we catch some crazy bug from some street food that we eat it really messes things up. Unless you like performing in diapers.
Dengue Fever frequently tours in Southeast Asia and works with charities there. Cambodian Living Arts helps preserve history and culture through arts education—master musicians from the organization play with Dengue Fever at shows in Cambodia. The band also works with Wildlife Alliance, which aims to prevent endangered species poaching and other environmental damage by working with communities. Find out more at bit.ly/cambodianlivingarts and wildlifealliance.org.