If 1960s Cambodian pop revival doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, maybe you just haven’t heard the multi-culti rock group Dengue Fever, brainchild of brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman, which has been making waves in the Los Angeles music scene. When Dengue came around recently to perform at Outside Lands, I sat down with Zac and lead singer Chhom Nimol to chat about vector-borne diseases, Long Beach’s Little Phnom Penh, their genre-bending new album, and the revival of a musical style Pol Pot sought to wipe out.
Mother Jones: Gotta ask, what’s with the name?
Zac Holtzman: When my brother was traveling in Cambodia, his traveling companion came down with dengue fever. When they were taking him to the hospital they were in this truck and driving on some crazy dirt roads. The music the driver was playing was a lot of old Cambodian tunes from the late ’60s, the early ’70s, the stuff we’re all into—and that’s how my brother heard it for the first time. So when we were thining of a name for the band he kind of went back to his sketchboook, and there it was. I heard it for the first time from my friend who was working at Aquarius Records here in San Francisco. I was playing it to my brother and he was like, ‘Oh my god, these are all the same music as the tapes I collected when I was in Cambodia!’ From there we were just like, we should form a band around this.
MJ: How did you find a singer?
Chhom Nimol: I was working at the Dragon House (a club in Long Beach). I worked there for three years, almost, and then I saw Zac and Ethan come; they wanted to talk to me and they ask me to be in their band. They needed a singer, and I said okay.
MJ: Is there a large Cambodian population in Long Beach?
CN: About 50,000. In Oakland, Stockton, Boston, and Texas there are communities. But in Long Beach we call it Little Phnom Penh.
MJ: How do you develop a fan base for this kind of music?
ZH: The good thing is, we’re the only band doing it so there’s nobody else like us. We just kind of did it because of what we were feeling. We didn’t think about it too much. It’s not like we’re ethnomusicologists. We just really liked this music, and we were inspired by it. It was such a good time that here we are seven or eight years later into our fifth album, and been to Cambodia together, and filmed a documentary, and it’s been beautiful.
MJ: Tell me about the documentary.
ZH: It’s called Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, and it’s capturing Nimol going back to Cambodia, because she hadn’t been back in five years. So it was her going back and seeing her family, and it was our first time going there as a band, so we got to capture Cambodia’s reaction to us playing their music that we were inspired by. It was beautiful.
MJ: This music nearly died out under the Khumer Rouge. Is there anything political in bringing it back?
ZH: Most of the musicians were killed. All the music that we were inspired by, they were all murdered because they were doing something that had Western influence. That was a horrible time. Nimal comes from Battambang and all those original artists came from Battambang too, so in a way they’re sort of living on through us, through us being so inspired by them.
MJ: Nearly all of your songs are in Khmer, but you write most of them in English and then have them translated. How does that work?
ZH: Sometimes we hire good friends who have a grip on both languages. Whatever makes Nimol feel the most comfortable when she’s singing. Sometimes there’s something I’ll write that I think really needs to be expressed in English because I want people to hear it, you know?
CN: (Whatever we sing) people enjoy with us. I’m proud to make a song that they can move around—that makes them feel like dancing. We don’t want to be boring.