Dengue Fever Makes Good
By J.V. Gatewood
LA-based indie rock band, Dengue Fever, is the latest in a short line of bands that have gotten me thinking again about the power of music to transform the human soul. Formed by brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman in 2001, the six-member band, which includes Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol, defies easy description. They are uniquely Southern Californian, fusing the best ofCambodia’s pscychadelic rock scene with their own blend of alternative rock, rhythm and blues and sounds reminiscent of Dick Dale and his surf guitar. I recently caught up with Ethan Holtzman to talk to him about the band and its music.
You recently performed at the Desert Daze festival. How does it compare with the madness that is Coachella? Desert Daze seems like a splinter of Coachella. It could easily be inserted into Coachella and I don’t think anybody would notice or complain. Desert Daze is located in Desert Hot Springs at a cool dive bar full of local desert rats and mullets. They had two stages: one inside, one out. Both festivals span over a period of days, and both had some really good bands on the line up. We played on the opening night and it was freezing. There were 70 mph winds shaking the portable stage. You could hear the giant windmill turbines that surround the festival grounds, growling as the blades rotated round and round. We played our set and afterwards, because of Coachella, all the hotels were booked up so we had to drive back home toLos Angeles. We bumped into our friendsBeirutat the gas station. They were on their way to play Coachella.
Much has been written about your unique sound. Some writers have called it “trippy and edgy,” while others have referred to it as “weird rock pop.” Do you get tired of critics who try to neatly define what your music is about? How would you describe the evolution of your musical style since your group formed over a decade ago?
Writers always have to describe what bands sound like. Being in a band with a deep lengthy history you become numb to the adjectives they select to describe your sound. We just focus on our strengths and try to create music that we’d actually like to listen to. Creating the space, for whatever tones may snake its way in and out or weave up and down; I think that is part of our evolution—trying not to over play. Also, as individuals we’ve had some changes. For one, Chhom Nimol, our lead vocalist, has improved her English. So you can hear better pronunciations from our earlier recordings (where English is featured). Also, as musicians playing and recording on several albums, you get a sense of what is best for the song and try to execute that.
There is something inherently political about your music by virtue of its association with Cambodia and its tortured past. I’m wondering if you could talk about the role that musicians—that Dengue Fever—plays in the realm of politics. Do you consider yourselves activists? Why or why not?
The original music that inspired Dengue Fever to form was Khmer rock from the late ’60s early ’70s. Most of the main song writers/vocalists from that time period perished under the Khmer Rouge. As a band we have teamed up with a handful of charities from Cambodian Living Arts, which helps keep traditional Khmer song and dance alive, to Wildlife Alliance, which helps stop the poaching of animals and helps preserve the forests. I think getting involved with good charities to helpCambodiais in a sense, political. We all have our own political views but when it comes to the politics inCambodiathere is so much corruption. We try to stay as removed from it as possible. That way we can visit the country whenever we want and not have to worry about it.
Tell us about your most recent record, Cannibal Courtship. How does it differ from your previous work?
With each record, we have sunk the money into recording gear for our studio. So I think that our last album sounds the best yet. We played around with more English and some Afro Beat rhythms. We also had backing singers on a lot of Cannibal Courtship. The Living Sisters sang on several of the tracks and that helped add another dimension to the vocals.
What does it take to succeed as an indie group in the music business in Los Angeles? What are some of the challenges that you still face as a band?
It takes persistence to make it in any band. You can have some of the best times of your life and some of the worst times all with in a one-month tour. I think a major challenge right now is touring inEurope. It costs so much just to get there that it makes it hard to survive and break new markets in new territories.
You guys are on your seventh album and have gained quite a following both here in the United States and in Cambodia. As you look into the future, where do you guys see yourselves in the next five years?
I see us playing a music festival on a large ship with lots of other cool bands floating down a Russian river.
When are you heading back into the studio to record your next album?
We have been getting into the studio a couple of days each week. Right now we are just recording loose ideas and building upon them. We have a handful of good shows around the states this summer. I think we are also going to tour the East coast with Omar Souleyman in June. He’s one of our favorite artists on the record label Sublime Frequencies.
Dengue Fever performs at the University Theatre at UC Riverside, 900 University Ave., Riverside; culturalevents.ucr.edu/Dengue_Fever.htm. Thurs, May 10. 8PM. $20 general admission, $18 UCR alumni, $17 UCR staff and faculty, $15 youth, $10 UCR students.