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Dengue Fever

Nov 02, 2005 Web Exclusive
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It began as somewhat of an experiment, but it’s turned into something quite lovely. Four years ago, four dudes went down to Long Beach in search of a female Cambodian singer, were instantly taken with a dazzling young woman named Chhom Nimol. They overcame the suspicions of her family and friends, language barriers, and the U.S. government to form Dengue Fever, a sixties Cambodian pop-inspired outfit, whose name was taken from the very disease that afflicted organist Ethan Holtzman’s friend as the two traveled through Southeast Asia a few years earlier.

Though they began as somewhat of a cover band, playing old Cambodian pop tunes from cassettes they had collected—with Nimol singing everything in her native Khmer—they’ve since become so much more, having branched off into original material and having attracted the attention of a few music supervisors along the way—songs of theirs have appeared on the soundtracks for City of Ghosts (which takes place in Cambodia and was directed by and stars Matt Dillon) and Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Broken Flowers, among others. Escape from Dragon House, the band’s second effort, builds on the mold taken from those old songs, but with added influences, and a voice all their own.

Under the Radar caught up with drummer Paul Dreux Smith after the band’s in-store performance at Sea Level Records in Echo Park, California.

Under the Radar: Is anybody else doing what you guys are doing right now?

Paul Dreux Smith: Yeah, there’s a number of people in Southeast Asia—there’s some other bands—[one] in San Francisco [that’s] doing a very similar thing. But other than that, I don’t know of any bands that are as big. Obviously, there’s tons of Cambodians doing it.

UTR: Well, that’s what I mean. Are there any American bands who have gone out and recruited a Cambodian singer to play traditional Cambodian songs and songs…

Paul: No [laughs].

UTR: …and that are inspired by that genre?

Paul: No, I know [laughs].

UTR: That’s pretty unusual.

Paul: Uh, yeah…ultimately.

UTR: Are you concerned at all that some people might see you more as a curiosity than a band?

Paul: The thought crossed our minds, but it’s something that we felt like if we focused on growing as a band, and didn’t just cover early Cambodian material and started writing originals, then there would be some natural progression and people would get it, using that first album as kind of a spring board, and it gets you—you know, start writing original stuff, thinking in different ways, influences come out, and then you get maybe something different and keep going with it.

UTR: Well it’s like The Beatles—those early records have a lot of covers.

Paul: Right.

UTR: Every group gets categorized to some extent, but have there been any misconceptions about you in the press? I feel like I read the words, “Bollywood” and “James Bond” a lot when I was researching.

Paul: [Laughs] Well, we’ve all wondered a little bit about the hipster—the word, “hipster” that gets put in front of it a lot, like “Six LA hipsters and…” I feel like A.) That’s got nothing to do with music, and B.) [pauses] I don’t know. It’s [laughs]—it’s one that I could do without personally. I ‘m not sure I could speak for the whole band, but personally I could do without it.

UTR: With the first record, you recorded mostly covers, with the exception of two songs, but on the new one, it’s mostly original material, and it doesn’t sound like it’s completely Cambodian-influenced. It sounds like there’s more going on there.

Paul: Absolutely.

UTR: Can you talk about that a little bit?

Paul: Well, we got five people in the band other than Nimol, as far as influences coming out through playing and what not, and everybody in the band has been into different music at different times, so [pauses] it’s a natural progression that it would go the way it did, but it wasn’t—nothing was that intentional except writing new material, and when we went into the studio we had some song ideas, some lyrics written, and you know, letting it unfold and going with what’s right, and everybody kind of feels the right direction. It’s not effortless at all, but it’s not too thought-about. So it’s not very academic, it’s just letting ideas spring out and everybody playing and talking about it briefly. I mean, I’m biased, but it seemed very natural to me.

UTR: What about specific influences, though? You hear a lot of the same terms being thrown around in the press. What are they missing?

Paul: Right, the influences are there. Everything they mention, we’re all aware of, but I think that’s changing. That press is written based on our first album, and rightfully so, but if we were to move on to a third album, that press would change.

UTR: That’s a good point.

Paul: Obviously, we have a Cambodian singer who sings in Khmer, so we’re not necessarily going to start singing in English, or start singing in Filipino next week, or anything—that’s going to be there, but influences that creep in I think also connect. A lot of times it’s pop in the way that it’s dance-able—the hooks are, to me, more memorable, and some of the American phrasing might have come out more on this record than the first record.

UTR: Well, I always thought the first record felt obviously traditional, but somewhat constraining, and on this record it sounds like something is being unleashed.

Paul: Right.

UTR: You’re breathing on this record.

Paul: Yeah, absolutely. [Laughs] You gotta dig that hole first, and then try to go deeper, and yeah, that absolutely happened—that’s a good way to describe it.

UTR: Nimol mentioned earlier tonight, during the show that the band writes most of the songs in English, and then translate them into Khmer. That’s interesting to me, because I’ve read she has trouble with the songs written in English. Does she ever write songs herself?

Paul: Yeah, there’s a few we collaborated on. She wrote them in Khmer, but we talked about subject matter a little bit with her. Most of them are English first. Very few are like that. “Sleepwalking Through the Mekong”—that was Khmer from the beginning, all the way through. That’s a twist on a melody that she knew that’s kind of an older Cambodian mountain song—supposedly traditional.

UTR: Did she write “22 Nights,” since that one is about her? (*Nimol was arrested in February, 2003 at an INS checkpoint in San Diego for possessing an expired visa, and spent the next 22 days in jail.)

Paul: She wrote some of it. I think [guitarist] Zac [Holtzman] wrote the other part.

UTR: Did Zac share in that initial experience with her, of being arrested?

Paul: No, he wasn’t there with her. [Organist] Ethan [Holtzman] was in the car with her. Ethan and her were pulled over.

UTR: I thought I’d get the latest on the situation.

Paul: Well, the latest is she’s legal—she’s got legal papers now, and it’s more or less over.

UTR: Well, that’s a relief.

Paul: It’s a huge relief [laughs]. Touring was difficult, leaving the country was difficult, but we worked it out.

UTR: With a lot of the attention focused on her, and with her not speaking English very well—obviously, she’s learning, but do you all feel protective of her, like big brothers?

Paul: Oh, it’s a total—four brothers—that’s what it is. It’s brother and sister, and she’s like the baby, kind of, and sometimes [laughs] she deals with four guys, and sometimes we can’t help but be four guys, and she’s totally good with it. It’s funny how much of a trooper she is. Sometimes, at the beginning of a tour, her English may not be as good as it is at the end of a tour, just because she’s using it around us all the time, instead of being back home with her sister, you know, friends and what not, that all speak Cambodian to each other, so when she hangs around us for an expended period of time she gets better. So, it’s funny to watch her improve also, because in the beginning maybe some of our jokes that are American humor that rely on irony and etc., so most of the while she doesn’t get them, but then by the end of the tour she’s getting them all, and you forget—she’s kind of quiet sometimes, and then she’ll just interject and say something where you realize she’s gotten the subtlety of the conversation. And she’s been teaching us Cambodian.

UTR: I was going to ask.

Paul: Yeah, we learned it early on and kind of stopped—we learned a few words, and then stopped after a while, because she was trying to learn English, so we wanted to focus on that anyway. Obviously, it would be easier for her to learn English, then four of us to learn Cambodian, and she got better and all that, but recently we started learning Cambodian, but not too much still.

UTR: So by the same token, with her getting a lot of the attention, do you guys get jealous at all?

Paul: Aw no, I mean look at her—I can’t compete with that [laughs].

UTR: Well, you did put her on the cover of the record.

Paul: She has a great stage presence, she’s beautiful. Why not? That’s not what it’s all about. Obviously, if you listen to the record, we’re not trying to make—it’s not a Cambodian Janet Jackson record [laughs]. It’s about the music, but she’s got a great persona and very attractive.

UTR: Well, her voice is undoubtedly beautiful.

Paul: Oh yeah, I should say that [laughs]. I shouldn’t leave that out [laughs].

UTR: I would think it’s capable of things perhaps an English-speaking singer can’t achieve.

Paul: Absolutely.

UTR: But at the same time, do you guys feel at all limited by it?

Paul: Not so much anymore.

UTR: In what ways before did you feel limited by it?

Paul: I think at one point early on we may not have been sure where it was going to go, because we weren’t trying to dictate where it was going—we just started it based on an idea that sounded great, and it took us a while before we stopped analyzing what we had done and where we were going. So, at first maybe you’re kind of feeling like, “Okay, we’re doing this, she’s singing Cambodian, it’s different, who’s going to get it?” But then after a while we stopped worrying about that and relaxed in what we are, and tried to have fun [laughs].

UTR: It’s such an exotic voice, that I have to imagine that when you discovered her, or started working with her rather…

Paul: I used to get goose bumps all the time.

UTR: Yeah? Well, it must be a lot of fun coming up with things for her to sing. It’s almost like you have this beautiful instrument at your disposal.

Paul: Especially when Zak writes some good stuff and it’s in English, and you hear the melody and you’re like, “That’s a great melody,” and then Nimol sings it in Khmer, with her voice obviously, and what she can do, this whole second layer, third layer, fourth layer comes into play, and there’s all this emotion there, etc., paints a picture and takes you—it’s not English, but she paints a picture really well. I feel like I always know what’s she singing.

UTR: She definitely emotes well.

Paul: It sounds silly, but how many times do you go to a rock show and understand the words? Maybe you get ten to fifteen percent. You probably get fifty to sixty percent of Nimol’s—like you said, emoting. That tells you where to go with it. It’s storytelling, and she sells it well [laughs].

UTR: What’s the dynamic of the band like, and what I mean is, is there a “funny” one, a “quiet” one, etc.?

Paul: I really feel like we got lucky. There’s personalities, obviously. Sometimes, Zak and [bass guitarist] Senon [Gaius Williams] go out more than Ethan and I do. I’m personally more of a homebody, so I cannot go out when I’m in other cities, and Zak and Senon are extremely social, but everybody’s pretty even-tempered and fun. We like to keep it light and fun—everybody knows each other previously, before the band. I didn’t know Senon, but I knew Zak and Ethan, and I’ve known Ethan for years. Our sax player, [David] Ralicke is a character [laughs]—always keeps it interesting.

UTR: Was he there tonight?

Paul: No, he didn’t play tonight. He couldn’t do it. The last tour we went on, he had to sit out some of it and stay home unfortunately, but he’ll be back real soon.

UTR: Some of you have traveled overseas, under terrible conditions.

Paul: Senon and Ethan had been to Cambodia, and Ethan was the one who had the friend that went through the dengue fever experience. He was there for sixth months.

UTR: That must have been good practice for touring the US in a van.

Paul: Yeah [laughs], our last tour maybe we had two, three hotels at the most over a three-week period.

UTR: You guys appeared on some soundtracks recently.

Paul: Yeah, City of Ghosts, the Jim Jarmusch Broken Flowers film, Must Love Dogs, and then a documentary on HBO—Air America thing.

UTR: Who’s getting your music to all these music supervisors?

Paul: They contacted us on almost every case, except City of Ghosts—our sax player knew the music supervisor on that film. It was one of those—early on, this is like within the first few months of us starting and playing out. This guy, the music supervisor, was a friend of our sax player, who wasn’t part of the band yet—we asked him [the sax player] to come down and check it out and sit in on one song, or something, and it was like our second show, our first show, I don’t know. Anyway, he sat in with us, and the very next day—and we did the covers, the early Cambodian stuff—the very next day, this guy, the music supervisor calls and says—and man, he’s just talking to David Ralicke because they’re friends—he’s like, “I’m trying to find a Cambodian band that will play stuff from the early sixties—late sixties/early seventies,” and he’s like, “I’ve been looking through Cambodia—I can’t find a band in Cambodia,” and David Ralicke’s like, “Are you kidding? I just played last night—I just sat in on a band that’s doing the whole thing.”

UTR: Get out!

Paul: Yeah, and when we heard that we were like, “Aw, man it’s synchronicity. [Laughs] There’s something there.”

UTR: That’s great.

Paul: Yeah, it ended up working out. We did a Joni Mitchell cover, “Both Sides Now.”

UTR: That’s what surprised me, the Joni Mitchell cover. So, have any of these soundtrack appearances parlayed into anything?

Paul: Yeah, definitely. I mean, to be honest, it seems like the Jim Jarmusch film has brought more people maybe to check us out than The City of Ghosts, but we were glad to do both. It’s a good opportunity for us, and we also noticed—again, it’s unintentional, but the music is theatrical in ways and has that visual thing happening—for me, at least.

UTR: What’s been your impact outside of Los Angeles? I know you must have a following in Long Beach, where you found Nimol.

Paul: A little bit. They’re slowly finding out about us. Nimol likes us to go down there and play once in a while—I think we’re going to play this Saturday down there at a place she sings at, for her sister’s birthday, and they hear rumors, through the gossip vines, so to speak, but we’ve only played down there like maybe three times. We’re starting to go down there more frequently and they’re starting to believe it and see it, and they have great reactions. At first, they’re just like, “What the hell?” They get totally confused.

UTR: Are these Cambodian-Americans?

Paul: Yeah, but they’re very much entrenched in Cambodian culture—I mean, they’re here, but obviously it’s a Cambodian community. It’s like 50,000-plus Cambodians there in Long Beach.

UTR: That must be a shock for them to see a non-Cambodian band, save the lead singer, playing traditional Cambodian pop music.

Paul: It’s nothing they thought would happen, and then let alone when Zak does some of the duets with Nimol—some bearded American guy singing Khmer. Some of them literally start laughing, but they’re very open and inviting about it. They’ve been nothing but good so far.

UTR: But then what about outside Los Angeles? Have you noticed an impact in other places?

Paul: Yeah! We went to Seattle. There’s a Cambodian community that came out—there’s like 20,000 Cambodians there, and a bunch of—just kind of indie-rockers and other music fans that come out—just a great mix. It’s great to show up in a city and you go there, you play for a good-size audience, and it’s fun and they’re into it. Obviously, San Francisco’s good for us. Probably our bigger fan base is up in San Francisco.

UTR: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I think some people see the band as more of a curiosity first, but once they hear the music, they fall in love with it.

Paul: That’s our whole theory, that if the music is there to support what looks like a show—like if the music is there and we’re honest with the music—if we keep that part going, then it’s fair, complete—you know, the whole thing.

UTR: Well, you want contact.

Paul: Right, exactly. Yeah, Nimol’s gorgeous—amazing voice, but we want it to be combined with something that makes you want to listen regardless of language.

UTR: Is the music being heard in Cambodia?

Paul: Yeah, it’s been out there. I know the evening news did a little thing about us, and Nimol’s mom finally was like, “Yeah, I saw something on you.” We might go there in November, and if so, we have scheduled almost a half an hour with CTM, which is the major network out there, where they would show live footage, have us in the studio, interview us, etc., and play at some other clubs. Some people know about us there, but we’re still in the hatchling stages. I think if we can get over there, or even over time it’ll—it’s definitely spreading. Word-of-mouth is getting over there.


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