From the beginning, the concept was simple. It was 2001, and the brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman wanted to find a Cambodian singer and start making their own version of pre-war Cambodian pop. The whole thing, says guitarist/singer Zac Holtzman, was supposed to be just for fun but it ended up becoming Dengue Fever.
The key was finding Chhom Nimol. At the time, she was singing in a Long Beach club. The Holtzman brothers invited her to front their dodgy mix of psychedelic, surf, and Cambodian pop melodies and somehow, it caught on. In 2003 they released their self-titled debut and two years later, the band members found themselves performing in Cambodia during which they filmed the documentary Sleepwalking in the Mekong. Holtzman talks about the Mastodong, his new eight-string secret weapon, Cambodian politics, and the band's latest CD, Cannibal Courtship.
Zac Holtzman: "We bring whatever we want. We're not purists in any sense. If we feel some kind of Ethiopian African groove, we'll let that get itself into a song. Or if it's like some kind of German kraut-rock feel, some song without borders that doesn't have traditional structure, we'll do that. But yeah, some of those early songs had surf elements to them. Somehow, they had Farfisas in Cambodia. It's like an old Italian organ."
Were you surprised that Dengue Fever went over with American audiences to the extent that it did?
"We didn't think about it that much. We just thought it would be cool to find a Cambodian singer and form a band. We never thought about how it was gonna go over or anything like that. We had such a great time at the first couple of shows and right off the bat we were approached by Matt Dillon to have a song in his film City of Ghosts. It was just, like, good timing. We decided to record an album."
What is the appeal of '60s Cambodian pop?
"It's like two different things at the same time. It's sort of familiar, because [audiences] hear the psychedelic-surf sort of influences, and they're kind of like hey, have I heard this song? And then, they listen a little closer and they hear this weird kind of Cambodian style of singing and maybe a few traditional instruments mixed in. It's exotic and foreign but at the same time familiar."
Agreed. Chhom Nimol's singing takes it to a different place entirely.
"Cambodians have this thing called 'ghost voice' where they crack into a higher register. It's kind of like Cambodian yodeling."
When you played Cambodia, how did the audiences there react?
Holtzman: "The Cambodians would trip out when they saw me singing in Khmer because I have this big beard. I look about as far away from being Cambodian as you possibly can and then I'm, like, singing these songs that they grew up listening to and they're like, what the hell?" [Laughs.]
But the Khmer Rouge wiped out all of pop culture during the Vietnam War. Do you think Dengue Fever's Vietnam tour might have opened wounds among some of the older Cambodians?
"They've all been super positive. One guy said Cambodia's been through some really horrible times and that us playing this music that was popular before those times is psychologically healing and he thought we should go to all the different provinces in Cambodia and perform. Which, we're trying to set up."
What's behind the title 'Cannibal Courtship'?
"A few of the songs are kind of about the types of relationships where people are eating each other alive, feeding off of each other."
The Mastodong makes its debut on your new CD.
"The top half is a Fender Jazzmaster [guitar] and the bottom half is a traditional Cambodian instrument called the Chapei Dong Veng. It has two necks. I've been experimenting with strings on the Chapei, and so far the best ones are weed whackin' strings from Home Depot. [Laughs.] "The green ones. They tune up really nicely and they have a good long sustain."
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But does the Mastodong make the sound more authentic in a world music way?
"There's some songs that have both instruments playing on it, so the Mastodong makes it possible for me to play the songs live. And it's fun to be able to rock out on both instruments. We don't have a road map of goals and intentions. We just kind of go for stuff that seems like it'd be a blast."