November 2009 Web Edition Issue #3
At The Dragon House, Everybody Dances
Interview by Steven Hanna
Oh, sure, you could buy their record. Pop their self-titled debut (on Mimicry Records) into your stereo and sit back as your living room transforms into a smoky southeast Asian bar in a Technicolor ’60s spy movie, with a crack house band providing the perfect soundtrack for shadowy intrigue, come-hither looks and a lot of go-go dancing. Or you could make an even smarter move and catch them live.
One of the hippest, oddest, and best Los Angeles bands to come along in ages, Dengue Fever is four shaggy L.A. rock and rollers with a jones for Nancy Sinatra-era Cambodian music fronted by a Cambodian lead singer recruited from the dance-till-you-drop pop scene centered around the Dragon House in Long Beach. Their music is a mix of classic covers and originals that sound just as good as those old faves you’ve never heard before, and their live show is a farfisa-flavored jazz-pop whirlwind of Khmer lyrics and crack psychedelic showmanship. If you don’t know these guys, you should. But not to worry: it won’t be long before you won’t be able to miss them, ’cause they’ll be just about everywhere.
I sat down before a Dengue Fever gig with brothers Zac (formerly of Dieselhed) and Ethan Holtzman, the guitarist and the organist for the band, as well as bassist Senon Williams (Cement, Radar Bros.) and drummer Paul Smith (ex-Jump with Joey/Brazzaville saxophonist David Ralicke rounds out the band). Joining us at a tiny table in a deserted bar just before soundcheck was lead singer Chhom Nimol, who looked every bit the star she is in her native country – she comes from a noted singing family and has performed before royalty – despite her day-to-day dress and the table full of the band’s beers in front of her. We talked for a few minutes about the history of the band, about the gestating follow-up to the band’s smashing debut, and about how odd it is that although Nimol speaks English fairly well, she didn’t seem to understand mine at all.
Steve Hanna: Well, I guess I’ll start by just asking you to help me out. A lot of our readers probably haven’t heard Cambodian pop music before. I mean, I know I hadn’t before I got a hold of your record. So maybe you could describe Cambodian music for us, tell me what’s going on, give me the low-down.
Zac Holtzman: We’ll let Nimol answer that, maybe. (A pause before Nimol realizes that all eyes are on her. Then she begins answering.)
Chhom Nimol: The first time Ethan and them ask me from the Dragon House, I thought it’s so exciting. I ask them, what are the songs? They tell me in Cambodian, and I thought, “Oh wow! From a long time ago…” Yeah. So, and, second time, I told my friend. Him, Ethan and Zach, and call me, and you want, you want to get the band together, and I said let me think about it, and I don’t know, so one time I told my friend, and we went to practice in the, in the Long Beach.
Zac: Yeah, yeah, that rehearsal studio down there.
Nimol: But, you know, I was so happy. Whatever.
Steve: It must be strange to walk in and have these people playing music that you knew from so long before. That must have been very strange.
Zac: He says it’s weird. We play Cambodian music, it’s weird for you.
Nimol: Very different. (laughs)
Steve: So Ethan, you and Zac both discovered this music on a trip to Cambodia, I’m told. Do I have this right?
Ethan: Yeah. We traveled, Senon traveled in Cambodia as well, and we lived there, and there was some Cambodian music we were listening to, and we just decided to figure out a couple of them. Zac would hum them, and we would figure out the music, first just the three of us. And Senon’s said, “If you guys need a bass, or just someone just to sound like a bass player, I’ll come once or twice so you can see what it sounds like, with a bass player.” (everyone laughs) And then Nimol…we had other singers lined up. We went to Little Phnom Penh in Long Beach, and just scoured the scene. We went to every night club there was down there that had Cambodian singers, and we auditioned them, and some of them didn’t speak any English and were like, “No.” And others were like, “Yeah, we’ll do this,” and they came down, but when Nimol showed up, they all stopped singing, or got sore throats.
Paul Smith: One of ’em left, didn’t she? Just took off…
Senon Williams: What’s kind of weird about Cambodian music, even now, is that it’s psychedelic. Nimol gave me--remember that DVD of karaoke, the DVD that you’re in? It’s just so psychedelic. Even the new stuff. Just like,soundstages, with smoke coming out and shooting colors--surreal kind of, with these huge fake flowers.
Steve: Why is that? What is it about Cambodia, or Cambodian music, or the scene that keeps that stuff alive still? Any thoughts?
Zac: The humidity. (everyone laughs) Maybe the need to fantasize, or…
Ethan: There’s a definite cultural difference between Vietnam and Cambodia. Like, if you’re in Vietnam, everything’s still Communist, and heavy, and everything’s censored. But you go into Cambodia and anything goes. And then Thailand’s just like a blending of them both.
Steve: Was this was you were struck by?
Ethan: In Cambodia? Yeah, I was blown away by the country and by everything that was there.
Steve: Did you know anything about the cultural stuff, anything at all, when you went?
Ethan: I didn’t know anything about it.
Steve: Then how did you get exposed to the music? You just went and bought a record, or…
Senon: Well, in Cambodia they have music stores, like little flea markets you go to, and they have a guy with one boombox, a mixer with all these cables coming out of it, making dupes. There’s music going on everywhere. It’s pretty musical…
Steve: So you all just showed up, and you were surrounded by this stuff.
Ethan: The cooler stuff I heard actually was from up in the northern country. I had an eight-hour truck ride down, so that was when I was hearing some of the Cambodian ’60s music.
Steve: I get the impression you got a pretty good education in this for you to be able to come back and know which songs to play. Was there someone guiding you through, telling you what you had to listen to and what you could ignore, or…
Zac: We just kind of learned chords. (everyone laughs)
Senon: I think the thing is, now, this next record’s going to be mostly original songs. Our first record is like an introduction, a beginning.
Ethan: A launch pad.
Steve: But now you feel like it’s time to find your own voice?
Ethan: Nimol is still singing in Khmer, and there’s some stuff that mixes English, and there’s some stuff that’s taken on an identity itself, coming from the songs, but…I mean, obviously we’re American, and we listen to some stuff from other places, so it’s kind of changing a little bit.
Steve: Was that the plan all along, to work your way towards originals, or was this just kind of lark at first, and you were gonna see where you ended up?
Zac: That was the plan, but due to the language barrier, everything was ten times longer because she didn’t speak any English in the beginning. It was like, “hello” and “goodbye.” (laughter)
Senon: “Thank you,” maybe.
Ethan: The originals, I think Zac wrote the lyrics in English on two of them, and then we had to have them translated. And we had to have them done more than once, because the first person we gave it to didn’t do it properly--he did it phonetically, and she had to learn it in Khmer, and you know, we weren’t sure if it was right, and later we found out something was off a little, and had to redo it…
Zac: Later we found out she just threw out my lyrics and wrote her own. (everyone laughs)
Steve: So you just decided you could do better?
Steve: So this is how the new record that’s on the way is gonna be put together.
Senon: Yeah, I mean, in the beginning, Nimol, I don’t think you really realized that that’s what we were doing, writing original music. You know, because we had a hard time communicating that. And now, you understand that we’re writing original music, and it’s becoming a natural process.
Zac: Yeah, ’cause so far, it’s been traditional dance numbers that get passed on. When you go down to Long Beach, at the end of every song everyone leaves the floor, and then sits down and sips their drink, and then the next song starts up, and everyone old and young all hit the dance floor and start dancing.
Senon: I remember our first show in the regular L.A. rock scene, we had like, maybe like twenty people dancing, and we were all excited. And Nimol was like, “At the Dragon House, everybody dances!” They go there to dance.
Steve: How do people at the Dragon House react to the original songs? Are they taken aback?
Ethan: They loved it.
Zac: They flipped out. I was singing this one song in Khmer, where I just know it phonetically, I don’t really know what it means, and they were just going crazy (laughter).
Steve: I guess they’d never quite seen that before.
Zac: No, I don’t think so.
Steve: So you’ve taken this music, even though none of you come from a psychedelic rock background, certainly not a Cambodian music background…
Senon: I think we’ve all been psychedelic in different ways. Paul makes his own music which is, I’d say, hip-hop based.
Paul: Music itself is psychedelic.
Steve: But you were pretty confident this would catch on, despite its being a kind of different thing from what you’d been playing before?
Zac: I felt really confident from the beginning that in L.A., at least, it would be all like…I mean, it’s so original, but there is an approachable element to it right off the bat, even though the language barrier is there.
Senon: You know what I think? Nimol is a singer. You know what I mean? There’s so many bands around here where the singer’s not a singer. The singer’s just someone who’s the frontman, or who decided to sing. With Nimol, she sings as easy as she talks. When she sings, like two feet away from the microphone…I mean, I can hear her without the PA. It comes across. People have never seen someone sing like that. That kind of energy, you’re attracted to it, for whatever reason, physically, or…(laughs) Well, in some way, you’re gonna pay attention.
Steve: When I first heard about you guys, I thought, “Wow, what a great gimmick they have!” And then I saw you guys play, and I realized that that’s not all it was, not at all…
Ethan: One thing that we didn’t want to do was make a joke about it, or do it for someone who wants to see something weird. You know? It was song-based…
Steve: Were the shows well received from the beginning?
Zac: Yeah, all the way through. We’ve had like maybe two bad shows. (laughter) We got best new band last year from the “L.A. Weekly,” so that was an award, anyway.
Senon: You know, I never saw that award. (everyone laughs)
Ethan: She took it! (Everyone gives Nimol humorously accusatory looks)
Senon: What happened to that LA Weekly award?
Nimol: Oh yeah… (nervous laugh)
Senon: Where is that?
Nimol: In Long Beach.
Ethan: She palmed it! She held it up on the podium, and then I saw something wrapped around it, and whish! In her purse, gone! Just like the peach schnapps, gone… (all laugh)
Steve: I’d ask about the schnapps, but maybe it’s best for some things to be left mysterious…let me ask this: What are the difficulties involved in working across a language barrier?
Nimol: Yeah, I work Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, in Dragon House, in Long Beach.
Senon: No, no. Nimol. What’s difficult, working with us? Working with Dengue Fever?
Nimol: Oh, okay. I think it’s good for me, because, before when I working only three day a week, so boring (laughs). It’s good for me. I learn more of the English. It’s hard. New song is really hard.
Steve: You were used to performing classic songs, right? Were you--did you want to play new songs?
Nimol: Yeah, I wanted.
Steve: But it was difficult to do, I take it. (I realize that question is not making it through. The band members laugh at me.)
Paul: Don’t worry, it’s a skill that we’ve taken a long time to get good at.
Steve: It’s amazing--all the words in my head are valueless to me right now… maybe I should just ask you guys. Was that something you were concerned about at first? I mean, obviously she came in, and she was amazing, but…
Zac: Yeah, at first it was…well, you know, it still feels like we’re just starting. I feel like it’s difficult, but what band isn’t? And what we’ve done in the short time we’ve done it, I think is pretty amazing.
Senon: When we first started, Nimol would show up with like ten people to all the rehearsals. And it was like her entourage. And now we’re like family. It’s different now.
Steve: She was nervous about working with you? Why?
Zac: I don’t know. Were you nervous when we first started playing together? Were you nervous about playing with people you didn’t know?
Nimol: Yeah. I do. When I’m [with] Cambodians, all the people are Americans, it’s exciting for me. When I’m singing the first time in Cambodian, in my country, a lot of people, I got nervous too, the first time for me. The first time for me too again, with the band, in Dengue Fever is American band, but I sing in Khmer, I get nervous too. Yes.
Steve: How did you find out that they were looking for you?
Nimol: The first time, they go to Dragon House…
Ethan: We had to go five times. I went once in a suit, ’cause I was in a wedding, and I dropped by after, and she was onstage, and she was all waving at me. And then she came up. At first, her sister was like, “No way.”
Steve: You had heard about her?
Ethan: No, we met her, and you know, we saw her sing.
Senon: Didn’t someone tell you about her?
Ethan: No, they didn’t tell us about her, they told us about the club. They said, if you’re looking for a singer, go to this club. There were, like, five or six girls up there on the stage. And I was just blown away by all of them. ’Cause the other place we were at, was like, a little more run-down, and Zac was like, “The one in the white.” And I was like, “No, consider all of them,” and he was all, “No, that’s the one.” (everyone laughs)
Steve: He knew what he wanted.
Zac: We were backstage and there was a ton of food, and Nimol was sitting there, and they took her aside with us with her sister and this guy who posed as her manager…
Ethan: Yeah, posed is the right word.
Senon: Once in a while he’ll come to the shows, and we’ll be playing, and we’ll look over and he’ll be dancing onstage, adding in backing vocals.
Ethan: He’s a total showman.
Zac: He’s a showman.
Nimol: Good dancer. (everyone laughs)
Steve: So he came over, and you worked it out.
Zac: We gave him a CD of some songs that we were starting with, and they knew all of ’em. We started singing ’em, humming ’em, and we went like a second time, a third time, nothing happened. And then, the fourth or fifth time, we finally decided to book a rehearsal space in Long Beach. And she came over with her crew of friends.
Ethan: It took a lot of work, man. We thought we were going crazy for a while, thinking, “What are we doing?” We just kept driving down there…
Zac: It’s a long drive to Long Beach.
Paul: We were rehearsing in Long Beach twice a week, man… we did that for like six months or something.
Zac: We were questioning our sanity. (laughter)
Ethan: And then right after the first show, we knew it was all worth it. People just flipped out.
Steve: Well, I know you have to go, but one thing I really wanted to ask about is this immigration problem that you had a while back. What’s the status on that (post 9/11, Nimol was detained by the border patrol in San Diego and held in jail for nearly a month—pg)?
Ethan: Nimol has already had two court dates, and she’s filling out all the papers necessary to become a citizen. Then she has another court date coming up, but everything’s pending. It’s a long process. It’s not like they [plan to] kick her out immediately, or she gets to stay. It’s a long process. And it’s an ongoing process, and we’re hoping for the best, you know what I mean?
Zac: When she got arrested, it was at a border patrol, during a Code Orange. And, they held her in jail for 22 days, and right now she’s out on $20,000 bail. So, we’re dealing with that, too…