A Dengue Fever Q&A

Dengue Fever’s Zac Holtzman talks with Pollstar about the band’s 14-year history, including its new album and his own adventurous relationship with music.  “I’m more of a let’s-go-for-it kind of [guy],” the guitarist said.  “Even if we fall on our faces.”

Holztman chatted with us while he was walking down a San Francisco street located south of Market.  For Holztman, the stroll provoked a memory of one of his other bands.  “We used to rehearse at … Lennon Rehearsal Studios,” Holtzman said.  “We had a lock-out space there for years.”

For the uninitiated, Dengue Fever combines psychedelic riffs and sounds with garage rock and Cambodian pop music to create its unique sound.  For Holtzman and his brother, Ethan, the band represents their passion for Cambodian music and culture.  Forming a band with saxophonist David Ralicke, drummer Paul Dreux Smith and bassist Senon Williams, Dengue Fever found its voice in Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol, who they discovered singing in a Long Beach nightclub.

Dengue Fever’s latest album is The Deepest Lake, which arrived earlier this year and is the band’s first LP released on its Tuk Tuk Records label.  “I think we trusted each other more on this one and let each other do their own thing,” Holtzman told Pollstar.

But the axeman didn’t limit the conversation to the album.  He also talked about touring, what kinds of rooms work best for the band and Dengue Fever’s relationship with Peter Gabriel.  But the axeman didn’t limit the conversation to the album.  He also talked about touring, what kinds of rooms work best for the band and Dengue Fever’s relationship with Peter Gabriel. 

Photo: Photo by Marc Walker

What has kept Dengue Fever going for 14 years?

It’s still fun.  Still having a great time.  We love getting together, writing music and playing shows.  If it wasn’t fun we wouldn’t be doing it.

The band’s history coincided with you and your bandmates being at that age when many embark on starting families.  Is it hard to juggle your role in Dengue Fever and conduct a personal life?

It’s pretty easy.  Some of us have kids.  It always takes a little bit of bracing in your family [when] you’re going to be gone for six weeks.  Then they look at all the places that you’re going and they’re like, “I want to go to Istanbul.” And I’m like, “I don’t know …”  The reality is you’re constantly traveling, moving along, and you barely get time to stop at places.

With all the tours in Dengue Fever’s history, is budgeting expenses so tight that it might not allow for family members or guests to ride along?

Sometimes it works out. We went to New Zealand.  We played a WOMAD festival, Peter Gabriel’s thing?  In Australia we played WOMADelaide and then we went to New Zealand and played there.  At the time my wife was just my girlfriend [and] I flew her out for that.  We got to spend a week on both the islands.  We stayed an extra week or two.  It was really fun. Whenever I can I’ll try to bring [the family] along.

Peter Gabriel is a big supporter of Dengue Fever.

Yeah.  He was really nice.  We got to record at his studio in Box (Wiltshire), England.  It was kind of a dream come true.  The most amazing studio ever.  Built in some kind of old mill with a river running underneath it.  There are these quarters, like houses, for the musicians to stay in. There’s full-time chefs.  Basically, you play ping pong, eat, go for runs and record some music.

Is that how you imagined a musician’s life would be when you were growing up?

I never had any expectations.  I’m more like … record an album in a week. That includes mixing, doing everything.  But it doesn’t seem to go that way anymore. Albums always take months and months of everything.

Which album was recorded in Gabriel’s studio?

We did this one called In The Ley Lines.  A bunch of live stuff was recorded there.  It was pretty fun.

Your new album is The Deepest Lake: What’s different with this LP compared to past Dengue Fever albums?

We used to get a little bit … at least, maybe I would get a little more involved with everybody else’s parts.  We tend to have all of our opinions on how everybody else’s part should sound.  I think we trusted each other more on this one and let each other do their own thing and not really give too much of, “This is what I’m going for,”  Sometimes we would get together in different little groups at the studio. Sometimes it would just be the rhythm section and me and we would lay down some basics and start kicking the songs into different directions.  Everybody else adds their flavor to it when they hear something.  I think [the recording sessions] were a lot looser.

Do you think some of that was because this is the first album on your own label?

Oh, no.  None of these other labels we’ve been on have ever pressured us into going for a certain sound.  Maybe somebody would say, “Maybe more songs in English” and we would say, “Oh, no.  She doesn’t know enough English.”

Dengue Fever has certainly blazed its own trail. Was it easy to assemble Dengue Fever in the beginning and find enough musicians that had the same vibe as you and your brother?

My brother, he plays keys in the band.  Then our friend Paul plays drums.  We were looking for a bass player and a singer.  We called our friend Senon Williams and he was like, “I know all about that music” because he’s been to Cambodia. Then we were on the hunt for the singer, and that was more tricky.  I’m sure you’ve read about those stories about us having auditions in Long Beach for a singer.   David Ralicke, our horn player, he never went to any rehearsals in the beginning.  He just showed up at that show at Spaceland and played with us.  He’s so good that he can jump in and figure out the structure of a song after it goes through one cycle.

How did your fascination with Cambodian pop music come about to begin with?

I [got into ] the music through a friend that worked at Aquarius Records in San Francisco.  He gave me some music.  When my brother heard me listening to it, he’s like “Whoa!  I can’t believe you have this music, too.  That’s like some of the stuff I collected when I was in Cambodia.”  That’s when we started talking about it and came up with the idea to form a band based on that body of music from ’69 to ’73, when Cambodians were inspired by garage music, psychedelic and surf.

Sometimes the band’s music reminds me of those European action films from the ’70s that were dubbed into English for viewing in the U.S. Have movie soundtracks helped influence Dengue Fever’s music?

Our horn player, David, he plays everything.  A lot of times when he’s building up his big horn-section pieces, they tend to have a Mingus or a kind of noire flair to them.  Then, for some of the surf stuff, I love all the spaghetti western stuff, that kind of “High Plains Drifter” stuff … the baritone guitar … I love all that stuff.  But we don’t want to go overboard and copy that stuff.  We have influences, little spices that we add to make our own thing.

You’ve written music in English and then translated it to Cambodian and you’ve also translated Cambodian music into English.  How difficult is it to translate elements like verse and meter into another language?

It’s difficult. When you translate an English verse that totally fits into a song, when you translate it into Khmer, it tends to be twice as many syllables. So you have something that fits in perfectly and rhymes at the right time, that’s seven, eight syllables long.  When translated, all of a sudden it’s 22 syllables.

What we tend to do is we translate it, and then we go through and get rid of all the extraneous words, all the words we don’t need. Then we hear Nimol singing it and kind of pick the words that we like the sound of.  Hopefully, there are enough words that have enough of the meaning and carry the gist of what we’re going for, and sounds good.  Some of the words are really weird, nasally trapped in your throat kind of words.  You don’t want to be holding one of those out through the chorus.

Photo: Marc Walker
Rocking The Independent in San Francisco, Calif.

From the time you write that first song until the album comes out – how much time has passed?

I think this last [album] took about six months.  I think we might have had a tour somewhere in the middle, a West Coast tour, or something.  It’s kind of fun because you play a few of the songs at soundchecks and start to see how they feel out in the real world. 

I like the way this album came together.  We recently became members of the Recording Academy and we’re going through that whole process of getting involved with the community and trying to get the album nominated for the world music [Grammy] category.  When it came out it was at the top of the world charts for two weeks, which is cool.  You know what else is fun?  There are about five or six songs off of it that we play in our set.  Sometimes you put out a new album and you start with all the songs in the set, but you fall back, like using a crutch of these old songs that you know rock, and you’re afraid of your new ones.  But that hasn’t been the case with this one. There are three or four songs that are solidly in the set.  Then there’s two more, we took them out last night but I wanted to play them both.

But even a band’s most popular songs were new at one time and you and the band must have had moments of hesitation the first few times you played those tracks?

I’m more of a let’s-go-for-it kind of [guy], even if we fall on our faces.  If you listen to one of the older KCRW recordings you’ll hear proof of that. “Let’s do it.  Let’s do it,” and we were not ready to play the songs.

What about a typical night’s set?  Can the band change direction on a whim or is there a strict setlist that must be followed?

We write our setlist at the club.  We look at who’s all there and see what the night is calling for. … If there are a lot of Cambodians in the house, then we’ll play some of the songs, invite them up onto the stage and they can sing the songs. 

We played in Bakersfield for the first time. They were all doing this Electric Flag kind of dance, all the Cambodians were.  Then some jumped up on stage and sang a few songs with us.  Those were just thrown out there because that’s [where] the night sort of went.

What kind of venues work best for Dengue Fever?  What do you look for in a room?

What you don’t look for is a bunch of concrete and glass, or marble, because then the sound is bouncing off of everything, it all sounds like mud.  You want … like wood, round, no walls at all, a strange shape with different things to break up the sound.  We can play on a tiny little stage and we can play on a huge outdoor festival stage.  We work with whatever we’re doing.

Was the guitar your first instrument?

It was always guitar.  I was in seventh or eighth grade, about 12 years old. … My dad, he would play folk songs and stuff, Woody Guthrie and old cowboy songs.  We grew up singing together.  [I was] comfortable singing and playing guitar at the same time.  That was how it started.

Were you in your teens when you realized this could be your career?

I never thought of it like that.  I was going to school and taking classes that I liked … and playing music.

What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t a musician?

I have my acupuncture license so maybe I could practice Chinese medicine.

Do you collect guitars?

I fight the urge.  I go through different times when I’m all into hunting and stuff.  But right now I have an amplifier that I really like and my guitar sounds fine.  It plays well and it’s in tune. I’m not constantly hunting, looking for more and more gear. You can make a good-sounding song on any old guitar.  It’s other things that go into making a good song.  [The guitar] is just a tool.

You’ve talked a little about the creation process but how does a Dengue Fever song first come into this world?  What’s the first spark?

At my house I have guitars hanging on the wall. When I’m waiting for water to boil, I’ll grab a guitar and just kind of noodle around and stuff.  That’s when little ideas, without even thinking about it, start to happen.  Then you bring them [to the band] and it kind of makes [the band] play something and before you know it everybody is jamming together.  All of a sudden it’s not a blank canvas anymore and the song is taking shape and tells you where to go.

Do you carry a recorder or a notepad for when inspiration strikes?

I have my phone so I can record something when I’m driving or something – some kind of vocal melody or a guitar line. … If I’m driving I’ll just hum a few bars.

Dengue Fever isn’t just a band but also a family experience in that you’re playing music with your brother.  After 14 years is it still easy to work together?

It’s never been super easy but we get along fine.  We’re not like The Kinks. … We got to meet Ray Davies.  We played [“Later … With Jools Holland”] in London and Davies was his guest that night.  We played a song and then Jools started talking with Ray Davies and he said, “What do you have coming up?” and he’s like, “Oh, man. Never mind me.  These guys … don’t take this in a bad way but you’re like Blondie meets Led Zeppelin.”  And we were like, “Oh, man. Can we quote you?”  Then a year later he invited us to this one festival in London he was curating.  That was cool. To meet people you’ve looked up to your whole life that even know you’re alive.

Where do you think the band will be five years from now?

I don’t really save newspaper articles.  When we get press I’m not one of those to cut it out and put it in a book.  I’m just happy while we’re still together.  Five years from now?  I dunno.  Maybe tighter and a few electronic elements working their way into the music.  On this last album we have a few programmed drum loops going through it.

We’re more of a traditional rock setup.  No one is playing through a laptop.  But one of those nights that the drummer wasn’t in the studio, we got a loop going and ended up liking it.

Is there something you’ve wanted to tell the world about Dengue Fever but no one has ever asked you the right question?

When people ask what type of music we play (laughs), I just tend to say … we play our own take on psychedelic rock ’n’ roll with a Cambodian singer up front. We sort of play whatever we want.  When a stranger sees us carrying a guitar into the hotel at night and they say, “Oh, you’re in a band,” and ask what kind of music we play, luckily it’s not a one-word answer.

Are there times when you have to dumb it down to give a quick answer to that question?

I don’t go into all the different, like the Ethiopian groups … and the Afrobeat influences.  Just keep it simple.  “Our singer is Cambodian and we play whatever the F we want.”

Photo: Photo by Marc Walker
“We write our setlist at the club.  We look at who’s all there and see what the night is calling for.”

Upcoming Dengue Fever shows:

July 30 – Madison, Wis., Central Park
Aug. 14 – Los Angeles, Calif., Echo (Echo Park Rising)
Sept. 5 – Depew, Okla., (Backwoods Bash Music & Camping Festival)
Sept. 6 – St. Louis, Mo., Firebird
Sept. 7 – Chicago, Ill., Empty Bottle
Sept. 8 – Toronto, Ontario, The Garrison
Sept. 9 – Philadelphia, Pa., Johnny Brenda’s
Sept. 10 – Boston, Mass., Brighton Music Hall
Sept. 11 – New York, N.Y., Le Poisson Rouge
Sept. 12 – Washington, D.C., Rock And Roll Hotel
Sept. 13 – Portsmouth, N.H., 3S Artspace
Sept. 15 – Amsterdam, Netherlands, Melkweg
Sept. 16 – Tilburg, Netherlands, Various Venues (Incubate Festival)
Sept. 17 – Paris, France, Point Ephemere
Sept. 18 – Lyon, France, Transbordeur
Sept. 19 – Barcelona, Spain, Various Venues (BAM Festival)
Sept. 22 – Cologne, Germany, Yuca
Sept. 23 – Berlin, Germany, Badenhaus Szimpla
Sept. 24 – Hamburg, Germany, Various Venues (Reeperbahn Festival)
Sept. 25 – Liverpool, England, Blade Factory At Camp & Furnace (Liverpool International Festival Of Psychedelia)
Sept. 26 – Bristol, England, Start The Bus
Sept. 27 – Glasgow, Scotland, Broadcast
Sept. 29 – London, England, Oslo
Sept. 30 – Brighton, England, Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar
Oct. 1 – Manchester, England, Band On The Wall
Oct. 3 – Sion, Sweden, Le Port Franc
Oct. 7 – Istanbul, Turkey, Babylon
Oct. 9 – Antalya, Russia,  Mumiy Troll Music Bar
Oct. 10 – Antalya, Russia, Mumiy Troll Music Bar
Oct. 11 – Antalya, Russia, Mumiy Troll Music Bar
Oct. 13 – Stockholm, Sweden, Kagelbanan
Oct. 14 – Oslo, Norway, John Dee
Oct. 16 – Lund, Sweden, Mejeriet
Jan. 9 – Saint Paul, Minn., Ordway Center For The Perf. Arts 

Please visit Dengue Fever’s website, Twitter feed, Google + hangout, Instragram page and YouTube channel for more information.