Ahead of Burger Records’ upcoming West Coast blowout tour Burger-A-Go-Go, we spoke to Ethan Holtzman, the keyboardist of Cambodian/American psychedelic fusion band Dengue Fever, who will soon be bringing their tunes to The Music Box on February 28.
Hear Ethan relay his thoughts about the band’s inspiration, their goals as musicians, and what we can expect for their shows at Burger-A-Go-Go!
ListenSD: How did all six of you initially come together in the early 2000s?
Ethan Holtzman, keyboards: Paul, our drummer, and I are old friends and always played music together. My brother Zac (guitarist) and Senon (bassist) went to college at Humboldt State together and jammed in a cloud of green while not studying. I invited David Ralicke (horns) to our first show to sit in and he was the perfect fit and never left. Our singer, Chhom Nimol, my brother and I found singing at a supper club in Little Phnom Penh (Long Beach, CA) and we talked her into coming to a rehearsal. The moment we all finally played our first song, we knew it was something more than just another band. The purpose of returning to Cambodia and playing for the locals was a memory of a lifetime.
Through playing in the United States, do you consider yourselves ambassadors of Cambodian music?
EH: I guess when we were on a U.S. embassy-sponsored tour throughout Southeast Asia we were called cultural ambassadors. But really, in the U.S., I’d say no. We just play our own style of music and our singer happens to be from Cambodia and sing in her native tongue.
What was it like transitioning from playing covers to mostly original songs at your concerts? Was this change perceived differently at first than it is now?
EH: We really just played covers at the start of our career because Nimol didn’t speak any English and she knew these great 60’s and 70’s Cambodian songs that inspired us to form the band. I think the transition to writing and performing originals came relatively easy and we always mix up our set with originals and covers, so it wasn’t that clunky of a transition. And with time a few of our originals became crowd favorites just like some of the older covers that Sinn Sisamouth wrote.
Which aspect of the Burger-A-Go-Go tour are you most excited for?
EH: It’s exciting to have a female lead for all the bands during this time when we have the pussy-grabbing, healthcare abolishing, racist buffoon at the helm. I also like how Burger is such a grassroots label and how they brought back the cassette tape.
You always seem to cultivate a unique interplay between different instrumentation in your songs. When you are recording, is there a methodology that you adhere to while writing songs that helps you create, or is the process always changing?
EH: From our first recordings until now I’d say we have definitely matured in our approach to writing and recording music. Early on, when we first started, I think we played a little too busy. Over time we have learned to create more space and create room for everybody. We have the privilege of having a singer who can sing in Khmer (Cambodian) and English. We came up with a method for translating English into Khmer. And because in the translation there would be way too many syllables for the verse of the song, our method is to strip the lyrics way back more like a haiku.
In your KEXP live session, I had noticed some interesting aural delay being applied the saxophone. What artists, if any, inspired this choice? Are you paying homage to psychedelic music through that sound, or is this simply for atmospheric effect?
EH: Delay is such a great sound effect. I use a delay on my keys, Zac uses delay on his guitar and Ralicke uses it on his horns and flute. But we don’t all do it at the same time. There are lots of sound effects that we all use. I don’t think that we are paying homage to any one artist, but a lot of the early Dub music is covered with thick delay and that’s one of several influences.
On the subject of sonic technique, where did your preference for vintage/analog keyboard sounds come from?
EH: When we started the band we had a specific sound we were going for and a big part of it was the Farfisa Compact Organ. It’s an Italian organ from the 60’s with a fuzzy distinct tone (think “96 Tears”). So I got one and used it for many years. But once we started to become more of an international act, the 60’s organ didn’t travel so well.
For example, one time we flew to Russia for a festival and I took my heavy-ass Farfisa. It got so cold in the belly of the plane most of the notes slipped out of tune. So here we are sound checking for our concert, 10k people expected, and my organ is unplayable. Luckily I also brought a tiny battery operated Casiotone which saved me in a big way. Later that night we played a second show in a Moscow club and the organ had warmed up and slipped back into tune. But after that scare I started using a Nord, it doesn’t look as cool, but it has Farfisa, Mellotron, Moog, Wurlitzer, all the nice old sounds in one reliable unit. I’ll still break out the Farfisa and Leslie cabinet for recording.
Has the new wave of industry technology inherently changed the condition of being an independent artist?
EH: The home studio became an affordable option for all bands. CD sales basically disappeared other than at live shows. Vinyl has had a huge resurgence. For smaller bands, it’s all about being on the road and getting that occasional license to get by.
Lastly, what would you say are your future goals as musicians and for the band itself?
EH: We are working on a new album. My goal is to play on every continent, so I still need to get to Africa and Antarctica. Hope to see you at the shows!
Dengue Fever will be headlining The Music Box on February 28th on night two of Burger-A-Go-Go with Winter, Summer Twins, and Patsy’s Rats supporting. Buy your tickets here!