Dengue Fever Keeps Things Hot

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Dengue is the name of a tropical disease, but it's also the name of one of the hottest bands around. Dengue Fever just released its third album, Venus on Earth. The band talks about its new CD and making it in world music.


If you've traveled to the tropics, then you know about dengue fever. It's a nasty disease that causes fever, body aches and a rash. But it is also the name of one of the hottest world music bands around - psychedelic '60s Cambodian pop reinterpreted by California surf rockers.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CHHOM NIMOL (Vocalist, Dengue Fever): (Singing in Khmer)

MARTIN: Dengue Fever had just released its third album, titled "Venus on Earth." And joining us from the studios of NPR West in Culver City are two members of the band - lead singer Chhom Nimol, and the band's cofounder and lead guitarist, Zac Holtzman.

Welcome. Thanks so much for talking to us.

Mr. ZAC HOLTZMAN (Lead Guitarist, Dengue Fever): Hi.

Ms. CHHOM: Hi.

MARTIN: And Nimol, I understand that Nimol is your first name and Chhom is your last name, or family name.

Ms. CHHOM: It's my last name.

MARTIN: But in the Cambodian style, you put it that way.

So Zac, I understand that this musical experiment all came from a life-changing trip that your brother and fellow band member Ethan took to Cambodia a little over a decade ago. What happened?

Mr. HOLTZMAN: Yeah. He went there with a friend. And his friend got bitten by a mosquito and contracted dengue. And they were driving in a truck on some really bumpy road, and his friend was sitting up front in the passenger area, and my brother was in the back of the truck. And it was such a bumpy ride that people were, you know, like getting sick and some people had helmets on, and it's kind of crazy.

And my brother kept leaning in through the little window to see how his friend was doing. And, you know, his friend was like a ghostly color and just barely hanging in there. And but the music that they were playing up in the cab was like some of the stuff that we were heavily influenced by and kind of got the whole band going.

MARTIN: Nimol, I understand that you linked up with Zac through an audition. Tell us about it.

Ms. CHHOM: First time I worked at Dragon Hall(ph) Restaurant, the bar, Cambodian. I went over there and I saw Ethan and Zac. They want to come to talk to me about - and join the band. And they give me a tape from the Cambodian song from '60. And then, I think about how come, you know, is that Zac and Ethan give me the tape of Cambodian song? And I think those guys - is telling me the truth or not? You know...

MARTIN: You didn't really believe they were...

Ms. CHHOM: It is. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...going to do Cambodian music or Cambodian pop.

Ms. CHHOM: Yeah. And then, we have a rehearsal one time, and then they called me back.

Mr. HOLTZMAN: Yeah. Yeah, we…

Ms. CHHOM: I really want to go.

MARTIN: Well, Zac, I hear that Nimol is actually being a little modest here, because, as I understand it, when she came down to audition, there were other singers there. And when they saw her, they thought, oh, well, forget it, because they already knew she was - she already had a name.

Mr. HOLTZMAN: Yeah. There was about six other singers, and we told them that there's a possibility that Chhom Nimol might come and audition, too. And they were just like, no, no. Chhom Nimol not come. She's too famous.

And when she showed up, they just - all of a sudden, they developed scratches in their throats and all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOLTZMAN: They all left. So...

MARTIN: Nimol, you were famous at home?

Ms. CHHOM: Yeah, a little. Medium.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: She's like, yeah, pretty famous. I got it like that. Yeah.

Mr. HOLTZMAN: Her family's like the Jacksons of Cambodia.

MARTIN: Is that so?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHHOM: I know.

MARTIN: Zac, how were you able to write music when you don't - do you speak Khmer?

Mr. HOLTZMAN: (Khmer spoken)

MARTIN: What is that?

Ms. CHHOM: He say, just speak a little bit Cambodian.

MARTIN: Okay. So…

Ms. CHHOM: That's not - it doesn't…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So how were you able to…


MARTIN: …you know what I mean? Match the music with the idea?

Mr. HOLTZMAN: I write the songs in English, and then we have a friend who translates the songs into Khmer. But a lot of the times, we run into this problem where like a phrase in English will be about, you know, seven or eight syllables. And then we translate it into Khmer, and it comes back and it's like 20, 25 syllables.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHHOM: Everything becomes long.

Mr. HOLTZMAN: And so Nimol is like, oh, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHHOM: And then we pick only one, you know.

Mr. HOLTZMAN: So we have to do a serious filtration process where we get rid of all the little unnecessary words and sort of streamlines it all and kind of becomes this little haiku.

MARTIN: Well, talk to me about "Monsoon of Perfume," for example. Tell me what that's about.

Mr. HOLTZMAN: There's a lot of karaoke that goes on in Cambodia. And when the people like somebody who's doing a good job with the song, they'll fold up a little tissue that's on the table, and they'll kind of twist it into a rose and bring it up to them and give them like this kind of mock rose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's very nice. Both men and women? Do you get a rose if you're a man, too, or just Nimol?

Ms. HOLTZMAN: Yeah. Yeah, you do. Yeah.

MARTIN: Oh, everybody gets a rose. All right.

Well let's a little bit of "Monsoon of Perfume," and I'll work on twisting my napkin into a little rose. Let's play some.


(Soundbite of song "Monsoon of Perfume")

Ms. CHHOM: (Singing in Khmer)

MARTIN: So Zac, who all comes to your events? What kind of crowds do you get?

Mr. HOLTZMAN: It's bizarre. There's a really wide group of different people that come to the shows. Sometimes, it's, you know, just your average kind of indie rocker crowd. And then, like when we play in San Francisco, there's a lot of Cambodians that drive up from San Jose.

Ms. CHHOM: Fresno...

Mr. HOLTZMAN: Mm-hmm. And then, sometimes they bring, like, they'll bring their mom and dad, too.

Ms. CHHOM: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HOLTZMAN: Like the younger Cambodians will bring their parents, and so they get to kind of - you know, sort of reminisce, also.

Ms. CHHOM: Yeah. The song, the song they know about a dance, then all around the circle, if music start and then they dance around this circle in front of the people. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Is that fun for you?

Ms. CHHOM: It's great, you know? But, you know, I saw a lot of people, you know, the fan look at them and then oh, it's great. It's, move your hand and then rock around...

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And I'm speaking with two members of the band Dengue Fever about their new album, "Venus on Earth," Zac Holtzman and Chhom Nimol.

How is that you think, Nimol, people are able to respond to the music when they don't understand the words, most people don't - I mean, why do you think that is?

Mr. HOLTZMAN: She's asking why people have a good time at our shows even if they can't understand.

Ms. CHHOM: Oh, okay. I think the way I sing, the way I dance on the stage, and then after that, a lot of people asking me about where are you from? So it's kind of pretty, you know, the way you move your hand. I say that's Cambodian style, is like old styles.

MARTIN: Well, you're starting to put some English into your songs, like here's a track called "Tooth and Nail." Let's play a little bit of that. And actually, before we play it, why don't you tell us a little bit about it?

Mr. HOLTZMAN: Well, "Tooth and Nail" is about a woman who - the person that she really loves is getting married to somebody else, and she would not stop at anything to try to get him back.

MARTIN: Well, that's a universal theme.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: We've heard a little bit of that.

Mr. HOLTZMAN: And the funny thing is, I played this song at my friend's wedding.

MARTIN: Okay. That's cold. That's a cold heart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOLTZMAN: He asked me to.

MARTIN: Oh, did he? Okay. Well, let's play - let's hear a little bit. "Tooth and Nail."

(Soundbite of song, "Tooth and Nail")

Ms. CHHOM: (Singing) Something old, something new. Something borrowed and something blue. Couldn't keep me from trying and fighting, doing everything I can to somehow end up with you again.

MARTIN: Nimol, you have such a sweet voice. You don't sound like the stalker that you actually could be in this song.

Ms. CHHOM: It's easy for me. It's a slow song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Yeah. What's it like singing in English?

Ms. CHHOM: I love to sing English very much. But, you know, it's very hard for me to, you know, pronounce English. But I think if it's English, going to be, you know, more fan and more people can understand it, I hope is the next album going to be half English, half in Khmer...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CHHOM: ...and make more better.

MARTIN: Hmm. So Zac, congratulations on all the success of the band. But I just want to ask if you have any thoughts about these kinds of collaborations. On the one hand, seems like, you know, the world is getting smaller all the time, you know. People are traveling and they're kind of being influenced by other styles and artists sort of working together. On the other hand, a lot of us still like to listen to, you know, our own thing, right? We kind of stick close to our demographic.


MARTIN: I just wondered if you have any thoughts about what you've learned from exploring and become a part of this musical scene?

Mr. HOLTZMAN: Well, I tend to like the stuff that is a combination of different cultures that other people do that is not heavily thought out, you know, where it's just kind of like some people getting together and jamming and just playing some music.

MARTIN: Instead of trying to make some big statement.

Mr. HOLTZMAN: Yeah. Like sometimes, you know, you get these CDs and they have like, you know, the best piano player and the best, you know, sitar player and then just - and it's just like, stale-sounding, and it's like they all just - it just doesn't go together, you know, and because they thought about it too much.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for thinking of us enough to come and see us, and I appreciate that.

Mr. HOLTZMAN: Sure, thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Which song should we go out on from the new album?

Mr. HOLTZMAN: How about "Seeing Hands," the one that we just shot a video for.

MARTIN: Okay. Zac Holtzman is the lead guitarist and cofounder of the band Dengue Fever, and we were also joined by lead singer Chhom Nimol. They joined us from NPR West. And we're going to go out on "Seeing Hands."

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. HOLTZMAN: Thank you.

Ms. CHHOM: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Seeing Hands")

Ms. CHHOM: (Singing in Khmer)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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