Interview: Dengue Fever’s Zac Holtzman On ‘Electric Cambodia’

Los Angeles's Dengue Fever has been reviving, remixing, and retransmitting the otherworldly sounds of Cambodian pop music since 2001.

During its 1960s and '70s golden age, "Khmer rock" split the difference between traditional Southeast Asian vocal styles and the blues-rock Cambodians were heard over the airwaves during the otherwise reprehensible Vietnam War. The rock was knocked hard in 1975, when Pol Pot, the communist leader of the Khmer Rouge movement, facilitated the execution of some two million Cambodian artists, intellectuals, and anyone else who didn't fit his rural collectivist agenda.

Plucked from Southern California's expatriate Asian community, Dengue Fever singer Chhom Nimol lends an authentic Cambodian lilt to co-founding brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman's scintillating stewpot of surf rock, spaghetti-Western kitsch, and Farfisa-driven psychedelic ornamentation. (Zac's the one with the beard in the photo above.)

On Dengue Fever Presents Electric Cambodia, the group collects some of its favorite Cambodian tracks. These include "Flowers in the Pond" and "Shave Your Beard," which the band has previously covered. Electric Cambodia benefits Cambodian Living Arts, a Massachusetts nonprofit dedicated to reviving traditional Khmer performing arts.

HeadCount: How did you get into Khmer rock?

Zac Holtzman: A friend who worked at Aquarius Records in San Francisco turned me on to it. My brother Ethan and other members of the band had gone to Cambodia in the nineties, heard it there, and collected tapes, so they knew about it that way. My brother heard me playing some of the music I got in San Francisco. We started talking about it and decided to form a band based on that body of music.

Why is this music important and what does it represent?

Holtzman: It combines Cambodia's vocal style with American and British garage, psychedelic, and surf sounds. It’s their spin on it. It’s just really fun and has great energy. It inspired us and then we went off on our own direction. But this compilation contains some of the songs we were really into right from the start.

Can you give us some historical context? When and where did it flourish and why did it go away?

Holtzman: Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea, and Pan Ron were the big songwriters and singers at the time, and they would perform traditional music during the day and at night they'd play rock 'n' roll in clubs. They learned about this music from radio stations that were broadcasting to American troops fighting in Vietnam and Cambodia. So that’s how it started and it ended around 1975 when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and killed anybody who had any Western influence or artistic merit – or who didn't have any callouses on their hands and wore glasses. A lot of people fled to Paris, and the vinyl records survived there. And I think some people in Long Beach still have some original vinyl. And that's pretty much how the music survived.

Did any of the artists on Electric Cambodia survive the purge?

Holtzman: Only Dara Chom Cha, who sings the first song on the album, "Give Me One Kiss."

How did you compile Electric Cambodia? Are these simply your favorite Cambodian tracks?

Holtzman: Yeah, they're some of our favorite tracks. Some of our other favorite tracks have already been released on different compilations, and we only wanted stuff that hasn't been previously released. So we dug a little deeper and picked some of the coolest numbers we could find.

What's Dengue Fever's connection with Cambodian Living Arts?

Holtzman: Cambodian Living Arts is a great organization that helps traditional Khmer musicians teach underprivileged kids how to play traditional instruments. Girls learn how to dance and sing. They have troupes that perform around the world, and every once in awhile we hook up with them and perform together. The great people who run it built a house in a recording studio for some of the musicians to live in so they could be closer to their students. We're happy to help them out any way we can.

What else is new with Dengue Fever?

Holtzman: We plan to record our next album after the little West Coast tour we're on, so that’s exciting. And then we have this crazy tour set up for May. We’re going to Norway, Germany, Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and possibly Tokyo and Beijing. This will be our second trip to Cambodia and we’ll definitely hook up with Cambodian Living Arts.

What did you take away from your 2005 trip to Cambodia?

Holtzman: We were all exposed to really cool traditional Cambodian music and got a deeper understanding of the culture. Everybody was incredibly nice and patient. People just take their time, which is something I personally came home with. We dug around to find some bands playing rock 'n' roll, or something close to it, but that didn’t really happen. A Filipino band played heavy metal but everyone else was mainly singing Karaoke. There was also a lot of hip-hop. We also visited a kind of "American Idol"-style nightclub called “Spark.”

Is Dengue Fever involved in any other philanthropic or activist endeavors?

Holtzman: We work with Wildlife Alliance, which is a great organization that tries to educate people in Cambodia about endangered species and how they shouldn’t use them as a food source or as something to hunt for profit. Another group is the World Wildlife Fund. We eventually want to play all the different provinces in Cambodia and spread the word about endangered species.

Any great new Asian music we should know about?

Holtzman: The Sublime Frequencies label has two pretty cool new compilations: Shadow Music of Thailand and Siamese Soul: Thai Pop Spectacular Vol. 2. Also OnRa, a French-Vietnamese who remixes Vietnamese music, Chinese opera, and a lot of other stuff.