For a short time before Pol Pot and his totalitarian Khmer Rouge regime came to power in the mid-1970s, Cambodia produced groovy psych pop music in the spirit of The Searchers’ “Love Potion No. 9” and Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man.”
About a decade ago, brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman, who play guitar and Farfisa organ, respectively, became aware of such music. They recruited the elegant and talented Khmer-singing Chhom Nimol from Long Beach and, joined by like-minded sonic travelers, started playing covers of Cambodian songs as the band Dengue Fever.
Since then, Dengue Fever has written and recorded several albums worth of similarly groovy original songs. They will return to Santa Barbara this Friday, Feb. 1, for a performance in the theater at the UCSB Multicultural Center.
Tickets are available by clicking here. Zac Holtzman answered the following questions by email.
Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at your upcoming show at UC Santa Barbara?
Zac Holtzman: Angelic singing over some raunchy guitar.
JM: What is the appeal to you of Cambodian pop/psychedelic music?
ZH: It’s exotic and familiar in all the right ways.
JM: How has the decision to focus more on lyrics in English rather than Khmer been received?
ZH: Great, especially overseas in countries that don’t speak any Khmer. Certain songs make sense to be sung in a particular language.
JM: How do the band’s songs typically come together?
ZH: There is no set pattern. Some start with a story or lyrics, and others start with a guitar or keyboard line. Some are born in the tour van.
JM: Could you describe your experience of touring in Cambodia?
ZH: AMAZING! Just joking, I hate it when people use “amazing” to describe everything. The people we meet and get to work with over there leave a huge impact on my life. A few months ago, we got to jam with these kids who study music at a circus school. They practice from sun up to sun down, not even breaking to go to the bathroom — they just wear diapers.
JM: I really like the compilation Electric Cambodia that the band curated. What do you know about the fates of the performers on these songs?
ZH: Most of those artists sadly didn’t make it. But a few did. I think there’s a singer living in Paris and a few guitar players that made it.
JM: Before Dengue Fever, you were in the band Dieselhed. Could you reflect on your time with that band?
ZH: Good times. Six guys in one hotel room. I remember doing a chi gong forum called “The Golden Bell.” It’s very strenuous and takes about 45 minutes. There was no space in our room, so I had to do it in the one open space below the TV. The movie Seconds was showing. It was bizarre.
JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
ZH: Leave your guitar out of its case. Hang it in the kitchen and pick it up every time you’re waiting for water to boil.
JM: What are your plans, musical or otherwise, for the near future?
ZH: Dengue Fever is working hard on another album. Every time we get together and put work in a night of fun, something good comes out of it. We also just launched our own record label, Tuk Tuk Records, and we are releasing deluxe editions of our back catalog with unreleased and rare tracks.
JM: Do you want to set the record straight on anything about Dengue Fever?
ZH: No, I’m OK with whatever anyone believes.
JM: Where are you responding from?
ZH: My kitchen, Echo Park. Thanks, and hope to see you at the show.
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.