With a day of drama behind them, and the evening’s only just begun, Dengue Fever’s Chhom Nimol and Senon Williams squeeze in an interview with editor Marissa Carruthers. Photography by Charles Fox.
Chhom Nimol closes her eye to perfect her signature smoky make-up and sweeping eyeliner. She remains unflustered despite a disastrous day trying to salvage Dengue Fever’s scheduled street gig at The Mansion in Phnom Penh. Just hours before taking to the stage, the band came close to scrapping the show after officials closed down operations, claiming the correct licenses had not been secured.
“It has been a bit of a nightmare,” Nimol says with a giggle. Pontoon stepped in at the eleventh hour, saving the day, but it’s 7pm, the band is still waiting for the sound check, and they’re due on stage in 90 minutes. “It always turns out okay in the end. It will be a great show.” And what a show it was. The LA-based outfit carried out their sound check in front of an already packed Pontoon before injecting electric energy into the air with their fun combination of Cambodian rock classics, psychedelic sounds, horns and bass.
“We wanted to do something else,” says bassist Senon Williams, recalling the bands inception in 2002. “Not be an indie rock band, not be a shoegaze band; something totally different.” Williams had travelled to Cambodia in 1995 and fallen in love with the country’s 1960s Golden Era rock scene, a move replicated by Zak Holtzman who was inspired to form the band after hearing the hits of the age.
“When Cambodians heard The Shadows or Santana or Jimmy Hendrix or any type of Western music, they didn’t carbon copy it,” says Williams of the Cambodian rock scene. “They used their own instruments with Western instruments, used their own melodies with Western melodies. It was a mash up more than a copy, and that’s what I thought was beautiful about it.”
A Band is Born
“Zac called me up in a panic one day and said, ‘Hey man, I’ve got like 10 singers lined up here in Long Beach [California], can you play bass?’ So I did,” Williams says. The next three weekends were spent hosting auditions to find a vocalist to add the signature female flutters of the music movement. “Everything was falling flat,” recalls Williams, adding they waited for a recommended singer called Chhom Nimol to put in an appearance. Those that did audition failed to meet the mark. “When she showed up, all the other singers backed off very quickly. I remember when she sang, all of us got chills. It was pretty remarkable.”
“I didn’t speak English and didn’t understand what they wanted me to sing,” says Nimol in defence of her no-shows. “I had only ever sung in Khmer, I had no idea what was going on.” To try and get her on board, the band sent her some of their songs, which she played to a fellow Cambodian friend. “I asked her, “What do you think about these guys singing Cambodian music?” She said, “It’s good. Keep with it.”
And so Dengue Fever was born, performing their first gig at packed out punk rock dive bar, Spaceland. “I was so nervous because the audience were all white,” recalls Nimol, who had immigrated to America the previous year. The show was a raging success, with Nimol being wheeled on stage in a cyclo shipped over by a friend from Cambodia. “LA’s a very tough crowd and that night people went insane,” says Williams. “We knew from that moment.”
Driven by their desire to do something different, the band’s ultimate aim was to use old Cambodian rock hits as a platform to create original sounds. However, their early life saw them recreate songs from the era, with their debut album Dengue Fever made up of covers, such as ‘Lost in Laos’ and ‘22 Nights’.
“We would play the old songs and Nimol would sing, and we’d all be like her voice is amazing,” says Williams. Having never sung in English before and still finding her feet, Nimol also struggled with the original material. “Making that album and getting to know each other allowed us to make the records that followed,” Williams adds.
Since then, Dengue Fever has racked up a catalogue of five albums, releasing their latest, The Deepest Lake, last year and extensively toured America, Europe and Asia. “We have evolved into making our own sounds and not just using Cambodia as an influence,” says Williams, listing Latin, African, Turkish, surf music and psych rock as some of their current influences. “Nimol has enough Cambodia for all of us,” he adds, letting out a hearty laugh.
In 2005, the band made their Cambodian debut with performances at Snowy’s bar and Talkin to a Stranger in Phnom Penh. They also teamed up with Cambodian Living Arts to host a free gig in a Tonle Bassac shanty town. “It was immense,” says Williams.
“I like the surprise element,” the bassist adds – receiving a huge helping of that when they stepped off the plane from a performance at the FCC in Siem Reap to the news of the lack of venue in the capital. “There’s always something unexpected around the corner. What moves me today is that Cambodians are singing along to our songs, not just the covers. They’re not waiting for ‘I’m Sixteen’, they’re singing to ‘Only a Friend’ and songs we wrote.”
Catch the full video of AsiaLIFE’s exclusive interview with Chhom Nimol and Senon Williams on AsiaLIFE Magazine’s You Tube Channel, youtube.com/user/AsiaLIFEmag. Follow our Facebook page for details of when it is online.