Cambodian pop-rock seems like an odd choice musical genre to try to earn a living, but Los Angeles-area sextet Dengue Fever is closing in on ten years.
All signs are that the band is set for a much longer run: They've just released Cannibal Courtship, their fourth album and successor to the wildly successful Venus on Earth, which made iTunes' list of best world-music albums of 2008.
The band toured Cambodia in 2009 and documented the experience with the film Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, which included concert footage as well recording sessions with Cambodian master musicians.
Rocks Off caught up with Dengue Fever founder and keyboardist Ethan Holtzman as the band was preparing to depart for the three-day Texas tour that brings them to Fitzgerald's Saturday.
Rocks Off: You started the band in 2001, how long did it take for this to become a living-wage job?
Ethan Holtzman: It took six years to be able to quit the day jobs. But it's really become the main focus for all of us.
RO: What would you say your model was?
EH: Slow, steady growth, mostly. And we decided to only make music we are truly passionate about and hopefully music that touches people. So far we are all still really into it and it seems to be working.
RO: That had to be rather comical, telling your parents "Yeah, we're starting this Cambodian psychedelic rock band and we're going to have lyrics in Cambodian, and this is how we plan to make a living." How'd that conversation go?
EH: Actually really well. Our parents are painters and sculptors and they were always very supportive of us. Their stance has always been do what makes you happy.
RO: What transpired to put this short Texas run together?
EH: We just released the new album on April 19 at a show here in Los Angeles at the Troubadour, and we did a driving tour working our way up to Vancouver. But we knew we definitely wanted to get back into Texas with this record because our reception has been good there. So we're flying in for a three-day run [of] Houston, Austin, Dallas.
RO: Driving tours are always fun. Anything interesting on that run up the West Coast?
EH: Actually, we rented one of those very comfortable huge vans. And it was all going great until we were on our way to San Francisco to play the Filmore. We stopped for gas and our drummer forgot and filled the thing with unleaded instead of diesel. So we had to pay for a tow, get the tank drained, and by then we knew we were cutting it close.
We pulled up to the gig and it was raining hard and we had 20 minutes before we were supposed to go on. So no sound check, we just jumped into our gig clothes and did it.
RO: With your Cambodian angle, it seems you've probably played some venues that might seem a bit odd.
EH: Believe it or not, I think the Orange Show in Houston stands out as the oddest venue. We loved that place and I think that is one gig that I will never forget just because that place was so cool. But we toured Cambodia and Vietnam in 2009 and we played a bunch of different gigs along the banks of the Mekong River.
We'd be playing and a huge mass of green plant would go floating by or a giant tanker would float by. There was always something going on on the river.
RO: What's happened in your musical progression since the previous album?
EH: It's changed a lot. I mean it sounds like Dengue Fever, but it's very different. It's the best sound we've ever gotten in the studio, and there's a lot more English on this one. Not that we're just going all English and selling out on our concept or anything.
RO: You and your brother write most of the songs. How does it work with songs you write in English and then translate to Cambodian? It seems like translation would mess up at least the rhyme scheme.
EH: When we first started this, our singer [Chhom Nimol] didn't speak much English, so we were translating out of necessity. But we'd write a song and say there was a line like "you don't love me anymore." In translation it would be 10-15 times that long, way way too many syllables, so we had to learn to almost write the songs like a haiku.
And sometimes it works, sometimes not so well. But as Chhom has learned to use English, we've come a long way in easing the songwriting and translation.
RO: When you guys are putting a song together that's sung in Cambodian, what is the thought process since none of the rest of you speak it?
EH: The main idea is to use the language as another instrument. It's a beautiful language to the ear, and we try to tweak the music to support that sound and extend the overall effect.
RO: What's the biggest change that come over the band since we last saw you here in 2009?
EH: I think we're definitely getting harder rhythms. We've been playing festivals the past couple of years and the African bands are really strong. We got to see Femi Kuti and his band has an amazing level of energy and intensity we want to incorporate more.
RO: So after ten years, how long do you see this continuing?
EH: As long as we're getting by and we can travel the way we get to, see all these wonderful places, I don't see us slowing down or falling apart. Everyone in the band is on the same page and the thing seems to grow a little more each year.
And I can't talk about some stuff that's about to happen with placements and licensing and stuff, but we've got some exciting things [in the works].
With Spain Colored Orange, Electric Attitude, The Manichean and The Band Foster, 8 p.m. at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak, www.fitzlivemusic.com.
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