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Courting Cambodia: T Basa Chats with Dengue Fever’s Zac Holtzman

Posted by March 28th, 2011 No Comments » Interview – Dengue Fever
Q&A with Zac Holtzman 

In preview of their new album and return to The Crocodile, T Basa polled Dengue Fever guitarist/vocalist  Zac Holtzman about cannibals, Cambodia, and the Khymer Rouge.

Oh…and the band’s joyous live performances. I’m excited for your upcoming album Cannibal Courtship. What can rabid fans like me expect?
Zac Holtzman: It has a darker vibe. Nimol’s English has improved so about half the songs are in English. One tells the story of her family’s escape from Cambodia. They got split up from her sister en route to Thailand and didn’t know if she was alive until they heard her singing on the radio. Nimol was a little girl and couldn’t figure out how her sister “got in to the radio.”

NM: That’s amazing. After watching the Sleepwalking Through the Mekong DVD
it is apparent that Dengue Fever is more than just a band, it’s a
family. How does one “keep the peace” with six passionate personalities?

ZH: We love each other and there aren’t any egomaniacs or drug addicts. We self produced Cannibal Courtship and at times things would get a bit heated during mixing, but we have a strange system that is not completely democratic. If one person feels strongly about something and puts up enough of a fight and struggle, then the rest of the band will give in.

NM: Speaking of Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, I enjoyed seeing the traditional Cambodian instruments. Did any make it on to the new album?
DF: Yes. My friend Mel Bergman built me a half Fender Jazzmaster half Chapei Dong Veng instrument that we used. David Ralicke played some traditional flutes that we ran through an RCA BA-6A compressor. It was Jimmy Page’s favorite to use on acoustic guitars because it thickens up whatever you’re playing and gives it a nice growl. We also used some Cambodian chimes on “U.”

NM: I really enjoy when the fellas sing in Khmer too, can we expect more of that on Cannibal Courtship?
DF: Sorry, Nimol is the only one singing in Khmer on this album.

Zac shreds in blue lightNM: Have you ever entertained the notion of a having a Hip-hop
artist use one of your hooks in a sample, or collaborating? With the
right artist this would seem like a perfect fit and an opportunity to
introduce Dengue Fever to a different audience.

DF: I would love that. We thought about contacting Ghost Face Killer at one time but it didn’t happen.

NM: Some would describe your music as REVOLUTIONARY, illustrating a shift from old, failed systems to the “new and now.” Is Dengue Fever moments away from “blowing up” and becoming the sound of this revolution?
DF: Most people think that what they are doing is totally original and impossible to categorize, even if they are a wedding and bar mitzvah band. We called the album Cannibal Courtship because most of our songs are made up of two cultures feeding off each other. When we approach a song, we push and pull it like a piece of Silly Putty, in whatever direction we think it needs to go.

NM: Are there any plans to go back to Cambodia for another tour?

DF: Yes. We plan on touring the Provinces in early November before the Water Festival.

NM: Have any medical associations complained about your band name? Or is it meant to bring awareness to the disease?
DF: Once a guy wrote us a mean letter when his girlfriend had dengue and he was trying to look up info on the Internet and kept coming across us.

NM: On a lighter note, are you excited to come back to Seattle? The show at Neumos last year was insane. I have yet to witness such a joyous audience since.
DF: Glad you had fun. We are excited to come back. The album is out April 19 and that’s when we start our West Coast tour.

NM:  Seattle music is driven by jaded hipsters who only allow friends and friends of friends in to their tight knit scene. Is LA any different? Or now that you are an “international act” is LA just another stop on the road?
DF: It’s just another stamp in our passports. (Just kidding, that’s a line in one of our songs.) I was born here and grew up in Topanga Canyon. We love LA!

People tend to be harder to please when they live in big cities. You can’t help it with so many good acts rolling through town.

More Zac shreddage, minus the blueNM:  I was proud to hear your music on HBO’s acclaimed series True
. They even named one of their episodes Escape from Dragon House.
How did that connection come about? Is Alan Ball a fan?

DF: I think it was through Gary Calamar. He’s a KCRW DJ who plays our stuff. But I’m not sure.

(Editor’s note: It was indeed Gary Calamar, True Blood’s music supervisor and a KCRW DJ, who picked Escape From Dragon House for the show. He’s a long-time supporter of the band.)

NM:  With your knowledge of the Khmer Rouge and the personal history surrounding your band’s homage to the great Cambodian bands from the 60’s and 70’s, what do you suggest citizens of the world do to continue to bring awareness to tyranny?
DF: Respect other cultures but don’t put up with cruelty and discrimination. Get out and vote. And help make sure that these horrible events get written in to our history books and not forgotten.

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