Senon Williams of Dengue Fever: "We did one gig at a time in the beginning."
Lauren Dukoff Senon Williams (far right) says Dengue Fever "did one gig at a time in the beginning. There was no long-term idea to stick around for as long as we have. It just kept on getting more and more fun, and we kept getting more opportunities to travel."
Dengue Fever (due tonight at the Bluebird Theater) was born of Zac and Ethan Holtzman's fascination with the pop music that had come out of Cambodia prior to the Khmer Rouge takeover of that country in 1975. Pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia had a thriving pop and rock scene that was influenced by Western pop and rock music, especially with the arrival of Americans in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. That music sounded ever-so-slightly different from the Western equivalent, and it is that difference and the possibilities posed that inspired the Holtzmans.
In 2001, the nascent Dengue Fever recruited Chhom Nimol, who was already famous in Cambodian-language circles for her ability to belt out the classics. Early on, the group released two albums of covers of older Cambodian songs, but since 2008's Venus on Earth, Dengue has written entire albums of its own material, including its latest, Cannibal Courtship.
In 2005, the band was the subject of the documentary film Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, which documented their first tour to Cambodia and probably the first tour any rock band from outside Cambodia had embarked on since at least the early 1970s. We had a chance to speak with Dengue's gregarious and charming bassist, Senon Williams, about how the band got started and about that tour through the region near the lower Mekong.
Westword: I saw a Rockmad.com interview you did this past June, and you said that when you were a kid, you started out playing drums but ended up playing bass almost out of frustration. What is it about that instrument that has kept you with it, and are there particular artists that informed how you developed your musicianship?
Senon Williams: I started out playing drums, but quickly started playing guitar, bass, keyboards and stuff. I was in a band in New York City in the late '80s and early '90s with Marnie [Greenholz] of Live Skull. We were jamming, and she was playing bass and I was playing guitar, and for some reason, we were like, "Let's do two basses," because she was doing a lot of lead and a lot of really weird stuff. And I said, "I'll just hold it down while you do all your crazy bass stuff." I really found a voice in it and really loved it at that time. Me and Marnie's band never got off the ground, though. We rehearsed and jammed every week, but it was at that point that I started playing a lot more bass and fell in love with it.
After I started jamming with Marnie, [I was in a] band that had two guitarists, and I was one of them, a bass player and a drummer, and the bass player was just too busy doing stuff, so I just said, "Dude, let me grab that thing." We ended up kicking the bass player out of the band and we became a trio with me on bass. I just wanted it to be simple. I think that's what most bands want out of a bass player, and I had a hard time finding that in a bass player, so I sort of drifted over there.
That wasn't Cement, was it?
No, that wasn't Cement. I entered that as a bass player. We started the band with Chuck Mosely of Faith No More. It's funny that we're touring with Secret Chiefs 3 now, because Mike Patton was the singer from Mr. Bungle and Faith No More, so it's kind of coming full circle. The band with Chuck Mosely was the one where we kicked the bass player out of the band.
You'd been playing in Radar Brothers before joining Dengue Fever. How did you meet Ethan and Zac Holtzman, and how did you come to join Dengue Fever?
I was actually in both bands for about five years. I was in Radar Brothers for about fifteen years with Jim Putnam, who was in Medicine before that. He quit that band and started the Radar Brothers. We put out five records and traveled all over the place and had a good time. When you're in a band for fifteen years, things become comfortable, and it kind of fell apart.
One of the interesting things about Dengue Fever is that there's a slower maturing stage because of the nature of it. Our first album is covers, and our singer had never been in a band that played original music before. So getting her to really express herself musically with original musical compositions was a challenge. So Dengue Fever keeps shifting and changing, and each one is worlds apart. But they're a step toward where we are now, and I still think we have places to go.
I met Zac...we went to college together at Humboldt State University. I was living for a while with Virgil Shaw, who was later in Dieselhead, and we all met at Humboldt, and obviously, Ethan is Zac's brother. I had met Ethan several times over the years, but we didn't really get to know each other until we started playing music together.
We had been friends for years, and we kind of always knew what each other was up to. I had traveled to Cambodia in 1995, before Ethan went there, and I collected a boatload of music as well. I wasn't initially looking for music, but I heard some music over there. It was more like '80s stuff that I heard, and I thought, "Oh, I've got to go get some of this stuff." When I was looking for this '80s Khmer rock, I found this '60s Khmer rock, and I was like, "Holy shit! This stuff is insane!" I still have this collection of cassette tapes that I had bought in '95.
We all heard Cambodian rock at the same time, but it was Zac and Ethan who went down to Long Beach to scout for a singer. Once they had lined up a few singers, that's when I got a phone call because they were panicked. The bass player they had wasn't working out. She was a cello player, and she was doing something else. They called me up and said, "Hey, man, can you come tomorrow down to Long Beach; we already have these singers lined up." I already had a good grasp of the songs. They weren't that complicated, and I figured them out that night.
The next day, we were trying out all these singers in Long Beach. [Chhom] Nimol didn't come at first. After that first day, I was like, "I'm not joining your band; I'm just kind of sitting in. I already have the Radar Brothers, and we're going on tour and whatever, but I will help you out with this tryout period." To be honest, the tryouts were so much fun and so weird, all of us were going, "This is the craziest thing." All these crazy Cambodian girls coming down all dressed with their nails done, their hair done. It was totally nuts.
At first it seemed like a really bad idea. All of us were going, "Aw, shit, this is just awful; this is a really weird scene down here." After two or three times, we kind of stuck with it. The idea was to do this one concert, so we were dedicated to doing this big thing that ended up falling through but it was going to be a big concert downtown headlined by Vincent Gallo. We just wanted to have something to do for it, and that's why were so dedicated to putting this together for one show. That's what kept us going to Long Beach. It's about forty minutes from L.A.
The third or fourth time, Nimol showed up, and all of the other singers that came before had said, "No way in hell is she coming. Nimol is too big of a Cambodian star to come do this." We didn't know she was a star at all. The third or fourth rehearsal, she showed up and blew everybody away. It turned from bad idea to good idea pretty quickly. We did one gig at a time in the beginning. There was no long-term idea to stick around for as long as we have. It just kept on getting more and more fun, and we kept getting more opportunities to travel.
As a bassist, were there any adjustments in musical thinking you had to make when you started playing in Dengue Fever, beyond just playing music for any other rock band you might have joined?
Not really. I bring my own influence to it. I wasn't too concerned with being a traditionalist or learning anything distinctly Cambodian in any way. Most of that rock, anyway, is mostly in minor keys. Throw in that little half-step thing. I've always played by ear, so what I hear is what I play. So it wasn't that big of an adjustment. If I hear a bad note, I adjust it. Nimol, who sings in a microtonal way, adds tension to the music without being off-key. It's technically off-key, but because of her style of singing, it's one key. She has a unique way of hitting notes, and a Western singer wouldn't necessarily sing that way.
It's just all about playing. We figured out these old songs, and on our second album we did one cover with the rest being originals. We were sticking to that surf rock/garage kind of formula. Escape From Dragon House still has that kind of vibe. I think on Venus on Earth is when we really started writing our own compositions and fitting Nimol in the music.
I think it was the first record with which she was uncomfortable. "Whoa, these are all original songs. and not all of them are based on the Cambodian formula." That was difficult at first for her. But now we're kind of family, and she understands what we're up to and what we're doing.
I think it's been kind of a growing process for all of us. Making a record is hard. Making music is hard, but I don't think it's more difficult because of the Cambodian influence. I think it's just about a good song being a good song. With a bad song, it's like, "You can't milk a turnip" -- or whatever the saying may be.
And a lot of that old Cambodian pop and rock music was influenced by Western popular music anyway.
Exactly. We are kind of avoiding -- some of those Cambodian tunes we've covered are so dissonant and messed up, so we'll change a beat part or a chord or key, because we're not concerned about it being exactly like it was. We're more concerned with making a song sound good to us, whether that's a cover or an original.
What kinds of shows did you play with the band early on, and how did people receive you then?
I think great. That's what really made this happen. Our first show was at Spaceland. I don't even know who we played with, but it was off the hook. It was packed. People jumped on stage. People were rolling all over the place, all over the floor. It was at the time when shoegaze rock was kind of the thing -- big wall of sound, everyone swaying back and forth, and the singer would sing next to the mike instead of into the mike kind of music.
Here we are with Nimol belting it out. She's a performer, she's an entertainer, that's what she does. So it was her up front in her crazy, sparkly Cambodian dress. Then us indie rockers in the back totally rocking out. People were immediately like, "Wow!" The reaction was awesome right off the bat. It was like, "Wow! I'm dancing! Look at my feet! Whoa!"
What are some of your most vivid memories of touring in Cambodia in 2005, and how do you feel Sleepwalking Through the Mekong reflected your experiences there?
That was a crazy whirlwind. That whole film was shot in ten days. Or as the director would like to say, "Ten days with one day off." So in a ten-day period, we shot everything that's in that movie, plus three times more. So it was an insane whirlwind for me. It was like nothing I've ever experienced before, because each day was an insane challenge.
All we had was our guitars, so we would show up, and we would plug into some speaker hooked up to a telephone amplifier. We were playing in these weird conditions in these weird places, and we were collaborating with someone who had never hung out with a Western person at all. It wasn't just like they hadn't played Western music; they hadn't even hung out with a Westerner.
So we were going into these shanty towns and playing in a crazy school built in a squat. Then we played in these crazy ex-pat bars with all these people from all over the world, and we forced them to open the doors to let all the Cambodians in. It was an experience that took us by surprise, but I think it also took Phnom Penh by surprise, especially in 2005.
Right now something's happening in Phnom Penh that's really different from 2005. Back then, there wasn't much cultural mixing going on, and there weren't many NGOs. We were there this last time and there's places like the Meta House and the Bopanna Center. There are French schools that now are really trying to bridge the cultures together and create together. Whereas in 2005, we saw a much more distinct separation between the Cambodians and the Westerners.
Nimol, her whole family is famous in Cambodia. So when she went back to Cambodia, the Cambodians wanted to see Nimol. So we booked a couple of shows in ex-pat bars and said it had to be free so Cambodians couldn't just afford to go but could come. Because if you charge a cover, no Cambodians will come, especially at that time. Then we had to send out our Cambodian friends [to bring people].
We played this one place where it was an open courtyard, and they rolled back the gate, like a car gate, and still all the Westerners were on one side of the gate and all the Cambodians just blocked the street, packed the street, outside the club. They wouldn't come in. We actually had to send friends to say, "Hey, come in; it's free. You don't have to buy anything. Just come in and enjoy the show." It wasn't until then that the Cambodians felt comfortable enough to enter the establishment.
We didn't have that problem this last time when we went back a couple of months ago. We played this benefit where we were charging ten dollars at the door in Phnom Penh, and a thousand people came, and it was a huge Cambodian presence. The promoter of the show said that was the first time he'd seen Cambodians actually pay to see a band. He was very proud of that, because it was a benefit for a good cause, but it was also a concert that was worth paying for.
He was noticing that sometimes when you offer -- it doesn't matter where you are or how poor you are -- something for free, they'll come no matter how shitty the music is. He said that all over Cambodia, there are these concerts that are so horrible and the only reason people are coming is because it's free. Now here's something that's amazing and people go, "Wait, this is worth seeing." We also played free concerts when we were over there, too, because, really, if you go out to the sticks, that's the only way you're going to reach a lot of the community in Cambodia.
In an interview you did with Spinner a couple of years ago for SXSW, you cited Nick Drake as someone whose music you loved as a kid. What was it about his music that struck you then and maybe still strikes you today?
I'm really drawn to melancholy music. I've always loved Neil Young and Marvin Gaye and Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen -- Pink Floyd, Nina Simone. I've always been drawn to melancholy music. If I'm happy or sad, it seems I'm always leaning toward this really beautiful, melodious music. So Nick Drake is right in there. His music is very hopeful but it's also very sad.
Melody is really important to me. In a Dengue Fever song, even if we're rocking out, if there's not a melody and not an answer to that melody, I'm always in the studio going, "Hey, are you gonna answer that line? You gotta resolve this." I like noise, I like art rock, I like all kinds of stuff that doesn't have all those elements, but it seems I'm always drawn back to the call and answer and the beautiful melody.
You've performed at Glastonbury more than once. What do you like most about playing those big shows, and what do you like most about playing shows at smaller venues?
Big shows I like because it's the whole experience. It's not just your show. It's like seeing other bands. Backstage is like a summer camp. They put all this food out in common areas. People are just mingling and talking about music and hanging out. You're seeing each other's shows. Big festivals are some of the few times that you actually get to see another band play.
Generally, when you're on tour, while the other bands are playing, you're getting ready to do your own show. So it's not like you're out there watching another band; you're backstage doing your thing or whatever to get your head together to play your gig. So at festivals, you get to roam around. So it's like a big summer camp for a day. Then you get to play to thousands of people, which you don't get to do on club dates or theater shows all the time. There's a level of excitement, and also it's just fun.
Club shows, it's just the intimacy. You really get affected by your crowd. At a festival show, you jump up and there's a barricade twenty feet away. You do your thing and you feel the energy and people have fun. But when it's an intimate show, you really play to the crowd. And if you have a good crowd, it's going to affect the show at a club. If you have a big crowd, it's going to make it all that much better. Some of the best shows are the worst recordings you've heard with the most fuck-ups or the drums speed up or slow down. But that doesn't matter, because it's about being there, and that's where the energy is.
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