Cultural indie, Dengue Fever
In the world of indie music, it is difficult to stand out. However, Dengue Fever will never have to worry about blending in with the herd. Their latest album, Cannibal Courtship, proves that the band has perfected their craft and created a harmonious balance between Cambodian and western rock music. I recently had the opportunity to talk to bassist Senon Williams about the band’s latest album, their musical influences, and their experiences on tour.
I know that you guys have recently returned from a tour through Southeast Asia. What was it like to go back and play in Cambodia?
It’s awesome to play in Cambodia. Over the years of us being a band it seems to us that what we are doing is a little more important than we had thought or originally planned. Basically when we play in Cambodia it’s like going home. When we first went there in 2005, no one had heard of us and no one knew what kind of music we made. And then we got to go back in 2010 and 2011. It seemed like during these last few trips we’ve seen a lot of support from the Cambodian people. When we go now, everyone knows that we’re coming and it’s kind of celebrated, so when we go we do some work with Cambodian Living Arts, which is an organization that helps kids and finds master musicians and master artists and dancers and they have them teach children these arts that were almost lost in Cambodia. Now there are some instruments that only have one person playing these Cambodian instruments so if it weren’t for this one person teaching these kids that art form would be lost forever.
When we go to Cambodia now as part of these tours, we’re not only playing shows but we’re going to the universities and to schools and performing art centers and working with kids and other musicians. It’s an experience I’ve never had as a musician, it’s not like the tour we’re on now where you just go town to town and play a rock show and move on. It’s more like who are you having dinner with and breakfast with and where are we hanging out? Playing in Cambodia is so fulfilling as an artist for me and I’ve never experienced anything like that before these trips.
What are some of the influences that have helped Dengue Fever develop its unique sound?
Well the main person is Sinn Sisamouth. He wrote thousands of songs, probably two or three thousand songs. He was heavily influenced by western music. He would take western folk music, rock music, and he would take the melodies and twist them and add traditional Cambodian instruments. So he wasn’t copying it necessarily, but he was taking the influence and bridging the traditional Cambodian music with the traditional western music; which was heavily into surf music and Santana, Jimi Hendrix, all that crazy stuff being passed over the airwaves during the Vietnam War.
When I first heard it, it was so eerie, like I’ve heard this before, but then all these crazy microtone vocals and melodies come over the music so that’s part of what makes it so appealing. Our first record we covered all of these songs and our three records after that are all original compositions. I think we have one cover on the second album. We took that as a starting point and now we draw influence from everywhere, not just Cambodia, and we make our music.
How does your newest album, Cannibal Courtship, differ from your older material?
I think each of our records are kind of a progression. When we made our first album it was those cover songs like I was talking about and the second album was kind of along that same line. Even though they were original songs, we were still using those early Cambodian songs as a blue print. I think “Venus on Earth” was the first time that we really just found our own distinct voice. “Venus on Earth” was kind of a process of being more stripped down.
When we were making the album we just wanted the guitar, bass, keys, drums and vocals to all be really simple and about the songs. With Cannibal Courtship, we just wanted it to be more orchestrated and complex. We layered guitars and vocals and we used The Living Sisters to sing background vocals because we wanted stronger vocal harmonies on this album.
Does Dengue Fever have any exciting plans for the future?
Well when we went to Cambodia a few months ago we brought a sound person and recording equipment and we recorded all of our shows. Just before this tour, we were reviewing the tapes and there were some really good songs so we are definitely going to release something live this year. We are also going to launch our own record company this year: Tuk Tuk Records. We’re looking forward to that. We own a couple of our earlier albums that we are going to re-release. We recorded all kinds of songs way back when and never released them so we’re going to be able to release all of this music that we’ve recorded over the years and that no one has heard.
I’m always curious to hear the stories behind the name. Any special meaning behind Cannibal Courtship?
It’s kind of nice because it is the title track of the album. But it’s also kind of like what we are as a band. It’s east and west. It’s two different cultures feeding off each other, or one gobbling the other, and creating a new style of music, or I don’t know about a new style of music, but our style of music. We all can create our own poem out of those words. It could be how two humans are acting towards the earth or how two lovers are acting towards each other.
Dengue Fever will be performing in Seattle at Neumos on Feb.8. For more information please visit denguefevermusic.com