Senon Williams (R) with the other five members of Dengue Fever. Photograph: Lauren Dukof
Senon Williams is the toweringly tall bass player in the critically acclaimed Khmer-American psychedelic rock band Dengue Fever, who have won praise all over the world for their blend of LA indie music, R’n’B and melodic pop with Cambodian and American 1960s surf rock. The six-piece group last month launched their own independent record label, Tuk Tuk records, and will release a back catalogue and a new record in the New Year. Claire Knox spoke with the convivial Californian about identity, the Cambodian music scene and being able to provide an international platform for other Khmer artists.
Tell me about the new label. What will it allow and do you plan on signing Khmer artists or artists with a Khmer influence?
We’re recording right now and hope the new album is out mid 2013. On our last visit to Cambodia (in 2011) we recorded a lot of live tracks which we’ll release soon. We’d love to sign other Khmer artists…man, there’s this band in Battambang, the Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) band, who are amazing. We jammed with them in 2011 and recorded some of the performance - they’re all masters of traditional Khmer instruments and switch between playing these crazy half broken keyboards and synths and drums.
You’re seen in many ways as ambassadors for “Khmer fusion rock”- for reinventing the adored 50s and 60s sounds of Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea. Do you ever feel a dislocation from your Khmer audience, basing yourselves so far away (in the United States)?
I don’t think we’ve gone out of our way to represent Cambodia but it’s rather a pleasant by-product of what the band has become. America is home. You can’t deny who Chhom Nibol (the Cambodian-born singer) is - she is so involved with the Khmer community here in LA, in Long Beach. When we started the band, we wanted something groovy and danceable and uplifting, and by chance some of us had travelled to Cambodia and remembered the (pre-Khmer Rouge) music as uplifting…it was a great launching pad. Ethan (Holtzman, who plays the Farfisa organ) and his brother Zac (vocalist and guitarist) were playing pool in LA with this Khmer guy who suggested getting a Cambodian singer and it sounded exciting.
Many would argue that the most popular music amongst young Khmer people is K-Pop, cheesey top 40 hits and some RnB? Do you think it will change, and embrace the past a bit more?
I have strong, firm beliefs about having your own culture in your music. Nimol performs 100 per cent from her own culture and her heart. When Cambodian artists are just mimicking what they see the K-pop boys do, it’s not coming from the heart. I’m not suggesting they have to do what we’re doing at all but they have such a rich history of music to draw on. Local punk and hardcore bands are exciting. Nimol’s brother is in one.
Where does your attraction to the swinging Sisamouth rock tunes and ballads of Sereysothea stem from?
Ethan had travelled to Cambodia in 1998 and made his own discovery, while my first trip was in 1995. Phnom Penh was covered in dirt and full of journalists and international businessmen, there were a lot of disabled children and the floating casino. I was in a taxi and the driver was playing this crazy mix tape - a medley of Madonna, Santana and Hendrix interspersed with crazy Cambodian music - that sparked an interest. I was in Siem Reap and found a shop with all of these paintings of Sisamouth and they were colourful and wonderful. They also had tapes so I bought 15…and it clued me into the history of music in Cambodia. They got a hold of psychedelic and surf rock when the Americans were fighting in Vietnam and added all of their own instruments and lyrics and melodies, layering them over the surf licks - they perfected their own sense of identity.
What’s next for the band? Any tours to the Kingdom?
Well we’re working on the album now…I’m having a vibe it’s going to be stripped back and simple, letting Nimol’s vocals shine over a bed of easy psychedelic waves and rushes and changes, less rocky and more tripped-out and flowing. Getting back to Cambodia is very important for us. There’s a strong chance next year.
Who are your biggest fans - oldies, expats, or young Khmers?
We weren’t really all that sure until last year when we played a ticketed gig at one of those big wedding reception halls on Koh Pich for $10 a ticket. There was an amazing, mixed audience. I feel we’ve crossed a board. Outside Phnom Penh it’s different, in Siem Reap it’s very much an expat crowd, and then there are the free gigs we play in the countryside, which are wonderful too - the oldies love it. They get really emotional and remember before the tragedy. This always strikes a melancholy, emotional chord with me.
What do you think of the Khmer fusion bands that have similar influences to yours and are based in the country?
Well, it’s easy to be inspired by these great bodies of work, Sisamouth was a genius, he wrote 2000-odd songs and they were all good. His love songs were a great social commentary, weren’t as simple as they sound. I have met both of those bands and they’re really nice folk, playing good music.
To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at [email protected]