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Name: Adam Bernard
Home: Fairfield, Connecticut, United States
About Me: Entertainment journalist with 15+ years of experience. Supporter of indie music. Lover of day baseball, fringe movies, & chicken shawarma. Part time ninja. Nerdy, but awesome.
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July 2010 - January 2013
Catching Dengue Fever
Friday, July 10, 2009

There aren’t a lot of American/Cambodian psychedelic rock bands in music today, or in music history. In fact, as far as I know there’s only one - Dengue Fever. Comprised of (pictured L to R) brass man David Ralicke, guitarist Zac Holtzman, bassist Senon Williams, drummer Paul Smith, singer Chhom Nimol and keyboard player Ethan Holtzman, Dengue Fever, which formed in 2001, has been making quite the name for themselves in the global pop/rock scene with their unique genre-bending style. Their recently released documentary, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, which covers their 2005 trip to Cambodia, also has people talking about the band. This week I caught up with Dengue Fever drummer Paul Smith to find out a little bit more about the group, the difficult transition Nimol is making going from singing in Khmer to English, and the craziest happening from their 2005 trip that wasn’t caught on tape. Spoiler alert – it involves a meth head!

Adam Bernard: Let’s start with the obvious, why on earth did you name yourself after such a horrible disease?
Paul Smith: At the time very few knew of it in the States and Ethan, when he was in Cambodia and first heard some of the songs that we ended up covering, his travel companion had dengue fever. On top of that, we were thinking of Dance Fever a little bit. Somehow we thought it was funny. We still like it, but some people have had an adverse reaction, especially if they’ve had the disease or known someone who’s had it.

Adam Bernard: I think Anthrax went through something similar when the whole anthrax scare was going around. I remember Scott Ian joked that to placate people they were going to change their name to Basket Full of Puppies. On a similar note, is Dengue Fever a fever that can be cured with more cow bell?
Paul Smith: Yes, everything can be cured with more cow bell. Just turn it up.

Adam Bernard: The story behind the band is that Ethan was inspired by his trip to Cambodia, but what originally inspired him to make that trip to Cambodia?
Paul Smith: At the time Ethan and I were roommates with another friend of ours in Santa Monica. He was working with mentally ill people, a lot of schizophrenics, and he was really burned out on it. He had made some decent money and had socked some of it away and he said I’m gonna travel, I’m gonna check out southeast Asia for six months. We all left the house. Our other roommate ended up moving to Hawaii, where he died at Pipeline, surfing. I went to recording/engineering school.

Adam Beranrd: My condolences for you friend. You know, those are three very different paths you each took. As a band you’re also on a new path as you’ve just started to make the transition from Khmer (Ku-mai) to English language music. How difficult has that process been?
Paul Smith: It’s not easy, but the one thing I think we did that was smart was instead of forcing it we only let it happen when Nimol, just on herself, gradually learned more English. We didn’t say OK, we gotta learn more English, we gotta sing in English, it was like she was just hanging around us more and started picking up more English. She lives in Long Beach in a very Cambodian community, 50,000 strong, it’s the largest Khmer population outside of Cambodia, and all of her friends are Cambodian, so when she’s in her own neighborhood she doesn’t really have to assimilate in any way. When she hangs around us it’s really her only time getting, or absorbing, English and American culture, so the more time she spends with us the more English she gets. It’s been a natural progression and we just decided it’s not an issue worth forcing. It’s difficult enough when you’re in the studio and you’re trying to learn a melody you’re not familiar with, she’s also trying to learn a language.

Adam Bernard: Is it possible to compare Cambodia’s pop scene with America’s?
Paul Smith: No. They love ballads. You could be in a Hip-Hop club, they could be spinning a Lil’ Jon cut, and they could go straight to a slow straight up ballad and everybody loves it. They put their arms around each other and they just sway. It’s not like it’s the end of the night and they’re trying to clear the floor, that’s just what they do, they love em, they call them “sentimentals.”

Adam Bernard: That’s pretty wild. I bet you have plenty of wild and strange stories from the road. Can you share one of the wilder or stranger ones?
Paul Smith: There have been so many strange things, but one show in Cambodia, this Australian, who turned out to be a meth head, booked us and this was a situation where the guy had to supply drums, amplifiers and all that. The first weekend of the trip we got to play on national television for like an hour and a half and it got broadcast to everyone. The whole country only has four channels so literally 8/10 of the population saw us. The moment we finished with that show we walked outside and everybody knew who we were. It was almost surreal. We still had this deal with this guy, we were gonna play for free. We get there and there’s a huge crowd, it was already at capacity, and we see the stage that this guy built. It looked like if all of us got up there it would instantly crash. There was a half broken drum kit and no amps and the guy charged everyone like five bucks, which in Cambodia is a ton of money. Nobody has five dollars there except the people from other countries. The crowd was mostly white people from Australia. We were just like, “where are the amplifiers” and he pointed at a home speaker, like a stereo amplifier that has two input things on the front, and he was like “you can just plug into that.” We were like “dude, we need amplifiers, we went over this with you twice on the phone.” He was like “yeah yeah yeah, this will work, just plug into this.” “No, that doesn’t work and half the drum kit’s missing.”

Adam Bernard: What did you end up doing?
Paul Smith: We had never cancelled a show up to that point. We were just looking at the crowd and looking at the stage and going “we have to just walk” and the guy heard us talking and immediately freaked out on us, started cussing us and threatening us and saying he was gonna kill us. The whole time we were filming the documentary. Of course, somehow the cameras weren’t rolling then. We just had to run out and split and this whole crowd didn’t know what was going on and this owner was screaming at us, “you’re done here, you’ll never play another gig in Cambodia,” which was funny to us because Cambodia’s not a market you can make money in. It’s not like that was gonna hurt us somehow, we can just go there and play for free. There are some websites that he went on where he went off on a rant badmouthing us. That was a strange and bad experience, but you look back on those and it’s like whatever, it’s funny.

Adam Bernard: After that story I think my last question may have an obvious answer. Is there anyone you’d like to give the disease dengue fever to?
Paul Smith: To that dude. {laughs} You know what, no, I would never wish that on anybody.

Related Links

Website: denguefevermusic.com
Documentary: sleepwalkingthroughthemekong.com

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