INTERVIEW: Dengue Fever
Unique doesn’t even begin to describe the brilliant genre-blending music created by Dengue Fever. We talked to bassist Senon Williams (before their show at the club with Omar Souleyman on Wednesday) about the band’s genesis, influences, and their latest album, Cannibal Courtship.
(9:30) Tell us a little bit about the band’s formation and how you all came together.
(SW) Yeah, about 10 years ago we had this crazy idea to get a Cambodian singer to start a band based off the 60’s psychedelic Cambodian rock. This was the time when shoegaze rock was the big thing, you know, just kind of unpronounced bands, we wanted to get into something a little bit more crazy and fun so we went down to Long Beach to search out for a singer and we found Chhom Nimol whom at the time, we didn’t know, was a big star back home in Cambodia and she had just moved to LA. She didn’t speak a word of English, she must have just thought we were these crazy guys. So we just started playing together and our first album was an album of cover tunes from the 60’s. They had a big explosion of psychedelic rock there [in Cambodia] when the Vietnam War was happening. After our first album we just started writing original material, like original ideas just kind of kept on growing in our brain and here we are today.
(9:30) Your sound is extremely unique. You talked about the kind of psychedelic and Cambodian rock infusions, but how would you describe your music to someone who maybe has never listened before?
(SW) Well, I think live and studio are completely different with us. In the studio, we just kind of grab whatever influences we have and kind of put them together from kind of spaced out, trippy jams to just rocking, crazy garage sort of, whatever rhythms, African rhythms, you know, we throw together. And then live we tend to be more upbeat, just party and have fun and kind of wild and let Nimol shine because her vocals are so strong. She’s like this really reserved, amazing woman but yet she is belting out these incredibly intense vocals.
(9:30) Speaking of your live set, lots of the performances I’ve seen of you guys, like you said, are extremely high energy. Do you all have a pre-show ritual on tour?
(SW)Nimol’s a Buddhist so she always lights incense and sets up a little altar before the show. She always lights incense so I feel like I’m covered. But she always has a little plan; whenever she doesn’t it always seems to be a bad show. So we definitely gotta find a place for her to have a little altar before shows. And we always pour a little drink off stage before shows, share a toast, forget about that long drive and have fun.
(9:30) How do you think your music has grown after being together over 10 years? Like you said, you started doing cover albums and then went on to write and perform your own music.
(SW) We just draw influence from wherever. People always are thinking we’re a Cambodian band but Nimol’s the only person Cambodian in the band, so her vocal style has to do a lot with the sound, but musically we’re all over the place. I think over the years we’ve learned that we don’t need to follow any blueprint. We just draw influence from wherever, you know, from Afrobeat to punk rock and put them in our songs. I mean, that’s kind of what we do, let Nimol do the Cambodian thing because we’re not, you know.
(9:30) Cannibal Courtship is your latest record. What did you draw from inspiration wise for the record and is there any sort of significance behind the name?
(SW)Cannibal Courtship means a bunch of things so it depends. We like the poetry of those two words together. It can mean two cultures living off each other, it can mean a destructive relationship, or it can just talk about a very strong woman who’s willed in her own right, you know, to do whatever she feels she pleases. I kind of like all the different meanings. It could be visual as well as vocal so I kind of like that about the title. I think what we’ve been to this latest album is difference from our album before. We really stripped it down, we really wanted a more basic sound [on the last album] so most the time it’s just one guitar, bass, keyboard. Very minimal record musically and [something] kind of a close-up for more orchestration and more layers and sounds and melodies. So I think that was kind of our vision before hand, to make it more orchestral, and more heart, and more melody and just bigger sound .
(9:30) It’s an extremely fun record and we’re very excited to hear the songs live. Do all have plans to hit the studio again after you finish this tour?
(SW) Yeah, for writing more. I think we’re at the end of our big touring cycle so after this tour we’re gonna go back home and start writing music together again.
(9:30) Do you all typically write on tour? Are there certain things on the road and in your travels that you draw inspiration from?
(SW) I like making little movies and taking lots of pictures. I think next tour I’m just gonna bring my camera and just do all kinds of photos and stuff. I’m more into like kind of just worrying about a good show and kind of just doing stuff on my own. Whenever we try writing on the road we bring all this stuff with us to record and then we never do. I think writing is best at home. I got a studio where we all work so I think for us writing at home is what we do.
(9:30) And you’re currently on tour. We have you with Omar Souleyman. How did you all join forces and how did that sort of happen?
(SW) We just put out some names of who we wanted to tour with. Our booking agent looked around and saw that he was touring at the time that we wanted to tour. It kind of just went from there; it kind of kicked off from there. I kind of like playing with bands that are from all over the place and Omar Souleyman is like hierarchy and crazy music. I believe that some bands, I’ve heard like band members talk about how: “oh, I don’t want to play with some band that’s so good or something.” I’m like, that doesn’t make sense because the better bands you play with the better the night is, the better the memory, the better the time, the more insane everything’s going to be. When there’s a debt on the bill, it’s like it doesn’t make you look better, you just have people going home going like: “that wasn’t so fun.”
(9:30) Who are some of the other artists that you are currently listening to or that you’re excited about?
(SW) That’s always a hard question. Most of my album collection is always like crazy, old, weird records and things like that. But something new: Amadou and Mariam is awesome. I’ve been listening to them lately.
(9:30) We have them coming to the club in July!
(SW) Oh, that’s perfect, yeah. It’s like, it’s so beautiful and it’s kind of fun the production that they’re bringing. It’s a mix of African music but with modern production so it’s pretty cool… Eleni Mandell is really good, she’s awesome. She’s great, she sang backing vocals on our last records… She just came out with a solo record and her songwriting is amazing. I’ve been listening to her lately.