Dengue Fever – “Let it Be What it is”

Earlier this year, A Love That’s Sound spoke with Zach Holzemen, guitarist and co-founder of the Western-South-Asian fusion group Dengue Fever.  A slick 6 piece band drawing inspiration from pop, jazz, rock, psych and lounge, not to mention an incomparable Cambodian injection from lead singer Chhom Nimol,  Dengue Fever have developed an alluring balance of east meets west with a lounge  inspired ’60s retro-tinge. With rich heart-swelling melodies and vocals conducted multiple languages, Dengue Fever tastefully balance eastern and western pop traditions with dream-like jazz and psych elements. 

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Dengue Fever w/ Mad Alchemy Liquid Lights @Rickshaw Theatre, Vancouver 2018.

David Lacroix: When entering a studio does Dengue Fever set out in particular jazz, pop or psych record or does it just happen?

Zach Holzemen: It happens with little feeds of ideas that take root and grow into what they are; none of it is pre-meditated. Like “man, we need to be more like this….” Every once in a while we might have a realization like “maybe on the next album let’s not worry as much.”  Big strokes like that. Let’s just lay it down, it is what it is. Maybe a few over-dubs but we aren’t going to fiddle too much with a song, we are going to let it be what it is.

DL: Dengue Fever is setting up for the Burger Records Burger-A-Go-Go with the Mad Alchemy Liquid Light show. Have you played before with a light show?

Zach Holzemen: That will be the first time i’ve played with one of those.

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Dengue Fever w/ Mad Alchemy Liquid Lights @Rickshaw Theatre, Vancouver, 2018.

DL: Dengue Fever toured extensively last year with the Tureg band Tinariwen last year. How did that influence you and your band musically?

Zach Holzemen: I’ve been a fan of theirs for probably 12 years. Once we met at a festival in London and I was trying to talk to Ibrahim, the main leader, I didn’t speak any French and he didn’t speak any English so we just did a lot of hand gestures and i told him with my body language how much I respected him and loved their music. Finally, we were touring with them, it was incredible and so much fun. We became friends and they would have us up to jam with them on some of their songs and we would have them out during our set.

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Dengue Fever @ Chan Centre, Vancouver, 2017.

Seeing them opened our eyes up a little bit more to having more dynamics in the set, to not be afraid to take it down to some lower level energy wise if it can be just as powerful. Just guitar and a little bit of percussion… everything doesn’t have to be a full speed ahead rock-out. Watching them do that, they are masters of having different peaks and valleys in the dynamics of their set. Getting to know them was really cool.  Ibrahim made us a flute because he saw me playing one while waiting around in parking lots during sound-check. At one point, Ibrahim had his tour manager go out and buy a pipe and he was carving it and drilling holes in it, filing it. He made us a flute, it was really cool.

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Tinariwen @ Chan Centre, Vancouver, 2017.

DL: You used to work in a record shop in San Francisco. Did you at all anticipate the recent resurgence in vinyl records? How was vinyl affected the way you make music?

Zach Holzemen: I didn’t see that coming but I watched and witnessed it happen. I thought we were going in the complete opposite direction but i guess we are going in both directions. Vinyl is back, cassettes are back, and nothing is back. You can just have a download and have nothing material existing. None of that really matters that much to me, I mean, collecting the old cool stuff is great but it’s more important that somebody listening to what we do has a great feeling or experience.

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Dengue Fever /w Mad Alchemy Liquid Lights @ Rickshaw Theatre, 2018.

DL: What’s it like playing music with a vocalist who sings in a different language?

Zach Holzemen: Luckily music is beyond language, it transcends the limits of understanding each other linguistically. It is it’s own language, it even pre-dates language with drumming and grunts and just making noise. It’s probably some of the earliest stuff that our species ever did. We don’t have any problems not speaking the same language. If we were a jazz band or something and we had to figure out some crazy chord progression, it might make a difference but for us it just flows naturally.

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Chhom Nimol of Dengue Fever w/ Mad Alchemy Liquid Lights @Rickshaw Theatre, Vancouver, 2018.

DL: Who are some of your favourite western female songwriters and performers?

Zach Holzemen: I like Bessy Smith. I like rawness, raw truth that comes from people’s soul rather than technical ability. I like Blondie, Debbie Harry, i’ve always loved her voice.

DL: Other than South-East Asia, are there any musical cultures that you are particularly fond of?

Zach Holzemen: This is kind of strange but i’ve been messing around with Irish flute for a couple years now. Even though I don’t love that traditional music sound, a lot of the songs are just major chord progressions but it’s really fun to play and I like borrowing from it instead of directly ripping something off. I like that they do these things called “cuts,” whatever note they are going to play they tap one note higher then one note lower. That stuff gets internalized and I use it in my playing. For guitar, there’s this Sumatran flute… they do a lot of circular breathing on the flute; there’s only 4 holes and you can only get 5 or 6 different notes that they can play with it of it so they have to get the most out of a minimum amount of notes. I like that a lot. Like African guitarists often have a repetitive line of 8 or 12 notes that they like to keep repeating and doing variations on.

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Dengue Fever @Chan Centre, Vancouver 2017.

DL: What was it like peforming in Abu Dahbi?

Zach Holzemen: We recently got turned onto this band called Dhakabraka, these Ukrainian girls that have these really crazy harmonies. We did a show in Abu Dahbi, We did two shows and just hung out for a week there. I don’t feel the need to go rushing back there but it’s a neat place. It has a real safe feel to it, maybe because everyone is afraid to do anything wrong.

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Dengue Fever w/ Mad Alchemy Liquid Lights @Rickshaw Theatre, 2018.

DL: Do you think there’s a connection between the song-writing strengths of the ‘60s and ‘70s and the politics of those eras?

Zach Holzemen: I think anytime you are putting out a message you have to think about what you are trying to say and be responsible. We tend to use an undertone of our beliefs and leanings but we aren’t blatant. For me, politics is so disgusting that I wouldn’t want to taint our art with it constantly. I don’t feel like saying Trump’s name, ya know?

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Zach Holzemen, Dengue Fever @ the Chan Centre, Vancouver 2017.

DL: Absolutely but ideas can really creep up on people. Like, Darkside of the Moon is very political and everyone is familiar with that record.

Zach Holzemen: Lyrically, I like to focus on tiny things that point out the bigger picture. Combine different things that I’m not really sure of how they fit together and then something clicks and I realize what I was trying to say. The way our songs are born, our lyrics happen in a similar way.

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Dengue Fever w/ Mad Alchemy Liquid Lights @ Rickshaw Theatre, Vancouver 2018.

DL: There’s been a resurgence in psychedelic music in the last decade. How psychedelic is Dengue Fever and how would you describe that style?

Zach Holzemen: You know when you have a pop song that is verse/chorus/verse and maybe a bridge that is maybe a little “space out” section where it opens out? Psychedelic is more of that space-out section that opens up through the bulk of the song. [The music] grows, it’s not worried about repeating itself. Every time you play it, it could be different. This song could start off with some flute playing and then the  drums are going to start, but after that, hang on. who know’s where we’re going [laughs]. That looseness is experienced and picked up on and it tends to let people open up and free themselves.

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