Until recently, I'd never heard a mastadong. Actually, I didn't even know such a thing existed. Listening to the Los Angeles-based band Dengue Fever however, I was eventually able to pick it out from the swirl of sounds, a hybrid instrument created by combining an American electric guitar with a two-string Cambodian chapei dong veng. Strange though it may be, the mastadong is a fitting symbol for a group that categorizes its music as Asian Psychedelic. In my Two Minute Interview with co-founder and keyboard player Ethan Holtzman, he told me about performing at a cult compound, meeting Beck in Norway, and touring Southeast Asia as a cultural ambassador. Dengue Fever is currently on tour.
- How has travel influenced your music or changed your songwriting? Travel has had an impact on our music. The initial idea to form Dengue Fever came after I'd traveled to Cambodia and discovered some of the recordings they made during the late ‘60’s early 70’s. Also playing festivals around the globe with bands like Seun Kuti and the Egypt 80, for example. You can hear an influence in the rhythm on the song "Only A Friend" off our new album Cannibal Courtship.
- Describe something surprising, humorous, or disappointing that's happened in your collective travels. One time we were booked to play a show in Sedona, Arizona. When we arrived it turned out to be a cult where the leader claimed to be in contact with extraterrestrial beings from outer space. He named all of his followers whatever he wanted to, claiming that higher beings told him that was their name. The show went on and only one friend of Senon, our bassist, actually paid to get in. The rest were members of this cult. They all hippie danced to the side of the stage for the entire show. We had to spend the night in one of the houses that they lived in. Our band shared bunk beds. Under each pillow was a copy of a book of their beliefs.
- When you were starting out with Dengue Fever, where did you dream of playing live? What about now? Cambodia was always a dream. To bring the music back to where it originated from was an important goal. We now have been to Cambodia, as a band, on three separate occasions. Our last trip was the best yet. We received a grant from the US Embassy to go to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam as cultural ambassadors. Every day we did workshops with different organizations. It was my favorite tour as of yet. I dream of playing a show in Madagascar though. That would be amazing.
- What are some of the most memorable places you've performed, and why? How were you received in Cambodia? Where would you go back to first? New Zealand, Moscow, and Norway. When we played in New Zealand we had an entire week staying at a hotel walking distance to the beach. The show was part of WOMAD in the middle of a thick lush rain forest. Moscow was a massive outdoor show and in the few days over there we drank the smoothest vodka ever. The food was incredible and we met some cool bands like Beirut and made new friends. In Norway, we played a festival on an island called Hove. We stayed in a beautiful cabin in the woods. The owner of the house had a boat and took us on a ride into town where we bumped into Beck and his family. We had drinks with Panic at the Disco backstage and other random bands that were also booked for the festival. Cambodia has been an excellent spot for the band. When we go there we're able to raise money for some charities that we work with like Cambodian Living Arts. They help keep traditional Khmer song and dance alive since it almost vanished during the Khmer Rouge regime.
- As fans, do you have any enduring concert-going memories? Who did you see and where? Watching Seun Kuti and the Egypt 80 in New Zealand was a great show. You could look at anybody on stage and become mesmerized by what they were doing. Locally, I recently saw Omar Souleyman, at the Echo. That was a great show.
- Do you look forward to touring, meeting other bands, and seeing cities through the eyes of working musicians, or would you rather be writing and recording from the comforts of home? In a perfect world there would be a balance of both. Touring in two week increments seems to be the best. Then a few days off at home and into the studio to record. That would be ideal.
- Who or what do you find most exciting or inspiring about LA's music scene at the moment? Any venues you're fond of? How much do you keep track of pop music trends in Southeast Asia? The best part about living in Los Angeles is that sooner or later most of the bands or artists you're interested in will play here. I live in Echo Park and the closest venues to my house are the Echo and the Echoplex. There are so many good musicians in Echo Park but no bands at the moment really come to mind. As far as Southeast Asia, on our last trip to Cambodia we connected with some great young musicians in Battambang. We jammed with them and they had so much talent. For the first time we met musicians in Cambodia who relied more on their ear, rather than musicians from an orchestra who are more classically trained.