Led by former “Apsara Awards” (think “American Idol”) winner singer Chhom Nimol, Cambodian rockers Dengue Fever have spent the last decade touring their brilliant blend of theatrical world beat and exotic rock ‘n’ roll around the world.
In advance of their District gig at Rock and Roll Hotel on Saturday, Dengue Fever singer Miss Chhom and bassist Senon Williams check in on how they came to be named after a disease, their breakthrough CD, “The Deepest Lake,” and why bringing your own hot sauce on the road can save the day.
Question: Why did you name the band after a disease?
Senon Williams: [Band founder/organist] Ethan [Holtzman] was traveling in a rural place in Cambodia, and his friend got dengue fever. They wanted to get back to Penampang so his friend could get medical help. They got a ride in a big flatbed truck. His buddy was in the cab of the truck, suffering and delirious. Ethan was in the back by the slide window, and every time he poked his head in to check on his friend, he heard this crazy music — this tape of old Cambodian music. That was the first time he heard that.
Q: Chhom, when did you start singing?
Chhom Nimol: My parents were folk singers. I’ve sung my whole life. When I won “Apsara Awards” in 1997 — it’s similar to “American Idol” — that started my professional singing career.
Q: Do you feel more pressure as the lead singer of a band?
CN: Singing has always been my job. Before I just sang Cambodian songs at parties and weddings. With the band it’s different because it is rock ‘n’ roll. I’m now the lead singer, not one of many. Singing Cambodian songs, we had several singers who took turns. I have to take care of my voice, make sure it is a good performance for the fans who come to see us.
Dengue has now been together over 10 years. I enjoy it, especially the traveling and playing around the world.
Q: Where are some of your favorite places you’ve played?
CN: For me the most exciting is Europe, because I never dreamed I would go to the U.K. and France with the band. When we started I thought maybe we would tour around the U.S. I never thought we would play in Russia and Germany and Europe.
SW: I grew up in L.A., so for me the first place that comes to mind is the Hollywood Bowl. It was an epic moment. I was in awe all the way from soundcheck to the show.
Outside that, Cambodia has to be No. 1. I never thought music would take me to Southeast Asia. The first show we played outside of the United States was Penampang. Cambodia is amazing. Since then we have played Vietnam, Hong Kong, Laos.
Q: When the band started all the songs were sung in the Cambodian language of Khmer, but later on some were in English. Why the change?
SW: Nimol learned and started speaking English, so we wanted to add some English songs. But Nimol wanted to sing in English and connect to more people. Some songs are written really nicely in English. Sometimes if we write a song in English, it saves the hassle of translating it. If it already has a nice flow and the phrasing is already written, it’s nice to keep in English.
We write lyrically. A lot of our songs we write as stories. Some songs are conceived in English, others in Khmer.
CN: Ten years ago it was very hard for me. I wasn’t born here. English was hard to pronounce. Especially when singing. You have to pronounce perfectly.
Q: What was the recording process like on your latest CD, “The Deepest Lake”?
SW: For me it was about organic growth. We toured for a year, then we took a year off — not working or even writing that much. In the past we would have these ideas and bring them into the studio. This time we came in with nothing and let the ideas happen in the studio. Lots of improvisation. We played toward our strengths and had a good time.
Q: How will you spend your time in D.C. when not onstage?”
SW: Probably eat Ethiopian food. Every time I eat Ethiopian food in D.C., the colors are just so much more vibrant and beautiful than when I have it anywhere else.
Q: What do you need to take on the road with you when you tour?
SW: I could leave my house naked and be fine on tour. I could play any bass. Probably pick up a phone somewhere, so I connect with back home. Somebody will give me some clothes to cover up my private areas. [laughs] There is nothing I have to have on the road.
CN: I take everything! [laughs] Everything I have at home I take on the road. Extra everything. Especially my hot sauce.
SW: I remember we got some bad food somewhere, and Nimol pulled a little packet of Tapatio sauce from her purse. She said, “Hot sauce, brotha?”
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: Dengue Fever in concert
WHERE: Rock and Roll Hotel DC, 1353 H St. NE, Washington, D.C., 20002
WHEN: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Tickets $14 to $16 by calling 202/388 7625