Vallery Jean | Mark Davis, Getty Images Fat Joe is wearing his heart on his sleeve…
- Posted on Mar 18th 2008 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
Los Angeles-based Dengue Fever built their first couple of albums around '60s Cambodian pop tunes -- crazy amalgams of American quasi-psychedelic rock and pop styles heavy on echo-y surf-twang guitar and distorted Farfisa organ -- knowing (no wink needed) that they had borrowed from writers deserving credit and payment. The problem has been that in some cases the group can't even identify the writers, let alone get them whatever money is due. Of course, it's a pittance on the Zep scale -- this is an indie band on a tiny label, not a global rock monster, after all. But the Dengue folks -- a unique combo of L.A. alt-rockers with charismatic Cambodian-born singer Chhom Nimol, discovered in a regular gig at a restaurant in Long Beach's Little Phnom Penh neighborhood -- want to do the right thing.
"We haven't worked out all the logistics," says drummer Paul Smith. "But basically that's the way we've resolved it not only morally but financially -- set aside 25 percent of the money, set up the accounts so if someone comes and says, 'Hey, I own the masters,' we can then pay. That's how we would want to be treated."
Even if no one collects, the money will still go to help the source culture. "We'll send it to the Cambodian community," he says. "The Cambodian Living Arts foundation is an organization we had a relationship with when we went to Cambodia. They hooked us up with master musicians there and they try to keep traditions alive. We'd like to make sure some of the money goes to that. And Golden West ... "
"Pancake House!" interjects Farfisa master Ethan Holtzman. "No. Land mine clearing."
"They work in other parts of the world, too," elaborates Smith, ignoring the pancake comment. "Raise money to get rid of land mines. People don't know that there are still ones left there by Americans and other forces. So see, with the impact the band has had, we want to make sure we are giving back since we are getting to play with that culture."
The sincerity of Dengue's involvement with that culture is not in doubt, having been explored in several trips to Cambodia, documented in the film 'Sleepwalking Through the Mekong,' which made the rounds of major film fests and is booked for several European events. And the effort to pay the royalties is sincere as well, even if it is plagued with uncertainty. While they gave proper credit and eventually were able to pay royalties for a version of Ethiopian musician Mulatu Astatke's 'Ethanopium' that was used in Jim Jarmusch's film 'Broken Flowers,' thus far there have been no inquiries from Cambodia.
"There's a family member of Sinn Sisamouth I've read about," Holtzman says. "He's the main composer who wrote more than a thousand songs in the '60s. He and his first wife, who was his cousin, had a bunch of kids. They split up. He remarried and died during the Khmer Rouge reign. But I read online that his first wife was looking to get some benefits, monetary or whatever. So who knows -- maybe we'll be able to get something to her."
Ironically, the use of untraceable Cambodian pop, while helping the band get notice and build a fan base, also hindered it in some ways. The Jarmusch use, as well as placement of Dengue recording on the Showtime pot-mom series 'Weeds' and the Matt Dillon film 'City of Ghosts' aside, uncertainty about the material's ownership has caused film and TV music supervisors to be skittish about using these recordings, out of fear that someone might come forward and claim rights to the songs.
That practical matter, in part, stimulated the band to put the emphasis for its recently issued third album, 'Venus on Earth,' on material for which there's no doubt about ownership: songs the members wrote themselves. And the transition from cover band to originals is rather remarkable. The songs, primarily written by guitarist Zac Holtzman (Ethan's brother, he of chin hair worthy of ZZ Top), use Cambodian pop as a jumping-off point, with the odd reworkings of the era-specific Americanisms themselves reworked into a fresh package. They're not so much untangled from the Southeast Asian knots as re-twisted up into entirely new braids. Well, why not? The best of the '60s British Invasion bands -- the Stones and Yardbirds and, yes, the latter's successor, Led Zeppelin -- managed to make something pretty worthwhile out of their obsessions with American blues.
But it wasn't just a matter of royalty payments and the desire for film placements that were behind the shift. "We would have gone in the originals direction either way," Smith says. "We were aware that if we just did these covers, we'd be a novelty band. And we have a great writer in the band."
So far, so good. 'Venus' is by leaps and bounds drawing the band its strongest reviews, sales and concert bookings, with a recent appearance on the public-radio interview show 'Fresh Air' bringing national attention and a string of festival dates in Europe (including Glastonbury) and the U.S. planned for summer.
Yeah, but how is the new direction being received in the community that gave the band its inspiration in the first place?
"A lot of the Cambodian fans don't seem to feel the need to differentiate between covers and originals," Smith reports. "They're excited about a band with someone singing in Khmer with a Western element, a band that is rocking with a singer who is good. They don't care who writes the stuff, they just like Cambodian culture being in the limelight, especially a Western limelight."
Meanwhile, the arrangements for payments continue. "We're trying to be fair," Smith says. "Though there's not exactly millions on the table."
Maybe someday? "Hopefully! And hopefully we'll still be fair."