JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT YOU’VE heard it all, along comes Dengue Fever. Mixing Cambodian pop—courtesy of singer Chhom Nimol—with surf rock, African funk, and good ol’ American R&B, the band creates a sound that defies categorization. Bassist Senon Williams uses his thumb to thump out the band’s global grooves. See for yourself on the band’s new documentary film, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong.
Dengue Fever creates an exotic mix of Cambodian pop, rock, and R&B. How would you characterize your approach to achieving that sound?
We’re not just trying to make Cambodian music, or freaky music, or weird music. We’re just trying to make good music. I don’t go way out of my way to be exotic— I go way out of my way to be creative. Our music is influenced by Cambodian rock, but our rhythm section is still heavily in the American rock & roll realm. One of my main influences has always been Motown’s James Jamerson.
Now I’m starting to incorporate more African styles in my bass playing. That’s like a melting pot in itself, because the Africans were turned on to a lot of rhythm and blues through James Brown and others. In the last couple years of touring, I’ve been turned on to it by watching people like Seun Kuti and Angelique Kidjo.
The band is currently working on its fourth album. What is that process like?
We’re very critical of ourselves, and we do a lot of homework. We record a lot of our rehearsals in my home studio, and when the guys go home, I’ll go over what we have done. When it comes to writing bass lines, I never want to fall back on whatever’s comfortable. Whenever we’re working on a new album, I go into overdrive— I’ll go into the studio with a drum machine and just play until I come I come up with something new.
You play mostly with your thumb. Why do you prefer that style of playing?
I used to pluck with my two fingers. Then I did a recording session where I was getting the clicking sound of my strings hitting the pickups, and I wasn’t digging it. When I started playing with my thumb, it solved that problem, and I liked the tone a lot more. It was a much fuller, fatter sound. Other bass players might find other ways to get that sound, but this works for me.
You sometimes play your Gibson Grabber. What do you like about that bass?
The Grabber has a pickup that slides about an inch either way [towards the neck or towards the bridge]. The bass has a really strong midrange, which is nice; I feel some bassists focus on getting a strong low end when they should actually focus on the low-mid zone. That way, the kick drum can carry the low end, and the bass can cut through in the mids
In the band’s documentary film Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, you travel around Cambodia, playing with local musicians. What kinds of challenges did that present?
I was sometimes playing with musicians who use microtonal intervals, so I had to tune my bass differently. If I tuned the strings slightly “out” from one another, I was able to play one string for part of the scale, and the next string for another part of the scale. I probably would have had an easier time if I played a fretless bass—it was making my brain hurt!
Cambodia’s history is marked by the violence and genocide of the Khmer Rouge.What impact has that had on the band?
When we started playing, we knew very little about Cambodian music. We were just excited by the idea of playing music that sounded different. But now, even if we have a fun party vibe on stage, we’re aware of the history behind this music. We’ve been approached by professors who’ve used the film in their university courses, and we’ve chosen to work with a few different aid organizations. We’re not a “message band,” but the simple fact that we exist exposes people to a new understanding of culture, music, and history.-Contessa Abono
HEAR HIM ON
Dengue Fever, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong (CD/DVD) [M80 Music, 2009]
Basses 1972 Ampeg Big Stud; 1972 Gibson Grabber
Rig Ampeg SVT-2, Ampeg 1x15 or 8x10 cabs; 1974 Sunn Concert with 2x15 cabinet; mid- ’60s Ampeg B-18N; 1967 Ampeg B-15N
Strings Ernie Ball roundwounds