Monday, April 06, 2009

SFIFF52: THE LOST WORLDThe Evening Class Interview With Zac Holtzman of Dengue Fever

When I first read that the San Francisco International Film Festival had invited Dengue Fever to perform their original score for Harry O. Hoyt's The Lost World live at the Castro Theatre [here], I felt my eyes pop out like flash bulbs. It was the first ticket I set my sights on for SFIFF52.

Film Society Programmer
Sean Uyehara: "The Lost World is a classic exploration of mankind's fascination with its own prehistory. It contains amazing animated sequences and inventive costumes and sets depicting a land that time forgot. Today, audiences can also read the film as a campy depiction of how we once imagined the age of dinosaurs. It is also full of anachronistic cultural stereotypes regarding science, marriage and race. Like the territory depicted in the film, Dengue Fever's music evokes a time and place of memory. The band, which hails from Los Angeles, plays 1960s-style psychedelic Cambodian pop. Both the band and film conjure up a nostalgia for a time and place that may never have existed."

Dengue Fever's guitarist Zac Holtzman took time to speak with me by phone.

* * *

Michael Guillén: First of all, Zac, I want to tell you that I am so excited about Dengue Fever scoring The Lost World in collaboration with the San Francisco Film Society.

Zac Holtzman: Yeah, me too! It's been a lot of fun working on it.

Guillén: As back story, my training was in Central American archaeology with a focus on the Maya culture where the pesky mosquito was rewarded access to human blood for helping the Hero Twins defeat the Lords of Death. Thus, I found it interesting that a mosquito bite is—in effect—what inspired the creation of Dengue Fever. Could you talk a little bit about the origin of the band?

Holtzman: Have you heard the story of how we picked the name Dengue Fever for the band?

Guillén: I believe it was because a friend of your brother Ethan actually contracted Dengue Fever while on a trip to Angor Wat?

Holtzman: Yeah. My brother's traveling companion was bit by a mosquito that had Dengue. When they were taking him to the hospital, the music they were playing up front in the cab of the truck was a cassette tape of old
Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea songs that kept playing over and over again. We were inspired by these songs from the late '60s-early '70s. When my brother and I decided to pull this project together, he was flipping through his sketchbook and those were the notes that he found. He said, "How about Dengue Fever?" That's how we ended up picking that name.

Guillén: Like many people, I first turned on to Dengue Fever's music through Matt Dillon's City of Ghosts where the band did a cover of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now." I'm a great fan of Joni Mitchell and I was curious if by any chance she has heard your version or responded to it in any way?

Holtzman: I don't know. What I do know is that—when we first had that song translated—we gave it to someone we hadn't used before who spoke both Khmer and English. He gave it back to us and I heard our singer Ch'hom Nimol singing it and—even though I only knew a little bit of Khmer at the time—I thought, "Wait a minute. Why does she keep saying 'I' in the song?" Because the first verse of "Both Sides Now" is like "rows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air", y'know? It goes on and on about the sky and clouds and it doesn't start off by saying anything about "I." That's when we realized that whoever translated it had completely rewritten the lyrics and hadn't done them justice at all. We had to completely retranslate it and submit it to the Joni Mitchell estate. They approved the new translation but I'm not sure if she personally heard it. I hope she did because that would be really nice to know she heard our version of it.

Guillén: I hope she did too because it's a singularly unique version.

Holtzman: I suggested "Both Sides Now" for City of Ghosts. Matt Dillon had the rights to the old tunes and so he didn't really need us to play one of those older songs. I thought "Both Sides Now" would be perfect because the film was showing both sides of all these different cultures.

Guillén: It's my understanding when you started to form the band with your brother Ethan and you brought in Ch'hom Nimol, that she was hesitant at first because she didn't trust your now-iconic beard?

Holtzman: Yeah. She didn't speak any English and neither did her sister. They were looking at me and wondering what was going on. They didn't trust us at all. We gave them a CD and told them we were serious. I don't know what she really understood or not; but—for some crazy reason—a week later she called us back and asked if we were still having auditions. We were, so we scheduled another one. There were about six or seven other Cambodian women who were there to audition and—when we told them that Ch'hom Nimol might show up—they said, "No way. She's way too famous. She'll never show up for this." But for some reason she did and that's how it all went down.

Guillén: Well, that distrustful beginning lends poignance to the cover of your last album Venus on Earth because there you are giving her a lift on a scooter.

Holtzman: [Chuckles.] Yeah. And that's the way women ride in Cambodia too; proper sidesaddle style with their dresses.

Guillén: Before we move on to speak specifically about Dengue Fever's score for The Lost World, I noticed while reviewing your MySpace page that you credit Charles Mingus as a major influence. Can you specify what it is about Mingus's music that has influenced Dengue Fever?

Holtzman: At least four or five members of the band have read Charles Mingus's autobiography
Beneath the Underdog. We all grew up listening to Mingus. David Ralicke, our horn player, plays pretty much every instrument that you can blow into. He's able to create these big horn sections, especially in that song "One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula", which specifically reminds us of our interest in Mingus. It feels like one of his horn sections.

Guillén: "One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula" has been included on the soundtrack for the second season of the Showtime series Weeds, right?

Holtzman: Yeah, it was used in the season finale of Weeds.

Guillén: Turning to Harry O. Hoyt's The Lost World, how did Dengue Fever become involved in this collaboration? Were you contacted by Sean Uyehara?

Holtzman: Yeah, it was Sean. He knew of our band and was a fan and was hoping that we would get involved. Dengue Fever was busy with a lot of things—touring, setting aside a couple of months to work on our next album—and so this was going to be another thing we would have to do. I totally wanted to do it but some of the other members of the band were like, "Oh man, it's going to bite into our album time." But I think it's really helped that we would get together almost every night of the week and it's been such a learning process for us.

Guillén: Have you attended any of these San Francisco International Film Festival collaborations at the Castro Theatre where silent film is conjoined with contemporary music?

Holtzman: I went to The Battleship Potemkin where this guy used these wands where you could touch buttons on the wands and they came up with different sounds. I'm not sure if that was the San Francisco Film Society.

Guillén: I believe that was actually a Mill Valley Film Festival event, though clearly influenced by the series at the San Francisco International who were one of the first to experiment with these collaborations. They've since become popular all over the Bay Area.

Holtzman: Oh, okay. Well, that's the only one I've seen where someone's laid down live contemporary music to an old film.

Guillén: How was The Lost World selected?

Holtzman: Sean Uyehara asked us if we had any particular films we were inspired to write the music to and so we went through our heads and looked around at what had played lately—because we didn't want to do something that had already played—and a couple of things popped up. I liked Murnau's Faust. I thought that could be a good one. But there was a problem with that because it had just recently played in San Francisco. The other possibility was The Adventures of Prince Achmed but that one had also just played somewhere else. There was one other one we were considering, Häxan, so I rented that one but I wasn't really into that one. Sean suggested The Lost World. He sent me a copy and we watched it and I thought, "Yeah, this is great."

Guillén: I have no doubt this is going to look fabulous projected on the Castro Theatre's large screen accompanied by Dengue Fever's music. Have you ever been in the Castro Theatre?

Holtzman: Oh yeah. Many times. I usually go there to see films like The Shining. Yeah, I've been there a lot.

Guillén: How does this work, then? Can you give me a glimpse into the band's process of working up the score? How you worked with the film?

Holtzman: It started with watching the film on my own and having a guitar in my hands. I just started playing along to it and taking notes. After doing that two or three times, I put the guitar down and went and wrote down wherever there was—not every scene change—but where there was a mood change. I forget exactly but there were probably about 30-40 changes in the mood where it felt like it should warrant a change in the feel of the music. Then I started going through my sketches of ideas that I'd written down before and put them in place. I started filling in the blanks. Then we set up a screening in the studio and projected the film onto a screen and the band began jamming along to it. We kept taking notes and refining our notes. It was a process that kept getting fine tuned. There were huge transition problems for which we had to figure out the answers, whether it would be a slow fade or someone else playing the next song or whether it would be a dramatic crash of everyone going into chaos before the next song starts. Stuff like that.

Guillén: Sounds like you were having fun with it.

Holtzman: Yeah, yeah, for sure.

Guillén: Will Ch'hom Nimol be singing lyrical compositions as well?

Holtzman: Yeah, she is, yeah.

Guillén: In Khmer? Or English?

Holtzman: Both. And there are some sequences where she's just going to sing some emotional vocals without lyrics.

Guillén: What would you say has been the most challenging aspect of this project?

Holtzman: At one point we would try to be playing a particular song and then we would use that song at a particular place in the film to trigger us looping the end of the song. As it is, when we play things are a little bit looser and so sometimes you're at a different point in the song when that trigger would roll around. The looping in the ending part didn't work. So we ended up sticking to the main song and whatever transition we planned. So I'd say transitioning from one song to the next has been challenging.

Guillén: I've attended your concerts here in San Francisco and have noted your local Cambodian fan base; many who—I understand—drive up from San Jose's Cambodian community. I'm intrigued to see if this same fan base will cross over into a film festival venue at the Castro Theatre? Do you have any anticipation of what kind of audience you'll draw for this event?

Holtzman: No. But I hope it's a bunch of excited people. I'm not sure if the word's going to get out to the Cambodian community. I guess we should try to let them know. I'll check on somebody at our label sending word onto our MySpace and Facebook pages.

Guillén: I understand that the DVD/CD soundtrack of Sleepwalking Through the Mekong—the feature documentary of Dengue Fever's 2005 tour of Cambodia—is just about to be released?

Holtzman: It's out. You can buy it now. We just had a screening of it at L.A.'s Amoeba. It's pretty cool that we're done with it because, man, we went there in 2005 and it's taken us all this time to see it finally reach DVD.

Guillén: You mentioned earlier that Dengue Fever is mapping out time to work on your next album. When can we anticipate that?

Holtzman: Let's see. There's a studio in England, Peter Gabriel's studio, and we've been doing some recording there. On our tours we'll swing in there and stay there for a week. It's a really beautiful place. The studio's in an old mill and the river flows right underneath the studio. We've gone there a couple of times and done some good recordings that we're happy with so we might tie it in to the next time we're there, which will be June. But we've got about 14 or 15 songs that we've been practicing and a few new ones that we've been working on. They're coming along. We just want to have them at the right stage before we get involved with a fancy studio.

Guillén: I wish you luck with that. I'm certainly looking forward to your performance here at the Castro Theatre with The Lost World—one of the most intriguing collaborations I've heard of in a long time—so thank you so much, Zac, for talking with me today and I hope we meet face to face during the festival.

Holtzman: Please come up and say hi, Michael.

Guillén: Will do.

Cross-published on


Brian Darr said...

Really impressed with all the SFIFF content you've recently produced, Michael. But this is certainly my favorite piece. Great interview with a well-deserved subject. I've seen Dengue Fever perform four or five times and they always kick up a dust storm of dancers with their tight musicianship and inviting hooks. It's hard to imagine a Castro audience staying in their seats for this, and I've bought my ticket to make sure I get to see how it all goes down!

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks, Brian. I bought a ticket too just to make sure I didn't miss this event. I'll meet you in the dust storm!

Michael Hawley said...

It really is a terrific interview. I've always been curious about the process involved in putting these silent film/live rock band combinations together...both in how the band and film are selected, and how the band itself goes about composing its score. This interview gives a window into all of that. (And as a fan of Dengue Fever, I appreciated the tidbits on the progress of their upcoming CD).

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks, Michael. I share your curiosity re process so I was happy to have the opportunity to ask.