Dengue Fever vocalist Chhom Nimol sings mainly in her native tongue of Khmer. So unless you speak the language or are a snap with Rosetta Stone, you’re not going to know what she’s saying.
Now, the band’s guitarist and co-songwriter Zac Holtzman reveals the stories behind a few of the tunes on the group’s new release, The Deepest Lake. “The subject matter of a lot of the songs is very specific,” explains Holtzman, who collaborates on words with Chhom and bassist Senon Williams. “I’ve always been into the tiny stuff, and how that paints a picture of the bigger stuff. Just describing some little scene on the street can paint the picture of a whole town.”
Let’s dig in:
“No Sudden Moves”: “That one is about a guy who lived in a meth house that was across the street from our studio. A guy was going to prison for a while and he dropped his dog off so they’d take care of it. Somebody came home and was swinging a plastic bag around and hit the dog in the face. The dog bit the shit out of three people in the house, and this woman came running out screaming with a big slab of meat hanging off of her arm and her bone sticking out.
“Senon saw this and called 911. The people in the house got the dog and choked it. Killed it. They all went to the hospital and came home and the dog was there on the floor. They were going to bury it the next morning. They all went to sleep and they wake up at like five in the morning with this hot heavy breath in one of the guy’s faces. So the dog wasn’t dead, and he attacks them all again and opened up all their stitches. The dog got stabbed in the end.
“I was kinda rooting for the dog. We told this story from the guy in prison’s perspective.”
“Ghost Voice”: “The artist Mike Kelley, a friend of ours was his head art assistant, and when Kelley died [of an alleged suicide in his South Pasadena home] there was a newspaper that printed his address. They had to hire a security guard to keep people out, and they hired this kind of Whoopi Goldberg type lady [as in Goldberg’s character in the film Ghost] who had the ability get in touch with spirits, but they had no idea that was the case. They just hired her for security.
“So Mike Kelley’s spirit came to her and told her to please stop parking her car in his driveway because it was leaving an oil spot, and then he said, ‘I also want to tell you about this piece I made that didn’t get finished.’
“So she drew a picture of the piece, which was an octopus winking next to a red sewing machine. He also told her about this crazy thing that happened to him and two other people in the back of a cab in New York and no one else knew about it. So she wrote it all down and she gave it to our friend. He didn’t think much of it, but he told another assistant who knew where that octopus piece was in a storage facility, and it’s next to a red sewing machine, and it’s missing an eye so it looks like it’s winking. So we turned that into a song called 'Ghost Voice.'”
“Taxi Dancer”: “We went to Cambodia with Toms, the shoe company. They have this program where they give shoes away to kids in Cambodia, and they asked us to go with them and play music.
“I was looking for this one club in Phnom Penh where there was this really good Cambodian band and a DJ. I think it was called Club Paris or something. But we ended up at the wrong place, which was a taxi dancer club where you pay for a dance. There were a lot of old guys dancing with young girls, so we wrote a story about this older guy who keeps buying tickets to dance with this one younger girl and he’s sapping the soul and life out of her while he stays young and chipper and keeps dancing around.”
“Golden Flute”: “I was driving down the road, stopped at a light, and there’s this flute in the road. I look around, there’s nobody else there, so I jump out. The case was opened up and there were three pieces in the road, so I pick them up and get back in the car. I get home and take a look, and the headpiece is 14-carat gold and it’s a Haynes, which is the Massachusetts flute company that’s been making them forever. It’s beautiful.
“I start looking for posters, I call a junior high that was nearby to see if they lost a flute, I search online, and no one’s saying anything about it.
“So I go to the library and get a book on how to play the flute, because I figure this is a sign I should learn. After about 10 days I got online again and put in the serial number and the make, and it pops up — stolen flute. I call the guy and tell him I have it, and he says, ‘Bring it on over and get your reward.’
“So I bring it to him and he’s this 80-year-old guy named Ernie Fields, Jr., who plays in Fred Wesley’s band, and Wesley played trombone with James Brown. Ernie is an amazing flute player [he’s worked with B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Rick James and Marvin Gaye, among others], and I give him this flute and he says, ‘Thank God you didn’t melt this down!’
“He got me a really nice Yamaha flute, and he offered to play on our album. So that inspired the song — we turned it into a little more of a relationship situation.”
“Deepest Lake on the Planet”: “We got invited to go play a show in Siberia by Lake Baikal, the biggest and deepest freshwater lake on the planet. This guy tells us there were like 1,200 life forms that were specifically evolved from that lake. There’s a fresh water seal in that lake! It’s kind of like the Galapagos Islands, but it’s a lake. And so we were excited about it, but then the Russian promoter said, ‘We can’t fly you over from the States, we thought you were already over here,’ and the whole thing didn’t end up happening.
“But once again, we got a song out of it, and it inspired us. The deepest lake could be a lot of things: something deep within you, a bottomless place where you keep finding stuff. Sunken cars, television sets.”