On December 8, Dengue Fever, the local psychedelic-pop outfit that combines Khmer and English lyrics, joined New York–based Balkan Beat Box at the Echoplex for the Eight, a multicity Hanukkah concert series sponsored by JDub Records and Taglit-birthright israel, an organization that offers free, first-time educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults. During the candle-lighting ceremony, Dengue Fever front woman Chhom Nimol dedicated her flame to those who died decades ago under the Pol Pot regime in her native Cambodia. A few days later, bassist Senon Gaius Williams received an e-mail from one of the organizers, who was touched by the singer's speech and motivated to learn more about the atrocities that ravaged the Southeast Asian country between 1975 and 1979.
Cultures mesh on an L.A. band's breakthrough album.
(Click to enlarge)
(Click to enlarge)
Williams was taken by the organizer's reaction. "Just the fact that we're a rock band and we party and play this music, we're bringing light onto Cambodia," he says. "People do need to know what happened there."
But educating indie rockers on genocide was never the band's intent. "We didn't approach it academically by any means," says drummer Paul Dreux Smith. "It was just fun."
Dengue Fever formed in 2001, after Farfisa organist Ethan Holtzman returned from Cambodia inspired by the vintage pop he heard during his travels. The group, which also features guitarist/vocalist Zac Holtzman and brass player David Ralicke, scoured Long Beach's Cambodia Town (also known as Little Phnom Penh) for a Khmer-fluent vocalist. They found Chhom Nimol at a place called the Dragon House. Back in Cambodia, the Chhom family name is virtually synonymous with talented singers, and Chhom herself had performed for the country's king and queen. It took the band members several trips to the nightclub to convince her to play with them. Finally, she agreed.
"When she came in the first time, she seemed like someone famous," says Ethan Holtzman. "She had this aura and there were twenty Cambodians around her and, to me, she looked like Janet Jackson."
Dengue Fever had few ambitions, other than a desire to deliver a different sound to a local indie scene dominated by copious shoegazing. The band's timing couldn't have been better. While great walls of guitar feedback permeated the clubs, international psychedelic and garage compilations like Cambodia Rocks were changing hands across Los Angeles. Dengue Fever tapped into that emerging shock of the foreign (see Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors). Dengue Fever's marriage of familiar rhythms and unfamiliar lyrics was a quick hit. Their first gig, at Silver Lake mainstay Spaceland, still burns in the memory five years later. Ralicke, who had previously played with Beck and Ozomatli, improvised an Ethiopian jazz-style solo that sparked the crowd. The blase attitude that so often defines L.A. crowds vanished. The floor was packed with dancers, and one random partier took the stage, grabbed a microphone and rolled around while muttering like he was speaking in tongues. Soon enough, Dengue Fever was appearing on soundtracks (City of Ghosts, Weeds), releasing albums and touring. In 2005, they traveled to Cambodia, an adventure that resulted in John Pirozzi's recent documentary Sleepwalking through the Mekong.
"The importance of the music kind of became apparent as we were recording the first record," says Ethan. "It drew more attention to that body of work, and more people began approaching us who were also interested in that music." Gradually, the band members learned stories of Cambodia's musicians, how the songs came to be and why the artists' names were nearly erased from pop history.
Prior to the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia was filled with the sound of pop music. Inspired by the styles of the American and British artists pumped over the airwaves by the U.S. military, a slew of young musicians gained fame for their unique take on rock & roll. But the days of Cambodia's surf-y, psychedelic love songs were short-lived. The Khmer Rouge's reign brought starvation, forced deportation, torture and execution. Death toll estimates vary, but it is presumed that among those who perished were pop stars Ros Sereysothea, Sinn Sisamouth, Touche Teng, Houy Meas and Pan Ron.
Consider Dengue Fever the heir of a music legacy that never had the chance to enter the American consciousness — without merely mimicking its sonic forefathers. "We play in the style of Dengue Fever, heavily influenced by Cambodian pop," says Williams.
The band's latest album, Venus on Earth, released via M80 Records on January 22, was recorded with both analog and digital equipment, which lends to a sound that is far from retro. On the opening track "Seeing Hands," Chhom's vocals weave through the sort of dense guitar work that recalls Black Sabbath, the Cure or Blonde Redhead, depending on whose ears happen to catch the track. Meanwhile, Zac and Chhom's duets tackle both the charmingly romantic ("Tiger Phone Card") and the bitter ("Sober Driver"). In this diversity, Dengue Fever is a fitting tribute to a group of Cambodians who twisted rock & roll to fit their needs.
"I wouldn't say that we're a tribute band by any means," says Smith, "but what we do is definitely in honor of those who were killed."
Dengue Fever celebrates the release of Venus on Earth at the Echo on Thurs., Jan. 31.
Dengue Fever | Venus on Earth | M80
There's a slightly knotty context to sift through when it comes to Dengue Fever's tribute to the dislocatedly rocking musical styles of Cambodia circa early '70s. The L.A.-based band, featuring Cambodian thrush Chhom Nimol, tips a semifaithful hat to the weird mishmash of lovey-dovey lounge pop, skanky surf-spy, gnarly garage and whimsical psychedelia of the Cambodian sound, but they've got to accomplish it in a way that's not just aping the original — that'd be fun, but sort of patronizing — and anyway the "original" did ape American and English rock with usually quite warped results.
On their third album, Venus on Earth, Dengue pull off the sincere-but-shticky trick with righteous aplomb by expanding the music's lyrical subject matter, focusing on melody, not groove, and sprucing up the recorded sound just a tad. Whereas the music that first inspired founders Ethan and Zac Holtzman was found on cruddy old cassettes unearthed in the dusty back corners of fish markets in Phnom Penh, on Dengue's albums the band gives it a clean, new documenting that highlights the basics of the '70s sound — Farfisa organ or cheapo synth, greasy Strats, hammily honking sax, and especially the vocalists' enchanting, birdlike warbles, so high-pitched and echo-drenched as to sound like the CD's playing on the wrong speed.
Swirly-slow Farfisa-laced psychedelia in "Seeing Hands" and the twangy noir of "Clipped Wings" frame Nimol's startlingly pure-toned Khmer-language singing in smoky clouds of time and place; "Tiger Phone Card" finds Nimol and Zac dueting ("Never let go!") in English atop nicely cheesy echo box trailing off her voice — cue far-out guitar solo as Nimol hops 'round in flowered mini and shiny thigh-high boots.
Never self-consciously avant-garde, Dengue prefer to create a parallel reality, heard to special effect on "Woman in the Shoes" (well, you know what she means), with the arrangements interlocking minimal parts among greasy guitars, creaky keys and David Ralicke's funky trumpets and saxes. The minor-key air of the excellently titled "Monsoon of Perfume" engulfs the mind by way of Manzarek-like electric piano and an evocative vintage-synth solo squiggle. The instrumental "Oceans of Venus" (another first-rate title) fuses horn lines with clubby organ and surfy guitar: Please enjoy that highly desirable aura of deep-orange sunset over Malibu in 1972 — or perhaps the Mekong.
Recently Dengue Fever went back to Cambodia and performed in front of huge throngs of rabid fans, who regarded them as conquering heroes. Since the fascination to American ears lies in how the Cambodians got Western pop so wrong in the '70s, one can only savor the thought of possible future mutations by a new generation of Cambodian rockers tipping their hats back once more.