You are a beautiful Cambodian woman. You are a gifted vocalist, a star in your homeland. You have been in the United States for only a matter of months. You speak no English.
You are singing in your native tongue for fellow Cambodians at the Dragon House club, in an area of Long Beach known as Little Phnom Penh. It is 2001, just after 9/11, late at night. You are approached by two American men, one of whom has a dark beard the length of a yak’s tail. They seem strange, suspicious. They speak no Cambodian yet they are trying to communicate, trying to ask you something.
They want you to join their band.
“When she started singing, we instantly knew we had to ask her to be our singer,” recalls guitarist Zac Holtzman — who, with brother and keyboardist Ethan, was searching for a Cambodian vocalist to complete their musical vision.
“Her sister was there kind of protecting her, and she didn’t speak English either,” Zac adds. “They saw my big beard and her sister was like, ‘No way am I allowing you to go play music with these guys.’?”
“I remember when Zac and Ethan came over to try and talk to me,” says Chhom Nimol — the Cambodian siren in question — of the then-mysterious Holtzman brothers. “I didn’t say yes right away; I thought a long time.”
After a trial period, during which she would show up at rehearsals with an entourage of family members — some of whom did homework on the floor while the group practiced — Chhom said yes, becoming the vivacious vox magnifica of Dengue Fever.
The Los Angeles–based sextet’s sound is derived from Cambodian pop of the 1960s and ’70s — a danceable, delightfully mutated mix of American surf, garage-rock psychedelia and the emotive, snaky crooning of Khmer folk music. It’s a style of music that was almost lost when its original creators were slaughtered during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime of the late ’70s.
Ethan Holtzman and bassist Senon Williams had been exposed to the music on bootleg cassettes while traveling separately in Southeast Asia. Driven by what Williams says was “a desperate attempt to not start another indie rock band — we wanted to create something outside of ourselves,” the fledgling group added a few modern grooves and wrapped the whole exotic bouillabaisse around the entrancing voice and coquettish stage presence of Chhom, who sings mainly in Khmer.
“I remember the first show. It was at Spaceland, and I felt so nervous,” Chhom says. She’s sipping Jameson whiskey in her historic Los Feliz abode, part of a cluster of cottages that were home to Disney’s Snow White animators in the 1930s, and later to singer-songwriter Elliott Smith.
“It was the first audience I sang for that was white, and they don’t understand what I say,” she continues. “But they were smiling and laughing and clapping for every song, and that made me feel like this might work out.”
It did. Now, after tours from Kowloon to Pioneertown, music placements in CSI: Las Vegas and The Hangover 2 and releases on imprints great and small — from Trey Spruance’s Web of Mimicry to Peter Gabriel’s Real World — the group has launched its own label, Tuk Tuk Records, named for a Cambodian motorized rickshaw.
“We were a bit disappointed with Cannibal Courtship,” Williams says of Dengue’s 2011 release on the heavyweight Fantasy Records/Concord Music Group label. “A lot went into making that record, and the label didn’t do a great job. They said a bunch of stuff about how they knew what to do with us, and they had no clue and that became apparent very quickly. … Starting our own label and working our new album, we’re back to doing it old-style, where we make the music we love.”
That new album is The Deepest Lake, the band’s fifth offering and Tuk Tuk’s inaugural release.
“On this record, more than any other, we kind of let it just grow on its own,” Williams says. “We were like, ‘Let’s let it be more of a slow burn and be organic, and not stress about its creation.’”
The music for the album’s 12 songs was written in the same co-op method the band has used since the beginning.
“Some start off with Nimol humming a song, or I present a melody,” Zac Holtzman says. “But for the most part it starts with Nimol and myself and Senon coming up with parts and Paul [Smith] the drummer, and keys and horns [David Ralicke] come in afterwards and supporting everything.”
The Deepest Lake won’t disappoint longtime Fever fiends; at the same time, it deftly expands the band’s sound.
A tight, Asian-flavored, guitar-driven hook on “Cardboard Castles” slides into a Nimol/Zac harmony that sounds like John Doe and Exene singing a lost Beatles chorus. The languid, cinematic molasses of “Golden Flute” could be the sonic love child of Tom Waits and Ennio Morricone. Then there’s “Tokay,” a primo dance cut with a mosquito-like Casio riff, which places you squarely in a Middle Eastern after-hours kasbah.
Guiding all of The Deepest Lake is Nimol’s fervent, angular singing, a voice that is piercing and warm and (to many ears) intoxicatingly foreign all at once.
Vocal talent runs in Chhom’s family to an Osmonds-like extent. Her parents were traditional Cambodian folk singers. Her older sister, Chorvin, is a gifted chanteuse popular in Cambodia; her brother Monychout is a music producer; and yet another brother, Bunyong, also is a musician, the one who started her down the path.
“My brother played keyboard and guitar, and he tried to teach me to sing when I was a kid at school,” Chhom explains. “I said, ‘I don’t want to sing, I want to be an actress.’ But my family pushed me — that’s how I became a singer.”
In 1997, Chhom won Cambodia’s American Idol–like Apsara Awards, taking home a Honda motorbike and $3,000. She sang for the king and queen of Cambodia. She appeared in Paris and Australia.
In 2001 she moved to America, and in 2014 she became a citizen, a source of great pride.
“I am very happy, the happiest in my life,” she says, gleefully displaying her official citizenship papers and well-worn study book, Learn About the United States.
Chhom says she’s a Buddhist (“It’s a big part of my life”), and among the items in her living room shrine are a U.S. flag and an Uncle Sam top hat. There’s also “a statue of a monk who died 200 years ago; he was in the temple where my parents used to sing,” Chhom says. “I went to Paris in 1997 and met his [descendant] family. That’s why I believe he’s always helping me to become a success.”
She stays in contact with terra firma monks as well, paying bimonthly visits to local holy men and regularly phoning her longtime contact in the old country.
“I just met a monk a couple days ago, and asked him what is going on with my band. We want more success with the album. He told me we need to make an offering with a chicken to the spirit.”
At this, Zac Holtzman speaks up.
“I feel like we are a success. We’ve stayed together, like, 14 years. … We’ve all become a family.”
Chhom gazes at him, serious.
“The monk told me that next year we’ll become a success.”
Holtzman laughs, the beard shaking. “For me, it’s already happened!”
Somewhere a chicken is thanking him.
Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Trey Spruance's label as Mimicry Records. Its actual name is Web of Mimicry. We regret the error.