Photo by Yerin Mok
Dengue Fever’s West Coast tour did not exactly start out well. During their pre-tour performance in Silverlake, their organ blew out multiple times, the band members appeared distracted, and lead singer Ch’om Nimol couldn’t stop touching her hair. On top of that the aloof, KCRW-listening L.A. hipster crowd didn’t exactly make for an encouraging audience.
Weeks later, nearing the end of their tour, the scene is drastically different: Nimol has ditched her evening gown for a peasant blouse, trading the air of a self-conscious beauty queen for the ease of a born performer; drummer Paul Smith bangs out beats with focus; Senon Williams is furious on bass; and Ethan Holtzman attacks the Farfisa organ with boyish glee. The crowd at the Oakland warehouse is wild with energy, shaking the room with the enthused fan response every performer dreams of seeing. Dengue Fever has finally hit their stride.
While their self-titled debut consisted mainly of late-sixties Cambodian pop-rock covers—music influenced by Vietnam War-era American radio, broadcast across Southeast Asia—Dengue Fever’s Escape from Dragon House reveals a deeper range of original music and genre-busting. It is Ennio Morricone crossed with Pet Sounds, channeling psychedelic rock and Ethiopian jazz, delivered in the lush romance of the Khmer language.
“In one sense we are totally outside of everything, singing in a different language,” says lead guitarist and occasional vocalist Zac Holtzman. “In another sense we are accessible to a lot of different people.”
California natives Zac and Ethan are brothers, and Dengue Fever is their brainchild. In the late nineties Ethan hitchhiked across Southeast Asia. While he was busy absorbing the tunes blasting from the radios of Cambodian drivers, Zac was amassing a collection of old Cambodian recordings released by San Francisco’s Subliminal Sounds.
A few years later the brothers found themselves in Little Phnom Penh, a section of Long Beach, California that boasts a large Cambodian population, scouring nightclubs for the right vocalist. Ch’om Nimol, a young woman straight from Cambodia who spoke hardly any English, blew the others away with her soaring vocals.
Nimol comes from a family of Cambodian musicians. Fans and critics enthralled by her stage presence love repeating that Nimol once performed for the Royal Family in Cambodia. “She is famous in Cambodia,” Ethan says. “On tour, Cambodian fans are always taking pictures of her and asking for her autograph.”
Despite their different backgrounds and cultural upbringings, the collaboration is fluid. “I’ll be giving Nimol a ride back to Long Beach,” explains Zac, “and she’ll start humming a melody and I’ll be like, ‘What is that?’ And she’ll say ‘Oh, some traditional Cambodian mountain song.’” One such moment gave birth to “Sleepwalking,” a track where saxophonist Dave Rallicke, of Beck fame, brings out the flute. With Nimol’s haunting vocals, the resulting image is one decidedly dreamlike trip along the banks of the Mekong River.
Since the rhythm of Khmer is quite different from that of English, it takes some doing to avoid discordance. “[Getting it right] is a lot of work, and you start doubting whether it’s all worth it,” Zac says. Of course, this is a comment delivered before the sold-out shows, thick album sales, and overwhelming press response following the release. Dengue Fever, if you’ll pardon the pun, is something you want to catch.