By Matt Diehl
“World” has often proven a dirty word for music fans – just ask the members of Dengue Fever. Sure, this sextet, hailing from Los Angeles’ hipster Eastside, formed around an interest in ’60s-vintage Cambodian psychedelic rock, and features Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol frequently singing in her native language. Still, that doesn’t mean they fit any particular pigeonhole. “Starting in the ’80s, world music clichés turned off a lot of people,” Dengue Fever bassist Senon Williams explains. “It was repulsive to those who were into something more rootsy and raw.” Indeed, much of what was available as world music seemed to embody unfortunate stereotypes – the noble savage, the docile, uneducated native. “So much so-called ‘world music’ seemed frozen in time, trying to preserve tradition rather than move things forward,” Dengue guitarist and songwriter Zac Holtzman explains. “We’re not just like, you know, the Guatemalan hat band,” adds Holtzman’s brother, Ethan, who plays organ in the band. “We need to pick up one of those pan flutes,” Williams groans. “Or maybe stick a bone through our noses.”
For Dengue Fever, however, the world-music tag has ultimately proven more blessing than curse, especially in the wake of new interest in non-Western sounds from maverick musicians capturing attention of late. Gogol Bordello draws huge crowds for their blend of Ukrainian gypsy sounds and urban punk rave-up; Beirut blew up the blogosphere with their Brooklyn-meets-Balkan hybrid grooves; Extra Golden and Vampire Weekend, meanwhile, combine indie-rock stylings with the indestructible beat of Africa, resulting in significant artistic dividends. Having formed in 2001, Dengue Fever – which also includes David Ralicke on brass and Paul Smith on drums/percussion – found themselves at the head of the pack. “It’s like a new little movement,” Williams explains. “It’s happened in the past with people like Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, and David Byrne, but in my eyes that was different; they were grabbing things and using them for themselves. It wasn’t a band. Now it’s like, ‘This is just music.’ We’re not trying to do something ‘authentic.’” “If you’re in your dorm room with a drum machine and listening to Fela, then whatever,” adds Smith. “Yeah, but I never thought I’d see Gogol Bordello on David Letterman!” adds Zac, causing the whole band to crack up.
Don’t be surprised if you find Dengue Fever showing up on your idiot box, either. According to Dave Neupert, who heads up the Silver Lake-based digital marketing company, M80, that also serves as Dengue Fever’s indie record company, the band’s latest album, Venus on Earth, has transcended all expectations since its release in late January. “We’ve sold 4,000 units, and the campaign is just beginning,” Neupert claims, adding that everyone from major media outlets like NPR and Spin magazine to influential bloggers are supporting the band. “45 percent of that is digital sales,” he adds, “when the industry standard is under 10 percent. It’s blowing my mind.”
It’s refreshing to see such adventurous, border-crossing music growing in acceptance. Decidedly trippy, infused with an eerie, infectious melodicism, Dengue Fever’s music resembles a radio transmission from another dimension, oozing atmospheric nostalgia for a time and place that never existed. Onstage, the band’s front line cuts a decidedly odd yet intriguing persona: Zac Holtzman’s looming beanstalk frame and long, dark beard contrasts with petite, gorgeous Nimol outfitted in elaborately colorful Cambodian traditional dress, swaying alluringly to the unpredictable rhythms. No, this isn’t your mother’s indie rock – unless your mother grew up in Angkor Wat.
Dengue Fever’s origin is almost as unlikely as their sound. In 1998, Ethan Holtzman, burnt out from his day job as a case manager specializing in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, sold his car and bought a one-way ticket to Southeast Asia. Traveling for half a year, he found that nowhere affected him like Cambodia. “It felt so lawless,” he explains of his feelings for the nation torn apart by so many struggles – war, famine, revolution, genocide. “The Khmer Rouge were still present, and people were very cautious. Missiles had exploded near where I was staying weeks before; some French backpackers had recently been killed on a train. There were also still landmines buried around, and I’d seen people maimed from them. But it was such a memorable country, so raw. You could do anything – if you wanted to buy a hand grenade for five dollars and throw it, you could.” Dengue’s distinctive moniker comes from the affliction that beset Ethan’s Scottish travel partner, who fell ill after being bit by a disease-carrying mosquito. “He said it felt like your bones are being crushed from the inside,” Holtzman recalls. “The music, the disease, and the country all blurred together.”
When Holtzman returned, he and his older brother Zac bonded over a shared love for ’60s Cambodian psychedelic rock. In Ethan’s absence, Zac – a musician who’d played for over a decade with Bay Area country-punkers Dieselhed – had been given the compilation Cambodia Rocks!, and quickly fell in love with the music’s exotically strange twists and turns. Together, Ethan and Zac haunted the clubs and restaurants of Long Beach’s Cambodian community known as “Little Phnom Penh,” looking for a singer to complete their unexpected musical odyssey. When they found Chhom Nimol singing at a restaurant called Dragon House, they knew their search was over. Nimol had been a star in Cambodia, but had stayed illegally in the United States after being brought over for a series of Cambodian New Year celebrations at a Rochester, Minnesota, temple. “It was fun to pop into clubs and see her because we had a crush on her: she was so cute, and sang so well,” Ethan explains.
Despite suspicions – and a limited knowledge of the English language – Nimol joined the Holtzman brothers, who recruited Williams (also a member of Radar Bros.), Ralicke (who’s appeared with the likes of Beck, Ozomatli, and Brazzaville) and Smith (a studio engineer who’d briefly played with Ethan in another band). Almost immediately, Dengue Fever captured interest: Matt Dillon put them on the soundtrack of his directorial debut City of Ghosts, and even hung out at numerous band rehearsals. Dillon still regularly attends Dengue shows.
Indie fans, meanwhile, were won over by the band’s raucous first show at Spaceland and the uncanny sounds captured on Dengue Fever’s eponymous first album, largely a collection of vintage covers by revered Cambodian rockers like Sinn Sisamouth. “The old songs the band covers are golden oldies that everyone in Cambodia knows,” explains John Pirozzi. Pirozzi is the director of Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, an acclaimed documentary about the band’s first trip to Cambodia, where they jammed with local musicians and brought Khmer nationals and expats together for the first time on the dance floor, with “songs that represented a better time for those who survived Pol Pot.”
Dengue Fever began exploring original material, however, on their 2005 sophomore effort, Escape from Dragon House; Nimol even began singing in English (Holtzman sends his words to a Khmer translator based in Washington, D.C.). Dengue Fever’s evolution gelled even further on the swirling, evocatively unique sounds on Venus on Earth. “We’re not copying anything,” Williams says. “If that’s what you’re looking for, you might as well hire somebody from … .”
“National Geographic,” interjects Zac, to more laughter.
At the core of Dengue Fever’s appeal is Nimol, who Williams calls the band’s “siren.” Despite her fondness for caked-on makeup and stripper-style high heels – “Those are her comfortable shoes,” jokes Smith pointing at the strappy, spiky stilettos adorning Nimol’s feet. “She hikes in those! – Dengue’s frontwoman exudes alluring innocence. “A lot of singers strut their stuff and lick the mic stand,” Williams explains, “but Nimol is even sexier because she’s composed and secretive.” Nimol indeed proves enigmatic in person, rarely making eye contact and covering her mouth as she speaks in confident, yet still broken, English. “I like the New Wave, and also the hip-hop and the reggae,” she says of her musical inspirations. “I write songs about love only … guy and girl, broken heart. But my heart is not broken. I’m not in love – I’m too picky! I love myself!”
At one point, Nimol’s immigrant status threatened to stop Dengue Fever for good. Returning from a gig in San Diego opening for Jonathan Richman, police stopped Ethan Holtzman’s car at a checkpoint on the 5 Freeway. “They looked at me and thought I was Mexican lady,” Nimol explains. Instead, after checking her identification, authorities discovered Nimol had overstayed her visa. Caught in the wake of post-9/11 hysteria, she was brought into custody, where she entertained her fellow jailbirds with renditions of Celine Dion hits. “Jail was scary,” Nimol recalls. “I was feeling afraid I was going to be sent back to my country. But they said, ‘You have good voice!’” A series of benefits at the Short Stop and the Derby, along with some help from Amnesty International, got her sprung. “Singers have gotten acid thrown in their face in Cambodia for associating with the wrong politicians,” Smith says. “It was an important part of her defense. If she had been sent home, she could’ve been a target.”
Nimol and crew have moved on to greater, more legal successes. Venus on Earth’s sales keep growing, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong has appeared at prestigious film festivals, and Dengue Fever is gearing up for yet another international touring schedule; the band has already played everywhere from Holland and Portugal to Russia, and are now stars in Cambodia, thanks to nonstop media coverage of their tour there. “CTN, the Cambodia Television Network, did a two-hour special on us that aired two to three times a day the entire time we were there,” Williams explains. “I took a break to vacation in Kampot, and when I had to get back to Phnom Penh, I went to grab the bus. The woman selling the tickets was like ‘Why are you taking the bus? You’re famous! Famous people don’t take the bus!’”
Even Nimol’s tradition-bound family is coming around. “At first, my sister said to Zac, ‘You never have Nimol sing,” Nimol says. “She is very original Cambodian, so she doesn’t understand. But last time we play Echoplex, she said music is good, but told me I not in Cambodia anymore and need to learn to dance more rock and roll!” It’s this cultural crossroads, in fact, that ultimately gives Dengue Fever its unique place in music today – a fact not lost on the band itself. “We can play both indie-rock and world-music markets now,” Ethan explains. “And when we play the world shows, people are looking at us like we’re this new thing.”
“It’s fun not fitting in anywhere,” Zac adds, “but getting to play everywhere.”