Dengue Fever on how they became the custodians of Cambodia’s lost musical heritage
Zac Holtzman is at the home in which he grew up, high in the hills of Topanga, California, at the end of a long day celebrating his father’s 75th birthday.
Two doors down, he tells me, cult leader and serial killer Charles Manson claimed one of his nine victims. Like many of the area’s other famous former residents – including Jim Morrison, Neil Young and Marvin Gaye – Manson was also a musician.
“There’s some good songs there,” says the guitarist, uncomfortably. “Growing up was a little bit weird, but I’m kind of intrigued by it all.”
It might be a stretch to say this heavy, heady vibe of those formative years inspired the moody, minor-key music of Holtzman’s band, but Manson’s era ethos of excess certainly left an imprint on their lo-fi, psychedelic rock sound.
The group’s secret ingredient, however, is Cambodian lead singer Chhom Nimol, whose hauntingly high “ghost voice” techniques, sung in her native Khmer, snake quixotically over the sextet’s kaleidoscope of swelling organs and twanging surf guitar.
This bewitching combination – which has seduced audiences around the globe for 15 years – was no accident.
In 1997, Zac’s brother Ethan, the sextet’s organist, returned from Cambodia with a suitcase full of cassettes documenting a golden age of lost Khmer pop music – groovy, feel-good tunes heavily influenced by 1960s American rock ‘n’ roll – that existed before the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. Among the two million people slaughtered during the Cambodian genocide that followed – three-quarters of the country’s population – were many of this lost generation’s musicians.
When Zac independently discovered similar music on a compilation bought from a San Francisco record store, the brothers decided to revive this forgotten sound – somehow both familiar and exotic to western ears – with a one-off live gig. The problem was finding an authentic voice to sing it.
In 2001 they began making regular trips to Long Beach, home to about 50,000 Cambodians, to check out resident bands in the clubs there.
“Eventually we ended up at the best place called Dragon House,” says Holtzman. “There were five singers on stage – all of a sudden, Nimol started singing and, right off the bat, I was like: ‘she’s the strongest, she’s the best’.”
He was not mistaken. Nimol comes from a family of famous Cambodian singers. However, having arrived in the United States only a month earlier, and speaking no English, she was naturally suspicious of the tall, hairy Californians inviting her to audition.
“They didn’t trust us at all,” says Holtzman. “So we kept going back there, and then finally something changed her mind.
“We had a studio set up to audition some of the other singers we’d seen – and as soon as she showed up, everyone else just left. And she was way better, luckily, than everyone.”
The band was rounded out by bassist Senon Williams, saxophonist David Ralicke and drummer Paul Dreux Smith. Soon after their first LA club gigs, actor Matt Dillon asked the sextet to record a tune for his 2002 movie, City of Ghosts, which he also co-wrote and directed.
They turned in a Khmer cover of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now and, the Dengue Fever name went overground. It is a choice they might regret in the internet age – goggling “Dengue Fever” generally produces unpleasant images of disease-spreading mosquitos.
The group’s early repertoire of vintage Cambodian covers was immortalised on a 2003 self-titled debut album.
They graduated from eccentric revivalists to an original act in their own right with 2005’s self-written follow-up, Escape from Dragon House.
A breakthrough came with 2008’s third LP, Venus of Earth, which was championed by some notably diverse music-industry names, including Peter Gabriel, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and Ray Davies.
“The shows, they just got bigger and bigger,” says Holtzman.
While the material was new, the commitment to singing largely in Khmer remained – necessitating a laborious translation process, huddled over an old, dog-eared leather dictionary. This may in part explain the somewhat surreal English song titles, such as Tiger Phone Card, Taxi Dancer, Cement Slippers and Shave Your Beard.
“When you translate an English line – let’s say eight syllables long which fits perfectly with the melody of the song – all of a sudden in Khmer it’s like 20 syllables,” says Holtzman. “And so it’s this crazy filtration and whittling-away process that gives us our finished songs.”
Over successive releases, this songwriting has grown progressively more fertile as the band evolved from quirky imitators to authors of a distinctive sound.
Their latest release – 2015’s The Deepest Lake, their fifth LP – represented a brave step sonically and conceptually, incorporating hints of rap, electro and Latin rhythms into an increasingly spacey soundscape.
The freedom is not only symbolic – it was also the first release on the band’s own Tuk Tuk Records.
Two new albums – a follow-up set of originals, and the soundtrack to an upcoming silent movie – are already in the bag.
“We’ve never tried to pretend we’re anything,” says Holtzman. “We’ve always been really honest about what we are: influenced by that original [Cambodian] stuff, but always trying to bring ourselves to it. I think that’s why it’s lasted.”
• Dengue Fever perform on Friday at 7.15pm at NYUAD’s Red Theatre. Entry is free