Even when you consider the cultural cross-pollination that goes on in large metropolitan areas, L.A.'s Dengue Fever had perhaps the strangest genesis of any band in recent memory.
It's odd enough for a group of white musicians to cover psychedelic rock oldies from Cambodia, but finding a bona fide Cambodian pop star to front the band -- and sing in Khmer, no less -- is the kind of providence that could only touch a select few places on Earth. Formed in L.A.'s hipster-friendly Silver Lake area in 2001, Dengue Fever traced their roots to organist Ethan Holtzman's 1997 trip to Cambodia with a friend. That friend contracted the tropical disease (transmitted via mosquito) that later gave the band its name, and it also introduced Holtzman to the sound of '60s-era Cambodian rock, which still dominated radios and jukeboxes around the country. The standard sound bore a strong resemblance to Nuggets-style garage rock and psychedelia, heavy on the organ and fuzztone guitar, and with the danceable beat of classic rock & roll. It also bore the unmistakable stamp of Bollywood film musicals, and often employed the heavily reverbed guitar lines of surf and spy-soundtrack music. Yet the eerie Khmer-language vocals and Eastern melodies easily distinguished it from its overseas counterpart.
When Holtzman returned to the States, he introduced his brother Zac -- a core member of alt-country eccentrics Dieselhed -- to the cheap cassettes he'd brought back. They started hunting for as much Cambodian rock as they could find, and eventually decided to form a band to spotlight their favorite material, much of which was included on a compilation from Parallel World, Cambodian Rocks. In addition to Ethan Holtzman on Farfisa and Optigan, and Zac on vocals and guitar, the charter membership of Dengue Fever included bassist Senon Williams (also of slowcore outfit the Radar Brothers), drummer Paul Smith, and saxophonist David Ralicke (Beck, Ozomatli, Brazzaville). Ralicke shared Zac Holtzman's interest in Ethiopian jazz, further broadening the group's global mindset. Thus constituted, the band went combing the clubs in the Little Phnom Penh area of Long Beach, searching for a female singer who could replicate the style and language of the recordings they had.
After striking out a few times, the Holtzmans discovered Chhom Nimol, a one-time pop star in Cambodia who came from a highly successful musical family (analogous to the Jacksons). According to the band, Nimol had performed several times for the Cambodian royal family before emigrating to Los Angeles. Initially not understanding the band's motives, she was suspicious at first, but after several rehearsals, everything clicked. Dengue Fever made their live debut in 2002, with the charismatic Nimol in full traditional Cambodian garb, and soon won a following among Hollywood hipsters, not to mention L.A. Weekly's Best New Band award that year. Purely a cover band at first, they started working on original material after putting out a four-song EP locally. The Holtzmans wrote English lyrics and music, then sent the lyrics to a Khmer translator in the state of Washington, after which Nimol would adjust the melody and words to her liking.
Dengue Fever counted among their fans actor Matt Dillon, who included their Khmer-language cover of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" on the soundtrack of his 2003 directorial debut, City of Ghosts. However, disaster nearly struck when Nimol was arrested in San Diego in accordance with the stringent, post-9/11 INS policy: she'd arrived in the U.S. on a two-week visitor's visa and simply stayed on. She was thrown in jail for three weeks, and it took nearly a year for the band's lawyer to secure her a two-year visa (his fees were paid through benefit concerts). In the meantime, Dengue Fever released their self-titled debut album on Web of Mimicry, a label run by Mr. Bungle guitarist Trey Spruance. Most of the repertoire consisted of Cambodian covers, many originally done by pre-Pol Pot star Ros Sereysothea, but there were several originals and an Ethiopian jazz tune as well. With Nimol's limited English improving, the bandmembers considered putting some English-language material on their follow-up, but intended to stick with Khmer for the most part, in keeping with the music that inspired them. In 2007, Dengue Fever not only released Escape from Dragon House, but also starred in the documentary Sleeping Through the Mekong, which saw them performing their music in Cambodia for the first time. Venus on Earth debuted on the M80 label the following year; it was eventually picked up by Real World for world-wide distribution. In 2009, they released a CD/DVD entitled Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, which included the documentary and a compilation album. The band signed to Concord in 2010 and issued their debut for the label, Cannibal Courtship, in April of 2011. ~ Steve Huey