Dengue Fever's psychedelic take on the Cambodian pop sounds of the 60s makes them one of rock'n'roll's most unique success stories. They draw enthusiastic crowds from LA to the UK, from Maui to Moscow, and leave critics rummaging through their thesauruses looking for new superlatives to describe their sound. Their appearance at this year's WOMEX, the world's largest international music conference, cements their position as a global phenomenon. Amazon.com named their album, Escape From Dragon House, the #1 international release for 2005. In England , Mojo named Escape to their Top 10 World Music releases of 2006.
Brothers Ethan (keyboards) and Zac (guitar) Holtzman started Dengue Fever in 2001 when they discovered they shared a love for the Cambodian pop music of the 60s. After adding sax man David Ralicke (Beck/Brazzaville), drummer Paul Smith and bassist Senon Williams, they went looking for a Cambodian singer. Enter Chhom Nimol, who performed regularly for the King and Queen of Cambodia . Her powerful singing, marked by a luminous vibrato that adds exotic ornamentations to her vocal lines, and hypnotic stage moves based on traditional dances, complimented the band's driving Cambodian/American sound.
Venus On Earth, out January 22, 2008 on M80 Records, is the third chapter in the band's continuing journey to create a unique fusion of Cambodian and American pop. This time out, the songs are more American and more Cambodian, a sound that honors both cultures while fashioning its own singular identity. “We made a conscious decision to simplify the sound,” says album producer and Dengue drummer Paul Smith. “There's a lot of space in the mix, more swing in the playing. The arrangements are less jammy; they're finely constructed, with plenty of surf music and spaghetti western twang.” Guitarist & songwriter Zac Holtzman agrees. “We wanted a jazzy, European feel, with enough space to increase the impact of Nimol's vocals. It's emotionally deeper and moodier, in the tradition of the French chansons, but still retains its Cambodian soul.”
“Seeing Hands” kicks off the album with a mid-tempo Funkadelic meets Bollywood groove, accented by Zac Holtzman's stuttering lead guitar and Ralicke's Middle Eastern flavored sax. Chhom's sinuous, unforgettable vocal melody slides into a chorus that combines Cambodian rap and a soaring, sighing cry of anguish. Subtle keyboard and sax accents add depth to the track, which likens the relationship of human beings to the planet Earth to a slobby boyfriend who refuses to clean up after himself. “Tiger Phone Card” is a humorous duet between a gal in Phnom Penn and a boy in New York City , trying to find common ground in an untenable relationship. Zac Holtzman's fragile singing conveys ambivalence about the relationship, while Chhom's more direct approach demands real commitment. The bass line Williams lays down plays off of Smith's upbeats, giving the rhythm a slight syncopation that keeps you faintly off balance. “Mr. Orange” is Cambodian garage rock, marked by a galloping beat, Ethan Holtzman's Farfisa, Zac's fuzzy guitar, Ralicke's spaghetti western trumpets and the forlorn backing vocals. “It's the story of a musician going crazy,” Zac explains. “In Cambodia , you go to a Buddhist monastery for rehab. This guy shaves his head to gather his wits and try to figure out what it's all about.” The album's one instrumental, “Oceans of Venus” is outer space surf music, an interstellar whorl of Ralicke's sax, Ethan's buzzing keyboards and Zac's surfadelic guitar, driven by the rhythm section's straightforward four on the floor beat. “Monsoon of Perfume,” one of the album's more Cambodian tracks, is musically sparse. The band's restrained backing supports Chhom's quiet, soulful vocal, a woman trying to convey the depth of her emotion to a disinterested lover. “Integratron” combines a Cambodian scale with a loping rhythm borrowed from a tune Zac found on a compilation of Iraqi pop songs called Choubi Choubi! “The Integratron is a building in the Mojave Desert constructed by George Van Tassel using no metal, from instructions he says he got telepathically from extraterrestrials,” Zac explains. “We shot one of the videos for Dragon House out there and wanted to pay tribute to it.” It's another sparse track, with Chhom's vocals skipping over short organ stabs, an Arab guitar hook and Ralicke's serpentine sax work.
Most of Venus on Earth was recorded on analogue tape to preserve the full, rich sound of the rhythm section. Its minor key melodies provide a deeper, more textured resonance. Chhom sings several tunes in English, which may give Americans a greater appreciation of the vocal improvisations that lie at the heart of her art. “The songwriting is a collaborative effort,” Smith says. “Most are written in English and translated by Nimol and we explore emotions and situations that Khmer culture ignores. Cambodians are reserved, while Americans aren't shy about expressing their emotions directly. And the music of the 60s we're drawing on still brings up a lot of pain for Cambodians. These songs are from a time and place that doesn't exist anymore, but music can be therapeutic. We're hoping we can continue to build bridges between America and Cambodia , between the present and the past.”
The Cambodian pop music of the 1960s seems an unlikely template for an American band, but that sound captivated Ethan Holtzman during a trip to Cambodia in 1997. Before he flew back to L.A. , he picked up every cassette of Cambodian pop from the 60s he could find. Back home, Zac Holtzman had just returned to L.A. after living in San Francisco for 10 years. He'd been listening to a compilation of Cambodian pop and when the brothers reconnected, they decided play their version of Cambodian rock. They hung out in the Long Beach Cambodian community to find a singer.
“We saw Chhom Nimol at The Dragon House,” Zac Holtzman recalls. “She was already a star in Cambodia and made a living singing traditional music at Cambodian weddings and funerals.” Chhom wasn't sure she wanted to sing with Americans, but Dengue's dedication to the sounds of Cambodia won her over. Chhom's singing and the band's Americanized Cambodian psychedelia created a strangely familiar and totally distinctive sound. Dengue Fever was an immediate hit, both in the Cambodian clubs of Long Beach and regular LA rock venues. They won LA Weekly 's Best New Artist Award in 2002 and actor/director Matt Dillon asked them to supply a Cambodian version of Joni Mitchell's “Both Sides Now” for his Cambodian based thriller City of Ghosts.
The band's eponymous debut was mostly covers of Cambodian classics, a tribute to the singers and songwriters who were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Their second album, Escape From Dragon House, written almost entirely by the band, was more psychedelic, freer, looser and more experimental than the debut. Chhom's powerful vocals, with lyrics delivered mostly in Khmer (cam – aye), showed an impressive melodic range, complimented by the band's relentless grooves. It also incorporated the rhythms of 60s Ethiopian jazz, another style that used American rock, funk and R&B as its template. The album featured “Ethanopium,” a cover of a tune by Ethiopian singer Malatu Astatke that was used by Jim Jarmusch in his film Broken Flowers. “One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula” was later featured on the soundtrack as well as the Showtime series Weeds .
In 2005, the band toured Cambodia . It was the first time any band, much less an American one, performed Khmer Rock in Cambodia since Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975. The country gave Chhom a lot of respect for Cambodianizing the Americans. The band met and played with Cambodian master musicians that survived the Khmer Rouge years and recorded those sessions. They hope to use that music on future albums. A documentary feature film of this trip, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong , has received an enthusiastic reception at international film festivals, as well as the Tucson Film Festival, the Silverlake Film Festival in LA, the Hawaii International. Film Festival and made its New York premier opening night Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York . The band is currently working on securing a distribution deal and a DVD release
Venus On Earth, Dengue's new album shows the band's careful attention to the craft of songwriting. With 11 strong tunes and Chhom Nimol's vocals more confident than ever, the band takes another giant step forward; creating music that retains its Cambodian roots while forging its own unique psychedelic sound.