Multiculti Angelenos craft border-blurring grooves.
Even an ethnomusicologist in a hallucinogenic state couldn’t invent a band like Dengue Fever. This Los Angelesbased sextet modernizes Cambodian psychedelic guitar pop from the ’60s –which was originally influenced by the rock and soul records broadcast over U.S. Armed Forces radio from Vietnam. Got that?
The band’s genesis wasn’t quite so convoluted. Singer/guitarist Zac Holtzman formed the group in 2001 when he moved to L.A. to live with his Farfisa-playing brother, Ethan, who had fallen in love with Cambodian rock during a trip to Angkor Wat. “We were sad that this amazing music had died out,” Zac says, sipping a beer at the Echo Park house he shares with Ethan. Inspired by the florid sounds they discovered, the brothers began looking for a frontwoman in Long Beach, which boasts one of the largest Cambodian communities outside Asia. There they found Chhom Nimol, who had been singing Khmer-language pop for years. “You can ask any Cambodian person if they’ve heard of Chhom Nimol and they’ll go, ‘Of course!’ ” says bassist Senon Williams. “Then they’ll name half of her family.”
Despite their internationalist setup, the bassist says he doesn’t really consider Dengue Fever — which also includes multi-instrumentalist David Ralicke and drummer Paul Smith — to be part of any world-music scene: “I think of us as making party music to dance to.”
Judging by the band’s kinetic live show, many fans agree. “There were people rolling around on the stage high on mushrooms,” Zac says of their first gig. This month they release Venus on Earth (M8O), their third full-length and only of all-original material, on which Nimol’s fluttering vocals carve modal melismas over humid, Nuggets-goes-Bollywood backdrops. “Figuring out the band’s mix of East and West is a job for UCLA grad students,” Zac says with a laugh. “We’re just not afraid to use everything that’s available to us.”