Dengue Fever thrives on the alchemy of old music. Derived from Cambodian pop of the 1960s and '70s, their style is a danceable, delightfully mutated mix of American surf, garage-rock psychedelia and the emotive, snaky crooning of Khmer folk songs. It's a style of music that was almost lost during the Khmer Rouge regime of the late '70s. Prior to the release of their latest album, The Deepest Lake(released today), the band feared that they might also be in danger of losing their sound.
"We were a bit disappointed with Cannibal Courtship," bassist Senon Williams says of the band's 2011 release on the heavyweight Fantasy Records/Concord Music Group label. "A lot went into making that record, and the label didn't do a great job. They said a bunch of stuff about how they knew what to do with us, [but] they had no clue, and that became apparent very quickly."
In order to reclaim the soul of the band, they needed a new record and a new label, which led them to create Tuk Tuk Records, named for a Cambodian motorized rickshaw. The Deepest Lake was Tuk Tuk's inaugural release.
"Starting our own label and working on our new album, we're back to doing it old-style, where we make the music we love," Williams says. "On this record, more than any other, we kind of let it just grow on its own," he con- tinues. "We were like, 'Let's let it be more of a slow burn and be organic, and not stress about its creation.'"
But Dengue Fever's creation more than a decade ago was seemed slightly less organic.
Singer Chhom Nimol–a beautiful, gifted Cambodian vocalist and already a star in her native land–had only been in the United States for only a matter of months when
she was approached by brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman (guitarist and keyboardist, respectively) to sing for the band. At the time, she didn't even speak English.
She met them in 2001 while singing in her native tongue for fellow Cambodians at the Dragon House club, located in an area of Long Beach known as Little Phnom Penh. "When she started singing, we instantly knew we had to ask her to be our singer," recalls Zac, who, with Ethan, was searching for a Cambodian vocalist to complete the band's musical vision.
The Holtzmans and Williams had been exposed to Cambodian music on bootleg cassettes while traveling separately in Southeast Asia. Driven by what Williams says was "a desperate attempt to not start another indie rock band," the fledgling group added a few modern grooves and were looking for someone whose voice could wrap around their exotic bouillabaisse.
The brothers didn't speak Cambodian, and at first, they seemed strange, even suspicious to her. "[Chhom's] sister was there, kind of protecting her, and she didn't speak English either," Zac recalls. "They saw my big beard, and her sister was like, 'No way am I allowing you to go play music with these guys.'"
"I remember when Zac and Ethan came over to try to talk to me," says Chhom, who sings mainly in Khmer. "I didn't say yes right away; I thought a long time."
After a trial period, during which she would show up at rehearsals with an entou- rage of family members–some of whom did homework on the floor while the group practiced–Chhom officially signed on and became the vivacious vox magnifica of Den- gue Fever.
"I remember the first show. It was at Spaceland, and I felt so nervous," she say, as she sips Jameson whiskey in her historic Los Feliz abode, part of a cluster of cottages that were home to Disney's Snow White animators in the 1930s and, later, to singer/ songwriter Elliott Smith.
"It was the first audience I sang for that was white, and they don't understand what I say," she continues. "But they were smil- ing and laughing and clapping for every song, and that made me feel like this might work out."
It did. Now, after tours from Kowloon to Pioneertown, music placements in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and The Hangover 2, and releases on imprints great and small– from Trey Spruance's Web of Mimicry to Peter Gabriel's Real World–the group have used their Tuk Tuk label to release their most inspired, developed work to date.
The Deepest Lake won't disappoint long- time Dengue Fever fiends, yet it also deftly expands the band's sound. A tight, Asian-flavored, guitar-driven hook on "Cardboard Castles" slides into a Chhom/Zac harmony that recalls John Doe and Exene Cervenka, perhaps if they were singing a lost Beatles chorus. The languid, cinematic molasses of "Golden Flute" could be the sonic love child of Tom Waits and Ennio Morricone. Then there's "Tokay," a primo dance cut with a mosquito-like Casio riff, which places you squarely in a Middle Eastern after-hours kasbah.
The music for the album's 12 songs was written in the co-op method the band has used since the beginning. "Some start off with Nimol humming a song, or I present a melody," Zac says. "But for the most part, it starts with Nimol and myself, then Senon coming up with parts, and Paul [Smith] the drummer and keys and horns [David Ralicke] coming in afterward and support- ing everything."
Guiding all of the tracks is Chhom's fervent, angular singing, a voice that is piercing and warm and (to many ears) intoxicatingly foreign. Vocal talent runs in her family to an Osmonds-like extent. Her parents were traditional Cambodian folk singers. Her older sister, Chorvin, is a gifted chanteuse popular in Cambodia; her brother Monychout is a music producer; and yet another brother, Bunyong, also is a musician.
"[Bunyong] played keyboard and guitar, and he tried to teach me to sing," Chhom explains. "I said, 'I don't want to sing, I want to be an actress.' But my family pushed me– that's how I became a singer."
In 1997, Chhom won Cambodia's American Idol-like Apsara Awards, taking home a Honda motorbike and $3,000. She sang for the king and queen of Cambodia and appeared in Paris and Australia.
In 2001 she moved to America, and in 2014, she became a citizen, a source of great pride.
"I am very happy, the happiest in my life," she says, gleefully displaying her official citi- zenship papers and well-worn study book, Learn About the United States.
Chhom says she's a Buddhist ("It's a big part of my life"), and among the items in her living room shrine are a U.S. flag and an Uncle Sam top hat. There's also "a statue of a monk who died 200 years ago; he was in the temple where my parents used to sing," Chhom says. "I went to Paris in 1997 and met his [descendant] family. That's why I believe he's always helping me to become a success."
She stays in contact with terra firma monks as well, paying bimonthly visits to local holy men and regularly phoning her longtime contact in the old country. "I just met a monk a couple of days ago and asked him what is going on with my band," she says. "We want more success with the album. He told me we need to make an offering with a chicken to the spirit."
At this, Zac speaks up. "I feel like we are a success. We've stayed together, like, 14 years. . .
We've all become a family." Chhom gazes at him, serious. "The monk told me that next year we'll become a success," she says.
Zac laughs, his beard shaking. "For me," he says, "it's already happened!" Somewhere, a chicken is thanking him.
Dengue Fever has a listening party for the Deepest Lake tonight at Sophy's in Long Beach. Free. 5-9 p.m. All ages. For more info, click here.