Dengue Fever: Cambodian pop mix

by Caitlyn Glinksi

Dengue Fever is likely the only band out there to successfully combine 1970s Cambodian pop with psychedelic rock to make unique, cohesive, and danceable music. This comes from the band’s long history with Cambodia and diverse influences they are able to effectively tie together with passion for the art and dedication to each other.

Ethan Holtzman had the concept for the band in 2001 after spending some time travelling Southwest Asia. He said the idea took off when he spoke to his brother Zac, who at the time was in a band called Beetlehead and happened to be listening to a lot of underground Cambodian garage rock “by pure coincidence.”

The name “Dengue Fever” refers to a quite unpleasant mosquito-borne tropical disease also known as breakbone fever. Despite the negative associations of the disease, they found this a fitting name for the band because Holtzman first discovered the music that inspired him while tending to his travel partner who had the misfortune of experiencing Dengue Fever on his first visit to Southeast Asia.

To complete the band, Ethan and Zac wanted to find a female Cambodian singer. This is when Chhom Nimol comes into the story. The Holtzman brothers discovered her singing at clubs in the Los Angeles area, but it took some convincing for her to finally join the band.

“It took a while for her to become comfortable with us but it was a magical moment when she finally showed up to practice,” he said.

Once the band got things going it was only natural to return to Cambodia to play. “The first time it felt like we had to go,” Holtzman said.

They have returned several times and have done more than play shows. Using connections with friends in Cambodia they raised money for the trip through making a documentary called Sleepwalking Through Mekong, about their times traveling and also working with  charities and doing workshops for kids.

A major milestone in Dengue Fever’s career was starting their own label, Tuk Tuk records, in 2013. “It will give us the power to put out a record if we discover an artist we like,” the band said. Owning a record label gives them a little more freedom when releasing a record of their own. They released their newest album, The Deepest Lake on Jan. 27, after overwhelming support from their fans.

The band feels this release is a high point of their work as musicians. While previous albums have incorporated classic Cambodian pop songs from the 1970s, The Deepest Lake features all new songs with lyrics that tell a story. Holtzman said this is the best Nimol has ever sang.

This record release also marks 14 for Dengue Fever. Touring multiple continents, releasing a steady flow of records for well over a decade, and still not feeling like the best is behind them is a rare and serious accomplishment.

“We think of each other as family and take each other’s needs into consideration…[for example] that could mean touring for two weeks instead of six months.”

All these years together has inevitably brought them a massive range of experiences—from the bizarre to the beautiful. The band recalls the strangest show they played: at a small, almost cult-like community in Arizona where everyone had peculiar names and lived and worked at the same place. On the other side of the world in New Zealand they played their most memorable and beautiful show that involved walking through thick rainforest just to get to the stage. They also look forward to their time in the Northwest, where they can look for chanterelles and bigfoot prints while stopping for gas on the way.

LIVE SHOW: The band is on a West Coast tour this month, stopping at the Shakedown on Feb. 8, before heading to Vancouver. For more details, and to hear their latest record, The Deepest Lake, see denguefevermusic.com.

Published in the February 2015 issue of What’s Up! Magazine