The Los Angeles-based rock group headed by Khmer songstress Chhom Nimol will tour Cambodia this November, recording the concerts for a possible live album next year
Like so many rock and roll babies, Dengue Fever was conceived in the back seat of a car. The year was 1997, and organist Ethan Holtzman was driving through Cambodia while his friend sweated through an outbreak of dengue fever and 1960s Khmer rock blasted out of the cassette player. From that hallucinatory soup, the idea to form a band and bring back Cambodian classic rock was born.
Holtzman returned to Los Angeles with a collection of Khmer pop music and recruited the rest of the band, which is headlined by Khmer singer Chhom Nimol.
Dengue Fever has been swelling in popularity ever since, and 2011 has proven to be an especially big year for the group: fresh off the release of Cannibal Courtship, their fourth full-length album, the band announced last week that it will return to Cambodia for a new Southeast Asian tour next month, and will launch its own record label later this year.
The first confirmed performance in the tour at the time of writing is in Siem Reap, on Tuesday November 15, at the Hotel de la Paix’s Arts Lounge. A delighted Christian de Boer, director of sales and marketing at the hotel, said the group’s repertoire would be specially tailored for the night, possibly with some acoustic numbers.
“It just makes sense to start doing our thing ourselves,” bassist Senon Williams told 7Days. “We have been around a decade and know the ropes. Later this year we are going to launch our own label to re-release our first two albums ourselves, as well as tons of recordings we have been sitting on for years. We will make a lot of early stuff available. I think our label will really give our fans an audio document of what it is that made Dengue Fever what we are today.”
Next to Ethan Holtzman on the Farfisa organ and Senon Williams on bass is guitarist Zac Holtzman, drummer Paul Smith, David Ralicke on brass and the indispensable singer Chhom Nimol.
The band released Cannibal Courtship in April, featuring 11 tracks with English and Khmer lyrics, which the BBC praised as “a tuneful, diverse and often witty addition to their discography.
“Much of the humour is surreal, throwaway slapstick, as on Cement Slippers, which sounds like The B-52s in an argumentative mood,” wrote reviewer Jon Lusk.
Cannibal Courtship was their first album to be distributed through Fantasy Records, a division of Concord Music Group.
“They are an amazing label that has been around for years,” said Williams. “It is pretty wild to be label-mates with musical legends like Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Robert Plant and others. It is heartwarming to be in wonderful company.”
I am excited to be with Nimol in Battambang, her home town. I expect it to be an emotional part of our trip
The band announced the “Electric Mekong” tour last Thursday, promising performances in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
“Dengue Fever is touring with the cooperation and support of the US Department of State, US embassies in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and local promoter in Cambodia, Dickon Verey, after receiving the prestigious Arts Envoy grant, designed to share American culture around the world. Previously, the band performed in Cambodia and Vietnam, but this trip marks their debut in Laos,” the band wrote in a press release.
“’This will be our third trip to Cambodia since the band formed, and our second with the help of the US Department of State and the US Embassy in Phnom Penh,’ said Dengue Fever guitarist Zac Holtzman.
‘Obviously, the band’s roots are in Khmer rock, so there is an immediate connection to our fans in Cambodia. But getting the opportunity to perform in Vietnam for the second time and to debut in Laos really makes us aware of just how far we’ve come and where we want to go with this band.’”
Williams told 7Days that the venues for the gigs are still being determined, but the tour will be an exhaustive one.
“We will be spending the first part of our tour in Cambodia, then on to Laos and Vietnam,” he said. “In Cambodia we will be playing in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Battambang and Siem Reap in just a few days – that’s touring for you, but I love it. It is going to be a bit of a whirlwind but I know we will spend a few days in Phnom Penh performing and working with kids from Cambodian Living Arts, sharing songs and experiences. I am excited to be with Nimol in Battambang, her home town. I expect it to be an emotional part of our trip. I am also interested in seeing Siem Reap; the last time I was there was in 1995. From all the reports I have heard, I won’t recognise the place. I remember it as peaceful and silent...barely a light to be seen at night. I expect this time the old solitude will be replaced by a wild party.”
The band last came to Cambodia in May 2010, as part of a tour that also included Norway, Sweden, Germany, Turkey, Vietnam and Hong Kong. While in Cambodia, the band headlined a gig sponsored by the US Embassy to commemorate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cambodia. Williams said that reaction to the Electric Mekong tour has been equally positive.
“Travelling as a musician has got to be one of the best ways to travel; it is not about where we go as much as about all the amazing people we meet,” he said. “When planning this tour we reached out to concert promoters and other embassies in Southeast Asia and asked if they wanted to be a part of the Electric Mekong tour. Vietnam and Laos responded immediately and positively, and offered to host us from the start. It was just natural that things came together this way.”
Music critics have long struggled to classify the band’s style, which is described variously as “genre bending” or “psychedelic pop”, and which The New York Times said contained “psychedelia, spaghetti western guitars, the lounge groove of Ethiopian soul and Bollywood soundtracks.”
Williams said that while Cambodian music dominated the band’s early work, they don’t see themselves beholden to that style – or any style, when it comes down to it.
“We always intended to be a band that wrote, recorded and performed original material, taking influence from all over the world, not just Cambodia,” he told 7Days. “After finding Nimol and her agreeing to sing with us, we quickly discovered that she had never been in a band that did this. The beautiful Khmer songs that we learned in the beginning in order to ask Nimol to sing with us became our main repertoire. Our original songs were hard to get off the ground due to a communication barrier and the fact that Nimol just thought we were crazy. Over the years we have been developing our own style through writing compositions that use all kinds of rhythms and melodies. Now Nimol has gained the confidence to write her own music with us and interpret different melodies and musical genres into her own style. We are now using influences from Africa, surf, India, Asia, electronic, latin, disco, jazz and basically anything we can get our ears on and shape it to our style.”
But while the band has left the thesaurus open when it comes to defining its style, Khmer music will always have a place at its core, due to lead singer Chhom Nimol.
In Cambodia we will be playing in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Battambang and Siem Reap in just a few days – that’s touring for you, but I love it
The Holtzman brothers found Chhom Nimol signing at a nightclub in “Little Phnom Penh” – a Cambodian expat enclave in Long Beach, California. The singer didn’t speak much in the way of English, but shared the specific music tastes of the fledgeling Dengue Fever group: a love of vintage Cambodian pop stars like Sinn Sisamouth. Chhom Nimol was already famous as a singer in Cambodia, and her father had actually collaborated with Sinn Sisamouth, before the singer disappeared during the Khmer Rouge period.
In an interview with Suicide Girls, Ethan Holtzman said that convincing the singer to join the band was a difficult process.
“It took about four trips down to the Dragon House,” he said, referring to the club Chhom Nimol performed at. “My brother’s beard was a little weird to her. We just kept swingin’ in and watching her sing and afterwards we’d ask her to come to a practice. Finally we got a rehearsal studio in Long Beach and we had some other girls singing with us. We told them Chhom Nimol’s gonna come tonight. And they’re like, ‘Chhom Nimol’s not coming. She’s famous. She’s not gonna play with you guys!’ Then she walked in and she was all done up and she had a bunch of friends around her. All the other singers were just like, ‘Uh we gotta go!’”
After the shaky start, Chhom Nimol joined forces with the band. Her soulful Khmer-language renditions of the classics, and her growing English repertoire are credited as the keys to the band’s success.
In an interview with More Intelligent Life, the band members described what attracted them to Cambodian music.
“The Cambodians did psychedelic rock differently than anyone else did,” said Williams. “They would sing in the microtonal Cambodian way, then they’d bring in a traditional Cambodian instrument but record it through a broken mic, so it sounded like it was being recorded in the bottom of the sea.”
Holtzman added: “It’s like upbeat garage rock mixed with psychedelic, with these Khmer vocals that are snaky and hit higher notes and then crack and fall into a lower register. There is something very unique about what they’re doing but it’s also very familiar. They were heavily inspired by rock‘n’roll from Europe and the States. You can even hear some songs that they clearly just rewrote. There’s this song called Snigh Ha (Lover) which is clearly Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).
The band’s mastery of Khmer pop and growing stable of original tracks has seen it take off in LA and Europe. But while the band is a hit, it has not always been smooth sailing for the members – especially Chhom Nimol. In 2002, when the group was recording its first album, the singer was detained for 22 days for a lapsed green card. After her release, she was forced to recoup her legal fees by singing every night at the Dragon House nightclub – a harrowing experience that gave the band the title for Escape From Dragon House, their second album.
Chhom Nimol also incorporates her feelings about the Khmer Rouge into performances, occasionally addressing the audience about her family’s story, and lighting a candle for victims of the genocide.
So while the band has toured extensively through the US and Europe, the shows hit particularly hard in Cambodia.
“I love coming to Cambodia, more for the inspiration then anything else,” said Williams. “Our first trip in 2005 was such an eye-opener; to see such love and appreciation for what we do, it was beyond entertainment, it was a bond of life and love for culture, my own and that of the Khmer, future and past. As the tour went on there seemed to be a long road splayed before me and a profound feeling that we must go on...and in the distance on that road, every so often we would have to stop in Cambodia, like a gas station, and fill our tank.
“When we perform in Cambodia, or anywhere in the world, we pour our hearts into what we do. I think the audience varies from place to place but it is the same people in the band no matter where we are. We are drawn to dark subject matters at times because they are feelings that need to be expressed and not repressed. Nimol loves to be sentimental, as do I – it seems a weight is lifted when we explore the more troubled topics of life. Allegory is a great way to open a mind to troubled thoughts; once the mind is open then it can free room for the trivial thoughts. We also love to be playful, abstract and bizarre. Something can be thought provoking without being sad. We take experiences we have in life and then incorporate them into our art, it is a constant method of growing and embracing the dark and the light.”
The band hopes to record all the concerts for their tentative new project: a live album.
“We have the first six months of next year already mapped out, to tour in the States and Europe,” said Williams. “We are probably gonna record as many live concerts as possible and think about releasing a live album next. When we are at home we have been having fun in the studio recording lengthy psych jams that last forever and fade in and out of cohesive ideas...exploring and slowly finding a new direction for our next studio album.”